I've always thought of belly-dancing as a mildly saucy novelty - a sorbet between more substantial acts, or a bit of background colour in films. When I was invited along to see the first ever belly-dance production of 'Sleeping Beauty', I was somewhat wary, but intrigued. There was a thrill to sitting in the theatre, knowing I was wholly ignorant of what would ensue, of what manner of story-telling lay beyond the red-orange curtains.
I found myself at the theatre, having been invited by friends who were, unfortunately, encumbered by illness and unable to attend. I wasn't alone, as three other friends had likewise had the idea suggested to them, but none of us knew quite what to expect. Crucially, where this would fall on the line between ballet, kabuki theatre and pantomime? Would this be two solid hours of dancing? Would it be exciting? Amusing? Terrifying?
The programme (I was stingy here, so looked over my neighbour's shoulder to read his copy) filled in a few details. Jenny Muhlwa had a dream, a compulsion to bring belly-dancing to the masses, to show it to be be a legitimate way to tell stories. Belrobics had been formed, a circle of linked belly-dancing groups, of all ages, around Sheffield. They came together to show their work, their moves, and their bellies.
The curtains opened and the bellies began. The stage was dominated by a rather magnificent backdrop painting of the Taj Mahal. Bar a couple of chairs and a crib-full-of-baby, this was the full extent of the set. This production was all about the dancing.
Here ensued dance after dance, belly after belly, the jangle of coin-belts, a pageant of rich saturated colours, and the pallid Winter flesh of Britain. This whole production, cast mainly with keen amateurs, seemed a commendably un-self-conscious show. Now, I would be daunted to show my battenberg-filled belly in public, knowing myself not to be honed and toned to society's impossible standards, but the dancers here were bolder than I, and not bound by such miserable restrictions.
I feel ill-qualified to comment on either quality or style of dance, as I've pretty much ignored it as a medium, and my own engagement with it has hitherto been restricted to the odd ceilidh and a few seconds of alarming movement half-way through the music video to 'The Princess I Never Knew'. What I can say is this, that the dancing was enthusiastic, energetic, joyful and hypnotic, with each of the groups coming forward with scenes and set-pieces. I hadn't expected so much variety within belly-dancing - or rather, I hadn't realised it could hold my attention for two full acts without growing repetitive.
There were many memorable images within the extravaganza of undulation and shimmying. The good fairies with their huge wings moved with a grace and fluidity, and impressed more than I might have expected from such elegantly simple props. The dancers playing thorns deported themselves very well, and were the best costumed, by merit both of looking much like thorns, and looking not very much like belly-dancers; thorns aside, this did seem to take place in a kingdom made up entirely of belly-dancers (as opposed to, say, a kingdom made up of people who happen, in this telling, to be belly-dancing). One particular highlight was a dance near the first act's end, in which the evil fairy works the eponymous Aurora like a puppet - showing off the dynamism of the two dancers' movements and the precision of their timing. This was a too-rare moment of interaction between characters, not that the others didn't dance together - just that they didn't dance together. Here was a piece of good drama within the dance.
Act two gave us a male character, and thus a male dancer in a cast of sixty or so females. I was a little daunted by the prospect, through concern that finding a male willing to belly-dance might have resulted in resorting to somebody very terrible indeed. But no, the man danced with all due passion, virility and grace - though I found his character, as in many tellings of this story, unpalatably arrogant, a man driven by his lusts rather than inherent heroism. Thankfully, in what was either slight mistake on the part of the dancers or a brilliant faux-ad-lib, the prince and the awoken beauty bumped rather suddenly into one another, and shared a laugh more human and less calculated than much of the production. Perhaps they were merely enjoying themselves. I hope so.
So, do I foresee a time when going to the belly-dance will be a Christmas tradition for many? I certainly like the idea, and there's a joy to any new tradition. It's as good a way as any to tell a story, and for now the novelty of it makes it intriguing, so I'll be very glad to return to next year's productions. There's a lot to be said for all forms of physical theatre, and I'm keen to see how this company will develop. I particularly liked the mix of dancers at different levels of ability and complexity, the production bringing learners and professionals together under the same discipline and with the same gusto. I've sometimes found dancers who dance so extraordinarily that I can hardly believe I belong to the same species, but watching 'Sleeping Beauty' I felt anybody open to the experience could learn to belly-dance. Do excuse me if I don't, however.
P. S. You can see Belrobics in action on their Youtube channel
P. P. S. I hope you'll excuse me sullying the purity of this blog's focus on film, but it is nearly Christmas.
Belrobics staged the first ever belly-dance production of 'Sleeping Beauty' at the Montgomery Theatre, Sheffield, 20th-22nd December 2012. I've no doubt they will return in a matter of months.