Last month, Michigan ice dancers Meryl Davis and Charlie White made their state proud as they carried home the first U.S. Olympic gold medal for ice dancing. They won high marks for their free skate to Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade.
But they might not have brought home the gold if it weren’t for the help of Ann Arbor belly dancer Kendra Ray.
Ray is a member of Unveiled Dance Company and is the International Liason and Rehearsal Director for Evolution Dance Theatre in Toronto. She’s also studied belly dance anatomy for about ten years.
A few weeks ago, Ray taught a workshop for area belly dancers.
The workshop focused not only on the moves, but getting the dancers to show emotion and really connect with their audience. The same training Ray did with ice dancers Meryl Davis and Charlie White.
“We needed to believe that Meryl was Scheherazade,” says Ray.
If you’re not familiar with the story, Scheherazade is about a sultan who takes a new wife every day and kills her the next morning. That is, until he meets a woman named Scheherazade.
To save her life, Scheherazade tells the sultan fantastical stories each night, always leaving the story unfinished so the sultan had to spare her life another day.
Kendra Ray says she was taken aback when Meryl Davis wanted her help in getting that Middle Eastern feel.
“I’ve been a fan of ice dance since I was a little kid," she says. "I still have yet to put on ice skates. However, it was the very first thing I would watch as a child on TV and it inspired me to want to move."
Despite her excitement, Ray didn't know if belly dance techniques would be possible on ice skates.
"And that was my initial thought is ‘First of all, how am I going to be able to get that feel to them without compromising their stability?," she says. "Without compromising just the basic physics of doing some of those lifts and connecting with another individual while you’re flying around the rink at how many miles an hour?”
So Ray got to work researching the Scheherazade, as well as body language and dance in Persia—where Ray thinks the story might have originated.
Ray says one of the trademarks of Persian dance are the soft hands.
“You know, not hitting your mark with fingers straight. It’s taking your time to get to those marks in a very fluid almost flexible way. It’s very dainty it’s very feminine, for lack of a better term," Ray explains.
"So there’s a lot of attention drawn to those movements within the wrist and the hands. Also coming through center and framing the face. And drawing attention to some of the upper body lines and shapes.”
And then there was getting Davis and White into character. Ray says this wasn’t easy for two people who have been dance partners and friends for about 17 years.
“Up until this point, in other pieces, they’ve always been known for their ability to connect and their chemistry. And I was kind of challenging that because I was forcing them to really take polar-opposite roles in the deal, but they still had to meet in the middle somehow. And if you follow the storyline within the song within their choreography that they put together with their head coach, it really does demonstrate a huge rollercoaster of emotion.”
Even when they were skating quickly around the rink, Ray encouraged Davis and White to capture the moment by slowing down their faces and hands.
Ray says belly dance is often not taking as seriously as other dances in the U.S. Maybe it’s because of the somewhat ‘revealing’ costumes or that it’s simply misunderstood in American culture. But Ray says she’s proud of the way Davis and White represented Middle Eastern dance and their country.
“Above all, what was really appreciated was them taking the time to want to know the culture behind their story. And you know, I’m sure they could flip on any Hollywood ‘depiction’ so to speak of Middle Eastern story and try to take some notes, but the fact that they sought out that authenticity. And they’re known for that," Ray says.
"So I give them credit not just as an athlete, but as an artist. Because showing that respect to another culture and another art form is definitely a mark of a true success story.”