There’s only one studio that holds public belly dance classes in Grand Rapids, a city with a population of almost 190,000 people. Less than half as many people live in Kalamazoo, yet there are three belly dancing studios.
“I think it’s really fun and you feel really sassy, and you feel pretty even if you have lots of jiggles going on,” says a belly dance student.
In Kalamazoo, each of the three belly dance groups offer classes that teach students a certain style and give them a low impact workout. Joette Sawall, director of West Michigan School of Middle Eastern Dance, explains the different types of belly dance.
“Each country has a little bit of a different style, so there is a Lebanese style, there is a Turkish style, there is a Greek Style, there is an Egyptian style, and there is an American style as well,” says Sawall. "The west coast, if you look at hip hop, is used to its popping and locking and staccato type movement and they’ve actually added that to belly dance and it’s called American Tribal Dance.”
Belly dance is traditionally a folk dance. Thanks to the American media there are some big misconceptions about what belly dance represents. Sarah Schneider-Koning of Boheme Tribal Bellydance hopes to clear up those misconceptions.
“One of the main ones I run up against is the type of person that may do belly dance," says Schneider-Koning. "I am a larger woman myself, I have many students who are older, there are men that dance with us, my husband dances, there are all types of people who dance, and it’s not just a thin beautiful woman in her twenties that can wear high heels.”
Joette Sawall says many people think the dance is supposed to be sexual.
“I cannot dance on a pole," Sawall says. "I think that’s probably the biggest misconception is that they think the dance is exotic and it’s not, it’s a folk dance. It’s an American creation that image in our mind.”
Belly dance is a cultural melting pot, and Kim Patrie of Bellydance Kalamazoo says it’s also good exercise.
“Middle Eastern Dance is very torso centric, so you get a lot of core workout," Patrie says. "You get a lot of leg, especially the thighs and your calves, the arms especially if you are using props, which we do, it’s just the whole body workout.”
Schneider-Koning says belly dancing classes also help self-esteem. Sawall says she notices a change in her students as the weeks go by.
“My most rewarding experience is to see a dancer grow within herself or himself,” says Sawall. “This transformation of just loving themselves, and finding that their body does move beautifully, and they can feel good about themselves within this art form.”
The classes strive to be inclusive and make everyone feel at ease. Young students and old all move together in unison. Some even have friendly competition. Mikaela Jerue is 11 years old and taking belly dance classes.
“I can beat my mom in the shimmies,” Mikela says. “It’s a different kind of dance you can do for all ages.”