[ dance ]
Despite its modern associations with late-night entertainment at dimly lit Moroccan restaurants, belly dancing — from the chiffon costumes to the Arabic music to those sultry, sexy solos — is steeped in tradition. Without losing sight of the ancient movement genre's rich history and customs, Philadelphia's Barajagala Tribal Bellydance troupe sets the bar higher, or at least on a different plane: to be something freer, more modern, more uniquely theatrical.
Weaving Egyptian, folkloric, flamenco and Rajasthani dance steps with San Francisco tribal stepper Carolena Nericcio's genre-bending Fat Chance Belly Dance moves, Barajagala prides itself on unchoreographed group motion. The improvisational parade is led by a dancer at stage left — decked out in a traditional costume embellished with textiles and jewelry, showcasing her individuality — who uses hand and head cues to introduce new movements.
"In its purest form, it is totally improvised — the format, the moves, who will the leaders be — all are created on the spot," says Barajagala founder Irene Reinke, who holds tribal stepping classes in West Chester and Narberth. She's inspired by Nericcio, who created the form and often speaks about being "filled with the goddess spirit" — but only if the proper posturing is achieved. "You will see a similar carriage in Argentine tango dancers and flamenco dancers," Reinke says. "Sometimes men are confused because they are expecting something else when they watch. I heard one man trying to explain it to a group of men by saying, 'It's sensual and sexy, but they're not trying to seduce you.'" Indeed, belly dancing is alluring and undulating — but it's not about sex, it's about strength.
Troupe member Pamela Hall feels deeply empowered by the art form. "It's only danced with groups of women, and the energy, power and beauty of the dance can enrich your self-esteem — so much so," Hall points out, "that psychotherapists have been known to use belly dance as part of their treatment to increase their patients' self-confidence."
"I consider it to be the jazz of dance forms," says fellow member Alicia Fisher, who describes feeling something click in her body when she began studying with Reinke and moving forward as a performer. "I got a certain feeling — like some maternal lineage was activated that led all the way back to ancient temple dancers. I could feel it in my mitochondria." Fisher was drawn to the idea of learning a new movement vocabulary based entirely on subtle cues and transitions. "I also love that it's all about women stepping up as leaders and then allowing space for other women to lead," says Fisher. "This collaborative co-creation between dancers to me is a metaphor for how we live our lives — women together celebrating themselves and each other."
Barajagala Tribal Bellydance presents Mystique, Sat., Oct. 8, 8 p.m., $10, HeadHouse Restaurant, 122 Lombard St., second floor, btribalbellydance.com.