Sciatica drove Bettye Ames to belly dancing. Beset with back problems, and at the behest of a friend, the Dayton resident took up the ancient art 10 years ago to strengthen her abdominal muscles. The first class she took was nearly her last.
"I thought, 'I’m too old to be showing my stomach and to pretend to know how to dance sexy,’ " said Ames, 64. “Then I found there’s so much more to it than that. The shimmies and hip kicks and undulations teach you to control your body and get in shape — plus, it gives you confidence."
Now Ames, a retired attorney, performs for audiences wearing a decorated bra, a hip scarf bedecked with coins, a sheer long-flowing skirt and a veil. There are finger cymbals on her hands and, at times, a razor-sharp scimitar balanced on her head or shoulder as she does the equivalent of “the wave” with her tummy.
“Being half-dressed in public can be overwhelming,” she said. “I don’t feel sexy, but I do feel I have moments of beauty."
It’s a mantra Ames shares with others while teaching adult classes in belly dancing for Howard County Recreation and Parks. Typically, Ames’ students are women between 30 and 50 years old. Some come, intrigued by the mysticism surrounding the Middle Eastern exercise; others “want to show their husbands a special dance for his birthday,” she said. “But most want to do it for themselves, which is the best reason.”
Ames has also taught a belly dancing class at her place of worship, Mount Sion United Methodist Church, a site that might seem odd to some.
“Why not?" she said. “After all, God approved of David dancing to show his praise for the Lord.”
The roots of belly dancing date to around 12,000 B.C., said Artemis Mourat, 68, a historian of the genre and a dance instructor in Silver Spring.
“There is archaeological evidence in pre-history of women dancing in caves in North Africa for their goddess of fertility, wearing heavily beaded collars around their necks and strings around their hips that jingled when they shimmied, ” Mourat said. “The genesis of belly dancing was women performing for other women in a lighthearted, intoxicating way.”
In olden Egypt, men and women partied separately, she said: “Women smoked their hookahs and belly danced, often to an ecstatic point, while making fun of men and how, though they were head of the house, the women were the neck telling the head which way to turn.”
While street performers in the Middle East have long practiced the dance, it wasn’t until the 1920s, in nightclubs and theaters thereabouts, that the dances were offered onstage for crowds of men and women, Mourat said. And while performers like the celebrated Little Egypt popularized belly dancing in America in the 1890s, its health benefits wouldn’t be recognized here for decades to come.
“Only in the 1960s, with the movie 'Zorba The Greek’ and women’s liberation, did our consciousness see it as a fun way to exercise,” Mourat said. Now, her students range in age from 4 to 92 and include males. A belly dancer for 47 years, she has performed in 11 countries and attends conventions and workshops across the nation, including the 10th annual “Art of the Belly” festival in Ocean City, on March 19-20, 2020.
Sue Collins will be there too. A technical writer, Collins, of Ellicott City, began dancing in 2005, citing it as a boon to both her poise and physicality.
“Belly dancing is an empowering thing. It gives me comfort in my own skin,” said Collins, 55. “Many writers are introverted and I was afraid of public speaking while in a very male-dominated job. Now, if I can go onstage in this costume in front of hundreds of people, then I can talk at business conferences.”
Collins, who also plays competitive women’s soccer, believes the conditioning she gets from dancing helps her recover from sports injuries more quickly because “it’s all about engaging your core.”
It’s not easy, she said, training multiple muscles to make distinct movements at the same time. Dancers call these body isolations.
“It’s like trying to rub your head and pat your belly, only more so,” she said. “Your brain gets tired trying to process all of those moving parts but, through repetition, it all comes together. Do a shimmy correctly and you’ll feel all of your junk wobble.”
Like the others, Collins has performed — for fun and profit — at fundraisers and restaurants, and at nursing homes and middle school events.
“A troupe of us danced at one senior center where we may have overstayed our welcome,” she said. “Some people fell asleep near the end.”
Most weekends find Karen Best, who uses the stage name Samira Shuruk, dancing barefoot at The Cazbar, a Turkish restaurant in Columbia. She has also worked several museums at the Smithsonian Institution as well as a military officers’ club in Washington.
“You used to see pictures of presidents with belly dancers,” said Best, 51, of Columbia. “But now, if I’m at a cultural event and I see a white man in a suit purposely turning away, I know he’s a politician who doesn’t want to be photographed staring at me. It’s silly, because this isn’t a scandalous art form at all.”
A jazz dance major in college, Best is a favorite at Middle Eastern haflas (parties) in a locale rich in cultural diversity.