Belly Dancers: Baring it allWilliametteLive.com - Salem,OR,USA, Tuesday, 4 December 2007
Shelley Wright doesn't remember much about her first solo as a member of Zephyr, a nine-woman tribal fusion belly dance troupe based in Salem. One of the few things she does remember is how she felt when she finished.
"My knees felt like water," she said.
Later, though, she knew something had changed.
"I was standing up straighter and looking people in the eyes more," she said. "The great thing about this dance is you can be 300 pounds or a buck-oh-four and it's going to look beautiful."
Wright, a sales representative for Pure Romance products, is the assistant to Zephyr's troupe leader Jen Turner, a brewer at McMenamins Thompson Brewery and Public House. Wright was roped into performing with the group two days before their first-ever live show.
"We're called Zephyr Rhythms because we had guys drumming for us. We had the whole thing choreographed and there was no one in the bar," said Turner.
The troupe's audience has grown considerably since the early days. Most recent performances are standing room only.
"That's the thing about dance, the dancers kind of bring their own audience with them," said Wright.
Zephyr dancers perform a derivative of American Tribal Style dance, which grew out of more diverse histories of Arabic, Egyptian, Turkish, Lebanese belly dancing. Depending on the dancer, it can be either simple or complex.
"Most of the steps can be broken down to a few basic moves. It was developed specifically so dancers from throughout the country could perform together," said Turner.
Wright, Turner, and Sherry Calahan, whose production company, Middlearth Productions, sponsors the live shows, were each attracted to the form because it was so easily adaptable into a form of personal expression.
Turner began taking belly dancing lessons with Calahan, a local dance instructor, before starting Zephyr. Wright joined the class shortly after Turner, even though she had reservations about it coming from a background of ballet and jazz dance.
"One of the first things Sherry said was this is your dance and you're going to do with it whatever you want to do with it. That really clicked with me," said Wright.
The diversity of style is evident in the musical choices each dancer makes for solo performances. Traditional and modern Middle Eastern pieces are common choices, but no less likely than Depeche Mode or Paul Oakenfold.
For Calahan the freedom of expression through the dance is as freeing as it is terrifying. Despite having taught dance for nearly two decades, Calahan still gets butterflies when the troupe has a performance.
"I know dancers who have to have everything choreographed down to their little finger, but I enjoy the improvisation," she said.
On the other hand, Calahan had to create her own dance persona, Galadriel, in order to truly let go.
Turner said phone calls on the day of a performance go something like this:
Turner: "Hey, how're you doing?"
Calahan (quietly): "I'm a little nervous."
Turner (sarcastically): "Shocker!"
`We're not strippers'
The most common roadblock the Zephyr dancers run up against is finding venues for their performances. People tend to confuse tribal dance with erotic dance.
"We're not strippers. We've sent in tapes of ourselves to places where we've wanted to perform in full Egyptian garb, which is very conservative, and we were still turned down," said Calahan.
"You're going to see less skin on our dancers than you would going to the beach."
Special attention is paid to costuming. Arms, legs, bellies and a bit of cleavage are the most the audience is going to see.
"We want it to be sensual, not sexual," said Turner.
Unlike some troupes, Zephyr dancers do not accept tips on their bodies.
"When people are touching the dancer it adds a whole new element," said Calahan.
Still, it wasn't until the advent of the Salem World Beat Festival, that doors finally began to open.
"It helped people see that it is a family thing. It's made a real difference in our acceptance," Calahan said.
Of course, there are also times when neither the dancers nor the audience seem to know what to do with each other.
During a performance at the Macleay Country Inn, the crowd watched with mouths agape as the troupe performed. When time came for the final performance, a technical glitch kept the music from coming on.
Soon, Wright was in the rear of the bar flipping through the jukebox while patrons handed her quarters to feed into the machine.
"It was, country, country, county, oh look, ZZ Top -- that really won't work either -- country, country. Then our music kicked on," she said.
The crowd ate it up and left the largest tips the troupe had ever received.
Some might view their act with disdain or even embarrassment, but for the Zephyr dancers the performance is just as much about them as it is the audience.
"I had some serious body issues when I got into this. I think most women do, but since I started dancing with Zephyr it's gotten a lot better than what it was. I care a lot less about what other people think," said Wright.
Calahan said Wright's experience is indicative of most women who give belly dancing a try.
"Most of the women who come to my classes start because their husbands or boyfriends urged them to come. After a month or two, the women start to build up their self-confidence and they're doing it for themselves," Calahan said. "It's like getting in touch with your body from head to toe."
More and more they find themselves in it simply to keep challenging each other.
"After we settled on nine members, it really changed the way we practiced. We got pretty slack about the actual performance, so we stepped up the intensity of our practices," said Wright.
Beyond making it look good for the audience, the Zephyr dancers continue with the troupe simply to ensure their personal happiness.
"We're going to smoke our cigarettes and drink our beer and have a good time," Turner said. "When it comes right down it, we come first."
As their confidence grows, so does their relationship with each other.
"We were all the type of girls who didn't like to hang out with other girls and now we're the type of girls who only hang out with other girls," said Turner.
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