Volume 74, Number 42 | February 23 - March 01, 2005


Sandra Catena, belly dance instructor at the Sol Goldman 14th St. Y

Belly dancing, shimmying your way into shape

By Judith Stiles

“It is hard to believe and I know it sounds funny, but really, belly dancing saved my life!” says Sandra Catena, the belly dance instructor at the Sol Goldman 14th Street Y.

Catena grew up in a rough neighborhood in Irvington, N.J., in the 1970s, and if she hadn’t gotten hooked on belly dancing, who knows what she might have gotten hooked on. “It was magic for me to discover the beauty of belly dancing. As a teenage girl, it gave me a focus and something to look forward to,” adds Catena.

Today at the 14th St. Y, Catena gracefully leads beginner and advanced aspiring belly dancers in a class called “Belly Dance With A Veil” where all the women and one man dance with brightly colored veils, which Catena describes as extension of the arm.

“The veil is like fire,” she adds as the students shake, snake and shimmy.

Only a few weeks into the class, all the students have mastered basic steps and the trademark belly dancing movement of being able to shimmy at the hips while keeping the upper body elongated in a near stillness. The scarves swirl to Middle Eastern music, and although the students definitely get a good aerobic workout, they seem less focused on exercising, and more enchanted with the flow of the dance steps and the hypnotic music.

Belly dancing, which is also known as Oriental dance, is performed by men and women for joyous occasions, such as weddings, the birth of a child, community festivals and any event that calls for a party. Contrary to what Westerners think, belly dancing is not traditionally a dance of seduction but rather dance that was done in segregated groups within the Muslim tradition, where women danced for women in the harems, and men danced for men. “Harem,” which means “forbidden to men,” was simply the section of the home where women carried out their everyday business of cooking, sewing, gossiping with friends, minding the children and, of course, belly dancing.

Instructor Catena, known as a master of belly dancing, has performed professionally in Europe, West Africa, the U.S. and Canada. She draws on this rich experience to teach what she describes as an “ethnic classical style of Egyptian dance” using eclectic music from the Middle East. She brings to the class an exotic energy that reveals to the students what actually happens in a a full-blown Oriental dance performance.

“Yes, the dancer interprets the music, but it is much more than that,” explains Catena as her eyes grow wide with amazement. She describes a typical dance as usually having six parts, starting with the entry, and then the taksimi, which is the slow sensual part. In the third part, called the bellidi, there is a fast rhythm and if the dancer is spinning, she usually finds a spot in the room on which to focus in every spin to keep from getting dizzy. In the fourth part, the dancer goes back to taksimi, which is again more slow and sensual, and then next is the climax, danced to a drum solo. “This part is like flying, and you feel not of this world,” says Catena with a knowing smile. The last part is the finale that returns to a musical background with all the instruments. Catena is quick to add that this is the traditional belly dance for women and that men participate in what is known as dubke, which originated in Palestine and Lebanon, and is more of a macho line dance.

As it turns out, there is quite a subculture of belly dancing in New York City. If you go to BellyDanceNY.com there is a plethora of information and links on everything from where to buy good silk and custom-made costumes, to classes, tour and travel tips, restaurants and clubs with belly dancing and even a hotline for problems with advice from Auntie Isis, who will tell you what to do about “poaching,” a problem also common in team sports. (In sports, poaching occurs when a player is inappropriately persuaded to leave his or her team to play with another team and in belly dancing poaching is an issue with performance bookings).

Want to try belly dancing as your new exercise program in the winter? Not sure if you are capable of mastering the art of shimmy or shake? At BellyDanceNY.com you can consult with a free oracle, or ask any question through a tarot card reading or using The Runes, which are stones inscribed with letters from an ancient Scandinavian alphabet. When asking The Runes if “George W. Bush would benefit from taking a Middle Eastern belly dancing class?” — the answer was extensive, but stated in part, “Leave the activity you have asked about for a future time. . . Employ global rather than linear thinking at this time,” which is curiously sensible advice coming from a computer-generated fortuneteller. You can consult the oracle online to see if there is any space for new students in belly dancing classes in New York City, or better yet, just call the Sol Goldman Y at 212-780-0080 and they will give you a quick answer, emphasizing that beginners are definitely welcome.

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