It was 2001, and Mary Ann Llinas was tired of using her business and graphic arts degree at the oil company where she worked for 11 years. Serendipitously, she spotted an ad in her local newspaper looking for students for the Fones School of Dental Hygiene. She called the school, interviewed, and was on her way to becoming a dental hygienist. She graduated in 2004.
A Connecticut native and resident, Llinas was drawn to public health dentistry. She parlayed an internship at the Dental Center of Stamford into a one-day-a-week position in the Healthy Beginnings Program, where she screens and cleans teeth and educates children and parents in the Women, Infants, and Children and Head Start programs. The rest of the week she is the sole hygienist in a three-dentist suburban office.
Her close newspaper reading led her not only to a new career that she loves, but also to an activity that thoroughly delights her: Middle Eastern dancing, more commonly referred to as belly dancing.
“I read an article about women taking Middle Eastern dance at a local community center, and upcoming classes were mentioned,” she said. “I thought the classes would be fun and a great way to exercise, so I convinced my aunt and best friend to join me.”
While her aunt and friend stayed through one class, Llinas had so much fun she finished the session and joined the instructor’s seven-member dancing troupe.
The Hollywood effect
Llinas believes Hollywood has misrepresented the art of Middle Eastern dancing through its seductive film portrayals.
“The term belly dancing was coined by an event promoter trying to attract attention to a World’s Fair exhibit in 1893,” she said. “The French have a dance called the Ouled Nail that utilizes abdominal control called le danse du ventre, which translates to belly dancing. This is how the promoter came up with the term.”
Llinas said that too many people believe the Hollywood portrayal of the young, sexy, perfect-bodied woman gyrating to the melodies of Middle Eastern music. Because they don’t think they look anything like these women, they never consider learning the dances.
“People are intrigued, yet intimidated, by the idea of belly dancing,” Llinas said. “But all the women in my classes are supportive and encouraging. Students range from 13 to 65, and not everyone is thin. These dances are fun, and if a woman is avoiding them because she doesn’t think her stomach is flat enough, she’s making a big mistake.”
The fact that belly dancing was created by Muslim women for each other’s entertainment has been lost.
“The word harem comes from ‘haram,’ which means forbidden,” she said. “This is where men and other immediate family members were not allowed to enter the female quarters of the home, which were separate from the male quarters. When women socialized, they found ways to entertain themselves. One way was by dancing.”
This dance is to Middle Easterners what the waltz is to Americans.
“This dance is used in all types of celebrations including weddings, birthdays, and anniversaries, and it’s always females dancing together,” Llinas said.
What is a dance class like?
“It’s all about stretching and being familiar with your body. Every class begins and ends with warm-up stretches. Flexibility is key. It takes practice to learn how to isolate different body parts, but once you know how to do it, it becomes automatic. The main thing is to keep the upper torso straight so the arm and shoulder movements are more impressive. Also, bend the knees slightly. You can’t isolate and shimmy or swing your hips if your knees are straight.”
All students bring a scarf to class to tie around their hips. To accentuate movement, some women wear a belt with coins and tassels. Costumes change over time; for example, some dancers wear harem pants.
Llinas compares belly dancing to the tango, which shares a similar emphasis on the isolated moving body parts. Common dance movements include hip circles, shimmies, and various walks. Dancers are barefooted or wear leather ballet slippers, and moving while standing on tiptoe adds to the effect and is critical to the performance.
A star is born
A local French restaurant held a Moroccan theme night and invited Llinas’s troupe to perform.
“I had only taken 10 classes when I was invited to dance with the group,” she said. “The staff wore fez hats and the place was transformed into a Moroccan nightspot. I didn’t know what to wear, so my teacher took a circular tablecloth and turned it into an elasticized-waist skirt. I added the shirt and scarves. We danced among the tables on our tiptoes, slowing down every so often at a table but never stopping.”
Since that first event, the group has danced at another French restaurant, a home Halloween party, a Sweet Sixteen party where they taught the girls the dances, and an anniversary party. While in costume at the anniversary party, the dancers walked through the main dining room.
“Everyone looked at us quite curiously,” Llinas said.
After dancing, the dancers encouraged the women in the audience to join them as they taught them some moves. The response is enthusiastic.
For those who want to try this type of dancing at home, tie a scarf around your hips and do some good stretches to limber up, Llinas instructed. Slightly bend your knees, stand on your tiptoes, keep your upper torso straight, and start making hip circles. Then start shimmying, gracefully rotating your shoulders and gently waving your arms. Enjoy yourself!
Judith E. Sulik, RDH, MBA, is president of Finally Finished Press of Middleton, Wis. She is currently working on a Madison, Wisconsin-area restaurant cookbook. For details, contact her by e-mail at [email protected].