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0000017c-60f7-de77-ad7e-f3f739cf0000Arts & More airs Fridays at 7:50 a.m. and 4:20 p.m.Theme music: "Like A Beginner Again" by Dan Barry of Seas of Jupiter

Why Greek Fest Meant So Much To Local Bellydancers

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Maeve Hammond, WMUK
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Earlier this summer, the organizers of Kalamazoo’s Greek Fest announced that next year the event would be much, much smaller. The large downtown festival would now become a sit down charity dinner for only a thousand people. For many in Kalamazoo, Greek Fest is their first - or only - exposure to belly dance. Local belly dancers say teaching people about this cultural dance helps to keep it alive. 

Dancers at Sabrina Merrill’s Bellydance Kalamazoo do warm-up “pyramid” hip exercises
Credit Maeve Hammond, WMUK
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Dancers at Sabrina Merrill’s Bellydance Kalamazoo do warm-up 'pyramid' hip exercises

Members of the belly dance community will tell you they still feel on the margins of mainstream American dance.

Case in point: Portage and Kalamazoo have several outlets to learn belly dance. However, you probably haven't seen their performances outside of last weekend's Greek Fest or Art Hop.

“Opportunities are there—you just have to find them," says Sabrina Merrill, the owner of Bellydance Kalamazoo.

Merrill says society has sexualized belly dance, but dancers themselves work to counter that image. 

JoetteSawall is the artistic director of the West Michigan School of Middle Eastern Dance. Sawall also says belly dance is marginalized compared to other dance forms.

“It’s like we have no credibility because they think we just shimmy and shake. Well, that’s not true: there’s a lot of technique to it,” she says.

A lot of it is pro bono, for that 'getting out' in the community and just trying to educate them. You know, we have to do a lot of that because they simply have no interest in us besides being a side freak-show to them

Sarah Schneider Koning is the co-owner of Boheme Tribal Belly Dance. She encourages the community to embrace belly dance as she sees it rather than how the media represents it.

“It’s portrayed as something for the male gaze, but when you actually start doing it and studying it, there’s something that happens: there’s this spark that gives you sovereignty over your body and space. You feel stronger and more rooted,” she says.

Stereotypes not only harm the reputation of belly dance: they make it difficult to find opportunities that pay. Although dancers may be able to volunteer at festivals or exhibitions, paid performances are limited. JoetteSawall says this financial insecurity affects belly dance’s visibility as an art.

“A lot of it is pro bono, for that ‘getting out’ in the community and just trying to educate them. You know, we have to do a lot of that because they simply have no interest in us besides being a side freak-show to them,” says Sawall.

Sarah Schneider Koning has had similar experiences:

“In order to get respect as an actual art form—such as maybe ballet or modern dance—it’s not as easy to get into a venue that would put us on a stage and get paid for it. That’s the trick: it’s a challenge to find work in this style of dance.”

The Kalamazoo Greek Fest has traditionally showcased local belly dance. However, the festival’s planned transition to a smaller, indoor venue next year could mean less visibility. JoetteSawall and her students have performed at Greek Fest for 14 years.

“I think it’s totally going to reduce the visibility because we dance for crowds for thousands of people there,” she says.

To stay visible in Kalamazoo's dance community, belly dancers want to reclaim their work as social art form. To do this, dancers are using education as a tool to overcome belly dance's bad rap. Some troupes even volunteer with local public schools to show belly dance is accessible, appropriate, and empowering for all ages. Sarah Schneider Koning hopes education will de-stigmatize the dance.

“We educate people. We tell them, ‘this is not what you think it is–it’s not what Hollywood told you it is.’ I’m here to represent a culture and an art form–please respect me,” says Schneider Koning.

Bellydance Kalamazoo's Sabrina Merrill uses her studio to host lectures on belly dance music and culture for the public. Merrill says Kalamazoo is becoming more interested in understanding belly dance, which opens the doors for more opportunities to represent belly dance as an art. 

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