A dance of mystery, muscles

There is little in the way of written history about belly dancing. Some believe it is a combination of Indian Temple Dancing and Chinese Martial Arts that fused along the Silk Road, combining isolations, undulations, pulsating movements and other genres into what today is known as “belly dancing."

Jheri St. James, leader of J.J. and the Habibis Laguna Beach Belly Dancers" and instructor with the city’s Recreation Department, said the term was adopted when Americans saw Little Egypt perform in the World’s Fair of 1893.

“They saw her moving her abdominal muscles and called it belly dancing "” and the name stuck," she said. “It’s actually an Americanization of the Arabic word ‘beledi," meaning, ‘my people’ or ‘people of my country.’

“True artists today call it ‘La Danse Orientale,’ and the movements of belly dancing are still used in villages by tribal women to exercise the reproductive muscles in a woman’s body as a preparation for giving birth."


The Middle Eastern dance, now practiced worldwide and incorporated with local dance styles of various cultures, now takes on many regional forms in both movement and costume.

J.J. and the Habibis will give performances at 7 and 8 p.m. Sunday at the Sawdust Festival, followed by future shows July 12 and 26, and Aug. 9 and 23.

They will also perform at the Laguna Beach Chamber of Commerce Renaissance Faire from 5 to 8:30 p.m. July 6.

“These performances will offer audiences the opportunity to see aspects of belly dancing not commonly seen in restaurant venues "” tribal, ethnic costuming, unusual props, sword dancing, cane dancing and troupe work," St. James said.


“We’ll [demonstrate] a range of dancing and music, including Tribal Style dancing to techno Middle Eastern sounds, 16th century period music, ethnic, American and Egyptian pop sounds."

A resident of Laguna Beach since 1971, St. James has belly danced for close to 30 years.

“I got into belly dancing after a breakup with a boyfriend," she laughed. “I wanted to try something strange and weird, and had a belly-dancing friend who thought it would be a good fit "” I’ve been having a ball with it ever since.

“Belly dancing is my destiny and has brought me many, many adventures and challenges that I would never have had," she said. “I’ve [performed] for a senator in Ohio, won two trophies in the Belly Dancer of the Universe Competition, auditioned for ‘America’s Got Talent’ and had many other funny and enlightening opportunities for psychological and ‘dancerly’ growth," she said.

St. James will teach an eight-week series of classes at the Susi Q Senior Center, 380 Third St., beginning July 7. For more information, call St. James at (949) 494-5031 or register at