With the music pulsating, two dozen dazzlingly dressed women shimmied across the brightly lit floor. Gold and silver coins, dangling from brightly colored wraps fashioned around hips, chimed with each movement.
It was a scene that plays out each night in fashionable clubs and restaurants throughout the Arab world. But this group of performers was composed of Glendale College Community students who were mastering the basics of raqs sharqi, or belly dancing.
“I wanted to do something active, and belly dancing looked interesting to me,” said dance student Jennifer Gaillard, 31, of Los Angeles. “I am an eclectic personality, so it kind of fit in with who I am.”
Glendale Community College has offered Middle Eastern dance classes for two years. At the heart of the program is Tamra-henna, a celebrated performer who has entertained in some of the top clubs in Egypt, Yemen, Morocco and Lebanon.
The classes, including a course in the history of Middle Eastern dance, have generated strong interest at the college because of the diverse makeup of the surrounding community, Tamra-henna said.
“I have a lot of Armenian students, and a lot of Armenians have lived in the Arab world,” Tamra-henna said. “A lot of them have an interest and a prior knowledge [of belly dance], but they don’t necessarily know it Iike the Arab women know it.”
Tamra-henna danced ballet as a child, but was introduced to Middle Eastern dance while studying at UC Santa Barbara in the early 1990s. She bought a one-way ticket to Cyprus, connected with an agent and then spent seven years dancing across the region. Accompanied by her own 14-piece band, she entertained at wedding receptions, night clubs and restaurants, performing as many as 25 shows a week.
After returning to Southern California in 2000, she earned a master’s degree in dance at UCLA.
Belly dance requires complete control of the torso, Tamra-henna said, and she spends a lot of time with her students focusing on posture and carriage.
“The vibration of the hips usually is the most difficult to master,” Tamra-henna said. “It just takes a lot of time because it has to be very natural, and it has to get to a point where you don’t have to think about it anymore.”
The dance is made all the more fascinating because it comes from a culture wherein women are not typically encouraged to be exhibitionists, students said. Minyi Lee, 39, a real estate agent from Ontario, said the all-female class allows her to relax and enjoy the dance.
“I have a lot of stress at work, and I started dancing two years ago, and I found this type of dance helps a lot with my mental and physical health,” Lee said.
Corinne Scott, 37, of Los Angeles, said she was attracted to the class in part because of the rigorous workout involved. Belly dance is soft and feminine, she said, but also very effective in toning and strengthening, she said.
“Sometimes it seems as though your body has a mind of its own and you cannot control it,” Scott said. “It really, really teaches you balance.”
Some students have reservations about signing up for a dance class that is perceived as highly sexual, Tamra-henna said. It can take weeks or months for them to lose their inhibitions.
But belly dancing is more complex than most people understand, she said.
“Obviously there is a sexuality involved in the dance, but personally, my idea is that sex is there as a catalyst for the emotion behind the dance,” Tamra-henna said.