Dance and music, fanfare and food, and joyous celebrating have marked festive seasons across the globe for centuries. Things will be no different in the upcoming year-end festivities just around the corner. Sensuous melodies layered on top of the powerful drum beats of Middle Eastern music typically conjure images of floating chiffon veils and glittery costumes of belly dancers. And the belly dance trend has certainly caught on in Sarawak, but now with a twist … a male belly dancer.
I have been a performer and instructor of Middle Eastern dance (a.k.a. belly dancing) for the past eight years. Originally from Kuching, my first encounter with belly dancing began in New Zealand when I stumbled upon an album of Egyptian dance music. I was instantly captivated by the rhythms and rich sounds of Middle Eastern music. Coming from an artistically-inclined family, it came as no surprise that I discovered my ability to move to different rhythms with natural ease, although I did not initially consider myself a dancer until I reached adulthood. Somewhat a late bloomer, I only discovered my passion for
dancing years after I was first introduced to Latin dance in university. My discovery of Middle Eastern music eventually led me to take up belly dancing, and to my delight, I was hooked from the beginning. With a mother who sings and plays numerous musical instruments, a sister who won Malaysia’s first ever synchronized swimming gold medal in the 1997
SEA Games, and then went on to represent Malaysia at the 1998 Commonwealth Games, and a father who discovered his natural grace as a ballroom dancer ( in his pensioner years I might add ), I am very happy to have found my true passion in Middle Eastern dance. I have always enjoyed moving my body in a coordinated fashion, which started during my school days when I learnt the martial art of Wu shu, complete with sword displays during competitions. Being a visual person as well, I love vibrant colours, and the glittery costumes and flowing fabric typical of a belly dancer never fail to captivate me.
Although belly dancing has always been the domain of women, particularly since this art form is especially suited to the female form, I never shied away from challenging social norms. Now back in my birthplace of Kuching as an instructor of Middle Eastern dance, my students have never found my gender to be an issue hindering them from fully participating in my classes. I dare say, in some respects, it has come to work to my advantage when some of my students initially came to my classes out of curiosity when they discovered a man was teaching. Belly dancing has its roots in the folk dances of the predominantly Arab Middle East, as well as influences from India, Central Asia, Greece and Turkey. With such a vast cultural background, it is not surprising that Middle Eastern dance has become an amalgamation of dance styles from these regions, and has also evolved to incorporate other Asian and Western musical influences into belly dancing.
One of the many reasons I am passionate about belly dancing is that it fosters a healthy, wholesome appreciation for one’s own unique body, regardless of shape, size or proportions. Anyone, regardless of gender, age or ethnicity, can look and feel good through a respectful approach to this beautiful dance form, and this is one of the many things I strive to impart to my students as well as my audiences. I also feel particularly passionate about dispelling myths surrounding belly dancing. A prime example is that belly dancing was primarily a method of seduction prevalent in the harems of olden Middle Eastern empires. Whilst the predominant image of a belly dancer is that of the revealing two-piece ensemble coupled with translucent skirts and a bare midriff, this signature attire is somewhat a rather modern convention, largely due to Middle Eastern dance being marketed as a performance art when the region opened up to Western influences in the 19th century.
The folk dances of the Middle East were performed by both men and women, regardless of age, at social gatherings and often in their everyday attire. With this in mind, I always strive to educate my students on the origins of belly dancing and the many influential elements that shaped this art form, in order to foster a more balanced, and respectful approach to Middle Eastern dance. Another topic I frequently discuss with my students is whether it is acceptable for a belly dancer to choose either to expose or to cover the belly. I believe it comes down to individual choice. For me personally, whilst I am very comfortable with my body, I expose my belly only during classes to facilitate my teaching. However, during formal and public performances, I choose not to expose my midriff, in accordance with my own threshold of propriety in line with my personal and my Islamic values. Instead I choose to wear costumes that allow my movements to be seen even with fabric covering the belly. Now that I am fulfilling my dream as a performer and instructor of Middle Eastern dance, I continue to seek opportunities to share my passion for this beautiful dance form with people from all walks of life.