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Reclaiming the Goddess through the Sacred Art of Bellydancing

Gone are the days when belly dancing was viewed merely as a seductive fantasy.

Today women take up belly dancing as a sacred art for communication, healing, transformation, and on a practical level to facilitate birthing and for keeping fit. Dance teachers are actively encouraging this type of consciousness shift in their classes.

Keti is a well known belly dancing teacher from Fremantle in Western Australia who has been dancing since she was seventeen. She has immersed herself in the cultural traditions surrounding belly dance and has lived and worked as a dancer in Egypt. Keti believes that belly dancing is the sacred dance of women but she also acknowledges the roles for men in the dance especially as the musicians who provide the impetus for the movement.

The Dance of the Goddess

In both Sumerian and Babylonian times when the matriarchal societies dominated, Keti tells us, women danced different styles of belly dance. Feminine divinity was worshipped and the Goddess was seen as the prime creator and the nurturer. Throughout history belly dancing has expressed these quintessential feminine qualities.

The cult of the Goddess Ishtar which existed around 4500 BC celebrated the fertility of the divine feminine. Belly dancing was used in her rituals for magical purposes, sexual excitement, fertility rites, for honouring the earth and for birthing. Belly dancing movements also harmonised with the lunar cycles and connected participants on a kinetic level to celestial rhythms.

The Fellahine is one particular dance style performed as a celebration dance designed to give energy back to the earth after a bountiful harvest of such crops as lentils or corn. Some of it's movements include stomping, as if the dancer was earthing her joy in to the ground.

Keti also believes woman at these temple gatherings would perform their dance for the other women to suggest how potent and sexy they were, and as an avenue to express and embrace their passion.

In both the Goddess temples of the past and in the dance today, we see sacred movements and mudras being used as a way of connecting to divine energies, both feminine and masculine. There is one belly dancing gesture that has particular spiritual significance. This gesture is performed at the beginning of some Arabic dances. A dancer may be seen to make a small pyramid with her hands and place it on her forehead. This is used specifically as a mudra of protection and also opens and draws attention to the third eye.

The ankh is also another potent Egyptian symbol that can be expressed in the dance. On one level it represents an open door or window and is associated with the arabesque in architecture. It was a shape for society to look through but for eastern woman to look out of. The ankh is also a symbol for the marriage of the feminine and the masculine. It's top half can represent the vagina or labia and also the potency of the divine feminine. For some it represents everlasting life, that which can only be attained when this alchemical union takes place. Traditionally the ankh also acts as a doorway to other dimensions or to the underworld. A temple dancer may utilise the symbol of the ankh in dance by spreading her arms out and then lifting them upward into a circle. A dancer both accesses and projects arcane wisdom by incorporating such sacred geometry into movement and dance.

The Language of Baladi

The country folk of Egypt performed a style of dance called baladi. The baladi is both folk law and a drum rhythm but as a dance it is used to communicate the sensuality of the divine feminine. It was originally performed on the outskirts of the cities and had an intrinsic earthiness that reflected the culture's spiritual connection to the earth.

There are five languages that are expressed during a traditional baladi dance. The first part of the dance incorporated the movement a shawl about the shoulders called a "milexa". A dancer would gently wrap and then unveil herself revealing her cheeky shoulders. The second language of baladi used the milexa as a veil around the hips. A dancer would seductively remove the shawl from her shoulders and begin to wrap it around her hips. This suggestive movement hinted at the feminine power laying beneath her shawl.

Next the dancer would unveil herself, untying the hip scarf and generating energetic hip movements. Eventually she drops the milexa and begins dancing a new language with her free hands.

She uses suggestive hand movements to bring attention to other parts of her body but particularly her face. Her hands glide past her eyes as she gives a quick intense glance to someone and in fact this move is called the "glance of the eye". This is a subtle movement but very powerful.

The fourth language expresses the suggestion of a smile. The dancer glides her hand past her mouth and may move her finger tips in such a way that she is expressing a little naughtiness. As the dancers body is no longer shrouded in veils and she has brought attention to all her aspects, she can then use her whole body to express herself. This dance reflects a mythical unveiling of the woman's heart, sexual centre, eyes, voice and then finally the full physical body.

The Feminine Mysteries

Belly dancing has often been linked with the powerful female mystery cycles and the balancing of women's energies. It is said that in the temple of Artemis at the full moon, the woman would shimmy wildly to build up their sexual energy during ovulation. The shimmy is a fast shaking movement of the buttocks, belly and inner thighs that stimulates the ovaries. At dark moon, at the time of bleeding, the women's movements would be softer and snakier, taking energy in and focusing a women's' awareness inward.

Likewise women today can utilise these same dance moves to assist them in balancing their own energies during these powerful times of their cycle. By doing the shimmy and shaking her hips, a woman can release outwards some of the energy that builds up in the preceding weeks to ovulation, assisting her in releasing her emotions. During her bleeding time she can use the slow circles and snakier movements such as undulations to bring energy into her being to nourish her in her time of regeneration.

In matriarchal times men involved themselves with the spiritual significance of women's cycles and the importance of the menstrual cycle was widely acknowledged in the community. However Keti says that today most woman do not have a proper cycle at all and so are out of tune with the feminine mysteries. This is partly due to the Pill, hormonal factors, and from tampons which have a tendency of hiding bleeding.

Many women simply use pain killers and go about there daily routines at the time of menses remaining just as active as any other time. The importance of setting aside time to be still during menses has been lost Many women see menstruation as an interference in their lifestyle because they do not realise its sacredness. By taking up belly dancing women can now reconnect with these cycles both lunar and personal, and in doing so reclaim the lost aspects of self.

Rhythms of Motherhood

One of the most basic belly dancing moves is an earthy round circular movement of the hips which Keti says mimics not only the sensuality of courtship but the movement of birthing. Throughout history during the months preceding a birth, a pregnant women would sway and rock as a way to stay in tune with her baby and to prepare her body for birth. This belly dancing movement also toned the pelvic floor and uterine muscles. This type of exercise was not jarring on either the lower back or the knees, the typical weak areas in pregnant women.

During labour these woman used slow swaying figure eights and hips circles to assist with the contractions and the delivery of the baby. Older woman would surround the mother in labour and play rhythmic drums while the younger woman danced around her breathing in sync with her contractions. The birth became a dance and the drums and the dancing evoked a trance like state, a natural form of opiate. Birth in this instance was an initiation into the powerful feminine mysteries. In this way a pregnant mother could participate actively in her birth, connecting with her sense of power. This is unlike the births of the west that have traditionally been a passive experience for the mother.

The Dance of the Seven Veils

Keti believes that the dance of the seven veils is perhaps the most famous of all the eastern belly dances to be incorporated into a western society. It has captured the hearts of men and women throughout the ages with its exotic and tantalising allure. Yet there is symbology that underlies this dance that is on one level a spiritual initiation.

Symbolically the shedding of veils is akin to the opening of the seven seals or chakras alluded to in Revelations in the bible. In this respect shedding a veil during a belly dance can signify the removal of a seal from one of the chakras - the spiritual energy centres in body as understood in many spiritual traditions, particularly in Eastern cultures. Keti believes that the removal of a veil not only corresponds to revealing a new level of consciousness but that when specific music is played near a chakra it evokes different dance movements reflecting that level as well. Therefore exactly where an instrument is played upon the body will determine which level of consciousness will be evoked.

When a veil is removed from the sexual/survival centre at the base chakra, very earthy drums are used. This chakra represents the level of instinctuality, survival and anamality. It also involves birth and death and represents our most physical and primal energies.

A second veil may then be removed from the sacral or belly chakra. This is our area of relating and creating and it is where a dancer utilises belly and hip movements accompanied by heavy guitars. In Egypt the kanoon, a deep harp is played which is positioned in the belly area as well. The high guitars played at the solar plexus or diaphragm area release a dancers' energies of fire and passion which are typified in such dances as the flamenco. The heart rending sounds of the saxophone or violin are played near the heart to open one up to love and in this area we find expressive upper body movements and chest circles. The throat chakra is the conduit for the singing voice and speaking and at this level there are many suggestive gestures around the mouth.

The uplifting sounds of flutes palpitate the third eye and the crown chakra and the dancer's arms flow upward representing the movement toward spirit. These higher chakras are activated by the higher tones and can be utilised for direct communication with God through such activities as Sufi dancing and ecstatic trance.

In terms of consciousness, belly dancing relates primarily to the womb, the sacred feminine. Yet its movements incorporate both the fecund earthiness of the Goddess and the inspiring air energies of the God. The dance itself becomes one of balance and harmony with the accompanying music from the drums, strings and flutes used to embrace all the elements of earth, fire, air and water.

The Seven Gates to the Underworld

The significance of the number seven in the veil dance is also related to the spiritual initiation where a woman delves deep into her own shadowy and unconscious aspects to reclaim disassociated aspects of herself. A woman can step into impowermnent when rejected parts of herself are acknowledged and accepted. This dark journey involves stripping away any masks, roles or belief systems that prevent her from knowing her true essence. Typically this journey is represented by passing through seven mystical portals or gates that are part of her decent to the underworld. In this descent into the depths of self a woman becomes completely stripped and vulnerable. Yet it is in this vulnerable honesty that a woman regains her power.

The initiatory metaphor of stripping or releasing is on one level related to a woman's menstral cycle and the phase of the moon. The initial journey of descent into the underworld and stripping away can be aligned to the time when many women have premenstrual tension and release many emotions in the seven days prior to bleeding.

If we look at the following seven days of the cycle they are spent bleeding and are connected to the time of the dark moon when a woman travels deep into the core of her being. This is when she is at her most potent and is at the height of her feminine power yet she does this from a still place, where she can also take the time to regenerate and nurture herself.

The next seven days which are when the new moon waxes are akin to how a woman's energies begin to enliven where she makes her journey back into the world again resurfacing with regenerated energy. Then at the full moon when the light from the sun is reflected at its greatest the woman is at the height of her sexual power and she is also her most fertile. This is the fruitful time of ovulation when she is her most active and she stays at this pinnacle until her energy subsides and she begins once more to make her descent again with the waning of the moon.

In her thesis on oriental dance Keti has researched old myths focused on the theme of descent and has related them to women's growth today. She explains that these mythical stories once associated with belly dancing are resurfacing partially because their spiritual significance are only now being revealed.

In one Babylonian myth the goddess Ishtar descends into the underworld to reclaim her dead husband. During her descent she meets seven tests and has to pass through seven gates . At each gate she sheds a metaphorical veil like a piece of jewellery, or her beauty, or her wealth.

She ultimately uses the power of seduction to tempt her way through the gates but while she is shedding each veil she is also surrendering her attachments It is when she is fully naked revealing her true essence that she can then finally rescue her husband or reclaim her masculine side. It is only after this reunion that an alchemical marriage of balance can then take place.

As women we can lso make this descent into self awareness where we shed the veils that protect ourselves, which are inherently the veils of self forgetting. Only when we are stripped and completely vulnerable can we express the raw potency of our womanhood. If we consciously choose this initiation then we must be prepared to lose everything, to stand in our bare essence, and in doing so then reclaim our powerful masculine side.

In the Greek tradition this same initiation was taken by Demeter a mother goddess of the grain. In one version of the myth Demeter like Ishtar also descends into the underworld but this time the descent is made to save her child not her husband. Her maiden daughter Persephone is abducted to the underworld by Hades. Demeters' motherly instincts drive her to unbridled grief over her loss and during this time the earth becomes barren. Nothing grows, nothing is reborn.

Eventually the father god Zeuss forces Hades to release Persephone and the earth's abundance is finally restored. Once again there is the suggestion that it is only through this descent into the darkness that the lost child/maiden aspect of ourselves can be reclaimed.

Corruption of Feminine Myths

The myth of the seven veils can be traced to many cultures, as it has been rehashed time and time again, and each culture has created a different ending to the story reflecing their psyche and mythology at that time. However it is only in the bible version that the unveiling of the feminine leads to a decapitation of the masculine. This is revealed in the story of the exotic dancer Salome`.

Salome`s mother was very calculating so she manipulates the beauty of her daughter for her own ends. Herods lust for Salome` was so strong that he agrees to present Salome`s mother with the head of John the Baptist if Salome` will dance for him. The dance of seduction that Salome performs for Herod is the revealing dance of the seven veils. However the unveiling of the feminine power in this instance leads to the symbolic death and Freudian castration of the male.

Each mythic version of the dance of the seven veils has a different ending however this story ends with a separation rather than a reunion. Keti believes that much the of the Islamic and Christian philosophy relating to women and sexuality reflects the fear surrounding the rehashing of this particular myth. She believes many men have been subconsciously afraid of the sexual power of the feminine and so a millennia of patriarchal cultures have dominated.

The Suppression of the Feminine

In the east, belly dancing traditionally has been one of the few outlets in which women could express their feminine power - that which has been continually denied. The Koran has a sura or chapter on Women which relates directly to suppressing feminine sexuality and also to belly dancing as well. It states that women "should cast down their eyes and guard their private parts"....and they should never "reveal their adornments". Women were to "cast their veils over their bosoms" and they should never be allowed "to stomp their feet". Veils of course are common place in that society, so are the downcast eyes. However the obvious relevance to dancing has only been partly subverted. In fact it is during belly dancing that a woman's 'adornments' become most exposed even if just for other woman.

However it is not just in eastern society where belly dancing has been frowned upon. In the early 1900's Oscar Wilde produced a play based on the myth of Salome`. The star of the play was Maude Allen. Because Maude Allen performed some belly dancing movements on stage she was accused of various crimes and had to go to court. Her major crime was that she was seen to stimulate herself without the aid of a man. This was viewed as a most heinous act and one newspaper titled its lead article about her "The Cult of the Clitoris". Such was the fear in those times about the power of feminine sexuality.

Invaders of the Heart

With this sort of paranoia surrounding female sexuality it is not surprising that in even in the countries where belly dancing originated, it was not a respected dance. Belly dancing was mostly done in private by local women and only made its mark publicly via a band of gypsies called the Ghawazee.

These people were known as "invaders of the heart". They were wandering Indian, Turkish and Jewish nomads who had no shame about their bodies and they did not hold to social conventions, celebrating the dance whenever they pleased. When a belly dancer was required for a social function the local women of respect were overlooked and the Ghawazee were hired. Being nomads they carried little and would in fact wear their wealth on their bodies. The coin belts so popular in the belly dancing costume today harken back to the days of the wandering Ghawazee.

Because of the social conventions surrounding belly dancing in its traditional home countries, the dance eventually became a game, the dance of oriental allure and suggestion. The Egyptians say every girl is born a dancer but if asked to dance, no matter how experienced, Egyptian girls respond with "Oh I can't dance." Eventually the girl gets up and shyly begins to move so the beginning of the dance is always slow, subtle and alluring, hinting at what was to come. Then the dance gets faster and in the end the dancer reveals her true potency through a tantalising and climatic finish.

This style of dance tells a story of the unveiling of femininity. Its slow build up enraptures the audience. Baladi movements are designed to both give and take energy from the audience. Some belly dancing connoisseurs believe the most beautiful dancers are those fully in tune with their own inner energies. These are the dancers who appear to be dancing for no one but themselves. This type of outward expression of the inner experience is what transforms the dance from a sexy girlish display into something more profoundly sacred.

Reclaiming the Goddess

Keti believes that it is opportune now for women to go deep within themselves to reclaim their femininity through such tools as belly dancing. It is time to explore all the powerful faces of the Goddess that reside within. However she believes it is also time to revamp the old myths of descent, and to create new endings for our own personal stories. Society needs to start equating the dance and the potency of feminine sexual power with a new outcome rather than with the old myths of the evil seductress, the corrupted mother, the death and castration of the male and the loss of innocence. She believes that every time women enact a new mythology through the dance in a way that is meaningful to them, that this then makes a huge shift in the collective consciousness of women globally.

In 1997 Keti co-ordinated a concert entitled `The Exotic Journey' which explored all the feminine roles associated with belly dancing in the last 5000 years. Women from her classes danced the mythical stories of Salome` and the dance of the seven veils, the descent of Ishtar, the priestesses in the temple of Artemis, the unveiling of Isis and even the story of the Houri - the holy haws of Babylon. Over 20 faces of the Goddess were explored and given a voice, and their energies were thanked and released in the dance. She believes the energy from these old myths have finally been put to rest so that the women of today can write themselves a new myth and create a new paradigm for the sexes.

We can all assist the birthing of a new paradigm that reflects harmonious relations between men and woman. Both men and woman can stand in thier full power but still stand together as equals. Using the dance to rewrite the myths is one way of doing this. Some of the women in Keti's classes have been examining their lives in relation to their own suppression in today's society. They have been performing their own stories to reclaim lost aspects of themselves. Keti is attempting to use belly dancing as a medium to rewrite some of the old myths so as to unveil the power of the feminine for both personal and planetary healing.

Dance into Ecstatic Health

Eastern woman, who have traditionally belly danced in community groups as part of their day to day lives, are said to be more content as they have a secure sense of identity and connection to other woman. Belly dancing both stimulates and soothes the reproductive system and so many woman who regularly dance suffer little or no menstrual or menopausal difficulties. Keti said that in Turkey most women don't know what pre-menstrual tension is and iassert that they feel very good during menstruation. Their society even supports them during this powerful time of renewal, as women are excused from both prayers and household chores for a couple of days, if they choose.

These women often gather in groups to drink tea and to dance and some will dance by themselves in their homes every day. Keti says that these women do not get menopause as early as western women and that cervical cancer, w one of the highest killers in women, is almost unheard of. This may be because many of the movements in belly dancing are concentrated in the belly region and assist lymph and blood flow to and from the area thereby both increasing circulation and reducing possible congestion. The health benefits for women who belly dance are then quite obvious. Keti said some GP's and gynaecologists are already referring some of their cases to her.

Reclaiming the Body

From a metaphysical or bodywork perspective many women hold suppressed emotions in their sacral or belly areas especially guilt and sexual shame. Keti's research has found a direct link to incest victims who still carry emotional residue and pre-menstrual tension. Many woman who have taken up belly dancing have gone through profound emotional breakthroughs with accompanying physical changes. Often they have less pain and congestion around the time of menses and many neck and back problems are corrected.

Belly dancing has significant healing value for incest survivors and also for individuals who have had negative sexual experiences. Keti has worked with a lot of woman in their forties. Belly dancing is healing for them because it gives them an outlet to be sensual and sexual in a situation that its free from sexual obligation. The dance is an invitation to express the feminine power of the self instead of being an invitation to another. This safe environment then assists women in reconsecrating the sacredness of their bodies. Their primary relationship is with themselves and then secondly with the other women present in the class. In this nurturing atmosphere a woman can explore how her body moves and so find new ways to communicate.

Shifting Consciousness

Belly dancing has only been a focus in the west for the last 1000 years. It initially reflected an oriental fantasy for western minds, something that had the same hidden allure as the mysteries of the harem. This is why it came to be identified as simply a dance of seduction and associated with stripping. From a traditional view men were seen to lose some of their power in the face of this unashamed feminine sensuality and they called this `The Little Death'. So often such dances were ridiculed out of fear. It is now time to change that old fashioned view of this powerful exotic dance and to fully embrace belly dancing as a sacred expression of the divine feminine. In reclaiming the power of women in this way we move one step closer towards healing the rift between the sexes and also assist to create a peaceful new world.

If you would like more information about Keti's work and bellydancing in general then check out her website. If you are keen to take up bellydancing in your own area then just look up the local paper. With the popularity of bellydancing growing so fast you are bound to find a dance teacher near by.

love and happy shimmying - Astoria

image - Mohani, belly dance teacher in Byron Bay

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