Finding freedom in the feminine: Belly dance is more than just glittering scarves and colorful veils

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By Pamela Lawson

Freedom, sisterhood, embracing the feminine. Those feelings radiated in the self-possessed smiles of belly dancers May 10 at a dance show and recital in Conifer. Their joy spread to an audience that reciprocated with cheers and applause.

The Mountain Kahia Dancers performed 19 choreographed sets at Conifer High School in a visual feast of glittering hip scarves, glistening bellbottoms and colorful veils.

“It celebrates the woman, the body — no matter what size, age or color,” said Jayne Fair of Bailey, part of several mother-daughter teams that danced Saturday night.

When Jayne was a teenager, her mother learned the art form of belly dancing. She was moved by her mother’s example — the sense of freedom it brought her — and now Jayne and her own daughter, Hannah, are dancing together.

“It’s very inspiring,” said 18-year-old Hannah.

Hannah started belly dancing at 16. It was a chance to break free of teenage anxieties, spend time with her mom and get in touch with her self.

“It was a chance to focus on me. It’s really good to love yourself,” Hannah said. “It’s not an ego thing — it’s self-respect.”

Nancy McGuire of Evergreen began belly dancing in the fall of 2007 after a phone call with a friend, who is a dancer in Santa Fe. During the conversation, Nancy expressed her desire to connect more personally with other women in her community.

“She said, ‘You should do belly dancing; you would love it,’ ” Nancy remembers. “I got off the phone and Googled ‘belly dancers’ and ‘Evergreen,’ and there was Sheikha!”

Sheikha is the stage name of Sheila Kelly, a local instructor who learned the art of belly dancing more than nine years ago. She has taught it for more than six years and sponsored eight recitals. She also works with teens in high school programs teaching leadership skills, and, as luck would have it, Nancy’s daughter Phoebe knew her.

The mother-daughter pair joined the classes for a time before Phoebe left the country in a traveling educational program. But it was Nancy’s 13-year-old daughter, Daisy, that grew to love belly dancing most when she filled in one day in Phoebe’s absence.

“Back then I was really self-conscious of what I looked like and what other people thought of me,” Daisy said from her home May 11. “I would hold my arms close to my body, (thinking), ‘OK, I’m scared; don’t look at me.’ But I don’t anymore.”

The seventh-grader was transformed by belly dancing, and her self-confidence was evident Saturday night when she performed in the recital as the youngest student there.

“She just took to it. On a really intuitive level she was able to do the different moves,” Nancy said. “I see her being confident within that realm — with people who are older, she really holds her own.”

She now has a spirit of camaraderie with women of varying age groups.

“I think they are just such great role models for her. I think every young girl should be doing belly dancing — it’s fun; it gets rid of stereotypes,” Nancy said.

To that end, Sheila Kelly is offering a summer program for girls ages 11 to 15. The Belly-utiful! course is being offered twice to students the weeks of June 23-27 and July 7-11.

“Belly dancing is the ancient art of dance for females. Learning it can help girls feel more confident and self-assured,” Kelly said.

It is a week of self-discovery through Middle Eastern belly dance combined with journaling, collage making and more.

“This session encourages girls to let go of negative, media-driven body images and learn to feel and express their true beauty,” Kelly added. “All sizes, shapes and dance abilities are welcome.”

Kelly’s own experiences as a teacher have expanded over time. Belly dancing has become a form of meditation to her, and she offers that lesson to her students.

Lynette Roten, 20, who lives in Denver, is a loyal advocate of Kelly’s programs. She has been taking her classes since she was a teen at Conifer High, and she loves the small-class settings.

“I don’t think I could get better instruction,” Roten said. “I feel like I’ve learned things a lot faster than expected. I’m not an athletic person at all, and it helps me keep some sense of shape.”

The females who attend Kelly’s classes — who move to the sounds of funky tribal music — are a joyful, playful, graceful bunch who delight in the experience for any number of reasons.

“Belly dancing is my ‘sport,’ ” said 13-year-old Daisy McGuire.

For 60-year-old Zoe Kowalchuk, a yoga instructor and artist who loves the sound of silver coins dangling from her hip scarf, this style of dance is much more.

“I was blessed that I found Sheikha,” Kowalchuk said. “I’ve always loved dance all my life — it’s freedom.”

To contact Sheila Kelly visit her website, www.shimmywithsheikha.com.