Belly dancing started off as a cultural dance performed by the Gypsies in 18th century Egypt. The style was known as ghawazee, named after the group of gypsy dancers that performed it. Over time, it migrated from the Middle East to Europe, and in the 20th century a new form developed — raqs sharqi, which was a hybrid style of dance with more modern tones in addition to the traditional ghawazee. This form of belly dance would spread to the Americas in the ‘60s and become popular in the feminism movement that was developing at the time. Belly dance crossed many cultural borders and is still popular to this day, as evidenced by the University of Rochester’s own Sihir Belly Dance Ensemble.
Sihir began in 2003, through the efforts of student Irina Barahona. The group was a small performance ensemble with the focus of using the Middle Eastern Dance raqs sharqi as an outlet for artistic expression and to achieve body awareness and understanding, as well as personal development. Since their founding, the group’s purpose has not changed, but the group has expanded by accepting anyone who wishes to join.
Clearly, diversity has become a priority. Sihir’s current president, junior Margaret Hill, emphasizes this point. “Anyone can join,” she said, “I also believe the atmosphere of our club is one of the best things [it]. Because we are so accepting, we’re very close, and the atmosphere is very comfortable.” This year, Sihir has 29 performers and a total of 40 members, performing everything from traditional rotines to hip-hop belly dance.
This is a drastic change from the time where they had as few as seven members in their earlier years. The Sihir belly dancers provide a great variety and a “melting pot” of different walks of life.
In a similar fashion to how belly dancing crossed the globe, Sihir has allowed a world of different students with differing backgrounds to become members. The group has been accepting of anyone regardless of sex, ethnicity and body type.
The club had a core membership that lacked diversity during Hall’s freshman year; however, that has changed drastically over her next three years at UR. “My freshman year (fall ‘08),” she recalls, “we had a surprisingly homogeneous membership, but we look like a completely different group today. Again, we have all weights, heights, skill levels and ethnic groups. But I think the largest testament to diversity is our three male belly dancers!”
Speaking of those male belly dancers — they’re the latest addition to Sihir’s ensemble, but they have proven quite rare, with the first one joining in the Spring of 2009. Although he left the following year, three more male belly dancers, senior James Prendergast, freshman Hap Willis and freshman Alex*, joined Sihir. “I think more guys should be as brave as he is and try the club out, this is a great milestone for the club,” junior Jeanette Epstein commented.
For males belly dancing the raqs sharqi, expressions of fluid strength are commonplace, providing a great juxtaposition to the elegance and grace of the female belly dancers.
Male belly dancers have added a new depth to the Sihir belly dance ensemble and have opened the doors to different choreography and different ways of teaching the dance.
Sihir’s membership is a model of intercampus diversity. They have become a prolific and varied dance group on campus, with performances at least five times a semester along with one or two workshops. With the amount of members and performers now involved with the group, each demonstration of the art of belly dancing is a veritable cornucopia of traditions. To experience the majesty and mystery of Sihir, go to their upcoming event, Arabesque, on Saturday, March 26 at 8 p.m. in the May Room.
*full name omitted at students request
Minahan is a member of
the class of 2012.