What Isadora Duncan Can Give Belly Dance

I came to dancing full time from being a High-School Humanities instructor. Although I love what I do, it was easier to talk about my work when I was simply Mrs. Blanton in room A-24. Nobody’s threatened or embarrassed by the literary canon or the connection between cubism and T.S. Eliot. But when asked “what do you do?” at cocktail parties these past few years, Mrs. Blanton gets distinctly different reactions.

“Ooooohhh, ok. A belly dancer. That’s so.….interesting.” Or “Oo, can you show us some sexy moves?“ to my favorite “Aaaannnnd now, ladies, hang on to your husbands, because up next we have the.…..belly dancer!” A century later and we still have to face the popular perception of our dance as the circus-exotica cliché of the Victorian era. I agree with Morocco when she laments the misnomer that World Fair promoter Sol Bloom placed on the dance – belly dance, as if it only had something to do with our bellies. Not that I would try to cover up or circumvent the sensual nature of our dance. On the contrary, I celebrate it. I love the way our dance loves a woman’s body – its curves, strengths, and softnesses. But sensuality is only one dimension of the dance just as it is only one dimension of a woman. To limit our art to the realm of the sexy is to limit our expressive range and to spiritually impoverish our dancing, when we could be directing our skills to aims much higher than the astonishment of dinner guests.

Both Nadia Gamal and Tahiya Carioca said that we must dance love, hate, grief, death, and dreams. Gamal is also quoted as saying…”I am NOT a belly dancer. I have never been one, and never will be. What I do is not what Hollywood vulgarly calls ‘belly dance’, but it's art. I have traveled the world to prove that my dance is not a dance of the belly but a refined, artistic dance full of tradition, of dreaming and beauty. Oriental dance is primarily an expressive dance…”*

Are we not complex, expressive women? With eyes, ears, minds, and hearts as well as hips, breasts and bellies? Our feet touch the ground, but who says we have to reach only for the Earth-bound in our dance? Can we not cast our gaze further, past the horizon, into the realm of Ideas, Aspirations and Myth? We can invoke and inspire, like muses, when we begin to discover that our movements carry much deeper potential for meaning than what we may be initially aware of. The legendary Isadora Duncan said, “The dance, in my opinion, has for its purpose the expression of the most noble and most profound feelings of the human soul: those which rise from the gods in us, Apollo, Pan, Bacchus, Aphrodite. The dance must implant in our lives a harmony that is glowing and pulsing. To see in the dance only the frivolous or pleasant diversion is to degrade it.” **

I came to Duncan dance in Delphi, Greece at a ten-day symposium of poets, mythologists, dancers, and philosophers. Delphi was sacred to the ancient world as the seat of the Pythia, or Oracle of Delphi, to whom pilgrimages were made to seek knowledge and wisdom. Its magical hills and temple ruins were also sacred to Isadora, who went to Greece to seek the source of “natural dance”. She was utterly revolutionary – a Victorian-era American who publicly rejected the “unnatural” strictures of ballet along with narrow Victorian views of the body and sex. She went about in loose Grecian tunics and sandals – no corsets for this woman! Initially ridiculed in America, she followed her Muse to Greece. Inspiration came to her from Nature and from the great Greek Myths that shape our collective consciousness. Heroes, Goddesses, Furies, Nymphs, and Muses provided the rich pool of imagery from which Isadora created timeless dances of elegant poignancy. She shook up my entire world. And while I can’t even begin to sum up Isadora’s philosophy here, I can share with you specific and practical ways as to how it has directly impacted my dancing. These will all be incorporated into the workshops I will teach at the upcoming WAMED in Perth in June.

First of all, Isadora taught me to use my eyes – my vision and intelligence. Cast your sight farther – and your expression will go farther. Dance for GOD, (or the gods, if you prefer) dance for higher ideals, ideas, visions. In Duncan technique, we learn first to cast our sight, follow through with the plexus/heart center, and then deploy a motion or gesture. The limbs serve the intent and intelligence, not the other way around, especially when it comes to hands. Hands try to control everything we do. Let’s face it, we all work with our hands, no matter what we do. Whether we type at a computer, chop vegetables, mow the lawn, grade papers, or crochet sweaters, we are very hand-dominated and they tend to have a mind of their own. Take a look at how any of your students (or you, for that matter) gesture. The tendency is to lead with the hand. Duncan tells us, lead with the sight, follow through with the plexus, and finish with the hand or arm or whatever body part we are deploying. The extremities are in service of the intelligence and intent. In the Duncan-inspired Tchiftetelli I will teach at WAMED, I will share specific ways to add depth and meaning to the shapes in the dance through using the line of sight as a tool for extending our movements.

Duncan work stresses the solar plexus as a center of intent and source of motivation for movement. The solar plexus chakra is our internal Sun. When we switch it on and radiate it outward, our entire aspect changes and we are transformed into a prouder, nobler version of ourselves. We can also radiate in inward, for that matter – making our dance introspective and sublime as opposed to exuberant and radiant. Locating and activating this center was crucial to Isadora as it was to her heirs, most notably Martha Graham. But it is even more important for us “belly dancers” as it gives us a higher point in our central axis to which we can connect the pelvic energies. Not only that, but it gives us a way to refine those energies, raising them up through the higher chakras, where they can then be deployed to the world around us. Dancing through the solar plexus gives us a dignified and noble posture, a “liftedness” that I found lacking in my own performances prior to my exposure to Duncan dance. Equally as important, working with the solar plexus helps us to “put heart” into our dancing, thereby giving it a more emotionally sincere quality which we all know is a hallmark of better belly dancing. At WAMED, I will share techniques on how to access the solar plexus energy and how to deploy it through classic gestures. We will use creative imagery as well as physical exercises in this work.

In the workshop on dancing the qualities of water, I will present not only my own dancing meditations from countless hours by the sea, but sequences that take from Isadora’s love of Nature and especially, the waves. Isadora loved the beauty of the curve, the cresting wave and the undular step. Flow and self-propagating sequences were part of her ideal of beauty in movement , with the principle that all natural movements should give birth to other movements. No element inspires this better than water; just think of the swirls and eddies in a pool or the tide washing back into itself. The symbolic qualities of water connect to our emotions and subconscious, dreaming depths, pulling our souls mysteriously like the moon pulls the tides. These images and others will be presented as ways to access the mysteries of water. I will also share ideas on how to extend the reach and flow of the movements – again, through sight, imagery, intent, and gesture.

I am honored to come to WAMED and share the influence that Isadora Duncan’s philosophy has had on my dancing. She has stirred so many and I hope all who come will make their own connection to that great source of inspiration that has the power to infuse our dance with timeless beauty, greater meaning, and artful grace.


* (Scoop Magazine, as quoted on www.shira.net/quotes.htm)

**( Duncan, Isadora. “The Great Source”, The Art of the Dance p. 103)

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