The Middle East meets East Texas every weekend of Avalon Faire as belly dancers take to the stage to show off their talent.
Dancer Amy Taylor clarifies before the show, though, the audience should not respond with a “Yee-Haw.” Rather, everyone is encouraged to yell the Greek “Opa!” or the Arabic word “aiwa.”
After performing at Avalon Faire, where she has been part of the belly dancing presentation for all three years of the fair, she said, belly dancing is more than a “sultry dance” as it has become known in Western culture.
“It was mainly meant for women dancing for women,” she said, noting the dance was born when women in sultans’ harems were bored and would dance for each other.
The women on stage continue that tradition, displaying their skills for the audience and for each other.
Taylor did not have any dance experience when she first tried belly dancing, and called the other women as her second family.
“Even when I moved away for a few years, and I tried belly dancing at other cities, and it just wasn’t the same,” she said, noting the camaraderie Melonye “Desdemona” Grant created. “They didn’t really form that sisterhood, that family, that bond. I was begging my husband to move back to this area because I had to get back to my second family.”
Other Avalon Faire belly dancers learned from Grant, Taylor said, and following her death last year, they now dedicate their continued dancing to her.
“A lot of the songs that we perform are still her choreography because they’re just that good,” she said. “You can’t just set that on a shelf and not display it for other people. We’ve got to continue in her memory, so all that we do is in honor and in memory of her because she was such an influential teacher and mentor to all of us ladies.”
The community belly dancing creates is one for anyone, she emphasized.
“It’s a bunch of women from all ages, all shapes and sizes. There’s no discrimination about it,” Taylor said. “We embrace the fact that any woman can do this. I’ve even seen troupes that have men dancing, so it is not gender specific. It’s for everybody. It’s good exercise. It’s good fun.”
The purpose of belly dancing, Amber McDowell said, is to showcase and celebrate women and dance.
“Belly dance kind of teachers you how to accept your body type, love what you’ve got. Love your curves, celebrate your curves,” she said. “You don’t have to be a size 2 to dance.”
The dances presented at Avalon Faire is fun, quirky and family-friendly, showing a different side to the dance than the Westernized versions, Taylor said, whose daughter Sophie dances with her.
Overall, McDowell said, the style has been received well at the fair with belly dancing a relatively new style of dance to East Texas.
“You don’t see belly dancing very often,” she said. “It’s fun to present belly dance to those who may not have heard of it or seen it or maybe change their mind over the stigma they may feel about it. A lot of people think it’s a dance of seduction when in reality it’s ladies getting together just having fun with each other and dancing.”
The Avalon Faire presentation shows the audience members that it is fun to dance and in some cases it could introduce them to a new form of exercise.
“It is definite exercise,” Taylor said. “A lot of people do belly dancing to strengthen their core because it’s a lot about muscle isolation… As you do your hips, your top stays still, and when you do your top part, your hips stay still.”
Shannon Blanchard first found belly dance when she set out to find an activity that made exercise fun.
“I was looking for jazzercise, and I found belly dance instead… You don’t think of it as exercise,” she said.
In addition to the exercise belly dancing provides, Lauren McKenzie said, it also helped her through postpartum depression.
Belly dancing is the one thing McKenzie has for herself, she said. After taking a break to start a family, she returned to belly dancing following the death of Grant.
“This is what I love. I’m not fair to myself or to her if I don’t do it… It’s special and it’s magical,” she said.
McKenzie added dance is the first thing she fell in love with and remains the one thing she loves, besides her family.
“I can’t explain it any other way besides that,” she said. “It’s definitely the one thing I have for myself; it’s my ‘me’ thing.”
Terry Henning explained belly dancing is a way for women to get together and unwind, have fun and show off to each other.
Riki Bradford’s grandmother was the first to encourage her to try belly dancing, but Bradford said, she never saw her grandmother perform. After seeing a performance at Texas Renaissance Festival, she began taking lessons in Longview and said she most enjoys the friendship and community it creates and the body positivity it provides.
“It helped my confidence a lot,” she said.” I used to be very, very shy; I’m still shy, but it’s helped a lot to build me up.”
“I think it’s important for little boys and little girls to see belly dancers in that light,” McKenzie said. “It’s such a good body confidence for women and for boys they have that good light of women when they turn into men.”
Belly dancing classes are available across East Texas, including McDowell’s classes in Gladewater, and the belly dancers perform every weekend of Avalon Faire.