Traditional belly dance brings music to life

Internationally recognized belly dancer Leila Farid will perform July 27 at Levels Nightclub in State College
Internationally recognized belly dancer Leila Farid will perform July 27 at Levels Nightclub in State College Photo provided

It’s an art form that is as old as it is misunderstood and a medium that often conjures a seductive simplicity that is actually much more complex.

On June 27 at Levels Nightclub, Shannon Bishop will showcase the belly-dancing talents of an array of performers, including world-renowned Egyptian Leila Farid.

“There are a lot of dancers coming to State College from different cities all over the East Coast,” said Bishop, a belly dancer and instructor at her studio, Black Cat Belly Dance. “It’s going to be a real high-quality show, and Levels is the perfect venue for it. I’m so excited that our community is going to see a dancer of Leila’s caliber.”

The dance form is meant to be performed in a social setting, she said, and a nightclub provides that intimate setting that allows for a bit of interaction with the audience.

“It’s a dance of a living, breathing people and I try to be really respectful of that and I think that people really respond to that when they see the dance being performed,” Bishop said.

A fair amount of traditional dance forms have been used to tell a narrative about a particular group of people. What separates the ancient art of the belly dance is that there is a much greater emphasis on the actual dancing and music than any sort of anthropological analysis.

“A lot of the music that’s written for Egyptian dance is really complex, really interesting and very layered,” Bishop said. “It’s very different from a lot of the music that you hear in the West; the instruments and the rhythms and the dancing is really a representation of that really incredible music. Where other dance forms can tell a story, belly dance is really about bringing the music to life and looking at all of the layers that are in this beautiful Egyptian music.”

The ancient art of belly dancing is more complicated than just providing observers with an intoxicating evening. There is no denying that there is a sensual side to belly dancing, but despite what we think we know from cartoons and midcentury adventure films, there is much more to it than simple sexiness.

“I think that people still see belly dancing as being kind of exotic and different than what we’re used to in the U.S., but it’s really just the social dance of Egyptian culture, it’s how people dance over there,” Bishop said. “At the heart of it, it’s just a really basic and social dance. Of course, people will often think that the belly dancer is seducing someone’s husband, which is just completely ridiculous. It’s actually very family friendly and I’m hoping that this show and some of the other work that I’m involved with will show people that belly dancing is so much more than these outdated stereotypes.”

The performers pride themselves on their physical abilities and creativity, culminating in a visual treat. It’s an inclusive take that amounts to a mesmerizing display unlike any other.

“It’s very empowering and a great deal of emphasis is placed on posture,” Bishop explained. “It’s a dance that’s really inclusive and you don’t have to be a certain size or shape to do it very well. Belly dancers bring the emotion of the music to life and represent the beautiful instruments; I think that’s the real heart behind Egyptian belly dance.”

Farid is a star throughout the Middle East and Europe, and having her perform locally is quite the “get.” Her American tour only includes stops in San Francisco, New York and State College. In addition to her show, she will host workshops at the Black Cat Belly Dance studio with Bishop throughout the weekend.

“Leila is one of the most famous dancers in Egypt right now,” Bishop said. “I studied with her over in Egypt and eventually had the opportunity to bring her over to State College as part of her U.S. tour. She’s really the best of the best and it’s really exciting for me to be able to put on a show that features someone with her talent. She’s just incredible.”

In addition to Farid, a slew of award-winning dancers, including the 12-year-old prodigy Saqqara, will bring a little bit of the Middle East to the middle of Pennsylvania.

“Making a connection with the audience is one of the most important elements of Egyptian belly dancing,” Bishop said. “We are going to have some really high-quality dancing on Saturday night with a true international star. It’ll be an amazing event for both the dancers and the crowd.”