Anthea Poole's Belly Dance Group is Fun for All
On my drive to the Dorothy Hart Community Center, I could not help but muse on what I was doing: going to see a class of the PRISM Belly Dancers of Fredericksburg.
I was attending the advanced class, as recommended over the phone by Anthea Poole, a professional dancer and the instructor of the PRISM group. She founded the group in 1992 in Charlottesville before moving it to Fredericksburg in 1998.
A number of questions were flying through my head as I made my way through downtown Fredericksburg: is the class going to be full of pregnant, ready-to-pop women? Was the class going to be full of “Frednecks?” Was I going to have to jiggle my hips with them?
My most prominent source of confusion stemmed from the fact that Fredericksburg, Va., is not a city anyone would label as being full of the culture and diversity that this type of dance brings to mind.
Also on my mind was the fact that I was actually going to a belly dancing class. This is, without a doubt, something I never, ever, pictured myself doing.
Many of the dancers, all of whom I met later that night, had very engrossing stories about how they became acquainted with the activity.
Gayle Wolfe, a psychology professor at Germanna Community College, told me she was “attending a psychology conference on the body-mind connection, and they had a belly dance session,” which sparked her interest.
Another member, Pixie Laurel Johnson, was witness to “a belly dance at a Renaissance festival, or many Renaissance festivals,” which led her to declare, “I want to do that!”
Translated from the French “danse du ventre,” belly dancing is the Westernized name for a traditional Middle Eastern dance, but the name is not entirely accurate. While the dance does involve use of the belly, exposed or not, it primarily focuses on the movement of the hips and the whole body. Additionally, many dances involve the use of canes, swords and finger cymbals, which are played rhythmically by the dancers.
Maybe I was stereotyping, but I could not picture a group of soccer moms finding time for something this involving between their errands and household duties.
However, the PRISM website promised to settle my active imagination, stating that the group is “dedicated to honoring our art form by presenting it in the best possible light” and “respecting the cultures of its origins by learning its history.” I walked in the front doors of the Community Center willing, but not ready, to be proven wrong.
The first thing that struck me when I entered the Community Center’s auditorium was all of the colors; not from the auditorium itself, which was about as colorful as any generic high school one, but rather from the clothing of the dancers. Every shade of the rainbow seemed represented, from the dark blue of one dancer’s shirt to the green-on-yellow combination of Anthea’s.
A few dancers put on skirts that dangled right next to their feet, introducing further color into the room; among them was one with a very sandy, dark-grey and brown combination with touches of goldenrod, and another of a solid soft pink crossed with two horizontal lines.
I was directed by Anthea to sit in a chair nearby the door, where I stayed for the duration of the class. Including the teacher, there were eight dancers, six of whom were middle-aged. Not surprisingly, I soon found out I was the only guy in the room.
The class began with a warm-up called “Bellyrobics,” led by Anthea, who stationed herself in front of the class and led them through the movements. For most of the drill, the dancers remained stationary, and practiced several arm movements, chest flexes and booty shakes, which caused the sound of maracas to fill the auditorium, as the beads on the dancer’s shirts jangled.
Throughout the hour of practice, many of the drills were set to middle-eastern music, characterized by its reliance on sitars, flutes and tabla drums. The dancers bobbed and swayed along with the music and Anthea.
I, however, was doing neither, and could just picture myself as I sat there, slumped over in the chair, not even trying to hide the uninterested expression on my face.
The dancers then began working on their group improvisation, dubbed by Anthea as “Tribal Odyssey,” a type of dance that they perform without choreography and, instead, imitate the movements of a designated leader, in this case Keena.
As I watched these dances, I realized something: I was actually starting to get interested. As a drummer, I am always thinking about rhythm and how it fits into music.
With these particular dance numbers, I was finally beginning to understand the relation between the dance movements, cymbal hits and choreography and how they complemented various beats in the music.
I stopped slouching in my chair, uncrossed my arms and sat-up. I did not realize, until I caught myself minutes later, that I had been tapping out some of the dance rhythms on my leg instead of jotting down notes.
For the last part of the practice, the dancers worked on a Middle Eastern belly dance routine.
As this style was Turkish in origin, it was markedly different than the “Tribal Odyssey” dances I had been observing up until that point since Anthea choreographed it.
This dance differentiated itself by relying more on jumps, spinning and circle moves. There were even moves involving partners having to catch each other, with Pixie joking that, “I’m sure we’ll catch them somehow.”
Everyone grooved with the beat, and when this happened, something just clicked on the floor of that auditorium; the dancers were no longer just taking a routine through its motions; they were performing, with I as their audience.
The infectiousness of the beat was not limited to the auditorium either; outside, two children, a boy and a girl, were making up their own choreography to the Turkish jam, laughing every step of the way.
When the dancers finished, each gasped for air but, nonetheless, wore smiles, and Anthea ended the practice by telling the group she was “impressed with their performance tonight.”
On my drive home, I remembered one thing Anthea had said to me that night after practice: “Beginners don’t stick around much.”
This was following up a comment that enrollment in the beginner class is down significantly, so much so that Anthea said, “There used to be a waiting list” in order to get into the class.
I feel this very much parallels my own experience with belly dancing, as that night, I too was a beginner, one that did not fully understand the intricacies of belly dancing and was not willing to give it a fair shot going in.
When I saw how happy the activity made this diverse group of women, and how interesting it actually was, I very happily realized the error of my ways. Now, the only question flying through my head was whether the dancers were serious when they said “what happens in dance class stays in dance class.”