Time to shimmy

It’s known for the shimmy and the shake, the costumes and the colour but for those who teach and perform the ancient art of belly dance, it is so much more.

Belly dance has taken hold across the Hunter Valley, Newcastle and the Central Coast. There are individual performers, belly dance troupes, schools, regular events and pop-up performances as well as a few annual festivals.

“A common misconception about belly dance, especially in western society is that some people think it’s in the genre of exotic dancing or strip. But a big part of performing it is to show people it’s a family dance, a dance of celebration,” says Michelle Settmacher from Red Earth Belly Dance in Newcastle.

“We’re dancing for the women mostly, for each other. It’s a celebration of the feminine and all things that come with being a woman, all the curves, the shapes and the different sizes. There’s no specific body type in belly dance. It’s very inclusive.

“There’s a big community of women across the world and of course in our local area.”

A dance by any other name

At the annual Belly Dance Jam in Newcastle, dancers and troupes showcase what they’re currently working on. Jennifer Sheddon hosts the ‘Jam’ and in 2022 her Ace of Cups troupe performed a relatively new, contemporary style, known as ‘Fat Chance Belly Dance’.

Jennifer explains, “Fat Chance Belly Dance started in San Francisco, where there was a collective of dancers who wanted to perform together but they didn’t have time to practice their choreography.
“So they created a style of dance where you use physical gestures or eye contact to tell the other dancers what you’re about to do next.

“We are Newcastle’s only Fat Chance Belly Dance troupe.” Sonya Manzalin started the region’s oldest belly dancing school, Broadmeadow-based Dance of Life, 27 years ago.

She explains, “The main focus of our style is Ghawazi, which is also the origin of most other styles of this genre of dance. Cabaret, tribal and fusion all find their roots in the dances of the gypsy and desert tribes of North Africa and the Middle East.

“My ideology for the Dance Of Life is inclusion, education, wellbeing and connection. I am dedicated to empowering the women who come into the Dance Of Life school through self-acceptance, by improving self-esteem and creating positive connections with other women.

“In my teaching, I focus on correct posture and accurate technique. I have developed a glossary of terms to help students understand posture, steps, movements and shapes, informed by my extensive research and also interviews and discussions with teachers and dancers from all over the world.”

Over in Maitland, Mikola Lee from Hunter Shimmy Sisters swapped ballet for belly dancing more than 20 years ago and now teaches four classes a week. She also hosts regular Haflas (Arabic for ‘get-together’ or party) that are attended by troupes from across the region and serve as fund raisers for a local charity.
Creating connections

“Belly dancing is about community and that’s what I see Hunter Shimmy Sisters as being – hence the name. “For me personally, belly dancing is energy and life, passion and movement,” she shares.

Read more about belly dancing in the Autumn Edition of Hunter & Coastal Lifestyle Magazine or subscribe here.

Story and photography by Sally Maguire