September 21, 2019

Embodying a Culture

JOSHUA MAASSEN / The Journal Senior Middle Eastern studies major Noelani Kelly has been belly dancing since she was 14, saying it promotes confidence for herself and women.

Webster student practices the ancient Middle Eastern art of belly dancing

By Amanda Keefe

She enters the smoky club, her trench coat pulled tight around her body. There’s no hint of the exotic outfit beneath. Her hair is pulled back. Her eyeliner extends upward from the corners of her eyes, almost cat-like. Dangling gold earrings catch small patches of light as she moves through the sea of people. At first glance, Noelani Kelly seems like just another face in the crowd — until she dances.

She emerges minutes later, long waves of wheat-brown hair tumbling down her shoulders and a sheer pink shawl wrapped around her curves. The DJ inhales smoke from his hookah, exhales, then begins the music. Immediately she finds the rhythm, removing her shawl and working her way through the enamored crowd. The hundreds of rhinestones adorned on her sky-blue jump suit glitter as she dances, her belly exposed. Her craft, she said, is a freeing sensation.

Kelly, a senior Middle Eastern studies major, has been belly dancing for six years. At the tender age of 14, she performed her first gig, and she was terrified. Now, she said, dancing fills her with the utmost confidence — confidence of self, and confidence as a woman. Her poise radiates when she moves.

“All the things that women are ashamed of, those are the kind of things that this dance allows women to explore,” she said. “I quickly loosened up. The confidence was always there.”

Kelly was first inspired to learn the native Middle Eastern dance when she recognized her love for the culture, specifically the Egyptian culture. Kelly’s intrigue for the language, the heritage and the arts sparked her interest in trying a hand at the native oriental dance.

Kelly studied under Diana Wolf, a retired dancer and instructor who still teaches. She shared Wolf’s sentiments of appreciating the culture and the history from which the dance was derived.

“(Kelly) is dedicated to the dance and the culture,” Wolf said. “The dance, to her, is just part of it.”

Both Kelly and Wolf stress that there is a distinct difference between Middle Eastern belly dancing and western belly dancing. Kelly’s style of dance is the original, native form. Wolf said Kelly captures it beautifully.

“When you watch Noelani dance, what you are seeing is true oriental dance,” Wolf said. “She dances in the Middle Eastern point of view … She really captures the heart of the dance.”

Those who aren’t familiar with the roots of belly dancing might call it provocative or overtly sexual. While it may represent sexuality, Kelly said, it’s hardly overt. It’s historical.

“Sexuality is certainly a part of this dance,” she said. “Historically, sexuality a long time ago (in Ancient Middle East) was looked at as being sacred and was connected with giving life. Women had higher status because of this.”

Kelly feels people have overemphasized the connection between sex and the native dance.

“It’s not some sort of harem fantasy dance,” she said. “It’s not about enticing a man. True, there are some sexual overtones to the dance, because it’s originally a fertility dance to celebrate life, but there is so much more spiritual depth.”

When she dances, Kelly works nearly every limb in her body. Her arms bend as her wrists rotate. Small finger symbols chime to the beat of the music. She uses her body to move outside her center of gravity, following the natural flow of her curves and of the music.

With a constant smile, Kelly never misses a beat and has no trouble performing for 15 to 20 minutes straight.

She admits to feeling fatigued after a time, but she pushes through, she said, and remembers a crowd is watching.

Kelly said that, though she has the music and her footing memorized, she often improvises her dance depending on where she’s performing.

“You never know where a table is or who’s sitting where,” she said. “It’s important to have improv skills.”

Kelly performs at Nara Café, a hookah lounge and bar on Washington Avenue, and Sahara, a Mediterranean restaurant in Bridgeton. Though she enjoys dancing for an audience, Kelly said she tries to remember that, ultimately, she’s dancing for herself.

“I try as much as possible to command people’s attention when I’m performing,” she said. “I want to be able to give them something fun to watch, but I try to remember that I’m dancing for me.”

The owner of Nara Café, Amar Hauaemeh, said Kelly’s presence at Nara adds to the essence of the Arab culture that the café offers. Not to mention, Hauaemeh thinks quite highly of Kelly’s craft.

“When she moves, the earth stops,” he said.

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