'Raks' treats mind, belly, spirit to Middle Eastern spectacle

When people think of belly dancing, they tend to think of exotic sex appeal. However, belly dancing fuses beauty, grace, creativity, and self-confidence in a way that no other form of art can. And while Raks Odalisque, Princeton’s only belly dancing troupe, offers an incredibly sensual performance, it is also a presentation of great talent.

Raks Odalisque was founded in the spring of 2000 by a group of women who wanted to bring Middle Eastern dance to campus. Belly dancing was originally a form of folk dance intended for entertaining both sexes.

A dancer named Little Egypt first coined the term "belly dancing" as a market-ing ploy to draw audiences. The name stuck and now Americans know most Middle Eastern dances simply as belly dancing.

This year’s show —their Second Annual Middle Eastern Dance Performance — is a brightly-colored adventure through Middle Eastern folklore and American Pop. The troupe has expanded its horizons and will be using styles from, among others, Egypt, Turkey, Lebanon, and the Gulf Region.

Raks Odalisque’s first performance was for Communiversity last year, where they urged members of the community to get involved. As a result, Princeton staff members and grad students joined the troupe.

Last spring the troupe decided to perform for Princeton students in the Wilson Black Box. The reaction was extremely positive and both shows sold out quickly. As their name grew and people became more interested in Middle Eastern Dance, the troupe realized that they needed a bigger venue to showcase their talent. Frist fit the bill.

All of the belly dancing numbers being performed this year have a unique sense of purpose and beauty. Senior members of the troupe are given the responsibility of staging the choreography, which adds a youthful flare to older moves. The music ranges from classical belly dancing songs to current pop songs, such as singer Shakira’s latest hit.

The costumes are equally striking. Each routine has a different costume that accents the specific moves involoved with their brightly colored fringe belts and transparent veils that shine in the light.

The art of belly dancing is usually discounted because some believe that it objectifies women.

The troupe has learned to shake such comments off. "It allows women of all shapes and sizes to feel comfortable with their bodies," said Francesca Soria ’02, president of the troupe. She added that belly dancing empowers women of all ages; exploring the motion of their bodies affirms their beauty and sex appeal.

Soria started dancing with Raks Odalisque in the fall of her sophomore year. "I’m excited with the way that the group has developed and grown strong," she said. "Middle Eastern dance isn’t as popular as many other art forms in America, so it makes me feel proud that we’ve been able to form a successful dance troupe on such a small campus. Part of this is because the dancing is just so much fun, but I think it helps that we welcome people with little experience and find ways that they can learn and be a part of the group."

Though many of the members have backgrounds in other forms of dance such as ballet, jazz, and ice dancing, belly dancing is a field that does not require years of study in order to learn. Most of the troupe learned to belly dance simply by joining the troupe and/or by taking lessons in Dillon Gym.

Members come from a variety of cultural backgrounds, but they are united in their great respect and love for belly dancing.

Zeynep Gumus GS, from Istanbul, says belly dancing is ingrained in her culture. "Listen[ing] and danc[ing] to music from my part of the world makes me feel close to home," Gumus said. "I can share what is so dear to me with my friends here, either dancing together in the troupe, or inviting them to the shows, and I see them trying to understand and experience joy, the way I do back home. It is sort of a cultural bridge."

The troupe studies under Kim Leary, who goes by the name "Alexia of the Nile" when she is dancing. Leary has studied movement for most of her life. Her main background is in jazz, ballet, modern, Middle Eastern and Afro-Caribbean dance.

Leary started teaching belly dancing at Princeton through the Athletics and Recreation Department at Dillon Gym in 1998. Of the group, Leary said, "What started as a class once a week has developed into an official student organization. I’m just so thrilled that students are enthusiastic about this art form. Every semester, classes fill to capacity, and the troupe has now grown to 13 members."

Under Leary’s tutelage, the troupe has worked hard, enduring late night rehearsals. Raks Odalisque is dedicated to showcasing multiple forms of dance; this year’s show will also include four guest groups: a flamenco dance team from the Princeton Arts Council, Danza Espanol de Princeton, Naacho (Princeton’s Indian Dance Troupe), and a solo performance by Leary.

Belly dancing requires a connection between the audience and the performers, and the Frist stage offers such a medium. The dancers are prepared to captivate and amaze you.

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