If you think belly dance is just a bunch of hootchie-kootchie, think again. Suzanna DelVecchio, Denver’s premier teacher of Middle Eastern dance, says it’s not just some decadent strip tease performed for the amusement of aghas, pashas, and sultans.
“Actually it’s a traditional folk dance,” she said. “It may look seductive to Western eyes but in the Middle East, where the sexes are separated, it’s mainly performed for other women at wedding celebrations. Historically it may have originated as a birthing ritual.”
Her first glimmer of interest came when she read about it in a book called Getting Clear; Body Work for Women. “It was one of those ’70s self-help books,” she said, “and there was this interview in it with a belly dancer from New York. She talked about the feminine qualities of the dance and how it had empowered her. You know, ‘Dance of the Mother Goddess’ and all that stuff I was so enamored of back then.” This was in her hometown of Cincinnati, Ohio, where she was working a dead-end job at Proctor and Gamble and searching for something a little more soulful to do with her life.
One day her sister came home and told her about a Greek restaurant she’d been to that had a traditional bouzouki band called The Kakasis, and a traditional belly dancer called Basheeba. “I went there and had dinner,” DelVecchio said. “Basheeba was this blonde white girl in a beautiful costume. She had qualities in her performance that appealed to me. She was soulful, elegant, and sensual without being overtly sexual. She was an artist. As a good Catholic girl, that made it okay for me to pursue.”
Delvecchio took a few private lessons, enough to whet her appetite. It was around this time that her then husband got a job in Seattle and, of course, DelVecchio followed him out there. Six months later she ran across an article in the Seattle Times about a school called “Beledi Centre for Traditional Belly Dancing” in downtown Seattle. “It involved two ferry boat rides and a bus to get there,” she said. “But I was very serious about it.” So serious, in fact that for the next three years she took formal classes at Beledi. “I discovered that dancing improved my mood, maybe because it put me into the present moment; maybe just from the endorphins.” In the process, she also discovered her calling.
DelVecchio wound up in Denver (minus the husband), where she found work as a professional belly dancer at local clubs and Greek restaurants. To augment her income, she delivered “belly grams,” dancing at birthday parties and other celebrations. “At first I resisted the belly gram thing, because I thought it was not artistic,” she said. “But it was good money and fun trying to embarrass the guys by getting them up to dance.”
By the late 1980s, the allure of performance had begun to wear thin. “I enjoyed the dancing part,” she said, “but there was too much smoking and drinking.” So she shifted her focus to teaching, and also to producing workout videos in which she combined Middle Eastern dance moves with yoga asanas, stretch cool-downs, and deep relaxation techniques. “You’re doing movements you wouldn’t normally do,” she said, “undulating, stretching, and elongating your spine. It’s also aerobic. I think of it as the Middle Eastern equivalent of Zumba.”
Belly dance has been a satisfying career for DelVecchio. “I’ve been able to make a living at it for thirty years,” she said. “It’s allowed me to be my own boss, and given me a lot of personal freedom. It’s also a way of expressing how I’m feeling in my body in the moment. There’s a contentment and exhilaration I get when I dance. When everything comes together, believe me, it can be a peak experience.”
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