German oriental dancer Eva tells us that you need not be aggressive to be strong
First comes the shimmer, next the sequins and then the sensual moves. The minute the lights come on, there is the slow shimmying of the waist and the sashaying of the hips.
Belly dancing, as oriental dance has been popularly dubbed, is seen as exotic, seductive and even salacious. But to the woman performing it, it is a dance of discovery. As with Eva Stehli-Attia, international belly dancer from Germany. “When I’m on the stage, I start to live,” she says with a gasp of exhilaration, putting her hands up in the air. “I am not performing, I’m simply enjoying myself.”
Sporting a silver bindi and silver anklets, Eva is in India for the fourth time. The dancer and instructor who has performed for over 25 years in Asia, Europe and Africa is in Puducherry for a month, learning Odissi from danseuse Sangeetha Dash. “Odissi and oriental dance somehow fit together,” she says seamlessly transitioning from a shimmying move to a graceful swing, which she performed at the Aurodhan gardens here.
The Bollywood connection
Odissi is only one in the long line of dances she has dabbled in. For Eva fell in love with India even before she set foot in the country. The reason? Bollywood, of course. “A student of mine who was searching for dance music brought a CD to watch in my studio — it was full of Bollywood dance clips. When I watched it, I felt ‘Wow! The movements, the costumes and the music!’ I was hooked,” she laughs. On a Bollywood movie-watching spree since 2004 — Devdas, Asoka and the like — she occasionally mixes B-town moves with belly dancing.
Travelling to India came later. Eva who has performed and conducted workshops in Indian cities feels the older generation may hold a conservative view about belly dancing, but things are changing in the metros. “The younger generation, mostly in their twenties, are seeing it as a fun way to relax and exercise.”
The dance has always been a form of self-expression since the time when veiled women and children in Egypt danced in their private courtyards. “When I perform at a party, it is usual for men to sit up in anticipation,” Eva says, imitating a reaction. “But it is women who stay glued for hours. There is a tendency to see the dance as erotic, but belly dancing is more about women enjoying themselves, discovering their bodies and revelling in their freedom.”
Eva’s fascination for oriental dance stemmed from her training in Greek folk dance. She later travelled to Egypt to learn the Arabic Raks Sharaqi, and lived there while married to an Egyptian briefly. “In Egypt, the music is always live, and with many instruments, including pipes and tambourines. A rich dancer can have up to 40 musicians in her troupe.”
But what was once considered exotic and rare is no more so in the age of the Internet, where YouTube and Google bring belly dancing to people at the click of the mouse, rues Eva, who started out in the 1980s. “The rapid growth of belly dancing in Europe has helped create a platform for oriental dance in the West — there are more contests, bigger shows and dancers can make a livelihood out of it.” However, the downside is there is a precocious maturing of dance rather than a slow growth through experience. “Anybody can learn the techniques but it takes time to reach the soul of the dance. As a dancer, I open up peoples’ feelings. I must make the audience experience my joy or melancholy,” explains Eva. The dance is vastly improvisational, based on mood and atmosphere. Candidly calling herself no longer young, she smiles, “I find I get better as I grow older.”
Sometimes, in the race to survive in an unequal world, women may lose touch with their inherent femininity, feels Eva. Oriental dance is a reminder in such times that “You need not be aggressive to be strong. You can be a woman, embrace your femininity and yet be strong.”