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Connecting the Soul, the Brain and the Belly

Dance: OCC will host an academic and practical conference on the Mideastern form of expression.


Belly dance: Artless nightclub entertainment for the lusty who like to tuck rumpled bills into veiled ladies' sequined bikinis, right?

Try again, insist organizers of this weekend's International Conference on Middle Eastern Dance, who want to shout the message that belly dancing is closer to ballet than barrooms.

"Many of the movements are so sensual and sexual," says conference organizer Angelika Nemeth, "but unless you understand the dance in its cultural context, you focus only on the sexual aspect."

Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa, where Nemeth has taught the ancient dance form since 1977, will host the Friday-through-Sunday conference.

Large Middle Eastern dance events are held around the country, but none, according to Nemeth, takes an academic approach. "As far as we know, this has never been done," she said.

The event is titled "Into the Next Millennium" and will feature panels of academics, influential experts and practitioners from around the world. They'll discuss such topics as terminology, documentation and preservation, the development of Oriental dance in the United States and on the West Coast (by two leading proponents of Middle Eastern dance in the U.S., Ibrahim Farrah and Jamila Salimpour) and development of the art form into the next century.

Keynote speaker Andrea Deagon, who directs the Classical Studies Program at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington, will address mythology and symbolism in Middle Eastern dance on Saturday morning.

Traditional folkloric dances will be staged, and Cairo resident Mona El Said, one of Egypt's star belly dancers, will teach master classes and perform with an Egyptian orchestra in a public concert Saturday night.

Egypt, Turkey and Lebanon are major centers of modern-day belly dancing, although it is practiced throughout the Middle East, Nemeth said, as well as around the United States.

Theories about its centuries-old origins differ, but one controversial stance holds that it developed in matriarchal societies in relation to goddess worship, said Nemeth, who trained in Egypt and who dances frequently at Luxor, a nightclub in Orange.

"The ancient goddesses were worshiped because women, who bore the future generations, were venerated," she said. "Many belly dancing movements focus on the pelvic and abdominal regions."

All movement starts "from the earth, then moves through through the feet, then into the abdomen area and up from there," she said. "Your hands are kept very soft, but strong. The most important thing is the expression, your feeling. If a dancer dances without feeling, she doesn't dance."

This means expressing the joy or sadness in the rhythmic, sensual music, Nemeth said, and endeavoring to make the music visible by responding to a flute with fluid and sensual movements, or imitating a drum with hip shimmies.

"Music is such an integral part of [an Arab's] life, and it reaches a deep core within them. It is the way to the soul in all cultures. So as a dancer, I'm tuned into my music--I'm not thinking I'm going to seduce someone."

Nemeth has been instrumental in establishing a strong Middle Eastern dance program at OCC. She began producing small recitals there a dozen years ago and concerts now draw about 600, she said. She teaches about 100 students each semester.

"We want the public to realize that this is a beautiful art form," she said, "that it takes years of training to be good at this, and that it has a rightful place on a [college or university] dance curriculum."

* The International Conference on Middle Eastern Dance, Friday through Sunday at Orange Coast College, 2701 Fairview Road, Costa Mesa. Panels, classes and performances. Concert featuring Mona El Said of Cairo will be held at 8 p.m. Saturday at the Robert B. Moore Theatre. Advanced tickets for the concert are $23 to $50; $35 at the door. Andrea Deagon gives the keynote speech Saturday at 9 a.m. in Room 119 in the Fine Arts Hall. Admission to all conference events, including reserved concert seating, $290. Admission to individual panels and classes ranges from $35 to $75. (714) 432-5880.

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