Belly dancer Joy Rayman loves to improvise during a performance. During a recent gig at McGuffey Art Center, she was completely absorbed in the music, snaking her arms and undulating her hips, when she felt her coin belt loosen. Not wanting to pause and interrupt the flow of the dance, she kept moving. The belt loosened more before sliding down over her costume and hitting the floor with a metallic jingle. Not missing a beat, Rayman stepped over the belt and, with a sassy flick of her foot and toss of her curly dark hair, kicked it into the crowd behind her.
The spectators loved it, Rayman recalls, and their delight only stoked the fires fueling her dance.
“I want to express how the music is making me feel, and I want to bring people in to what I’m feeling,” Rayman says. And there’s nothing better than when an audience is willing to go along on that determined journey.
Rayman performs with Barbara Frost as Fire in the Belly, an American tribal-style belly dance troupe founded by Susan Nicholson in 2000. Over the years, the troupe has featured as many as six dancers, but Rayman and Frost have been a duet for about six years. They’ve performed at various IX Art Park events, Floyd Fest, with local band Accordion Death Squad, and even at a belly dance convention in Ukraine.
At first, Fire in the Belly performed mostly coordinated group improvisational dances, where one dancer leads the group through a series of cues that tell the rest of the dancers how to move. It’s a grand effect, says Rayman, but it’s one that can be difficult to perform with dancers of different backgrounds and abilities.
Rayman took over as Fire in the Belly director in 2003, and around that time the group started to explore other styles of belly dance—such as tribal fusion belly dance, a Western style of dance that combines American tribal style and American cabaret belly dances with a bit of hip-hop and popping—and incorporates movements from other forms, such as flamenco.
They also started to branch out musically. Instead of dancing exclusively to Middle Eastern or North African music, Rayman began choreographing routines to jazz tunes, James Brown and Andrew Bird’s Bowl of Fire.
All of this is to say that Fire in the Belly keeps things interesting; they’re not likely to perform the same dance twice.
True belly dancing is a lot harder than it looks—dancers train with teachers for years to learn, master and perfect their technique and style. Tossing on a coin belt and dancing in front of a fire doth not a belly dancer make.
Rayman studied with a South Carolina- based belly dancer before studying with Suhalia Salimpour, a well-known belly dancer on the West Coast. Frost studied with Rayman for years before joining Fire in the Belly.
First, a dancer must learn to separate the movement of her upper body from that of her lower body. This is done by isolating muscle groups, keeping some muscles still while others move. A dancer should be able to undulate her hips without moving a muscle in her shoulders, or work her arms through the air without circling her hips. Once she’s mastered the separation of movement, she can begin to join the movements together.
It’s like playing the piano or the harp, where each hand plays a different layer of a piece of music, says Rayman: The hips can express the rhythm while the arms and ribcage express the melody.
Rayman says she feels both “vulnerable and really empowered” when she dances. When she first steps out onto the dance floor, costumed and ready to dance, she says “all of these insecurities” come up—she thinks about choreography and wonders how the audience will react to the dance.
“I always remember that I have to dance for myself first, and then I start to relax into it and it just flows,” says Rayman, who moves through space with such feeling and finesse it’s hard to imagine she’s ever felt insecure in her life.
But still, belly dancing “has this misconception of being like stripping, and that’s a really hard thing to break,” Rayman says. She recalls a number of Fire in the Belly performances at the now-shuttered Al Hamraa restaurant where customers—usually young, college-age women—would look away in what appeared to be embarrassment.
An uneasy audience can make for a difficult dance, says Rayman, because dancers tend to play off of a crowd’s energy. If the crowd seems insecure, the dancer will, in turn, feel insecure, assuming her art is not fully appreciated. Rayman imagines they’re thinking, “Am I supposed to watch this?”
Yes, you are. Please watch, Rayman wants you to know. Take in the compelling motions of the dance that mimic the most natural movements—seaweed swaying in the tide, a breeze blowing softly over the dunes or a camel’s slow, deliberate walk.
Belly dancing is “about sensuality, it’s about feeling,” and, ultimately, she says, it’s a way of saying, “I’m still vital, I’m still here.” It’s a way to indulge in and express the emotion and the physicality of life.
Fire in the Belly performs as part of The Dance Spot’s show at The Haven on June 11. Want to learn how to belly dance or play finger cymbals? Learn from Rayman on Monday nights at 6:30pm at The Dance Spot (above Jack Brown’s).