Inez Ponce de Leon - Artist, Writer, Scholar, Educator

Inez's Diary: Bellyfest 2013, T -23 Days: My Life as a Belly Dancer

I first started training as a belly dancer in 2009. I was going through a rigorous PhD program in the States, under an insane amount of stress, and needing a way to get away from the winter blues. I thought it would be a simple, effortless way of getting exercise and letting my adrenaline flow. I thought it would be an easy exercise regimen that I could turn into a hobby.

Years later, I am teaching belly dance, performing it, and giving workshops. What I once thought was mere exercise has turned into a full-time job. I still teach in the academe, and I still do research the way that a person with a doctorate would; but I have belly dancing on top of all of it. Or, more precisely, I have belly dancing to see me through all the new kinds of stress coming my way

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There are many things that draw me to the dance: there's the challenge of the moves, which are really more difficult than they look; there's the history of it, which makes me feel like I'm part of a multi-national, multi-generational project; and there's the community.

Back in the States, my troupe and I performed in front of parents, friends, and relatives. While it was exciting and gratifying to bring belly dance to our audience, we enjoyed performing in front of our fellow dancers. This audience of peers really put the "unity" in "community": our fellow dancers would cheer through the entire song, they would applaud sincerely and excitedly, and they would talk to us and congratulate us after.

Mind you, this was no empty giving of compliments; and we didn't dance just to feed our egos. Every dance was a way to tell our fellow dancers that we respected the art, and that we respected them. Every dance allowed us to speak a language that we all understood. Every dance was a way to put into practice what we had learned in the classroom, from the movements to the muscle control, from the stage presence to the fire that had to burn in every breath.

We supported each other, laughed and danced the night away, and became friends. We came in all shapes, ages, and sizes. No one cared if you were a size 0 or 24; younger dancers were respected, older dancers were revered. We had teenagers showing their talents, and grandmothers telling a lifetime of stories through dance. It didn't matter what you looked like: the only people that the community ousted were those that were self-centered, unreasonably critical, and arrogant.

Being part of an open, welcoming community humbles you. Being part of a community changes you.

It is a community that I truly miss to this day; but it is a community that is growing slowly, here in the Philippines, at home. Every year, belly dancers come to the Bellyfest, which is now on its 7th year. Together, they attend workshops, catch up on each other's lives, and yes, support the local belly dance community. Without this support, belly dancing is in danger of becoming an ego trip; a closed, confining space; an art that feeds on arrogance.

Without an audience of fellow dancers, we dancers also lose the chance to receive constructive criticism that could help us improve our craft. It could come in the form of conversations with fellow dancers; or a workshop from an international star; or a performance that inspires us to explore new ways of turning the age-old dance into a thing of constantly changing beauty.

This year, the Bellyfest 2013 will be held at the Irwin Theater on the Ateneo de Manila University campus. Groups, troupes, and soloists will come together for an evening of performances. Kami Liddle, an internationally-recognized belly dancer from the USA, is billetted as both the workshop instructor and star of the show. Bellyfest is not just a showcase: it is a chance for belly dancers to share the stage with a star, and a chance to share our knowledge of the craft with each other.

The biggest star of the show is the belly dance community. It thrives on the unity of its dancers, and our willingness to share our knowledge and love of the craft. And the spirit of belly dance lives on, long after the stage lights have been turned off, and the curtains have gone down. It is a spirit of community, of continuity, of history.

The Bellyfest is a way to speak the language of a thousand years. We hope you'll come and join the conversation.

This year's Bellyfest will be held on September 6-8, 2013. The Grand show will be on September 7, Saturday, at the Henry Lee Irwin Theater, Ateneo de Manila University. Gates open at 7 PM. Tickets are at PhP 700 each. Kami Liddle will perform at the show and teach workshops as well. Please visit www.bellyfest.asiapad.com for more details about the workshops. We hope to see you at Bellyfest 2013!