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Atrisco students find self-esteem in belly dance

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — When the handful of teens showed up for the first meeting of the Atrisco Heritage Academy Belly Dance team at the beginning of last school year, they weren’t sure what to expect.

Some said they wanted to check it out because it sounded different from other clubs at school.

Some said they thought it sounded like fun.

“I thought it was going to be something new,” says Randee Blue Valdez, 15, who will be a sophomore. “It’s something you don’t hear about every day.”

And with that, they became part of the Sabahat Dancers, a new belly dance team that takes its name from the word for beauty in Arabic.

The Sabahat Dancers are part of an effort to build fitness, self-esteem and artistic expression through dance, says Valerie Kovach, a special education teacher at Atrisco. The team has a slogan: “Beauty is not about how you wear your makeup or how you fix your hair but is determined by how you treat other people and how you live your life.”

While the Sabahat Dancers belly dance club is new to Atrisco Heritage Academy High School, the art form has been around for a very long time, even in the Duke City.

Amaya, a professional dancer in Albuquerque, who danced at the Sabahat Dancers’ spring performance in May, explains that belly dance has gained wide popularity in the United States since the World’s Fair in 1893. It’s a Middle Eastern dance for women by women, she says.

Over the years, the dance has evolved to incorporate a number styles. For example, Amaya, who incorporates flamenco into her belly dance performances, says she’s been belly dancing since the 1970s and has seen its many changes through the years. One of those changes is the involvement of young women and girls.

“It’s a real fresh feeling toward the dance,” Amaya says.

Her students at a weekly class at the Manzano Mesa Multigenerational Center in southeast Albuquerque range from as young as 3 years old, to one who is an octogenarian.

Johanna James, 83, attends the weekly class at Manzano Mesa, and says she picked up belly dancing classes about seven years ago. She enjoys taking the classes to help keep her limber. It also is a way for her “to stay in touch with her family’s traditions,” as her late husband was Syrian, she says.

Amaya also sees moms and daughters attend the Manzano Mesa classes, not just the 40 year olds, as it used to be.

“It’s really refreshing to see that,” she says.

The Sabahat Dancers hosted their first springtime Belly Dance Showcase at Atrisco in May. The team is planning a fall show, as well. Students are raising funds to hire a professional belly dancer to teach moves, Kovach says.

Natalie Mathis, who owns Isalang Studios Belly Dance & More, says she’s in the planning stages of organizing monthly belly dance workshops for the students at Atrisco Heritage. She says belly dance is excellent for building confidence no matter the shape of the body.

“No matter how strong or weak you are … (belly dance) helps posture, breathing and everyday life.”

And, she dances with her small daughters every day.

Overcoming struggles

Throughout last school year, Kovach watched as the teens in the belly dance club struggled and grew. Kovach says her students’ challenges range from having dyslexia to having suffered traumatic brain injuries. Some of the girls have parents who are suffering from illnesses or are working several jobs. Some of the students also either help take care of their siblings or work at part-time jobs to help the family make ends meet.

What all the girls had in common was that they were in need of a self-confidence boost, Kovach says. And by the end of the school year, those who may have had trouble with grades made dramatic strides. (They have to keep their grades up to be a part of the team.)

About 20 percent of the students in the group are in special education, Kovach says.

“There are wonderful things that happen in schools nowadays to help the futures of children that have nothing to do with scores on standardized tests,” Kovach wrote in an email. “Our school is one of those poverty area schools that just does not score well because the kids are dealing with lots of things and many are learning academic English …”

For these students, Kovach says, belly dancing speaks to that need for self-expression.

She encourages the girls to nurture each other, and tells them about the importance of building friendships with other young women.

On a Friday afternoon in May, inside the performing arts building at Atrisco, more than a dozen teens – some there for the first time and looking forward to being a part of the team this coming school year – gathered for rehearsal for the next night’s show.

A tune that blends a Middle Eastern sound with a hip-hop backbeat blared through the sound system, and the dancing began.

Before she joined the team, Natalie Campos, 16, says she didn’t know anything about belly dance, aside from it being a good way to exercise.

Belly dance “has boosted my self-esteem,” says Campos, who will be a senior next school year.

She heard about the club during an announcement over the loud speakers at school. The costumes and the tribal feel of the dance also drew her in, Campos says.

“It just calls me in,” she says.

“Belly dance is traditional. I’m drawn to everything that is traditional,” Campos says.

On that day, the jingling sound of the coin belts wrapped around their hips emanated throughout the theater. The dance team sparkled as they shimmied and shook up on the stage in the otherwise quiet theater during rehearsal. Among the other songs they danced to were “Wind it Up” by Gwen Stefani and “Battle Scars,” an edgy hip-hop/rap song about broken relationships by Lupe Fiasco and Guy Sebastian.

Melding influences

So when Amaya says that anything goes with the music, she’s right.

“Oh my goodness the music has changed,” Amaya says.

When she started out belly dancing in the disco era, her repertoire was limited to whatever handful of vinyl she and her friends had of Middle Eastern music.

“We all had the same albums,” she says.

With the advent of iTunes, “tons of music” is out there – and belly dancers aren’t using only traditional sounds. They incorporate techno, electronic and world beats.

“It doesn’t have to be old-style Middle Eastern songs,” she says.

The main ingredient in mixing it up with belly dance is “the music has to move you,” Amaya says.

Wearing a glittery, gold halter top and diaphanous dance pants, Paloma Nieto Marquez, 15, who will be a sophomore in the fall, says she likes the idea of melding hip-hop dance moves into the flowing moves of belly dance to get more “wows from the audience.”

And, she says, belly dance makes her forget her worries.

“It helps me to have a healthy mind, keeps me in shape,” Marquez says.

Amaya concurs. Belly dance builds self-confidence, affirmation and is a good cardio workout, she says.

“It can change your life totally,” she says. “It changed my life.”

Amaya never formally trained in dance but loved to dance. Belly dance gave her confidence to “be an artist and a business woman,” she says.

When she began belly dancing, dancers wore what Amaya refers to as “nightclub costuming”: a full skirt, a bra, a veil, a hip coin belt and finger cymbals.

The 1990s ushered in the wearing of pants. It also was the passing of using the finger cymbals, Amaya says.

Now, “the sky’s the limit” in the world of belly dance.