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Belly dancer Malika Negwa reserves her talents for sisters only.
The undulating hips and seductive shimmy of a belly dancer can quickly stir up your primal impulses—but they can also get you in trouble. Last year, in Suez, Egypt, a 23-year-old male teacher who was trying to make some extra money dressed as a woman and took up a nightlife of belly dancing under the assumed name of Nellie. At a wedding party he worked one night, Nellie behaved in a way that surprised his clients—who thought they had hired a female belly dancer—and prompted them to call the cops. The police came and confiscated his wig, his falsies, and a large quantity of makeup, and took Nellie into custody.
Although belly dancing by males has begun to crop up in some parts of America—and very occasionally in the Middle East—the art remains dedicated to celebrating female energy. Born out of ancient women’s rituals and fertility ceremonies from North Africa, Persia, and India, belly dance was originally performed by women for women to entertain themselves while their husbands went to work—or to demonstrate, as in a Lamaze class, the way to roll the abdominal muscles in preparation for giving birth.
Not that there’s anything wrong with men glorying in their beer-swollen tummies. But the movements of the form relate specifically to its instrument—the female body; a belly-dancing man, if he’s not careful, can hurt himself. Perhaps that’s why, when I showed up at Joe’s Movement Emporium last summer for a belly-dancing class with a man on my arm, instructor Malika Negwa glared at us across the room to show her disapproval, causing my friend to cower uncomfortably in a corner for the rest of the evening.
Even a year later, Negwa, who lives in Ashburn, Va., still laughs when she tells the tale of two other unsuspecting guys who drifted into her class at Toast & Strawberries, a boutique in Dupont Circle, after seeing the sensuous movements going on inside. Negwa immediately asked them to leave: “I threw them out, and they were like ‘Ah, what’s going on in there?’” So she said, “It’s positive female energy; you don’t get to know.”
When her dance company, the Harem of the Queen, practices, men are forbidden to watch. And not because they would be walking into a den of debauchery with Negwa playing sultan to a handful of harem girls. Negwa defines the dance troupe she formed in 1998 by the other meanings of the word “harem”: the house or section of a house reserved for women, or the women who occupy such a place. Her company members joined Harem of the Queen after taking Negwa’s classes at the University of Maryland, the D.C. Jewish Community Center, or the D.C. Dance Collective. Now they work on improving their technique for public performances at schools, weddings, and festivals. Created under the umbrella of her nonprofit outfit, Mediterranean Images, the company uses belly dance to encourage women to love and respect themselves. In the process, Negwa creates professional opportunities for skilled Middle Eastern dancers and raises public awareness that belly dance is a classic dance, just like tap, jazz, and ballet.
On a muggy Tuesday evening before one of her big performances, Negwa fusses in the entrance to Toast & Strawberries. She’s wondering whether the costumes from Egypt will arrive on time, whether her advertising will run as she plans, and whether her company is going to put her to shame because she hasn’t had a chance to practice her own dances.
“These people and these damn tapes,” she curses as she cues up the music in a side room. Two dancers, Amber Cohen and Gladys Garcia, dressed in black bodysuits and hip scarves, find their positions on the floor for a run-through of a dance called “Ya Salam Al Balady.” As the dancers go through the routine, Negwa stops the tape.
“We need to get more attitude in this thing,” she snaps. “Because I don’t choreograph anything without attitude.” Placing her hands on Cohen’s hips, she isolates the sliding movement. “It’s not about size; it’s about quality,” she instructs. As they start the dance again, a few women rehearsing for a fashion show in the shop’s main room stop to look on and even imitate some of the moves.
At 6 feet tall, with long legs and locks, Negwa is a commanding presence. She floats across any surface with grace. Her posture turns heads; her strong, deep voice commands attention, especially her trademark greeting: “What’s up, woman?” And she presses all her assets into the service of her craft. Her 2-inch fingernails can thump thunder on the dumbeck, a special drum used to play belly-dance music—which can range from traditional percussion to a cappella to intricate Arabic popular songs.
Negwa was 6 years old when she sat, transfixed, watching I Dream of Jeannie. Her fascination with the lead character’s outfit and body stayed with her over the years as she grew up in a middle-class community in Westchester County, N.Y., and studied tap, jazz dance, and ballet.
She completed a bachelor’s degree in sociology at the College of Wooster in Ohio in 1987 and then moved to Maryland. A year later, she stumbled into her first belly-dancing class under the tutelage of Germantown instructor Veda Sereem. Over the next 12 years, Negwa studied Turkish, Egyptian, and Russian styles of the dance with nine different instructors. About two years ago, she began teaching her own Turkish-style classes around town.
But only after she finished a master’s degree in applied behavioral science at Johns Hopkins University in 1997 did she get up the gumption to tell her folks about her second career. Like most practitioners of belly dance, she says the form made her feel comfortable with herself and provided her with a sense of spiritual well-being. “I have realized that my most important—or should I say influential—instructor has been myself,” one of her press releases reads. “I’ve listened to myself and learned from my spirit how to move my body and how to express myself as I danced.”
“I have hips and I love them,” the press release continues. “The most powerful place you can dance from is exactly where you are. Insanity is thinking that if I make the same choices the outcome will be different.”
Negwa calls her particular style the “core-balance technique.” In classes, she intersperses directions for movements—three figure eights to four head slides, for example—with self-affirming principles such as the quotations she’s modified from Yoruba spiritualist and motivational speaker Iyanla Vanzant: “You already know everything being presented to you. And class is really just an opportunity you are gifting your Self so that you can be guided in remembering what was etched into your soul a long
On Sunday, June 25, Negwa dressed herself in an elaborate beaded outfit for her “2nd Annual Women’s Only Celebration,” at the Marrakesh restaurant. The building itself, on New York Avenue NW, lent an aura of mystery, its address elegantly painted in Arabic on its rich sienna door with a large brass knocker. Inside, about 50 female guests seated themselves on the soft-pillowed couches lining the pink-walled room. Waiters in red felt hats, green vests, and white pantaloons buzzed by with salad, couscous, chicken, and lamb as the Harem of the Queen took to the floor.
To a sprightly ballad sung in Arabic, Cohen, in a Cleopatra-style headpiece, darkly outlined eyes, and a blue outfit, held her head back and clinked the zills—finger cymbals—during “Egyptian Fantasy.” Garcia, dressed in red, calmly whipped about a long red veil during the “Veil Dance.” And Gabrielle Sanseverino delicately balanced a plate on top of her head for most of her performance of the “Balance Dance,” as the audience urged her on.
During breaks between dances, Negwa announced that the many outfits she kept changing into could be purchased from the “Queen’s Closet,” a large traveling bundle of stuff, which, for that night, occupied the entrance to the dining room. There, Negwa-sewn sequined hip scarves and bra tops with strands looping down from them shared space with books about belly dance and CDs of belly-dance music.
At the start of the last performance, Negwa slunk onto the floor like a cobra to perform some of her company’s numbers again and told the assembled women to examine her technique. Veiled in orange and red fabric, with large gold bracelets at her wrists, she clinked bronze zills between her thumbs and middle fingers. The audience watched in amazement as she swirled through the “Marrakesh Dance,” working herself into a frenzy, shrouding herself in the long, wide veil, which she twisted up like a miniature tornado while her cyclonic hips hurled her skirt to and fro. She reached out seductively with her long, manicured nails and created soft waves with her round belly, isolating muscles that don’t move voluntarily in people who aren’t belly dancers. Her pelvis pumped out percussion; the gold coins sewn into her hip scarf jingled with the beat of the music.
Fifteen minutes later, at the end of a four-dance set, she asked: “Any questions?”
“I want to learn to do that,” said Akosua Badu, who, along with five other volunteers, hurried to the floor as Negwa demonstrated how to do a proper shoulder shimmy. Badu struggled to stop her chest from moving at the same time she swung her hips; Negwa called on her company members to coach Badu and the other women along.
As the waiters continued to scramble about, bringing out baklava and mint tea, Negwa said, “I love it when men’s only purpose is to serve us.” CP