Oriental music played on drums, flutes and strings, colourful skirts and glittering tops – the classic Middle Eastern dance, commonly known as belly dancing, originated from Egypt and then gained popularity all over the world. Including Budapest.
A small room in a centre for young people… a group of teenagers standing in a circle. They have tied colourful scarves around their hips, many of which have little coins and pearls sewn on them, making a noise with every movement.
Sara Molnar is standing in the middle of the circle made up of girls and boys, trying to bring belly dancing closer to the youngsters. She has been practising the dance for years, and now she would like to pass on her passion to others as well. “It’s important to introduce different cultures and their special features to the children,” the 29-year-old explains.
Molnar began her hobby when she was 17. Sport was not her favourite; she preferred reading much more. “It was the oriental music that motivated me to begin belly dancing. The rhythm and the atmosphere really fascinated me.”
One of her friends had been dancing this style for a while in a dance studio, so Molnar simply accompanied her – and she immediately fell in love with it. “I am not only motivated by the music or the movements any more. The intensive training, which can take several hours before performance, has its appeal for me too – and of course the beautiful outfits.”
When you hear the term belly dancing you will most probably think about the usual images of oriental-style dancers dressed in colourful scarves. However, the costumes do not have to look like this – belly dancing has numerous different styles.
In addition to the classical oriental style, which involves the famous bare bellies, glittering tops and waving fabrics, there are others, such as Baladi. In this, the mostly female dancers wear golden bracelets and earrings, a headscarf and a Galabija, which is a dress tailored like a shirt with long arms and a wide skirt at the bottom.
Every style has its specific requirements for its outfits – it depends on the dancer if they stick to them or not, usually they are free to decide. However, one thing is common in all the costumes: no matter which style and tradition they belong to, they are colourful.
Hand-made instead of mass products
Budapest has shops offering complete belly dancing costumes but Molnar avoids them. “I would never get my costume there. It’s definitively better to order things directly from Egypt or to sew them yourself. In terms of pricing you have to invest a couple of hundred euros depending on the demand of the specific costume. It all comes down to the number of ornaments, since they are all sewn up by hand,” she explains.
Molnar usually orders from Egypt and then customises them herself. “On one of my costumes, which I had made in a local tailor shop, I added the ornament by my own hands. It’s a tiresome exercise but the end product is really an eye-catcher. With the ordered tailoring and using my own materials I ended up with a total cost around EUR 200.” The classic oriental outfits cost somewhat more than those with a rather folkloristic style.
“You dance with your whole body”
Of course, the youngsters in the youth centre are not wearing one of these expensive costumes, but even a simple scarf helps to get you into the mood for dancing. To appropriate background music, Molnar begins with a couple of simple movements: circling with the hips, as if drawing the shape of a number eight, while moving the arms the correct way. The individual moves are followed with steps and newer and newer moves, and a sequence is memorised.
“When you are belly dancing, you don’t only concentrate on your belly and your hips, as the name would suggest,” she says. “The whole body moves: right from the fingertips to the toes.
“You don’t have to be super-flexible for this; belly dancing is not gymnastics. Still, it’s a fair training for the whole body and it can help to ease tense muscles and build more strength. You dance with your body and not against it. Dancing is good for your body, especially for your back.”
The large number of possible moves means no one is excluded – young or old, corpulent or pregnant; If one movement is not right for you, there are plenty of alternatives.
From beginner to professional
After an hour the lesson ends. The youngsters have only had a couple of lessons up until now. Budapest is a good place for it, having many possibilities for performances and competitions.
“It’s motivating that there are so many competitions,” says Molnar. “It inspires you. You would always like to improve yourself. I did not experience this in other European cities. I was born in Stockholm, where I started learning dancing, but there were hardly any competitions for belly dancers there, and especially not for the male dancers.”
Budapest also has festivals with a focus on belly dancing – the Cairo! Festival will be held for the eighth time in May, offering workshops, concerts and competitions.
Learn from the pros
Numerous dance schools run courses in the city. One teacher is Maya Székely, Miss Belly Dance Hungary 2005, who offers courses both for beginners and advanced dancers in different styles in her studio on District VII’s Rákóczi út. One lesson costs HUF 1600.
For practising at home, internet video-sharing platforms such as YouTube offer tutorials by professional dancers or you can buy instructional DVDs.
Cairo! Festival Budapest:
Maya Székely and her dance studio:
Further dance studios: