Christine Lawrence had always believed belly dancing was solely for the titillation of men, originating in female slavery. So when she was invited to a taster session with the Awakened Belly Dance group, she tried to keep an open mind.
On a cold Saturday afternoon in November, I arrived at the Community Centre and was directed up the stairs to the function room. I’d last been here some ten years ago and it had been full of head-banging teens. I shuddered at the thought of gyrating my hips in a room full of people I hardly knew.
I felt much better when I entered a room that had been prepared by Fiona, the Awakened Belly Dance group leader. I could smell the sage she was using to clear negative energies from the air. Fiona has a welcoming smile and a relaxed manner which put myself and the other women present at ease.
The session started with us introducing ourselves and discussing our expectations. Fiona explained what Awakened Belly Dancing was all about – more on this soon – and then the physical part of the workshop began. We were invited to sit on the floor in a circle, but myself and one other participant had mobility issues – the problem of being able to get down, but not up again so easily. We were offered chairs instead. After a short meditation, we got on our feet and began moving to the music. A lot of giggling went on as Fiona took us through movements designed to work on each of the body’s main chakras or energy centres. Each centre resonated to different pieces of music from across the world, used by women from various non-Western cultures.
Fiona led us gently through the range of movements, which felt to me like flowing through a journey of dance. Soon the inhibitions I’d had at the start of the session dropped away and I found myself relaxing, smiling to the other women, and they were smiling back. The outside world was no longer important as I felt the healing of the music and the movement. The effect was that much more powerful in a group.
We worked together in pairs, and altogether as a group, using the space in the room for free expression. The two-hour session flew by and soon we were back, sitting in a circle, ‘grounding’ the experience and sharing with each other how it had gone for for us individually. The other participants reported a range of experiences, including: ‘fun’; ‘joy’; ‘love’; ‘relaxing’; ‘sisterly’; ‘feeling grounded and part of a larger, greater whole’; and ‘full of energy’.
I left the room feeling serene and a sense of belonging to the group. I was looking forward to more of the same. My co-participants were varied in age, ranging from sixteen to sixty – we were all of different shapes, sizes and abilities and from all walks of life, but in that room we were all the same, linked by the dance.
So what is Awakened Belly Dance, and how is it different from the regular belly dancing that we may see advertised in local evening classes, or go to watch when on holiday in Middle Eastern countries?
I was fortunate enough to meet Katie Holland, creator of Awakened Belly Dance, who taught our workshop leader, Fiona, how to pass on its pleasures to others. Katie began her career as a commercial belly dancer before teaching workshops on the technique for nine years in India, where she also performed at Bollywood weddings, birthdays, film premieres and corporate events in partnership with companies such as Google, Vodaphone and Moët & Chandon. These gigs paid well but were irregular.
Over these years, she studied classical Indian dance, osho dynamic meditation, (Hindu) Gurdjieff sacred movement and Nepalese Buddhist classical dance. She began to combine these new disciplines with her interest in therapeutic dance, which she’d studied at graduate level at Leicester University some years before. The result was Awakened Belly Dance, which Katie devised as an important healing tool for women allowing them to express themselves and bring balance back into their lives.
But how does it work? According to Katie, the aim is to use dance moves, breaths and visualisation to work on the chakras in order to release or clear blockages and leave space for new healing energy to come in. The theory is based on ancient teachings including Buddhism, Hindu and ancient Egyptian alchemy. When dancing, you should worry less about what you look like and more about how it makes you feel – it takes the focus from outside of the person to inside.
Fiona told me about Awakened Belly Dancing’s direct benefits for women suffering from specific conditions. She runs regular sessions with women with post-natal depression and anxiety who belong to the Respond group in Portsmouth, run by midwife Julie Whitehead. Fiona asks the mothers to put their babies in slings so they can dance with them. The mother and baby feel bonded and connected when they dance together and this expression of loving emotion is crucial to the healing process.
Whilst the workshops are predominantly for women, they are not exclusively so. Fiona is keen to hold workshops for men and Katie has taught transgender participants.