Atlanticville, NJ Aug 18 2005
Sharing the art and beauty of 'undulating' Belly dancing is emotional, communicative, dignified, Zarouhi says BY SUE M. MORGAN Staff Writer
SUE MORGAN Photo: Professional belly dancer and instructor Zarouhi shows her students how to move to the beat of Egyptian folk music and dance with colorful, swirling veils during one of her classes.
To be a good belly dancer requires soulful expression using isolations of circular and undulating movements of the body, according to Zarouhi, a professional dance artist.
"A good belly dancer must express life, death, happiness, sorrow, love and anger, but above all she must have dignity," Zarouhi said, quoting Tahia Carioca, a famous Egyptian dancer in the 1950s.
Carioca's words contrast with the image of belly dancing that Zarouhi, named for her great-grandmother, grew up with as a child in an Armenian family living in Bergen County.
In those days, her uncles would often gossip and snicker over certain belly dancers they had seen perform in New York City nightclubs. The album covers of the Middle Eastern music associated with belly dancing that she enjoyed listening to at home often featured photographs of scantily dressed women, creating the impression that the dance itself was scandalous at best.
Yet Zarouhi, while training in ballet, tap, jazz and other techniques, still thought outside of the harem when it came to watching belly dancers perform. Rather, she perceived its undulations of stomach and hips as emotional, communicative, graceful, and most of all beautiful. And yes, dignified.
Today, Zarouhi, known informally as "Z," is convinced she had it right all along. The Fair Haven resident now shares Carioca's words with her students who come to learn how to circle their hips slowly, take a step at a time while allowing a long veil to flow behind them, and even walk like a camel.
"Belly dance is my life and breath," Zarouhi said. "This is my passion."
Having studied and performed belly dancing since the 1970s on both coasts with a variety of nationally and internationally known dance artists, choreographed routines, and even judged competitions, Zarouhi now instructs women from all walks of life to grab a hip scarf and long veil, pick up the finger cymbals and move to the rhythms of various stringed instruments and drums.
Students come to her classes, now offered at Fair Haven's Go Figure 4U and other facilities, mainly for exercise, but also to let go of stress and to enjoy moving to the music, Zarouhi said.
"I'm passing on and presenting an art form," said Zarouhi, who also performs at nightclubs, private parties, weddings, and other venues. "It's learning to move your body in response to different sounds."
One class description written by Zarouhi indicates that students learn how to use the entire body in harmony with music and respond emotionally to the drumbeats and instruments they hear. Belly dancing in short "leads to increased flexibility, agility, stamina, grace, and generally tones the body," the course description reads.
"Whatever you want, we welcome you to class," Zarouhi said. "Students come in all shapes and sizes and come from all ethnic backgrounds and are all ages."
Unlike some exercise classes, prospective students do not need any dance or athletic training. Nor do would-be students necessarily look like they spend all their time working out at a commercial gym, Zarouhi explained.
"I've even taught men," Zarouhi said.
To give them more of an authentic feel, students wear decorative, colorful hip scarves with hanging silver or gold coins that jingle when the dancers perform certain steps. Later in the course, Zarouhi also adds in work with finger cymbals and of course the flowing veils. Her technique and style are Egyptian, she added.
While six of her advanced students have begun performing locally in public for family and friends, Zarouhi understands that everyone who comes to her classes has a different goal.
"I want my students to be the best they can be," she said.
The dance's isolated movements touch many of the body's nerve endings, which makes it a way of relieving stress and reviving energy, Zarouhi points out.
"It uses so many parts of your body," she said. "It transcends energy throughout your body."
Even if students begin a class stressed out from work, parenting and other responsibilities, they usually leave an hour later feeling more alert and energetic, Zarouhi pointed out
"It touches you and emotionally awakens you," she said.
Despite her nearly 30 years of study, and unlike ballet or tap, there is no known formal certification for belly dance, said Zarouhi, whose personal training with internationally known artists provides her background.
The term "belly dancing" comes from the French "du ventre" meaning "of the stomach," a reference to the undulating, in-and-out movements made by the dancer's waistline, Zarouhi explained.
Professional dancers often use the term "danse orientale" in homage to the times when the Middle Eastern portion of Asia was once considered part of the larger Orient and the Far East, she said.
Before learning belly dance, Zarouhi trained also in Afro Caribbean, East Indian and other international dances. Yet it was when she performed in an Armenian song-and-dance ensemble that the young artist's love and curiosity about belly dance was awakened.
One night, as a member of the ensemble, Zarouhi shared the stage with Rafael and Juliana, New York City's top belly-dancing team at that time, who caused quite a stir.
While attending a party months later, Zarouhi watched awestruck as a beautiful blonde undulated to Middle Eastern music "in a way I'd never seen."
Upon inquiring as to the dancer's identity, Zarouhi learned that the performer was a belly dancer who was famous in her native France.
"I knew I had to dance that way," Zarouhi said of the French dancer.
Many years of practicing yoga turned out to be instrumental in creating movements called "embellishments," while learning the actual belly dance steps, Zarouhi said.
Street fairs, concerts, dance festivals and Renaissance fairs on the West Coast offer more outlets for professional and amateur belly dancers, said Zarouhi, who returned to New Jersey five years ago. Through teaching and performing, she hopes to raise awareness of the art form and see similar venues for the dance come about outside of New York City.
Joining with several of the musicians that accompany her performances, Zarouhi and business partner Chris Marashlian of Toms River have formed Creative Artists Productions, as a means of promoting belly dancing and the rhythmic music that features bass guitar, violins and Middle Eastern instruments such as the oud, kanoon, and the tabla, a type of drum.
On Tuesday, the company will showcase Zarouhi, her six advanced students, and another professional dancer known as Aisha in an evening of "Middle Eastern Music and Dance," featuring Marashlian, a bass guitarist, and other musicians at Elements at 1072 Ocean Avenue in Sea Bright. The event, running from 6:30 to 10:30 p.m., is open to the public; tickets are available from Z@creativeartistsproductions.com.
Creative Artists is now working on a compact disc of Middle Eastern music, which can be used by belly dance students.
And now, it is Zarouhi who is on the cover, Marashlian said.
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