Empowering Women through Dance

by Caroline Higgins
photo by Jill Kingsbury Photography


Sarah Mayne has made it her personal mission to have belly dancing be an accepted art form and exercise platform in the oftentimes conservative-minded Grand Rapids. “The community is tremendous,” explains Mayne, “[but] there is a resistance to the term.”

Mayne, who has been belly dancing for decades and opened her own studio in 2003, is referring to
the misconception that the purpose of belly dancing is to be sexually provocative. In fact, the dance originated as an important part of folk festivals, meaning it was intended to be performed in a
family setting.

Sarah Mayne, who founded Bellydance Grand Rapids, shares her infatuation with the dance began when seeing barefoot women dancing at a tribal festival in Oregon. She fell for the fluidity of the dancers movements, comparing the way they moved to a cartoon.

Tucked away on the second floor of the business section that houses Global Infusions and Clothing Matters, BellyDance Grand Rapids is bright and spacious, and the studio windows are draped with long, colorful cloths. Above the streets, a visitor already feels as though they are in a world separate from that which they have come. Available for purchase inside the studio are various beads and bracelets, many of which Mayne has collected during her globetrotting days, when she traveled to several countries to see dances performed and to learn more about her passion.

In West Michigan, women are curious to the community of belly dancing. “Our policy is one of no competition,” Mayne explains. Belly dancing empowers women to use their bodies to accomplish a skill and “to dance through the dark places of life.” The dancer compared the spiritual and healing aspect of the dance to that found in the practice of yoga, a skill which you develop gradually in a “come as you are” atmosphere.

Another advocate for the preservation of the art form is Joette Sawall, artistic director of the West Michigan School of Middle Eastern Dance in Kalamazoo. “Women come in for a feeling of healing, sisterhood, community and exploring something different,” Sawall says, echoing Mayne’s sentiments about the togetherness that belly dancing inspires. “They do what I call social fitness. In the Middle East, [where belly dancing originated] women would come and belly dance for other women.” Feeling uncoordinated and laughing at yourself is all part of the process.

As belly dancing is a performance art, many local belly dancers also dance for an audience at local venues and festivals.

The key to belly dancing is isolation, or moving only one part of your body at a time. In order to move your hips, or do the popular “thigh-shimmy” one must keep all other areas of their body completely still. This control of movement is both a discipline and a challenge that results in a full-body workout.

To learn more about Belly Dance Grand Rapids and signing up for classes at www.bellydancegrandrapids.com

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Caroline Higgins lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan and is a freelance writer and photographer. You can find her eclectic musings online at carolinenoelle.wordpress.com.