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Shimmies and Snake Arms: Belly Dance in New Orleans

A vibrant local belly dance scene offers many opportunities both for seeing performances and attending classes.

Snake Oil (photo courtesy of Kryss Statho)
Belly dancers perform at Snake Oil Festival. (Photo courtesy of Kryss Statho)

Belly dance, as it is commonly known in the United States, is the umbrella term for the many types of dances, primarily by and for women, that originated throughout the Middle East, North Africa, and Central Asia. While the exact details of its emergence are contested, it is generally understood that these traditional dances played an important role in tribal rituals such as weddings and other celebrations.

Modern belly dance has evolved into something of a spectacle, a performance art open to women and men alike– both as performers and spectators. A variety of styles have emerged including Oriental (officially called Egyptian Raqs Sharqi), Vintage Orientale/American Cabaret, American Tribal Style (ATS), International Tribal Style (ITS), and Tribal Fusion.

In New Orleans, the belly dance scene has evolved over the years, says local dancer Kryss Statho.

“When is started, there was really only Oriental Dance, and ATS was just starting to catch on here,” Statho says. “There were only a couple places to see belly dancers.”

Today, though, several forms are popular, including ITS and vintage-style Oriental, she says.

Belly dance class. (Photo courtesy Karla Marie Fine Art Photography)

Similar to New Orleans’ multi-faceted cuisine, belly dance in the city now features “a lot of ‘fusion’,” says local belly dancer Kerry Lynn Sieff. It’s also a distinct art form from burlesque, circus, and side show.

With the growing belly dance scene locally, there are many opportunities both for seeing performances and attending classes. Most local classes are “drop-in” based and occur throughout the week across the city. Performances often occur on the weekends across a variety of venues from Uptown to the French Quarter.

Belly dance is ultimately both an art form and an exploration of other cultures. Dallal believes that “we can use this dance to reach out to our sisters, across racial, ethnic and religious lines, dance together, and learn about one another.” Ultimately, she says, “it has the potential to create peace.”

New Orleans Belly Dance Teachers & Classes

Belly Dancer Tamalyn Dallal (photo credit: Denise J. Marino Photography)

Tamalyn Dallal – Dallal, who began studying the art of belly dance in 1977 right here in New Orleans, has since traveled the world performing in 43 countries and learning directly from the cultures from which it emerged. Despite her decades of experience, including performing for the likes of Madonna, Michael Jackson, King Abdullah of Jordan, and Sean Connery, she says she’s still learning. “We are students as long as we are dancing,” she says.

Dallal’s classes and workshops tend to emphasize not only the dance itself but also its roots, helping to foster a respect of belly dance traditions. “Erasing the Middle Eastern roots of the dance does it a disservice,” she says. Visit Dallal’s website for information on current classes.

Belly dance is ultimately both an art form and an exploration of other cultures.

The Shimmy Shakti Troupe. (Courtesy photo)

Karla Marie Cochran – Originally from Honduras and a lifelong dancer, Cochran began studying belly dance when she was displaced from New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. By a happy coincidence, she happened upon Dallal’s studio in Miami and has been belly dancing now for about twelve years and teaching for nine. Locally, Cochran channels her energy toward teaching classes and leading the Shimmy Shakti Troupe. To Cochran, “belly dance is about discovery, it’s about falling in love with your soul, it’s about having the freedom to breath and dance in your own light and appreciating your body.”

Cochran’s classes focus primarily on the Oriental style of belly dance, but she also spends select classes delving into fusion styles. Her classes are warm and welcoming, and she supports her students in building confidence in their bodies. She urges those interested to try belly dance – and stick with it.

“Technique is difficult,” she says. “It challenges your mind and body, and it forces you to stare at yourself and look at your curves and fall in love with them — a challenging process for most, but a positive one.” View the full schedule here. Contact Cochran for more information.

Local belly dancer Kerry Lynn Sieff. (Courtesy photo)

Kerry Lynn Sieff – Sieff, a lifelong dancer, has spent decades exploring various forms of belly dance. Her background is primarily in Classical Egyptian Cabaret, but she also studies other styles including Eastern European folkloric styles. She performs regularly at festivals, parties, and weddings, in addition to teaching classes in the Marigny.

Sieff’s classes drill techniques and typically spend half of the class learning a unique choreography. In addition to often explaining where in the world certain belly dance moves originated, she incorporates music from around the world into each class giving students a multi-dimensional view of cultures in the Middle East, North Africa, and in particular what Sieff calls “the Gypsy Road.” Check Sieff’s website for details on upcoming classes and new series. Contact her for more information.

Kryss Statho – The owner of Crescent Lotus Dance Studio, Statho has been involved in the New Orleans belly dance scene for twenty-three years. She mostly practices a mix of Theatrical Belly Dance with a foundation in Egyptian and Turkish Oriental, Vintage Oriental, and her own version of Flamenco and Belly Dance fusion which she calls Raqs Duende.

Her studio offers multiple belly dance classes each week ranging from beginner to more advanced choreography classes. An American Tribal Style class is taught monthly by a certified teacher.

Belly dancers perform at Snake Oil Festival. (Photo courtesy of Kryss Statho)

Where to see belly dance

Jamila’s Cafe – This Tunisian restaurant on Oak Street features belly dancers on Saturdays from 8:00 to 10:00 p.m. Accompany the performance with a bowl of the crawfish, zucchini, and spinach bisque or the tagine of lamb, a leg of lamb baked in a terra cotta dish with rice and seasonings. 7808 Maple St.

Attiki Bar & Grill – This restaurant, bar, and hookah lounge hosts belly dancers on Friday and Saturday nights at 10:30 p.m. Attiki is a family-run Mediterranean restaurant whose owners are originally from Jordan. It has been in operation since 2005. Order a hookah and some baklava, and enjoy the art of belly dance. 230 Decatur St.

Snake Oil Festival – Now in its third year, Snake Oil Festival highlights the rich contributions of the burlesque, circus, sideshow, variety, and belly dance performance arts, among many others. It runs from June 15-18 at the Howlin’ Wolf and includes both performances and workshops. Belly dancers are some of the many performers who will take the stage over the weekend. Belly dance troupe Shimmy Shakti, led by Cochran, appears in the Carnival at the Crossroads show on Friday, June 16 (doors 8:00 p.m., show 9:00 p.m.), while Bariq Bellydance, which includes Sieff, takes the stage for part of the Hoochie Coochie Babylon show on Saturday, June 17 (doors 8:00 p.m., show 9:00 p.m.). Ticket prices start at $20 for each event. 907 S. Peters St.

Flash Mob – Cochran and her students will appear on August 5 in a belly dance flash mob on Julia Street the evening of Whitney White Linen Night. Performances include three fusion dances choreographed by Cochran. Contact her for more information, or if you are interested in performing in the flash mob.

Dancing Our Way Home theater show – This performance event is the culmination of seven month long, in depth course on belly dance traditions, roots, and styles that Tamalyn has led. The performance, featuring Tamalyn’s students – some of them professional belly dancers – will showcase the culture and roots of belly dance. It takes place at the Valiant Theater & Lounge in Arabi on Saturday, August 12 from 7:00 to 9:00 p.m. Tickets are $20. 6621 St. Claude Ave.

Emily Ramírez Hernández is the child of New Orleans natives whose families have been in the city for generations. Emily's earliest memories of New Orleans include joyful car rides over bumpy streets, eating dripping roast beef po-boys at Domilise's, and catching bouncy balls during Mardi Gras parades with cousins. An urban planner by day and freelance writer by night, when she is off the clock she enjoys biking around town, belly dancing, and catching nerdlesque shows.

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