2018-10-11 / Around Town

Conversation with Dancer, Teacher, Aurel

Belly Dance. It’s Complicated.
By P. Udoma

Aurel at a charity gala. (Photo by Armando Photo) Aurel at a charity gala. (Photo by Armando Photo) Aurel D’Agostino (“Aurel”) has been dancing for close to 40 years, starting as a child, when her father, a working jazz musician, would improvise and she would “dance around.”

Dancing all over New England and studying abroad, she has always performed, “wherever they sent me,” even at Rough Point, the Doris Duke mansion. “That was a huge honor,” Aurel says, because her teacher’s teacher, Ibrahim Farrah, started Arabesque magazine with funds he received from Duke.

Farrah also founded the renowned Near East Dance Group with a grant from Duke in the early 1970s. “Doris Duke was a part of the dance lineage that I come from,” says Aurel.

She picked up belly dancing 20 years back, as a way to exercise, finding gyms to be “soulless,” and noticing immediately that women of all sizes could do the dance and were welcome to do it, which wasn’t the case in the gyms.

A Yalla show by Aurel. (Photo by Bruce Mount) A Yalla show by Aurel. (Photo by Bruce Mount) Belly dance isn’t just one style of dance, Aurel has discovered. “It’s hard to pin down exactly what it is, actually,” she says. “I’ve been very fortunate to study with some of the prominent dance ethnologists and get some of the stories debunked from people who have spent 20, 30, 40 years in Egypt. We found out that when we were saying, ‘it came from this and it came from that,’ we were wishing it was that simple. We were Americans, hoping we had put it together in one sentence.”

Newport This Week spoke to Aurel, as she was rushing between teaching and performing gigs, about just what belly dance is, or what it isn’t, or if we can even know.

Why did you choose to teach belly dancing? It kind of chose me. I wanted to share what I loved about it because it made me feel good about me, good about my body. I just felt like this was so needed. At my first class I had 21 students. I was hoping for 12. I was completely shocked by this, totally caught off guard. I just felt so useful on the earth… really for the first time in my life. I’ll never forget the feeling when those 21 women walked out of the studio. I remember thinking, ‘I just did something that counts, that’s actually important.’

Who should try belly dancing? Everybody! And I don’t even just mean women. I have had several male students who just love what belly dance has done for them. Everyone is celebrated…all ages… people of different sizes. You’re allowed, you have permission to be beautiful, to be strong, to be sexy… to explore these themes in a safe space. My oldest student was 92.

Many people say that belly dancing comes from an ancient fertility ritual for women and was used to ease labor and childbirth. Actually, it’s a lot more complicated than that, because it’s so old, and because a lot of it is guessing. Even the most highly trained dance ethnologist today will tell you we don’t have all the answers. Some of the early writers on belly dance were making things up, assumptions that grew out of a long trail of Orientalism, where Europeans went over in the 1800s and reported back on what they thought was happening in the harems. Well, as those travelers were men, they couldn’t go in the harems. So, they made up stories, made up paintings, sent them back to Europe.

I know I mistaught when I started teaching. There is so much more available to us than back then – even on YouTube. We can see it and say, ‘hey, the way they dance with a sword is nothing like the way we dance with a sword, and we say we got it from them!’

As far as fertility and childbirth, it’s more accurate to say that there have been groups discovered where women helped women with movement. There is a writer and dancer named Morocco, from New York, who discovered some things… she had to go undercover to be permitted into these groups where a woman was giving birth in the center and the other women were dancing around her. But it wasn’t what we call “belly dancing.”

It is striking how “Hollywood like” the costumes are.

That comes from the West. The Egyptians, for example, were pressured into making two-piece costumes [because of the entertainment aspect that the West expected]. Some of the solo dancing that turned into the black-and-white movies from Cairo was highly influenced by Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Before that, there was no choreography, no staircases… that came from us. It’s a story of East meets West. It’s a story of back and forth influences, over and over again.

So, there’s no such thing as a “pure” belly dance?

Correct. There never was.

What do you most want people to know about belly dancing?

These folkloric dance moves and practices were distilled up to the stage by traceable entertainment developments and leaders in the dance cultures, beginning in the 1800s and continuing to this day. We could have massive, hours-long discussions about Badia Masabni, Mahmoud Reda, the street musicians and dancers in Egypt, the Caracalla Troupe of Lebanon…

It’s an art form. It keeps evolving. It’s a fabulous, culturally enriching experience for many people, and that’s really needed in this day and age: ways to connect with each other and understand each other.

To learn more about Aurel, belly dance, and where she performs locally, visit ancientartstudios.com.

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