Riding the belly dance wave in Japan

Riding the belly dance wave in Japan

A look at why and where more and more Japanese women are shaking, wiggling and shimmying to the tune of Middle Eastern music
belly dancing in Japan
Kerime performing an Egyptian style dance at Club Chaos in Kobe.

When Sadia Camille first came to Japan 15 years ago to teach English, she had to put her passion -- belly dancing -- on the back burner. She never imagined that one day the art form would become popular enough in Japan for her to make a living from it. But now, with regular gigs in Tokyo and 50 students -- not to mention several who have become teachers themselves -- Camille is one among a growing number of belly dance professionals capitalizing on this belly-dance bonanza. 

With its sensual, undulating moves and sexy costumes, belly dancing has gone mainstream in recent years, creating a huge community of teachers, performers and students. In 2008, a glossy quarterly magazine called "Bellydance Japan" debuted, and it's now offered alongside yoga and aerobics classes at fitness clubs. Quite a shift from a decade ago when Sadia had a tough time getting people to come to her shows because they didn't know what belly dancing was.

A brief background on belly dancing -- in Japan and abroad

Belly dance, or to be true to the Arabic, "Raqs Sharqi -- Oriental dance," comes from the Middle East, where long ago it played a role in rituals for purification, harvests, childbirth, marriage and death. It meandered its way around Europe and the Americas in the 18th and 19th centuries and finally made its way to Japan in 1984, when a Japanese woman who had studied in the States opened the first belly dance studio. Though just a handful of women took an interest, more foreign dancers arrived in the 1990s. 

Sadia, 56, a Lebanese American from California, was one of them. These were the days before Japanese fashion mags hyped its 'get slim' benefits, and before Shakira, the Colombian pop star who made it a signature part of her dance style.

The tipping point came around five years ago when the scene in Tokyo exploded, and dancers like Sadia found themselves in demand. "Most do it to feel better about themselves," Sadia told me. "They want to be more feminine and sexy, and if they stay with it long enough, they will develop more self-confidence. Many even take on a Middle Eastern name."

Meeting the local belly dancers

One woman who's undergone such a transformation is Keiko Adachi, a 27-year-old Hokkaido native based in Osaka, who goes by "Kerime." Just like her Tokyo counterparts, she's got regular gigs and 60 students who attend her ten weekly classes.

belly dancing in JapanHenna, dressed in American cabaret garb, improvising to a violin playing the Egyptian classic, "Samia's Dance", at a Moroccan restaurant in Tokyo.On a recent Saturday evening, I went to see her perform at Nazar, a Turkish restaurant in Osaka. As she twirled, shook and shimmied her way through the narrow aisle that was her stage, the audience watched wide-eyed. At the end, she got half of them to get up and join her. Afterwards, I asked her about the popularity of belly dance. Kerime pondered this for a moment, and said, "Work and pressures of daily life keep Japanese women's femininity down. Belly dancing sets this part of them free."

One of her students at the show, Satomi Kondo, an office worker who is 27, explained she first got curious about belly dancing two years ago because of Shakira, though she ended up getting more out of it than she bargained for. "I used to think just looking good was important," she said, "and I thought belly dancing would make my body more attractive. But after learning, I realized I should try to be beautiful on the inside, too."

Belly dance entrepreneurialism

Japanese dancers are plentiful, so when it comes to getting gigs, foreigners have an edge. This is what Heather Hemphill, a 29-year-old from Oregon, found when she landed in Tokyo four years ago. After an unsuccessful run in Taiwan, she decided to give the booming Tokyo scene a try and, shortly after arriving, was performing four to five nights a week under the stage name Henna. She sees the appeal as a no-brainer: "You learn a craft, get a workout, and you eventually get to wear something sparkly and perform."

To meet the growing demand for all things belly dance, even non-dancers have been getting a piece of the action. Take Ihab "Bob" Sultan, 32, an Egyptian who settled in Kansai a decade ago. His business is thriving. A year ago, he opened a studio in Osaka that already has 70 students, and he's got a team of dancers that do parties around the country. He has also been promoting belly dancing events at clubs and theaters for the past four years, and his most ambitious yet, the Kansai Belly Dance Festival, takes place in May.

Whether or not belly dancing is another passing Japanese fad remains to be seen, but one thing's for sure: Its benefits go way beyond merely getting slim. As Henna put it, belly dancing is a celebration of herself, a way of saying, "This is my body, I'm proud of it and I'm going to decorate it and shake it around."

Tokyo belly dancing dancers/teachers

Sadia: www.bellyqueenjapan.com, E-mail: mail@bellyqueenjapan.com

Farasha: www.farasha.jp, E-mail: info@farasha.jp

Henna: www.hennadances.com, E-mail: info@hennadances.com

Filiz Eren: www.oriental-harem-filiz.com, E-mail: harem@oriental-harem-filiz.com

Mishaal: www.mishaal.com, E-mail: mishaall@me.com

Karima: www.karima.jp, E-mail: karima_info@graphova.jp

Tokyo belly dance venues

Hannibal Tunisian Restaurant: Tokyo Building YFL B1, Sendagaya 3-53-3, Shibuya-ku, tel. 03 3479 3710, www.hannibal.cc

Ginza Istanbul: Tokyo Ginza Corridor Street, Ginza 7-2, Chuo-ku, tel. 03 6252 4080, www.istanbul.co.jp (There are also Akasaka and Shinjuku locations)

Harem Turkish Restaurant: CI Plaza B1, Kita Aoyama 2-3-1, Minato-ku, tel: 03 5786 2929, www.harem.co.jp

Palmyra Arabic Restaurant: Ikebukuro 2-58-8, Toshima-ku, tel. 03 3981 8293, www.palmyra-ib.com

Shamaim Israeli Restaurant: Art Bldg. 2F, Sakae-cho 4–11, Nerima-ku, tel. 03 3948 5333, r.gnavi.co.jp/fl/en/g868500

Sinbad Lebanese Restaurant: I-Land Tower Bldg. B1, Nishi-Shinjuku, tel. 03 3343 3783, www.tradina.com

(Preview image of belly dancer by Hanta Arita.)