Stony Brook University is home to many dance crews, ranging from hip-hop breakdancing to traditional Indian Bhangra. Recently, one of the school’s more unconventional dance team is shaking their way up to the top, while trying to make a name for themselves by performing a dance that they collectively call an “art form.”
The SBU Belly Dancing Troupe got its start as a club, as the team’s earliest records date to 2003, when a group of girls got together to teach themselves the dance, and later held open practices in the hopes of garnering the interest of other potential dancers. Tryouts to join the team happened in 2005, after they picked up a choreographer, which began the group’s transition from a sports club to a performing team.
“About eight years ago, our instructor, Yoco Yoshikawa, was hired to get professional training for the troupe,” said Kia Valkonen, the current president of SBU Belly Dancing Troupe. “That’s when the group performance aspect of the team developed.”
Yoshikawa is SBU Belly Dancing Troupe’s official choreographer and instructor, and is paid for as a coach from the team’s budget provided through the school’s Undergraduate Student Government. She is a professional belly dancer in the New York metropolitan and Long Island area, and is known internationally, teaching workshops in Tokyo, and throughout other parts of Japan. Yoshikawa choreographs the troupe on Fridays, which is the team’s main practice day, and teaches the girls different styles of belly dance, including Egyptian, Turkish and tribal.
“She has a very unique technique and style of belly dance that she teaches us at our weekly troupe practices that we’re extremely grateful for,” says Valkonen of the team’s instructor.
The team’s president is a senior, and has been involved on the team since her freshman year of college. The SBU Belly Dancing Troupe holds a special and festive showcase every year to demonstrate their skill and Stony Brook pride through their dance. Valkonen described the first time she watched the showcase as “captivating.”
“I got into belly dancing after I saw the showcase, and developed an instant interest in the dance form,” she said. “I felt that it was unique in its celebration of the female body, and I wanted to be apart of the celebration.”
Ultimately, the team’s goal is to encourage women to feel comfortable in their own skin, enabling them to embrace their sexuality and feel empowered through the dance form. The troupe not only teaches their members and interested potentials the physical dance itself, but also makes sure to give their girls the background information and historical context behind the hip scarf. Belly dance originated through folk and tribal dances in the Middle East, Africa, and regions in the Mediterranean, performed by women, for women, to help develop birthing muscles, strengthen the body for childbirth, and to ease the pain of menstruation. The SBU Belly Dancing Troupe emphasizes that it’s not all about torso movement, but the cultural movement as well.
“I feel like a lot of people think belly dance is sleazy or highly sexual,” Valkonen said. “When you look at the costuming, you might think that, but when you look at the movements, they aren’t.
Other members of the team have acknowledged that their form of dance isn’t always taken seriously. While the team does wear colorful and flashy pieces, which include sequined bras and shiny hip scarfs; they say that the clothing shouldn’t confirm any preconceived misconceptions before actually witnessing belly dance up close and personal.
“Some people think that we’re a bunch of promiscuous girls because of how we dance and what we wear when we dance,” said Gabrielle Moreno, the current vice president of the team. “They don’t realize the skill and the talent that’s required in the dance, and in a way, we fight these stereotypes through performing.”
The SBU Belly Dancing Troupe hopes not only to empower women through dance, but to promote a healthy lifestyle as well. The troupe’s goal is to provide the campus with free access to belly dance classes, aside from their closed weekly practices on Fridays, with open practices on Tuesday nights, and a fitness class on Wednesday nights, held at the Campus Recreation center.
“We try to promote a healthy attitude with having fun,” said Moreno. “A lot of people think that working out is only going to the gym, but belly dance is actually an abs intensive workout. You’re working up a sweat but enjoying it at the same time.”
The team consists of 14 girls this school year. The SBU Belly Dancing Troupe does encourage all genders to come, learn and join. While they have had males attend their open practices to watch and participate, there are currently no boys on the team, although there have been in the past.
“We’re a very welcoming team,” said Geena Waddle, who is the former president of the troupe, and a current member. “We have girls of all different shapes, sizes, ethnicities, majors, you name it. And I think that’s one of our biggest appealing factors.”
While the team is receiving more attention and interest on campus, SBU Belly Dance is being recognized off campus as well. This year was the first time the team was invited to the Annual Inter-Collegiate Middle Eastern Dance Conference, hosted at Columbia University. The conference reviews submissions from colleges across the East Coast, and invites the most talented belly dance clubs to showcase their moves at the event. After the troupe sent a three minute tryout video, they were asked to attend the conference, and on Nov. 9, 2013, danced alongside some of the most decorated college belly dance teams, such as Harvard, Yale, and of course, Columbia.
“It was exhilarating,” said Waddle. “It was truly an honor to see where our hard work and all the time we put in led us to, and it was on that stage.”
This was the team’s first taste of off-campus recognition, and they say that they’re only hoping to take it even further. The SBU Belly Dancing Troupe does note that they do not perform competitively—they simply perform, and they are hoping to show off their talent and spread the concept of female empowerment on a more widespread basis.
“After going to Columbia, it motivated us to keep going further,” said Moreno. “We want to help share this art form of belly dance with the rest of our state, and maybe even the country.”