Walk into Spector Dance studio in Marina on a Wednesday night, and you’re greeted with a predictable array of sights and sounds: young ballerinas in pointe shoes and leotards, the rhythmic staccato of classical music from a small, tinny CD player, and the one, two, threecounts of instructors teaching girls how to twirl in graceful arcs.
In a few minutes, a different crowd starts to gather. They are older than the ballerinas, and some of them bear midriffs, a few are adorned in bangles and large necklaces. One is instructor Connie Mardon, who will be teaching the evening’s American Tribal Style Belly Dance class, or ATS.
ATS is a relatively new style of dance in the age-old discipline of belly dancing. There’s no choreography – everything is improvised, on the spot. ATS is a language, Mardon says, one that transcends cultural and linguistic boundaries. All you have to do is learn the cues and you can speak the language too.
“ATS is for everyone to enjoy,” Mardon says. “It starts out with a basic set of moves that you have to learn, and then you just repeat them. Eventually, you’ll learn the cues that tell you when to progress to the next move. You get familiar with the music. It’s easy.”
That’s quite a claim for a novice belly dancer. I’m wary of looking foolish, but I’m encouraged by Mardon’s reassurance as I take my place among other beginners and we begin to warm up, shaking our hips and moving our arms every which way. I take particular care to let my fingers flow freely as I sashay my feet forward and back, forward and back.
There’s no sense being self-conscious here; the rest of the class is focused on their own moves, not mine.
The tempo of the music increases – symbols crashing and drums beating – as Mardon stresses the basics, demonstrating just how to move our fingers, arms and hips. We repeat these movements over and over, raising our hands and letting them fall, as she instructs us to imagine that we are lightly painting a wall with our hands. We spin in pirouettes, over and over again.
The repetition as I follow Mardon’s lead helps me relax and get into a groove.
Then we’re stringing these movements together – arms up and down, fingers flowing (always keep your fingers flowing), spinning in circles, sashaying forward, then backward, then a pirouette. Repeat. Sneaking a glance at the other class members, it’s hard to believe that this is just the second time they’ve ever belly danced, at this second out of a six-session course. The students seem to be effortlessly graceful, and their joy apparent. I struggle to focus on moving my hips and hands at once, cringing every time I see my reflection in the mirror.
Cecilia Cano, one of the veteran students who has been practicing ATS for a year and a half, says she easily found freedom in this form after she met another ATS fan in a cabaret class. “Once I found out about ATS, I started coming here instead of cabaret – I just love it. It’s a different style, one where I can flow more freely,” Cano says.
Just as I’m getting the hang of this hip-swinging business, we’re paired up to practice duets. Up until now, we’ve just followed Mardon’s lead, learning how to write the letters of the language of ATS. Now, we’re expected to string them together. Mardon wants to see us form words – with our hips, our fingers and our eyes.
I’m paired with Marion Weaver, an ATS veteran and Mardon’s co-teacher. Weaver has danced ATS all over the world and communicated with other dancers via her hips, fingers and the rhythm of the music. She’s the perfect partner for a beginner like me. Weaver locks eyes with me, and we circle each other, comfortably falling into a rhythm, sashaying all the while. It’s easy to follow her lead, but when I look away from her – the cue that it’s time for us to switch roles – the spotlight is on me. Then I find myself carried away to the beat of the music, and realize I’m dancing in a way I never thought possible, even an hour earlier. My uncertainty at the beginning of class is gone, as I lose all notion of being self-conscious and just let myself flow to the beat.
After class, Weaver summed up what makes this kind of dance so difficult – and so alluring.
“ATS isn’t for the shy,” she says. “You must be forward to practice this kind of dance – you have to want to take the lead. It’s not flirty and sexy like other practices. It makes you feel proud and powerful, empowering not only the dancer, but the audience as well.”