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Thursday, July 22, 2004 11:33 am

Navel gazing

The skinny on Springfield’s two belly-dancing groups

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COVER PHOTOGRAPH BY NICK STEINKAMP

On a recent Monday evening, 10 women are gathering in Kari Dotson's dining room. There is much to do this night, and they arrive ready and dressed for business.

As Middle Eastern music fills the air, the barefoot, bare-bellied women, adorned in brightly colored gypsy skirts and tops, begin rehearsing a Gypsy kashlimar, one of several dances they plan to perform at a Renaissance festival near Brimfield.

Across town, eight more belly dancers, ranging in age from 16 to 54, have gathered at Kim Hodgson's home, affectionately referred to as the "Navel Academy" by the dancers. Led by Therese Wyatt, these dancers wear colorful sashes around their waists and practice before a mirrored wall draped with pink scarves.

For a first-time visitor to the academy, the price of admission is low: "You have to wiggle a bit," Wyatt says.

That's right: Springfield is home to at least two active groups of belly dancers who meet weekly and perform regularly. What accounts for this abundance of exotic wigglers in the capital city? Perhaps they're a reflection of belly dancing's growing popularity as a fun and entertaining way to lose weight and tone up.

As it turns out, there's a lot more to this tale -- and it wasn't always about the joy of dancing.

The story begins with Dotson, who came to Springfield from Carbondale in 1994. A belly dancer for almost 20 years, Dotson started taking classes in San Antonio, Texas, where her husband was stationed at the time.

"I attended a historical-re-enactment group and saw several women belly dancing. I fell in love with the music and the costumes," she says. "I started taking classes and really enjoyed it."

When Dotson came to Springfield, she recalls, "there was no evidence of anyone dancing here. I started teaching friends in Lincoln Park so I would have people to play with."

In 1998, Dotson began teaching belly-dancing classes at the Lawrence Adult Education Center. Though classes had been offered at the YWCA and at Lawrence since 1976, few belly-dancing groups lasted more than a few months.

But Dotson was a popular teacher, and her students would show more dedication.

In 2000, Grab-A-Java owner Meg Evans called her friend Marsha Gordon and asked whether she wanted to take Dotson's class at Lawrence. Gordon says she first tried belly dancing 30 years ago but "didn't appreciate the dance at the time." But Evans convinced her to give it another try. Evans also invited Kim Hodgson's wife to join them, but she couldn't fit it into her schedule. Hodgson -- apparently the city's only active male belly dancer -- says he signed up "on a lark."

And when Wyatt, who owns a hair salon in Loami, saw how much fun Evans and Hodgson were having, she decided to sign up, too.

But in 2002, Dotson moved to China, leaving her students without a teacher. "We were saddened that she left," Gordon says. "Everyone adored Kari."

For a while, the students wiggled and jiggled under the tutelage of temporary instructors at Lawrence, but that proved unsatisfactory.

With Dotson away from Springfield, Gordon began teaching classes at Dance Arts Studio on South MacArthur Boulevard. Some of Dotson's other students, including Evans, Wyatt, Hodgson, and Beverly Oberline, joined Gordon there. Part of the motivation lay in Dance Arts Studio's big mirrors, which allowed them to see what they were doing. Says Wyatt: "We wanted to practice in a real dance studio."

Others, however, didn't follow. Local travel agent Yvonne Trombley, who has been dancing with Dotson since 1999, says she knew Dotson planned to return in May 2003 and that she was scheduled to resume teaching at Lawrence. "With Kari teaching classes at Lawrence, some of us saw no reason to leave Kari and Lawrence," Trombley says. "She is a great teacher with lots of experience."

When Dotson returned last year, Gordon says she was invited to join the group at Dance Arts Studio but declined.

According to Gordon, the group at Dance Arts Studio chose not to return to Lawrence because they were in the process of exploring different dance styles. The group often traveled to St. Louis to study under different teachers. "This was a time of great exploration for us," Gordon says. "There was so much to learn about the dance."

Gordon incorporated different styles of dance into her classes, but the others began resisting her direction. "They wanted a more democratic group," she says. "Everyone wanted to give directions."

The way she sees it, you can't have a successful dance troupe if everybody's doing different steps. "There should only be one leader," Gordon says. "That's what makes a dance troupe and gives it direction."

Last year she quit the group, which now meets at Hodgson's house. "I was pulled in too many different directions," Gordon says. "Middle Eastern dance was no longer a priority [for me]."

With her departure, Wyatt began leading classes. Once a month, belly-dance instructor Diana Wolf, who teaches at Simone's Seventh Veil Dance Studio in St. Louis,comes to Springfield to work with the group. The group works closely with Wolf, and occasionally travels to St. Louis to attend her regular classes.

Dotson blames the split on the fact that the other group decided that Lawrence was an inappropriate place in which to learn belly dancing.

Beyond that, she'd rather not discuss the schism: "It's water under the bridge." She says enigmatically that she is "letting nature take its course."

Belly dancing is believed to be one of the oldest known dance forms, with roots deep in the ancient cultures of the Orient, India, and Middle East.

In the dance, which showcases a woman's bone and muscle structure, movements emanate from the torso and are focused on the isolation of different body parts. The dancer moves these parts independently in sensuous patterns that work together to flatter the entire feminine form.

One common misconception about belly dancing is that it is meant to entertain men. In some cultures, men are not permitted to watch female belly dancers. Throughout history, the dance has served as a ritualized form of expression performed for other women.

In the United States, the dance was introduced to a large audience with the appearance of "Little Egypt," a performer at the 1893 Columbian World's Exposition in Chicago. As Americans and Europeans adopted the art form, they helped change it, and today, it takes many forms, as demonstrated by the two groups in Springfield.

For example, Dotson's group, Troupe Zahava, performs a variety of Middle Eastern dances ranging from traditional Arabic group harvest dances to a modern cabaret style of belly dancing. "We perform an eclectic mix of dance styles according to what the group feels like doing," she says.

The members of Troupe Zahava travel to workshops and seminars for inspiration, taking what they learn and incorporating it into their performances. "We like a lot of American tribal-style and gypsy right now," says Dotson, who choreographs the routines.

The group chooses music to match the Middle Eastern dances they perform. "You won't find this stuff in Best Buy," Dotson says. The group purchases music from vendors who specialize in Middle Eastern dance music.

Trombley, a Troupe Zahava member, started belly dancing in 1975, when she lived in San Diego. After returning to Springfield, she took classes at the YWCA. "I would take classes and stay with it until the class folded," she says.

"Belly dancing is a lot more fun than doing aerobics," Trombley says. "There's better music and fancy costumes, and you get to dance in front of people. No one pays to sit and watch aerobics."

Suzi Thompson, who has been belly dancing for 30 years, began going to classes at Lawrence last September. "This is the first group of women I've felt comfortable with," she says. "I look forward to coming and dancing with them. It's like a girls' night out."

Ruth Souther, another Troupe Zahava member, says, "I heard about Kari's class and decided to take it for fun."

Souther says she attended a workshop in St. Louis at which a 75-year-old woman was dancing. "Everyone is beautiful," she says. "Dancers come in all shapes, sizes, color, and ethnic backgrounds. That's what really hooked me."

At the Navel Academy, the emphasis is less on performance than on building a community and using belly dancing as a form of self-expression.

"Your arms frame the dance," Wyatt announces before leading the group through a series of soft stretches, turning exercise into movement, movement into dance.

At the Navel Academy, there is respect for the navel, where the umbilical cord was once attached. "Diana [the group's once-a-month instructor from St. Louis] calls the navel the beginning of all life," Wyatt says. Belly dancing, she says, celebrates the formation of life and what the belly gives us: "The belly is the center of the universe."

"We came together around belly dancing," Hodgson says. "We formed a community. We grow the group through personal contacts rather than semester-length classes."

The group attends many seminars. "It's valuable to work with a variety of instructors," Hodgson says.

The Navel Academy dancers take choreography and explore it from every angle. "We decide as a group if we like it," Wyatt says. The group performs gypsy and folkloric Middle Eastern dances.

"Our goal is to get people comfortable with their bodies," Hodgson says. "You find more clothing on a belly dancer than you find on most people at the beach."

The group strives to educate the public about belly dancing. "The general view is that we are going to strip for hire," Wyatt says. "After a performance, we invite the public to come up and learn a dance."

At the Navel Academy, membership is somewhat informal. "People come and go." Wyatt says. "We encourage people to come and give it a try. It's a form of bonding."

Shawna Cain, a student at Lincoln Land Community College, has been dancing with the group since December. "It's a good workout," she says. "It's very artistic."

Oberline, a medical transcriptionist in Loami, took belly-dancing classes 26 years ago and started dancing with the group four years ago. "My stair-stepper had become a clothes dryer," Oberline jokes, but she gets more than exercise out of participation. "There's a tribal connection that goes back centuries," she says. "It's an old dance, an old form of expression."

Hodgson, the only man in the bunch, concedes that he is not as flexible as the women. Belly dancing is a major workout for him and requires movements that are different than those of the women. But it's worth it, he says: "I wouldn't do this if it wasn't fun."

The recognition that belly dancing is supposed to be fun is likely to overcome any rifts that may have developed among Springfield's dancers in recent years.

Wyatt, who leads the Navel Academy group, says she and Oberline are taking weekly lessons from Dotson.

"Kari was my introduction to the dance culture," Wyatt says. "Kari wants to share her knowledge."

"Everyone is friendly," Dotson adds. "We are trying to reunite the groups."

If and when that will happen, neither can say.

For more information

TROUPE ZAHAVA The troupe led by Kari Dotson has performed at the Renaissance Fair at the Abraham Lincoln Unitarian Universalist Congregation,and at First Night Springfield. On July 31, the group will host a workshop at the Hoogland Center for the Arts with Laurel Victoria Gray, director of the Silk Road Dance Company of Washington, D.C. A dance performance, at which dancers from the Navel Academy have been invited to perform, will be presented that evening.

Classes will be offered at Lawrence Adult Education Center this fall. The cost is $75 for 12 weeks. Dotson also gives private lessons to students who have taken classes at Lawrence Adult Education Center.

For more information, contact Dotson at karida@zahava.org.

THE NAVEL ACADEMY Therese Wyatt's group has performed at the Renaissance Fair at the Unitarian church, Christmas and graduation parties, and the Louisiana, Mo., Colorfest. When she and her fellow dancers perform, Wyatt says, "We really put our hearts in it."

The group doesn't charge a fee for dancers to practice with them. Diana Wolf, who teaches at Simone's Seventh Veil Dance Studio in St. Louis, leads the group once a month; there is a $25 charge to cover her fee.

For more information, contact Wyatt at wyatt@motion.net.

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