Belly good business [Sunday Times (Islamabad)]
(Sunday Times (Islamabad) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Back in 2004, only two people showed up for Ms Yuki Chua's first belly dance class.
Today, 10 years later, thousands of students have passed through the doors of the 39-year-old's Bellydance Discovery studio in Tanjong Pagar.
"By the end of the first year, I had eight classes, some with as many as 20 students in the class," says Ms Chua, who is married with a seven-year-old son.
Others in the community agree that belly dancing has boomed in Singapore over the years. Some men, and even children, have also taken it up.
Apart from belly dance studios, classes are now being offered everywhere from homes to community centres to gyms.
Some dancers here are so good that they have been winning competitions locally and abroad.
Ms Angelina Tay, 34, recalls that classes were few and far between when she started learning the dance in 2002 as a university student.
"It wasn't very popular then and classes were not so readily available. But interest has grown, classes have grown and there are now many people teaching the dance," says Ms Tay, who is single.
After furthering her training in Egypt, she has been teaching and performing belly dancing full-time.
Most belly dance teachers in Singapore cover Egyptian, Arabic or Turkish styles, depending on which country their own instructors are from.
But the learning continues, even for more seasoned practitioners who have their own "master teachers" overseas. Ms Chua, for example, makes annual trips to Turkey to pick up new skills from these teachers.
Ms Nur Shiblie, 58, director of Alhambra Bellydance School Singapore, flies in some of these master teachers from time to time, who hail from the Middle East, as well as the United States, Australia and New Zealand.
"I bring them in to show my students where they stand against the master teachers' standards," says Ms Shiblie, who has three adult sons. "I don't want them to compare themselves only against me."
Her studio is at Cuppage Terrace and she says she has had hundreds of female students. "I've taught young women, married women. My oldest student is in her 60s," she adds.
She charges $120 for 10 sessions for a group class, while private lessons are $70 an hour.
While belly dancing is often seen as a sexy, sensual dance form, Ms Shiblie says she deliberately does not over-emphasise that aspect.
"I always tell my students that it is an artistic dance, it is not meant to be vulgar," she says. "When we perform at events, I tell them not to do too many of the sexy moves in front of the men, especially when their wives or partners are next to them. We need to respect their spouses and imagine ourselves in their shoes."
Belly dance students that SundayLife! spoke to say they were not drawn to the dance for its seductive, provocative nature.
One of Ms Shiblie's students, Mrs Miki Tsuchiya, 36, has been learning from her for nine years. Before she took up belly dancing, she was learning Latin dancing and found that those were dependent on the leading of a male partner.
"I prefer to be my own lead and I found that belly dancing allowed me to do that. I also don't need a high degree of strength or athleticism for this dance," says the Singapore permanent resident, who is from Japan and works in a telecommunications company here.
Mrs Tsuchiya won second place in a belly dance competition held in Japan last month that was organised by an Egypt-based dance events company.
She says: "Belly dance is a form of expressing myself as a woman in a beautiful, graceful way. It's not about being sexy. Many people think it's all about two-piece outfits but you can showcase the movements just as well in just a one-piece costume."
Entrepreneur Eve Tan, 43, says she had very bad posture and took up belly dancing a decade ago to correct it, and succeeded within two years.
She says: "Some of the basic poses emphasise a lifted chest and over time, I could really see a difference. My body also became more shapely and I started to develop an hourglass shape."
Her Singaporean husband, who works as a director in a Japanese company, was initially "not very comfortable" when she took up belly dancing, but has since given his support.
"He now complains only about the price of the costumes, which can cost about $1,000 each. So I pay for them myself," she says with a laugh.
She says that she started belly dancing when her two children - a daughter, now 13, and a son, now 16 - were very young and she was concerned about how she would be projecting herself.
She made it a point to choose classical music for her performances and also started teaching her daughter Evette from the age of seven so that they would bond through the dance.
But belly dancing is not just for women. A handful of men here have also picked it up.
One of them is Mr Darren Ho, 24, who has been belly dancing since he was 12. He recalls seeing Latin pop siren Shakira belly dancing in a video that year and pleaded with his parents to send him for classes.
He started his own belly dance group Le'Mirage in 2012. Last year, he formed a second group, Euphoria, comprising a group of women who had been learning belly dancing from him at a community centre. Last month, Euphoria clinched second place in the Asia Global Bellydance Competition's amateur category.
Mr Ho currently runs three classes a week and sees himself doing this in the long run. He says the scene has become more competitive in recent years, with many local and foreign freelance teachers.
He says: "I don't get many commercial shows because clients see belly dancing as a form of entertainment provided by women. With all the new blood, it is going to get even tougher."
Ms Tay can attest to that. She recalls how a Middle Eastern restaurant that she was performing at asked her to reduce her fee a few years ago because they had managed to find belly dancers willing to perform at a lower rate.
"I stopped performing there. It's quite sad that some dancers are willing to perform for less. This means people will pay us less, for more work," she says, adding that some venues that used to pay $350 for two sets of dancing are now willing to pay only $200 for four sets.
Belly dance instructors face other challenges too. Those who have been in the scene for at least 10 years say there are many newcomers who are often not very qualified, having gone overseas for crash courses that can be completed within a few months.
"A three-month course to be a professional? That dilutes the dance form," says Ms Chua, although she agrees that there is no agreed-on standard for belly dancing.
Over the years, she has had to deal with many of her students leaving to become freelance teachers, with some setting up their own schools.
"Initially, I was upset because you feel that you have trained these people with your heart and soul. But I have come to accept it as something that happens in every industry," she says.
"I've opened my heart. Now, I give them my blessing."
(c) 2014 Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. Provided by SyndiGate Media Inc. (Syndigate.info).
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