A feminine force: Belly dancer Margo Abdo O’Dell

Margo Abdo O’Dell said her Lebanese-American mother downplayed the family’s Middle Eastern roots to help protect her children from discrimination. Abdo O’Dell said her mother’s decision to embrace all-things-American allowed her to more easily fit into the South Minneapolis neighborhood where she grew up.

For many years, O’Dell followed her mother’s lead. She studied dance at the University of Minnesota, took a corporate job with Xerox, married, bought a house in Lakeville and had a child.

However, O’Dell said, she felt like something was missing. She decided to focus on one of the most enjoyable aspects of her life: the belly dancing she performed at local restaurants and Middle Eastern celebrations.

Seven years ago, she let go of middle-class convention. She and her husband sold the Lakeville house and moved to the Armatage neighborhood. She quit her corporate job and devoted her life to promoting the art of belly dancing — a choice, she acknowledged, that has raised more than one eyebrow.

"I’m kind of amused by how all this transpired; I feel like I am doing it all backwards," O’Dell said. "Most people pursue their artistic goals in their early years and then conform to the corporate world in middle age."

While she honors her grandmother’s culture, O’Dell said she also feels that she is offering something valuable to the community. Currently, O’Dell teaches belly-dancing classes — for beginners to professional performers — at the Center for Performing Arts at 3754 Pleasant Ave. S. She also travels the country as a guest artist to teach and promote the genre and tradition. In October, she traveled, alone, to New Jersey, Arizona and Georgia.

On Friday-Sunday, Nov. 7-9, O’Dell is sponsoring a workshop at Old Arizona Studios at 2821 Nicollet Ave. S. with guest artist Dahlena, a pioneer of Middle Eastern dance in the United States, who authored "The Art of Belly Dancing" in 1975. On Saturday, Nov. 8, O’Dell will host and perform in "A Tapestry of Dance 2," also featuring Dahlena.

"One of the hardest things about teaching belly dancing is helping women overcome their inhibitions," she said. "A lot of women are not satisfied with their appearance. Ideas from the media about what a woman is suppose to look like are limited, and for some it is difficult to feel good about themselves."

‘The dance of the East’ The first time O’Dell saw belly dancing was at the University of Minnesota when a guest artist from Yemen, Selwa Raja, came and gave a demonstration. O’Dell was hooked. However, 25 years ago, there were few people in the Twin Cities interested in the genre. O’Dell traveled to California to learn her art in the early 1980s. Years later, she diligently studied instructional videos imported from Egypt. She also took courses in Cairo, Egypt.

The Arabic term for belly dancing is Raks al Sharqi (pronounced approximately Rocks al Sharkey) or "the dance of the East." In this classical women’s solo dancing style — performed from Istanbul, Turkey to Khartoum, the second largest city of Muslim North Africa — the dancer becomes the visual and emotional interpreter of the music. A change in chin angle when the hands frame the head indicates lament. Raising an eyebrow along with the chin signifies dignity.

Isolating movement is the hallmark of the dance. To shimmy your hips while allowing nothing else in your body to move takes practice. Then you have to keep time with Middle Eastern instruments — an 80-string harpsichord-like kanoon, lute-like oud, tabla drums and/or a nay flute.

Subversive art? In the Arab world, women are often veiled to hide their sexuality. Some governments, such as Egypt, have offered dancers money to retire and put on the veil, O’Dell said.

"However, the women who promote the dance are not bound by the conservative views of the Islamic society," O’Dell said. "They are women who view it as an art form and pursue it that way."

According to O’Dell, Raqs al Sharqi is the most pervasive dance in the Middle East. The traditional form is "baladi" dancing. "Baladi," O’Dell said, translates into "native," "of the folk" or "of the country." The meaning of the word points to the primitive origins of the dance, she said, which functionally helps develop muscles for childbirth. It became a fertility rite for mothers-to-be to bind the body with the soul.

"Belly dancing" is strictly an American term — it is strictly an alliterative coincidence that the Arabic "baladi" sounds like the English "belly." The French called it "danse du ventre," or stomach dancing. O’Dell said "Middle Eastern dance," "Oriental dance" or "Arabic dance" are more accurate terms.

"In Western dance, we move the limbs a lot," O’Dell said. "It’s about extending your arms and your legs or balancing on your tip toes. In Eastern dance it is about your belly, your pelvis and your hips. It is not about your extremities; it is about your center."

As a trained dancer and teacher, O"Dell wants her students to appreciate both the cultural as well as the artistic side of the dance. Yet, when she did a survey asking her students, none of whom were of Middle Eastern descent, why they were interested in belly dancing, their answers surprised her.

"I was teaching technique; I was teaching culture, but my students were having the personal experience of getting in touch with their femininity, their spirituality and their creativity," O’Dell said.

"I have taught women who were recovering from breast cancer surgery and came to me to get back in touch with their femininity and feel OK about their bodies again. Sexual abuse victims tell me that, too."

O’Dell said she was never drawn to the art form because it is erotic, but "because to watch another dancer is beautiful and to do it feels good. Women respond to how it feels because, through their muscles, they are reaching their spirit and their emotions. It puts them in touch with their bodies."

In addition to playing a negative role in women’s body image, O’Dell also said the media bombards Americans with negative images about the Middle East. "This is a beautiful part of their culture," she said, "it is good to celebrate it."

The Nov. 7-9 Middle Eastern dance workshops taught by O’Dell and Dahlena cost $55-70 and take place at Old Arizona Theater, 2821 Nicollet Ave. S. The Saturday, Nov. 8 performance of "Tapestry of Dance 2" will also be at Old Arizona, $15 at the door. For more information on the workshops or Abdo O’Dell’s classes in general, call

239-9004 or log onto www.margo1.com.