An Advocate for the Shimmy
A belly dancer with two law degrees comes to the defense of an ancient art form
The belly dancer known as Saphira sweeps onto the dance floor, a pink scarf flowing behind her upraised arms. She's wearing false eyelashes and heavy eyeliner, a pumpkin-orange bra top with gold and pink beads and sequins, and long swirling layers of a pink-and-orange skirt. Tall and big-boned, she has a soft belly that is bared and shaking along with her hips as she improvises to the live band -- a drummer and keyboardist -- at Casablanca, a Moroccan restaurant in Alexandria.
Saphira doesn't really look like someone who once worked as a full-time Washington lawyer named Rachael Galoob Ortega. But she has two law degrees, including one from Georgetown, and used to spend her days laboring over regulatory analysis for communications companies. Now this 38-year-old self-proclaimed "Jewish girl from Oklahoma" shimmies for a living, running a Clarendon belly-dancing school, Saffron Dance, in addition to giving occasional performances. She also has become, in true Washington fashion, a public advocate for belly dance, which, she says, "allows for the discovery of your body and your spirit in a way that I've never seen anything else do."
Even when she was still working as an attorney, she taught belly dancing for years, disregarding how its sensuality might be perceived in a strait-laced profession. She knows there were people who disapproved "because it cuts against how they think somebody's life should be or not be -- [they think] people who are belly dancers are not lawyers," she says. "But the reality of it is that in D.C. there are a lot of belly-dancing lawyers."
And many of them are her students, including a handful in the clapping audience of about 75 at Casablanca, who have come on this Friday night to see their teacher perform. They've all tied the spangly hip scarves they wear in class over their street clothes, and they start belly dancing themselves once Saphira leaves the stage. She heads to a back room to change out of her costume into a dress, then comes back into the dining area and pulls five of her protegees into a group hug. They're attorneys for the Patent and Trademark Office, an inspector general's office, the Environmental Protection Agency and private firms. "We're all lawyers!" Saphira exclaims happily.
On the first day of an introductory belly-dancing class, 12 women descend on a colorful pile of glittery hip scarves on the floor of Saphira's studio, which has silver-and-copper-painted walls, white ceiling fans and smooth spring-wood floors. "Wow, look at that one!" exclaims a heavyset woman with short brown hair who is holding up a hot-pink sequined wrap that is hand-crocheted with heavy coins. She giggles.
This is Saffron's special class for women over 45 -- which Saphira calls alternately her "Fabulous 45+" or "Wise Women" class. At 5-foot-9, Saphira wears plum-colored stretchy pants that sit below the navel, and a tight cropped black top that leaves the belly bare. She asks the students to tie their scarves over their workout clothes around their rear ends. Then they all sit with bare feet in a half-circle as Saphira describes belly dance as "a gift that has been carried around the world by women, for women."
She also asks them to each answer the questions, "Why belly dance, and why now?" A woman in a sports bra and shorts, who has taken the beginners' class at Saffron once before, goes first: "I had bilateral breast cancer and multiple surgeries ... and I had not moved in many years," she says, gesturing toward her torso. "And now I am." Another says, "I just turned 50 in July, so I decided I was going to do new things." And another: "I want to do something beautiful and get a little coordination. And as for why now: Why not?!"
Saphira begins teaching them the basics of classical Egyptian belly dance, showing them how to keep their outstretched hands and shoulders still while their hips go left and right. "Right. Left. Right-left-right. Very good!" she says, and the room fills with the sound of coins and spangles jangling like jingle bells, what Saphira calls "the musical rhythm of the shimmy."
Her goal, she says later, is to teach the dance to women (and currently one man -- a lawyer, incidentally) who are "coming from a completely different paradigm in their life how to do this movement and put it on their body in a way that is elegant and complimentary and makes them feel comfortable and empowered." (Yes, belly dancers with law degrees use long sentences with words such as "paradigm.") Her mantra, repeated in class after class: "We are never going to have the bodies that we want, so let's feel differently about the bodies that we have. I mean, for God's sake, life is short! Feel better about yourself."
By all accounts, this style of dance is not as easy as it looks; the movements are subtle, and quality shimmying, which Saphira describes as "muscle-driven reverberation" through the pelvis, takes some practice. As one student says after the class: "You look at it like, how hard could it be to, like, wiggle? But it is!"
The students take a stab at it nonetheless, put at ease by Saphira's disarming teaching style. She injects into her instructions warm laughter and self-deprecating comments about her own "muffin top" bulging over her waistband. This substance, however, is never, ever to be called "fat" in her presence. She prefers the term, "residual," which she thinks lacks the other word's pejorative connotations. Residual, she insists, is actually a good and necessary thing in the belly dance context because "you need your residual to show the shimmy."