Shaking things up: UK student redefines the art of belly dancing


Male belly dancer portraits at Mecca Dance Studio on Wednesday, March 24, 2010. Photo by Adam Wolffbrandt

By Hope Smith

Lexington native and UK junior Matthew Elliott has been dancing since he was a little boy.

His father was a flamenco guitarist and Elliott began flamenco dancing at nine years old.  It may sound like an unusual hobby for a small child, but Elliott couldn’t have been happier.  He had always loved to dance.  So he was a little shocked to see that one form of dance that he was loosely familiar with, typically only performed by women, could, in fact, be performed by men.  It became his passion.

“When I was first exposed to belly dancing, I didn’t know men were allowed to belly dance,” Elliott said. “Belly dance, historically speaking, was a social dance that both men and women did,” Elliott said.

Now, only a small handful of men in America take part in this artistic expression and those who do are few and far between.  Elliott might very well be the only male belly dancer in Kentucky — he has never encountered another male who performs in the state — and he is the only known male belly dancer in Lexington.

Elliott joined his very first belly dancing class at Mecca: A Live Studio and Gallery.  Mecca owner and dance instructor Teresa Tombs opened his eyes to a world of belly dancing that had room for men and women by showing him videos and sharing the dance’s history.  She told him learning how to belly dance is like “teaching your body a foreign language … some things come naturally, some things don’t.”

Tombs has organized dozens of workshops that have enabled her students to dance with some of the most famous belly dancers in the world.

“She has taken me under her wing and molded me into the dancer that I am,” Elliott said.

Learning how to belly dance isn’t easy; just ask some of Elliott’s friends and roommates, who he occasionally teaches for fun.  He says people rarely notice what a workout belly dancing is, and it’s all about being able to isolate your muscles and move them fluidly to the beat, whatever it may be. Elliott says you can belly dance to just about anything with a good beat — he prefers classic Middle Eastern music, Balkan gypsy music of Eastern Europe and Missy Elliot’s hip hop.

“I’ve fallen in love with being able to isolate different muscles in my body,” Elliott said.  “And really the only people who could ever show up belly dancers in muscle isolation are break dancers.”

When it comes to belly dancing, Elliot says he still has much to learn.

“People sometimes ask me to teach them, but I can’t,” Elliott said.  “I feel like I’m just a baby belly dancer.”

He has considered teaching belly dancing sometime in the future, and plans to dance in one form or another for as long as he can.  But what he really wants to do is work in the art world in development or marketing for museums and galleries.

Belly dancing is a beautiful art form that takes practice to master, but anyone can do it if they take the time to learn and have the interest to do so.  Elliott believes belly dancing to be one of the oldest forms of dance, but also one of the most accepting.  The fact that it is generally misunderstood in America may help those involved to become a more close-knit society.

“Belly dancing is a haven for the misfits of the dance world,” Elliott said.  “But what we like to brag about is that it looks good on any type of body; it looks beautiful on everyone from underweight people to overweight people.”

Elliott started performing publicly about four years ago at the Woodland Art Fair, and now performs several times a month during the winter, and more often during the summer for festivals and parades.  He also performs with Mecca’s Rakadu Gypsy Dance group.

“The only way to do it is to keep dancing, keep performing, keep having fun,” Elliott said.  “People will come up to me after shows, excited, and say ‘I never knew men could belly dance!’ …but they’re very supportive.”

He will be performing Friday, March 26, at the Loudoun House from 6 to 9 p.m., and also on Saturday, March 27, at the Roxy Lounge at 8 p.m. during “Gypsy Soup,” which will feature world-renowned dancer Jill Parker.  Tickets for Friday’s show are $7 at the door, and tickets for Saturday’s show are $10 in advance and $12 at the door, and can be purchased through Mecca’s Web site.