São Paulo – Although they wear belly dancer outfits, they also don Amazonian feathers, seeds, masks and handicraft. The main movements come from the Arab folk dance, but they also perform bow-and-arrow gestures, native-like squats and foot-stomping culled from Brazil’s dança do boi (the ‘ox dance’).
On stage, the Manaus-based company Belly Dance Jungle combines belly dancing and regional Amazonian folk dances. They tour Brazil showcasing different versions of belly dancing, which incorporate elements from native dances and dança do boi to the sound of Amazonian popular music.
It all started in the early 2000s, when the group’s founder Maíse Ribeiro, from Manaus, returned from a season studying belly dancing in São Paulo. She enrolled in the Luxor belly dance school and had lessons with Arab dancers.
What she heard from Egyptian teachers was that something was lacking in belly dancing as performed in Brazil: that although the technique was on point, emotion and identity were lacking. That got her thinking, and she came up with the idea of expressing the culture of her own land, Amazonas, through the Arab folk dance.
She did research with the local tribes Tukanas and Dessanas and realized that their shared many common traits with the dabke, a Middle Eastern dance style. “The natives will also pair up and dance in a circle. They’ll do half-circles and stomp their feet,” Maíse told ANBA. She points out that both belly and native dancing rely heavily on circular motions.
A Portuguese and native Brazilian descendant, Maíse decided to incorporate dança do boi elements like squatting, foot-stomping and bow-and-arrow movements into belly dancing. The group performs to the sound of so-called toadas de boi, or ‘ox tunes.’
In her quest for belly-dancing-friendly regional rhythms, the Belly Dance Jungle founder also came upon Amazonas’ Raízes Caboclas band and decided to have them play while they perform live.
“The audience is very receptive of these dances. At first they get taken aback, but then they identify. We all have native blood in our veins,” says Maíse. “Through dance, people reconnect with what they no longer realized: that they’re children of the land. They really identify,” she says.
Maíse first learned about Arab dances as a student at Marques de Santa Cruz school, which holds an annual folk fest, Festival Folclórico Marquesiano, to highlight the cultural diversity of Amazonas through dancing. That was where she came into contact with the dabke, which is widespread in Palestine – and Amazonas is home to a strong Palestinian community.
Belly dancing came into her life when the local chapter of the Social Service of Commerce (SESC) invited her to teach it. Maíse set about learning the style and spent about eight years teaching it. Then she decided to open her own belly dance school, Casa de Ísis, which is still active in Manaus.
The school has a branch in São Paulo, within the premises of samba school Unidos de Vila Maria, where Maíse’s sister Cinthia Ribeiro teaches belly dancing to women.
Every September, Casa de Ísis holds the Belly Dance Jungle festival.
The Belly Dance Jungle group has been invited several times to go to Egypt and join the Ahlan wa Sahlan, one of the world’s leading belly dance festivals, but they were never able to find sponsorship for the trip. They have performed in countries including Uruguay, Argentina, Paraguay and Peru.
Belly Dance Jungle/Casa de Ísis
Translated by Gabriel Pomerancblum