I’ve wanted to take a belly dancing class for years, but always found a reason not to — lack of time, lack of confidence, lack of the ability to move my hips in precise, snake-like movements. But finally one day, when life was feeling a bit stifling, I, in a fit of rebellion, signed up for the winter belly dancing session at The Rhody Center in Coventry.
I walked into the studio for the first class and immediately claimed as my own the back right corner of the room — my favorite spot to inhabit at college discussion groups, karaoke bars and anything that requires audience participation. But the class teacher, Lola Matta, didn’t let me stay in my hiding spot for long. She rotated the nine of us around the studio so everyone had a turn front and center, and her warm and welcoming manner made my insecurities melt away. The class environment is supportive and fun — not a mean girl to be found — and by the second class I stood proudly with my classmates, shirt hiked up to here and pants pulled down to there, practicing my belly rolls in front of the mirror.
Lola, the daughter of a belly dancer and Lebanese musician who met on the stage, began belly dancing when she was 19, and although she never intended to make a career of it, first danced professionally during a year she spent in Montepelier, France, after an Algerian dancer named Anissa spotted Lola dancing in a Lebanese restaurant and asked her to join her dance company. Lola eventually returned home to Boston and continued taking belly dancing lessons and dancing professionally. “I’ve been dancing ever since,” she says.
Lola began teaching at The Rhody Center seven years ago, and her classes focus more on musicality than choreography. Lola is trained in Western and Arabic violin and draws on her musical training when she teaches. “I like to talk about music interpretation more than the steps,” she says. “I think it’s much more important for my students to feel and understand the music than learn choreography.” After a session with Lola, I’ve learned about Arabic percussion and how to interpret and anticipate the beats and decide which ones call for a hip circle and which ones beg for a shimmy. This kind of understanding allows my classmates and me to take the dancing out of the studio, even if only into our living rooms.
Lola and I, along with most of the women in our class, are about the same age as Shakira, and our conversation veered into her recent Super Bowl performance and the cultural flashpoint she helped spark. “I got into a lot of arguments on social media the next day,” Lola laughs.
“Is belly dancing meant to titillate?” I ask. “The movements are so sensual.”
“It isn’t,” she says. “If you go to a wedding in Lebanon or Egypt, it’s the dance of the culture. It’s the only dance there is.”
As we continued our conversation, my fellow classmates began to trickle in and join the discussion. Cloreese, a military member, talks about what wearing a uniform — and taking it off — does to her sense of self. “It’s nice to come here once a week, shed that military identity and just be a woman,” she says.
“I think the movements are sexy,” adds Gladys. “I feel like I’m 20 again.”
Eleanor says her self confidence has soared as a result of the class. “I’m a shy person,” she explains, “and this class makes me feel more comfortable being here in my body.”
Karen says she took the class “purely to find joy in it.”
“Being with this age group of women and becoming comfortable with our bodies and our beauty is exciting.”
Another member of the class, also named Karen, echoes this statement. “Something that struck me is the beauty of the people in the class. Learning to find the beauty in your body and other bodies and how they move — it’s very empowering.”
And that’s one of Lola’s main goals with her classes. “I hope my students leave my class more confident, with greater self esteem,” she says. “I want them to feel like they’ve accomplished something and become part of a community.”
As class ended that night and we traded our hip scarves for heavy winter coats, high on adrenaline and feminine energy, I truly did feel part of a community. We walked together into the night, calling goodbyes and making plans for dinner, the coins of our hip scarves jingling as we folded them into our bags.
Lola Matta occasionally performs publicly at Byblos restaurant in Norwood and Efendi in Cranston. Her spring session at Rhody Center is already sold out (thanks to the Shakira bump!). Registration for her May session opens in April. Sign up at therhodycenter.org. Lola also is teaching a workshop at the Jennifer Prete School of Dance on February 28 at 6pm. To register, go to jpsdri.com. For more information, go to loladance.com