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Read the full Q&A here, or in The Jakarta Globe.
Christine Yaven fell in love with belly dancing 10 years ago when she was in Australia completing her master’s degree. When she moved back to Jakarta, Christine felt the city’s fledgling belly dance community was in need of an overhaul. Teachers weren’t properly trained, studios espoused the wrong philosophy and full-figured women were often told they were ‘too fat’ to dance.
In 2006, Christine traded in her business suits for hip scarves and established Bellydance Jakarta, which calls itself the country’s first Middle Eastern dance center staffed with certified dance instructors.
Christine, can you tell us a little bit about belly dance?
Belly dance is a Middle Eastern folkloric dance. There are many types of belly dance. The one that we would usually dance for an audience is called raks sharki, where the music is composed specifically for the dancer. Then you have the classical style, called tarab, which is like our Ella Fitzgerald, that kind of era. There’s also sha’abi, which uses street-style music that evolved from protest songs, and I would say it’s very dangdut. And there’s baladi, which means “of the country,” so it’s like kampung music, it’s normally instrumental, kind of like a call and answer with musical instruments.
Why did you decide to take up belly dancing?
I used to do Latin and ballroom dancing, but it’s really difficult in the sense that a dance partner is essential and there aren’t many good male dancers out there. Also, ballroom and Latin dance require high-heel shoes, which I’m not really comfortable dancing in. And the last reason would be, it requires me to be slim — I can’t be overweight and do it on a competitive level. So, I decided to shift to belly dancing. I just saw an ad I thought, ‘I’m going to give it a try.’
What was your first belly dance class like?
I loved it. When you do belly dance, you really connect with your feminine side. I think it’s really good for mothers to send their tomboy daughters, because it teaches you good posture, and it’s also good for teenagers, because it teaches you to love your body.
What inspired you to turn your hobby into a career?
My goal is to show Indonesian people what true, artistic belly dancing is, and to show them that belly dancing isn’t for slim girls only. It’s the curves that make it beautiful. When I came back from Australia, I was looking for a teacher. I wasn’t ready to be a teacher myself, but I wanted to continue dancing. I couldn’t find any teachers except for one, and this woman was teaching the wrong technique and philosophy. She had beginners doing semi-backbends in their first class, and she told me and a few other girls that we were too fat to belly dance.
How did you go about starting Bellydance Jakarta?
I was talking to one of my teachers in the States, and she mentioned she would be traveling to Indonesia. I hosted a workshop for her, and she stayed at my house for two weeks, and every day we did private lessons. I told her about the situation here, and she taught me everything she knew. I started off by giving free classes to my friends at my house, we called them ‘tea parties.’ Everyone brought potluck food, we got together, and people started saying, ‘You know, why don’t you make it a real class? Rent a studio.’ So I did. I started off with five students once a week on Saturday mornings while I was still working full-time. And now it’s been six years.
Do you think belly dancing is gaining popularity here?
It’s definitely popular now because of the all the hype. Belly dancing is promoted in the media as a weight loss thing, that you’ll flatten your stomach and become slimmer. But that’s not the case. Belly dancing will help you gain body confidence and better flexibility and posture, but it’s not a dance to lose weight. It’s also being promoted as an erotic dance of some sort. Yes, it’s a sexy dance, but not erotic.
Have you received any backlash from people who thought it was too sexy?
At first there was a lot of backlash, but as soon as people see me, then it’s OK. Some students would bring their husbands, or the younger students would bring their mothers because they wanted to meet me, to make sure I wasn’t teaching anything scandalous. But because I’m a very serious person and I don’t look like an erotic dancer, they look at me and go, ‘Oh! You’re Ibu Christine?’ They take a look at my stomach, and they say, ‘OK, I’m going to go home now.’ Which means they think I’m not one of those erotic dancers. I think my image — I speak English, my body shape and being more educated — helps a lot dealing with the backlash.
Your most recent production was called ‘I Love You, Jakarta.’ Why do you love Jakarta?
I love Jakarta because it’s my home. I love the food. I love the people. We’re very friendly and we’re very sincere. Jakarta is also very dynamic. You have world-class venues, clubbing, restaurants, you name it.
What’s next for you and Bellydance Jakarta?
I’ll actually be teaching in Italy this September, so I’ll be the first Indonesian belly dance instructor teaching internationally. Every year, I also go to Egypt to do some regular training, because I don’t want my students to think I’m being complacent.
Christine Yaven was talking to Debra Pangestu.