Erika Calleri taught me as much about Arab culture in my first hour with her as I’d picked up throughout my life as a curious person. She is a dance instructor, not a university professor, and she specializes in Mid Eastern dance, what we like to call Belly Dancing. Erika is the embodiment of the potential the arts has to bring people from different cultures together, lift spirits and create unity.
By Breon O’Farrell
She cuts an impressive figure with a beauty and grace that you notice from a distance. Her fashion sense is hip, chic, and accessorized by the Eastern style of jewelry, beads, tattoos and piercings. Erika is mature beyond her years, and has a confidence you witness in her mannerisms, when she lifts a cappuccino to her lips. Her confidence is not born from the superficial knowledge that men desire her, instead it is the consequence of being good at what she does. As she dances, her bright smile compels us to be happy along with her. She invites us to admire one of the ancient traditions of an easy to misunderstand culture. As the news headlines engender fear and anger, Erika and her group of dancers, is experiencing another dimension of what Arab culture also is.
She invited me into her world at the Academy of Dance in Città di Castello where she conducts classes twice a week for her highly committed group of woman who arrive from all the surrounding cities. They initially came to learn belly dancing but they stayed for “Drum Solo” and for “Tribal” dance which is her specialty. She is the first instructor to introduce “Tribal Dance” to our area, and has built a sisterhood of women, each learning to be a leader and a chorus member, in this extremely complicated style of group dancing.
When I asked Erika “what is the biggest misconception people have about Mid East dancing?” she responded, “people think there is some sort of connection between dancing and prostitution, which there absolutely is not!” She went on to explain that to the contrary, belly dancing is perhaps the oldest form of dance, and is intertwined with creation mythologies from antiquity when woman dominated society and were considered sacred. Giving birth was a Godly undertaking and must have seemed a magical power to men of that era. How times have changed. From Goddesses to prostitutes. She explained to me that the word “Harem” means “prohibited”, as in “no men allowed” as opposed to “brothel” as the movies tend to imply. “Woman are separated for understandable reasons”, she tells me, “you’ve seen Muslims praying right? Well they are not sitting on pews! You can imagine that a man would not be thinking spiritual thoughts while at the mosque if a woman were praying in the line of worshippers in front of him!”.
The natural urge men have to look at attractive women creates conflict in all religious communities. This same urge creates large audiences at all of the performances Erika ‘s group does. Western men are prone to the misinformed fantasy of the Harem: dozens of young women, sweating in the Arabian heat, dancing for their master while he is fed grapes by slave girls. This erotic fantasy dominates the male imagination. But the Harem is more often merely the part of a home where the women in a family are housed and men are not permitted to enter.
Erika helps woman to stay physically fit while discovering their “feminine potential”. These women can explore and demonstrate this part of their personalities in the safety of the dance. They can do so both in a class, or in front of an audience during a performance. I have seen the transformation Erika’s students make.
A dozen normal women entered the dance school wrapped in winter coats, but became confident, powerful and attractive women as soon as that compelling rhythm started playing through the sound system speakers and they started to sway to the beat. I wished for a moment that I could try it, but alas, no men allowed.
There is a reason why countries have artistic exchange programs with other countries. Communication and understanding are amplified through exchange of culture in the arts. The more we know about “the other” the harder it is to dehumanize him and kill his children. Erika is a link between two stubborn cultures. So when you get your peek into the Harem, there are no prostitutes in there. No suicide bombers either. Only polite, educated and passionate dancers led by Erika Calleri.