Baklava and belly dancers: students experience Beirut culture

Xinyu Li (left), a senior majoring in microbiology, Victoria Wright, a junior majoring in ecology and evolution, and Ying-Tung Chou (right), a junior majoring in applied developmental psychology, represent Panther Belly Dancers and perform a traditional belly dance at the A Night in Beirut event in the William Pitt Union Monday night. (Photo by Isabelle Glatts | Assistant Visual Editor)

The sweet smell of baklava wafted in the air as gentle Arabic music welcomed Pitt students of different ethnicities and cultures for a Middle Eastern experience. Students wandered the room, chatting with their friends, dipping pita bread into hummus and getting henna tattoos.

According to Amani Attia — the coordinator of Arabic Language program — this evening replicates what Arabs do when they get together.

“It’s a very relaxed environment,” Attia said. “When Arabs get together, they relax, they listen to music. [This event] is a way for people to get to know one another.”

Pitt’s Arabic Language & Culture Club hosted A Night in Beirut in the William Pitt Union Kurtzman room Monday evening, inviting about 40 students and faculty members across all departments. Since the club mainly focuses on teaching students the Arabic language and helping them with their Arabic classes, the event was intended to give people more of a sense of Arab culture, which is often underrepresented, according to Jamie Nassur — a junior political science major who is also one of the leaders of the Arabic club.

“We just want to bring awareness for the Arabic culture here because there isn’t really a big part of Pitt that’s dedicated to Arabic students,” Nassur said.  

While students ate traditional Middle Eastern foods, they explored different stations with activities like learning how to write their names in Arabic calligraphy and playing Arabic scrabble. After conversing and listening to music for about an hour, it was time for the Panther Belly Dancers to perform.

In blue, purple, pink and yellow flowing costumes, the four belly dancers moved their hips back and forth to three different Arabic songs. Silver coins and beads lined their hip skirts, jingling as the group spun and moved about the room. The dancers performed with colorful scarves draped around their shoulders, which they twirled in the air as they danced. They also wore small finger cymbals and clapped them together to create more noise.

Victoria Wright, a junior majoring in ecology and evolution, spoke on behalf of her fellow dancers when she shouted out to the person working the music.

“We love noise, so turn up the volume!” she said.

Wright said every week, the Panther Belly Dancers receive lessons from a local professional belly dancer who teaches the group basic steps and choreography. Wright said one of the main goals of the club is to desexualize this form of dance and bring it back to its Middle Eastern roots.

“Belly dance originated as a social dance,” Wright said. “So men, women, children, people of all ages, all genders [and] all body types did it. When it came to America, it kind of became sexualized, but back in the Middle East where it originates it’s not like that.”

Wright said belly dancing shouldn’t have this stigma attached to it because it is meant to be a beautiful thing that incorporates “hundreds of different styles.”

“You can do a belly dance to hip-hop music, you can do it to Metallica … you can do it to anything and just have fun,” Wright said. “It’s also a great workout.”

Ying-Tung Chou, a junior majoring in applied developmental psychology, said she started off dancing hip-hop but recently discovered belly dancing and fell in love with it when her friend at Pitt told her to try out for the club.

“My favorite move would be the undulations,” Chou said. “It’s sort of like a body wave. In hip-hop you also have body waves but it’s all over the place and more aggressive. It’s more elegant and subtle in bellydance.”

After the performance, Wright led a belly dancing competition in which she invited students to learn how to do different moves with her fellow dancers. The students gathered around in a circle and attempted hip swivels and undulations, laughing and enjoying themselves.

Junior psychology and linguistics major Sara Taha said she enjoyed watching the performance and participating in the event as a whole.

“I just hope more people learn to see Arab culture in a positive way because there’s so many misconceptions surrounding it, and I really hope people can see it and appreciate it for what it actually is,” Taha said.

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