“Keep your butt tucked and your core engaged. Isolate movement in your hips—up down, up down. Now maintain a still upper body. Don’t forget to smile!”
I tried to stop grimacing and channel Shakira. Belly–dancing is not for the faint of heart.
When I first heard about Yalla, Penn’s Middle Eastern dance and drum troupe, I had to investigate further. My three dance moves are on par with your local suburban dad. Nevertheless in the spirit of "new year, new me," I was determined to learn to shake it.
Founded in 2004, Yalla is steadily growing and gaining recognition on campus. Six drummers and 19 dancers make up the club. When they’re not dancing to live drumming, they break it down to Middle Eastern pop, Bollywood tracks, and Beyonce. “We really want a male belly dancer. We’re open to everyone and love to experiment,” Destiny Bingham (C '18), the club's president, emphasized.
This weekend Yalla’s show Cosmic will feature live drumming, swordplay, and astrology. “It’s a constellation of 12 pieces, each reflecting the different energies of the zodiac star signs,” Destiny explained. Every day this week from 8 p.m. to 12 a.m. they’ll be in Iron Gate preparing for the performance. Yalla puts on a show every year in the spring semester—check out this clip from last year's production of Carnaval.
The performers are a diverse crew, many of them never having belly–danced before coming to Penn. Olivia Greene (C '20) is an exception. She came to college knowing she wanted to belly–dance. “Applying to college, I researched schools with belly–dancing tropes. In the end it was between Brown and Penn for me.”
“It’s definitely possible for anyone to learn,” Olivia told me encouragingly. “But once you add lit candles and swords, it gets harder.”
On top of rehearsal, the club meets for two hours every week to practice techniques such as prop handling and difficult moves, one of which is called belly flutter. “It’s a combination of controlled breathing and ab muscle isolation. I still need to master it," Olivia said.
This year, Yalla finally achieved recognition by Student Activity Council after five years of petitioning for funding. SAC recognition means a huge boost to their budget and new opportunities to perform.
On April 14, Yalla will perform at the opening of the Middle Eastern wing of the Penn Museum. The club holds official auditions in the fall for drummers and dancers. Look out for free workshops this semester to learn the basics of belly–dancing.
But if you can't wait until April 14, catch Yalla's show on February 16 and 17. Lit candles and swords will be provided.
Penn Yalla presents Cosmic. $8 per ticket, available here.
Friday, February 16 and Saturday, February 17 at 8 p.m.
Iron Gate Theatre