FACETIME- Belly believer: Shakti seeks inner dancers

"Its a great misconception that belly dancing exists to entertain men," says instructor and performer "Shakti." "In the Middle East, good girls dont perform for strangers in public for money.

Traditionally, belly dancing is done in the home for family members."
Still, men might be forgiven for being entertained. The exotic Middle Eastern form of dance, which introduced the exposed midriff and gyrating hips long before Britney Spears made them a fashion accessory, has enthralled them for centuries. Here in Charlottesville, Shakti is trying to change that perception.

To that end, Shakti (whose real name is Debbie Cole) lists the health benefits of belly dancing. "Its very low impact yet strengthens the muscles in the back, the abdomen, and the corset," she says. "My teacher was a grandmother, but she had the body of a teenager."
Indeed, its hard to believe that Shakti (who declines to give her age) is the mother of three.

"I started belly dancing after my first son was born in 1994," she says. "But I had always wanted to belly dance. There was something about it that called to me. I took to it like a fish to water."

Shakti– who describes where she lives as "the middle of nowhere" in Nelson County– teaches out of a downtown studio in the Glass Building. She has built up a following of about 20 belly dancing students, and she and her dance troupe, Cinnamon Phoenix, regularly perform dances inspired by the "myths of the psyche" such as the Phoenix myth.

So whats with the stage name?

"Shakti is the name of an Indian deity of the feminine principle," Cole says. "When I teach and perform belly dance, Im seeking to channel womens energy and womens empowerment."

Megan Vail, one of Shaktis students, can attest to that.
"Before I started working with Shakti, all my teachers taught a very conventional cabaret style of belly dancing," says Vail. "But shes opened me up to new forms. She taught me that once you understand how to harness your own energy in dance, anything is possible."

"I like it when a student finds her inner dancer," says Shakti. "When my students learn to control their physical movements through their mind's eye they begin to express their unique personality."

Vail also mentions that her teacher is great at organizing unusual events, such as all-women dances in the woods and henna parties. In fact, if you were to drive out to a farm just past the Boars Head Inn this weekend, May 20, you might think youd landed in ancient Baghdad.

"Its basically a Middle Eastern dance party," says Shakti of the upcoming "hafla" she helped organize. "Its girls gone wild Middle Eastern style."