By Stacey Dresner
HARTFORD – During her very first belly dancing class Yoelit Hiebert knew within minutes that she had found something that would forever become a part of her life.
“I remember saying to myself, ‘I want to learn how to do this! This is what I want to do for my hobby, for fun, and as a creative and spiritual outlet,” she says.
That was 20 years ago. Since then, Hiebert, who lives in Hartford, has studied, performed, and taught the art of belly dancing to hundreds of women — including those in the Hartford area who take one of her workshops or see her perform live on stage, or take her Belly Dance Blast class at at Elmwood Community Center in West Hartford.
And she says belly dance is about more than swinging your hips.
“Belly dance is different from other styles of western dance where the body acts as a unit and there is a lot of emphasis on the arms and legs. Think about ballet and all of the jumps…and the music is somewhat incidental,” Hiebert explained. “In belly dance the focus is on the core, but there is an emphasis on isolation of different parts of the body – isolating the belly, or the core, as well as isolating the top and bottom parts of your body. That requires strength and flexibility. And your body is interpreting the music that you are hearing. It’s not a one size fits all kind of thing. As you progress, you need to be able to listen to the music and interpret it through the moves.
For Hiebert belly dance is also about empowerment.
“It really provides a sense of control over your body and feeling that sense of control over your body then translates to more of a sense of control in your everyday life,” Hiebert explains. “I really feel an empowerment — a connection with this sort of mystical vibration, knowing that this is something women have practiced for a very long time, this form of dance is almost to me a form of prayer. I don’t know that everyone feels that way. But it’s that intense for me and that meaningful.”
Belly dance reportedly began thousands of years ago in Egypt, spreading through the Middle East to countries like Turkey and Lebanon, which put their own spin on the dance form.
And its initial purpose, unlike how it has been portrayed in Hollywood, was not seduction.
“There’s varying theories as to the origin,” Hiebert says. “One of the most prevalent theories is that these movements were originally part of a fertility rite. Certainly, the movements do seem to be helpful in preparing the body for childbirth. It’s been passed down by mothers to their daughters for hundreds and hundreds of years in the societies where it first started.”
Born and raised in St. Louis, Missouri by Israeli parents, Hiebert was enrolled in ballet classes when she was five years old. “I really took to it, but then around the age of 15 or so, I think puberty hit. My body was changing, and it wasn’t such a good fit anymore.”
Encouraged by her father to be independent – “He used to say, ‘Women should have a trade!’” Hiebert recalls – she went to the Missouri University of Science and Technology and became an engineer.
She hadn’t danced for a while when she was sitting in a hair salon one day reading a magazine. She had been having back pain and noticed an article about belly dancing and how it eases back pain. She signed up for a class at a local dance studio and fell in love.
“It has been 20 years and I haven’t looked back,” she says.
She started doing performances at festivals, showcases and private events like showers and parties seven years after she began studying the dance form and began teaching classes 10 years ago.
Now divorced, Hiebert relocated to Hartford a little over two years ago to be halfway between her two grown children – a son and his wife in Albany, N.Y. and a daughter in the Washington, D.C. area.
“I see them quite often and I love Connecticut!” she exclaims.
She works for an electronics manufacturing firm in Southington, but once a week teaches a Belly Dance Blast class at the Elmwood Community Center in West Hartford. She also is available for performances and runs workshops.
Hiebert dances under the name “Delilah.”
“Most dancers, once they get to a certain level, pick a stage name. Usually, it’s something meaningful to them personally. Delilah was my maternal grandmother,” she explains. “She was from Iraq. Even though I only met her a few times because she was in Israel, I really felt a connection to her and to that aspect of my background and so that’s why I picked her name.”
Dafna Cramer of West Hartford recently took Yoelit’s belly dance class in Elmwood.
“It was totally different from any exercise class I ever took,” Cramer says. “I was sure it was going to be very difficult for me to get into it, but it’s actually perfect for my age and for people who cannot do aerobics. I have a knee problem and I cannot jump around. It was perfect. It was relaxing, almost like mixing exercise and yoga together.
“Yoelit moves like she doesn’t have any bones in her body, it’s unbelievable,” Cramer adds. “She is very calm, and she projects this energy to you so you feel comfortable going to the class. So, even though I am the worst dancer in the world I didn’t feel like I was sticking out and didn’t belong. She welcomed everybody. It was like a great atmosphere like we were meeting a group of friends.”
Hiebert says she always sees a growing confidence in her students as they progress through classes.
“At the beginning of the last session there was a lot of self-consciousness, but by the end that had diminished to a great degree,” Hiebert says. “When I teach, I really try to emphasize that we’re there to forget about the day-to-day aspects of our lives — the aggravation and the frustration. We’re just there to experience the joy of moving our body to the music. You have to kind of turn off your mind and not relate to it intellectually, but more through your gut and through your inner self. And the difference from the first class to the last class with this group of women being able to channel that was really dramatic.”
Hiebert also agrees with Cramer that belly dance is for women of any age.
“The movements are very harmonious with the body. There’s not a lot of jumping and no high impact kinds of movements. So, you can practice this dance form indefinitely and make a contribution in terms of expressing yourself through your dancing.”
Cramer, an Israeli whose family comes from Libya, took the class with her daughter Zoe. “My daughter was proof that I have the roots of an Arab country in me because she can move. I cannot,” Cramer laughs.
Hiebert.’ So, there’s a sort of barrier that has to be broken through,” Hiebert said. “This is a universal, beautiful, feminine, empowering dance form. And anyone can enjoy it.”
In fact, “Delilah” led a belly dance workshop for the Sisterhood of The Emanuel Synagogue earlier this month. On a Sunday afternoon Hiebert led Sisterhood members through basic belly dance moves on the dance floor in the synagogue’s auditorium, then gave them a brief history lessons about the art of belly dance.
“When I heard about this I thought it would be a lot of fun,” said Sandra Myers, who does programming for Sisterhood. “The women who came really enjoyed it. There was a mixed range of women ages from the 40s to those pushing 70. It was fun and definitely a good bonding experience.”
Hiebert’s next 8-week session of classes at the Elmwood Community Center begins Jan. 19.
“I really gear my class more toward perfection of technique, but more than that it is a chance to be unplugged for an hour and experience the joy of dance and learning this art form.”
Main Photo: Belly dancer Yoelit “Delilah” Hiebert