A belly dance craze is sweeping the capital of communist Vietnam, dropping jaws, lifting spirits and – the dancers say – empowering women through a new mode of self expression.
Since the sensual Oriental dance arrived in Hanoi two years ago, six dance groups have popped up and more than 1,000 women have joined, among them students, businesswomen, journalists and even a police officer.
I ve lived in many places in Asia – Hong Kong, Shanghai, the Philippines, India – but in Vietnam belly dancing took off faster than anywhere else, said Ara Hwang, the South Korean choreographer who brought the dance to Hanoi.
I came here from Shanghai to teach salsa and I saw that Vietnamese women are attractive and have lots of passion, so I thought, why not belly dancing? she said, sitting in the bamboo cafe of her Apsara dance studio.
Hwang said she was surprised to see how the dance form, born centuries ago in the harems of the Middle East, struck an immediate chord with modern women in urban Vietnam, a society now undergoing rapid change.
In Vietnamese culture, traditionally you are not supposed to show your feelings, she said. But I know Vietnamese women have a very, very strong character, and this has given them a way to express themselves.
It s boosted my confidence, said Huong Giang, a newspaper journalist who got hooked after taking a belly dance course to write a story. It s kind of erotic and exciting, and it s separate from your normal life.
Not everyone here initially shared the enthusiasm, and some fathers, husbands and boyfriends took some convincing, the dancers say.
At first my boyfriend didn t want me to perform, said Nguyen Kieu Trinh, a marketing student who said she first dreamt about belly dancing when she watched Middle Eastern and Indian movies as a child.
But he saw how I felt the change in my body and in my mind, and that I feel happier, and now he really supports the belly dancing.
Apsara runs a dance troupe for women aged mostly in their 40s, named Hoa Sen (Lotus), and even their husbands, after some initial grumbling, now feel proud to see their wives express their emotions and femininity on stage, said Hwang.
In the beginning, people often think this is something you see in a disco or in a bar, but we don t care, said Hwang. We educate them with our attitude, and people are starting to change and understand.
The mind shift seems to be working. More than 500 people showed up this month for Vietnam s Second Belly Dance Festival, held in the Sum Villa, a former state residence that is now one of Hanoi s swankiest venues.
Through thick clouds of shisha pipe tobacco smoke, in a room laid out with Oriental carpets, the audience was spellbound by the gyrations of Apsara s Bastet Douat troupe and groups called Sahara, JAWA, and Esmeralda.
The show even featured Vietnam s first male belly dancer, KevinQ, who impressed with his dramatic and moody Tribal Gothic solo performance.
For the event to go ahead, the government s usually prudish cultural guardians – best known for chopping risque scenes from Hollywood movies and torpedoing swimsuit contests – had to give the green light.
It wasn t clear from the beginning, said Hwang. But they came to the rehearsal, and in the end they accepted that this is an art.
Vietnamese people are very open-minded, especially the women, she added. In two years, so much has changed. I feel like this is a revolution.