Tania Luiz is a rare woman able to provoke hoots and screeches in a room packed with girls — and she does it all with her torso. The Osaka-based Portuguese belly dancing teacher and performer is profiting from a recent surge of interest in her art among Japanese females.
What goes by the misleadingly prosaic name of “belly dance” is called Oriental dance in its birthplace, Luiz explained in a recent interview. “It originated as folk dances in the Middle East and Near East. It has roots in Turkey, where by the 15th century there were already professional street dancers shaking metal castanets as they danced.”
In Cairo, she explained, life imitated kitsch, as shows emulating European musical cabarets sprouted in the 1930s. While the dances were based on Egyptian folk dance traditions, the dancers’ flashy costumes were patterned on Hollywood films on the “exotic” East.
Warm and voluble, quick to laugh and reportedly quick to anger (“although I’ve been working on that”), Luiz is also a knowledgeable spokeswoman for her art.
For those unable to visit Osaka for one of her performances, recordings on YouTube provide glimpses of Luiz as she shimmies and twirls. Her body undulating beneath scarves and her cymbal-clad fingers fluttering, she twists her head back so her wavy black hair reaches the floor.
Even when dressed casually, she is elegant and lithe. Her animated brown eyes, highlighted by liner extending horizontally from each lid, flash with emotion.
Luiz, 34, was born in Lisbon to a middle-class family living near a shantytown of Romany people. “They would sell their wares at the street market and when business was slow they’d take out their guitars and start to sing and dance. I watched them in awe as a kid and tried to imitate them,” she said.
“The Romany performers have so much passion and heart in their song and their dance. You feel that these people were born to do only that, like they’re dancing as though the world was ending. They’re astonishing.”
Her parents weren’t especially unconventional, but Luiz credits her paternal grandfather, a dance aficionado, and her maternal grandfather, a chef on cruise ships who traveled the world with his banjo and a pet monkey, for her passion and wanderlust.
As a child and adolescent, Luiz loved gymnastics, soccer and South American dance. She began a university course in biology but soon switched to dance, studying at a contemporary dance company for three years.
Luiz first encountered a live Oriental dance performance on a trip to Turkey. She recalled, “It was as if someone was speaking to me from an ancient time. Something just clicked for me. I loved the music, and I saw that this was a way to recycle energy to celebrate life.”
Deciding that Oriental dance would be her metier, she moved to Germany, home to a huge Turkish immigrant population, to study from Turkish and German dance teachers for a year.
She came to Japan by a circuitous route that first wound through Nepal and India. “I was interested in Tibetan Buddhism and Indian dance, so at age 24, I settled in Nepal and taught Oriental dance to expats, Indian residents and local Nepalese. I also performed in a few five-star hotels,” she recalls.
During her three years in Nepal she also studied Newari tantric dance and spent six months in India to learn the classical Odissi dance form.
After a brief sojourn to study meditation in Thailand, Luiz returned to Portugal, but the poor treatment Oriental dancers received there made her bristle.
Intrigued by Japanese Buddhism, she traveled to Tokyo in 2003. “At first I just saw the negative side of Japan. I thought the stress on people’s faces was written in neon. Working here is very easy once you start to understand things, though, and over time I have been able to create my own subworld.”
Today, Luiz teaches at two dance studios in Osaka and performs regularly two nights a week at a local Turkish restaurant. She also appears at festivals and occasional concerts.
“Performing is the ultimate challenge. You feel that you’re facing danger each time, since everyone is looking at you, yet ultimately you can conquer your fear,” she said.
Teaching and performing before Japanese have their own challenges. “During performances the Japanese audience can see that my costume is a bit risque, that I’m dancing from my soul. They may be surprised that I’m not being cute or demure but dancing more like an animal. I think they’re fascinated.”
“Oriental dancing has evolved based on the culture and physiology of Mediterranean nations. It’s based on the way small-waisted, wide-hipped Mediterranean women walk and sway, but in exaggerated form, celebrating the body,” she noted. “That can be a difficult fit with shy Japanese. Women here are often told that they’re not pretty enough; they lack confidence and may be terrified of showing their feelings.
“Japanese sensuality is minimalist and refined, without a lot of facial expression or range of movement with their eyes. They need to learn to flirt with their eyes and their smiles. I demand that my students allow themselves to smile when they dance. And I joke with them until they relax.”
Luiz now has about 150 students in the Kansai region, almost all women from their 20s to their 60s. They start by learning to isolate and move different parts of the body. “It looks easy but students are surprised by the effort required,” she said.
Those who stick with it often find that after learning to roll their pelvis and release their lower backs they walk straighter and with more confidence. Her students have attested that Oriental dance helps to relieve problems ranging from incontinence and menstrual pain to constipation and even ovarian cysts.
“I’m proud that I’ve helped develop a positive image of Oriental dance in Kansai, and some of my 500 former students are now performers or teachers themselves,” she said. “Three of my students now perform with me, but their style is completely different — Egyptian, which is romantic, with the focus on the song lyrics and the singers. My style is more acrobatic and based on Turkish songs, which are either slow or very fast. Turkish dance is basically an exhibition of virtuosity and it focuses more on the musicians.”
“I like the fact that in Oriental dance, unlike ballet, there is almost no upper age limit. When someone has been dancing for a long time, they’ll bring some magic to their performance that a younger dancer doesn’t yet have. Oriental dance accompanies you throughout your life, and your art matures as you do,” she said.