Barefoot young women cluster in the middle of Northeastern University’s dance studio, helping newcomers tie large, colorful coin scarves around their waists. The steady beats of Egyptian baladi music slowly fill the room, and the girls begin swaying to the rhythm.
The Northeastern University Belly Dance Club has become a place for students of all ethnic backgrounds and religions to explore the art form together, said club president Rebecca Mueller (’18). Despite the club’s origins at Northeastern Hillel, she said, participants come from every corner of campus.
“The majority of students who come are not Jewish and are not part of Hillel. It’s definitely opened us up to other cultures and other dancers,” Mueller said. “We have a dancer who’s from Egypt, who studies here now, and she wanted to dance, so she just looked up our club and came.”
Jackie Dratch teaches a belly dancing class at Northeastern University Hillel. (Photos by Dylan Lindeberg, Eagle Sight 2016)
Niloofar Jalali is one such non-Jewish member. She received a doctorate from Northeastern in December 2016 and now does postdoctoral research at nearby Harvard University. Even after graduation, she remains in the belly dancing club.
“I really love the environment and all the people,” Jalali said. “It was a very good experience for me to have this experience at Northeastern and attend this. I learned a lot, and I really want to keep on learning.”
Jalali, who came to the United States for school in 2010 from Iran, said she identifies as a Muslim, but has enjoyed learning about Judaism from the other dancers.
“When I first came here, I found that it was Jewish, but I like to know more about these [Hillel] events and everything,” Jalali said. “I follow some of the posts on Facebook and Instagram as well. It’s very interesting to me.”
Brianna Caleri, ’17 joined the group because she was interested in learning belly dancing, but stayed for the relationships.
“The group has really tight relationships. It’s nice to feel like I have a group here — I gained a sense of responsibility,” Caleri said. “It was really fun to learn the choreography even though I was the most confused.”
Caleri said she even attended a few Hillel programs after learning more about Judaism.
“I don’t identify with any religion, really, but Hillel is so great,” Caleri said. “I’ve gone to a few different events and it’s nice to feel like I’m not just crashing the party.”
Jackie Dratch, Hillel’s Israel Programs Coordinator and the group’s teacher, said the club’s diversity was apparent from the very beginning.
“It attracted students from all different religions and all different backgrounds,” Dratch said. “I wanted to bring something to Northeastern Hillel, but instead something formed for the entire Northeastern community.”
Student Rebecca Mueller said she remembers finding out Dratch was a belly dancer during their August 2015 Birthright Israel trip.
“This was the first time that any of us had met Jackie and she told us that she belly danced,” Mueller said. “It was her fun fact at the airport, when she introduced herself — that she belly danced.”
Once back on campus, Mueller said Dratch planned a class in the Hillel House’s basement, and eventually opened it up to the greater Northeastern community and moved to a dance studio.
Members of the Northeastern belly dancing club follow along to the music.
Nicole Goldstein (’19), a 2016 Birthright Israel alumna and past president of the club, said the idea for the belly dancing club started with students.
“Last fall, Jackie [Dratch] was just going to do a trial class in the basement of Hillel, but so many people wanted to come, so we asked her to keep teaching,” Goldstein said. “It became weekly and we formed a little group. A few of us decided to start a real club.”
The club soon grew to 20-25 regular participants, and at the end of the spring 2016 semester, three student choreographed a routine to dance at AfterHours, a performance space on campus. Goldstein filed paperwork for club recognition and the group became official last December.
Now the club has practices on every Tuesday and rehearsals for performances every Thursday. Two performances are in the works for this semester: an event with Hillel combining Moroccan belly dancing with Passover and a performance at a Cambridge restaurant called The Middle East at the end of April.
“(The Middle East) is a really good environment for people to dance in because everyone who goes there is so into it and the audience is amazing. It’s kind of like open-mic style,” Mueller said.
Mueller said she incorporates diversity by experimenting with different belly dancing styles. For one performance, she’s looking at a form called shaabi, which she described as street-style belly dancing often performed in jeans or casual clothing.
Mueller said one of the best parts of the club has been the ability to engage with people she never would have known if the club had stayed within Hillel.
“We just reach so many people that I have never seen before in my life,” Mueller said. “I don’t know who they are, but they come, and they love it. It brings together a group of people that otherwise wouldn’t have met.”
Jalali said back home in Iran, she took a belly dancing class when she was 18 and loved it. Now, she’s excited for the opportunity Hillel has given her to continue dancing.
“It’s happy dancing. It fills me with happiness.”