SharQui Aims to Shake Up Perceptions


Oreet Jehassi Schwartz hopes to debunk the myth about what belly dancing is really about — particularly for women.

She grew up hating belly dance, but eventually it became a way for her to embrace her own heritage and empower other women. She’ll give women a taste of the fusion between belly dancing and fitness at Shimmy, Shake & Socialize at 5:30 p.m. on May 10 at the Kaiserman JCC. The event will feature mini classes with belly dance fusion, barre and cardio workouts by Schwartz and other instructors.

Oreet Jehassi Schwartz

A New York City native, Schwartz grew up in a Yemenite Israeli family, and was a dance major in college. She started teaching fitness classes in New York to supplement her work as a dancer and noticed a few problems with the trendy workouts that were on the rise.

“In dance, it’s about you mimic me, you follow. There’s not as much muscular or anatomical breakdown for the fitness enthusiasts, so I was like, ‘Hmm, how could I fix this?’” she said.

With her background in dance and finding herself getting burned out from the classes she was teaching, she wanted to do something more dance-oriented that would also benefit fitness enthusiasts.

“I really was craving dance and was craving dance where I looked the part, because as a contemporary dancer in New York City, I didn’t look the part at that time,” she noted. “They liked taller women, maybe women of a different color, a different size. This was in the ’90s, so it has changed now. So, I immediately thought belly dance.”

She created SharQui – The Bellydance Workout, which quickly grew in popularity in the New York area and spread to Philly once she moved here about four years ago after living in San Francisco for seven years, where she grew SharQui on the West Coast, too.

The workout has the structure of a fitness class with a warm-up, peak and cooldown, and also the dance elements.

In coming up with the name for the workout, she was inspired by the two-syllable sound of workouts that were becoming popular, like Tae Bo, as well as the Arabic technical term for belly dancing, raqs al sharqi.

She wants to change people’s perception of what belly dance really is about, citing its historical introduction at the World’s Fair in Chicago in the late 1800s and the inaccurate image people have of it today.

“I want to just educate people about what it’s really about,” she said. “It’s not a striptease; it’s not meant to seduce a man. It’s actually for women, and it’s an art form for women by women. It’s meant to show a woman what it feels like to be a woman through movement as opposed to saying it.”

From the event and the classes, which she teaches in the Philadelphia area four times a week, she hopes women walk out feeling empowered by their own bodies.

“Feeling that, ‘Wow, my body just did that?’ Or, ‘Wow, I can do it.’ Feeling that hopefully ‘I think I got my sexy back or I got my sensuality back or my body is beautiful when doing this dance,’” she explained.

She’s particularly looking forward to the instructors who will teach at the Shimmy, Shake & Socialize event — which will also feature cocktails, vendors and raffles and a portion of whose proceeds will benefit Soroptimist International of Rittenhouse Square — as they are all of Israeli, Palestinian and Lebanese backgrounds.

In addition to Schwartz, who belongs to Adath Israel, classes will be taught by Janelle Issis, the creator of JBelly Burn and a finalist on the ninth season of So You Think You Can Dance, and Soraya Doherty, creator of the RAQISA Belly Dance Training Mat and Balance Plate.

For Schwartz, bringing these instructors together is a way to show commonalities between their cultures.

“As you know, Israel, Palestine, Lebanon, we’ve been fighting for years — and still are,” she said. “And so first, I just want to show people that people of all different Arabian backgrounds can get together; this is our common denominator, is the dance. There’s no judgment, we don’t fight when we’re dancing.”

She also wanted to highlight that belly dancing is not “an Islamic artform,” as many may tend to think it is.

“It’s a cultural dance, not a religious dance,” she said. “So just pretty much my mission is to show people that we all can get together at peace, and we’re all cousins.” 

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