Fire in the belly

Rob Galbraith looks like a jock: tall, muscular and bearded, sporting slightly frayed sweats and sneakers. But then he slips a fringed scarf around his hips and suddenly becomes Valizan, a man determined to resurrect the ancient mystique of male belly dancing.

Ron Galbraith

KITCHENER, Ont. — Rob Galbraith looks like a jock: tall, muscular and bearded, sporting slightly frayed sweats and sneakers. But then he slips a fringed scarf around his hips and suddenly becomes Valizan, a man determined to resurrect the ancient mystique of male belly dancing.

“There used to be a lot of males who taught this and lots of males who did it, but in the last 20 years it’s been marketed as a female thing,” Galbraith says.

“In women, it’s all about empowerment. Well, men want to be empowered too.”

His website says: “In a field of estrogen stands a tree of testosterone.”

He admits he’s an anomaly, but insists there is no reason men can’t belly dance as well as women.

“We all have hips and legs,” he says.

The fortyish Galbraith lives in Hamilton, but teaches a dozen classes a week in Guelph, Waterloo Region and Stratford, a geographical zone he says has gone crazy for belly dancing.

Seen at his class at Blue Skies Yoga in Kitchener, Galbraith seems out of place in a studio filled with willowy women.

First he provides them with a woven hip belt that’s loaded with giant tassels. This is a beginners class and he wants them to feel the music and the sense of history as their tassels bounce and sway with each hip thrust and twirl.

Galbraith discovered belly dancing in 1994 at a Pennsylvania event held by the Society of Creative Anachronism, a group that re-enacts historical events. Thousands of enthusiasts had gathered for the annual Pennsic, where they play out fantasies of recreating history.

One evening as he walked by a campfire, Galbraith says, he was mesmerized by a group of belly dancers moving to the beat of drummers. They pulled him in to dance and the next two hours flew by in a dreamy haze of music and movement.

He had no idea that dance was about to change his life.

A veteran Toronto Sun reporter, he would soon trade pen and notepad for turban and sabre, reinventing himself as Valizan, a 14th-century Arab from Morocco.

Using connections he had made through the society, Galbraith threw himself into learning the belly dance basics. In 2004, he made his debut performance and the following year he was invited to teach a class at the Toronto’s Arabesque Academy. His new career had been launched.

“People take belly dance (lessons) and they think they’re good, but it takes a long time to get into the nuances,” Galbraith says.

“It took me five years before I knew what I was doing. For me it’s 40 per cent mental. You have to be in the moment, let the music flow through you.”

The early years of learning were not without hiccups.

He was rejected at studios where female students were not open to having a male in their midst.

“They wouldn’t let me in the studio. They were nervous having a man watch them, they won’t open up.”

The alternative was to take private lessons, so Galbraith signed up with the FatChanceBellyDance Studio, based in San Francisco, where he learned a fusion form of Middle Eastern improvisation called American Tribal.

Galbraith recently became the first male to graduate from FatChance’s teacher training course and today he is both a teacher and performer. His three-person troupe, Shades of Araby, performs at public events and weddings.

He loves performing, but would like people to better understand the dance form’s inherent value, to see it for more than its exotic appearance.

“Belly dance is more about yoga, about mind and body working together. When you dance, you become more aware of your body, more accepting.”

“It’s given me a lot of confidence I didn’t have before.”

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