by Robert Hicks

My first encounter with belly dancing came in the third grade, at my elementary school Halloween Carnival. It left something to be desired. Since then, I have sat through belly dancing in Istanbul, Fez, and Marrakech. Hands down, the club in Marrakech was the winner. I’m not sure if what I saw would have passed muster with the purist, but it was amazing as women who seemed to have been airbrushed into flawlessness danced around us, some sporting a silver tray on their heads with a whirling circle of blazing candles. All this to say that I am probably not the perfect person to write on Robert McCurley’s new series of spectacular photographs and the book that has followed chronicling the rise in popularity of belly dancing here in Nashville.

As I am chin deep in writing these days and rarely come up for air, I should probably note that the rise in popularity of belly dancing in Nashville happened a bit under my radar of what’s cool or hip or even what’s happening, for that matter. I need to get out more. But while I may be out of touch these days, I am far from dead, and, despite my spotty past encounters with belly dancing, how could I say no when the folks at Nashville Arts asked me to write about McCurley’s images?

And so it was, when his photographs arrived, I will admit to being transfixed by the beauty McCurley had captured, somehow frozen in time and place. To paraphrase a character near the end of Altman’s Nashville, what I saw before me was not my Nashville! Thank goodness. Nor was I looking at a bunch of housewives desperately trying to lose weight. There before me was the panoply of a rich and ancient culture filled with beauty and grace. In the stillness and silence of McCurley’s images, a world filled with motion and sounds has come alive.

For over a year, McCurley photographed women linked in time and tradition with the oldest dance on earth. As I said, this was not an exercise class. There before him were teachers and professors, business professionals and bankers.

During those twelve months, McCurley came to realize that his work (and now the book born out of his work) is not about the belly dancers he photographed as much as about the belly dance they perform. The book is not a collection of portraits of belly dance performers as much as it is images of belly dance performances.

The magic in the images comes from how he has again and again caught the motion and life of the belly dance. There before us is a thousand years of beauty and grace.

Catch Robert McCurley October 20, 3 to 5 p.m. at The Arts Company for a special Salon Saturday presentation.

Click here to read the article in our full online magazine.

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