Shimmying through stereotypes

Ionah and the Head over Heels Dance Co. educate about Middle Eastern culture through belly dancing.

With colorful lamps emitting soft light over the darbukas and hookahs in the corner and Scheherazade staring into nothingness in the background, Ionah Raqs swings her raven hair in her 100-square-foot space of her living room that doubles as her studio.

‘Right, left, right over left,’ the Syracuse local instructs her students as she gracefully shimmies to the music of Hossam Ramzy, a Middle Eastern musician.

"[Belly dancing] is art. It is expression."
-Ionah Raqs

Ionah's dancing group, Ionah & the Head over Heels Dance Co., has a number of shows lined up in the coming months where they will be performing a mix of old and new routines.

Ionah, true to her Irish heritage, grew up dancing the Irish step dance, along with other styles like ballet and jazz. But she also grew up listening to Middle Eastern music.

“Back in the ‘60s and ‘70s, back in the days of women’s lib[eration], in the States, it was big for women to start belly dancing, and my mom picked up on that,” Ionah said.

It was only when Ionah moved to California in 2004 that her love affair with belly dancing began. Tired of putting her body through punishing exercise routines and looking for something fun, she turned to belly dancing and has not looked back since.

While balancing her graduate studies in conflict resolution at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University and her day job in healthcare, she practices and teaches belly dancing.

One of Ionah's students, former gymnast Kimberly Guanciale, was told by her first belly dancing teacher that she would go far in belly dancing because she was smart. After beginning lessons with Raqs, this comment suddenly made sense to her.

“You have to be smart,” Guanciale said. “You have to know the beats, the culture and so much more.”

Ionah says that women are often surprised after a few classes to learn that belly dancing isn’t just about “shaking it.” She noticed that even dancers in the local community often didn’t recognize the value in belly dancing and viewed it as an easy dance. Through Head Over Heels performances at community events and collaborations with other dance groups, Ionah aims to earn legitimacy for the art form.

Fearing she would be perceived the wrong way, Caitlin Woods, another of Raqs’ students, has purposefully kept her belly dancing a secret from coworkers at a local dairy, especially her male colleagues.

“People tend to think of it as a subdued version of stripping,” Woods said. “I can’t stand it.”

Ionah acknowledges the element of sensuality and cheekiness in the dance, but it irks her when it is perceived as strictly sexual.

“It is accidentally sexy.” Ionah said. “If you find it so, it’s on you not me.”

As a white woman who belly dances, Ionah feels a responsibility to represent Middle Eastern culture accurately to both her students and her audiences. With negative images against Muslims in mainstream media, Ionah hopes to combat Islamophobia through her dancing by sharing positive aspects of the Middle East that most people don’t see.

Tehmekah MacPherson, a dance professor at SU who has collaborated with Ionah, says Ionah is able to translate the power of movement as a meaningful form of expression. Macpherson said that one of Ionah’s workshops explained the historical context of Middle Eastern dance and described how certain steps were used as a form of protest and empowerment.

She sees Ionah as “a conscious ally” who is committed to honoring and connecting native and contemporary Middle Eastern dance forms.

“She owns her racial privilege within a colonial U.S landscape, and navigates the belly dance reality of popularized misconceptions,” MacPherson said.

In her efforts to learn more about Middle Eastern culture and improve her craft, Ionah has followed her mentor, professional dance coach Ahmed Hussein, as he toured America over the last few years. Though she makes enough money through performances and dance lessons to defray the cost of traveling for gigs, Raqs says she does not earn enough to make a living. Still, she is saving money to travel to Egypt to study belly dancing next year.

For Ionah, belly dancing has the ability to make women feel beautiful. For example, Woods, who considers herself a tomboy, regards belly dancing as the “only feminine thing” she does. When she put on fake eyelashes for the first time for a performance, she said she felt beautiful.

“I would never wear sequins, but dance costumes? I want them to be as sparkly as possible,” Woods said.

Ionah says Middle Eastern dances are more accepting of different body types and ages. But, for her, belly dancing is even more than an art form that empowers women.

“It is art. It is expression.”

Her next performance will be at the 3rd annual Holiday Show and Bazaar on Dec. 10 at 7:00 p.m. at the Recital Hall in Academic II, Onondaga Community College. Tickets can be purchased online at

You can find out more about Ionah, her dance classes and her upcoming performances at

Post new comment

* Field must be completed for your comment to appear on The NewsHouse
The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.