It all started with the hoochie-coochie girls at the Skowhegan Fair. When Eleanor Cain was a little girl growing up in the Somerset County town of Madison, her family made an annual pilgrimage to the sprawling agricultural fair at the county seat.
On the dusty midway, she remembers glimpsing the undulating dance of scantily-clad women, wiggling and swaying and beckoning to the men in the crowd to part with a few hard-earned dollars in exchange for unspecified pleasures beyond the curtained entry to the tent behind the dance platform.
The cheesy carnival setting, the tattered costumes, the unskilled moves of the underpaid dancers — it left a big impression on the small-town girl, a common impression she thinks has tainted the perception of belly dancing for many New Englanders.
“I really think it ruined belly dancing up here,” Cain, now 81 and living in Brewer, said in a recent interview. But that first impression must not have been not altogether negative. Years later, after she served a term in the U.S. Navy, married a sailor, moved to the west coast and then to Texas to study nursing, she found herself once again contemplating the art of the belly dance. But this time, it was in a more dignified setting.
She was in her mid-30s and taking pre-nursing courses at Texas Tech University in Lubbock.
“They had this multicultural festival on campus, with music and food and dancing from all over the world,” she recalled. “And out came this belly dancer.”
The dancer was beautiful and graceful, moving in a grounded choreography that was at once disciplined and free, with expressive hand gestures and astonishing, athletic control over her body — particularly her abdominal muscles. She wore an elaborate, flowing costume, heavy with sequins and mirrors, that conveyed femininity, wealth and power.
Cain was entranced. “I thought to myself, ‘When I get out of college, I’m going to take belly dance lessons.’”
And so she did.
Fast-forward a half-century or so and Cain thinks she may be the oldest practicing belly dancer in the country. Over the years, while she was living in Texas and working as a psychiatric nurse, she studied with different instructors, incorporating dance traditions from many areas of the world into her personal style, including northern Africa, Asia, Persia, Russia, Spain, Central America and Polynesia.
What these dance traditions share is a focus on the feminine power and control of the dancer as well as her intimate communication with musicians, singers, drummers and her audience. But the soul of authentic belly dance is in the Middle East, and Cain honors that tradition, with her costumery and technique, when she dances at area senior centers and other venues.
“It’s not so much about sex, exactly, as it is about fertility, eroticism and childbirth,” she said. “It’s about soft movements and control of the body.” When she dances, she typically wears an ornate bra weighed down with sequins, tassels and bells and a long black skirt, slit to the waist, with a red petticoat beneath. There’s also a multi-strand mirror chain for her hips, and, these days, a black mesh leotard that covers her torso and her upper arms.
“I gave a lot of my costumes away when I moved, because my body was changing,” Cain, who is petite, said ruefully.
Belly dance in Bangor
In Greater Bangor, belly dance is taught and performed by the Haus of Paradigm, a dance school and performance troupe established in 2005 by co-founders Ao Pineda and Jennifer Lee. The troupe enjoys an eccentric reputation for drama and flair, adapting their choreography and costumery to suit the venue where they’re performing.
For example, dancers from Haus of Paradigm lent a sexy, dangerous, campy vibe to the 2015 production of Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” by The Ten Bucks Theater, dressed as the undead “vixens” held in the dungeons of the vampire’s castle. At another event, a private business party, Haus of Paradigm dancers dressed as voluptuous, slightly intimidating mermaids when they took to the stage.
It’s all in fun, said instructor Lee, 43, whose dance moniker is “Zanjibal Zen.”
“We’re all drawn to the peacockery of what we do — the coin scarves, the fringes, the pure enjoyment of putting on a costume,” she said. And while Haus of Paradigm teaches men and women what it calls “fusion belly dance” — an amalgam of different dance traditions and styles — Lee said the goal is always for students to have fun while developing strength, endurance and control over their bodies.
Area residents of all ages sign up for lessons with Haus of Paradigm, which shares studio space at the Bangor Mall with the Ao Luxe Threading and Mehndi Bar. But many students are women in their 40s, 50s and older, Lee said, drawn by the promise of a gentle, all-over workout in a fun, accepting environment. Dancing helps build core strength and can alleviate age-related problems like back pain and sciatic nerve damage, she said. Being a little overweight is not a barrier to learning, enjoying and performing the voluptuous art of belly dance.
“People tell us it makes them more aware of themselves,” said Pineda, who is 40. “They stand taller, move their hands differently. … At a subconscious level, it makes them feel more feminine.”
Keeping the connection
For Cain, belly dance has become so important that she hasn’t been willing to give it up or break away from her longtime dance friends and connections in Texas. “I lived in San Antonio for 40 years,” she said, and the move back to mid-Maine after her second husband died in 2011, to live closer to her her sister, has been a tough transition.
To stay connected, she’s been taking online dance lessons from her instructor in San Antonio, who offers both pre-recorded lessons from her website and one-on-one live instruction using Skype. For the past few months, she’s been preparing to participate in the annual Give Belly Dance a Chance exposition in San Antonio, a three-day event of lessons, performances and demonstrations that draws dancers from near and far to an enthusiastic local audience. Cain thinks she travels the farthest.
“I learn the dances here,” she said gesturing toward her living room, “and then I’ll go down and say, ‘Where do you want me to stand in the ensemble?’ And after that, I’ll do a drum solo.”
The drum solo is a one-dancer demonstration of skill, artistry, muscle control and strength performed to live music. Cain has been at this so long, she’s not nervous about being alone in the limelight.
“This is my third time down [to the exposition],” she said. “It may be my last. It’s a long trip.” Still she added, she loves to dance to an audience and will continue to look for opportunities to perform in the Bangor area. “I’m 81 now,” she said, stroking the heavy decorative chain she’ll sling around her hips this weekend in Texas. “But I’m going to keep doing this until I can’t anymore.”