Mystic Hips Belly Dance
2010
Mystic Hips recently had a news story published in the Courier Journal. Below is the story...

Snakes are a trademark of belly dancing troupe

When members of the Mystic Hips Belly Dancing Troupe reflect on their years of performing together, they tell stories about laughter, lessons learned and their love for the dance form.

And, more often than not, those stories will also include snakes.

The group, which is made up of four southwestern Jefferson County women between the ages of 29 and 50, uses snakes to add mystique to its performances while also striving to debunk myths about the reptiles.

The dancers are Pleasure Ridge Park residents Patt “Selimah” Stanfill; her daughter, Shannon “Safiyyah” Reed; Amy “Sameena” Gibson; and Valley Station resident Roberta “Soraya” Wise.

Stanfill, the group's founder, who got her first taste of belly dancing as a teen in the 1970s, recalled doing a show where she was performing next to a swimming pool.

“When I pulled out the snake, everyone moved back about 20 feet. Even the kids in the pool moved to the other side,” she said. “But when it was over, people came and wanted to pet him.”

The women acknowledge that snakes are not a part of Middle Eastern belly-dancing tradition; Stanfill said that the practice of incorporating live animals into such performances is more closely related to American carnival and fair performances of the 1800s.

But because all of the women own and care for snakes, involving the animals allows them to merge two loves.

All but Reed keep snakes in specially modified and secured areas of their homes. Stanfill has 11, Wise has two, and Gibson, whose husband is a snake breeder, cares for about 100. Most often, the members dance with ball pythons, boas and Everglades and Texas rat snakes.

And then there's Osiris, the 8-foot-long Argentine boa who worked the poolside event with Stanfill. Since the group began dancing with the animals about seven years ago, Osiris' celebrity has grown. So much so, in fact, that Stanfill can't help but laugh at how popular his online Facebook page has become.

“I started Osiris his own page a little while ago,” she said. “Now he has more fans than Mystic Hips.”

Gibson, a General Electric Co. manager, said encountering the animals up-close has the power to change minds.

“We educate the crowd on snakes, that they're not horrible monsters that will eat their children, because they're not.”

Clifton Community Council board member Janie Estes said the reptiles were very well-received by residents who came to the neighborhood's Harvest Festival in September.

“Everyone really liked it,” said Estes, who coordinated the festival event. “It's not something you see very often unless at an arts show or restaurant. They walked around with the snakes. It was really cool.”

Dancing with the snakes, however, is not for novices, the women say.

“You can't choreograph what we do with a live animal. Depending on the temperatures, especially if it's warm, they could be very active,” Stanfill said, adding that the dancer also has to protect the animal from a fall and avoid a lot of dance spins. “It can be like a belly-dance performance and wrestling match.”

But after a while, Wise, a 45-year-old cosmetologist and 11-year belly dance veteran, said the dancer and the animal can learn to move well together.

“It's pretty easy,” Wise said. “You just let them lead.”

With or without the snakes, the women credit belly dancing with improving their lives through higher self-esteem, artistic expression and exercise.

Reed, 32, grew up watching and helping Stanfill prepare and rehearse for shows. It wasn't until she was 14, however, that the Norton Healthcare financial analyst was able to overcome her shyness and perform, she said.

Challenges from multiple sclerosis haven't stopped her from performing. Louisville's belly-dancing community has, in fact, rallied around her as she deals with her illness.

“It's like a big family. They've held a benefit for me,” Reed said. “It's helpful … to keep active and keep fit. I love (belly dancing), and I want to do it even when I feel bad.”

For Wise, belly dancing helps fulfill a lifelong dream.

“I always wanted to be a dancer, but I'm not very limber. And when I was younger, we never had a lot of money for lessons or anything like that,” Wise said. “I'm not sure what it is about it. I just feel free.”

Gibson said belly dancing is also keeping her fit.

“It's not so much that I've lost weight as toned up. You learn how to roll your stomach muscles, and I can feel muscles in my stomach now I didn't feel before,” Gibson said.

Estes, meanwhile, says she was so impressed with Mystic Hips that she's eyeing them for another upcoming event — her wedding.

“My fiancé doesn't dance, so I think I'm going to need a show during the reception,” Estes said.

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