Belly Dancers... Their Stories, Their Experiences and Their Confessions

Julia Zays' War Dance

Fact of the day: in the days of yore, knights used to don all of their armor and then engage in exercise and dance moves. Because the suits were so heavy, exercising in them helped the knights become quicker and more agile. Another tactic they used was shovel-gloving, in which a sledgehammer replaces a dumbbell during curls, lifts, and stretches.

Julia Zay of Virginia Beach knows this all too well; every Thursday she teaches six women how to complete the dance, called Balla Guerra (or war dance). But her students aren’t bulky warriors – they are lithe female belly dancers. Through a combination of war moves with Mediterranean, folk, and belly dance, these women create elaborate and carefully-crafted routines.

Zay was taking classes in both belly dance and martial arts when it suddenly occurred to her to mix the two. She did some research and finally decided to integrate swords, fencing, and sledgehammers into her dancing in 2005.

Most of the moves are set to Balkan, Southern Italian, and Neo-Medieval tunes. “The rule for music is that it needs to hit hard and preferably evoke a sense of struggle,” says Zay.
“Beyond that I leave it completely open to fate.”

Of course, with so much heav-duty equipment lying around, Zay is sure to implement the proper safety precautions. She practiced with a wooden sword in the beginning, and only switched to a real sword when she could successfully maneuver it without hitting herself in the head.

"Some [dancers] come to find empowerment, some come to get a more thorough workout, some really enjoy the historical dance movements that we do, while others just get a kick out learning combat dance," says Zay of her attendees. "The guys like it because it gives them a chance to show off their strengths while developing fluidity and body control. The girls love it because this dance doesn't put them into a stereotypical female role."

Zay currently doesn’t perform in a troupe, but she does collaborate with her more advanced students from time to time. She is developing an instructional DVD for both personal and military use, and is interested in creating a book about the history of Balla Guerra.

Read more about Balla Guerra from HamptonRoads.com.