BEIJING — Belly dancing has long been associated with the Middle East, but there seems to be plenty of evidence to suggest that its future may be here in China. 

There has been a huge growth in popularity of belly dance shows, contests and schools across the country. A recent belly dancing convention in Beijing brought stars from around the world for a weekend of workshops and performances. 

Two dozen dancers are going through their routines at an afternoon class at the Wen Kexin Belly Dancing School, located in a plush new commercial complex on Beijing’s east side. 
Fan Hui Mi, 25, is a regular student here who, over her parents’ objections, gave up her white-collar job in financial services to become a full-time belly dancing teacher.

“They were really against me starting to belly dance because the outfits weren’t appropriate for a young Chinese woman,” she says. “But then gradually they changed their minds when they saw how artistic and pretty the dance was. And then they saw our performances on TV, and when I danced on a well-known TV show I know my mom was proud.” 

This belly dancing school was opened by former singer Wen Kexin, who learned to belly dance a decade ago when she went to Egypt to record a music video. Hers was Beijing’s first belly dancing club and school. Today she has 63 licenced belly dancing schools around China serving 100,000 students. 

“There are three kinds of people who learn belly dancing with us,” she says. “There are quite a lot who come to learn to be belly dancing teachers and open their own schools because belly dancing is hot right now. Secondly, we have students who want to be belly dancing stars. They don’t necessarily want to dance in bars or Arab restaurants, rather they want to join a dance troupe and perform in theaters and stadiums, which is popular in China. Many would like to be in my dance troupe or in another troupe called the China Belly Dancing Superstars. And then, finally, we have many students who dance to keep fit. For them it’s a hobby.” 

Tao Xue Lie, 30, a business graduate from Zhengzhou in central China, learned to belly dance in 2007. “When I started, it was very hard, but all students find it hard at the start. I had a very helpful teacher. She gave me encouragement, she kept saying, ‘Come on, don't worry, one step at a time, do it again.’ And slowly, slowly I started to build confidence and get better.”

After a week of special training in Beijing, she now sees her future as a belly-dancing tutor. She’s ready to set off to a new Wen Kexin Academy in the southern island province of Hainan. 

But it’s not just women who are taking up belly dancing in China. Yao Peng Bu, 32, is a male belly dancing superstar with his own Beijing school and a busy performance schedule. He travels regularly to the Middle East and around Asia to take part in workshops and performances. 

“I was talking with a famous Egyptian belly dancing instructor who told me that our belly dancing events are the best attended in the world,” he says. “She attends these events around the world. I have been to other countries, and I think our belly dancing is of a very high artistic standard. In Western countries the cost of staff and property are much higher, so they do things on a smaller scale compared to China.” 

Wen Kexin has big plans to grow the art form further in China. “Next year we’ll add five to eight more Wen Kexin academies in regional cities,” Wen says. “Also we’re planning a big Egyptian festival, and I plan to bring some of the biggest stars of belly dancing to China for performances and workshops.”