One ancient Roman poet described it as “lascivious loins in practiced writhings,” but we call the age-old art form “belly dancing.”

While the Oxford English Dictionary traces the first use of the term to 1899 as a literal translation of the French “danse du ventre,” Chicagoan Barbara Cargill (aka “Natasha”) says the name originated at the Columbian Exposition of 1893, when a veiled Middle Eastern dancer mesmerized audiences with her undulating midriff.

Like the visitors to the world’s fair, Cargill was bewitched the first time she saw a belly dancer 30 years ago. “It was in a Greek nightclub on Rush Street,” she says. “The movement was beyond anything I had seen before, so fluid and so essentially feminine and mysterious. There was no way in my body I could imitate that movement.” Cargill began combing Greek night spots searching for a teacher, but the dancers either didn’t speak English or refused. “They thought it was a closely guarded secret and didn’t want to pass it on. They didn’t want the competition,” she says.

Not very sisterly, considering that thousands of years ago in India and Egypt belly dancing began as an expression of female creativity, fertility, and spirituality. But the dance took on different forms as Gypsies migrated throughout the Middle East, Europe, and Africa. The form we now call belly dancing is a cabaret version that surfaced in the mid-19th century.

Cargill finally found her teacher five years later in a YMCA. She attended classes several times a week and within a year hit the stage at the Athenian Fireside in Elmhurst, where she performed with a live band. But the Greek music frustrated her, because she found it was either too fast or too slow. Another teacher turned her on to Arabic music, and Cargill started dancing in Arabian clubs, doing two or three shows three or four nights a week. “I quit my job as a medical technician and never went back,” she says.

She danced at Lebanese and Egyptian clubs on the north side and Jordanian clubs on the south side. “The clubs on the south side were mostly men,” Cargill says. “It wasn’t dangerous, but some people carried guns. Every once in a while a fight would break out and some musician would push me into the dressing room. That atmosphere made me stop working in nightclubs.”

Today, Cargill teaches, performs, and serves as artistic director of the Near East Heritage Dance Theatre based in Palatine. Belly dancing is only part of the troupe’s repertoire, which also includes drumming. In her classes, Cargill stresses what she terms the healing properties of belly dancing. “I tell my students, “Always come in when you’re depressed: the dance can lift the depression in ten minutes.”‘

Spanish dances like flamenco share their roots with belly dancing. Cargill’s troupe is teaming up with the Soul and Duende Spanish American Dance Theatre for a show of dances from Spain and the Middle East this Saturday at 8 PM at Roberto Clemente High School, 1147 N. Western. Admission is $12.50, $10 for students and seniors; call 489-5870.

Using such props as swords, urns, and veils, the Near East Heritage Dance Theatre will then perform bedouin and other Middle Eastern folk dances on Sunday at 7 PM at HotHouse, 1565 N. Milwaukee. Also on hand will be Cargill’s percussion group, Women Who Drum With the Wolves. Tickets cost $7; call 235-2334.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo/Michelle Litvin.