Around 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday, March 10, members of the Starbelly School of Dance draw dark violet curtains across the large stage in the back of the Boise International Market. This hasn’t been their studio for very long; they moved here from their old space on the corner of Vista and Overland over the weekend.
Music starts up—an Arabian-sounding melody pumped up with hip-hop beats. As children run past the stage and families dine at the neighboring Ethiopian and Columbian restaurants, the sounds of finger cymbals, instructions and laughter emanate from behind the curtains.
At 7:15 p.m., the beginner and intermediate students leave the studio. Fourteen people—12 women and two men—sit in a circle. These are the official Starbelly Dancers and apprentices, who perform at events around the Treasure Valley like the school’s annual Big Bad-Ass Belly Dance show at the Visual Arts Collective. One of the men is Chad Rinn, the co-founder of Starbelly. At the head of the group is Chad’s wife Cecilia, Starbelly’s other co-founder as well as its head instructor and choreographer.
It feels at least ten degrees warmer inside the studio. The dancers have a lot of work to do tonight: In addition to rehearsing for a two-hour performance at the Market on Saturday, they need to start preparing for a 40-minute set at this year’s Treefort Music Fest.
Cecilia, Chad and four others stand up while the others move off to the side. The six dancers face the mirrors that line the back wall so they can study their movements. The music starts up again, and the dance begins.
Starbelly and Full Tilt Boogie
Before she started belly dancing, Cecilia Rinn had studied various dance styles for 18 years.
“I grew up dancing,” she said. “Mostly ballet but also some jazz and tap—I was really bad at tap.”
A couple of teenage pregnancies deferred her dreams of dancing professionally. She kept taking lessons, though, while working towards a bachelor’s degree in social sciences. One modern dance class at Boise State required her to choreograph her own piece.
“I started to seek out different dance forms to work into my choreographies,” she said. “I was curious about trying belly dance classes; I didn’t really know that much about it. And I was able to talk the community of (belly dancers) into giving me a lady’s name and number because nobody was teaching classes at the time that I was looking.”
The lady, who performs under the stage name “Ileana,” invited Cecilia to take private lessons at her home.
“I showed up at her house,” Cecilia remembered. “This beautiful, beautiful woman—had her little, I don’t know, maybe 2-year-old daughter running around her legs. There was a really beautiful presence about her. I think it was her essence that made me fall in love with belly dance.”
The fact that belly dancing offered greater longevity than other styles appealed to Cecilia as well.
“Most Raqs Sharqi (belly dance) artists hit their prime usually in their late 40’s or 50’s—that’s actually when they hit the pinnacle of their career and their dance form,” Cecilia said. “That really appealed to me. I was pretty young to start a career in belly dance in my early 20’s. I found a dance form that I could do for my life versus (being) all used up at a young age.”
Chad Rinn came to belly dancing much later than Cecilia did. He’d started learning Tensegrity or magical passes—a system of movements popularized by author Carlos Castaneda—when he met Cecilia in the early 1990s. The two pursued their own interests in dance before founding Starbelly in 2009 (Chad still offers classes in Toltec Energy Dance, a combination of magical passes, yoga and dancing).
The couple had collaborated on projects well before that, though: They formed the production company Full Tilt Boogie LLC in 2002 and worked together on the feature films “Half Ass Jig” (2003) and “Work In Sanity” (2008). Their documentary “Belly,” which examines the lives of seven American belly dancers, premiered at the 2008 Idaho International Film Festival.
“’Belly’ tells personal stories of what it is like to be a belly-dancer,” Cecilia wrote in a director’s statement for the film. “But more than that, it tells personal stories of what it is like to be woman. As women, we hold the fabric of society together. It is the unsung but heroic acts that keep the world spinning. It is the women who care for people on both sides of their passage in and out of this world. We work and care and love and give.”
Among the dancers at the Tuesday night rehearsal are two high school seniors, Autumn Whittaker and Taryn Duby. They both started taking classes at Starbelly two years ago.
“I knew I wanted to take dance lessons, and my mom didn’t want me to do hip-hop, for some reason,” Autumn said. “And then I remembered seeing belly dancers at Hyde Park, so I was like, ‘Oh, well, if I can’t do hip-hop, can I do belly dancing?’”
For her part, Taryn became interested in belly dancing when she came across a video on Youtube.
“I thought it just looked so beautiful and graceful,” she remembered. “All the women looked extremely happy while doing it.”
Both young women admitted feeling insecure about their lives when they signed up—Taryn cited body image issues in particular—but they don’t come across that way now. Talking with them, they’re thoughtful, articulate and friendly. The two friends credit their increased confidence to an after-school program offered at Starbelly called SEEDs (Self-esteem, Empowerment and Education through Dance).
Cecilia Rinn first became aware of SEEDs while arranging screenings for “Belly” across the U.S. She researched and reached out to Myra Krien, creator of the program and owner and director of Pomegranate Studios in Santa Fe, NM. The two set up a screening that coincided with a SEEDs fundraiser and the graduation ceremony for that year’s class.
“The girls, as part of their graduation ceremony, they danced, but they also talked about their experience in the SEEDs program,” Cecilia said. “There was a 14-year-old and a 15-year-old who got up and spoke to a big audience. They spoke and had their own voice and had their confidence—kind of blew my mind.”
The SEEDs program, which lasts nine months, focuses on girls aged 13-18 and breaks down into three segments: lessons in women’s health and nutrition; lessons in financial responsibility; and finally, lessons in career opportunities and societal engagement. Krien saw the need for a program like this as her belly dancing classes were becoming more popular in the mid-1990s.
“All the more mature women I was attracting kept saying to me, ‘I wish so much that I had met you when I was younger,’” she said. “And then I had all these young girls who were showing up and so desperately needed more than just to dance.”
Cecilia, for one, understands that feeling all too well.
“My teenage years were really, really difficult for a number of reasons,” she said. “Things that were inflicted upon me and choices I made. Either way, a lot of pretty bad stuff. Both of our sons had some issues when they were teenagers. I felt like if there was any way I could do the SEEDs program, then I had to.”
Cecilia became a certified instructor and organized her first SEEDs class in 2013. In that year and in 2014 she brought in a wide variety of guest speakers. These included an OBGYN, a gender specialist, a representative from Planned Parenthood, Shangri-La Tea Room owner Toni Hodge and Idaho Statesman arts reporter Dana Oland.
Linda Cates—who dances with Starbelly and whose daughter Lauren attended SEEDs classes with Autumn and Taryn—supports the program wholeheartedly.
“She was pretty reclusive and unsure about herself,” Cates said of her daughter. “Very awkward at school, with other people and that sort of thing. And she literally blossomed while she was in the SEEDs program.”
Unfortunately, Cecilia couldn’t get enough students for a 2015 SEEDs class.
“I really think one of the biggest problems is transportation,” she said, observing that Starbelly’s old studio was too far away from any high school to make it a convenient location.
She hopes to possibly hold the program at a local school (though she foresees a potential conflict over her insistence on teaching sex education) and to take advantage of the new studio’s close proximity to Borah High.
In the meantime, the Rinns hope to hold a SEEDs summer camp this year and are holding classes for Little SEEDs (girls aged 9-12) and SEEDlings (girls aged 5-8). They are also working on a documentary about SEEDs and other socially conscious belly dancing programs entitled “Belly Dance Warrior.” Eventually, Chad would like to arrange a Toltec SEEDs program for teenage boys as well.
Krien knows from personal experience the uphill struggle that Chad and Cecilia Rinn face.
“When I go to places in Santa Fe and I say, ‘We’re here to talk about SEEDs”—almost everywhere I go, people are like, ‘Wow, we know about that program. That’s cool!’ But it took me years to get that to happen. Years.”
In spite of the rain, a sizeable crowd of people finds its way to the Boise International Market on Saturday, March 14.
Cecilia Rinn comes offstage briefly during a 2 p.m. intermission. The crowd was fairly large at first, she says, but it petered out at the end of the first hour. Indeed, only a couple of families and a few passersby are watching when the second half begins.
The dances in the second hour include a solo number for Cecilia. Her fluid, seemingly effortless movements bespeak her 20 years of belly dancing experience. Taryn and another girl perform a dance together and smile at each other for much of it. Chad, Autumn and two other dancers go through a number they rehearsed last Tuesday flawlessly.
The crowd grows as the show progresses. Elementary school-aged girls dance along. Some of the Starbelly Dancers glance at the girls and smile before turning their attention back to their routines.
After the show, Cecilia talks with a group of four girls and tells them how to sign up for SEEDlings and Little SEEDs classes. When she finishes, they climb onto the stage and start running around.