How Belgian uses dance to empower women, girls

“A few years ago, I was going through a difficult time personally. I was still teaching my weekly classes and all of my students are women.

“During this time, I felt a kind of support network energetically from my students which gave me a lot of strength. It made me think of this idea that women around the world have a universal connection which can be a source of inspiration for us all.”

Hilde Cannoodt is a dancer, choreographer and teacher from Belgium. With 15 years of professional experience as a performer and dance instructor, she is a highly skilled individual who specialises in many fields of dance.

She is a fusion dancer at heart and loves combining different cultures through dance. At the root of her love for dance is her deep love for Egyptian dance, mostly known as belly dance. It is the glue that continues to hold everything together, no matter where her travels and where her interests might take her.

For two years now, Hilde has regularly been coming to Rwanda to visit her father and in September 2018 she moved to Kigali to immerse herself in teaching dance to Rwandan girls and women.

Every Monday at the Root Foundation, located in the Suburbs of Batsinda, Kagugu, young girls gather in groups to learn belly dance. She teaches the younger group of girls aged 5-10 and the older group aged 10-17.

With the help of a translator, Hilde takes the groups through the thoroughly choreographed dance-rehearsal session and watches, as the seemingly energetic girls swing their waists and master to sync the movements. They are preparing for the annual talent show at Root House, slated for December 22. This, she says, will give the children something to aspire to.

Djasumini Mukantwari, 12, is one of the students learning belly dance at the Root Foundation. She was inspired by the moves that looked quite unique to her and decided to join the class.

“I was inspired by the femininity in the moves and was eager to learn. They are quite easy to master and fusing them with the Kinyarwanda dance is beautiful. I’m glad that we are learning many kinds of dance moves that will empower us,” she says.

Inspired by Ingoma Nshya, an all-female drummers group based in Huye, Hilde decided to start up an all-female dance company. On Fridays they rehearse together and their current focus is mainly on learning new dance techniques in contemporary dance and Egyptian dance.

“They are all aspiring professional dancers and therefore very motivated. In Rwanda, it is hard to find any dance training apart from traditional dance and urban dances, so these rehearsals give them the opportunity to learn new skills both in technique and creative work.” she explains.

Another project Hilde is working on is in partnership with Ready For Reading, a Not-for-profit organisation that seeks to foster the culture of reading in Eastern province, where she started working with a group of rural women.

Every month, she teaches them belly dance choreographies which they continue to work on even in her absence to perfect the dance routines.

“The women really connect to this dance. This is a community dance project that helps women express themselves through dance and creates connection and unity,” she says.

Women are able to express themselves through belly dance and unleash their godesses. Photos by Sharon Kantengwa 

Female connectedness through dance

Hilde says that even though Egyptian dance is not only performed by women, it is usually women that are drawn to come to her classes.

“There is something very feminine about the movements. We use a lot of torso isolations and many of the women and girls that I work with feel better about their bodies so belly dance often helps promote a positive body image, feeling confident, feminine and connecting with your goddess inside.

“I want them to feel more confident, more empowered in their lives even when they step out of the dance studio.”

“It gives me energy when women are together and I feel very connected to them when we dance. We create a safe space where we can share stories or the things that we struggle with on a daily basis as women,” she says.

Oozing a cheerful disposition, Hilde shares her vision for her projects: “my vision is to eventually create work so that I can give the dancers a voice and tell stories through movement, because sometimes it is hard to express ourselves with words.

“Dance can sometimes do it much better than words ever could. I think it’s very healing emotionally and spiritually. I’m very passionate about dance and women and bringing it all together just made sense.”

15- year- old Fiette Murebwayire, another of the students, is learning belly dance with enthusiasm. She is a regular student of the traditional dance class at the Root Foundation.

“Belly dance makes me feel different because I use the whole body and helps relax my mind. I hope to master all the moves and teach other girls when I get a chance,” she shares.

One of Hilder’s other projects include working with local musicians and dancers to create a fusion between Kinyarwanda culture and Egyptian culture, called Inanga Taxeem. For her, both aesthetics in music and dance really work well together.

She is also creating a dance retreat in collaboration with Intayoberana, a cultural dance troupe, directed by local dancer Aline Sangwa.

In January, eight women from different parts of the world will come to Rwanda to learn both belly dance and Kinyarwanda dance, to learn about Rwandan traditions and history, to explore the beautiful landscapes and to meet the children at Root Foundation, offering an experience both for local dancers, the children as well as the visitors.

“My philosophy is to bring cultures from all over the world together, to create a platform where art and beauty can unfold,” she says.