Ashley Lopez: A Symphony of Talent

by Amy Smith
Ashley Lopez returns to Portland (ME) in October, courtesy of the lovely Heather Powers, for a 5-day Performance Intensive! Ashley took the time to answer a few questions for us. All photos by Micah Reese.
I think that you are the first dancer we have interviewed who has an opera background! How did that training support your dance?
Strangely enough, my background as a singer/musician has been incredibly beneficial to me as a dancer.  In college, I was required to study not only singing technique but also music history, music theory, music composition, ear training, acting, and pedagogy. As a dancer, I apply all of this training to dance.  Musicality is incredibly important to me. When I hear a piece, I’m listening for all of the layers within it: rhythm, melody, harmony, instrumentation, dynamics, structure. In music composition, we were required to write music using computer programs so it was a sinch to start editing my music for dancing. Studying music theory and ear training gave me the skills to pick out rhythmic patterns quickly, which is extremely helpful when it comes to improvising drum solos or playing zil patterns.
My experience performing in the opera helped me to understand what it means to effectively portray a character, tell a story, and how to communicate with an audience from the stage. I also observed costume designers, makeup artists, and hairstylists at work backstage. This taught me a great deal about aesthetics on big stages and influences my choices of costuming, hair and makeup to this day. I learned a lot about how to prepare big pieces, how to work with stage lights, and have had experience performing in many different kinds of theaters and other venues. Being a part of a professional company also taught me about teamwork and rehearsal techniques.
What is your teaching style and approach? What are your primary goals for your students?

Well, pedagogy was part of my college education and I understand several theories about effective teaching methods, but mostly I’ve learned about teaching by having incredibly gifted teachers myself. My first voice teacher has been the single most influential person in my life. My goal as a teacher is to not only help people become better technicians and performers, but to help people become better humans. 
First and foremost I want people to enjoy my classes. I want them to feel they’ve entered a safe and supportive space where they can leave the stresses of their daily life at the door, to be free to learn, make mistakes, and grow. 
The way that I break down movement and structure my classes comes largely from my education in the fitness world. I studied cueing, class construction, and anatomy in yoga teacher training; pilates certifications, therapy workshops and other various fitness formats like cycling where BPM is really important for things like interval training. I want to get my students moving and teach them about their bodies, how they work, how to develop safe and effective dance technique, and how to be more fit and healthy. I also want to help guide people toward their goals, dance or otherwise, and coach them on time management, self-care, and balance. I hope to be a good example to students if their goals are athleticism, teaching, or performing.
One of your workshop topics for October is stage presence. That is one of those things that is hard to define, but you know it when you see it. What does it mean to you, and how do you help your students to understand it?

Yes, that's a tough one to define. In my mind, the term stage presence implies several things: confidence, charisma, skill, and poise. If a performer is trying to portray a character, good stage presence means they are successful in maintaining that character throughout; they’re committed to the character and the audience can clearly identify their character. If a performer is telling a story, the audience can follow. Most importantly, a strong performer with skillful stage presence will be able to create a mood, command a captive audience, and leave them feeling something - so they have something to talk about or think about afterward. 
When I teach stage presence to dancers, I use a variety of exercises and games to help them get out of “technique and choreography brain.” Stage presence goes beyond the motions of the dance. Of course, this means that a dancer must have a strong enough technical foundation and must know their choreography (or be able to improvise) well enough to think about communication, characterization, musicality, and poise.  So as not to overwhelm performers, I break down each of these concepts separately, depending on the workshop or experience level of performers. We’ll play character games, work with portraying various emotions, discuss entering and exiting stage. Other layers include working in groups, creating an aesthetic, understanding stage lighting, and how to work within various venues.
Who are your biggest dance influences, and why?

In terms of dance influence, my greatest influence comes from my dance teachers--the people I was so drawn to that I sought them out to teach me what they know. I have spent the most time learning under Rachel Brice and Zoe Jakes. Both have been incredibly supportive and they’ve offered me countless hours of guidance in all aspects of dance and performance. Not only are they great teachers of technique, but they are kind, have mountains of experience, and they are both (in my humble opinion) aesthetic geniuses. They’ve helped me with the big things: form, technique, choreography, pedagogy, but also with a myriad of little things: how to pack for the road, how to do makeup and hair, how to store my stuff at home, how to manage those huge dance calluses. I even got a dress form from Zoe one Christmas - never knew what a huge help that would be until I had one. Rachel has shared several tips on sewing, how to get all that metal through the airport security, showed me what a bun pin is. And those are just dance-related things. There’s tons of other things they’ve shown me!  I could probably write a novel but I’ll stop there.
Other teachers I've studied with have all influenced me in different ways. I have studied quite a bit with Mira Betz. I absolutely adore Amy Sigil. Early on I was able to study with Jill Parker and Heather Stants. This community is just filled with the most amazing, hard-working, intelligent, and creative people.  
Other influences include taking contortion classes or studying other dance forms and watching plays, operas, and circus shows.
What's playing on your iPod?
Ha! I destroyed that thing long ago. I’m more of an internet-streaming gal these days. I also hunt for lesser-known music from newer artists or non-Western artists. But I’m currently combing through Sufjan Steven’s new album on my best friend’s recommendation (I’m not sure how I feel about it just yet). Love Ray Lamontagne and Mumford and Sons. I am not ashamed to admit that I often rock out to bad pop music, especially while lifting weights. If I’m sewing I’m likely to put on some house or breakbeats, or bizarre electronica. I adore heady jazz, anything with syncopation, and I always keep Chopin and Beethoven nearby. The Eroica Symphony is my personal theme song. One can have an entire symphony for a theme song, right?



Drive-by Interview: Fun Folkloric Facts with Nahara and Uza Mitra

The roots of all belly dance styles are firmly embedded in the folkloric dance traditions of the Middle-East, Mediterranean, and North Africa. Tava Nayin (CT) hosts a workshop on May 31st featuring two teachers of folkloric dance: Uza Mitra (Iraqi dance) and Nahara (North African Berber dance). (Tava will also teach a session on 9/8 musciality.) 

Uza and Nahara graciously sat down and answered some of our questions about the history and style of the dances they will be teaching. 

Uza Mitra on Iraqi raqs el kawliya

What exactly is Iraqi "raqs el kawliya"? How does it compare with other Middle-Eastern folkloric dances? 

"Raqs El Kawliya" is an umbrella term that refers to a fusion of Iraqi dance styles performed by the Kawliya (Dom) dancers of Iraq. Traditionally "Kawliya" dance is closely associated with Southern Iraq and the "Hecha" dance style. However, nowadays the dance also includes vocabulary from other folk dances and musical styles of Iraq such as Choobi, Hewa, Basrawi (Khashaba), and Amarah. 

Though raqs el kawliya incorporates elements of raqs sharqi, such as hip movements and shoulder shimmies, it is much earthier, and involves less isolation as the movements reverberate more throughout the body. There is a lot of foot work and a tendency to push and propel to and from the ground. Head slides and hairwork also also typical, but the dance doesn't come from the head, but rather travels from the feet up. Daggers (Khanjar) and finger cymbals (Chumpara) are also used as props from time to time. 

What is traditional dress for raqs el kawliya?

Like everywhere else in the world, Iraqi fashions change over time. Back in the 50's you would often see Kawliya dancers wearing  typical 1950's tailored waist swing dresses, and sometimes a traditional "Hashimi" (Iraqi thobe) over the dress. You might see a traditional or modern jalabiya, or even tight or loose fitting evening dresses, which can be plain or embellished. Though dresses are most common, in contemporary settings you will also see pants or jeans. All these can be worn with or without  a hip scarf or beaded belt. Gold jewelry from India is also a favorite of the Kawliya performers in Iraq. The famous Iraqi dancer Malayeen sometimes even wears a raqs sharqi style two-piece similar to the modern Egyptian costumes. Ultimately, what a dancer wears has mostly to do with performance setting and their own personal style.

Learn more about Uza here

Nahara on North African dance

First, some history to get you oriented:

North Africa (aka Maghreb, Tamazgha, Numidia) refers to the countries west of Egypt and extending into the northernmost part of the Sahara Desert: Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya. Traditionally these countries are Berber (Amazigh) territories, but due to many invasions by other cultures over thousands of years, the native Amazigh culture has been greatly influenced by outside groups. Amazigh language, dance, music, and food have all been affected, but the core of Amazigh culture remains. The dominant language spoken in North Africa today is Arabic but the Amazigh language (Tamazight) is often spoken at home and used in traditional music.

How common is the 6/8 is North African dance? What sort of technique does it require?

There are many different rhythms used throughout North Africa but the 6/8 rhythms are very common in the popular music of the people known as Chaabi (commonly spelled Shaabi in Egypt). In the workshop I will be teaching the Chaabi style of mainly Morocco, but time permitting I will also show some Tunisian and Algerian popular movements. As with belly dance, these dances are pelvic-centered, involving twisting and lifting/dropping movements of the hips.  

 Besides the 6/8, what movements or techniques characterize North African dance?

Many of the movements of belly dance have developed from these roots folk dances of North Africa. In fact, belly dancers would benefit greatly from studying North African dance, as it will strengthen their understanding of the core movements, ground their center, and loosen their hips for more powerful hip articulations such as shimmies. The main difference will be instead of doing the movement to a typical 4/4 rhythm of belly dance (such as beledi), the movements are done to a 6/8 rhythm, which the dancer will feel differently. What can make 6/8 rhythms especially challenging for dancers is the layers of rhythm and syncopation making it difficult for dancers to even know where the first beat of the rhythm is. However, with time the dancer gets an "ear" for the rhythm and then of course it works its way into their heart and hips.

We will be doing Berber (Amazigh) pop dance to the most commonly-used 6/8 rhythms. Berber pop dance has the same movement vocabulary as belly dance - hip lifts/drops, shimmies, shoulder shimmies, and belly lifts. The term belly dance probably arose because of North African dance. Some Moroccan and Algerian Amazigh dances have distinctive belly movements that most likely led to the term danse du ventre,  especially with respect to the Ouled Nail dancers of Algeria. Later the term danse du ventre was translated as "belly dance" here in the West; however, belly dance here is more of a hip-centered dance than an abdominal dance of the Ouled Nail, which are a Berber (Amazigh) tribe.

Learn more about Nahara here


Anjelica Scannura: A Diversity of Passions

Interview by Amy Smith

The 3 Early Girls present "A Weekend with Anjelica Scannura" in Syracuse, NY on May 23-24. In addition to belly dance, Anjelica is a flamenco dancer and actress. She was inducted into the Belly Dancer of the Universe Hall of Fame in 2013. Photos in this article are by Denise Grant.

You've grown up with dance, including Irish Step and Flamenco. How did this experience contribute and support your immersion in belly dance?

All the dancing I've done in my life has given me the bodily awareness and dedication needed to learn the moves in belly dance. I was used to performing, working hard on my craft, and paying attention to unusual musical intricacies, which made belly dance a welcome challenge. Also, as I was wrapping up my Irish dancing career, my physiotherapist suggested I try a form of dance that didn't require jumping or pounding into the floor, but that required more torso movement. Belly dance became a welcome entity to me physically, emotionally, and professionally.

What attracted you to the Zambra Mora form?

What attracted me to the Zambra Mora form was this discovery of something that combined one of my newer passions and one of my older ones. Zambra Mora has the sharpness and ferocity that you find in flamenco, and allows you to juxtapose the taconeo (feet stamping), palmas (hand claps), and flamenco port de bras while maintaining the softness and vulnerability you encounter in belly dance.

What is your teaching style and approach? What are your primary goals for your students?

I love teaching. I grew up watching my mother teach and I remember not being able to wait until I could begin. I've been able to keep a fairly light-hearted teaching environment and still get results. I adjust my attitude towards each individual based on what their goals are, and what I know they're capable of. I started teaching when I was 18, and sometimes I couldn't understand why some people didn't want to be professionals or the best in the world! It took me time to be able to have the ability to put myself in someone else's shoes (or hip scarf) and adjust my methods accordingly.

What's playing on your iPod right now? (or what music is in the most rotation?)

In terms of what's playing on my iPod dance-wise, I'm listening to a lot of different versions of Lama Bada right now, different baladi progressions, and a song called "Zekriayat" by Ibrahim El-Smahey. I'm also listening to more Iraqi pop. In flamenco music, I'm always listening to my Dad's music (flamenco guitarist Roger Scannara), Paco de Lucia, and my favourite song of the moment - "Vivo A Mi Manera" by Londro and Santiago Lara. In terms of non-belly dance music, I'm into Queens of the Stone Age, Britney Spears (unashamedly), and old-school house music.



Ela Rogers: Finding her own way

Interviewed by Amy Smith

Ela Rogers is a belly dance artist, choreographer, and instructor, internationally known for her unique and dramatic musical interpretations, experimental fusion, her graceful and powerful technique, and her talents in the fine arts and costume design. Baseema and Mathura are hosting Ela in a workshop and show on Saturday, March 14 at the Dance Complex in Cambridge.

You started out learning/performing Egyptian style dance…how has this influenced your current style?

It’s funny...I was initially bitten by the belly dance bug after seeing Tribal Fusion style belly dance. Actually, it was when the Bellydance Superstars were in New York in 2005 for a guest spot on the TV morning show “Regis and Kelly”, showcasing a trio of the company’s multi-styled dancers. Being a novice to belly dance, I was unaware that there were different styles! I instantly connected to Tribal Style, after bearing witness to the jaw-dropping confidence, exquisite muscular control and articulation of the body, the earthy and (what I thought was) an almost rebellious image juxtaposed with the classic Egyptian and cabaret dancers. After all, I’ve always been a tomboy who has marched to the beat of my own drum, and to me, this style made me feel accepted and comfortable in my own skin. I could barely contain myself and wished to begin training right away, but soon discovered that there were no Tribal Style teachers in my area. I felt it was imperative to just enroll myself in the nearest classical belly dance class, which was Egyptian style.

Once enrolled, I soon realized the importance of learning the basic history and movements of this ancient dance, how it felt on my body, and where the components originated. Studying with the delectable Elena El Amar was just what my soul needed at that point in my life. She is an amazing teacher and woman, who dances within what seemed to be a magical white light, her heart and eyes just illuminated with passion, emotion, and playfulness that embodies the Egyptian-style dance that she dearly loves. To this day, those are the qualities that still influence my dance. Even though I am a fusion artist, I firmly believe in the importance of intelligent fusion that I define as “know the rules before you break them.” I always carry awareness and respect for everything in my movement repertoire, and meld with care and creativity. That is what it’s all about for me. One can always build atop a strong foundation.

You are self-taught in Tribal Style. Can you talk about your process?

Well, thank you! It’s something that I’ve worked hard for. Limitations are sometimes what we perceive; just because I didn’t have a Tribal Style belly dance teacher from which to take weekly classes didn’t mean that I could not work towards my goal of learning this style. Having backgrounds in classical ballet, jazz, modern dance, and martial arts surely gave me a platform for cultural dance. I had to become resourceful to seek out any forms of instruction. I placyed Fat Chance Belly Dance instructional DVDs daily in my home, along with other Tribal Fusion-style instructional videos for my practice.

Being honest, I also had some set-backs. Still being new at this point to belly dance, I would get overzealous imitating movements that I had seen in Tribal Style dance performances but that I hadn’t yet learned, and was inflicted with numerous injuries. The top two that took the cake were a sprained back and a pretty serious abdominal strain that finally resulted in a six-month leave from dance. After physical therapy and chiropractic care, I slowly restored my body, and was coached in anatomy, strengthening, and injury prevention along the way.

I must say that I learned so much from my injuries, ultimately becoming more acquainted with my body and habits of my dancing. Upon returning to dance, I set out on long car rides to take workshops from as many Tribal and Tribal Fusion-style belly dance teachers as possible and I asked many questions. Then, when I was ready, I began performing at my nearest city’s belly dance haflas and shows, recording my performances, and then studying them meticulously! (Your video camera is one of your best teachers!)

When not dancing, I filled my time with yoga, Pilates, and many hours of watching YouTube videos of belly dance performers of ALL LEVELS. To me, it was important to absorb it all, to discover for myself, how I envisioned perfecting my own dancing. One of my all-time favorite quotes by Claude Monet still keeps me motivated to this day: “It’s on the strength of observation and reflection that one finds a way. So we must dig and delve unceasingly.” Whether it’s honing your craft or seeking out inspiration…stay hungry and just keep digging!

What is your teaching style and approach? What are your primary goals for your students?

My approach in teaching is to invite my students to experience my movement material on their bodies in a safe environment, to have them relax, and then have them find emotion within themselves and to embody it in their own movement. This is what I found to be equally exciting and challenging when learning dance. When I’m the student, my intentions are to be receptive to the unfamiliar, but to remain open to explore. From there, you begin to perceive yourself in subtle nuances, further leading towards your feelings of identity. There is an emotional and spiritual side of dance within the mover, along with the anatomical side.

A lot of my students hear my speech of my “Spider-Man Policy”, based on Spider-Man’s well-known phrase: “With great power comes great responsibility.” It’s what I use to engage my students to encourage the mindset of truly honoring and respecting one’s body as a dancer and athlete. If becoming a strong and healthy dancer is what you desire, and if you wish to dance efficiently for an extended length of time, one must be responsible and maintain strength, flexibility, and have a devoted practice. Above all, I deeply enjoy sharing my passion with people and being part of teaching something that is SO much bigger than all of us. It is history. It is dance. It is art and the creative process.

Who are your top 3 dance influences?

I would have to say that my main three influences who truly affected my development when I began my journey in belly dance would be: my first belly dance teacher, Egyptian-style dancer Elena El Amar; innovator of American Tribal Style belly dance, Carolena Nericcio; and Rachel Brice, who continued the lineage of the dance into Tribal Fusion belly dance. These women represent three different dance forms, and I admire their hard work, fearless determination, and dedication to their art and sisterhood. Through the years, they constantly reminded me to step up my innovation, practice more, to become as educated as possible, and to continue to keep setting goals.

Currently, my inspirations change and flux all the time. I admire so many dancers and movers, outside of the belly dance genre, as well. Cyd Charisse is my current crush with her sinuous body lines and flow! Artwork - be it paintings, sculptures, or shapes and textures in nature - also heavily influence my dance.


Improv Roulette: A Collaborative Dance Experiment

by Elizabeth Morlani

Improv Roulette really began out of my love of putting on ridiculous music and dancing to it. It was a physical and mental exercise I found myself returning to over and over again. Dancing reactively and honestly, without the pressure to perform a polished piece, allowed me the freedom to experiment creatively. Practicing with intention and goals is a necessity, but on occasion, it is valuable to just dance and see what comes out. My movement, while probably not as technically proficient, is more creative, more emotional, and more about experiencing and reacting.

And I wanted to share that with friends. So in the fall of 2012 I hosted the first Improv Roulette...and only six people came. But the six of us created magic that night. A belly dancer and a poi spinner shadowed each other and Berber walked across the dance studio. One dear friend brought a pogo stick as a prop and another used it as her slow dance partner. By the end of the evening I had tears streaming down my face and my sides ached from all of the laughter. From the moment it ended, I wanted to do it again.

Every three months I have been renting out a beautiful yoga studio in Pawtucket, RI and inviting people to join in on the experience. Participants begin by placing their names in a "hat". When a person's name is pulled, they get up and perform to the next song that comes up. Songs are on shuffle and we never know what we are going to get. There are fast songs and slow songs, folk songs and rock songs, ballads and baladis, love songs and heartache anthems. Participants are encouraged to bring props if they wish.
People from all performance genres have attended. Seasoned performers and new students have worked together to create spontaneous works of art. At past Improv Roulettes, we have been treated to a touching duet of Christina Aguilera's "Beautiful" by a singer/guitarist and a puppeteer. Sweeping flags have moved in opposition to swirling fan veils set to the music of Metallica. While most of the people that attend are belly dancers, since those are the people that I am most in contact with, this event is not just limited to belly dancers. Hoopers, poi artists, singers, and dancers of all types have created magic in the moment at an Improv Roulette. Every Improv Roulette has played out differently, but they all foster the concepts of collaboration, community, and creative spontaneity.


And I want to share it with you. For 2014 I have been taking the event on the road - first New England and then beyond. I want to dance to Justin Timberlake and watch my troupe mates move to MC Hammer. I want to see a group of ATS dancers who have never performed together before bring a masterpiece of movement to life to the tune of Duran Duran. I want to create a collaboration with someone I've never even met. I want to watch someone's interaction with a prop that they've never used before. What can you do with a hula hoop if you don't know the things you're "supposed" to do with a hula hoop? Let's swap our dance stories and create brand new stories together on the spot. Let's mix up my strengths and your strengths and make something so much greater than the sum of our parts. I want us all to laugh until we cry and be grateful for our bodies' ability to listen and feel and speak the music - even if it's Lady Gaga.
Upcoming Improv Roulette dates:

October 19th - Tempest's Waking Persephone in Seattle, WA

November 8th - If Seattle is too far for you, please join us at Aurel's Ancient Art Studios in Berkley, MA

Would you like to host in 2015? If you are interested in hosting an Improv Roulette or creating an Improv Roulette chapter, please contact Elizabeth at