Meet Jacqui Lalita's mom!

 By Amy Smith

Joyce Zarro is Jacqui Lalita's mom. She lives in Rhode Island has recently taken up belly dancing. We took the opportunity to ask her a few questions about her belly dance journey.

Did you know anything about belly dance before Jacqui started studying it?

I knew nothing about belly dancing before Jacqui started taking belly dance classes, and I still knew nothing even after she became a professional dancer and teacher. I was at the opposite pole on the dance globe. Where she wore exotic dance costumes and performed breathtaking undulations and hip sways to enchanting Middle- Eastern music,  I was out dancing in jeans and Western boots doing boot-scoot boogie and two-stepping to Toby Keith and Garth Brooks. My country-western dance career ended in 2003 when I had part of my foot actually replaced with an artificial joint. Dancing in Western boots for years took its toll on my feet. 

What did you think when she became a professional belly dancer and teacher?

Watching Jacqui perform belly dance from the beginning  has  always been magical for me. Her body and heart are so connected. She radiates love of the dance and of life whenever she dances and teaches. She is a master at belly dance and I watch her with awe. I have always felt such pride in watching her perform all types of dance in her life, but nothing compares to her masterful art of belly dance. 

What finally inspired you to take up belly dancing?

I found myself falling in love with Arabic music and wished I could dance too, but working a tedious desk job and caring for an aging mother left no energy to try it. It was not until two years ago, being retired, that I felt I as ready to share my daughter's passion, to share her love of belly dance, to venture outside my comfort zone and try it. 

I have so much to learn but I am loving it more with each class. My back is not what it used to be in my youth, my movements do not flow effortlessly, and often I feel like awkward, but I love my belly dance classes,  and I strive to get better with time and practice and to continue to learn indefinitely. 

What advice would you give women about starting belly dance later in life?

My advice for women learning belly dance later in life is to just  enjoy pushing your hips further than you have since disco dancing; no pressure, no competition with 30-yearolds. Smile in the mirror as you shimmy and let your heart become captivated with the whole Middle-Eastern culture and dance. All women are sensual at any age. Belly dance is a beautiful art. It is captivating and exotic. It is wonderful exercise that tones body, improves your mind, and can slow the process of osteoporosis. 

I am eagerly looking forward to when Jacqui is in New England and can give me private lessons. She is an amazing, patient teacher; my daughter; and my best friend, and I strive to get a good report card as her student. 



Jacqui Lalita: Dance of the Divine Feminine

by Amy Smith

Jacqui and her Dance of the Divine Feminine tour will be in New England from mid-August through October. She will be teaching at dance studios in NH, VT, CT, RI and MA. Kanina of RI is hosting Jacqui at her studio on Sunday, Sept. 27th. Jacqui's mother is one of Kanina's students - be sure to read our interview with her!

Photo by Jacqui LalitaYou have studied a wide variety of ethnic dance. How did your belly dance journey begin? Why is this dance form especially compelling for you?

I discovered belly dance while in college at the University of Miami 14 years ago. I stumbled upon a class in the wellness center and fell in love instantly. The exquisiteness of rhythms and melodies seemed to transport me to some ancient land and my body danced as if it were remembering a lost language it once spoke. I remember walking out of those classes and feeling my hips and heart so wide open and I knew I was onto something special.

My first teacher kept talking about her teacher and what a master she was and this amazing place she created called the Mid-Eastern Dance Exchange in Miami Beach. I looked it up in the Yellow Pages (people were still using phone books then!) and I began taking every class I could. That studio and Tamalyn's teachings became my home away from home and a place where I found such a huge, wild part of myself.
You have studied belly dance and Oriental dance with a diverse group of master teachers, from Tamalyn Dallal to Yousry Sharif. How would you describe your belly dance style to someone not familiar with your work?
For me dance is a way of expressing the Divine, a way of tapping into that deep longing of the soul to merge with all of Creation. My style focuses on embodying the myriad of human emotions and allowing all of life to dance through me. I spent my early days deeply immersed in Tamalyn's teaching and mentorship, and through her learned what it is to truly be a teacher, to care deeply for ones students and create an environment where dancers can flourish. In her school, dancing alongside Bozenka and other great dancers, we learned precise technique, creative embellishments, and a deep respect for the cultures from which this art has come. I remember Tamalyn had me subbing for her and teaching my own classes before I even knew I was ready to teach. She has a way of recognizing a spark and calling it forth, and I do that with my students as well.


Photo by Jacqui Lalita 

Yousry and his incredible musicality and stunning choreographies that seeem to burst forth out of the ethers have also been a huge inspiration. My time with him in NYC and my four journeys to Egypt have ensured that the essence of Egyptian dance remain at the center of my style.
I've also traveled several times to Turkey and spent time with the Sufi dervishes and incorporate a lot of whirling and devotion into my dancing.
Photo by Brock BradfordYour mother (a New England resident) recently started to study belly dance and attend your retreats. How is this for you?

I was thrilled to hear my Mom started belly dancing! I knew the benefits of belly dance would work their magic into her life, and sure enough they have. When she came to my retreat in Costa Rica it was such a gift to share one of my passions with her and hear her talking about the music of Oum Kalthoum!

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

In California I'm known for my focus on the soulfulness and sensuality of belly dancing. It's not uncommon for me to hold classes and dance retreats in the middle of nature, where students can experience the freedom of dancing barefoot in the forest or beside the sea with a soft wind on their skin, feeling themselves a part of nature. I'm an encouraging teacher who believes the potential to become a great dancer exists inside of everyone if the desire and discipline is there.
One of my goals in teaching is to help dancers feel fully at home in their bodies and to connect with the center of their power and dance from their hearts and souls. Often when I travel I have professional belly dancers and total beginners in my workshops, and I love creating ways to keep everyone equally challenged, fully engaged, and thoroughly inspired.
What's playing on your iPod these days?

Azam Ali and her project Niyaz, the beautiful music of the Yuval Ron Ensemble, the funky fusion music of Chancha via Circuito, all sorts of spicy flamenco guitar, and sacred songs from around the world :)


Jacqui Lalita travels the world teaching traditional dances of the Middle East and devotional dance as a path of healing. She leads belly dance retreats for women in paradise places like Costa Rica and Turkey, and is passionate about helping women awaken to the divine joy of their hearts. She is the star of the "Element Belly Dance" DVD sold in retail stores throughout the US, and is the author of two books, Romancing the Divine and Rebirth of Venus. Her love affair with ethnic culture and sacred movement has led her down many silk roads to study Oriental dance, Romani Gypsy dance, Sufi whirling, Samba, Afro Brazilian, and Flamenco.  Visit her at her web site here.



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.