Aaliyah Jenny: Bringing autobiographical snapshots to the stage with courage
With her upcoming visit to Boston to teach a workshop, I was intrigued to find out what inspires Aaliyah Jenny’s delicate, yet, poignant movements across the stage. She agreed to be interviewed for BDNE and openly discusses both the difficult and graceful transitions in her life as she continues to dance.
When did you begin your dance journey?
Although I started dance lessons as a young child (ballet in 3rd grade; ballet/modern in high school; summer intensive at Boston School of Ballet sophomore year, but my dad refused to enroll me in the fall semester citing it was more important to focus on school; Brandeis University dance club and elective courses, including one I took with Debra Messing; hip hop classes at Broadway Dance Center NYC in my 20s that continues to this day; tap and Polynesian dance in my 30s), it wasn't until I found bellydance at the ripe age of 33 that I found my expressive voice. Surprisingly, listening and dancing to Middle-Eastern music improved my syncopation, especially in hip hop.
I'm now 48, so it's been 15 years now that I have been studying the dance of the Near East. One of my first teachers is Aszmara (Westchester, NY), with whom I still study as much as I can. For almost three years, I was a member of a Gypsy Caravan-style troupe called Twisted Tassels based in Woodstock, NY. I certified in Oreet's SharQui the Bellydance Workout and Zumba, and had classes at local YMCAs and studios. During that time, I also taught students in my home. At one point, I believe, I had about 10-12 students in my living room! I was training in hip hop, contemporary, and Polynesian dance during this time. I began teaching hip hop through the recommendation of my teacher. I backed off from teaching around 2010-11, when I came to the conclusion I needed to study more. So I participated in Rachel Brice's 8 Elements Initiation and Cultivation. And I threw myself into traveling and studying with Donna Mejia, Karim Nagi, Raqia Hassan, Zoe Jakes, Mira Betz, Oreet, and Aszmara, to name a few. I had the honor of taking weekly classes with Sera Solstice and performing with her Solstice Ensemble, including opening for Beats Antique at Irving Plaza in NYC.
In 2014, I decided very last minute to compete at the East Coast Classic because I really wanted some honest feedback about whether or not my performance choices were coming through as a fusion artist. I won the Fusion Category and was invited to perform in the Gala Show at the Hannover Tribal Festival in Germany the following June. I also competed in the Tribal Star and placed 3rd, even though I gave them the wrong music.
In 2014, I was also diagnosed with breast cancer. During my treatment, from July 2014 to October 2015, I bribed myself to finish by coordinating appointments with travel to dance events. I also competed and won two more competitions in August 2015 - Bellydance Masters and Jewels of the Orient.
We moved here to Salt Lake City in July 2015. I am having the time of my life being so close to so many teachers! I am also teaching at Michelle Sorensen's studio, The Velveteen Serpent. So I am either taking or teaching class almost every day of the week now.
I still go to many events all around the country! It was from my travels that I realized I wanted to provide an opportunity to those of us who do not want to compete but want the growth afforded through the feedback process. Thus R.A.W. Epiphany was born! It stands for the Real Artist Within. It will be July 7-9, 2017 in Park City, Utah. There are five tiers of participation, with the highest being the Raw Epiphany level that includes three headliners, 19 local premier instructors from SLC, a performance opportunity with feedback from the headliners, a semi-private with one headliner, and the opportunity to win a scholarship to another event. Because it is a non-profit, the registration is unbelievably low. Please visit my Web site or go to Raw Epiphany 2017 on Facebook! The TheRawEpiphany.com website is coming, too!
How did you come to the hybrid forms of dance such as hip hop fusion and Polynesian dance? Was that a blend of movement that you found through performing as your genuine self?
My current style is a blend of inspirations from the dance of the Near East (known as belly dance), hip hop, and contemporary. Because I have been training in these styles for most of my life, I have found my movement vocabulary has morphed into a unique mix of all three when I freestyle. I also have noticed that Polynesian dance come through, too.
I find it interesting that even though I have trained in Odissi and Bollywood, neither one of these styles comes through in a noticeable way. In my opinion, I think it's because I need much longer training in them before they will be incorporated into my dance style. In all my performances, I hope I am always dancing as my genuine self.
Many believe that dance is therapeutic; has there been a defining moment or a collection of defining moments in your dance career when the art was your therapeutic tool?
I absolutely believe dance is therapeutic! I also find it is a form of prayer, personally. I can't help but feel better after I dance. My first solo back in 2003 was a candle and veil piece. You can see a version of it here from when I performed at the Queens Theater in NY. Looking back, I can say it was the beginning of my coming out of my shell and being ok with being seen.
Another solo I put together was about my anger and internal struggle when one of my kids was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. I cried every time I practiced and performed it.
This piece from my 100 days of improv (I did 4 of them) expressed the gratitude I felt for my husband and the way I was feeling about my post treatment. Throughout my breast cancer treatment, I participated in events around the country in whatever way I could: taking workshops, competing, and performing as my energy levels allowed me. I had to put to practice the energy conservation techniques I used to teach about as an Occupational Therapist! I can say without a doubt that being in the same space as my dance family helped me tremendously during my chemotherapy/radiation/infusions and post-surgery.
I have always told universal stories through autobiographical pieces as a form of therapy. But I also believe it's important to express what I know. I want my audience members to feel less alone at the end of our time together.
I started a Facebook page called Jenny's Transformation that shares what I went through from the onset of my treatment. Please feel free to visit it if you want more information.
The phrase “I wish […] I could be somebody forever” plays during your performance at the Las Vegas Belly Dance Intensive 2015, followed by what seems to be the lightest musical part of the piece; did that phrase have a significant impact on you as a person?
Would you believe I cut that piece of music back around 2010 or was it 2012...I remember receiving my email requesting music for LVBDI 2015. I was in the middle of treatment and feeling my mortality. This music popped up on my iTunes library and as I listened to it, a story emerged about my observations about my own aging. There is a wistfulness about the light music of the piece - a reminder about when I was young and naively thought I was so old [laughs]. For that particular piece of the light music, those words are an echo of when I was so young and did not realize how quickly time passes.
What movements connect you to yourself the most when storytelling?
This is a great question. I don't quite know...well, I resonate deeply with the movement vocabularies from the three dance forms I draw inspiration from: the dances of the Near East, hip hop, and contemporary. I do know that music plays an integral part of my storytelling. It shapes my movements.
This November, your Authentic Selves and Hip Hop Fusion workshops are coming to Boston; what are a few things you hope your students will walk away with understanding or feeling?
I hope to empower with the tools to tell stories about us in a universal way, so that we can be true to ourselves while successfully conveying the message we are compelled to send through the gift of performance. In Authentic Selves, I share my personal process and we will play with different approaches to storytelling. In Hip Hop Fusion, we will do an overview of 8 to 10 different subcategories of urban dance from popping and waacking to gliding. These movement vocabularies are good tools to have! Be prepared to have fun in a safe environment, no matter what!