Amanda Rose: A Modern Classic

Amanda Rose, Belly Dancer of the Universe - Egyptian Category 2008, makes her first Northeast appearance in Syracuse (NY) May 24-25. She is sponsored by the 3 Early Girls. Register online at Ionah Raqs or see the Facebook event. Amanda graciously answered a few questions for BDNE. 

Mo Geddawi said that you reminded him of Taheya Carioca. You've also been described as having a unique blend of classical and modern style. Do you take a lot of inspiration from the "Golden Age" of Egyptian belly dance? Who are your greatest influences? 

I definitely take inspiration from the “Golden Age”, though I wouldn’t say it's seen overwhelmingly in my style as you might notice in some other dancers. Egyptian dance has developed so much in the last 100 years, I really like to reflect on the development and the change, the energy and the feeling that was demonstrated throughout different periods of the dance and the approach that was taken to achieve those effects. I have a lot of influences, which makes it hard to pinpoint other artists that I specifically reflect in my dance style. I like this because it allows me to be inspired and influenced by so many great artists but still develop my style and myself differently. I would say some of my greatest influences are Randa Kamal, Munique Neith, Tito Seif, Jillina, Sahra Saeeda, Mira Betz, Orit Maftsir, Fifi Abdo, Mercedes Neito, Sharon Kihara, Khaled Mahmoud, Dina and the list can just keep going. ;-)    

Let's talk a minute about that blend of classical and modern style. What characterizes each style? Why might a dancer today want to incorporate "classical" style into her repertoire?

Dancers like Dina, Randa Kamel, and Tito Seif - who stylized their dance quite differently than one another - have really forged modern Egyptian style. The style in some ways has moved from the previous lyrical focus to a percussive focus. Now there are shimmies layered on top of everything, and you’re hitting a lot of accents. It’s a much more aggressive approach to the music. There is also an exploration of modern classical dance aspects found in Western dances that have been added into the style. Before there was a representation of some ballet, but that was really the limit of Western dance seen in Egyptian styling. Now there’s more modern dance and jazz found in the style seen in body folds, extensions, and leg work.

Classical Egyptian styling has a lot of beledy aspects, but is very lyrical and much softer than the modern style. There is a lot of light balletic traveling, and the hip work while strong, is not nearly as complicated as in the styles put forth today. What I love about classical styling is that it’s subtle, and perfect. It doesn’t need a whole lot of noise, bells and whistles - it stands alone and rings true.

I really like to blend the more aggressive, dynamic and complicated hip work, with the subtle and soft old school style, transitioning from modern dance and jazz movements into a folkloric and beledy approach. It gives me freedom to move and express myself within the realm of belly dance, but blend pieces to my own delight. 

You were a member of Ava Fleming's Black Opal Dance Company and since then have worked with Jillina on two different Bellydance Evolutions shows and Munque Neith’s International Ballet as well as having your own project ‘Team Latina’ with Mexican dancer Ashmina Karem and Spanish dancer Cristina Gadea. What do you like about being in a dance company?

I absolutely love collaborating and working with other dancers in the industry from near and far. These groups have really given me the opportunity to work with some of the most talented dancers in the world, from Europe, Asia, Latin America as well as some of the worlds most acclaimed superstar stars like Jillina, Sharon Kihara, Munique Neith, Kaeshi Chai, be under their direction and really grow from watching them work and perform behind the scenes. I’ve taken so much away from these experiences to my own company Raqs Sharki Movement Collective, and these opportunities have really made me such a better teacher, dancer, collaborator, and director. 

You choreograph both Oriental and folkloric dances for your own group, Raqs Sharki Movement Collective. Why do you think folkloric dance is important for modern belly dancers to know and perform?

Folklore is the roots and base of everything Raqs Sharki stems from. When you strip everything away, the western influences, the ballet, the jazz, the traveling and stage concepts, you’re left with beledy, and folklore. If you understand those, then you can truly represent Raqs Sharki at its fullest.

Amy SmithComment
Amani Jabril: The Mind Behind the Makeup

Photo by by Robert McCurly

Best known for her fluid and deeply sensual style of dance, Amani Jabril has built her reputation on delivering stellar dance technique combined with the heart and soul of the Middle East. Trained from an early age in dance and drama, Amani has studied and performed extensively throughout Europe, the Middle East and North America. She was named Best Newcomer by Nafoura International Belly Dance Magazine.

Rosa Noreen hosts Amani at Bright Star World Dance on April 26-27.

Which came first, Middle-Eastern dance or the day job as an anthropologist?

Dance came first. I've been a dancer my whole life. I moved to Atlanta in 1998. I really enjoyed the city and had been offered a great gig dancing five to six nights out of the week. It had always been my plan to pursue an advanced degree. About two years after moving to Atlanta I was accepted to the graduate program in anthropology at Georgia State. So I was budding anthropologist by day and dancer by night. Since that time, the two have very much blended themselves into each other. I am looking forward to starting my PhD program in the fall. 

How has the day job contributed to your dance career? How has it affected your approach to learning and performing Middle-Eastern dance?

So, back to grad school... My interest in the Middle East started...oh so many years ago I'm not even sure now how or when it all got started. The thing about anthropology is that it is a discipline that expects you to conduct field work. In short, you have to "go here and do that" to fully understand the people you are working with in their own context. Well, working as a dancer, I was not only in clubs owned by Middle-Easterners, but also getting invited to parties and events where I would have otherwise not been included had I not been the dancer. I really do think that so many of our clients focus on the shiny, beautiful fun that is the belly dancer and forget that there are minds behind the makeup. In that down time between sets, some of us are watching and listening to everything! Well, that was me! My masters thesis was born out of those scenarios and the questions I had about how the Arab-American community was constructing the idea of "Arab" identity.

My dance life and academic life inform and influence each other. Being a dancer gave me an entrance into the communities I was curious about. Anthropology has given me insight into the fluid constructions of identity that humans engage in. This in turn creates different expressions of this identity, like music or dance. So when you understand how fluid and flexible the expression is, you understand that same thing about the art form. This knowledge, I think, allows the artist their fullest creative potential but also gives them the greatest access to their most authentic artistic voice, because they have been able to place their own selves within the context of the art form's culture and ideology.

Photo by Meriwan AbdullahFolkloric dance seems to be making a comeback. What is your advice to dancers who would like to include folkloric dance in their performance?

Good Lord! I do hope so!!

Sure, our dance goes through changes in style and fashion like anything else. Having said that, folklore is always there under the surface. The folklore, or the culture, is where all of the artistic expression is rooted, of course. When dancers dig deeper into the folklore they give themselves the opportunity to expand their range as dancers, but also to add depth and dimension to their art overall.

If someone wants to study... I say go for it!!! But be prepared for a journey with no destination. You will always be seeking knowledge, new sources, and inspiration. There are many ways to do this and some very good teachers out there. If you can travel...this is the best way to really get to see 'it' first hand. As for choosing teachers, my only advice... if they tell you theirs is the "authentic" way and the only away! I am always a bit suspicious of a teacher who can't prove it on the dance floor or if a teacher can't handle hard questions from their students.

Who or what are your primary influences in dance?

What I find is that I continue to return to the people for my inspirations. In this case the people may be a cultural group or it may be that spontaneous energy coming off of an audience. But if you open your senses a bit, you'll find that inspiration is everywhere.

A lot my stuff rests squarely on my theatre, jazz, and ballet backgrounds. I am influenced by my travels and the people I encounter there.

Photo by MaharetTell us about your upcoming dance intensive.

The raison d'être of the Dancers' Intensive is to give dancers an opportunity to focus less on their product, more on their process, and to work intensely on the craft that is dance performance.

Dancecraft is a term I use when referring to the technical aspects of theatrical dance and its production. From your first choice of music, it includes, but is not limited to, conditioning your body, constructing choreography, designing and staging your performance. It also includes those supporting functions, that without them, no artist could even conceive of presenting their art.

More technical than artistic, Dancecraft is the practical implementation of an artistic vision and that's what we will focus on ....Crafting the Art of Dance!

Over this weekend-long event, we will explore our artistic connections with our bodies, the rhythms of the Dance and our interconnected and interdependent expressions of art through a series of intermediate/advanced level workshops, forums and shows designed to help Middle Eastern dance-artists refine their craft in a unique and conscientious way.

At the 2014 Intensive, we have made the move to having all live music in classes and in performance. Like last year' s event, we will again be working with Jonatan Gomes Derbaq from Mazaag. Jonatan and I worked together on the Mazaag debut album that released last year and we are looking forward to working together on shows and workshops in 2014 & 2015.

Amy Smith Comment
Interview with Dr. Laurel Victoria Gray

Za-beth hosts Dr. Laurel Victoria Gray in a workshop and showcase on April 26th in Arlington, MA. Dr. Gray will teach two workshops: "Azerbajani "Nalbeki" Choreography" and "Introduction to Uzbek Dance from Bukhara". See Za-beth's event page on Facebook for more information.

What first attracted you to Uzbek and other Central Asian dances?

From childhood, I felt an affinity for all things Eastern, or at least the things I could find in my hometown of Spokane, Washington. My favorite composers were the Russian Orientalists like Borodin and Ippolitov-Ivanov. I searched for books and recordings in our main library for everything I could find about these mysterious cultures.

In 1979, while enrolled in a Russian translation class in grad school at the University of Washington, I learned there was a group coming to Seattle from Uzbekistan. Of course, everyone in the class wanted to talk to Russian speakers. I volunteered to provide transportation for them and discovered that Seattle was a sister-city of Tashkent; in fact, it was the first of the American-Soviet sister-city relationships. When I drove to the motel where the Uzbeks were staying to pick them up, there was a young woman standing in this little garden area behind the hotel. She was the first Uzbek person I had met and she was none other than the People’s Artist of Uzbekistan, Kizlarkhon Dustmuhamedova. And if that wasn’t kismet I don’t know what was! Neither of us had any idea of what was to come and that we would forge a lifelong bond.

When the Uzbek dancers performed that night at Seattle University, Kizlarkhon’s dance absolutely riveted me. I knew I had to learn this dance. Thus began a lifetime pursuit that is much too lengthy for this interview but documented elsewhere. (Editors note: Read more about Dr. Gray in Habibi magazine here.) 

While we're at it, what exactly is the Silk Road and why is it important, historically?

The “Silk Road” may sound like an exotic fantasy, but in reality it describes a network of caravan routes that extended from China to the Mediterranean. The term "Seidenstraße” (Silk Road) was coined in 1877 by German geographer Ferdinand von Richthofen, but the trade routes themselves are quite ancient and go back to the 2nd century BC.

From a geographic perspective, the heart of the Silk Road is Central Asia, so it includes places like Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Iran, Azerbaijan, and so on. This is why it is so strange that recently the belly dance community has appropriated the term “Silk Road” for their troupes or concerts when their dance styles have little or no relation to these traditional cultures. There seems to be no awareness that Silk Road territories are inhabited by real people who have real dance traditions.

In a broader sense, the Silk Road represents cross-cultural exchange. More than just trade goods traveled along those trade routes;  music, dance, fashion, religions, languages, innovations, ideas, and philosophies moved along the Silk Road as well. This is a positive reminder of how humanity can benefit from peaceful interactions..

Your troupe, the Silk Road Dance Company, has been together for almost 20 years. What's your secret? 

As any Artistic Director can tell you, it can be challenging leading a dance company. When I lived in Seattle, I participated in several groups, co-founding one, and then establishing my own Tanavar Dance Ensemble in 1982. These experiences helped me in the formation of Silk Road Dance Company (SRDC). The ensemble has evolved throughout the years, aided by our Company Handbook that was originally created by Keylan Qazzaz, who was our Assistant Director for ten years. The handbook serves as a guide to expectations, procedures, and the benefits of participating in SRDC.

We have high professional standards that require a tremendous amount of work and dedication from our dancers. For this reason we have a six-month apprentice period to make sure that new dancers understand the demands and expectations required by participation in SRDC. Frankly, not everyone makes it through this probationary period, but it does prevent disappointment down the line.

Most important is our communal commitment to creating “Cultural Understanding through Beauty and Delight.” Everything we do must serve this mission.

There's been some online debate about whether Western (read American) dancers should be performing dances of other cultures. In your opinion as a scholar, performer, and choreographer of folkloric dance, what preparations and considerations should Western dancers undertake if we want to perform such dances? 

 Respect for, and knowledge of, the Cultures of Origin should guide our presentations. This is, after all, the Information Age, so all kinds of resources are now at our fingertips, things that were almost impossible to find in the past.

In addition to doing the homework of studying a particular culture, it is also imperative to work with a teacher and not rely exclusively on YouTube! Videos can provide wonderful inspiration, but a video cannot correct your dance mistakes or curb an “American accent.” And even the most beautiful videos can be misidentified or can contain misinformation. Use discernment and try to verify information from different sources.

Dance can open the door to understanding between cultures. It helps dispel the stereotypes. When audiences watch a performance from another culture, it gives a sense of the soul of that culture. It humanizes “the Other” and helps people see them as human beings with the same kind of joys and yearnings and sorrows as any other human being. All of a sudden they’re not the enemy anymore.

But this is a huge responsibility. In places like Iran and Afghanistan, there are no professional women’s dance ensembles giving public performances. These dance traditions survive privately and informally, in the home. These forms are being preserved abroad, often by women who are not Iranian or Afghan. The positive aspect of this is that the dances are surviving and may eventually make it back to their homeland. The downside is that any errors in transmission create a false impression of the dance tradition.

For example, Afghani dance has nuances, gestures, and subtleties that go beyond simply spinning around in one of those beautiful dresses, but this is often all one sees in American stage performances. Likewise, some genres of  Iranian dance presented in the US have been diluted with belly dance movements and costuming elements. Yes, innovation is natural with dance, but we must all take care that the original traditions are not lost and discarded along the way.

Dance is the most ephemeral of the arts. It resides not in books or on canvas, or even in musical scores, but in the human body itself. Like a genetic heritage, it must be passed on from teacher to student, from one generation to the next. And if that fragile lineage is broken, the dance is in jeopardy of being lost.

Is it possible to study Uzbek dance in its home country?

For decades now, dancers who hear about my travels have asked when I would create a tour to Uzbekistan. Not everyone is an intrepid traveler, so in the past, conditions were not right. Under the Soviets, visas were very hard to get and contact with the locals was discouraged. Even the officially invited delegations that I led faced many challenges. 

Happily, the infrastructure for tourism has blossomed in independent Uzbekistan. Thanks to a wonderful partnership with Silk Road Treasure Tours, we have created the very first dance study tour to Uzbekistan that will take place in August 2014. Participants will be able to learn first-hand from native dancers while experiencing the culture. The regional differences in styles make perfect sense when one realizes the distinctions among these places. And watching people as they go about their day-to-day tasks reveals much about the quality of moment and provides a genuine context for the dance.

For more information on Dr. Gray and her dance company, see the following sites:

Laurel Victoria Gray

Silk Road Dance Company


Amy SmithComment
Interview with Aszmara of NYC

by Amy Smith

 Photo by Alice Gerbura, courtesy of Aszmara

Aszmara brings her high-energy grace and style to two workshops at Moody Street Circus this weekend. She graciously answered a few questions for BDNE.

Your motto is "Dance is emotion in motion". It sounds like this means that dancers need to draw on inner feelings and emotions to inform their movement and technique. I think that is how many of us of a certain generation were trained, especially for improvisation. How can newer dancers who may have learned dance primarily through choreography begin to incorporate their emotional landscapes into their practice and performance?

Amy, you are exactly on target with your description of "Emotion in Motion." Dancers drawing on their inner feelings to fulfill movements while connecting to music is what makes a performance true. Audiences 
respond to your being in the moment and experience what you are expressing - it is the same as when you see a actor on stage and respond to their emotions. Dancing is acting.

Achieving that true expression comes from different techniques: working your movements in different ways so as to expand your vocabulary; getting inside music so you can feel it intuitively as well as intellectually; freedom to play without expecting outcome; choreographing to music so you know it inside out and front to back 
while discovering all of it's nuances - then allowing the choreography to change as you feel the music differently each time you dance; and finally watch and study other dancers for new influences and work, work, work.

I will be using some of the techniques mentioned above in the workshop this weekend at Moody Street Circus.

You'll be teaching some challenging Turkish rhythms in the January workshop - 7/8 and 9/8. Many dancers are intimidated by syncopated rhythms. Can you talk a little about your teaching approach for these rhythms? Also, for those who like to prepare, can you provide the names of some songs that use 7/8?

These odd time signatures, 7/8 and 9/8 are so interesting! There is a feeling of suspending in space before the one of each measure that, for me, creates a connection between heaven and earth - reach for the sky and stomp the ground!

In teaching these rhythms, I start with the musician's way of counting and morph into dancer's counting. We explore the rhythm throughout the body with movements and floor patterns as well as attitudes. 
Short choreographic phrases help us to connect the rhythm with our brain and body.

For music being used in this class, see below.

What other dance forms do you study, in addition to Oriental/belly dance?

Over the years, I have studied ballet, flamenco, West African, Afro-Cuban, Afro-Haitian, with modern dance being my strongest influence for keeping the dance body healthy and expressive. I also still study Oriental with Anthropological Master Teachers Sahra Saeeda for Egyptian, Lee Ali for North African trance dances, and Aretmis Mourat for Turkish.

Photo by Hilde Eberhardt, courtesy of AszmaraWhat's playing on your iPod this week?

Of course this week's iPod work out is all about the workshops at Moody Street Circus this weekend!

"Eve Dönüs" - Burhan Öçal & Istanbul Oriental Ensemble, Sultan's Secret Door
"Hicaz Mandira" - Barbaro Erkose Ensemble, Lingo Lingo
"Laz" - Omar Faruk Tekbilek, Mystical Garden
"Pantzar" - Saffet Gundeger, Turkish Belly Dance
"Gürcü Kizi" - Osman Yudal Tokcan, BendeCan

"Segah Roman Havasi" - Ahmet Kusgoz Ve Arkandaslari, Gypsies Of Turkey
"Mastika" - Mustafa Kandirali & Ensemble, Caz Roman

Zap! Pow! Pop! Wow!
"Mashaal (Hani)" - Cairo Orchestra, Belly Dance Classics with Fifi Abdo

That's enough to get everyone started! Enjoy the music and I look forward to dancing with you at The Moody Street Circus event this weekend! Thanks for the interview, Amy!

Amy SmithComment
Loom Gracefully: or, Taking Up Space for Tall Broads

by Jennifer Pelland (Zia)

Zia performing in Abraxas Theater's Paradox. Photography by Ravenwolfe Photography.(An aside before I begin this essay -- while I'm writing this specifically for tall dancers, I want to emphasize that I believe that all non-body-typical dancers should find a teacher or workshop instructor with their body type at some point early in their dance studies. There is someone out there who can prove to you that you can be an awesome dancer even though you're too short/too tall/too old/too round/too flat/too stiff/too [fill in the blank].)

My first belly dance lessons took place in the early 90s in the basement of the now-closed Arsenic and Old Lace in Cambridge. Every time I tried to raise my arms over my head, I'd scrape my knuckles on the ceiling beams. That was the first time I felt like I was taking up too much space in my dance. Between that and my subsequent teacher demanding that we wear nothing but body stockings to class (I was a size 16 at the time and the teacher was a pencil), it didn't take long for me to quit.

Fast-forward fifteen years, when I decided I was ready to try again. I signed up for lessons with The Goddess Dancing, where all the teachers were decidedly on the short side. "You have such lovely long arms," they'd say. "I wish mine were that long."

When I looked in the mirror, I didn't see "lovely." I saw "awkward." Whenever I tried to copy what they were doing, all I saw was a gawky, angular nightmare. It didn't help that from my back-row vantage point*, I seemed to be looming over all the other students like that giant, spindly alien at the end of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. On top of that, I needed to uncomfortably shorten my stride when doing traveling moves to keep in sync with all the other students. I felt like a mincing chicken.

(*Side note for teachers: please don't try to get your tall students to stand in the front row. If they volunteer to, that's great. If they're hanging at the back, realize that they've spent their entire lives being told not to block people, so they'll feel unbearably rude and uncomfortably exposed if forced to the front.)

I heard the same admiration of my arms from my next teacher, the average-height Phoenix Avathar, although I felt less gawky in her class, which was a step in the right direction. Tribal belly dance's devotion to very deliberate, strong arms seemed to suit me better. I still needed to shorten my strides to match everyone else's, but in ITS, which is generally a non-traveling dance, that wasn't as uncomfortable.

And then Phoenix hosted an Aepril Schaile workshop in her studio, and the tumblers fell into place.

Aepril Schaile was just what I needed at that point in my dance education - someone with a body like mine, six-foot wingspan and all, who knew how to work with it rather than against it. I walked away from that workshop a changed dancer. From then on, when I performed, I would make sure that they could see these arms of mine from space!

Phoenix introduced me to the local belly dance scene, and whenever I went to a show where Aepril performed, I made sure to pay attention. I also discovered Sara Ford and Juliana, two other tall local dancers, and took mental notes on how they moved as well. The main thing these women had in common was that they owned their space. Their posture was impeccable, and they projected every inch of their height to the audience with pride. Even when they danced in troupes, they didn't try to minimize their arms to make them look more like everyone else's - they spread them wide, they lifted them high.

As I started internalizing these lessons, I figured out another important piece of the tall dancer puzzle - when you have a lot of space to cover, it's usually best to take your time with it. I love watching quick, energetic dancing, but it's difficult to make it work on a tall body. Larger objects take more time and energy to move through space than small ones do. And when you're dancing in a restaurant or in some other venue with a small stage, it can be flat-out impossible for a tall dancer to do the same sort of energetic work as a small dancer. Where a small dancer can take multiple whirling steps, the tall dancer has maybe one or two steps before she's standing on an audience member's foot, or whacking someone in the face with her veil or cane. So when tall dancers go for speed, they tend to do so in more contained fashion. The energy moves more vertically than horizontally.

But slow work...oh, now there's where these arms really come in handy. Remember how I said it takes more time and energy to move a large object through space than a small one? The flip side is that it's easier to be slow and gooey when you have a lot of length to work with. I can milk an arm move or a weight shift like nobody's business. Give me a sword, and I can keep you enthralled just by carving it through space. And when I take that slow, lovely arm work, and maybe some juicy undulations, and layer them on top of a choo-choo shimmy, I put the entire front row in my shadow. It's my "loom gracefully" moment, and it's damned dramatic.

So tall dancers with shorter teachers, find someone to workshop with who looks like you so you can finally have someone to emulate. If your regular teacher is one of those energetic short dancers and you can't keep up with her, you should absolutely keep trying, but don't take it as a personal failure if you don't succeed. If your teacher has you dancing in pairs or groups, take a moment to quietly ask her to group you with at least one of the other taller students in class so you don't feel like you're looming awkwardly, which can be a confidence-killer. And if anyone tries to tell you to take up less space, find a new teacher. You can't be graceful if you can't be yourself.

Zia is a 5'11" Boston-area dancer. She's currently developing her "Loom Gracefully" idea into a workshop. Please email her if you're interested, or visit her web site. You can also follow her, her dance partner Kezmaya, and their troupe on their Facebook page.  


Amy SmithComment
Meet Virginia of Miami

Za-beth hosts Virgina of Miami - along with other fabulous dancers - for her annual World Champion Diva Crown event August 23-25! Za-beth interviewed Virginia for BDNE.

What first influence did you have for the dance? 

My first influence in the dance was when I was working in the fashion industry and one of my regular clients was one of the princesses of Saudi Arabia. One day, I was delivering her purchased merchandise to her home in Miami. I had told her about my fascination since my youth with the culture, the music, and the vintage Middle- Eastern jewelry which I had been collecting since I was about 16. She took me to a private room in the house, donned a hip scarf, played some music on the stereo, and began to dance for me. This was the most inspiring moment for me. It was wonderful to not only see how freely she could express herself but also how comfortable she was with her femininity. She was beautiful, organic, and compelling to watch.

I had been a singer in a rock band for many years, and when I experienced this, I was able to appreciate how wonderful it was to express the music through this dance. It felt as if one was not enough without the other. They were meant to be together. As a singer and songwriter, I was able to see yet another way to creatively express yourself through the medium of dance. I am certain that much of this came to me later when I looked back upon the experience, but it did push me to take classes and eventually I became a personal performer for many of the Saudi Arabian Royal Families' events in Miami and in NY.  I completed a circle.

Who were your first professional influences?

By my first professional influences I believe you mean my instructors. If so, I began my studies in Miami where the teacher who gave me my first eight-week course was a stunning American Indian woman. Voluptuous, with jet black hair down to her buttocks, her name was Sheherazade. After that, (Tamalyn) Dallal had come back from a trip and I continued my studies with her, Jihan Jamal, and Ylsa to name a few. I learned a great deal from them and began to travel very early on to take workshops from people like Horacio and Beata Cifuentes, Raquia Hassan, and more. Mr. Mahmoud Reda was one of them; he became an integral part of my training and has influenced me in my theatrical work and desire to see this dance in the theatrical arena. He has opened doors for me and given me some incredible opportunities. I do feel that the greatest influence, the one who made me feel like I was truly dancing, and the one who influenced my style, vocabulary, choreographic skills, and even my career the most, has been Mr. Yousry Sharif. He has been a Master Instructor for me as well as a mentor and someone who helped to open doors for me and shape my career. He still does, even today, by inviting me to be a Master Instructor at his weeklong intensives in New York, something I attended for over 13 years. To teach there is also a completed full circle for me. He has been the most inspiring artist for me thus far.

What was your first professional gig? Professional gig would mean a paying gig.

My first was as as a member of Dallal's dance company in Miami. We went as a group to do a show at an event here. I believe it was four dancers together. It was an exhilarating experience. I always did it for the love of the art, to express the music I so loved with movement, and for how it made me feel. It was quite a revelation when I realized you could actually make money doing something that you loved to do! 

Where has this profession taken you?

It has given me the opportunity to create seven teaching DVDs, three theatrical productions, two CDs, countless workshops, Teacher Certification Programs, and my annual Rakstar event in Miami. It has taken me to over 46 countries around the world and almost every continent. It has been an incredible journey, not only physically being able to share my passion for this dance with other dancers and students from so many walks of life and so many backgrounds, but also where it has taken me as a woman and a human being. It is an honor to be able to teach, to have students that want to be inspired by you, who appreciate your work and artistry, and that are as passionate about this dance form as you are. It has given me the incredible opportunity to see the world and its glorious splendors, and also to truly know other women and men. It has given me a greater understanding of the human spirit and how we are truly all connected. We all have the same needs, desires, life's losses, loves, trials and tribulations, joys, sorrows, needs for family, love, and a "Divine Creator". No matter how different we think we are, we are truly all "ONE". This dance appeals to women and even men from every background and unites us through this love of the dance. The need to find this on a greater universal level could help heal the world today!

How has the business changed for you?

Obviously it has grown and the prospects around the world have also grown, which gives me and many instructors and artists more opportunities. I am grateful for this. The business itself has also changed. Since its insurgence years ago, we have developed a generation that is interested in a fast track to fame and fortune. Not all dancers, but some. It began for me as a sisterhood and a world where everyone supported each other. Now it is sadly becoming a purely business world for everyone, which in turn becomes a dog eat dog world. Growing pains, I guess; the price we pay for it becoming larger and more widely accepted.

What worries me is those that are in the business without the appropriate knowledge, therefore, my creation of a Teacher Certification Program. We took many years to train ourselves and to continue training ourselves. We created standard pays for dancers and ethical codes. Some of this has been lost on newer generations. It has a lot to do with undercutting in the business. It also has to do with the Internet and having everything at your fingertips. Copying a YouTube video is cheaper and easier than studying with someone for years in order to develop your art form or paying to take workshops. One can never compare to the other. On the other hand, the Internet also gives us the great opportunity to be seen and respected by our peers worldwide. Instant fame for some. But with this technologically advanced society comes a multitude of ethical and legal issues, such as copyright infringements, and the ease with which audiences are videotaping everyone's performances and choreography without any respect for the artist's work. This does not happen in ballet, modern, flamenco, or any other respected dance forms. You would be thrown out of the theater for such an abuse, yet in our dance form it runs rampant. If we want the world to respect and admire our dance form as much as it does other dance forms, then we ourselves must respect it and our artists. We must treat it with the same respect, ethical codes of conduct, and legalities that the other dance forms are treated with.

What changes have you seen in the dance over the years?

The change I have seen over the years has been the development of a higher level of dancer. In contrast to the above, there are dancers that do take time to truly study and learn. The difference is that today you have a workshop in almost every city or area on a regular basis, and therefore have a greater opportunity to better yourself as a dancer, teacher, or performer. Because the dance has grown, the workshops are more readily available than they were for us. We had to spend money and travel to study. This is also something the newer dancer needs to add to her training. But be aware of the experience or knowledge of an instructor. A great dancer is not necessarily a great teacher. We have also implemented competitions, which is another way to raise the level of dance in any area. I was opposed to it until my students I have trained for years were competing and winning, which showed me how much these competitions were inspiring them to change and grow.  

I consider myself to be a modern dancer with deep Egyptian roots. Therefore, I always incorporate the true Egyptian steps, techniques, interpretations, and feeling in my repertoire, but I also incorporate a fresh new modern take on its interpretation. I am interested in dancing in 2013. This is what I am finding worldwide as well; many are polishing the standards, but many are breaking new ground with the dance as well.

What do you enjoy dancing to most today? Everything!

If it moves me emotionally, then it inspires me to move! Right now I am quite into expressing some of the lesser known classics and "Tarab". Amir Sofi's CDs always inspire me to create new work for oriental, drum solos, and, of course, Oum Kalthoum. Dancing Saidi, Khaleegy, and many of the folkloric dances are still a big part of my repertoire today, as they should always be. They are the roots of the dance!



Amy SmithComment
Meet Onca O'Leary, the hardest working woman in show business!*

Jaylee will be hosting Onca O'Leary and Alyssum Pohl for the "Loose Stockings" hafla, salon, and private sessions over the weekend of August 24 and 25. For more information, see the Facebook event or email Jaylee.

Onca took some time out of her busy schedule to answer some questions about belly dance, professionalism, and burlesque. Thank you, Onca!

*That's what her site URL says!

Part of the Loose Stockings Salon will be a business class - "Can you make a living doing that?" What is the number one business mistake that dancers make - regardless of whether they dance full-time or dance to bring in extra income?

Photograpy by AB Photography, courtesy of Onca O'Leary"How do you PERSONALLY define being a 'professional'?" is the central question most dancers don't know to ask themselves on the topic of “Belly Dance as a Business”. Everyone defines this differently, and your ideas will create the job as you develop it. Do you mean full-time performance/teaching work on the national circuit, a committed secondary career on the weekend, teaching seasonally at your gym, or a focus on doing restaurant gigs locally?

Will your goals require a website, an accountant, an assistant? Will they require a multi-year business plan? Will your desire to 'go pro' balance sustainably with your other interests and responsibilities, as an employee, parent, caregiver, or multi-talented artist?

Conversely, I know extremely dedicated dancers who wisely will only take 'non-pro' gigs, because they a) want to safeguard against getting involved in the competitive side of the art and b) want to keep it fun, i.e. "not let it get too much like a real job".

A clear notion of what level of lifestyle commitment you want will save you time, money, and community drama!


Difficult question - how do you know when you are good enough to make belly dance your business?

The real question here is "Are you brave enough?"

Being a full time artist can be a dream job..but the biggest word in “show business” is business. Being a skilled artist or athlete is only part of the formula for success. Rejection is a real factor in the mercenary marketplace, for every reason, fair and unfair  - based on your looks, body-type, artistic aesthetic, local politics, administrative skills, and more. That is not a problem, if you have the temperament for it.

There's also a wide world of office skills required in being self-employed in the arts, especially as most of the best-known dancers in our field still manage their own contracts, press, and accounting.

Ask yourself a series of questions: Do I have something truly unique to offer/market/sell? Am I ready to change my art and presentation to suit the market or client? Can I function in a highly competitive and sometimes very emotional work environment? What do I want my work and personal life to look like now, in a year, and in five years?

Photograph by Jay Paul, courtesy of Onca O'L

You produce the Americana Burlesque & Sideshow Festival. More and more, belly dance is being (re)associated with burlesque. There are dancers who also study burlesque; burlesque shows that include belly dancers and vice versa; and belly dance studios that offer burlesque classes. Is this a return to the roots of American belly dance - as exotic sideshow entertainment? What would be your response to those who criticize this (re)association of belly dance and burlesque as bad for belly dance?

I understand and respect those concerns, especially coming from those dancers who laboured long and hard through the last century to elevate the profile of belly dance as a family-friendly, folklorically-based art. However, history also shows us a clear working relationship between burlesque and belly dance, and contemporary feminism broadly understands that the next step in empowerment is to seize control of the conversation about women's sensuality and how we choose to use our bodies. We don't do burlesque for validation of self-worth; it's about using comedy and narrative to open and sustain conversation about the future of women in our culture. It's part of the same civil rights conversation that we are having about a woman's right to breastfeed in public.

I've thrown in my artistic lot with the bigger battle. The arts that I support and promote have a consistent message of empowerment, innovation, and education. We work very hard using the stage to change our culture for the better, to create a saner future where breast-feeding isn't a scandal and women's right to self-determination is assured. As Princess Farhana says, belly dance represents one powerful medium for modelling this self-acceptance, in this case rooted in a Middle-Eastern art-of-the-people cultural context. Burlesque offers us another, in a uniquely American “people's art” modality. The circus arts likewise present boundless opportunity to explore themes of social commentary and gender-based inequalities requiring redress!

Photograph by Jay Paul, courtesy of Onca O'Leary.Onca on Onca

I'm originally from Gloucester, where my ancestors have been working in the quarries and on the wharves since 1620. I am delighted to be able to come home again and share my art, my convictions, and my experience along with JayLee, Alyssum Pohl, and the ladies of the Loose Stockings salon.



Amy SmithComment
The Routine Roller Coaster

by Nadira Jamal

Nadira inherited her old-school tastes from her mentors Amira Jamal and Artemis Mourat. She cross-trains in Turkish and Arabic styles, but still loves vintage American Cabaret the best. Nadira teaches in the Boston area, and coaches dancers locally and online. She is the hostess of The Belly Dance Geek Clubhouse show, and the creator of the Improvisation Toolkit DVD series and the Rock the Routine online course. For more geek-tacular resources, visit the Belly Dance Geek.

Entertainment is the art of manipulating the audience.

Usually, we think of manipulation as a bad thing, but that's not true for performers. Manipulating the audience is our job! A good belly dance show takes the audience's emotions from excited highs to intense lows. Without manipulation, our show would feel pretty bland. Those highs and lows are what keep the audience's attention. If we performed the entire show on the same emotional level, even the best dancing would get old fast. That's why the old-school "AmCab" routine structure is designed to alternate fast and slow tempos, and high and low energy levels. The routine is like a roller coaster: it's all about the ups and downs!

Let's take a closer look at those ups and downs. The 6-part routine is the traditional format for American Cabaret routine, and is what you'll usually see in old-school venues like the Athenian Corner. The 6-part routine includes six sections (duh):

1) Introduction

This is a high-energy, splashy entrance piece.

Goal: greet the audience, get them "warmed up" and ready to enjoy the show.

2) Veil

A slow, lyrical song, danced with a veil.

Goal: deepen the emotional experience by slowing down.

3) Middle Section

A medium-to-medium-fast tempo piece, often with a folkloric feeling. Sometimes danced with a cane.

Goal: the "main course" of the show. Show off your "regular dancing", particularly your juiciest hipwork.

4) Chiftetelli

A slow-to-very-slow song with a snaky feeling. May include prop balancing or floorwork.

Goal: mesmerize the audience, draw them into your inner world.

5) Drum Solo

A high-energy duet between the drummer and dancer.

Goal: build drama to create a high-energy climax.

6) Finale

A medium-fast to fast section, with a triumphant feeling. May use a song in 9/8 time.

Goal: resolve the dramatic tension of the drum solo, say goodbye to the audience.

Did you catch the roller-coaster pattern?

During the routine, we:

  • Start with a splash   (intro)

  • Dip down to a mild low   (veil)

  • Rise back up to a mild high   (middle)

  • Plunge to an extreme low    (chiftetelli)

  • Soar to an extreme high  (drum solo

  • Come back down to earth  (finale)

That keeps the audience on their toes.

By alternating different tempos, we hold the audience's interest. Just when they're getting used to a high energy level, we slow it down. As soon as they get comfortable with slow, we crank it back up. We always keep them guessing. And we increase the intensity throughout the show: the earlier lows and highs (the veil and middle) are less intense than the later lows and highs (chiftetelli and drum solo). By increasing the intensity, we increase the stakes. So we're not just alternating fast and slow; we're building drama.

That's some sophisticated manipulation.

But you don't have to be an expert in audience psychology. It's built right into the structure of the routine. Just by following the traditional format, you can play the audience like an instrument. And they'll thank you for it.

Of course, there are exceptions. The 6-part routine doesn't always have six parts. Depending on the venue, the band, or recording, and the length of the show, you may get a variation on that format.

Sometimes you get a 5-part routine. In some routines, one of the sections will be omitted, usually the middle section or the chiftetelli. (It's less common for the other parts to be left out, but it does happen.) In fact, I was brought up calling this a 5-part routine. It wasn't until I started teaching this structure to my own students that I realized that the bands had always played six parts for me.

Sometimes there's a 7th section. And in some communities and venues, there may be an additional audience participation/tipping section after the chiftetelli, which would make this a 7-part routine. (At venues like the Athenian Corner, the audience participation is usually rolled into the finale, instead of having its own section.)

Sometimes it's even shorter. When you need a shorter set, like for a bellygram or a hafli, you can leave out a few sections to create a mini-routine. Usually these follow a fast-slow-fast or fast-slow-fast-fast format, such as:

  • Intro, chiftetelli, finale
  • Intro, veil, drum, finale

I've seen this format in many shorter recorded routines, such as George Abdo's Raks Mustapha. But the general structure is always the same. Regardless of how many parts are included or left out, the overall structure of the routine is the same:

  • The remaining parts appear in the same order.
  • The aesthetics of each part don't change.
  • How you dance to each section doesn't change.

And we're always working with the same framework. Even when we leave a part or two out, the "ups and downs" aesthetic is still the core of the structure. So you can pick and choose which pieces to include in your roller coaster, as long as you keep the ups and downs.


As performers, our job is to manipulate the audience's emotions. Don't feel bad - they enjoy this.

The basic structure of the 6-part routine is: introduction, veil, middle, chiftetelli, drum solo, finale.

Some routines may omit parts or add an extra participation section. So you may get a 5, 6, or 7 part show, or even a fast-slow-fast mini routine. But this doesn't change how we approach the routine.

The tempo and energy changes built into the full routine create an escalating roller coaster effect. That holds the audience's attention and builds drama and momentum.

You don't have to be an expert in audience psychology to create those effects. It's built right into the structure.

Next Steps

Listen, listen, listen. To get those ups and downs into your bones, listen to some full routines. You'll find full routines on the albums Mystical Veil (featuring New England artists) and Belly Dance New York, and on most John Bilezikjian CDs. Or put together your own playlists!

Observe. Patronize old-school "AmCab" venues with live music, like the Athenian Corner. As you enjoy the show, observe the structure. Watch how the tempo, energy level, and dancer's interpretation changes with each section. (Note: Venues that feature Arabic style will follow a different format. You can still learn a lot from those shows, but you probably won't see a 6-part routine.)

Give it a try! The best way to get a handle on the full routine is to try it yourself. If you can't handle a full-length show yet, work on it one section at a time, or try the mini-show format.

Amy Smith Comments
Meet Alessandra Belloni
Gina Capossela hosts Alessandra Belloni in Lebanon, NH on June 1 and 2. Alessandra is an amazing drummer, singer, and dancer who specializes in the ancient folkloric and ritual dances of her native southern Italy.
About Alessandra Belloni
Tambourine virtuoso singer, dancer, and actress Alessandra Belloni is renowned in her field and travels worldwide to perform group and solo concerts in theaters, universities, and international percussion festivals. Belloni began her career in her native Rome with the great actress Anna Magnani in "La Lupa", and with legendary film director Federico Fellini in "Casanova". She is artistic director and leading performer of I Giullari di Piazza, an ensemble of musicians, vocalists, and dancers that specializes in authentic southern Italian music and theater events dating back to the 13th century. Belloni is a REMO artist and designer of her signature series of Italian tambourines; she is also the author of the book & DVD Rhythm is the Cure, published by Mel Bay. The only artist in the world who specializes in southern Italian tambourines combined with singing and dance, Belloni was selected as one of the best percussionists in the world by DRUM! magazine, and has been acclaimed in The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and featured in Modern Drummer and Percussive. She has been invited to appear in percussion festivals in London, Brazil, Poland, France, Italy, Australia, Rome, and throughout the US.
Alessandra graciously took some time out of her very busy schedule to answer a few questions for BDNE:
Are the dances you teach considered folk dance? Sacred dance? Both?

They are considered both, mainly ritual trance dances with ancient origins, done mainly as ceremonies. But they are as well folkloric and done on social occasions.
For the average belly dancer (our audience), what are the advantages of learning folkloric dance, particularly dances that are not of Middle-Eastern origin?

Actually, the Tarantella has ancient roots both in Greece (southern Italy was a part of Greece called "Magna grecia") and Turkey, as the tammorriata was done in honor of the Black Madonna which is a derivation of the ancient ritual dances for Cybele, the goddess the Earth, originally from Anatolia, Turkey. You will see this in many steps and hip movements, also some of the arm movements. The gypsies who traveled through the Mediterranean have connected all these dances through the centuries. I think it is very important for belly dancers to connect to other ancient Mediterranean dances that have the same roots, but which have more spiritual and healing  tradition.
How do you feel about these dances being brought into public performance, or moves from the dances being "fused" with other dance styles?
For the last six years, I have been working and performing a musical (hope to make it into a long off-Broadway run) called TARANTELLA SPIDER DANCE, about the healing power of the tarantella and  Dionysus. I love making a musical connection between ancient and modern, and have been using what I call the TECHNO TARANTELLA BEAT created especially for this show  by my violinist Joe Deninzon, who is a master of electric violin with effects. We went to the studio together many times and laid tracks that we then remixed and made into very beautiful chants and trance dances. The dances and choreography are a fusion of traditional and modern, and it took me a long time to find the right dancers, usually from Italy, that can actually blend these styles together and look powerful and not out of place, but it is a difficult task.
My wonderful violinist actually goes on the floor as a tarantato at the end of our concerts, really letting go on his back with his legs up in the air, as he keeps playing the very fast pizzica tarantata on his violin without missing a note! Really spectacular, and this really gets the audience involved as everyone feels the need in our modern day society to let go and release through the wild Spider Dance the poison and toxins out of our body and break the imaginary spider web that traps us in our everyday life.
My best experiences as teacher are during my annual healing dance and percussion workshop in Tuscany, this year planned for August 19 - 26.
What do you feel it is about percussion and the human voice and dance that creates such a powerful, sometimes spiritual experience?

My work both as teacher and performer is dedicated to the healing power of rhythm and dance and its spiritual connections. Especially focusing on the ancient tarantella trance dance. I have had my own healing experience with the dance, and healed myself from irregular bleeding and cancerous cells of the cervix, which led me to the creation of workshops and performances to help heal women from depression and sadness caused by abuse, unrequited love, and exploitation by the male dominated society.
The historic Dance of the Tarantula is a healing trance dance ritual from Southern Italy (in ancient times Magna Greacia, part of Greece) for women from the Greek rites of the Baccantes, in honor of Dionysus, the god of ecstasy and wine (Baccus). Women involved in these rites (later called Tarantate) danced the "Pizzica Tarantata" ("the bite of the spider tarantula", also called "the bite of love"). A bite of love drives them to dance in a wild frenzy in order to free themselves of repressed sexual desires. 
The dominant music is the voice and the percussion, with large tambourines playing non-stop to a 12/8 beat with loud accents. By spinning and stomping their feet, participants symbolically expell the "poison" of the mythical bite of the tarantula from their bodies. A double row of jingles on the instruments accentuates the madness as dancers, traditionally clad in white with red scarves and ribbons, move on their backs like spiders. All participants customarily experienced a trance-like state induced by the combination of music and dancing. The voice has the power to reach the divine spirit and the 6/8 rhythm creates a trance or altered state of mind during which I have visions and the person also receives the "vision" or healing.
In its modern sense, the dance aims to involve women of all ages and men in a collective ritual dance of liberation from the spider web of entrapment in today's society. It aims for an ecstatic release known as the Pizzica, or Spider Dance, whose origins are cross-cultural. Its music derives from ancient Greece, southern Italy during the Crusades, the Renaissance and modern times, blending modern and ancient healing trance dances (Whirling Dervishes and Gnawa from Morocco), powerful ritual drumming and chants in honor of the Black Madonna.
When did you start drumming? What pulled you in the direction you followed in your interests and career?

I was always a singer since I was a little girl and loved acting as well. Then I moved to New York to study theatre and music as my father would not let me do it in Rome, and when I went back to Italy I heard the southern Italian folk music and drumming and fell in love with it, especially with powerful tambourine style.
From my book Rhythm is the Cure with Mel Bay Publications: "In Italy during the late seventies, a great revival started of the ancient Southern Italian folk culture combining music, dance and theatre, known as “Musica and Teatro Popolare”.
I had been living in New York for several years, studying theatre and music and on my trips back to Italy I met a group of women who invited me to be part of a concert where I learned some amazing women's work chants from Naples, Puglia, Calabria, and Sicily. The music was haunting and powerful and I wanted to learn more as I found that it touched deeply into my heart. Thanks to the Neapolitan writer and ethnomusicologist Roberto De Simone and  his fantastic company NUOVA COMPAGNIA DI CANTO POPOLARE, my generation learned to appreciate the musical and theatrical traditions of the so-called peasants of the South, who have a rich folklore directly connected to their agricultural life and to the Earth. I was born in Rome, where unfortunately, the Vatican has repressed most manifestations of these ancient pre-Christian rites.
In Italy, I also saw an amazing tambourine player Alfio Antico. This wild, strong shepherd from the mountains of Sicily used the large Sicilian tambourine in such a fast complicated way, it was totally like casting a magic spell on all people around him who watched speechless and enchanted. I was certainly bewitched by Alfio's wild power on the drum and this power convinced me that I could learn how to do that too, if I really wanted. I tried to learn how to play the tambourine from him whenever I saw him at different times, even though he did not teach, but just transported you in his wilderness.
Only later I realized that the fast 6/8 rhythm of the tarantella recalled something very familiar that I heard in my childhood. My grandfather on my mother's side came from the mountains outside of Rome (Rocca Di Papa) and played in his town’s band the tambourine, the snare drum, and the mandolin, even though he was deaf and never went to school. Like Alfio he was self taught. My grandmother sang all the folk songs from Lazio, and that is how they met and fell in love, singing and playing Italian folk music. In our Sunday’s family gatherings in the countryside he played together with his brother on the accordion, accompanying my grandmother singing tarantelle and saltarelli from our region, Lazio. I realized that I had gone full circle back to my roots, and even though I did not learn directly from them, I felt I had to bring my ancestors back right here in New York.
More about Alessandra
Find Alessandra on Facebook 
Alessandra on YouTube
Alessandra Belloni Live Appearance on ABC-TV7 Chicago 
Alessandra Belloni featured on CNN Worldbeat 
Alessandra Belloni "Spider Sex" documentary on National Geographic 
Amy Smith Comment
Meet Tamalyn Dallal
From Tamalyn Dallal travels the world in search of the meaning and special qualities of dance and movement. Much of her inspiration comes from living among people in different cultures, from Asia to Africa, the Middle East and Latin America. She has dedicated the past 35 years of her life to dance, as a performer, teacher, writer, film maker and producer. Ms. Dallal currently teaches workshops and residencies around the world. She is an author of three books on dance and culture, and has produced the first of a series of dance ethnology films entitled "Zanzibar Dance, Trance, and Devotion". She began filming the second film "Ethiopia Dances for Joy" in spring 2012. 
Amity Alize hosts Tamalyn Dallal at Raq-On Dance Studio May 18-19. See the event listing for details and to register. 

Which came first - travel or dance? Did you dance to support your travel habit or travel to support your dance habit?
I loved to study different cultures and collect traditional music from around the world since I was very young. My dream had been to travel the world but I hadn't done it. When I was 17, I took up belly dancing because I liked the music, not knowing that this dance form would help me fulfill my dream to travel.
You study many forms of world dance, and your style is influenced by all of them. Would you recommend that American belly dancers train in another dance style outside of belly dance? In addition to being better educated about dance, what would the benefits be?
I do recommend that they study as many dance forms as possible. It doesn't mean they have to get good at all of them. But they can get better educated about dance beyond the belly dance world, find new ways to move, and see correlations between different dance forms. Also, I find that belly dancers are in their own world, rather than the larger world of dance. By taking other dance forms and meeting other types of dancers, it expands our circle and puts us in the dance community, not only the belly dance community.
Tamalyn in Zanzibar. Photo by Suleiman Mauly.
I've read that you see increased interest in and respect for, the elders in the dance, with younger dancers wanting to hear the elders talk and share their insights. How do you see "elders" benefiting from younger dancers?
Mutual benefit! Each generation of dancer has lived through different experiences. For example, dancers of the 60s - 80s worked with a lot of live music, so they can share their knowledge of music. The night club scene, when the dancers and musicians played off of each other, tended to be a catharsis when the energy united among dancer, musician, and audience. So many dancers miss that time. They didn't use choreography. It was a very spontaneous experience. Many movements were different and dancers made their own costumes at that time. It was a different world that we can all benefit from learning about. 
Elders can benefit from younger dancers as their life and dance experiences are valued when they teach and share. They can share ideas and learn what's new from younger dancers. I see it as a sort of exchange.
The club scene isn't what it used to be - little to no live music and of course, minimal pay. Can you see a future where belly dance becomes more of a theatrical art? How do we support that?
I think the club scene is a relic of the past. It is nice when we can re-live some moments of it. That was a special time. But this dance comes from women in the Middle East. It is just what they do. Of course, it is great to make it a theatrical art, but it is important to acknowledge the women who really are the keepers of the dance - the ones who dance in their kitchens, during henna parties, and so on. If we meet them, then realize how their dance morphed into a club scene, then is on its way to the big stage, we can find more artistic inspiration.
I see two possible futures. One includes different forms of tribal that are very far from the source and incorporate a lot of legitimate dance theater. That is art without limitations or borders. It is doing well. There are some real artists in that field. One of my favorites is Mira Betz, but there are many others. 
Yet, to take this dance as a Middle-Eastern cultural dance, and bring it to the theater is a bigger stretch. Theater is a Western concept. Women dancing for joy and celebration in an intimate setting has a totally different energy. When you take this dance into the theater, it changes. It has to. It is no longer the same dance. One of my quandries is how to address that and keep the integrity of the dance and culture while putting it on a large stage.
We have a long ways to go, and I think the best way is to go back - as far in time as we can find record of. Experience the dance in its traditional context, then decide how it should go onto the stage.
My dance studio outside of Seattle is called Zamani Culture House. Zamani is a Swahili word (though "Zaman" exists in Arabic, Turkish, and Farsi). In Swahili, time has two dimensions: sasa (now) and zamani. Zamani time goes back very far into the past. It absorbs, holds, and stores all the events that have ever occurred. The philosophy of Zamani Culture House is that we must learn about the past if we are to move into the future. Thus, learning history, and going deeper into our dance or art form gives it a more sustainable future.


Amy SmithComment
The Hard Conversations

by Aslahan

As teachers, it is our responsibility to guide our students not just in technique and expression, but in etiquette and professionalism. It is our responsibility to create a good learning environment for everyone in class. Sometimes, these responsibilities mean initiating conversations that may make an individual student uncomfortable. These conversations are uncomfortable for us, too (who wants to embarrass a student or quash her enthusiasm?), but are necessary to protect the student herself, the rest of the class, the teacher, the community, and the art of belly dance.

I think most instructors feel this responsibility, but often these hard conversations never happen, not because the teacher isn't aware of the problem, but because the teacher just doesn't know what to say. My approach is to identify why the student's behavior is a problem, and present it to them privately and compassionately, with the assumption that they truly are not aware of the damage they are causing.

It helps to think ahead of time about what you will say to start the conversation. Rather than generalities, here are some specific examples of issues you may find yourself needing to address with a student, precisely *why* they are an issue, and a suggested "script" for what to say to your student.

The student is taking on paid gigs before she is ready.

This reflects badly on belly dance (someone without the skills representing professional dance), and also on you as a teacher.

"I know how excited you are about this, but I just don't think you're at that level yet. Taking professional gigs before you're ready reflects on me as your teacher, and also misrepresents professional belly dance as a whole. I need to ask you to stop."

The student is taking on paid gigs and isn't charging enough.

Undercutting affects the whole community as prices go lower and lower.

"I need to talk to you about the rates you're charging. The going rate in the community is X, and when you charge less than that you bring down prices for everybody. As a professional dancer you should be charging X at a minimum."

The student has an inappropriate costume.

Even at a hafla, a student's costume (too revealing, obviously a lingerie bra with sequins added, etc) can reflect badly on belly dance as an art, and you as a teacher.  

"I need to talk to you about your costume. I know you love it/are excited about it/have performed in it before, but it really needs to be altered so that it shows less leg/shows less breast/covers your underwear/doesn't show your panties when you spin/is less obviously a covered lingerie bra. Perhaps you could wear a vest/wear a bolero top/add harem pants/wear something different for this show."

The student has started teaching before she is ready.

Again, this reflects badly on the art of belly dance, and on you as the student's teacher. Additionally, the student is almost guaranteed to turn out students of her own with sublevel skills and standards, and may even hurt someone.

"I know how excited you are about this, but it's too soon for you to be teaching. You put your students at a disadvantage by not being ready as a teacher, and your actions reflect on me as your instructor, and on belly dance itself. I need to ask you to stop."

The student talks too much in class.

Everyone's time is being taken up on something other than what you are teaching. Other students may become frustrated and discouraged.

"I need to ask you to limit your comments in class a bit more. It's distracting to my other students, and I want everyone to feel that their time is being used effectively. Can you save your comments for before or after class?"

The student tries to answer other students' questions.

The student may be giving incorrect information. The student may have a different answer than you do, which confuses the class (your class is about YOUR philosophy and approach; that's why your students come to you). The student is using up people's time with unsolicited answers. Other students may stop asking questions if they know it will trigger this student to respond.

"I appreciate your enthusiasm and I know you just want to help, but I need to ask you to let *me* answer any questions that come up in class. Having multiple 'teachers' is too confusing for the other students."

The student brings gossip, conflict, or all their personal problems ("drama") to class.

Even if this is occurring before or after class time, it creates extra stress and unpleasantness for the other students.

"I know you feel a strong bond with the other students, but many of them come to class to get away from the problems of work and social pressures. I need to protect that, so I have to ask you to leave your problems outside when you come to class. It's just not the right place to vent."

The student frequently corrects the teacher in class.

Again, the student is taking up the time of everyone in the class. The student may be flat out wrong, or (this is often the case) is trying to expand on something you've given a simple explanation for, which confuses the other students and loses the focus you were trying to achieve.

"I appreciate your enthusiasm and I know you just want to help, but if you're concerned that something I've said is incorrect could you ask me about it after class? These discussions in class take up everyone's time and can be confusing for the other students."

The student wears too much perfume.

This can be overwhelming and unpleasant for both you and the other students in your class. Additionally, some of other students may have chemical sensitivities that make this a health issue.

"I need to talk to you about your perfume. It's lovely, but it's just too strong for the class environment. I need to ask you apply it more lightly/refrain from wearing it to class."

The student has body odor. (NOTE - of all the topics in this list, this one has the most potential to humiliate a student, and should be handled with delicacy, privacy, and a little face-saving spin.)

This is unpleasant for the other students in your class, as well as you. Your other students may leave and not return.

"I'm embarrassed to bring this up, but I've noticed you have some body odor in class - maybe you are coming here from another workout? Would it be possible to change clothes in between?"

An embarrassed or disappointed student may try to draw you into a debate:

    "But no one's complained about my costume before."
    "But I don't feel right charging as much as a dancer who has ten years of experience."
    "But I have a music degree, and oversimplified information drives me crazy."

Getting drawn into an argument won't help things. You can stay out of the debate by saying something like: "I understand how you feel, but" and then restate the problem as outlined above. Or just "I understand how you feel, but my concern still stands."

Often the student is simply embarrassed to have made a mistake, and will appreciate the guidance after her embarrassment has subsided. Have patience.

Every once in a while, you'll find yourself with a student who will not make the changes you ask. That brings us to one of the hardest conversations, if you choose to have it:

The student needs to be asked to find a new teacher.

The student is continuing to disrupt your class and/or negatively affect your reputation. This can lose you students or gigs, and possibly hurt the dance community as a whole.

"I'm really sorry, but I've talked to you about [insert issue here] and you don't seem to be willing to change. It isn't fair to my other students/affects my reputation in the dance community. I have to ask you to find a new teacher."

Most of the time, students mean well. They are unaware of how they come across, or unaware of the issues they might be causing in the belly dance community. These conversations are never comfortable, but they nearly always solve much more trouble than they cause.


Amy Smith Comments
The Helping Hips: Superheroes of Collaboration

 by Amy Smith, with contributions from The Helping Hips 

"It’s hard as hell to pull off what looks like a professionally-run fundraiser and show without professionals or training." - Helping Hips member

But pull it off they did. In the past five years, The Helping Hips (THH) have raised over $30,000 for nonprofit charities that benefit children with medical challenges, surpassing their original financial goals and hopes for community participation. Their magic formula: professional belly dancers and musicians, elegant banquet setting, living statues, chocolate fountains, henna artists, and silent auctions with astounding prizes. The secret ingredient: the ability to bring diverse individuals and groups together for a cause. The result: The community - dance aficionados, dance teachers, students, troupes, fans, and friends of the art - who came from as far away as South Carolina and Florida, and as close as next door, to support this effort.

(Note: See the review for this year's gala in "Sequins of Events".)

Silent Auction Directors JoAnne Abdallah and Cynthia Ricciardi on either side of Cherrie Hall, Managing Director of Helping Hips. Living statues (L - R) Amy Oliveira and Christine Oliveira Griffith. Photo by

Three of the galas, including this year’s, benefited the Family Coalition for Medically Involved Children, whose efforts support children with complex medical profiles and their families. This small nonprofit group works to educate, empower, and support families while expanding their children’s life experiences through programs such as the Smuggler’s Notch Adaptive Ski Program. “Sage had the opportunity to go to the top of the mountain and take in the breathtaking sights,” said one mother.  Getting to the top in spite of the struggles they face was a symbolic victory for this family. Partnering with The Helping Hips and the belly dance community made a huge impact and left the charity deeply moved by the show of support. 

Spreading smiles and shimmies

It must be said that the event's success is The Helping Hips'  success. This small but mighty group of dancers and dance fans make the magic happen. Founded in October 2007, THH dedicated itself to “spreading smiles and shimmies” through Sunshine Sisters’ shows for elderly and handicapped populations; a newsletter; recognition for community members celebrating a happy occasion; support for those in need;  and the annual Helping Hips’ Belly Dance Charity Gala, which has become the main focus for the group.

Planning for each gala begins within a month of the previous year’s event, starting with a debriefing meeting that documents successful strategies and suggestions for improvement, and continues at monthly Helping Hips meetings throughout the year. Volunteers are recruited (between 50 and 60 each year) to populate teams to oversee set-up and breakdown, décor, silent auction/chance drawing donations and tracking, tickets, technology support, venue and food, dessert donations and set up, financial tracking, program booklet advertising and production, the actual evening’s itinerary and creation of the show itself, and the marketing and promotion effort to which THH affectionately refers as “the beast.” From the volunteers who contribute a half-hour at the actual event to those whose involvement totals the equivalent of several full-time work weeks, the most vital members of the event are the belly dance community who rally to fill this resoundingly successful event with good will and positive energy.

SNAFUs and solutions

A few of The Helping Hips’ challenges were addressed aggressively after debriefing each year and some solutions evolved in not-so-elegant, almost comical ways. For example:

Lighting: Lighting the ballroom and stage for the shows and intermissions in a professional way was a challenge because of the age and set-up of the venue. Lighting controls were spread out over two ballrooms - to smoothly light and darken the room required a team of four people trying everything from walkie-talkies to hand signals with no success. Much to the dismay of the stage manager, the lights would unexpectedly dim down or flare up at the wrong time under the control of a well-intentioned volunteer. It was amusing in hindsight but frustrating in the moment. Much of the issue was resolved when THH Spousal Support members Bill D’Agostino and Peter Abdallah climbed ladders, tested various outlets in the rafters, and secured stage lights to the ceiling that could all be controlled from backstage. However, they still had to contend with an antiquated system backstage that involved flipping switches in the dark in response to verbal cues from the other side of the door. A spotlight, on loan from Burt Wood School of Performing Arts, was added this year. Run by a fabulous volunteer, Sam from the BCC theater department, this follow-spot furthered the group’s vision of showcasing the artists and making the night grand. An event with these goals truly needs a lighting designer and professional running the entire evening using a light-control board. Vision and finances collide on this issue though. So for now, the hard-working volunteers flip the switches and man the spotlight.

Staging: With 300 people viewing a show performed at floor level, sight lines were limited. The first stage of tackling this challenge was an attempt to create three levels of viewing: floor pillows in an arc around the dance floor were backed by three rows of chairs set up theater style, and then rented high-top cocktail tables and high stools were placed behind the auditorium seating. Hours spent jiggling chairs and testing site lines seemed fruitless as there were still unhappy patrons. Floor pillow seating did not appeal to women in gala finery and men in nice slacks. And some guests insisted they could not see the show no matter where they were seated.

After much research and the challenge of pitching the idea to the concerned venue (who had just refinished the floors), the gala team, with the help of ProEvent, found the ultimate solution – a portable, temporary stage. Volunteers were needed to set the stage up, break it down, cover it with Marley flooring for protect the dancers’ feet from metal seams, and tie the chandeliers back so the now-elevated dancers’ veils, wings, and flying props would not collide with them. But this effort finally resolved the sight-line issue. Now every seat was a great seat and having belly dance elevated to an on-stage, concert-style performance was in perfect harmony with the THH vision. Literally lifting highly-trained artists up and presenting them to large audiences on all sides as other dance forms in our current culture enjoy is extremely fulfilling and inspiring to all.

Last-minute ticket purchases: A major challenge the planners faced was last-minute ticket purchases, which left the group and venue scrambling to make sure there was enough food, seating, and programs. This was mitigated by offering discounts and VIP reserved seating for tables of 10. Technology-based payment options also encouraged early ticket sales when the group embedded PayPal links into its cyber promotional material and websites.

Promotion: Marketing and promotion throughout the five galas has been – and continues to be – a learning experience. A marketing plan was developed the first year that the promo team promptly ignored. In retrospect, the group’s lofty and complex goals made for a very heavy workload for promotional volunteers. A breakthrough came by using conventional methods such as providing press releases in papers, courting editors of magazines and newspapers, and, of course, sending print materials to dancers, teachers, and dance fans.

The venue itself, Roseland Ballroom in Taunton Mass, had an account with a regional newspaper and split ad fees with THH the first few years. The venue withdrew this support in the last few years but, luckily, this happened just as networking via technology flourished. Now through the use of social media event invitations, membership, and notices in the many belly dance groups, as well as  Constant Contact mass email scheduling, “the beast” of marketing and promotion is somewhat tamed.

THH Artistic Director and Volunteer Recruiter, Aurel, at THH Gala 2012

Toasting success

These war stories, accomplishments, and future goals will be discussed at the volunteer party on Sunday, November 25th, when the group toasts volunteers from all five galas, presents this year’s donation to the Family Coalition for Medically Involved Children, and pauses to ponder the amazing experiences they have had as part of the New England belly dance community.

The potential for collaboration exists in all of us: as artists, individuals, neighbors, and community members. But The Helping Hips has made it manifest, through their ability to connect and collaborate in the spirit of good will and for the benefit of the community. It is their superhero power. It is the hallmark of their annual charity event. And at this holiday season - a season of thanksgiving, hope, and light - it is a shining example for us all.

Amy SmithComment
Beautiful Bohemian: Meet Belladonna, tribal fusion and sword dancer

Belladonna is an ever-evolving artist and teacher. She is a tribal fusion belly dance performer and instructor from Washington DC. Belladonna is best known for her sword dancing and balancing, musical expression, technique, and creativity. She is the producer of Raven's Night, an annual gothic/ steampunk fantasy event in Washington DC, as well as the co-producer of the monthly DCtribal Cafe. Belladonna believes in creative expression and exploring the full spectrum of human emotions. She believes in the healing power of dance and strives to help others find and develop their creative voice. She is the owner and director of Bohemian Belly Dance. Look for her new instructional sword DVDs and the industrial rhythms CD
Devrim in fall 2012.

Mathura and Baseema host Belladonna for two sword workshops and a belly dance showcase in Newburyport, MA, on November 3. For more information and to register, see the event Website.

Belladonna was kind enough to pause in her busy schedule to answer some questions for Belly Dance New England by way of introducing herself to the New England dance community.

One of the terms you use to define your style is "bohemian". Can you explain that a bit more?

Well...I chose the name Bohemian Belly Dance for my business and style because I identify with the ideals of Bohemianism, which is defined as " the practice of an unconventional lifestyle, often in the company of like-minded people, with few permanent ties, involving musical, artistic or literary pursuits".

This use of the word describes the non-traditional lifestyles of people who choose a creative and often less socially-acceptable path. I have been deeply into the arts since I was young, years before I got into belly dance, and was always intrigued by the romantic artist lifestyle and fascinated by history and other cultures. As my life has progressed all of these interests and passions have come together - like rivers leading in to the ocean - with belly dance. As a woman whose mission is to live a life of art, creative expression, and empowering others, I choose to do it on my own terms. I live and work outside of social norms and make a living teaching dance, as an entertainer, and by providing opportunities for artists to express themselves through producing shows. I live for freedom, beauty, truth, and love… as cliché’ as it may sound, it is what keeps me going. The Bohemian lifestyle is "show what I am and what I do". I support myself, I travel, and I live for art.  

You describe your sword dancing as a "new form" - what differentiates it from what other dancers are teaching?

I describe my sword technique as “new” because is unlike any other style of sword dancing. I never had a belly dance teacher who taught sword, or any regular belly dance teacher for that matter. I was really into medieval reenacting before I discovered belly dance, so I have some sword fighting experience. On the field I was a pretty good fighter and it was important to me as a woman to be able to hold my own in a battle. I approach my sword dancing the same way.  I have no traditional training in sword fighting and there were no belly dance teachers where I lived in Tennessee when I started dancing. My style developed through my hard work and passion.

In the beginning I collected every tidbit (and there wasn’t much in Clarksville TN in 1998) of sword dancing material I could find. Because I was completely obsessed with belly dance and the idea of adding a sword to my dance fit perfectly, I took what I could learn and melded it together with my own moves, balances, poses, and transitions. Over the years I have had the privilege of working with some amazing dancers and through that and my continued commitment it has developed into a language of movement with powerful poses, concise transitions, tricky balances, and smooth transitions. It is more sensual than most martial arts and more assertive then traditional sword belly dance. It is a hybrid developed to help the dancer express the warrior within, to be smooth, flowing, and entertaining.

I don’t really know what other dancers are teaching these days, but I know dancing with my sword inspires me and watching my students develop in confidence and grow as dancers keeps me motivated to share what I have spent years working on.

Tell us more about DCTribal Collective and Café

DCTribal is a grassroots collective of tribal and fusion belly dancers in the Washington DC metro area. We originally came together out of our individual love for tribal and fusion belly dance, in order to build  a Tribal Belly dance community and to host tribal dance workshops in our area. Over the years we have hosted a plethora of talented tribal and fusion dance instructors, and produced amazing tribal and fusion shows, student shows, and haflas.  As more studios are opening in the area, we now focus more on maintaining semi- annual haflas and events to continue to build community and tribal sister/ brother hood.

DCTribal Café is a monthly Tribal and experimental bellydance show that Mavi and I started in August 2006. As fusion dancers, we wanted opportunities to showcase our “non-traditional” style of belly dance and also to provide opportunities for other like-minded dancers and community supporters to explore this style of bellydance.  In order to do this, we created our own dinner show event. Each month we take over our venue with enthuastic audience members and a show featuring three different professional dancers or troupes. 

Unlike traditional restaurant gigs, our audience is here to see  a show. We stop food service and really highlight the dancers. As the years have gone by the dancing just gets better and better.  I believe having a regular outlet for performance helps people stay motivated and having a monthly event really brings our community together.  Mavi and I have worked hard to keep this going, to provide a very professional event, to pay the dancers the going rate, and to maintain a fun atmosphere. It is very important to us to grow and celebrate tribal and fusion dance.

Love the idea of your "Bohemian Belly Belt of Achievement"! What's that about?

The belts of achievement program was designed to help my students monitor their progress and to have goals they can set and reach in their belly dance training. It is inspired by the way martial arts have belts of different colors, or how Girl Scouts collect badges.  However, I wanted to put my own twist on it and make it unique to Bohemian belly Dance. Since I always wear a leather belt in class I thought it would be cool to have it be based on my personal fashion sense, as well as something they can wear in or out of class. The belts are custom made by me and each level of achievement is awarded with a different kind of decoration. As they test for different levels of accomplishment, they are more decorated…kind of like a military officer.

There is no particular order to the levels. The only universal rule is everyone has to start at level 1-2 in order to get their belt. Each test level has a written and a practical portion so it shows that you really know the material.  It is a fun way for my students to stay motivated and show off what they have worked hard to accomplish.

I see you offer a special workshop just for help with creating a personal practice. Can you give us a few tips on doing that for all us busy New Englanders?

5 in 5! Practice for 5 minutes 5 times a week...everyone can squeeze in 5 minutes. If you practice 5 days a week you still have 2 days off.  If you wait for that hour you think you have on Saturday, the dog will need to go to the vet or something else will come up.

Muscle memory is built through repetition. Set a goal… (3/4 shimmy full time on the down etc.) and do it for 5 minutes, 5 days a week. If you still don’t have it at the end of the week do it for another week. If you want to have more than one goal… do 2 blocks of 5 minutes. Stay goal focused, and practice repetition, smoothness, speed, and maintaining the correct size and shape of the movement. Find a hidden place on your lunch break,  in the mirror when you get out of the shower, before you go to bed… and DO IT!

Amy SmithComment
New England Belly Dance Survey: Part 1

Aleksie of Boston


“Who are the belly dancers in New England? What factors cause them to attend events?” These two questions I had regarding this community were the starting point for this survey project. In my brief time back in Boston/New England, I have become more and more involved with the community and volunteered my time to help organize and promote events. However, I realized that I really had no idea to whom we are marketing. As organizers and promoters, are we spending our money in ways that make sense?

After discussing these issues with other members of our community, I decided that we should do a study on this matter, which has evolved and covers a multitude of issues. Over the course of the summer, I plan on publishing the results of this study on Belly Dance New England as a broad overview of the New England belly dance community. I will then focus on specific areas of the community, as well as possibly a more rigorous analysis. This article covers the first two sections of the survey, found here


Before creating the survey, I emailed a wide-range of event organizers in the New England states, independent of style. My rationale for having others contribute was two-fold. One was to determine what questions to ask because I am not incredibly in-tune with New England belly dance in general, and am fairly new to organizing events. One of the goals of the survey is to create a resource for other belly dancers in New England, so I figured asking others for what they would want to know would be ideal for such a project.

The second purpose was that I wanted the project to be inclusive. Working together is good for the community. In terms of the survey, I wanted New England belly dancers to know that this survey is for anyone in New England who considers him/herself a belly dancer.

Those who replied to my email were placed on an email list where we discussed the survey. This discussion began in July 2011 and 15 organizers from across New England agreed to continue on with this discussion. These organizers included Amy Smith of MA/Belly Dance New England, Kanina of RI, Amity of NH, Meiver of Boston, Phaedra of Boston, Shadia of Boston, and Badriya al-Badi'a of Boston.

Initially, we discussed what topics to cover with the emphasis on what people are actually doing rather than what they would hypothetically do. Discussions with friends from other locations indicate what people say they would do is not always in agreement with what they actually do.

After this discussion, the organizers sent survey questions to me. The questions were compiled into a list that was then discussed via email. Because several of the questions were remarkably similar (e.g. What style do you dance?), questions were selected by which was more clearly worded, had more or better-defined options, or a combination of the afore-mentioned criteria.

The survey was placed in a Google Docs Survey format on my Google account. Google Docs was selected because it was easy to use and free. I took the survey once to approximate how much time a participant should anticipate and added 5 minutes. The additional 5 minutes was because I had quite a bit of familiarity with the survey at this point and could anticipate not only the content of the questions but also the order in which they appeared.

Once the organizers on the list approved of the survey, we released the survey to the public on 31 January 2012. We began to advertise through Facebook (status posts, any relevant groups), the New England Belly Dance Calendar Yahoo! List,, personal email contact lists, and of course, through Belly Dance New England where Amy Smith had a notice on the homepage of the site. The language used to advertise the survey was crafted to be as explicit as possible that we truly wanted anyone who identifies themselves as a belly dancer in New England, regardless of style, level, or New England location.

Many of these advertising means were carefully updated to ensure that as many people as possible were informed about the survey but not so much to be spam. I personally made announcements about the survey on my personal Facebook account once or twice a week throughout this process. Late February, I contacted teachers who are listed on Belly Dance New England to see if they would send out notices to their students.

To encourage participation, we had agreed upon a $25 raffle prize. Amy Smith collected the money from the various organizers on the survey organization list and donated money via Belly Dance New England. We raised enough money for two $25 prizes. Because the survey is anonymous, participants had to email with their name and email address.

The survey was closed on 30 March 2012, with the raffle closing on 15 March 2012, meaning the survey ran for two months. Using Mathematica’s random number generator, the raffle winners were selected.

Our total number of participants is 160 from across New England.

Survey Analysis Methodology

Once the survey was closed, analysis began. I have been the only person who has access to and seen the data in its entirety, further increasing confidentiality.

Survey Analysis Methodology: Quantitative

Google Docs Surveys can be downloaded in an Excel format. This format is compatible with SPSS, the statistical software package I use. The data was not quite usable for analysis; for instance, I removed units (e.g. years) from the numeric data so I could average the numbers. If participants specified a range, I averaged the range of numbers and rounded up if the decimal were 0.5 or larger. If participants gave an answer such as 4+ years, I would use 4 rather than estimate what + meant. If participants specified a distance rather than a time length, I assumed one is driving at 45 MPH and calculated time from the speed estimation.

One disadvantage to using Google Docs Surveys is multiple-selection questions are not already separated. An example of this is the “What aspects of a performance event would cause you to NOT attend?” question. If a participant selected multiple answers, the multiple answers appear as text separated by commas. This would not allow the software to tally results easily. The “Text to Columns” feature in Excel was used to separate response.

These modifications were performed in a second sheet to preserve the original data as well as to not overwrite other responses, which “Text to Columns” will do.

Survey Analysis Methodology: Qualitative

While much of the survey contained multiple-choice questions or more numeric responses, there were some open-ended questions. Of those open-ended questions, several of those yielded less straightforward responses. Those questions are:

  1. What type of dance education do you feel you need to be a good all around belly dancer? 
  2. If you could change one thing about your dance experience, what would it be and why?
  3. What workshop topics are of interest to you?
  4. How much does your perception of age, body type or skill level/experience affect your willingness to participate in events?
  5. How much does your perception of age, body type or skill level/experience of the other participants affect your willingness to participate in events?
  6. What are the biggest issues facing your particular dance community?
  7. What are the biggest issues facing the general New England dance community?
  8. What are the things about the venue or space, the teacher or community where you practice regularly that help you remain connected to dance? What helps keep you coming back?
  9. Are there any other thoughts, opinions or pieces of advice you wish to share?

Results from the first two questions are in this article. Subsequent articles will feature the other questions.

To ensure they were categorized accurately, Badriya al-Badi'a of Boston agreed to work on this part of the survey. I asked her because she has a strong background in the social sciences, has been a member of this community for many years, and participates in both traditional and alternative belly dance events. She is also in the Boston-area and could meet with me as needed.

We both had Excel sheets with the questions and responses without the rest of the data in order to not bias our categories, i.e. we had no information on dancer location, age, style, etc. when working with these questions. We met twice: once to discuss a timeline and how to work on this and a second time to discuss our results after we had independently categorized responses.

Our categorization was largely similar. I selected the categories that best captured the essence of the responses. Once I had determined this, I asked Badriya if she agreed with the final results which she did.

Results and Analysis

The figures and tables below show various demographic attributes of the respondents. Due to the amount of information provided, I decided to present the material a bit atypically with the results reported in the captions of each figure.

General Demographics



Fig. 1: Histogram of the ages of the respondents. Out of 160 respondents, 153 provided an age. The youngest was 12 while the oldest 67. The average age is 40.4 +/- 11 years. As shown in the figure, the majority of respondents were in their 40s.


Fig. 2: Plot of the location of the respondents with the frequency of each location. All respondents provided a location. The bulk of the respondents were from the Boston-metro area and Rhode Island. These numbers likely do not fully represent the number of dancers in each area, e.g. there is likely more than 30 belly dancers in the Boston-metro area. The limitations of this survey are discussed in section 4.

Respondent Employment Status

Employment Status


% of cases

















Table 1: Table of the employment statuses. The bulk of respondents were employed full-time. Because respondents were allowed to select multiple answers, the total number of responses is 170. A total of 159 respondents answered this question.

Dancer Info

Fig. 3: Plot of the respondents’ levels in terms of dance. Four respondents did not provide an answer. The majority of respondents consider themselves intermediate. The Other category included responses where respondents emphasized a lot of experience or being in between the given categories.

Fig. 4: Plot of the number of years the respondent had been dancing. The range is from 0 to 40 years with a mean of 10 +/-9 years. The total number of responses is 156.

How would you describe your dance style?

Dance Style


% of cases




American Cabaret/Vintage Oriental









American Tribal Style (ATS)



Other Fusion






Tribal Fusion












Gypsy Fusion



Modern Oriental



Belly dancing



North African



Turkish Rom



Table 2: Table of dancer-defined style. Most dancers identified as multiple styles, some as many as 6 different styles. While perhaps some of the styles could have been aggregated such as American Belly Dance with American Cabaret/Vintage Oriental, I chose to present the responses as is as I was not sure if that was what the respondent meant.

How did you study dance over the past 365 days?

Dance Study


% of cases

Group Classes









Private or semi-private lessons



Online courses







Table 3: Table of how respondents studied belly dance. Out of 160 respondents, 159 answered this question. Most dancers provided several answers, as it is common for dancers to study through multiple means. The percent of cases is the percent of the total, e.g. 114 respondents out of 159 respondents studied belly dance via group classes, making the percent 71.7. The Other category yielded results that include Shimmy TV, observing other dancers, YouTube, and one’s own practice.

What roles do you play in your community?

Roles in Community


% of cases




Performer (haflas/theater/variety shows/other)






Performer (Night club/private gigs/restaurant)



Event Organizer






Event Volunteer






Table 4: Table of the roles respondents play in their communities. Out of 160 respondents, 157 answered this question. Most dancers provided several answers, as it is common for dancers to hold multiple roles. The Other category yielded results that include mentor and audience member or supporter.

Information on Students Taking Classes

The average commute to dance classes by public transit is approximately 40+/- 52 minutes based upon 19 responses. The minimum public transit commute was 5 minutes and the maximum was 240. If a range of commute times was provided, the higher number was selected.

The average commute to dance classes for those who drive to classes is approximately 27 +/- 16 minutes based upon 101 responses. The minimum driving commute is 2 minutes and the maximum is 75 minutes. If a range of commute times was provided, the higher number was selected.

If you drive to class, what is the parking situation like?

Parking for Classes


% of cases

Parking lot









Table 5: Table discussing the parking situations for classes. 92 people responded to this question, with multiple responses. The Other category included various forms of parking, such as a pay lot or a driveway.

Because many people provided a range in amount they paid for classes, I selected the highest in the range.  Many people pay per session/term and provided the length of one term with the total cost, so total cost was divided by number of classes within a term. Because many people provided cost per class without length of class, I simply went with cost per class regardless of class length. I excluded 11 cases, because they did not provide the required information to calculate cost per class or the classes were labeled as private lessons. 100 respondents answered this question. The average cost of a class is $15.6 +/- 4.97. The maximum of these is $35, while the minimum is $3.

When asked “How much are you willing to pay, per class, for an hour-long class with a qualified teacher in a dance studio?”, 36 respondents provided a range. I selected the highest number in the range again. 102 participants provided responses. The average amount people are willing to pay per class for the given criteria is $17.4 +/- 4.44, with a maximum of $102 and a minimum of $10.

Information on Dance Teachers

Fig. 5: Plot of the number of years the respondent have been teaching belly dance. Some respondents provided more ambiguous answers, e.g + years or using the phrase “or so” after writing the number of years they taught. In order to calculate the statistics, the numeric value was taken as is. The range is from 0.42 to 40 years with a mean of 9.5+/-10.8 years. The total number of responses is 58.

What level classes do you teach?

Levels Taught


% of cases




Advanced Beginner
















Table 6: Table discussing the level of classes taught. 57 people responded to this question, with multiple responses.

I did not analyze the number of students in a class question because in retrospect I believe the question was unclear. I also believe it would be a useless statistic as it would be comparing unlike classes. It yielded a mixture of answers, ranging from 2 to 55.

Dance Interests

Why do you study belly dance?

Reasons why


% cases

For exercise



Just for fun



It makes me feel better about myself



To make friends and be involved in the dance community



I want to perform at dancer events but not professionally



I want to dance professionally







Table 7: Table tabulating the results to the question “Why do you study belly dance?” 147 people responded to this question, with multiple responses. The “Other” category yielded responses ranging from learning reasons to artistic fulfillment to physical and mental well-being to working as a professional.

What is your ideal venue?

Ideal Venue


% cases

Professionally staged shows in a theater or similar venue



Informal haflas






Professional restaurants/nightclubs



Just for friends/other dancers



Private gigs



I don’t wish to perform






Table 8: Table tabulating the results to a question pertaining to where respondents were ideally like to perform. 154 people responded to this question, with multiple responses. The “Other” category yielded responses ranging from venues with live music to nursing homes.

Where do you perform?

Place of performance


% cases

Informal haflas



Professionally staged shows in a theater or similar venue






Professional restaurants/nightclubs



Just for friends/other dancers



Private gigs



I have never performed but would like to someday



Nursing homes






I don’t wish to perform







Table 9: Table tabulating the results to a question pertaining to where respondents were actually performing. 152 people responded to this question, with multiple responses. The “Other” category yielded responses ranging from cultural events to festivals to more general public venues such as ball games or parades.

What skills have you learned?

Skills learned


% cases










Performance skills






Historical/cultural information






Fusion props






Table 10: Table tabulating the results to a question pertaining to the skills respondents have learned. 156 people responded to this question, with multiple responses. The “Other” category yielded responses ranging from sword to tahtib to improv to costuming to professional standards.

What type of dance education do you feel you need to have to be a good all-around belly dancer?



Example response

Musicality/music education


“I think it starts with being comfortable with the music for me. There also has to be a natural inclination to dance along to the music.”

Middle Eastern dance technique



Cultural knowledge and history


“If you're going to perform folklore or call yourself "Turkish" or "Arabic" style, it's necessary to learn the role of the dance in that culture and a bit about the culture itself.  If you're a fusion dancer or modern dancer, learning Middle Eastern culture is less important, but you should still know where your style came from.”

Experiencing multiple/all styles of belly dance


“Classical Belly dance to appropriately ethnic music (Arabic, Turkish, sometimes Greek and Armenian) is the foundation EVERYONE needs no matter what offshoot into interpretive dance they may choose. Otherwise, how can you call yourself a belly dancer? You can't.”

“Having a strong understanding of the cultural aspects of your particular style, understanding the various other styles. Can you tell a student why something is Turkish-style, even if that's not what you study?”

Western dance (ballet, tap, jazz, modern, hip hop)


 “A traditional western dance background helps (ballet, jazz, etc.) - especially for entertaining today's American audiences, and definitely if you'll be performing professionally on a large stage a distance from your audience.”

“I think students could benefit form classes in other disciplines [tap, musical theater, jazz was mentioned earlier by respondent]. These would help with turns, strong stretched feet, arms and presence.”

Quality teachers








“The most important thing is the feeling, and the ability of the dancer to enjoy herself with the audience.”

Fitness/physical development


“Know about the body, what is strengthening and what is dangerous.”

Self-guided learning (practice, watching video)



Ability to improvise


“Dance every chance you get! The most painful dance education, and therefore the most beneficial, is improvisation.”

Continuing education (workshops, DVDs, etc.)



Ability to choreograph














“A well rounded, educated belly dancer maintains a more professional appearance and ideology.”

All of the above (Technique, choreography, historical/cultural information, musicality, veil, cane, zills/sagat, fusion props, performance skills, teacher skills)



Costuming knowledge



Table 11: Table tabulating the results to a question: “What type of dance education do you feel you need to have to be a good all around belly dancer?” 145 people responded to this question in short-answer responses. Listed above are the themes or categories that 5 or more people mentioned. For clarification, some individual responses are listed in the third column.

 If you could change one thing about your dance experience, what would it be and why?



Example response

More access to classes (location, time, level


“If I could have a proficient instructor and studio a little closer to me so I didn't have to commute in bad weather. “

“There are no current instructors in my area; all belly dance class sessions are more than an hour's drive each way to consistently maintain and progress in my dance skills.”

Started earlier/younger



Wouldn’t change anything



Community less clique-y, less drama, more cooperative, more professional


“Belly dance Drama! I hate it! There is so much bullying, back biting, favoritism, and all out nastiness going around! I hate that people will spread stuff that is not true about people and others believe it without checking.”


“To upgrade the level of professionalism in teaching and performing, stronger and employment situations for dancers”

More performance venues/opportunities


“More opportunities to help new dancers perform publicly. It's one of the best feelings when a student takes the stage for the first time and reminds me why this dance is so magical. It brings such confidence and power to the dancer/student.”


“Would like to see more cooperation between dance teachers to put on shows and create more spaces for students to dance in without needing to fight for a dance spot.”

More pro opportunities


“I would like to have more gigs overall. Being able to perform sharpens my technique and gives my dance feedback much quicker than practice time. Plus I just love to share belly dance with others!”

More improv training



Have more money


“My dance experiences have become extremely limited in the last few years by financial stress which forces me to work constantly and prevents me from paying for workshops, traveling to urban venues, etc.”

Life events getting in the way


“To have never stopped - took a number of years off for marriage & having a family.”

More self-confidence


“To feel more sure, and completely confident of ones self… Without confidence your true self is hindered...”

“I wish I liked my body more early on.  It would have made the first few years of dance more enjoyable and less uncomfortable.”

Table 12: Table tabulating the results to a question: “If you could change one thing about your dance experience, what would it be and why?” 144 people responded to this question in short-answer responds. Listed above are the themes or categories that 5 or more people mentioned. For clarification, some individual responses are listed in the third column.

Limitations and Further Research


While much can be gleaned from this survey, there are limitations,  like with any study. The most prominent limitation is the number of responses. There is no census indicating how many people who identify themselves as belly dancers exist in New England, but I suspect there are more than 160. This limitation may have been a result of any or several of the following.

The survey itself may have limited our response rate. People may have been daunted by the amount of time it took. We offered a raffle prize for that reason. Although the length of the survey may have been intimidating, we all felt the questions were worthwhile to ask. Designing the survey was a lengthy process, so optimizing the survey’s functions was necessary. This means more questions and, hence, a longer survey.

Being a relatively unknown member of the community, some people did inquire why I was emailing them about the survey. I provided them with the truth: I wanted to have some data to portray the community rather than simply base things upon limited experience or anecdotal evidence and to provide insight as to how to best service this community. There are no other reasons and by placing this information on the Internet, it is available to anyone. It is possible, however, those people were not convinced of those reasons or were skeptical and did not contact, with both hypothetical scenarios resulting in less participation.

Finally, there may have been some doubts as to whether the survey was for x group, e.g. dancers not in Boston. Some answers in the survey expressed uncertainty as to whether the survey was for them to answer. I anticipated giving the impression that it was either a Boston/MA survey or one for Arabic-style dancers, because both are true about me. To be as inclusive as possible, I sought the advice and help of dancers all over New England for the survey design, contacted teachers in every area of New England I could find to help spread the word, as well as wording ads as explicitly as possible to ensure inclusion regardless of New England location, belly dance style, level, and any category I may have left out. The survey was for anyone who claims to be a belly dancer. Other dancers from various areas used similar language to advertise.

Despite these limitations, we have collected a rich set of data. What is to be done with the data and these results? I intend on writing semi-regular articles for Belly Dance New England on this data with further analysis, including presenting the rest of the collected data.

I hope the results can help aid organizers and teachers make informed choices in their events and their classes. I encourage others to write about the topics of these results, e.g. what do you think makes a well-rounded belly dancer and why, do additional studies/interviews/articles, and take active steps to resolve some of the issues mentioned.

Special thanks to those who supported this project, which includes: Amy Smith of MA/Belly Dance New England, Kanina of RI, Amity of NH, Meiver of Boston, Phaedra of Boston, Shadia of Boston, and Badriya al-Badi'a of Boston. Also, thank you to those who helped advertise this survey and for those who participated, both tasks so vital to this process; without data, there is nothing to analyze!

Amy Smith Comment
Be a Smart Workshop Shopper

by Qamar (Heather Emerson)

The belly dance community of New England is very, very fortunate in its wealth of workshop opportunities. Don't believe me? Just ask dancers who have moved out of the area, or chat with a dancer from out of town. We have an increasing variety of workshop opportunities in a myriad of styles offered every weekend. We also have limited funds and limited time. Unless you have perfected being in two or three places at once, what is a dancer to do?

First, think carefully about the teacher or teachers presenting. This is, to me, the most important element in this whole list and it has two aspects:

Availability of the teacher(s)

How rare is this teacher? Is it someone local that you could study with at another time or who might be teaching again soon? Is it someone from away but who is making the rounds regularly and may be available at another nearby location in the next year or two? Is this someone who rarely ever or has never come to the area and isn’t likely to again? Is this someone who may be retiring soon? If this is a rare opportunity or one that may not came your way again, move it up your list!

Value of the instruction to you

Of course your event organizer is sponsoring this workshop because she feels this teacher has something to offer her the community. If you are going to invest, however, you want to be sure that you are getting the most for your money. Research workshop presenters - look at websites and videos, look into background, qualifications, and experience. Check in with other dancers either in person or on-line - have they studied with this teacher? What was the teaching style - or was it lacking? Just because someone won the “Best Wiggle in Wiggleburg” contest or has an amazing performance skill doesn't mean she or he is going to be a great teacher. There is no “Consumer Reports” for belly dance, and everyone has different styles of learning, so you need to do your own due diligence to know if this is the right workshop for you.

Then, you need to get organized:

Plan in advance

Any workshop planner knows that dates have to be reserved far in advance - teachers scheduled, studios or theaters reserved, and dates declared so other planners can schedule around them. Your time and money are valuable, too. When a workshop notice goes up that you think might interest you (you can look far in advance on Belly Dance New England's calendar!) pencil in a note on your calendar. If you aren't ready to commit immediately, at least you've given yourself the option. Be sure to note time, cost, and deadlines!

Set your learning goals for the year

What skills do you want to work on? Are you working on basic technique? Looking to expand your knowledge of a particular type of dance - Turkish? Tunisian? Tribal? Do you want to add a prop to your skill set? Do you like working on choreography or are you looking for combos or moves to add? If you set a few goals for each year, you can focus your workshop selections on meeting those goals and feel great about your accomplishment. Be aware of your level of dance, but unless it is specified, don't be afraid to challenge yourself - you are going to learn for yourself, not compete with the other students!

Set a time and monetary budget

You may not know exactly what you can spend in the upcoming year, but you can try to think about time and money you are willing to invest. How many multi-day events can you realistically commit to? How much travel are you willing to do? When are you performing or rehearsing? Don't overbook yourself - this is supposed to be rewarding, not overwhelming. Also, when you overbook yourself you often end up having to cancel going to an event. This means you could lose your deposit or full cost for the workshop. Note that, while you can often get a refund, this can really hurt an event organizer.

Regardless of your time and financial budget, do take workshops! You have invested in classes, you have invested in costumes - dance is who you are! Be you a seasoned professional or a wide-eyed beginner, workshops will help keep your dance mind expanding by adding to your dance vocabulary and background knowledge. Just as importantly, workshops with new teachers tune up your technique and keep your dance fresh and rewarding for you and your audience. Dance is a journey of life-long learning - don’t get stalled!

Amy SmithComment