It all began at thirteen years old. I had a school friend whose mother was taking belly dance classes, and I remember her showing me the belly pop isolation she was learning. I was mortified, but also mesmerized. I felt uncomfortable with a woman of her age, or any age for that matter, drawing attention to THAT part of her body, yet I couldn't help being intrigued. I went home that night and secretly tried this move in the bathroom mirror. I felt like a rebel, trying out something that seemed forbidden in my culture. It was my first taste of true body autonomy, and of thinking of a woman's figure in a body-positive way.
Fast-forward a few years, I was finishing high-school while simultaneously attending classes at the local community college. I was dating a first-generation Persian at the time, and his family was my first true exposure to Middle Eastern dance. The music and the coquettish eyes and hands of the dancing women are what I remember most. One of the aunts was always whispered about as having been a professional belly dancer. She was revered among her family for her hip movement and the joy she expressed every time she danced. They always encouraged me to learn from her, and eventually began to encourage me to take a belly dance class saying "You are a natural. You need to learn this."
Aziza was the go-to dancer for the Persian family parties, and therefore the first professional belly dancer I saw. She was incredible. Her showmanship, her movement, her ability to draw everyone in and dance with her. It had a lasting impact on my view of dance in general, and how joyful it can be.
Eventually, I moved to Seattle to attend University of Washington and pursue my degree in Biology. I was working three jobs to afford school and housing, but I had one night free each week. UW offered various classes through their experimental college, it was walking distance from my apartment, and there was a belly dance class on my free night. I signed up. Thus was my introduction to the fiery red-head of Seattle's belly dance scene, Mish Mish (Arabic for apricots). After the first session with her, she asked me to join her troupe Khan el Khalili because she needed a tall dancer! I learned performance prep, troupe choreography, group dynamics, troupe costuming, and backstage etiquette from her. She would also take me out to the local nightclubs to watch professional dancers perform with our live music bands, and I was always enthralled with the dancers. She gave me knowledge about costuming, where to find resources, how to create one that fits my body type and coloring. My first public solo performance was as her student dancer at Enat Ethiopian Restaurant in Seattle. Mish has a deep love of art and artistic expression, and therefore always encouraged me to try new things and create my own style, yet she manages to remain respectful of the cultural origins of belly dance. I have always felt supported by her, no matter which direction my vision takes me.
Each year Mish Mish offered a fall series called Tribal Dance. In this class I learned about the Guedra, Oulid Nail, Sheikhat, Saidi, Bandari, and Ghawazee. For almost a year this was all I knew of "tribal dance," until my husband called me from San Francisco one day, excited about his client that was also a belly dancer. "She does tribal dance." "Cool! Which tribe?" I ask. "She says it's American Tribal." "Like, Native American mixed with belly dance? That sounds really neat." "No, no, she says to look it up and then you'll understand." Eventually, I did look it up, and though I've yet to study ATS, I've always appreciated the sisterhood it promotes and the inspiration it has provided for modern forms of belly dance.
I studied with Mish for a couple of years, and she has been one of the strongest influences on my style. Her teachings were a gift. Even now, 16 years later, I still reference what I learned from her in my own classes and workshops. Eventually she pulled me aside and gently said "I think I've taught you all I can, but you need to keep learning." She encouraged me to start learning from other local professionals, which would include Delilah, Nadira, Elisa Gamal, Dahlia Moon, and Saqra. I also studied with each and every visiting artist that I could. Mish has always said that you don't know a dance until you've learned it from at least three sources, and I've maintained this as a rule-of-thumb for my dance studies throughout the years.
I would go on to study with several teachers in the Seattle area, performing my first non-public solo dance at Delilah's Aromatherapy dance series, dancing with Delilah's "Billion Bellies" in the Fremont Solstice Parade, performing in Middle Eastern restaurants at Nadira's student nights, competing in local competitions under Nadira's coaching, transitioning into a professional gigging dancer in my own right, eventually teaching, and so much more. Eventually Tamalyn Dallal moved to Seattle, and this would change my dancing and my teaching forever.
That's a story for a future post.