I challenge you this month to put the “YOU” into Unique. So many dancers think they have to copy what they see others do, how they dress, how they move. While it is important to witness the trends in fashion and movement, if you ever want to stand out as a Middle Eastern dancer, you need to dare to be authentic.
“Authentic” is defined in the dictionary as “genuine, real, not false or copied”. Authenticity comes from living the motto “what you see is what you get”. It allows you to develop into a unique artist and a valuable individual. It might not always be easy, but it is definitely rewarding. From how you move on the stage to how you carry yourself behind the scenes, authenticity transforms you and empowers you. It is a series of conscious choices where you take charge of the direction in which you are headed.
Take a moment to think about how you see yourself right now and notice if there is anything you wish to improve or change:
Maybe these guidelines seem like lofty ideas, so I will offer you some examples from my own personal journey that prove that they work.
You are the sum of all of your experiences. Make your journey exciting. Promise to value your unique self. Dance through your life in such a way that when you look back on your journey, you will feel no regrets. Strive to be fearlessly authentic!
When you want to develop your own dance persona, one of the greatest tools you can utilize is to choose an inspiring role model. You’ve got to take a close look around within the realm of belly dance and not be afraid to select the ‘stars’ that encompass all the things you’d like – from costuming to dance style, from charisma to business savvy. Consider any Middle Eastern artist anywhere in the world and also from any era, past and present. While personal experience is the best teacher, the second best is to learn from and copy those who have already acquired the look and success that you want. Select your role model(s) carefully. Have a clear picture of what you want from your dance. I hunted for role models back in the 1980s. At that time in Egypt, there was a famous dancer who was extremely impressive. Her name was Suhair Zaki.
Suhair was born in 1944 and still lives today in Cairo, Egypt. She no longer performs, having retired in the 1990s at the height of a very successful career. I was fortunate to see her dance many times in Cairo, from the stages of smokey nightclubs to extravagant wedding receptions in grand hotel ballrooms. She is my favorite Egyptian dancer because she is not only an outstanding artist, she conducted herself 100% as a lady.
Suhair’s dance style was along the lines of Tahia Karioka. She did not rely on props to dazzle her audience, nor did she need a lot of space on the stage. She performed as a soloist with no background singer, dancers or troupe, as did some other well-known performers. Her only backdrop was her excellent orchestra. Music was specially composed for Suhair every six months, as were her costumes. One of the most famous costume designers, Madam Abla, created the stunning baladi dresses (more like cocktail dresses than folkloric dress) as well as the heavily fringed and beaded oriental outfits, complete with mesh over the midriff. They set the fashion trend for belly dancers around the globe.
Suhair’s shows were a class act. Her group of musicians numbered between 15 and 30, and they connected with Suhair perfectly. Together they made magic happen on the stage. Suhair was the first oriental dancer to perform to music of Om Koulthoum, one of the highest revered singers in the history of Arabic music. It was a risk to do so, at first, because at the time Suhair was still young and not well known. But Om Koulthoum herself claimed that Suhair interpreted the music beautifully.
Many dancers in Cairo have choreographers that assist in the creation of their show. Suhair never did this. She claims that she always danced from her own inspiration and feeling, and that is what moved her body. She was quoted as saying that she needs the dance as anyone needs air to breathe. She believes that dance is art and must always be honored and respected. In that, she honored and respected herself as a dancer and as a woman. She did not compromise her integrity, not even when the trends dictated a change to more risqué costuming and flashier variety-show performances. She stated that on stage she wanted to feel like a princess.
Suhair danced with passionate emotional expression and amazingly precise hipwork. Her movements were feminine, graceful and rather reserved (less is more!). There were no high kicks, incessant spinning, or overly skimpy costuming. Instead, she used her hips, back and abs to create intricate contractions.
Today you can find online films of her performances. You will encounter music that was written for her, and many others that used her name to indicate the classical oriental style of the music, not that she was the producer. There are tons of photos of her in her dazzling costumes.
Suhair Zaki’s standards were high, and her name epitomizes the elegance and grace of oriental dance. If you choose Suhair as one of your role models, you will join the movement to promote and preserve the Art of Middle Eastern dance.
Have you ever taken a belly dance class with an instructor who’s really tough? I mean, the kind of teacher who takes belly dance seriously, has high standards, and kicks your butt? Did you rise to the challenge or walk away shaking your head, saying “no way, that class was too hard” or “that teacher was mean”?
It seems these days that the concept of “tough love” is considered “old school” and is commonly avoided more than embraced. Teachers in grammar schools and high schools are told to be ‘politically correct’ and never touch a student in any manner, not even to hug. Their hands are tied when it comes to a student who is out of line and could use a bit of discipline to get back on track. I remember being deathly afraid of my fifth-grade teacher, an old lady with a loud, gruff voice. The fear was so great, I worked extra hard to please her… and you know what? I went from being a mediocre student to being “teacher’s pet” with all A’s. That tough woman did me a favor in the long run. My confidence soared and I remained a straight-A student all the way through college.
And then there was the ballet master I trained with for many years. The world-famous program was super traditional. As a student, I wore a sky blue leotard to indicate my skill level, pulled my hair up in a bun with no bangs allowed, was silent when the instructor entered the room, could never lean on the barre, and was given only one shot at watching the combination demonstrated before having to repeat it. The stern-faced teacher then walked around the room with a yardstick that occasionally tapped at a limb to straighten the form of the leg. Mental focus and physical endurance was key to success. The outcome was a slow progression towards a beautifully trained classical ballerina.
A tough-love teacher presents a challenge to you. Either the challenge is a physical one where you know you will be expected to work hard, pay attention and practice, or the challenge is a mental one where your own ego can get in the way of you choosing to stay and work with that person. Tough-love teachers direct your progress and keep your evolution in check. They offer positive reinforcement supplemented with a strong discipline. Ask anyone in football, track, ice skating, piano, voice lessons, martial arts, flamenco, gymnastics, or any other kind of movement or artistic coaching. Excellent training works on all levels, including physical, mental, emotional and spiritual. The tough coach demands a level of respect between all the individuals within the classroom in order for the class to be focused and effective, and also so that the topic is learned and practiced safely and successfully. While growth of individual ability is the primary goal, at the same time, this type of instructor develops your character, which will ultimately affect your entire life.
I was fortunate to study intensely with master artists Ibrahim “Bobby” Farrah and Mahmoud Reda. Both men were creative, energetic, passionate, and quite tough. If they didn’t like what you were doing in their class, they were not afraid to get right in your face and make a blunt suggestion about what to fix, or they might just ask you to leave. There were times when I witnessed an inflated ego get totally knocked down so far that the dancer left the room crying. At times like these, the training also developed your sense of humility. No one ever dared to disrespect the instructor by telling him he was out of line. If you didn’t like the directness of the “old school” style, you just didn’t take class anymore, and in the long run, it was your greatest loss.
When you decide to study with a person who is considered an oriental dance artist or master, then you are in for a wonderful journey full of obstacles and growth. If you don’t want that kind of journey, please find a laid-back class at an informal setting where the goals of the class are more about socializing than serious dance study, and with that, lower your standards of how far you will grow as a performer.
Should you find that rare artist who is also a great teacher, consider yourself blessed, take a deep breath, and trust that the process will condition you to be the best dancer you can be. That coach will offer you the following challenges, and here’s how you need to meet them:
After four decades of teaching belly dance, it’s always been a wonder to me why Middle Eastern dance still struggles with recognition as an art form. I believe that if we are ever to gain that recognition, we need more great dance coaches and dancers who know the value of tough love!
Some of us naturally love to study history, and some of us don’t. When I was in grammar school, it was my least favorite class, mostly because of the way it was presented. It was memorizing a name, a place and a date (ie, John Doe discovered something in a specific year). Boring! I just could not see the value of the dry material.
Of course, as I got older and literally lived history and even created some of it within our beloved world of belly dance, my opinion changed. The subject of oriental dance is a passion of mine (in case you couldn’t tell! LOL). I used to ask my teachers, my mentors, and the musicians I worked with all kinds of questions about the dance, the culture, the music, etc. I collected whatever books I could find on the topic of belly dance…and for a long time, they were books that only tried to teach movements, not offering much about the history. When the internet arrived, I was one of the first dancers to publish online articles about oriental dance. Since then, the internet has exponentially evolved into a vast source of information.
After 40+ years of being involved in oriental dance, I can look back on the decades with hindsight. That timeline shows me how I came to be a successful artist. Without studying our dance history, past and present, I could never have earned a full-time living from dance and could never have appreciated the value of our dance as an art form.
When you explore how our dance came to be, you will learn to appreciate the depth of the culture, its traditions and its evolution. You will see how dance, music, art and fashion are intertwined. They are the ways a culture expresses and communicates FEELING.
Here are some reasons why belly dancers should study Middle Eastern dance history:
Why is emotional expression important?
Anyone can learn to be an excellent technician of Middle Eastern dance. While their movements are beautifully executed, their performance will feel empty to the audience without the ability to emote. Dance is meant to be an emotional experience for both the performer and the audience.
Every audience seeks a performer that shares their passion. Great dancers provoke an emotional response, whether good or bad. What they never want is no response at all. Neutrality means the audience does not care about what they just experienced, and they will leave the show with a feeling of apathy.
The dancer who successfully connects with their audience on an emotional level experiences a wonderful side effect. You are creatively stimulated by the audience’s reactions and then will dance even better. After the show, you will feel an unparalleled ‘high’ that is rewarding and exciting. Once you experience it, you will seek that ‘high’ every time you perform.
Folkloric dances are ‘character’ dances, in which you play a role. For example, take an Alexandrian Melaya dance. In this theme, you play the woman who goes to market in the port city of Alexandria. You are wearing a dress, a scarf on your head, a burka on your face, and are wrapped in a black opaque garment called a melaya. The dance is telling a story, where you go to the market and engage in an innocent flirtation with a sailor. You are dancing in a gently enticing way, being playful, sweet, and rather shy, but trying to flirt at the same time. Playing this role, you must project with your body language and facial expressions. Perfecting a folkloric dance, you will build your skills to express various emotions whenever you dance oriental dance, too.
Below is a photo of me in a Melaya costume. For an example of a Melaya dance, please take a look at this YouTube video clip from my YouTube channel of me in a classroom (not in costume) so that you can see the style of movements and hear an example of the music: https://youtu.be/2uX4LglVCss
Folkloric dances are fun to learn and can easily be adjusted from a solo to a duet or group dance. Middle Eastern folklore and history are invaluable to the belly dancer that wants to be the best dancer she can be! Enjoy your research.
As a full time belly dancer for over 4 decades, I’ve been asked many times how I climbed the ladder to international success. How did I make my dance dreams come true? Did I know from the start where I wanted to end up? Did I draw an outline of my goals? Was I just one of the lucky ones, in the right time at the right place? The first thing I would tell you is there is no magical ‘secret’ to getting what you want. But there are some things that I would advise.
For most of us, dance is a sanctuary from the stress of everyday life. It’s not usually someone’s full time career. Yet, every time you choose to shimmy you take another step forward on some sort of dance journey that’s unique to you, and inevitably it will lead you somewhere. You want to keep your experiences positive and add value to your life. When you go from student to performer to instructor, you are always growing and evolving as an ever-improving dancer.
Here's some things you can do to be the best you can be and make your dance dreams come true:
If you want to learn how to share your dance passion with others, consider taking the Sakkara Dance Teachers’ course at www.SakkaraDance.com
This month we are honoring strong, bold, beautiful women, those who are mothers, leaders, influencers of all kinds. These women are often overlooked and underestimated. Even those who have fame don’t have the whole truth of their story revealed to the world.
Let’s take a look at one of the most famous women of all time. You may be surprised to learn that you (or a woman you know and love) is very similar to this fantastic historic figure. The woman we honor today is Cleopatra.
The story of Cleopatra is one like many others. It is filled with love and war, alliance and intrigue, tragedy and drama. Why was a woman born 2,000 years ago still commonly recognized today? Here are some highlights to her story.
Cleopatra was forced to face a monumental hardship when she was only 17 years old. Cleopatra’s father, the King of Egypt, died in 51 B.C. when she was a teenager. Her brother, Ptolemy XIII, was 12 years old. At the time, as was the custom, Cleopatra had to marry her brother to rule Egypt jointly. First the grief, then the formality of marrying her baby brother, then the huge responsibility of ruling a country!
Cleopatra was both brilliant and beautiful. For a woman, she was very well-educated. Cleopatra was well-versed in mathematics, literature, astronomy, medicine, and could speak several languages. Even though the Ptolemies ruled Egypt for 200 years and were of Macedonian descent, she was the first one who could fluently speak the Egyptian language. Her intelligence was assisted by her beauty, charisma, and passion. To others she was intimidating and envied.
One year later, Cleopatra suffered betrayal. Cleopatra’s own sister, Arsinol, worked with 3 official councilors to overthrow the new Queen. Because the young brother was easier to control, they kept him in place as King. It was only Cleopatra who they exiled from Egypt in 48 B.C.
Cleopatra’s cunning and determination won back the throne. Julius Caesar arrived in Alexandria 1 year after Cleopatra was exiled. It took some time, but Cleopatra managed to pull together an army. Then she knew not to approach Caesar directly because she would be killed if seen openly at the palace. To gain an audience with Caesar, she rolled herself into a carpet and had her army deliver it as a gift. Cleopatra instantly charmed Caesar, and they quickly became lovers. He helped her overthrow her brother, but the victory paid a steep price. The Great Library of Alexandria burnt down.
Cleopatra stood strong and proud against gossip that slandered her. Cleopatra traveled with Caesar to Rome. There she lived with him even though this offended the conservative Republicans. Caesar was already married, yet he wanted to marry Cleopatra. There were laws against marrying foreigners, so their marriage was forbidden, and their love was ridiculed harshly and openly.
A year later, Rome assassinated Caesar and kicked Cleopatra out. A conspiracy of Senators had Caesar assassinated because he was considered a huge threat. Cleopatra returned to Egypt and patiently watched from a distance as Rome fell into a Civil War between Caesar’s heir, Octavian, and Mark Anthony. Eventually Mark Anthony won. Because he had fallen in love with Cleopatra when she was in Rome, he went to Egypt to find her.
Cleopatra had a second great love, Mark Anthony. They were politically and intimately united for a year before Mark Anthony was recalled to Rome. Unfortunately, political pressure forced him to marry Octavia, the sister of Octavian, Caesar’s heir.
Cleopatra marries Mark Anthony. Four years after he left Egypt, Mark Anthony led a military campaign against Parthes, which brought him near Egypt. As soon as possible, he summoned Cleopatra to his side. He was still in love with her, and they married, even though he was technically married to Octavia. The war with Parthes continued until Rome was victorious in 34 B.C. Mark Anthony celebrated in Alexandria, and soon it became evident to Rome that he intended to stay with Cleopatra, rather than return to Octavia. In 32 B.C., Mark Anthony divorced Octavia. Then Rome declared war on Cleopatra. They fought long and hard, culminating in one of the most famous battles in history, the battle of Actium. It was fought off the coast of Greece in the Adriatic Sea between Octavian’s forces and those of Cleopatra and Mark Anthony. Rome won, forcing Cleopatra and Mark Anthony to flee.
Rome went further to destroy the love between Cleopatra and Mark Anthony. When Octavian claimed Egypt as a Roman providence, the generals of Mark Anthony falsely reported to him that Cleopatra died in her mausoleum.
Mark Anthony then attempted suicide. Dying, he was taken to Cleopatra. He learned all too late that she was still alive. Mark Anthony died in Cleopatra’s arms and was buried as a king.
Rather than become a slave to Octavian, Cleopatra committed suicide. When Octavian entered Alexandria, Cleopatra was captured and taken to him. He made it very clear that he had no intention of having a relationship with her. He planned on taking Cleopatra to Rome to exhibit his triumph, but Cleopatra refused to become his slave. She locked herself in her mausoleum. Three days before they were to leave Egypt, Cleopatra had her hand servants bring a basket filled with figs. Hidden within was a snake. The Egyptians believed that death by snakebite secured immortality. Cleopatra was bitten by the asp, as were the hand servants. Octavian found them all dead.
Want to learn more about the History of Belly Dance? There's a great new course you can take which covers all the delicious details and much more! Visit www.SakkaraDance.com
Romantically and spiritually, the belly is the core of a woman’s being, her femininity, her center of power. Historically, a soft, round womanly shape was considered beautiful, and a curving belly symbolized both wealth and position. It seems most men still prefer a woman with those curves, but modern society has influenced the opinion of most women. In the Western world, the least favorite part for most women is the lower abdominal, affectionately (?!) referred to as the belly. It is in that area of the body where you feel muscularly lazy and find it too easy to collect a pouch of fat. Most women give their bellies the evil eye, especially when they are in front of the mirror. I don’t know how many times I have seen this in dance class and can personally say I have felt the same way! I don’t know anyone who wants to look like the jolly Buddha.
Webster’s Dictionary states the noun “belly” is the abdomen. The verbs “bellied” or “bellying” mean to swell out or bulge. Well, that’s not exactly promising, is it?!
Here are some things you can do to define your midsection and slenderize your waistline:
There are technically only two movements that the belly can perform, namely contraction and release. The entire abdominal wall can be used, or different parts in different series, to create various interesting and challenging dance movements. The Stomach Flutter is a great movement that uses the entire abdominal wall. Release the control of the stomach as you let it out, then grab it back in. Do it at an even tempo, in-out in-out in-out without holding your breath. As you gain control, increase the speed to create a fluttering effect.
The second most common movement done with the belly is the Belly Roll. First, try to separate your ab muscles in two parts, the upper portion above your belly button and the lower portion beneath the belly button. Practice contracting and releasing each half separately. The slower you practice, the better. Once you get confident with the separate movements, try this sequence: contract the upper half, then while holding it in contract the lower half (so the entire abdomen is held IN). Then release the upper half without releasing the lower (that’s hard but not impossible!). Finally, release the lower half (so the entire abdomen is relaxed OUT). Repeat many times. Once you have the Belly Roll, you can reverse it or build upon it by incorporating it into a roll that uses the whole torso and spine to make a full Undulation. Advance into a moving Undulation, called a Camelwalk. An excellent version of Camelwalk is what I call the "small Camelwalk", which is executed entirely on the balls of the feet. It challenges your balance, which automatically tones your core. Check out my short instructional video on how to execute a Small Camelwalk: https://youtu.be/ErSvUYmCZTs
Belly dance wouldn’t be belly dance without great belly movements. As you work to improve your dance technique, take special time to develop your abdominal muscles. Not only will your dance technique improve, but you’ll love how your belly looks and will dramatically improve your long-term health. Go ahead, search for that better belly. It’s a win-win situation. You might find that Ozel was right, you are a goddess!
St. Patrick’s day is a day of 4-leaf clovers, pots of gold, and tons of good luck. Here is how you can attract good luck that will take your dance to new heights:
The Lotus is an exotic hand movement that has roots in ancient Egypt. It's history dates back to 4000 BC when it was an important part of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs. Flowers from the Nile Valley can be found on many of the objects that the ancient Egyptians used everyday. Sometimes the lotus designs were purely for decorative purposes, and sometimes they had religious meaning, particularly in funeral ceremonies in the Egyptian quest for eternal life. For the ancient Egyptians, the lotus flower was a symbol of creation, renewal and rebirth. The flower grows along the Nile, blooming at dawn and closing at dusk. It grows from beneath the depths of the water to above the surface. It is a symbol for hidden vitality, appearing as if out of nowhere, hinting at the true source of creation.
The belly dance movement called the Lotus captivates an audience more than most of the other hand and arm movements. The Lotus involves both hands and should be done at a time in your routine when you are not holding a veil or wearing finger cymbals. When performing the Lotus, it's best if you stay in place or do a simple, graceful glide across the stage, allowing the audience to appreciate its beauty. The center of the movement is around the wrists, which become the center of the flower. The hands and fingers are the petals. With constant movement, the petals appear to be many, creating the full blossom.
It's not the easiest hand movement to master, but once you break it down and practice it carefully, you'll see that all it takes is a coordination of flexing and bending your hands around the wrists. To help you master the Lotus, please take a look at the instructional video that I have posted on my YouTube channel. It breaks down the Lotus into 4 basic positions. It also gives you tips on moving the Lotus in a beautiful fashion. See link at bottom of this blog post.
Incorporating the Lotus within your oriental dance routine adds a touch of beauty and is an especially authentic addition to a pharaonic-style dance. The Lotus helps your dancing blossom to exciting heights!
Ever wonder why other dancers get more accolades or seem to get ahead faster? Self-doubt can lead us to making a fatal error that leaves you feeling like you are going nowhere. Sometimes we don’t even know we made an error at all, we just struggle with frustration.
What are the common mistakes an ambitious dancer might make? Check out the following list to see if you are stuck in the mire of an error right now and need help getting unstuck. Or maybe you can relate to an error that you made in the past and learned from it. You can help guide another in their dance journey.
JASMIN JAHAL, Author
I've been dancing since I was 3 and a professional belly dancer for over 40 years. I've learned so much from personal belly dance experience and want to share with you advice, tips, suggestions and more. Anytime you have any questions and need sage advice, please reach out and let me hear from you!