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I’m an Australian. Well, even that is barely true! I was born in Hong Kong, grew up with missionary parents travelling around Asia, and did my schooling in Japan. I lived in 6 of the 7 continents, spending the last 11 years of my life in Africa, namely: Zimbabwe, Uganda, and South Africa. The one thing I have had since I was very young is an undeniable love for the stage which has grown into a passion for dance in particular. I love to learn from everyone and every style and have felt a very special connection with Bollywood and Belly dance.
The colourful costumes, the sparkles, the excuse to be a grown up and still dress up like a princess while learning to move with control and grace, has been a perfect combination.
In Uganda, where I lived for 8 years, there wasn’t a Belly dance community at all. I was running a Bollywood dance group there and started learning to Belly dance from some Turkish and Lebanese friends. It was the first time I learned about improvisational dancing and I found it very intriguing!
In 2008, I moved to South Africa and was introduced to 4 things, Rugby, braai’s (our word for barbecue), my South African husband, and the demand for Belly dance classes! I focused on learning more about Belly dancing from every source possible and ended up teaching “Belly Dance for Fitness” at a friend’s dance school. This was an experience that helped me compound what I had learned. I also secured a regular gig performing at a Turkish restaurant that had an upstairs and downstairs; so, we did an hour-straight show with 30 minute shows on each floor. Those hours of performing helped boost my fitness levels and drop the excess weight I had been having a difficult time losing. (Yay me!) The owners were a Lebanese and Turkish couple and the wife gave me great tips about transforming my dance style from stage to close quarters and focusing on smaller movement isolation and control, an excellent refinement! I saved up my money and upgraded my costumes over time, assembling a nice collection and added the use of props to my shows–including fire sticks, veil, zills, sword and candle tray.
I’ll readily admit I adore the right props because of the way using them engages the audience and focuses them on different aspects of the dance. A veil shows the grace and femininity. The sword shows the edgy, strong side. Using the fire sticks gets every-body’s attention during a show opening and shows your costume and movements in a different light, literally!
After two years of dancing there, I branched out to other events and competed in “Miss Belly Dance South Africa 2010”, a competition that has a panel of judges.
Competitors are judged on:
Professionalism (overall appearance, stage presence, audience connection, facial expression),
Technique (entrance and exit, use of stage, tempo / flow / transition, timing),
Presentation of technique (presentation, posture, quality of execution, range, and difficulty of movements),
Originality (personal style, creativity, and artistic interpretation),
Music (suitability and use)
Use of stage props (Does the stage property enhance or detract from the performance?).
As a whole, I hadn’t had any contact with the Belly dance community but more with different dancers who also performed at the restaurant. Most of them were lovely people and beautiful dancers, and I learned from them as well. Largely, I had been self-taught which, (if you have the right motivation) is a lot easier these days, considering the amount of information online, on YouTube, as well as websites such as Gilded Serpent and hundreds of personal dancer sites and blogs.
I enjoyed watching the styles of the other performers against whom I was competing. Although I like to think I should have placed better than I did (4th), and I felt that some of the judges’ comments contradicted each other, I was happy with what I took away from the experience.
I saw that dancers should take criticism well and learn from it (I definitely needed to improve my arm posture and hands) and additionally, it showed me that I had progressed a long way.
I found the encouragement I received from the audience overwhelming! It was an event that was organized in a professional manner, and it was satisfying to see so many schools participating. I made new friends among Belly dancers from all over South Africa.
Tina & AnsuyaTina & BozenkaI’ve since been able to attend some of the workshops organised by Natalie Misplon from Dancing Divinity and Angela Angelotti from Belly Dance Goddesses who I feel are the glue of the Belly dance community in “Joburg” (Johannesburg). I’ve seen Natalie participate in almost every major event and workshop across South Africa, and she regularly liaises with a Belly dance school in Namibia. Her humility and positivity are something I really admire. They have worked together to bring international dance teachers such as Ansuya, whom I absolutely love for her free style and connection with the audience, Bozenka, a true picture of grace and elegance, Aziza and Karim Nagi, both brilliant performers, and many others. I also try to attend more local workshops from different teachers and attended an ATS workshop by the FCBD “sister school” here and found it fascinating–even though my main style is Turkish/Cabaret.
Some of the annual Belly dance events here are Syncopate a feast of dance workshops, costuming, and networking that is organized and run by Ava and Symi here in Joburg but attended by dance schools from all over South Africa, and Tribalation by Amira (also held in Joburg). In Cape Town, we have the annual International Oriental Dance Festival (IODF) that is including this month an attempt at breaking the Guinness World Record for most people Belly dancing to a routine simultaneously! The IODF is organised by Marina Asja Samia from Palace of the Winds. Marissa from Soma in Cape Town, holds International Tribal workshops, bringing in dancers such as Samantha Emmanuel. The opportunities for a Belly dancer here are limitless, and one can train fully in whatever aspect of Belly dance one might wish to pursue to very high standards–due to the hard work and determination these women.
I’ve started up my Joburg Bollywood and Belly dance group, Oriental Fire, and we’ve been invited to perform at several Belly dance school shows and year-end functions and I always love being a part of them. For the most part, it’s a positive sisterhood!
One thing I have observed is that there are two main schools of Belly Dance in South Africa. One of them sticks very closely to authenticity, focusing a lot of training on Egyptian, Turkish, Tribal or ATS rules, history, tradition, and folklore. They usually dance to authentic ethnic music and try to interpret it properly with the correct style, rhythms, and culture attached to the music. I’ll call these dancers the “Traditionalists”.
The other group loves to teach what they know in a free spirited, modern, interpretive, and fusion-inspired way. They use mainly modern music in their shows or a large dose of it, and like to bend the rules of tradition in both their costuming and dance style. I would call these the “Modernists”.
I have found that both groups have good points that appeal to different audiences, and attract different types of students.
I believe that’s a good thing! However, students should be made aware of the nature of the teacher’s goals; for instance, if a student joins a school for the “Modernist”, and they want to be there for fitness and fun and to network with other women, dance to favourite pop and rock hits, and mix dance styles because it is possible, it’s brilliant! They should realize, however, they’re not learning traditional Belly dance and their style might not be recognized as authentic Belly dance in an authentic Middle Eastern cultural setting. Absolutely, that’s the student’s choice, and in a relaxed and positive environment, I think what these schools do, is take the benefits of Belly dance to a wider audience who are not likely to be keen on learning lots of background or tradition. That’s unique!
The “Traditionalists” are clear-cut in teaching, Egyptian, Turkish, or Tribal styles, and most of the teachers have studied under master teachers in Egypt, Turkey, or the US and have passed the training down to students directly. This is what will keep Belly dance authentic; it respects the traditions of the countries from which these dances came and sets the standard for teaching a dance that is steeped in history and culture. Students from some of these schools can choose to be graded and choose to take exams which are recognised by several associations such as the Belly Dance Association of South Africa (BDASA), recognised by South African Dance Teachers Association (SADTA) and the Middle Eastern Dance Association of South Africa (MEDASA).
I’ve thoroughly enjoyed working with both Modernists and Traditionalists. As my personal reason for dancing (besides the sheer enjoyment of it) is to raise support for the faith-based charity projects with whom I work: Family Care-South Africa and The Family Africa. Different schools from both groups have helped organise numerous fundraising shows for charity and/or sponsored workshops for some of our volunteers, and it has touched me to see how much heart all these women have. It’s a community of which I’m proud to be a part!