Phoenix Belly Dance

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An Interview with a Belly Dancer
by Leila Morad, Auckland University of Dance Studies student

Can you give me a brief history of your background in belly dance performance? And teaching?

I started learning belly dance in South Africa at the age of 20, and tried my hand at Egyptian and Turkish styles, delving into some of the folkloric styles of the Middle East as well. My teachers encouraged me to hone what they said was ‘natural talent’ and got me performing and teaching under their direction. I quickly rose up in the South African belly dance scene and soon began hosting my own workshops and growing my reputation. In 2008 I immigrated to New Zealand and was asked to start a belly dance class at the Auckland Council, and soon I was running so many classes and performances that I couldn’t do both my job as a Senior Business Analyst, keep up with the demand for belly dance and have a life! So I decided to write a business plan for starting my own dance business, which I opened up in February 2010 and have been operating successfully since. Here are some of past year’s Performance Highlights for Phoenix Belly Dance:

  • Winners of the Jambalaya Festival Dance Competition
  • Guest artists at NZ Breakers Basketball Games, 
  • Coca-Cola Christmas in the Park 
  • Breakfast News TV Show, Kanikani Mai and Pukana (Maori TV shows)
  • International Opening Act at the Sydney Latin Dance Festival 2013
  • Pre-entertainment for Comedy King Show in Fiji
  • In Nov 2012 Phoenix Belly Dance performed at the Corporate Events People’s Choice Awards won Best Nationwide Entertainment Company!

What are your earliest memories of belly dance (performing or watching a performance)?

When I was a young girl, about 12 or 13 I witnessed my first belly dancer at a Moroccan Restaurant in South Africa, she was mesmerising and so graceful and I knew I had to try it out for myself! 

Can you describe a bit about the particular styles/ traditions of belly dance? 

“Belly dance” covers a wide range of ethnic and cultural dances that originate in the Middle East including countries such as Turkey, Egypt, Iraq, Morocco, Greece, most Persian Gulf countries, and more. The most popular styles found today are the Turkish Orientale and Egyptian Raqs Sharqi (meaning dance of the east), which include a multitude of regional styles, for example, Egyptian belly dance encompasses Saidi (a folk dance from the region of El Said), Baladi (a common dance of the people), Zaar (a ritual dance to dispel evil spirits), Melayya Leff (from Alexandria), Shaabi (local street dance in Egypt), Ghawazee (gypsies of Southern Egypt) and more! 

An interesting development in belly dance is the introduction of Tribal style which began in North America as a way of standardising belly dance costuming and movement vocabulary and has become its own style of belly dance performed only with groups (or ‘tribes’). Trbal Fusion has sprung from Tribal style and is as varied as any Fusion dance can be!

Most importantly is that belly dance is very connected with the music, and in its traditional form is best performed with live orchestras. 

What style do you perform/teach and why?

Egyptian Raqs Sharqi is my main teaching style as the technique is very clear and crisp which gives dance students a great foundation to explore different styles thereafter. I personally began learning Turkish style and later moved onto Egyptian, and found that Egyptian technique was a lot stricter and controlled and focused on muscle control which helped me immeasurably and enhanced my Turkish styling as well. When I teach classes I will usually focus on core Egyptian technique but will also always spend time on a folkloric style or prop to educate students on the cultural nuances of the dance we learn.

What are the benefits of belly dance as you see them?

Belly Dancing has the unique advantage of improving people’s lives across multiple areas including physical, emotional, mental, social, community, and education.

  • Physically: You will see improvements in posture, weight loss, breathing, muscle tone (especially targeting the abs, hips, shoulders, back, and upper arms), gracefulness and body awareness. There are also benefits to women who are pregnant in preparation for childbirth due to the strengthening and awareness of muscles located in the pelvic area, and helps encourage post-natal abdominal toning.

  • Emotionally & mentally: people who take part in Belly Dancing use it as a way to de-stress. I have so many students who tell me that their Belly Dance class is the favourite part of their week. Focusing your mind on doing something physically creative like dance has the effect of driving out all the cluttered thoughts that fill our heads and hearts with anxiety and stress. Belly Dancing can have a profound effect on self-image and esteem – a significant example is when I was teaching in South Africa, I worked with a number of abused women for several years who after months of regular Belly Dance lessons reported that it was the main factor in restoring their self-confidence in themselves as women.

  • Social and Community: Belly Dancing is one of the easiest ways to make friends! Because New Zealand has so many immigrants (me being one of them), many people can sympathise with the feeling of being all alone at first. I have heaps of students who join Belly Dancing just to make new friends and I encourage this by having regular social events. The bonds of friendship can run very deep in a situation where people have chosen to challenge themselves to learn something new, and to eventually have to trust each other enough to perform together... you can’t help but feel connected to one another.

  • Education: The great thing about Belly Dancing is that not only are you learning how to move your body in graceful and elegant ways, but you are also learning about the deep cultural origins of the many Middle Eastern countries where the dance began centuries ago. There is a lot of meaning behind every move, and a great number of variations of the dance that look very different. I soon found that as I became a teacher of Belly Dance, I also have become something of a historian of the dance and delight in researching and sharing the old Egyptian traditions, rhythms and music.

Is belly dance best performed as a solo or group piece?

Classic Oriental Belly Dance is designed to be performed as a soloist, but many of the folkloric styles suit group performances better.

Does belly dance teaching and performance differ in NZ do you think compared with other countries? In what way?

Yes definitely, belly dance is relatively small in New Zealand, but the community here is passionate about what they do and incredibly friendly! This allows for a lot more collaboration, but also means there are less opportunities to learn from international teachers, performances, and students. It is exciting to be part of an emerging dance community for me as a practitioner as I am part of the influencing group that will shape the new generation of belly dancers, which means I have a serious responsibility to my students and the wider community!

What overall do you love most about being a belly dancer?

Every day is a good day! I love the people I share my experiences with and I get to do what I love on a daily basis!