Alia Thabit Traditional and Avant-Garde Belly Dance

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It all began when I was only sixteen years old at a  belly dance  class  on my Brooklyn street. I thought it would be cultural–I’m half Lebanese and Palestinian–and sexy! Little did I know that this dance would consume my imagination for the next four decades. After a few months, the teacher Jeanne (still a good friend), sent me to her teacher, Bobby.

Bobby turned out to be Ibrahim Farrah, celebrated, world-famous artist of Oriental dance. Which I did not know at the time. Neither did I know that his was a top professional class. No matter. Soon I was in class several times a week, two classes at a time (a three-week, ten-class card was the least expensive option), avidly soaking up Bobby and his principal dancers Jajouka and Elena Lentini (my idol).

To support my habit, I worked as a figure model for top New York City art schools Pratt Institute and The Brooklyn Museum.  This went on for years.

 I had no idea of the world-class level of dance education I was receiving (the art education wasn’t bad either). I only knew that I had found something I loved.

Fast forward a few years (okay, a dozen), past a move to northeastern Vermont (I fell in love), two kids, a college education, and subsequent single parenthood, to when my then-boyfriend and I drove to New York City for Elena Lentini’s induction into the American Academy of Middle Eastern Dance Hall of Fame. As I watched élite performers in the gala show, the light slowly dawned: I can do what they are doing. Through the years, I had taught classes and performed at birthday parties and such. But I never really understood the gift I had been given.

Finally, I began to see.

Fast forward a few more years to a broken ankle. I saw how fragile is a human body, how precious. I decided that from this moment on, I would dedicate myself to dance. I could do other art when I was old: write, paint, etc. But dance had a shorter shelf life. Dance was for now. I sent in an application for a business name. Two days later, Bobby passed away. It was now up to us, his students, to continue to bring the light of art into the world.

I was ready.

I have danced on three continents, in six countries, and fifteen states, presented seminars with international stars, and performed with some of our greatest living musicians. I’ve learned from many masters of this dance, including Azza Sherif, Tamalyn Dallal, and Leila Farid; and made dance study visits to Lebanon, Palestine, and Brazil, plus three trips to Egypt.

Alia atop Mt. Sinai at dawn. Sinai, Egypt Photo: Yasmin Henkesh
Simon Shaheen, Elena Lentini, and Alia Thabit. Photo: Morwenna Assaf 
Alia Thabit and Madame Azza Sherif. Photo by Lisa Talmadge

In 2007, Elena Lentini invited me to be a puppeteer in her NYC dance concert Argumentum Ornithologicum.  As it happened, Sufi master Dunya McPherson had a weeklong at the same time. I signed up.

By day, I went to Dunya’s classes; by night, I ran a huge puppet and helped stage manage for Elena. I learned how to use breath in dance, and found a clear, lighted pathway to the state of grace that I sought as a live performer. It was thrilling to see these same techniques embodied in Elena’s choreography each night as I explored them for myself each day. The spiritual connection of Dunya’s Sufi-based Dancemeditation ™ resonated deeply. I continue to explore Dunya’s teachings in many workshops, retreats, and conversations.

This work, along with the friendship, care, and guidance of many loving dancers, bodyworkers, and mentors, has helped me become the artist I am today. Every performance, every class, workshop, email, every thing I do, honors our  beauty, our glory, our power. It honors our desire for both order and abandon, it cherishes, nurtures, and celebrates them, because we are both, we need both, and it is indeed in their balance that we feel the joy of accomplishment and expression.

The poet WB Yeats said, “The world is full of magic things patiently waiting for our senses to grow sharper.” I teach dancers to sharpen their senses, to listen patiently to their bodies, to the music, to their fleeting impressions—to notice, to embody, to express. I teach dancers to listen, look, and sense, to locate blocked, frozen places, to melt them with the power of breath, Oriental dance, and intuitive movement, so they can discover their own creativity, beauty, and power.

You are filled with beauty and magic. We all are. It is our precious treasure, our most valuable asset. Love it, grow it, protect it.

This treasure is already inside us. We don’t have make anything, think of anything, or impose anything. We just have to look around and pick up the jewels lying on the ground.

I train treasure hunters.

Come find your treasure.

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