What is Belly Dance II

Last time, we looked at belly dance in the wild, as a natural culturally-formed expression of the music. This week, let’s look at it a bit further afield. We closed last week with,

You would think “what is belly dance” would be pretty obvious—you see the people dancing, the hip drops, shimmies, and undulations—and there it is. But you would be wrong about that.

The definition of belly dance is surprisingly contentious. Read Part I here


Let’s remember belly dance is a made up term. It was the most salacious possible English translation of the French term “danse du ventre” (dance of the stomach). The Danse du Ventre was a specialty dance done by Algerian Ouled Nil dancers in which they used their stomach muscles to move a silver chain belt belt up and down the abdomen. Is that belly dance? What is belly dance as we have come to know it?

Belly dance, in its home countries, is literally the dance without a name (Tamalyn Dallal is currently making a film with this title. I can’t wait!). It is so ubiquitous that it in Arabic it is just called “dance,” unlike most of the other folk dances which have specific names. It is the homestyle dance of millions of women (and men) in Cairo, Egypt, and many more millions in many places around the globe. It is a dance which elicits passionate attachment.

Dr. Najwa Adra wrote an excellent article, “Belly Dance: an Urban Folk Genre.” She opens her (multi-page) description with, “Traditional belly dance is an improvised genre, led my music that may also be improvised.” She goes on to describe the isolations, shimmies, modest footwork and so forth. You can read her excellent article in the anthology, “Orientalism, Transnationalism, and Harem Fantasy,” or on Dr. Adra’s website, http://NajwaAdra.com.

Adra observes is that the dance’s function is primarily that of play. It is done for fun. Since most of the millions (possibly billions) of people (mostly women) who belly dance are not professional and never plan to be, this takes on a lot of importance. In the west, the dance has been pointed relentlessly in the direction of performance, specifically at the pretty girl in the costume. We will take a hard look at the ramifications of this perspective in the book, but for now, let’s go on.

If it is a folk dance, why do some folks exclude raqs baladi (the folk form), from belly dance? Yes, there are many who see belly dance as only the stage version of the dance, aka raqs sharqi. (I don’t care for this term because it is Arabic, and so excludes Turkish Oryantal Dans as well as Greek tsiftetelli and stage styles). Usually the same people also exclude tribal, fusions, and so forth. Many exclude veil, too, and a host of movements that have become part of the dance over the last 100 or so years.

Many things were not traditional a hundred years ago, but they are now–some for better and some for worse. So let’s look further. If you dance to Abdel Wahab, who brought in non-traditional instruments, are you not belly dancing, because those instruments represent experimental fusion? More importantly, are you not belly dancing because Abdel Wahab had the musicians learn set pieces? Improvisation, heterophony and playing from the heart are the hallmarks of Oriental music (I use this term to include all the areas of this music and dance not just the Arabic). If Wahab had his orchestra play the music as written, is it authentic? You could easily say no.

What is a belly dancer to do?
Part III is here


An excerpt from the upcoming book, Midnight at the Crossroads: Has belly dance sold its soul?

What is belly dance? (and why is that a question?)

What is belly dance? (and why is that a question?)

Back in the early 70’s, when I was a baby dancer, I worked as a figure model for art classes, mostly at the Brooklyn Museum art school (sadly, long gone), and at Pratt Institute. There was one prof at Pratt whom I liked a lot, and I worked often for his classes. In addition to regular still poses, each semester we ran through a sequence of sessions for his Illustration class as he taught them to draw objects in motion. For the capstone of the series, I brought my dance gear to class, put on belly dance music, and danced in full costume while the class frantically sketched. It was a lot of fun.

One day during this class, a dark-haired student burst into the room. He took in the scene–the madly sketching students, the glittery dancer, the white-haired, bearded prof–and demanded, “Who is playing this music?”
I am, I said.
“This is John Berberian!” he said.
Um, yeah. Yes, it is.

I wondered if he were going to yell at me for dancing to this music. Instead, it turned out the kid was Armenian (as is John Berberian). He told me John was about to perform at an upcoming Armenian church supper. The kid eagerly invited me to the supper, because anyone who loved John Berberian was family. I loved John Berberian, so of course I went. My mother, who had introduced me to John’s music, also loved him–so off we went.

The church was packed, and food was everywhere (it was just like the Arabic food I was used to, and it was delish). My Mom and I were both kind of shy, but the kid from school soon saw us, thanked us for coming, and found us seats. Everyone made us feel welcome, even though we didn’t know anyone. My Mom and I sat in a happy daze with the food and the swirl of activity all around us. Soon it was time for the concert. Or so I thought.

When Berberian and his band took the stage—everyone jumped up to dance. The floor was awash with ecstatic people of every age and size boogieing down in in every way, shape, and form. As I watched, it slowly dawned on me—these people were all belly dancing!

Now, I am Levantine on my father’s side, but no one in my family danced. I had already been taking belly dance classes with Ibrahim Farrah, Jajouka, and Elena Lentini for a couple of years. I could dance—but I had never seen belly dance “in the wild,” so to speak. These folks danced alone, in groups, as couples—and all the things I had learned in class were their natural expressions of the music: hip drops, shimmies, undulations—the works. It was belly dance in its natural environment.  It was a revelation.

I didn’t dance that night—I just watched (I also bought John’s new album, which he autographed—I still have it ; ). But I learned a lot—and I never forgot.

You would think “what is belly dance” would be pretty obvious—you see the people dancing, the hip drops and undulations—and there it is. But you would be wrong about that.

The definition of belly dance is surprisingly contentious. In our next post, we’ll take a look at the history of the term, and what it has come to define.

An excerpt from the upcoming book, Midnight at the Crossroads: Has belly dance sold its soul?

Read part II here

Why we dance—the secret surprise (and how to find it)

Those little voices....
Those little voices….

You know those little voices that always rag on us to just quit and be done with it?  That we will never amount to anything? What does that even mean? Like we will not be world-class famous dancers with tons of money and fame? Why is that the benchmark of success in our dance?

Few of us dance solely for adulation or money. It’s awesome that dance gives us those things, but the dance is deeper than this. It’s the connection to the music we crave—the sense of oneness that we value. Yet all the emphasis is on the pretty girl on stage in a costume.

Most people who do this dance do not teach or perform. They dance with friends at home or at parties. Why would they do that? Dance around the house and play music, women of all ages. A dance of joy. What does that really mean?

This dance has power. We know this. And not all of it in the venue of performance. That in some ways is the smallest of it attributes. Because it is a dance of joy, that is why its performances have power—they bring joy, both to viewers and dancers. That is also why it is so popular offstage as well. Doing or viewing this dance lifts one’s mood. Joy is there for all of us.

I sometimes hear disdain for the “hobbyists.” You know, the ones who take classes, fill workshops, and pay the bills The ones with relatively normal lives who just want to dance and have fun. Because we all should be serious dancers who work hard.

Well, surprise. Maybe the hobbyists have the right idea. I’m all for performance. I am a performer. I love it. Many of us do. I love teaching. I’m good at it. So I get it. I’m not suggesting anyone stop. People feel called to open studios, develop professional companies, dance at birthday parties; I say YES to all of it. But this dance is a folk dance, done by folks, in their homes. And that is a legitimate, honorable relationship with the dance.

What if we stop beating ourselves up for notgoing anywhere” with our dance? Think of all the people who do yoga, or tai chi. They don’t look to be performers. Few even look to be teachers. Most of them just go to class, a workshop, a retreat. The activity is part of their life. It gives them physical and emotional benefits. Maybe a community. And they enjoy it.

The same with dance

The physical interaction with the music is pleasurable in and of itself. And the more in sync we get the better and more beautiful and delicious it feels. Think how lovely our 20 minutes could be if we focused on the sensuality of the moves and their relationship with the music. Right there is a good reason for pursuing mastery. For the pleasure of the activity all by itself. On our own or with friends.

That sounds radical, doesn’t it? Most of us don’t move for the enjoyment of it. We practice to get better. We work. What if we enjoyed ourselves instead?

Something to think about…



PS With the encouragement of my friend Mackay Rippey, of Lyme Ninja Radio, I’ll teach a free 4-week web series this fall called Belly Dance Foundation Flow–an exploration of belly dance movement for healing and joy. It will be a lovely, rich experience.

Update: Mackay and I recorded an interview for his podcast;; the web series followed. It is all archived–you can get the recordings here. This is a totally free series. All are welcome.

Music: Fun African mix: https://soundcloud.com/snyk-dk/ud-og-samle-svampe-i-afrika

Small Product Lab–phew!

What an intense couple of weeks. I made it through the Gumroad ‪‎Small Product Lab Launch and met all kinds of cool creators. I feel full of ideas from being around so many. And made a new thing–Ziltastic!– in only 10 days. Thanks to everyone who supported this crazy endeavor. Here’s a snippet: https://vimeo.com/135481234.

The SPL crew voted me a People’s Choice award! This is for being a helpful member of the team. Squee! So Ziltastic is in the Honorable Mention section of the July SPL collection. Check out all the cool stuff we made–you might see something you love. https://gumroad.com/smallproductlab/creators/july2015

Then Mackay Rippey called. He interviewed me about belly dance’s potential for trauma healing.  We blew through the interview and kept right on conversing for another hour. The interview will air on his Lyme Ninja Radio podcast September 13–more as we get closer. And thanks to this conversation, something wonderful came into being.  Announcing…

A Belly Dance Foundation Flow series this fall. We will explore foundation belly dance movement for somatic release to refresh the body and soul so joy can flow into our lives. This will be online, with no cost–a special gift. All are welcome. More soon.

Thanks, Mackay, the Small Product Lab, and all of you for encouraging me in this journey!

I’m off to New Mexico for Dunya’s Summer Movement Monastery–camping in the high desert for Sufi dance. I’ll be back with more soon!

Lots of love,

PS People are excited about Ziltastic. This makes me so happy! I love the material that is coming through.

I just watched Part One! It changed my entire relationship with my zils. I bought two pair a few years ago and i just couldn’t handle the ringing in my ears, couldn’t see the end goal and actually disliked them (but my guilt made me store them in a really cute bag). Now I know what I own, how to keep from giving myself a headache and know that I can play them with fun, musicality and improvisation as my goal. They are out of my cute bag now! And the cat stays in the room! Thank you Alia! Ziltastic! ~Anica

“I love looking and listening to you. I love watching you, your calm, connected style. It feels like I’m right there in the same room. I can’t wait to start playing.” ~Irit

Thanks to everyone who’s taken the plunge with Ziltastic! Our group is wonderful!

Want to be part of it? There are about 15 seats left for the special coaching gift. Grab ’em while you can! Right here: http:/ziltastic.com

Ziltastic! Fast, fun finger cymbal improvisation
Ziltastic! Fast, fun finger cymbal improvisation

Love and kisses,

How to choose zills the Goldilocks way


How to choose finger cymbals the Goldilocks way

When Goldilocks discovered the three bears’ house, she tried out every bowl of porridge, every chair and every bed until she found the one that was “just right.” Choosing finger cymbals (aka zils, zills, or sagat) is the same way. Too loud, too heavy, too big, too small–it takes time to find what you like. “Just right” is different for everyone, so it’s worth sleeping around to find your perfect match.

I found my go-to finger cymbals at Rakkasah West in California. Back in the mid-90’s, we didn’t have much choice. A few teachers sold small assortments of gear, but other than that, you were out of luck. Few websites. No sound files. No Amazon. And no Google. It was a lot harder to find what you wanted. So imagine the knee-weakening affect of Saroyan’s display–full sets of every zil they made, ready to play, laid out there for sampling. Every zil. That’s dozens of sets, even more if you count every gauge plus bronze and silver–and you have to, because they each sound different.

So yeah, pig heaven. I am proud to say that I played EVERY SINGLE ONE in search of my dream zils. I wanted something medium-sized with a low tone (I hate that high-pitched ring that hangs in the air). So I played them all, and I made a choice. It was pricey, too. Good cymbals are, because they are carefully made of high quality materials–often hand-cast bell bronze or German silver.

The main things to consider in a set of finger cymbals are size, weight, and sound. There is also price, of course. Expect to spend $15-25 for a set of student-quality cymbals, and $35-70 (and up) for pro quality (vendor links at the end of the post). A set is 4 cymbals, two for each hand. In general, opt up. Good finger cymbals last practically forever, and never go out of style. Buy the best quality you can afford. You won’t regret it.

Size matters. So does weight. I have cymbals ranging from tiny Saroyan Tinkerzills to 6-inch orchestra-quality monsters. Some feel comfortable in my hand, some pinch with with every tek. Some are so heavy my arms hurt, and some are so light that no one can hear them. Size and weight go together, of course–I mean, it’s metal. The bigger the instrument, the heavier it is. But there are also different thicknesses of metal, so two sets of the same size can have different weights.

Light and heavy are different for each person–you want to find your sweet spot.  The smaller and lighter the zil, the easier it is to play–but the thinner the sound. Too big or heavy, however, and your hands will be uncomfortable and tire easily. It’s fine to start with smaller, lighter, less expensive zils, and progress towards pro-quality instruments. Many dancers practice with heavier zils, then perform wearing a lighter set, so that the performance is easier. It’s all about finding your “Just Right.”

The mother of all concerns is sound. No one wants to sound crappy. Listen a lot, and find what you like. For me, the ultimate dealbreaker is that high-pitched ring that hangs in the air long after the cymbal has sounded. Yet other folks I know love that sound. So there you go.

There are two main styles of cymbal–Egyptian and Turkish. Egyptian sagat have a wide, flat lip around the bell. Turkish style zils have a narrower, often slightly upturned lip. Each type has has a different sound (and some different playing techniques). There are also specialty folkloric cymbals from various places. What matters most is that you like what you have. That is the bottom line. You can get fancy later. For now, just buy whatever you like.

There are also two main styles of cymbal attachment–single hole or double slots.
The single hole is old-style–all zils used to be made this way. Egyptian sagat still are. So are some Zildjians and many smaller makers (LOTS of crap cymbals will have a single hole. You really do get what you pay for, so beware). The elastic goes through the hole and is secured on the other side by anything from a large knot to a button or a washer (creativity abounds). They are more challenging to play, as the connection between zil and finger is smaller, but their sound is often superior.

Slots are new. The elastic goes in one slot and out the other. Most of the big makers do double slots. They are easier to play, because they sit more firmly on the finger, but they do tend to have that ring.

So how do you find “just right”?

Ideally, you play them in person. Reading descriptions on the internet, even listening to sound files is great. Feeling those babies on your own hands, hearing them with your own ears, that is better.

However, few of us have a large retailer right down the road. So we have to get clever. Listen to the zils you hear people playing. When you hear something you like, ask the dancer what kind they are, and where s/he got them. When you go to a festival, play all the cymbals available. Try out lots of options to help your body find its “Just Right.” Don’t even ask the price unless you like the zils.

When you buy sight unseen, do your research. Ask other dancers what they like. Listen to the sound files. Both Saroyan and Turquoise have sound files or videos for every zil they sell. Call the place up and discuss what you want–ask them to pay the zils over the phone. Take your time to find what you want.

Choosing a first set of zils can feel daunting. Don’t get crazy about it. If you enjoy playing zils, you will end up with many, many more–each set unique (my student zil bag is filled with zils I got that weren’t quite what I wanted). And even though I have some great finger cymbals, I am always on the lookout for more.

Get what you like. You’re the one who’s going to play them. Pick whatever makes you happy and have a good time. What did I choose from Saroyan that day? The German silver Tutankhamen Pro. I still play them almost every show. They have some of that ring, but for almost 20 years now they are my “just right.”

That’s how it is with finger cymbals.


PS a couple of Vendors: Turquoise and Saroyan make quality cymbals. So does Zildjian (and they are LOUD). Yasmin Henkesh sells Egyptian sagat (and she is a love, plus she knows her stuff)


I’m deep in Gumroad’s Small Product Lab–build and launch a new product in 10 days. Ziltastic! A video CRASH Course in Finger Cymbal Improvisation is what has emerged from this process. This is a snippet from that project. I hope you enjoyed it.

Thanks for reading!



PS here is me performing improv with finger cymbals




Small Product Lab Days 3-4

Gumroad Small Product Lab, Days 3-4

I’ve been doing the Gumroad Small Product Lab 10-Day Challenge (https://gumroad.com/smallproductlab), where folks commit to making and launching a new product—be it a tutorial, t-shirt, or toolkit–in only 10 days! Here’s how it’s been going.
Day 1 we had to pick a thing to make. I was torn between 3 things,

  • An e-book on How to Critique
  • A video class on How to Accompany yourself on finger cymbals
  • A process overview of How to design an online dance course.

I asked a lot of people in my group and on Facebook what to do, and got great suggestions. everyone voted for zils and critique. But I wanted to to e-course design.

So by Day 2, I was all set to do– online class design! Per our assignment, I made an elaborate to-do plan. The next day (Day 3), I was to make it a sales page. But somehow I couldn’t see what it would look like. I decided to sleep on it.

The next morning, Day 3, I woke up and had a coffee. Then, much to my surprise, I designed a finger cymbal class. I took a picture of some zils and made a page for the class. Boom! I guess I am making a zil tutorial!

Here it is: Ziltastic! A video CRASH Course in Finger Cymbal Improvisation
Check it out! 

Ziltastic (1)


Cool, huh?

But there is so much more to this!

I have been so impressed by all the folks doing this challenge.

Hundreds of us are in this Facebook group, posting ideas, giving feedback, frantically revising and editing. It’s really something. Being involved in a creative group project opens up a lot of energy. I’ve had so many ideas, and I am not the only one. There such incredible variety I can’t even list them. Check my FB timeline for a series of shares of people’s projects:  https://www.facebook.com/aliathabit

Group members have battled Resistance, time sucks, black holes, and all manner of trips and traps to keep us from completing our projects. But we are not alone! In addition to our group, we have some mentors to help us along–Nathan BarryJeff Goins, and Barrett Brooks; plus the winner of the first SPL, DJ Coffman; and runner up Christopher Hawkins. Yeah, all men. But out trusty team leader is a gal, Emmiliese von Clemm. It’s only been 4 days and we are coming together as one creative hive mind.

Yes, there are some prizes, but for most of the us, the real prize will be this reckless endeavor–making and launching a Brave New Thing in only 10 days.

I so recommend this process. Please check it out:   https://gumroad.com/smallproductlab

Much love,



PS Saturday, July 25, 2015, 7 p.m.
She Who Walks in The Moonlight
This was a great show–here’s a great picture of me as Nyx, Greek goddess of the night (Thanks to Peter Paradise Michaels!)


Alia as Nyx, Greek goddess of the night
Alia as Nyx, Greek goddess of the night

And here’s my performance

What should I make?

What should I make?

I just joined Gumroad​’s Small Product Lab (https://gumroad.com/smallproductlab). I’ll make a new thing in 10 days, from 7/27-10/5. Something digital–a small book, tutorial, tool, video, or art thing, like a coloring book.

What should I make? What would you like to have?