How quantum physics illuminates personal style

How quantum physics illustrates personal style

Strange AtrractorImagine you are watching a dancer. You have no idea what the hell she is doing, but everything is moving in complete accord with the music, and that music is live. There are half a dozen instruments, multiple accents, and a wild assortment of inputs, yet she is totally in sync. How do we arrive at this level of embodied expression?

We start out by copying–that’s how we learn. Copying many different artists and styles gives us the tools, models, and permission to be different. Through learning from a range of sources, we increase the variety of spaces in which we give ourselves permission to be. Each time we reset the pattern, we increase our understanding of and relationship to the dance.

All the movement models we experience form a cloud of possibilities for the “how” of any step, any move. Micro-movement has the quantum element of infinite variation. So does the multiplicity of interpretation, the way in which we construct each move. Through this quantum density, this strange attractor of a shape, we find our own path.

This is why it’s important to study with many teachers. And not just any teachers. Follow the visionaries. When we learn/copy from a variety of expressive masters, we gain an ever more expansive range of possibility. Our range of motion increases, literally—and of thought, imagination, expression.

Over time, our eyes open. Every dance we see, every teacher whose class we take contributes to this.  Seek out the best teachers, see great artists, as this is how we develop our range of possibility.

But we can’t copy forever.
As we grow, we find new ways of being in the world. We find out how our bodies want to express the move, the music, the feeling. We branch out on our own. We give ourselves permission to do this. We let go of following. We lead.

Our own style comes from giving ourselves permission to find our own way. The confidence we gain from seeing, learning the variety of ways is the key. I believe our style is already inside us, waiting. The effort and study help us find it, accept it, refine it.

We begin by copying. Our path develops in relation to the myriad paths we have followed. It may lie within or without the experienced range of possibility—through the effort of building the range, we see how there could be an outside, and that we might go there.

And then we go.

Welcome to the bright world of possibility.



Here’s a guy who really created his own style, the remarkable Sun Ra:

Twice, Then Quit: How to Train for Resistance to Change

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How to Enjoy Dance Practice Part IV

HubMasterBrightIn this series, we look at how dance has turned from a pleasurable fun activity to one of perfectionism and hard work. The series began with the observations of a dance friend, Sarah, who noticed that practicing improvisation was seen as less valuable than drilling or fitting combos into other songs.

Our first strategy was making time for creative work. Read Part I here.

Our second strategy was Opting for the Most Pleasurable. Read Part II here.

Our third strategy was Share Your Joy. Read Part III here.

So we’ve looked at a lot of strategies.

Now let’s look at some caveats–things to watch out for. Sarah mentioned that she and her dance friends tended to dismiss “just improv” as not a quality practice session.

We must consider what a person means by “just improv.” If they mean put on music and hop around on autopilot, no, that is not going to make them a better dancer. It will maybe up their stamina, but otherwise it is just going to reinforce hopping around on autopilot. 

When a person really dances, they become more skilled at really dancing. The interoceptive (Sufi, Dancemeditation™) model puts us in questing, curious relationship with our body, the music, and the Divine. That is entirely different from hopping around. 

Sarah said,

I’ve had days where I’ve danced for 30-40 minutes; playing around with the music and what feels good … Then I beat myself up for not having “really” practiced.

Part of the shift is letting go of beating ourselves up. For anything. This is a destructive behavior. It is a symptom of old shame and trauma. When we feel it happening, we can take long exhales and let the impulse wash out of the body. Practicing self-love and acceptance is far more valuable–and genuinely subversive ; ).

To dance well, we need confidence. Drilling and technique practice encourages us to look at ourselves with narrow, critical eyes. Really dancing, using our time to enjoy and connect to the music, the guests, our bodies, and our joy–this develops our confidence. The affirmation in the picture, “I am a Master. I am great!” is worth a lot of repetition.

There’s a difference between drilling and improv. Drilling practice makes us more precise and stylized. Quality improv practice develops musicality and intuitive response. 

A classical musician trains through technique, plays scales. A folk musician plays music. That is his practice. The folk musician may be every bit the musician and every bit as skilled as the classical musician. It’s just a different system. 

Dave Brubeck went to Turkey and was flabbergasted that the folk musicians were so brilliant and improvised on odd meters better than trained Western musicians. That’s what inspired him to write Take 5 (or that’s the myth, anyway). Even in Arabic music, there is the maqamat, a classical learning system of modes and scales, and there is the nagamat system, that of melodies (nagam means melody in Arabic). 

What I suggest is a nagamat system: practicing dance–by dancing! (the raqsat system, if you will).

Wait, what about technique?! I roll technique into my practice. I often stop to explore a move, enjoying its path and texture in my body. I fit my movement to the music, listen for and express emotional timbres, respond intuitively, explore and enhance individual movements & vocabulary, develop grace (slow movement), strength (by using the floor), etc etc. 

I also practice stagecraft and connection. I roll all of this, too, right into my practice. I “dance like someone is watching.” I challenge myself to be as open as I am in the interoceptive mode while connecting to an “audience.” I dance with my eyes open, and pull out all the performance stops, right in my own room, flirting with the walls, mirror, and the guest who exist far past those physical walls. 

This practice style makes me more creative, innovative, and happy. I am always finding new ideas, new avenues, and new elements in my music. I have more freedom, better technique, and a lot more joy–both in dance and in life. Plus my musicality improves, too. This is a pretty significant win-win.

If you want to be a great dancer, it may take more than 20 minutes of practice a day. But if all you have is 20 minutes, you will become a better dancer by dancing–and developing a deep connection to your body and the music–than you ever will by drilling. It may not be the same in other dance forms. But that is how it is in this dance. 

The basics of our dance are not that hard. It’s not like ballet, or even Flamenco. It’s super organic, super comfortable on the body. I mean, it’s a folk dance. There’s a learning curve, but you can get most of it in a couple of months. Hell, you can get a lot of it in an couple of hours. 

–> The artistry is in the intuitive connection to complex, improvised music, in never doing it the same way twice, in the feeling, in the connection, in the joy. 

You can’t drill that. 

You have to dance it. 

That’s what we’re doing when we practice improv. 

Or at least, that’s our path.



PS Want to inspire, amaze and delight? 

You might enjoy How to Create Dance Art (CDA), an online composition intensive for improvisation & choreography, coming this spring.

“Alia took the time to read my postings and reply to every one, always with helpful information and insight. I felt that she really understood the different ways people learn and work. We weren’t all the same people. I felt that I was a part of the group but that I was also lucky enough to be taking a private course with Alia.”

“The work is spaced out over a long period of time which allows for a true thinking sift to happen. It’s a lifestyle change not a diet so to speak. I would recommend this course to people who are ready to have a paradigm shift and who have an open mind.”

“it was really amazing in the ways that it helped me to make my dancer richer. Even if it was only in my mind. Because every feeling I have is somehow translated to the audience, and having so much to work with made me feel that I would never be out of ideas. I could do a hip circle 20 times, but if I emoted differently with each one, it would seem different to the audience. Mind blowing.”


There is a special early deal November27-30. Please have a look right away as it is very short term.

How to Enjoy Dance Practice Part III

Don't Prepare, Just Show Up
Don’t Prepare, Just Show Up

In this series, we look at how dance has turned from a pleasurable fun activity to one of perfectionism and hard work. The series began with the observations of a dance friend, Sarah, who noticed that practicing improvisation was seen as less valuable than drilling or fitting combos into other songs.

Our first strategy was making time for creative work. Read Part I here.

Our second strategy was Opting for the Most Pleasurable. Read Part II here.

Our third strategy is Share Your Joy. 
Sarah said,
“I feel like I am not fulfilling my duties to the audience if I’m not sharing myself “enough.” But doing that authentically and without trying so hard that it becomes pure performance is a challenge.”

How do you bring confident spontaneity into a performance?

Share your joy.

Dance is a social activity. Even for the millions of us who don’t perform, we may dance at parties and social events. We risk being seen, and with it, being judged—and possibly found wanting. That can feel pretty daunting—especially for an introvert. But sharing joy is a skill. How do we learn to share our pleasure in the dance? Practice, of course. How do we practice sharing? Build it up, and build it in.

Build it up. At first, we may struggle to give ourselves permission to play, to enjoy, to “dance like no one is watching.”
There are techniques to help with this.

  • Dance with your eyes closed.
  • Avoid the mirror.
  • Breathe in time to the music.
  • Slow down so far that the shapes of the moves you know so well disappear, and let the body shift and change the pathway as it likes.
  • Break the rules.
  • Break up your conditioned responses, always going for the what feels most delicious.
  • Sometimes you will do things that aren’t pretty. It’s okay.
  • Relax. This will take time. Don’t rush. Have fun.

Build it in. Over time, you will feel happier and more comfortable in your own skin. Your body (and you) will express the music as it streams in you and through you. You (and your body), will feel more confident in your choices. You will be having fun! Now you are ready to share.

Dance like someone is watching. Dance as if your whole room is watching—and you love it, and you love them, and they love you. Stoke the fire of your heart with the joy of friends. Wrap yourself in a warm pink aura of love and joy. Welcome every corner of the room. You don’t have to go them. They come to you.

Magnetize yourself. Allow the joy of the room into your gravitational field. Oriental dance is inwardly-directed. It is a dance of sidelong looks, playfulness, and recycled energy. It is a visual sillage, the lingering scent of a lovely perfume. For every out, there is an in. So bring the audience in, too.

Consider the egg. Does it go running after the sperm? Never! The egg, ensconced in its cushy nest, leisurely examines the wriggling sperm. We used to think that the pushiest sperm got the egg, but that is not the case. The egg chooses.  Women choose. We, as dancers, choose. We are goddesses.

Dance is a benediction. It is a gift we give, a blessing we enact. We do not need an audience’s approval—or anyone’s. We dance as a gift. It is right and good for the guests to offer us money, adoration and so forth. But we don’t need any of these things.

We are whole, inviolate, replete with resources. Making offerings enriches the guests. We accept their offerings out of graciousness and compassion.

Express the joy. Our guests feel what we feel. Our anxiety or fear gives them anxiety and fear. Our joy in the moment gives the guests joy in the moment. So we call our joy. We allow love to well up inside ourselves. In this way, we love our guests. In your practice, express joy.

Welcome the room. Draw them in with loving, sidelong glances. From your center within yourself, you become the center of the room, the world, the universe. You, as the dancer, are the omphalos, the navel of the world. Everything comes to you. And you reflect back meaning, depth, and joy.

See you next week with Part IV!


Your comments are welcome.


PS Want to inspire, amaze and delight?

Please take a look at How to Create Dance Art (CDA), an online composition intensive for improvisation & choreography, coming this spring.

CDA has a fabulous Premium bonus this year with a series of lectures by Dunya McPherson on Space, Time, and Design.

These come from her Juilliard choreography study back in the 70s, when there was incredible innovation in the field. Most of those pioneers never wrote books and many have passed away.

This rare material comes infused with Dunya’s decades of study with Sufi and Oriental dance and music. It is a special, remarkable opportunity to acquire some valuable, unusual material.

There is a special early deal at the end of November. Please have a look right away as it is very short term.

How to Enjoy Dance Practice Part II

Part 1 is here

In this series, we look at how dance has turned from a pleasurable fun activity to one of perfectionism and hard work. The series began with the observations of a dance friend, Sarah, who noticed that practicing improvisation was seen as less valuable than drilling or fitting combos into other songs.

Our first strategy was making (and defending) time for creative work. You can read Part I here.

We concluded that whatever it takes, it is in our best interests to make the time we need for our creative work. And creativity is play, plain and simple. Which brings us to our next strategy,

Opt for the most pleasurable.

Painting by Donna Marie Buchanan
Painting by Donna Marie Buchanan

How often we deny ourselves! Day after day we choke down the dreary, overcooked vegetables of life. Even in our dance practice, we feel obliged to work hard at every moment, to glare at ourselves with pointed eyes and find endless faults. Everything is an exercise in perfection. Everything is a reminder of how we fail to measure up. We cannot even celebrate success—there is always so much more to do.

Sarah explained,

 I’m fairly certain that this is at least partly just a symptom of the larger issue within our culture that devalues any sort of self-care or downtime. Hell, we have even made relaxing “self-care” so that it sounds enough like a job that we can give ourselves permission to do it. 

We feel that if we aren’t working or being productive (even if we are productively relaxing), it is somehow self-indulgent and, therefore, bad. But there is also that perfectionist tendency there, too, and the idea that there is a right way to do each thing or respond to a piece of music. 

Where is our hot fudge sundae? We have so bought into the shame and blame of our society that it even creeps into this luscious, earthy dance. Let’s kick it out.

This dance is a miracle of pleasure. The moves feel delicious in the body. People may think that improv doesn’t develop dance skills—but they are wrong. Take the time to explore a movement. Let it evolve, let your body enjoy it and find the most yummy, rich, elegant expression if it—that is not easy. It is a skill that we learn. This means it will be hard at first, and the change from rote movement may be challenging. But it is so pleasurable, after a while, it doesn’t feel like work.

It’s like the “work” of eating the most delicious meal ever. It’s nourishing and good for you, sure. Yet so thrilling is the pleasure of the meal that it eclipses all those mundane elements. Even a simple meal can have this quality. Everything is better when the ingredients are fresh and made with love.

Celebrate enjoyment. We’ve all heard that the feeling is the most important thing. This pleasure in movement is one of the feelings we want to cultivate in dance. We usually think of feeling as an emotional thing—but dance is also physical (surprise!). The body feels the movement. It feels its connection to the music. The body is wise and beautiful. It will give us our movement with the greatest of pleasure when it allow it to connect. Yet we control every moment of our dance with stylized shapes, combos and choreographies.

We pre-create our dances so we don’t have to risk anything. But these canned combos and dances are like automated telephone help lines. We get so desperate for a live person, soon we start banging the phone on the table, screaming AGENT!

Yet agency is one of the hallmarks of our dance—the alive dancer, reveling in her feeling, who responds in the moment to the music. It is this al fresco creation, presented with love, that nourishes both dancer and guests. It is more of a risk than ordering out or heating up a frozen dinner—but the rewards are far, far greater than the risks.

So how do you bring confident spontaneity into a performance?
Part 3 is here.



PS Want to have more fun with dance? Alia offers Creativity Coaching. Develop the time and space to bring joy to your dance–and life. For details, see here.

What is Belly Dance? Part IV

What is Belly Dance? Part IV

Read Part I here

Read part II here

Read Part III here


It’s pretty clear by now that belly dance is much more than a sparkly little toy. It’s much more than a sexy treat for the male gaze, a fun way of getting exercise, or a dress-up opportunity. It is more than entertainment. It is more than art. We can use it that way, and it will work just fine, but we are playing marbles with giant pearls.

Belly dance is a glorious marriage of the sacred and the profane—beautiful, sensual, healing, and integrative. It aligns the body and mind, washes away stress and trauma, frees us from fear and anxiety, and connects us to the Divine. How many other venues have all that?

There are plenty of practices that do most of it—tai-chi, yoga, Zen archery, even sitting meditation. But none of them include those sensual, beautiful, entertaining, profane qualities. There are no spangles, playfulness, or music. No sensuality. No fun.

Belly dance has all that and more.

Belly dance has been seen asa pastime, entertainment, even art—but always as a generally innocuous occupation with little meaning outside of itself. Many of us have a mission to “elevate the dance,” which often means to make it more Western—put it on bigger stages, with bigger audiences.

What if there were a way to elevate the dance that kept its cultural values? Without them, this dance is dead. It’s an empty movement vocabulary. It becomes like Cheez Wiz or Cool Whip—an artificial, processed, non-food masquerading as real food. We don’t need more plastic crap in our lives.

We need real things that connect us to our true selves. We need avenues to our souls, ways to accept and nurture ourselves, be kind to ourselves, love ourselves. Through accepting and affirming the self, we find the courage and the kindness to love others.

Little by little, this love radiates outward, touching others, healing as it goes. It extends outward, all over the world, finally returning back to us, energizing us and everyone it meets.

Am I saying belly dance has the potential for world peace?

Yes. Yes, I am.

Instead of using this dance to glorify ourselves, we can spread love, healing, kindness, spirit, joy.

We heal the world, one undulation at a time.


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

What is belly dance part III

What is belly dance? Part III

Read Part I here

Read part II here

appropiration2Of course, there are specific folkloric dances that have nothing to do with belly dance—no one is arguing about that. But there are others that have been adopted. They are not belly dance as such (Sa’idi stick dance, for example, or Turkish Romani dance), but they are here to stay in our repertoire. So “belly dance,” (a made-up name to begin with), is already inclusive of many fusion elements. Then there are the various forms of “Tribal” dance, from Jamila Salimpour’s Bal Anat through tribal fusion, a host of ethnic and other fusions, and all the theatrical approaches. It’s a mishmash. What do we do with all of these? What do we call them?

I am loathe to kick anyone off the belly dance bus. I have concerns about some things, and will explore them as we go along, never fear. But as we come to understand the soul of the dance, misconceptions fall away. There are qualities of the dance that underlie everything else, and these are where we want to put our focus. The rest is window dressing.

To me, the vital elements of the dance are

  • improvisation to improvised (preferably live) music
  • the foundation movement vocabulary, with micro-movement
  • an inseparable connection Oriental music and its the values and qualities, including  the importance of the feeling in the moment.

I will return to these elements often. This dance is not only as an ancient, beautiful art form. It also has healing, spiritual properties, and is a legitimate mind-body practice that equals yoga, tai-chi, and sitting meditation in its effectiveness and power. Really? Yes.

Sparkly little belly dance has immense power. People are drawn to it because they sense this, though they may not know how to access it. Once they come to a class, they are usually taught a sterilized version: stylized, choreographed, counted, body-control to recorded music. This is not the dance they were looking for. But it is all they see, so okay. Well, it’s not okay with me. I am here to explode this view of the dance. I am here to shine a light on the magic and mystery of our dance.

We are drawn to this dance because we feel something from it. It is real. It is there. The dance waits for you, a hidden seed trembling with life, ready to blossom in your heart and soul. It is beautiful and free and loving–and so are you.

Part IV coming next week…

How to protect your dance space

Most days I get up several hours before anyone else in my family. It is often dark, now that it’s fall here in Vermont. It’s also cold. I hate getting up in the dark, and I hate the cold. I’d prefer to sleep in every morning until it is sunny and warm. But I get up. I don’t like it–but I like myself better when I do it.

I wash up, make some coffee and toast, and take my vitamins. Then I open the file of my book. And then I write. I like to put in at least an hour or 1K words. I often go more and sometimes less. (For a while I was reading every morning, but now I am focused on the writing). After I write, I put in my headphones and pick a dance song on my phone.  Once I’m moving, I usually dance for my whole 20 minutes. And then I feel like I accomplished something, all day long, even if the rest of it goes completely to heck.

It’s hard, because when I feel sorry for myself, I tend to get self-indulgent. I slack on things I know are important. I eat crap food. I don’t write–or dance. Then I feel guilty (another big time-waster). Then I feel even sorrier for myself–and the cycle of Resistance continues.

It’s taken me a long time to get to this point of relative consistency. And I don’t always defend my time well. Yesterday I overslept and my Mom got up early. I just stepped back. I wasn’t happy with myself, but I am done beating myself up over the occasional slip. NGAMO, right? No Guilt And Move On.

Today I got up earlier and wrote–but I didn’t fully close the book part of my morning and formally move on to the next task in the chain, the headphones and song. So somehow I didn’t dance.

Little by little, progress comes. I narrow the focus of my intentions and determination, things get done, and they become habits. Accomplishments then become more reliable, and my skills improve, because I get consistent practice, so I feel better about myself. You get the picture, right?

It’s so seductive to let our creativity slip down the back of the sofa. We put ourselves last and swallow our frustration, turning it against ourselves. We waste our lives hating ourselves for our weakness. Hating ourselves is just another trap.

Why do we do this? Some of it is what we learned to do. Some of it is our own fear. Where does the fear come from? Often it’s left over from times we got shamed. Wherever it came form, it’s corrosive to our creativity. Art requires us to take a stand and make something–to move, to put words or ink or paint on the page.

Instead we believe the lies we tell ourselves.  It’s no good, I’m no good,. It doesn’t matter. It’s too hard. I don’t care. It’s just…

How do we protect our creative spaces?  Our dance habits? Our self-confidence and joy, which are so tied to our creativity?

It starts with showing up. Showing up to do the work. This is a big reason I like taking classes (besides the learning). I have a reason to show up. Someone besides me notices. They’re on my side. I started teaching so I would practice. I still do. Little by little, I grow my habits.

Every day, I learn to show up. When the Muse comes looking, I want to be there.

So do you.

Just show up. 


Want some classes to help?
All of these start within the next week.
Rosa Noreen’s teaching one on arms

Nadira Jamal’s teaching one of developing a sustainable practice

And I’m teaching one on Effortless Improvisation. Daily assignment, accountability, and a great community that has your back.


Plus, you can double up and win with the Compassionate Critique Salon. 

Do you crave honest, objective dance feedback?
(Wish it didn’t hurt so much?)

Announcing: The Compassionate Critique Salon!

The Compassionate Critique Salon. Honest, empowering feedback in a safe environment so dancers can develop the confidence to grow their artistry.

Plus (since one size does not fit all), you get great feedback from *three* professional dance coaches: Nadira Jamal, Rosa Noreen, and Alia Thabit.

Each coach will provide you with encouragement, observations on what to cultivate, and one idea to work on. So you feel good about what you’ve accomplished and have a manageable set of goals.

How do we sign up?
Registration opens October 25th.
Get notified the minute it opens!

Special treat for anyone who takes 2 or more of the above classes, too.

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,

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