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,

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?



How to transition effortlessly between moves

You’re dancing along and suddenly you have a better idea. So you go with it. Then you have another. But that one’s not so good, so you switch to something else. Then another, and… It’s like a bad dream. In a spit second you are trapped in your head, worrying and thinking. How can we transition gracefully between moves during improv?

Structure, Timing, and Relaxation


Music has structure. Even a taqsim with no rhythm has structure. We make our transitions in accordance with this structure. We make them between the phrases. Between the measures. This is why we listen to so much music, so we can intuit the structure. This is why we want to know our songs, so we have an idea of when the changes come. It’s fun to dance blind to music we never heard before, but it’s all the listening we have done in the past allows us to do this.

Where is the most organic place to change? Every song, every section, every phrase, every beat has a beginning, middle, and end. There are verses and choruses, calls and repeats, rules  of 4, etc. And there is almost always a change at every 4 measures. That is the place to switch. (Some songs have 3 measure phrases, some two, and some have sections with longer phrases—it doesn’t matter.) The end of a phrase (or even a measure) is the best place to switch. You will always look in synch.

Timing (a quick lesson on music). So here comes the end of the phrase—what do you do? You switch on the and, usually between the 4 at the end of one measure and the 1 at the beginning of the next.

The rhythm can be broken down verbally to accommodate all these notes. For example, 1(and 2 and 3 and 4 and) 2(and 2 and 3 and 4 and) etc. In music, it’s often phrased thus: 1 a-and-a 2 a-and-a 3 a-and-a 4 a-and-a.

Music can have lots of notes per measure, but the base measure is usually 4 counts. (Most of our music is 4/4. There are many other time signatures—3/4 is waltz time, 9/8 is karsilama, etc, in which case the base count is different). Each count can also be divided up to fit many notes in the measure (see below for more).

Here’s the music for Ah Ya Zein. The horizontal lines show which note to play. The vertical lines show the demarcation between each measure.

Musical notation for Ah Ya Zein
Musical notation for Ah Ya Zein

 And here’s Ah Ya Zein in person. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C3tt_KvAz4o It’s being played as a 2/4. You can hear the ayyoub rhythm under the melody going dum, ka dum tek; dum, ka dum tek1 (a-and-), a2, and 1 (a-and-) a2 and. You would change on the final and (after the 2).

1 a-and








Here’s a maksoum beat: dum tek, tekka tek, dum tekka tek, (tekka). This translates to 1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and. 1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and. That last and is the place where you change.

















A drummer will often play that last bit of the phrase differently. He may play more or fewer beats, speed up or slow down—for he is also signaling the change to the rest of the musicians. And if there is to be a change in rhythm, he will signal that quite vigorously, often with a series of dums, as he has to adapt as well. Understanding the rhythm helps us feel this most basic structure of the music (the melody brings us to the higher levels of structure).

While you wait for the moment, relax. Relaxation is the key to everything. The more we get chased by worry and stress, the harder everything gets. When we feel stressed in dance, it’s time to slow down and start Rhythmic Breath. Breathe with the music and slow down. Whatever you are doing, no matter how fast the music, intentionally relax. Remember to enjoy yourself. This alone is radical.

When we are relaxed, suddenly everything is possible. Everything is easier. Everything is more enjoyable. When we slow down before a change, we get to see the change coming. The space around the change between phases opens up like sunny day. It becomes easy to pass through the change, even gracious.

As you find the spaces in the rhythm, you can change even more frequently. Try changing with every measure, every beat even, as in stop motion. Tribal fusion does this a lot, and it can make for some nice accents. But remember the melody, too. The rhythm is the most basic part of the music. The melody is a heavenly palace of textures and warm breezes to waft you along.

Watch out for getting too busy! Changing too often (even on the beat) wears everyone out, including the dancer. The music repeats—so can you. Take the time to explore and enjoy each section. People want to have a good time. When the dancer relaxes and enjoys herself, so can the people.

Take your time. Connect to the rhythm. Express the melody. Enjoy your dance.



Music: Here are some drum solos to play with the rhythm:


And here is some melody, Adaweya style: https://soundcloud.com/baraa_nabil2/sets/adaweya

And here’s a breakdown of how to read sheet music: http://readsheetmusic.info/readingmusic.shtml

Dunya’s Opening Sequence

Dunya McPherson developed Dancemeditation™, upon which our 90 Days practice is based, from Sufi dance, which has the same traditional movement vocabulary as belly dance. Here’s how she describes Dancemeditation™ :

Dancemeditation™ is a unique, integrated, embodied meditation system for self-discovery, healing, & evolution. Through the cultivation of embodied awareness and present-ness, we explore relationships between self-&-other, self-&-cosmos, self-with-Self, and self-to-the Divine Eternal, and ultimately dissolve relationship into non-duality, into One-ness. Dancemeditation™ links you to the deepest roots of human quest for spiritual understanding and Truth.

Dancemeditation™ proposes that your body is spiritual intelligence. Training focuses on listening to the body with curiosity and respect.  The practices develop trust and adeptness in this receptive process and can be practiced alone or with others.

Dancemeditation™ is Sufi dance enriched by Dunya’s incisive, deeply artistic winnowing of myriad potential connections. She weaves elements from poetry to science into a deceptively simple yet deeply complex system. And it’s real. Sufi dance, ancient pathway to the Divine, has the same movement vocabulary. It is the proof of our dance’s spirit core that we all feel. And Dunya’s the real deal—with decades of experience and experimentation, she is a Master. She teaches with silence more than most do with words.

You’ve seen the Opening Sequence in the trailer. Dunya’s voiceover instruction is clear and soothing. If you’d like to get more deeply into this more easily (and I very much recommend it), this link will get you there (and hey, it’s tax-deductible).

Opening Sequence, 8 mins, full routine with voiceover instruction. $5

  I want Opening Sequence! 

(Those interested in the full DVD (with the wonderful Sand Tracings material), or any of Dunya’s other excellent videos, online classes, etc, check out http://www.dancemeditation.org/product-category/dvds/).



Why Agriculturists Don’t Improvise

Why Agriculturists Don’t Improvise (and Hunter-Gatherers do)

I discovered Hunter-Gatherers in a college anthropology class. Finally, everything made sense. Hunter gatherers don’t seek to control their environment–they map it. They know where and when the best mushrooms grow–just like I knew the roll of tape was on the floor behind the bathroom door. And they don’t dig up those mushrooms and plant them outside the hovel, either. Just like I never bothered picking up the tape and putting it away. I knew where it was.

In stark contrast are the Agriculturists. Their prime motivation is control of their environment and reduction of risk. Those people would dig up every single mushroom and plant it in their own yard. They collect seeds and hoard them for the spring. They do everything the same way every time, because one slip and their crops might fail. Their world could be lost. So they are careful.

While the agriculturists hoard and plan, hunter gatherers hold feasts and eat up everything in sight. More food will turn up sooner or later. If it doesn’t, well, they will be hungry and put a lot more effort into finding food. It is a boom and bust cycle, one that capitalizes on the seasons, the earth’s bounty, and the vagaries of chance.

In a hunter-gatherer society, risk has value. Boldness, experimentation, and innovation are survival skills.

Agriculturists, however, hate risk. They hate change. They hate mess. They color inside the lines. They walk out on stage with an entire routine scotch-taped to the inside of their forehead.

The ags have taken over the world. They have amassed its riches. They have rejected and oppressed everyone who is different from them, or used those folks to advance their own ends. War is not fought by the old–they send the young to do that for them. They send the adventurers out on adventures, and then rake in the cash when one hits it good. Sure they lose sometimes, but they are calculated risks. And that’s the important difference.

In the field of oriental dance, the ags have come calling big time. They have colonized my beloved dance form with their choreographies, group dances, naming, and owning. I reject all that.

I understand the allure. It makes things easier, it is fun, yadda yadda. But there is a dark side. It destroys the creativity and agency of the student. It values copying over feeling, and perpetuates insecurity, shame, and hierarchy. It is “Strictly Ballroom” all over again.

I don’t stand for any of it.

I stand for creativity and self-expression grounded in traditional oriental dance values. I stand for becoming our true selves in dance and in life. I stand for letting go of limiting beliefs, trauma, and shame and entering into the fullness of our potential.

And there is hope.
Many of the Agiculturist traits are the result of how we are raised. Most people aren’t raised to be artists. They are not raised to trust that everything will work out. To just show up. To say YES.

It’s scary to let go, to seize the moment when you have to double check every decision of your life.

It is a leap of faith to leave the safety net and take the risk of improvisation.

It may be hard at first. Learning can feel uncomfortable and scary. But, but, but–when you hang in there and have faith, when you embrace the challenge, when you let yourself feel the wonder of the wind in your hair…

You can do it.

You can fly.

Fly with me .



How can slow movement improve technique?

How can slow movement improve technique?

When we whip through a move or combination at speed, when we do it the easy way, we limit our progress. We might cut corners, or miss small errors, particularly in areas that are difficult or in the outer fringes of our physical abilities. The circle isn’t really circular; the curve has a divot in that area where our hip has a little hitch. The little hunch in our shoulders, the glitch in our balance as we turn goes unnoticed.

Slow movement, movement at a speed Dunya describes as “glacial,” allows us to deeply inhabit every moment of the shape we create. We engage and focus our attention at each moment, feel intimately each tiny increment. Where we might skimp at normal speed, we can anticipate hitches, see them coming, and adjust our trajectory, slowing down even further, so we slip unobstructed through the straits.

When we go slowly enough, we are less likely to trigger pain, so we can complete the arc more graciously. When we find a trouble spot, we can hold it like a pose, motionless, while our bodies sort out balance, line, reaching like flowers for the light of openness and effortless lilt.

We also build myelin, the neural manifestation of skill. Myelin (skill) is an insulating substance that wraps neural circuits and grows according to certain signals (Coyle). And one of those signals is slowing things down. We learn faster and improve more quickly by slowing down. Myelin reinforces the neural pathways that we use—the definition of skills development. So whatever we do, that’s what gets reinforced. If we skimp, that’s what gets reinforced. If we make beautiful, elegant arcs, that’s what gets reinforced.

Breaking things into small chunks and practicing them out of sequence also builds myelin. Taking small, disconnected chunks of technique, feeling them deeply, inhabiting them, slowing them down, making them into a series of elegant poses, that reinforces those neural pathways. Doing the power poses regularly reinforces those neural pathways. And we need those certain signals. Doing things mindlessly doesn’t get us there. We need to be in the sweet spot at the edge of our abilities.

The brilliant thing about this practice is that we are always at the edges of our ability. We are always searching, discovering, intent, focused, spreading our feelers out from every inch of our consciousness. So don’t worry if this is hard. Hard means you are learning. It means you are building myelin. We focus now so we can let go later. We build skills now so that on stage, they will be there for us. Through effort, we attain effortlessness.



How to Fall Off the Stage (and how to get back up)

Vegas, baby

Yep, I fell off the stage at The Las Vegas Belly Dance Intensive.

I stepped back one time too many–and down I went. I knew it wasn’t too far, so I grabbed the curtains-and they went right down with me. It was an epic fail.

So what did I do? 

I jumped back up on the stage–laughing. “That’s going to look great on the video,” I said, and went on with my show.

Yes, I was lucky. It was only about 3 feet. I had already been back there, so I knew where I was going. It was Thursday night, so the audience was minimal. Yes, I could have asked them to stop the music. I could have started over. I didn’t feel like it. I just kept going.

And people loved it. Because I laughed and kept going.

And that was Vegas. Intense.

I had never been there before. I had never even been in a hotel as big, cheesy, or loud as the Flamingo. The line to check in was WAY over 50 people–and this was a Wednesday. It took 40 minutes. The lobby is a cross between an large airport shopping mall and a casino. Oh, wait–it IS a casino! Yes, slot machines clatter and jangle every moment.  The Strip is like Times Square on crack with slot machines. Every possible way of squeezing more money out of the marks is in overdrive. A coffee in the lobby costs $3. A banana is $2.75. For the first few days, I was in shock. I did not like Vegas. Not one bit.

Then I started to get the hang of it. I laughed and kept going.  I got to hang out with old friends–Nadira Jamal, Rosa Noreen, and Dhyanis among others. I got to see a show–Nadira and I went to see Cirque du Soleil. I got to meet cool people I know from FB–Treasure Marshall, Mahin from DBQ, and Ustadza Azra. My class went well and everyone was happy. I took some wonderful classes, in particular Jill Parker’s Dancing Warrior. And I saw some performances that totally, completely blew me away. Silvia Salamanca’s triple sword, a virtuosic display of excellence, Helena Vlahos’s gracious radiance, and the best thing I just about ever saw in my life, Nicole McLaren’s Sufi whirling piece–which garnered a standing ovation.

And everyone associated with the Intensive is adorable. Samira Tu’Ala is a doll. Now I know why everyone loves this event.

Overall, it was a helluva good time.


(And the fountains at the Bellagio are pretty cool, too.)





How I learned to Improvise Part II

How I learned to Improvise Part II

I’m reminded of a Dave Chapelle story—allegedly, he thought all the comics he saw just made up their stuff on stage—that they improvised. So that’s what he did, too. Yeah, he went out there and made stuff up, on the spot (his record is over 6 hours of straight improv).

Chapelle had no idea that most of the comics honed their material over weeks and months, often delivering the same show night after night in different venues. Impressive, huh?

It was the same way for me and dance. For one thing, I grew up in NYC during the 60s and 70s. The music scene was bursting with creativity and the great jam bands were very much an influence. The highly constructed, heavily produced music that we have today was unknown at the time.

These guys played all night—we left the Fillmore and the sun was coming up. Likewise in jazz and every other kind of popular music. We saw everyone, from Sun Ra and Pharaoh Sanders to Big Mama Thornton and Captain Beefheart, plus the Grateful Dead and the Allman Brothers, with Frank Zappa and Miles Davis for good measure. (We had great drugs, too—but don’t tell anyone). All this music begged for movement. It was a wild and crazy time!

I saw Zappa’s ensemble improvise an entire piece from a comic book. Yes, the musicians all had the comic book on their music stands. We, the audience, even had a role to play—we made some of the big sound effects—KA-RUNCH! Zappa conducted the comic book, and signaled us when it was our turn. (To see this show, I missed a high school band concert in which I was supposed to play. My band teacher never forgave me and later refused to write me a college recommendation. I still don’t regret it.)

Graffiti was reaching the heights of art. Catching the subway in the morning to a freshly-painted masterwork exhilarated all who experienced it. So much was going on everywhere.

So, to me, great art was improvised. When I started in Oriental dance, it was improvised as well. I had no dance training before I began belly dance, so I had no habits of choreography to unlearn. I remember hearing the ballet dancers in Bobby’s classes talking about how hard it was to relax the glutes. Not for me. I was 16 and tabula rasa.

Back in the day, there was a lot of live music in Oriental dance as well. And yes, all of it was improvised. The songs had a structure, but the musicians played what they felt. Heterophony (the musician’s license to ornament the notes and play around the melody) was in full force. Simple songs became elegant masterworks of ensemble feeling. Polyglot immigrant musicians drenched themselves in their love of their homelands, playing music together and celebrating this love with their audiences—and the lucky dancers who performed with them.

So this is where I come from, in the dance and the music. This is what has shaped my understanding. This is why I can do what I do—let the music in through my ears and transform it into movement with my body.

But it’s not the only reason. With live music I was great, but recorded music was another matter. I knew the zone existed, but with recorded music, I couldn’t reach it consistently. I did pretty well, but it was frustrating to so often feel locked in my thoughts and unable to meld with the music. And we have so much recorded music. It’s not the same thing at all. The brilliant process of discovery and collaboration the informs live music is dead and gone by the time it’s recorded.

Or is it? Like Dave, after a while, I needed more. 

Finding Dunya and Dancemeditation™ made all the difference in the world. Through Dunya’s Sufi practices, such as breathing in time with the music, I learned to open the door to the zone much more easily and consistently. Awareness of breath and an ability to go inside and find my space revolutionized my dance.

And there is even more. 

Tarab, according to Dr AJ Racy (a brilliant teacher, musician, and composer), is captured in recordings. It is still there. Maybe not as strong as it was during the live performance, and maybe not as intuitive on 34th hearing, but it is there. And this is what we have to do: Find music that speaks to us. Music that has soul, that continues to give us that love. Even if we know every note, we can still regain the feeling of grace the music contains. If it doesn’t move us, we don’t move to it. Look for heterophony. A lot of bands do not understand this principle. The music is empty. There is nothing but the melody—no ornamentation, no richness of interpretation and artistic feeling.

Favor the rich, nuanced, soul-filled songs and you will dance better, and enjoy it more.

Learn to find the zone. It is always there, and you can go there, even to recorded music.

Welcome to the joy!


Effortless Improv registration closes Sunday, Oct 19th….