Dance has played an integral part of my life. What a joy it is to be able to combine my career as an author, with my love of Middle Eastern dance. My new dance series combines my two loves.
The first novel in the Pharaoh's Daughter's series, "Dancing to a Different Drummer," is dedicated to students of the dance. The second novel, "Dancing in the Dark," is dedicated to instructors of the dance. My newest novel, "Dancing on Air," is dedicated to Middle Eastern belly dance performers, because they have exemplified the culture, history, beauty, elegance and drama of this exotic art form.
To dance on a stage, in a restaurant, club, a home, business, dance workshop, hafla, festival is an accomplishment. As a performer, a dancer is an educator, as well as an entertainer. The music, costuming, makeup, props and choreography reveal the different influences and aspects of this mysterious dance.
As someone who is a family-friendly professional belly dance performer, I know how it feels to be put on display. I’ve graced stages, danced regularly with a live band, performed singing telegrams, and entertained at private parties and events. Each situation is unique, and calls for a different skill. More than dance, a performance is part personality and part public relations. As a performer, you are representing the dance to the general public. You are the dance.
I also enjoy watching other dancers. Each dancer adds her own nuance to this ancient art form. Belly dance lends itself to individuality. No two dancers are, or should be, alike. Observing other dancers is also an education.
To the public, there is far more to belly dance than “shaking the booty.” Belly dancers are trained professionals, with a demanding skill set. Before performing, dancers have studied for years, and practiced for hours, just as in other forms of dance. If something looks easy, it’s not. A true professional just makes it look easy.
Belly dance is sensual, not sexual. It is mysterious and ancient. If you haven’t attended a live belly dance performance, please plan on it. You will be glad that you did.
" Mysterious belly dance instructor, Kemsit, transforms the lives of her students in the small town of Cairo.
Emily Brown begins a new job and a new life, and decides to take a chance on dance. Thanks to Kemsit, she changes from nerdy accountant into an exotic belly dancer.
Jordan Ramzy, co-worker of Emily’s and office hunk, keeps his private life separate from his job … until he gets to know Emily.
Kemsit’s studio brings the unlikely pair together. Will their cultural and religious differences keep them apart, or can they learn to dance to a different drummer?"
My dance journey actually began when I was a child, who dreamed of becoming a ballerina. I read every book I could find on ballet. My heroine was Anna Pavlova, the famous Russian ballet star. I sent for brochures from local dance studios, and begged my parents for lessons.
It was not to be.
My parents had one car, and my mother did not drive. Getting me to and from class would have been a problem. I said that I’d take the bus, but that was not an option. Finances also came into play, and dance classes seemed frivolous. Anything dealing with the arts was considered impractical, and a waste of time in our home.
When I turned eighteen, and had my driver’s license, and an automobile, I signed up for adult ballet lessons. I enjoyed them, though it was bittersweet when the instructor told me that I had an amazing foot turnout, and would have been a wonderful ballerina.
I saw that Middle Eastern belly dance was being offered through a local adult continuing education program. Since I had the goal of learning at least two new skills a year, I signed up. My other skill that year was figure skating, and I thought that I’d be the first belly dancing figure skater!
My first teacher was local legend, Katina. Katina learned belly dance from cabaret dancers, and was featured at clubs in Cleveland’s old Greektown. She was an old school cabaret dancer who had led a very full, and fast life. When I studied with her, she was married with infant twins, and worked with her husband. She was very “real life,” and talented.
My studies continued with another local legend, actress and dancer, Basha. I thought that she was mesmerizing, and her class fun. Her warm-up song was a man singing about his wife the dancer, and how she would do the “bump, bump, the bumpity bump.” I instantly fell in love with belly dance. It was so natural, so exotic and marvelous exercise. One didn’t need experience to dance, and age wasn’t a factor.
I absorbed belly dance. A highlight during the early years was taking a workshop with famous Armenian musician, Eddie “The Sheik” Kochak, and watching the professional dancers perform at a show.
My love of belly dance continued. When I couldn’t find a local teacher, I studied with VHS tapes. My favorite inspiration was Delilah from Seattle. Her series of tapes covered it all, including Turkish drops, and coin tricks. I became Nailah (“success” in Egyptian Arabic), my dancer alter ego.
Time moved on, and new instructors appeared. I studied with a variety of them. I attended workshops, and eventually became a member of a performing dance troupe Dayim Lahib (“Eternal Flames”). We performed a two-hour show at a local Moroccan restaurant. We danced a few group numbers and solos. This experience introduced me to the world of entertainment: dank basement “dressing rooms,” working with drummers, dealing with the public and how the show must go on. I loved it!
The troupe fell apart, and the opportunity to teach came up at a local ballet studio. I found another love, instructing new students, and helping women discover their inner genie.
Through the years, I taught at numerous dance studios and fitness centers, was accepted to instruct at the prestigious Chautauqua Institution in New York State for over a decade. I danced before their Dance Circle, the first non-ballet performer to do so, appeared in an advertising campaign, was profiled in The Chautauquan Daily, and was a guest on Jamestown radio. I continued performing at special events, workshops and danced with a local Celtic-World Music band, UZIZI. While traveling in Egypt, I danced on a Nile River cruise ship.
As an author, I combined dance with writing, as the local and national Belly Dance Examiner, an online newspaper. Later, I wrote for Bellydance Superstars’ magazine, and other dance publications.
The idea to write a book on dance, in conjunction with a fictional series entered my mind. I let my imagination take hold, and Pharaoh’s Daughters was born. This is the first book in an ongoing series. Available exclusively on Amazon.
I hope that these books inspire you in many ways. My desire is that you will be motivated to attend a Middle Eastern belly dance class. Go release your inner genie …
Life stood still. This is what I will remember after this long pause due to the COVOD 19 Coronavirus the insidious pandemic.
Living in fear, obeying stay-at-home orders and cancelling plans and life events has become the new normal. Wearing face masks and gloves have become the new fashion. Paranoia over people and places has become the new mental state.
This pandemic has taken a lot of the human out of humanity. Social distancing keeps you away from friends and loved ones. Home is the refuge and safety zone. Sadly, there is no set end in sight. As a dancer, it has upended my life.
Spring brings me out of winter hibernation, and is a harbinger of things to come. This would have been my second week of instructing group dance classes locally. July would have been my 13th year instructing dance at the prestigious Chautauqua Institution on New York State. This annual dance working vacation had been anticipated all winter. Wasn’t it bad enough that I had to cancel my private students? These student friends brought me weekly joy. How can one instruct dance wearing a mask, and keeping a social distance of over six-feet? Dance involves interaction and energy. My calendar has a huge void. I feel empty.
I often wonder if I will ever instruct and dance publicly again. Being an older dancer, this is becoming more of a reality. Scientists are predicting that this virus will rules our lives until 2022. A two-year interruption is a long time.
I mourn the loss of teaching and performing dance. I am saddened by not being able to share the joy. I grieve over not going back to my ‘happy place,” the Chautauqua Institution. I fear that life will never be the same.
Dance hasn’t left me, but I have been forced to leave the dance.
The popularity of belly dance ebbs and flows with the times.
Without the popularity of Shakira and others promoting the music and dance of the Middle East, with a political climate biased against anything Middle Eastern and a puritanical stance taking hold of the country, belly dance seems to be waning among the public.
Ten years ago, belly dance classes were overflowing, and clubs featuring dancers were growing. Times have changed.
The number of belly dance classes being offered seems to have dwindled. The demand for belly grams and dance performances has quieted. Regular dancing venues are few and far between. Even Arabic clubs seem to be hiring fewer dancers. I've noticed this scarcity, even with popular dancers not working or leaving the profession.
Sure, the diehard students and dancers will continue to attend workshops and seminars, though I notice a decline in the number of these as well, as the market appears to be shrinking.
It seems that as the country isolates itself, it is losing its melting pot of cultures. Sadly, Middle Eastern dance is falling by the wayside.
"Those who can, can. Those who can't, teach."
I have heard this remark more times than I dare to count. I don't know who created it, but it's wrong. In order to be a competent instructor, one really has to have the experience of doing. Without study and experience, one is not qualified to teach. This is true for every field and every instructor.
My teaching journey began with my first Middle Eastern dance lesson. That was in the 1980's with local legend, Katina, through an adult education class. After high school, I made a pact with myself to learn at least two new skills a year. It's something that I continue to follow. Belly dance was a new skill. I loved it from the "get go." I took as many classes as I could with different teachers. My inspiration was Basha, another local legend who performed in Greektown, appeared on television and danced bellygrams. She was the first teacher who urged me to perform. I was shy, though, and it took years before I had the nerve to do so.
After, there was a dry spell of local teachers. I resorted to VHS tapes, and probably wore out Delilah of Seattle's instructional tapes. When local teachers and workshops began to sprout up, I became a live student again. Classes with one teacher culminated in the formation of a dance troupe. I finally danced in public with the troupe and as a soloist. My confidence grew.
Alas, the troupe experience ended on a bitter note, and I took time off from dance. Two years later, I started at the beginning, taking beginner classes. I advanced, and my instructor asked me why I wasn't teaching. At a local business seminar, I connected with a dance studio owner. When I told her about my dance experience, she asked me if I'd like to teach. I took her up on her offer.
Teaching at this dance studio led to many engagements. I found a niche that I loved. At one point, ten years ago, I was instructing nine classes a week at multiple venues, and directed a performing dance troupe. This led to my instructing and performing at the Chautauqua Institution and other places. I even danced with a local Celtic-World Music band, a highlight of my dance career. I have performed at many private events and have danced (and sang) bellygrams. During it all. I still studied at workshops, classes or through media.
Dance, for me, was never a full-time job, as I am a multi-published writer-author by day. However, it is like breathing. Dance is something I have to do, even if just for myself.
As I've grown older, I have limited my teaching to private students and select group classes. I also perform less, as professional performers are preferred to be younger.
"Those who pay their dues, teach." I teach because I love introducing women to the dance. There is nothing more exciting than seeing a new group of women, particularly a new generation, discovering the joy of belly dance. Their joy brings back the joy I felt when I first began.
"A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step." This is my favorite aphorism. May you take that first dance step.
PS: The Boa Constrictor is a new friend. :-))
College professors have been known to take a six-month sabbatical. It’s a way for them to regroup, explore, research and write. What about dancers?
Life, especially as one gets older, has a way of interfering with art. I am at that stage.
For the past six months, I’ve had to step away from dance due to family circumstances. Having a husband who has chronic health issues, a disabled dog, eye surgery and an elderly mother, my life has been hijacked.
The biggest interruption was having to place my mom into skilled nursing after a round of hospitals and physical rehab. Dealing with hospitals, rehab, skilled nursing, attorneys, Medicaid, city hall, house clean-out, real estate agents and family was daunting and time-consuming.
Finally, as winter breaks into spring, I’m beginning to sprout back to life.
Issues remain, but are not as intense. I’m literally seeing things more clearly. There is light at the end of the tunnel.
In April, I’m back to instructing dance locally and am back to Chautauqua to instruct in August. I have a month to whip myself back into dancer mode.
There’s nothing wrong with new beginnings.
Age is preferred when it comes to fine wine and cheese. However, when it comes to belly dancers … Not.
American society is enchanted with youth and beauty, particularly when it pertains to women. Fashion models lose bookings and actresses lose leading roles once they hit thirty. My husband’s friends who are well over sixty, proudly state that they would never date a woman over thirty-five. One had the audacity to tell me that after that age, women fall apart and are old hags. Alas, all a man has to show is a wallet full of cash and his looks are irrelevant. Just look at rock stars, movie idols and wealthy men. They keep trading in their wives for younger and younger models.
Ageism hit me in the face on a classic belly dancer Facebook loop. Younger dancers began to troll and told me that my opinions didn’t count because I was old and irrelevant. This opened a firestorm of conversation between generations. When was one too old to belly dance?
In the United States, it appears that one has to be under the age of thirty-five to perform in restaurants, clubs and hookah bars. Those venues prefer young, thin, buxom women. Dance experience is considered secondary. Private parties and singing telegrams offer a little bit of leeway, but not much. It’s all about youth, beauty and glamour. Thus, older dancers are relegated to non-paying haflas and festivals. Instructors may be older, as they are viewed as having experience and knowledge to share with the young. Yes, the older dancers teach the next generation. I do find that "six-week wonders" are taking over instructing at local dance and fitness centers, with youth preferred over experience.
When in Egypt, the top dancers were over forty and some even older are revered and respected. In Europe, older women are respected. In the United States, older women are ridiculed and put out to pasture. It doesn’t matter if your figure is better than most twenty-somethings and that you look good. A youthful beauty will win over experience any day.
What is an older dancer to do? Sell your costumes and hang up your cane? Train your daughters to carry on for you? Instruct and dance for free at haflas and festivals?
(The photograph is from the first pageant, Christmas Eve, 1996)
The only thing certain in life is change …
Last December, my blog post told the story of my “llama mama” duty at the annual live animal Christmas pageant at the First Baptist Church of Greater Cleveland.
Here is the link:
This year, for the first time, I will not be leading the llama during the majestic procession of the Three Kings during the pageant. I changed churches and opened a new chapter in my life.
This Christmas Eve will be bittersweet, as none of the founders of the pageant will be present to participate. Somehow, as in a death, life does go on. I will miss the fun, the Christmas spirit, the people and most of all, the llama.
I have many fond memories. During an early pageant, the donkey was stubborn and would not join Mary and Joseph up the ramp to the manger scene set up in front of the Sanctuary. The senior minister, acting as pageant narrator, left the pulpit to literally push the donkey’s behind up the ramp to laughter. He had been raised on a farm and understood animals. There was a sheep who kept ba’aing during the soprano’s solo. And, I can’t forget the poor shepherd who had a lamb douse him with urine and the poor man was wet and reeking after the event. There were children who dangerously climbed under a massive camel and had to be urged out lest they be trampled. So many stories …
One year I had a young llama I had been warned to be in the habit of sitting and not budging at inopportune moments. Yes, he did it midway down the aisle. As directed, I used the front of my foot to pry up his rear end to get him up and moving again. Contrary to what some audience member’s thought, I did not nor would I ever kick him. Once, I carried a baby llama in my arms down the aisle, a 25-pound armful of fluff. I also had a two-year old llama race me up the aisle and I had to hold on and rein him in. One was belligerent and spat at an overhead light while we were awaiting our cue. Adolescent male llamas can be quite a handful. I had led several generations of a llama family through the years. Overall, llama’s are gentle, sweet, affectionate and behave like overgrown dogs. Audience members and even some church members assumed that I owned and raised the llamas, since I managed them so well. I guess that my love and understanding of animals came through.
I did have some weird incidents. People can be stupid. Years ago, we used to stand in the back of the church after the pageant to allow children to pet the animals. I was once standing with two-year old male llama when a young man approached holding his toddler. Instead of petting the llama, as I had expected, the man smacked it across the face. I was livid and asked him what he would do if I smacked him? It was unbelievable. Pageant participants also did not understand llamas and I had to keep urging children to back off and not sit or stand behind the llama. They wouldn’t listen when I told them that llamas are used to guard sheep because coyotes and wolves wouldn’t go near. Why? Because, a llama can kick so hard as to kill a predator in a single kick. Also, I had to make sure there was room to move. Llamas do not like to stand still and are restless. Walking in circles is the only way they could be kept occupied during the pageant. I hope that the new llama tender reads up on them before taking the position or there will be serious problems. Animals are not predictable.
Alas, my Christmas Eve will be different. No getting glamorous for the pageant and rushing to the church. No llama duty and pageantry. No scurrying after the service to grab dinner before the 11p.m. contemplative service. This year will be different. Quiet. Very different.
The legacy I helped create with founding minister Rev. Dr. Jim Cowin, and the late Vi Gore will live on. It’s gratifying to know that the event has been a resounding success with children and adults alike. May the pageantry continue.
God bless everyone!
Have a very Merry Christmas!
A new term and cause has entered the American belly dance community. Controversy is nothing new. However, this time it involves those within and not outside of the belly dance community. It is “cultural misappropriation.”
Political correctness is being promoted to the populace and this new form is being discussed in the dance community. Now, I’m observing that the classic American Cabaret style, popularized in the 1960’s and 1970’s is now under attack.
It’s not authentic. I’ve read that this style is insulting, inappropriate and disrespectful to those of Arabic heritage. All of a sudden, non-Arabic women performing less than a 100% authentic Middle Eastern folk dance are not politically correct. The criticism is often aired by American dancers who are not of Arabic descent, representing a culture that is not even theirs.
Dancers like me, who have performed American Cabaret for over thirty years should not be dancing. We are shaming another culture. Excuse me? This is “American” Cabaret, a style created and performed in the United States, a melting pot of the world. Are you telling me that if it didn’t originate in the country of my birth or from my ethnicity that it is wrong?
So, only Arabic, Turkish, Greek and the like the only people allowed to instruct and perform Middle Easter dance? If so, I suppose that only those from France should dance ballet, only those from Argentina can tango, those from Spain dance flamenco, native Hawaiians hula, and Indians perform Bollywood.
There is a movement promoting “cultural misappropriation” chastising white people for wearing dreadlocks and braids, non-American Indians wearing fringe, non-Japanese wearing kimonos and the like. We are approaching Halloween that must drive zealots crazy with all of the “culturally inappropriate” costumes.
Let’s take this concept a step further. It would only be right that only those of Chinese heritage eat Chinese food, only the Japanese dine on sushi, only Italians enjoying pizza and pasta, Arabs having pita and hummus and the like.
What about music? Members of symphony orchestras can only play music that is part of their heritage. Forget it if you are not Austrian, German or Russian! Opera? Unless you are Italian forget it!
This is getting out of hand! Lighten up, people! My American-style American Cabaret dance is not threatening or degrading you. It is just a form of entertainment that has been performed in this country for decades. The blending of cultures makes this country special and free.
Why not ban everything that may hurt a person’s feelings? Fashion, style and entertainment in America are an amalgam of many cultures. What do you want, a homogenized society devoid of individualism? Are you aiming for a uniform society where everyone and everyone must reside in their own little ethnic circle lest they upset someone outside of it? Heaven forbid should a person’s feelings be hurt! Do you want to live in a bubble-wrap society?
How far is “political correctness” and “cultural misappropriation” going to go? How far is too far?
Breasts have been glorified and vilified throughout history. They nurse babies, enhance sex and can cause angst or pride. They have been bound and enhanced, hidden and flaunted. They have been scarred and tattooed. They are the sign of womanhood.
There has been a great deal of lively discussion lately in belly dance circles about how the breasts have become the focus of the dance. Bra tops have become skimpier and thanks to augmentation, breasts have ballooned larger. More dancers are seeking out plastic surgery to further their career and generate more income.
Yes, breasts have always played a role in the dance. Dancers have overly padded their bras and added loads of fringe to highlight them, especially for shimmy emphasis. However, there seems to be a blatant sexualization of breasts. Bigger has been deemed better.
Famous dancers like Dina and Didem have undergone surgery to make their assets more pronounced to further their careers in male-dominated cultures. Younger dancers consider augmentation just another costume accessory. Is it society? In the United States, the most requested present for high school graduation by young women are breast implants. Jessica Simpson has credited her career to such enhancement. The Kardashians promote their augmented bodies. Even newscasters flaunt tight, low-cut tops to accentuate cleavage.
Men have always appreciated big breasts. Ask any man about “tits and ass” (T&A) and “Tall and Top Heavy (T&T).” When asked, they don’t care if they are natural or fake.
Back to dance. A trim and fit figure has always seemed to be the dance ideal, especially the classic hourglass shape. However, the emphasis was always on the dance. The dance was the cake, the costume, hair and make-up the frosting. Boobs were the decoration. These days, youth, beauty and a big rack seem to be more important. If it includes dance ability, so be it.
Funny, in other more acceptable forms of dance, big breasts are not the ideal. Ballet dancers and modern dancers are actually less endowed. The topless dancers in the Moulin Rouge, Folies Bergere and Las Vegas are about a 34B. Firm and tight look better in topless dance routines.
Belly dance, however, has embraced the boob. American dancers cite Egypt as the cause of the trend. After all, the most famous dancers in Egypt are well-endowed. They also started the skimpy bra and costume trend, fake eyebrows and an overabundance of makeup. It is what audiences want and if they want to work, they oblige.
I personally don’t know if this is good or bad. In Middle Eastern and Muslim culture, belly dancers are viewed as the equivalent of high-class whores. You may watch them perform and admire them but just don’t marry one or have one as a sister! Is this the image we want to project?
Young women are embracing and flaunting big boobs, fake or real as a means of career and personal life enhancement, not just in dance. After all, an ample bustline opens doors.
I have an issue with this. As a young women, I was on the edge of the women’s liberation movement when women fought hard to stop being objectified and to be accepted as equals to men on the job and in human rights. I see society as going backward. Young women seem to be all-so-willing to be viewed as sex objects instead of intelligent beings. Their role models exemplify this sexualized culture. Just look to popular music, film and reality television. Is it no wonder that they are bringing blatant sexuality to belly dance? Men are the producers, the club owners. Is it any wonder that sex sells?
To me, when a dancer performs, her whole being, body and persona are brought to the dance. When her cups runneth over, all eyes are drawn to the breasts. I see the dance being secondary to her cleavage. As a dancer, do you really want to be known for huge breasts or as a talented dancer? Have you spent years of study and money spent (at least I hope you are educated in the dance) and years of experience just to be remembered for your breasts? Maybe you do (shrug).
Belly dance is sensual. It is a tease, a flirtation. I liken it to a high-neck, long sleeve clingy knit evening gown with a thigh-high slit. It hints, but leaves a great deal to the imagination. It has an aura of mystery. It leaves you wanting more. Sexual, on the other hand is like a skimpy braless halter-top, cheeky hot pants and high-heel spiked shoes. It’s in your face. It leaves nothing to the imagination. I prefer sensual.
Sensual is also family-friendly. When I see overflowing bra tops at fairs and festivals during the day with young children present, I cringe. Is this how I want to see the dance I perform and stand up for represented? Quite frankly, I’m embarrassed. Just as I look down upon dancers who shimmy their boobs in a man’s face or bump and grind in front of him. What’s next, a belly dance, lap dance?
I have encountered this new ideal. I have turned down dance gigs when asked my breast size. I have been told that it’s Uncle Harry’s birthday and he’d love a busty dancer shake them in his face, among other requests. No!
Yes, I am wondering what the future holds for this ancient art form that played homage to Mother Earth, to fertility, reproduction and childbirth. It was a dance by and for women, passed down from generation to generation. It is a dance celebrating the feminine and the power of women. It is the mother of all other dance forms.
Yet, it is losing its luster. The decline began with Vaudeville. While some younger dancers embrace the past and the historical folk aspect of the art form, others are changing it into something totally unrecognizable with the “anything goes” mentality. Others are turning it into a tawdry peep show.
Call me old-fashioned, but I liked the Classic 1970’s style of belly dance. Was it authentic? Not really. It was an American Cabaret style. However, it was a dance with a dictionary of moves, a skill set and sensuality. Yes, the costumes were a bit naughty, but sex wasn’t the focus. “Tit-illation” wasn’t the focus.
Dignity, self-respect and reputation are important to me. They should be to you. It’s not all about you and the present. You are a dance role model for future generation. Do you want to be known for your 46 D-D-D’s or for your dance ability?
Sorry, I prefer that my IQ be larger than my bra size!
Oh, I’m not a prude. My dance nickname was “Seductress.” ;-)
Ahlan Wa Sahlan! Welcome to my world of Middle Eastern belly dance! it is a mystical place where the ordinary becomes the extraordinary. Magic happens. Like the exotic tales of Scheherazade, Nailah has her won insights and adventures to share.