Sunday, October 30, 2011


We weren’t expecting to get another kitty.

My boyfriend James and I were still completely inconsolable over the disappearance of Blondie, a beautiful tabby “teenager” cat who had vanished a few months before.

I was on tour teaching and performing in the UK when I heard the awful news, and was totally heartbroken for many reasons. I absolutely adored Blondie- she was a loving cuddle-puss who had been born on my bed to Sphinxie, a young, feral tabby tuxedo whom we had recently managed to tame.

Coincidentally, Blondie’s birth had taken place when I was on tour in the UK the year before. That fact alone made her disappearance seem so utterly horrible and surreal that I could hardly comprehend it… there was just something eerie –and terribly finite- about the fact that I was in the same country with the same sponsor when the two most significant events in Blondie’s short life occurred.

Every time James called to give me an update-and none of them were good- the pain in his voice was breaking my heart. Though he loved all our cats, Blondie was his favorite- he had delivered her when Sphinxie was giving birth, and since day one, he and Blondie had been bonded as if by super-glue. She was his little baby, he doted on her shamelessly. A big gruff-looking man, he would sing her lullabies as she fell asleep nestled under his arm in a little tent he had created from the bedclothes.

Apparently, what had happened was: Blondie had woken up in the middle of the night, and somehow knocked over my shamadan, which had been stored on a high shelf. The noise and clattering spooked her, and she ran outside…. never to be seen again. A few days later, James chased a huge coyote out of our fenced yard, something that had never happened before, but it was an ominous sign.

In England, I felt totally powerless over the situation, and I was so sad, just overcome with grief and guilt. I felt I was at fault because I wasn’t there to help look for Blondie or put up signs in the neighborhood, because it was my candelabra that had set off the chain of events, and also that I sometimes even wished that this had happened to one of our other cats, grimly thinking that I would have be able to handle it better- James was so disconsolate that I was seriously afraid he would fall into a depression and might never recover. I’d be in the middle of teaching a workshop in London, or in between sets at a show in Leeds, and run into the bathroom to weep for a few seconds, before wiping away my tears, stepping outside and acting cheerful and “normal”.

Months after Blondie had gone missing, we were still checking all the Los Angeles shelters for her- just in case. We would see a blurry pound picture online and then drive thirty miles to the facility just to be certain that it wasn’t Blondie.

So there we were, on a warm October afternoon at one of the worst and most over crowded animal shelters in Los Angeles. We had to walk by the “feline pediatric room” to get to the part of the building where they had posted the pages with photos of newly inducted animals. The pediatric room was maybe one of the most wrenching things I’d ever seen, and I had seen plenty of sad things in shelters.

The cages took up the entire room, stacked from the floor almost to the ceiling, and they were full of young cats- pairs of identical, scruffy adolescent siblings that looked like book-ends, proud mothers with full litters of nursing babies, and small, terrified single kittens who’d crammed themselves into the corners of their enclosures, trying to disappear. As we tried not to take in this hopeless sight, we heard a crazy, high pitched, urgent howling.

Directly at our eye level, in a bare metal cage, was a tiny little striped kitten, all by herself. Her face pressed against the bars as she stuck her arms out of the cage, extended straight out, claws unsheathed as she grabbed at the air wildly. For some reason, her cage door was unlocked. My boyfriend reached in and scooped her into his arms, and her howling immediately abated as she snuggled into the space between his neck and shoulder. She began purring immediately, but it sounded asthmatic and congested.

She was dirty and very sick, with matted fur, her ears were full of fleas, and one side of her nose was almost completely taken up by an open sore that was oozing pus, an injury that had obviously come from her smashing her face into the cage bars, in an attempt to free herself. Her eyes were crusty and running, and there was dried, yellow mucous caked around her nostrils.

We put the miniscule kitten back into her cage, and we could hear her wailing all the way down the hallway as we adjourned to the parking lot to have a serious conference about whether or not we could take her on. Our other cats ranged in age from two to seventeen years; one was a diabetic and one was starting to grow senile. Our cat food and vet bills were staggering, and we were both still traumatized about Blondie. Plus, this kitten seemed gravely ill, and in our small house, there was no place to guarantee her safe quarantine if whatever she had was contagious.

James then dropped a bomb: he told me he had seen the kitten the previous week, when I was away on yet another workshop weekend. He had debated internally about adopting her then, but hadn’t mentioned it to me because she was ill; but he added, she had not appeared nearly as seriously sick as she was now. She was dying. Amidst us both crying and arguing the pros and cons, we decided to take her.

We went up to the shelter’s front desk, waited in a long line, and then gave the woman behind the counter the kitten’s cage number, saying we wanted to adopt her. It took forever for the worker to look up the kitten’s paper work, but finally she came back, and with the lackadaisical, contemptuous delivery that only a government worker can muster, she said,

“You can’t adopt her, she’s only three weeks old, and they have to be eight weeks old and spayed.”

Resolute in our decision, I waved the cash for the adoption fee and answered happily,

“ Oh, that’s OK, we’ll just pay for her now and get her when she’s old enough!”

The woman looked at me condescendingly and stated,

“ We don’t do that… Besides, that whole room is being put down tomorrow, they’re all sick.”

Horrified at what I was hearing- the entire room was going to be exterminated- I almost yelled,

“But she doesn’t have to die! We’re pet owners- we want her! We’ll give her a good home, love and take care of her! We’ll give her medicine, and when she’s better, we’ll get her spayed when she’s old enough!”

The woman put her hands on her hips and rolled her eyes before turning her back as a way of wordlessly dismissing me.

I was unable to comprehend the notion that the shelter would rather let a cat die than bend the rules a bit and hope that things might turn out well if they took a gamble by letting someone adopt a small, sick, “underage” kitten.

“Is there a vet here?” I inquired politely, “Can I please see the vet?”

The woman went about her business, wholly ignoring me. Beginning to get infuriated with the situation, I started yelling, repeating like an obnoxious parrot,


After about three minutes of my loud, rhythmic and repetitive chanting, the woman glared at me as though she’d like nothing better than to stab me. She picked up the phone, and covering it with her hand, hissed something into the receiver.

A lot of time went by, and we were beginning to think that perhaps a veterinarian wasn’t even on the premises.

After a while, I heard a thickly accented man’s voice asking,

“Yes, Madame, may I help you?”

If this was the vet, I thought, I’d better act quickly and show that I am a very responsible human being! But before I could think of what exactly it was that I was going to say, I realized that something sounded awfully familiar about the inflection in this guys’ voice, and for a second, I couldn’t place what it was…it just seemed as though I had heard this voice many times before.

Looking up slowly, the first thing I saw was nice shoes-doctor shoes- and a lab coat…it was, indeed the vet. He was holding a sheaf of papers in his hand, hopefully the kitten’s records. The next thing I focused on was his piercing hazel eyes. He repeated his question, and then it hit me- suddenly I knew why the doctor’s voice sounded so familiar!

Without even thinking, I blurted out,


Obviously a little taken aback by this question, the vet answered,

“Yes, I am Egyptian!” He regarded me curiously before asking,

"Why? How you know I am Egyptian- are YOU Egyptian?”

“No,” I answered, sure now that my prayers for this little cat would be answered,

“ But I go to Egypt all the time!” As an afterthought, I added in Arabic, “ Ana Ra’khassah- raks sharqi!”

When he heard that I was a belly dancer, his eyebrows flew up in surprise. Admittedly, I certainly didn’t look like a belly dancer… I was wearing sweatpants, my hair was in a sloppy bun, I had my glasses on and it was pretty obvious I’d been crying. I looked like a bag lady- no, I looked like shit!

I fumbled in my purse for a business card, handed it to him, and he looked at it in disbelief.

“This is you?” he questioned, staring at the card.

“Yes, it’s me! I usually look better than this….hey, do you like Om Kalthoum?”

The moment I mentioned her name, he seemed to melt, a trait that is, after all the years since her death, still common among Egyptians.

“Oh, Farhaaaaaana”, he said, drawing out the syllables of my name luxuriously,

“I looooove Om Kalthoum,” he declared passionately.

This lead to a ten-minute discussion about Abdel Halim Hafez, Farid Al Atrache, Dina, Lucy, Mohammaed Abdel Wahab, and our favorite current pop songs. Finally, I couldn’t stand the suspense any longer, not that I wasn’t enjoying our conversation. Leaning in close to the vet’s ear, I whispered,

“So, listen, I really really want this cat…”

He glanced over her papers, smiled conspiratorially, and announced,


As James, who had been left out of the conversation entirely,stared in amazement, the vet began scribbling down some completely insane, implausible excuse as to why the cat wasn’t actually three weeks old, and also that she was too sick to have gotten spayed.

“She looks like an Egyptian cat”, I pointed out.

“Yes, she looks 100% Egyptian!” the vet declared, commanding us to wait where we were for a few moments.

Presently, he returned with the kitten, a certificate for a free spay, and a weeks worth of antibiotics in pre-measured droppers. We signed the papers, and suddenly, we had a new cat.

As she rode home in a makeshift cat carrier-ok, it was a shoebox from my trunk– we decided to ask our elderly neighbor if the kitten could stay at her house until her respiratory infection cleared, so our other cats wouldn’t catch it.

As I looked over the baby’s paperwork, I discovered she had been named “Bella” at the shelter. I was absolutely sure she’d been given that name by one of the sullen, teenage volunteers they had there- kids who were working off their juvenile offenses by doing community service. It was pretty clear that some “Twilight”-obsessed, sixteen-year-old gang chick had named the kitten Bella, after Kristen Stewart’s role in the vampire film.

I was about to suggest we change the kitten’s name, until I thought of one of my favorite belly dance costume designers, Bella of Istanbul!

That night, James stayed in our neighbor’ guest room, with the baby on his chest, wheezing and sneezing until it got light out. He said that at one point, he’d been afraid she wouldn’t make it, but she had- and she grew stronger every day.

A week later, as little Bella tore around the bed pouncing on things that weren’t there, my phone rang.

It was the vet, asking how Bella was doing. When I told him she had stopped sneezing, gained some weight and was looking fluffy and alert and that her nose was healing up well, he sighed,

Hamdalillah!” which means “Thank God” in Arabic.

That was a year ago.

Bella is now a sleek adult, long, elegant and lean. She still has the giant ears she had as a kitten, and when she sits a certain way, she really does look like an Egyptian statue. Her nose has a small scar from her wound, but she is gorgeous, with glossy fur covered in crazy, circular tabby whorls. She and Sphinxie are best friends, and the other cats love her too. She is the light of our lives…and strangely enough, she also shares many of Blondie’s unique personality traits, which makes James and I wonder if somehow, all of this was meant to be.

Please consider adopting your next pet from a shelter!

Photos: Bella as a kitten; Bella now

Monday, October 24, 2011


It’s been about two weeks since MECDA Professional Dance Conference And Retreat.
This was not a “regular” dance workshop weekend; actually, there were no dance classes at all. It was more like Business College for belly dancers who were about to turn pro, or professionals who wanted to up their game. The first event of it’s kind in the belly dance community; this event is something that has been needed for quite some time. Most dancers are taught everything they need to know physically and kinetically, but there seems to be a huge lack of general awareness on how to conduct your artistic career as a business.

I would have actually written about this marvelous event sooner, but in truth I’ve been kind of too overwhelmed by the sheer volume of information that was shared at the event…consequently, I’ve also been too busy putting in to action everything I learned there!

There were lectures and classes covering a wide variety of material, and all of them were designed to assist dancers in reaching their career goals and increasing their income by improving promotional skills, running classes and troupes efficiently, learning cost-effective production tools, using social media for branding and marketing, preventing injury, negotiating for gigs and so much more.

Aside from myself, the teachers were: Zahra Zuhair, Julie Eason of The Belly Dance Business Academy, Angelika Nemeth, Amara, Devilla, Nadira Jamal, and Mesmera. Penny Collins held private coaching sessions, each day began with Lori Edwards guiding participants through an early morning yoga session, and photographer Lee Corkett of Weathervane Studios was on hand for those who wanted to book a full professional photo session.

The scheduling was done so that all of the classes repeated at different times, making it possible for those who were teaching to attend the classes that were scheduled concurrently. This was an awesome feature from an instructor’s point of view- at most events, many of the teachers don’t get a free moment to take any other classes, even though we would always like to.

I was particularly excited to take Julie Eason’s classes. Her online Belly Dance Business Academy is a fabulous resource, and she is a wealth of information!

The Conference was held at the lovely Hyatt Resort in Newport Beach, CA. The spacious rooms were spotless, the staff laid back and friendly, and there was a luxury spa on the premises. The workshops were mostly conducted in the conference rooms surrounding a beautiful garden patio, which also was where the meet and greet was held the first evening, under twinkling lights strung through the trees. The mixer was a great way for everyone to break the ice and get to know each other. The invited guests of honor were Mher Panossian of Hollywood Music Center, Suzy Evens of IAMED, popular dancer Heather Shoopman, and the legendary Harry Saroyan mingled with participants and shared their insights into the business side of belly dance.

From the meet and greet right on through to the Instructors Q&A on the morning of departure, I can’t even begin to describe the wealth of knowledge that was shared not just in the classrooms, but over dinner and drinks,on beds in hotel rooms, or at one of the three swimming pools, or the twenty five- person - capacity Jacuzzi, which was always chock full of belly dancers! Every night, the hot tub was crowded with women, sharing wine, sharing ideas, and on one occasion busting into a spontaneous belly dance water ballet!

In addition to the late-night Jacuzzi gab-fests, there was also plenty more time to have fun and to relax. There were many Conference attendees-only activities,including a beach bonfire with S’mores, a drum circle and a breathtaking fire performance by Luna Moon. The instructors all performed in a beautiful outdoor amphitheater located on the premises, equipped with professional sound and lights. It was such a joy to see the wide array of different styles of belly dance presented, not to mention the different “generations” of dancers who were performing.

Speaking of fun and relaxation- notice I did not say “rest and relaxation”- tireless MECDA volunteers the incredible Kaminga sisters, Trish and Lia, not only worked all day like Energizer Bunnies, but had the stamina to party like Raq Stars every night, too. They had a full bar set up in their room, where they held a rousing, cutthroat dominoes tournament every night!

For the last evening of the retreat, there was a pajama party-themed movie night, which included plenty of hot buttered popcorn and a smorgasbord of movie theater concession-stand type junk food, plus a pajama fashion show (See? I told you we were all mature, business-like professionals!) and a special screening of the incredible documentary “Afghan Star”, which was brutal and uplifting at the same time. There was also an impromptu screening of "Underbelly", the documentary director Steve Balderson made about my dance career in 2008. That was such a surprise-I had no idea they were even thinking of showing it! But considering how close all the participants had become during the course of the conference, I didn’t feel the least bit uncomfortable watching the film in a room full of people!

In fact, that magical, close-knit feeling and hyper-intense camaraderie were perhaps the best part of the entire weekend. I know that different degrees of bonding occur at most dance festivals, but this was somehow different. For the entire weekend, everyone let down their personal guards: the participants openly shared their secret hopes and dreams, as well as their innermost fears or feelings of frustration. The instructors shared knowledge and know-how that was mostly acquired through years of learning the hard way, through trial and error and without any sort of mentoring.

Throughout the course of the event, everyone became astonishingly candid with each other. At the very start of the weekend, many discussions focused solely on business, but in exponential magnitudes, the conversations became more and more personal. Similarities in life paths were shared, and not just as in dance being everyone’s chosen profession. Various dancers revealed their unique and intensely personal skeletons in the closet…yet the moment somebody mentioned something highly private, others chimed in about their own experiences, or with tales of their battles with same sort of issues. The amount of laughter, tears, and, as Oprah would say, “A-Ha Moments” were countless. During other events, I have never seen such open weeping during the saying of good byes as I did at the end of this weekend!

Belly dancing has been an art for many millennia, with the wisdom being passed down from mother to daughter… and in a modern way, this is exactly what the Conference felt like. It was beyond inspirational to see how Angelika Nemeth, Mesmera, and Zahra Zhair- true pioneers of our glorious dance form -coped with some of the issues that still face dancers today…but on their own, and without a support system! When I started dancing just over two decades ago, there was no internet, email, cell phones or social media sites…. and they all had at least fifteen years of experience before me under their bejeweled belts. This point was irrevocably driven home when Angelika casually mentioned putting on RECORDS at gigs without live music- the looks of astonishment on the younger dancer’s faces at that moment were priceless!

The original purpose of the Conference had been to bring together a small group of dancers, and nurture them along through the process of making positive life choices, and gaining the know how as well as the guts to take the leap of faith necessary for pursuing a career as a professional dancer. Mission accomplished: that basic principle was acted out in spades, at every moment during the weekend, and then some!

The MECDA Professional Dance Conference And Retreat had been a dream project for MECDA president Blume Bauer, who had been brainstorming it for the past few years. Finally, it came to fruition, through many hours of hard work put in by Blume and the many MECDA members who tireless volunteered, doing everything from co-coordinating schedules to making up delightful gift baskets for each participant.

But even though it was designed specifically for belly dancers, I could easily imagine this event growing to include to include dancers of all genres, as well as variety artists, circus performers and even actors, it was that extraordinary!

Though I’ve rattled on for quite a few paragraphs about this, I cannot even begin to stress how valuable this entire experience was. I am not sure if the dates have been set for the 2012 Conference, but you can check the MECDA website periodically for information:

In the meantime, check out Julie Eason’s Belly Dance Business Academy:

Think seriously about The Conference attending next year… you owe it to yourself, and to this lovely art form!


Layla Soleil during her photo session w/ Lee Corkett
Luna performing at the beach burn
Mesmera, DeVilla, Angelika Nemeth and Princess, pre-show
The slumber party

Wednesday, October 19, 2011


My belly is perfect.

I will never have a six-pack, but I don’t long for one, either. Instead, I have what I call a “chick pack”, a belly that is rounded and soft.

I adore my belly. In fact, I’m pretty damn vain about it…but it wasn’t always this way.

My entire midsection was something I really disliked. I absolutely hated it. I was seriously repulsed by my stomach, and thought others would be too.

Belly dancing changed my life.

It’s been two decades since I started dancing, and I still firmly believe it was the best thing that ever happened to me.

Like millions of women and young girls, I had huge issues with negative body image and low self-esteem. Growing up in the 1970’s, I never felt as though I was pretty. I wasn’t tall and lithe; I wasn’t blonde and blue eyed, therefore, I wasn't pretty. Magazines rarely featured models who were any color but white, and the concept of using plus sized models in major publications was a few decades off in the future. I had always known that I was intelligent, but somehow being intellectual never had the same cache’ as being pretty. Yes, I was smart… but I wasn’t smart enough to realize that the media had actually been outsmarting me!

The unattainable standards of female beauty that were-and still are- constantly presented in nearly all forms of popular media had the same effect on me as did on millions of other women and girls: it made us insecure, and it also made us feel as though we were somehow lacking, because we could never measure up to that impossible standard.

For most women- including me- the thing we coveted more than anything was a flat stomach. I wanted a concave stomach badly. I wanted it more than anything, but no matter how hard I worked out or dieted, because of my build, this was never going to happen.

As a teenager, in order to achieve my farfetched dream of being thin, I tried starving myself...and when that didn’t work, I turned to speed. I got high, oh, I got really high...but I never go skinny; my body knew exactly what it was supposed to look like. Instead, I had the appearance of being an unhealthy, extremely hyperactive teenage milkmaid. So I started forcing myself to purge after I ate. Puking after meals became a secret habit, it was an addiction. Back then, Bulimia hadn't even been identified as an eating disorder… I actually thought I invented it myself! It was genius- I could eat whatever I wanted, and then just throw it up. Maybe I would never be skinny, but at least I could maintain my weight… and when I found out about Anorexia, I thought: Finally, a real solution!

But it turned out I couldn’t handle that kind of insane Anorexic self-control. Because of my low self-image and twisted logic, I thought I was somehow lacking by not being able to stop myself from eating; I even felt that by making myself vomit after every meal, I was “taking the easy way out”. If only I had the self- discipline to be Anorexic, I told myself, everything would be fine…. Yeah, right!

So how does this all fit in with belly dancing?

Well, there’s a reason that belly dancing has stuck around for thousands of years. Belly dancing, or Oriental dancing, as it’s correctly called, can be compared to another practice that has also been around for centuries: yoga. Through diligent application, either mode of physical activity will change your mind and emotional spirit as well as your body.

The main difference between belly dancing and yoga is that belly dancing is also an artistic form of self- expression, something that is extremely important for women, who, for centuries, have usually had their voices ignored or silenced. And then there's the fact that it's also a lot of damn fun!

Once I began belly dancing, I started to look at my body in a completely different way. Suddenly, I could do all these cool things...and do them to really amazing music! My hips and my stomach jiggled and shook while I was dancing... but that was the point! After a few months, I was no longer ashamed of my round belly; I grew to like it, and then grew to love it. I no longer hid my stomach or tried to disguise it, but started flaunting it.

To put it simply, my belly became the center of my universe. Pretty soon I was absolutely convinced that my belly needed to be the center of everyone else’s universe, too! It got to the point that I didn’t even own one top that hadn’t been cut off to bare my midriff.

Through belly dance, I had also unintentionally changed my relationship to food. I was no longer concerned with having a concave stomach, and wasn’t yo-yo dieting, starving myself, insanely high on speed or purging. The equation was simple: if I felt too full, I couldn’t dance. Period. Food was no longer “good” or “bad”; it was merely fuel for dancing… And dancing was way more important to me than having a flat belly! Along with my eating habits, my body changed; but even before it did, I had already begun to feel alright with it.

No matter what sort of belly you have- poochy or taut, creamy skinned or etched with stretch marks, belly dancing looks beautiful on everyone. Diversity in shape, size, height, weight and age is not just accepted in the belly dance community, it’s applauded. Though the general public has a stereotyped image of a belly dancer - exotic make up and elaborate costumes adorned with shimmering fringe and jingling coins- to the dancers themselves, the costumes and shiny accoutrements are not the main point, they’re more like the icing on a cake.

In truth, what attracts women to belly dancing is the supreme body confidence and inner beauty of the dancer, which pours out through her performance, whether the dancing is done onstage or off. Women witnessing a belly dance performance-or taking a class- consistently identify with, aspire to and cheer on this type of relaxed, positive body awareness. Belly dancing has always been done by-and for-women.

The process of learning to belly dance, and discovering the power of mastering intricate forms of physical prowess gives women a huge boost of self-esteem. Learning to isolate muscles you probably cannot even name, not to mention layering five different types of movements-while playing finger cymbals- instills a sense of self-belief that goes far beyond mere poise.

And then there’s the utter joy of suddenly being given permission “play”. Dressing up in colorful, flowing clothing and dancing with floaty, sheer veils makes most adult women get all giggly and unself-conscious, just like little girls pretending to be princesses… and the ensuing effect is one of pure freedom, usually resulting in things like body issues getting tossed aside in favor of elation. By celebrating femaleness in general, belly dancing encourages women to temporarily forget about their insecurities by trying on a pleasurable and blissfully affirmative feminine archetype.

In the past few years, it seems the media has been sort of testing out a healthy trend towards acknowledging the fact that “real” women actually DO come in all shapes and sizes. Progress has been slow, but this new way of looking at women’s bodies-and what is attractive- seems to be finally gaining more acceptance.

Finally, women with curves such as Kim Kardashian, Kate Winslet, Jennifer Lopez, and Mad Men star Christina Hendricks are being acknowledged as icons. Though the drunken shenanigans and trashy clothes of the cast of Jersey Shore may not everyone’s cup of tea, there is still no denying the fact that the women on the show are real…and still considered hot! And with the sudden fascination for cougars, women who are mature (as in older than twenty five!) like Sharon Stone, Kim Cattrall, Helen Mirren and Demi Moore are finally being thought of as desirable.

Nonetheless, there is still a pervasive acceptance of the fashion/ advertising world's out-of-reach, impossible to achieve standards of beauty, which, as in the past, still makes many average women suffer from inferiority complexes.

In the global belly dance community, you merely have to be in motion to be gorgeous.

Belly dance is an unashamedly female life force; and the ensuing emotional and spiritual effects it have on the dancers themselves are incredible.The sisterly bonding in a classroom situation - or backstage at a show - is beyond therapeutic. While teaching this type of dance, I have watched students transform in front of my eyes, going from hunch-shouldered, awkward and shy to standing tall and becoming flamboyant, fearlessly feminine, confident and proud.

Physically, of course, there are also many benefits. The dance itself an extremely aerobic, weight bearing activity, but one that is gentle, as opposed to being punishing to the body. Belly dancing promotes strength, stamina and flexibility. It builds rounded, feminine muscles as it staves off osteoporosis. The isolations and combinations engage challenging physical co-ordination as well as healthy brain activity.

Women who are involved with belly dancing are extraordinary. Throughout this vibrant community, you will meet incredible motivated, adventurous women whom you might not normally bump into in the course of your every day life. Vital and curious, fearless or just ready for a change, the women who are involved in belly dancing are alive.

Belly dancers are young and old; they are mothers, daughters, grandmothers, sisters, wives and crazy eccentric aunties.

If you are reading this, you are probably already belly dancer, and I am preaching to the choir.

But if you are not a belly dancer, you could be…because YOUR belly is perfect, too!

* This post is part of The National Organization Of Women’s “ 2011 Love your Body Day Blog Carnival”

Photo: The Royal Belly by Andre Elbing

Sunday, October 16, 2011


I just found a dance journal I kept when I was a baby dancer. It was fun, it was therapeutic, it was addicting. There were entries about my classes, as well as photos, drawings, ticket stubs and quotes from famous dancers. I also kept a log of my gigs- with base pay and tips earned, as well as notes about the type of event it was, audience reactions, and I actually rated my own performances!

Keeping a diary was a habit I’d had since I was a pre-teen, but this dance journal was different…I didn’t know it at the time, but it helped me grow as a dancer by literally mapping out my desires. By writing down goal- and then seeing them get accomplished, I could chart my own progress and see what I had accomplished and what I needed to work on.

Many artists keep journals to help nurture themselves creatively.

Do you have a dance journal?

In your dance journal, unlike a regular diary, you will not be focusing your love life or financial worries but rather, artistic inspiration.

* Jot down ideas and positive thoughts about your dancing practice; make lists of songs you would like to tackle for choreographed or improvisational performances, sketch out ideas for costumes you’d like to make.

* Motivate yourself with photos of famous dancers, beautiful costumes, inspirational quotes or other dance-related things that have encouraged you.

* Take some time to copy down the hurried notes you took at workshops. This will not only help to make them stick in your head, but then you will also have them (in readable form!) for future reference.

* Write down what you remember of your dreams, and let yourself daydream on the pages.

* Keep a log of the classes and workshops you take, and compose a few words about each experience.

*As a creative exercise, watch live or video performances of your favorite dancers and then write down your impressions. What is it about this dancer’s style that you love? How did the piece make you feel? What time period is it from? How did he or she utilize the performance space? What steps can you identify?

* Make lists of all the things you want to accomplish with your dancing, and goals you would like to reach, and then check them off as you fulfill them.


Princess Farhana at BDUC by Carl Sermon

Baby Princess at The Middle East Connection, circa 1992, Glendale,CA. Photographer unknown

Thursday, October 13, 2011


This is Part Four of my series Dancers Backstage Rituals...and this post focuses on Aleya, an American belly dancer who has been living and working in Cairo, Egypt for three years.

Aleya and I came up together in the Los Angeles dance scene. We saw each other constantly, at gigs working together, and socially too. In 2008, we sort of accidentally bumped into each other in Cairo. I say "accidentally" because neither of us knew that the other one was going to be there!

Aleya had been in the beach resort of Hurghada, relaxing, and I had taken a un-planned, totally last minute ten-day trip to my favorite city on earth...between gig obligations. Due to the wonders of email and texting, Aleya found out I was in Egypt, and of course we got together...spending some quality time which basically amounted to four days with no sleep and constant laughing. We ran amok in Cairo's cabarets until the wee hours, shoveled a quick breakfast in our mouths, and then spent all day hanging around Eman Zaki's atelier or cruising around the city before doing our hair and makeup in my hotel room...and then repeating it all again! It was during this trip that Aleya confided to me she was planning on moving to Egypt to pursue her dreams of dancing in Cairo.

"So...when are you doing that?" I asked, thinking she'd say something like "next year".

"I'm just going to go home and get my cats," she replied.

Knowing that Aleya was as insane about her cats as I am about mine, I immediately realized that this wasn't a was an absolutely serious, real move, not a temporary "feeling it out" kind of deal. Taking her cats along to Cairo meant Aleya was going for broke!

But as long as I have known her, she has been always driven and continually strives for excellence. In Los Angeles, she worked at clubs, restaurants and private parties, taught classes, and directed and choreographed for her own Negma Dance Company. Before she left, she also released a CD of fantastic belly dance music called "Bellylicious Raks". ( There is a link at the end of this post where you can purchase it on CD Baby).

After moving to Cairo, she soaked up as much dance, music and culture as she could. By the time I came back the next summer, her dancing, which was always great, had been noticeably changed by her time in Egypt. She was, however, finding the dance scene harder to crack than she'd originally expected, and though she was trying everything she could think of to get work, work wasn't coming her way.

As she told me this, she joked,

"I always believed in affirmations, so I used to say: I want my life to be just like a vacation....and now it is like a vacation, but I don't want it to be, I want to work!"

Her dedication paid off though, because she has been working... at private parties at top-notch hotels, and at Cairo landmarks like the elegant floating supper club, The Nile Maxim. She also teaches many group and private classes, and just appeared in Qatar, dancing for the Royal Family.

Somehow in between all of this, she also managed to document the Egyptian Revolution! While other people were cowering in their apartments, Aleya and partner Ramy Salem were smack dab in the middle of the protests, braving tear gas and riotous crowds to take photos of history-in-the-making. You can see them in her book, "18 Days"- scroll down to the end of this post for a link to preview and purchase the book, which is stunning.

From the very beginning, Aleya was always such a super-hot performer, no one would ever have guessed that in the first part of her career, she suffered from really bad stage fright- but she did. Happily, she doesn't any more, but see what she has to say about that- and gigging in Cairo, here, in her own words:

"My first five years of performing I had horrible stage fright! I used to practice for at least one and a half hours before a performance. I think the stage fright stemmed from me not feeling good enough, so I felt like I had to remember all my moves and practice a lot before I danced.

I would put on videos of dancers I admired and imitate their movements. I would try to get two moves from them that were not in my normal repertoire and do them during my show. In retrospect I think this has helped me to have a bigger vocabulary for the dance. It also calmed me down so I could release all of the nervous energy I had. It was great! I would do two workouts in one night, and sometimes more if I were doing a couple of shows.

Now, as I prepare to dance, several years later, I just try to stretch and relax after I change into my costume.

Of course before I dance, I must have my wig on even though I have long hair. My vision of belly dancers always has been to have big hair and lots of stage make-up. I don’t believe in the “natural look” for a performer! If I don’t have big hair and great make up, the stage won’t feel quite right and I will not perform my best.

I also must always go to the toilet before I dance, even if I went 5 minutes before! I think that stems from the habits, which I acquired long ago, when I had stage fright. I have never been able to release this habit, which can be quite annoying… especially because in Cairo, you never know where your show will be or what the conditions are where you will be changing into your costume! For example let’s say you have a show at the Pyramids, then your “dressing room” is in the middle of the desert…things can get quite complicated!

Now, I am quite comfortable with any kind of venue or show where I can interact with an audience; they always put me at ease. I don’t get nervous and I don’t need much of a ritual.

On the other hand, if I am dancing on a big stage with a band and away from the audience I still get unbelievably nervous. If and when I do, I just close my eyes and say to myself,

“It’s just a big party!”

Saying this takes the edge off for me and I also say a little prayer to God and the Universe for letting me be my absolute best, and being thankful for the gift of dance. Then it’s show time! And I just try to be in the moment and enjoy it. "

- Aleya

Watch Aleya dancing on The Nile Maxim in Cairo here:

Buy Aleya's CD "Bellylicious Raks" here:

Preview & purchase Ramy Salem and Aleya's book "18 days" here:

Read Aleya's blog about belly dancing and living in Cairo here:

PHOTOS: Aleya by Ramy Salem; Aleya dancing on The Nile Maxim

Thursday, October 6, 2011


Happy Fall to you!

It’s getting dark a lot earlier, something I’m not entirely fond of, but as the year winds down, there are still plenty of things that make me happy. Aside from the shorter days, I love fall…even though I live in Hollywood, California, it’s harvest time.

At my house, that means my pumpkin patch is in full swing. Fat and orange with giant, prehistoric-looking leaves, they have taken over my entire yard! My kitties are growing their winter coats and look all round and cuddly.

October also means Halloween, which is always fun. But it’s also a different sort of holiday for performers, who dress in costumes on a regular basis. At the risk of sounding like a crabapple, I’m just gonna come right out and say it: sometimes I dread Halloween because of the amount of calls I get in the weeks leading up to it from everyone I know who feels entitled to raid my closet.

This entry below is a re-post from Halloween 2010- but I had to put it up again, because it still applies- and always will! So here’s the original post.

* * * * * *

It’s just a couple of weeks until Halloween, which has always been my favorite holiday ever.

If you are like me- and if you’re reading this, I’m sure you are- you are already aware that this is the time of year when everyone you know hits you up about borrowing or even renting your stage costumes. Call me selfish, call me witchy, or just call me a “Hallo-weenie”… but I NEVER rent or lend my costumes out for Halloween (or Burning Man, for that matter) unless I know it’s something I know I could easily part with.

The stage costumes I own, not to mention my crazy collection of circus outfits, pirate hats, robot suits, saloon girl headdresses, clown outfits, feather fans, vintage corsets, kitty ears, rhinestone studded masquerade masks, wigs, super-hero boots, vampire capes, real and fake fur coats- need I go on? They are the "tricks“ of my trade, not a “treat“ for someone who won't respect them! They took a long time and a lot of money for me to collect, not to mention maintain.

My costume collection could probably have it’s own episode on the show “Hoarders”, but there’s a reason I have all this stuff around: it’s my livelihood! These pieces are my work tools, my office supplies, and in most cases, very expensive. But whether it’s an Egyptian belly dance costume I paid $700.00 for, or pair of character shoes I embellished myself, they are professional accoutrements that I can’t do my job properly without.

Oh, I used to be very generous about lending out costumes and costume pieces for non-dancers to use at Halloween parties, but it always ended badly. Things would come back to me (usually months later) ripped, stained, with burn-holes from cigarettes or wax from candles, or just covered in cheap drugstore make-up or greasepaint from The Spirit Store. And some things never came back at all!

Would you lend someone your laptop if you knew they were going to use it-and maybe accidentally leave it- at a club? Would you let a friend borrow an expensive camera to bring to a party where all the guests were going to be falling-down drunk? I thought not!

I think the reason most “civilians” want to borrow costumes is simply because they want to look good… and they also have nothing but the best intentions in borrowing these things. But the average person doesn’t realize that for their seasonal party-needs, a $20.00 costume from the toy store would be fine.

Want some help with your Halloween make-up? I’d be happy to assist you.

But don’t even think about asking to borrow my costumes… cause you’ll have to pry them out of my cold, dead hands!

Monday, October 3, 2011


The featured performer for Part Three of Dancers Backstage Rituals is Lotus Niraja. I have been charmed by her performances for years, as i am sure many of you have! She's also a really nice person in "real life"- we spent some quality dressing room time at the shoots for Cheeky Girls Productions "Combination Nation" and "By Dancers, For Dancers" DVDs.

She's also fireball: not only is she an exquisite dancer and international workshop instructor, she is the founder, choreographer and artistic director of award-winning dance company, The NDC , or Niraja Dance Company.

She has been featured on several instructional and performance DVDs, and is admired for her precise technique and dynamic stage presence. As if that weren't enough, she also runs the popular competition The Belly Dance Nationals, and recently partnered with Michelle Joyce of Cheeky Girls Productions to co-produce the hit web-based reality show, "Project Belly Dance".

For Lotus, stage-fright has never been an issue... but are you wondering how she gets such boundless energy?

Her secret-like her personality, is ultra sweet, just the right combination of naughty and nice!

Here's what she has to say, in her own words:

"I do not have a pre-performance ritual per se. I grew up behind the stage as a child, so I can get into costume and makeup pretty quickly.

My only mandatory good luck charm is that I have to have four safety pins in my costume at all times. If I do not have four, I feel like the stage will fall apart if I even touch it. You will find four safety pins in each of my costumes in patterns such as crosses, x's and letters. BUT...after I perform is when the ritual magic happens.

When I leave the stage and the music is off. You'll see me rummaging through my bag with a gusto. I grab a bar of high quality chocolate out of my bag, open it, and slowly savor the taste. I won't rush it either. I don't chew it , I let it melt in my mouth. My post-performance ritual is to have a piece of chocolate after every performance to congratulate myself and to savor the moment.

I have to have it, or I won't think my performance is complete! My current favorites are Yeli Belly Chocolates (made by a belly dancer in the Dallas/Ft. Worth Area) and Richarts in NYC.

But if I'm desperate, I'll grab a quick 70%+ cocoa bar from the local grocery store and throw it in my bag. I love the feeling of having something special waiting for me during the finale part of my dance.

It's my little sweet secret!"


To find out more about Lotus and The NDC, please visit:

LEFT: Lotus' newest DVD, "The Icing On The Drum Solo", released by Cheeky Girls Productions

RIGHT: Lotus looking uber-glam in a costume by her mom, designer MAZ

Bottom: Lotus' newest DVD, "The Icing On The Drum Solo"