Wednesday, February 13, 2013


This coming weekend, February 15-17, 2013 marks the 23rd anniversary of the Belly Dancer of The Universe Competition, held annually at the Convention Center in Long Beach, California. I hold an extremely soft spot in my heart for BDUC, and not just because I love the mother and daughter team who put it on, Tonya and Atlantis. BDUC was the very first belly dance event I ever attended...exactly 23 years ago! During those years, I went from "baby belly" to professional dancer and competion judge, and so I kind of count BDUC as my "belly dance birthday".

In that time, I've judged a heck of a lot of belly dance contests , so I thought I'd share a few observations I've made-both on competitions in general, and how to ace them, grow from them and have fun to boot!

Performers enter competitions for reasons that are as diverse as the belly dance community itself, but it seems the majority of dancers enter hoping to get noticed. Belly dance competitions are a great way of gaining exposure: along with a trophy and prizes that can range from cash to costumes, jewelry and gift certificates, title-holders can pretty much expect good publicity and national or international name recognition, plus lucrative offers ranging from coveted spots in theatrical shows to contracts to teach workshops, and even appearances in performance videos or on instructional DVDs. Of course, depending on whose in the crowd, or where the contest is being held, even if a contestant doesn’t place, the recognition and job offers can still happen- because contests are a way of putting yourself out there as a dancer. The very nature of a competition calls attention to promising unknown performers as well as “unsung heroes”- talented dancers that the public might otherwise not be aware of. It’s a terrific way for someone from a small, regional studio to get the national or international attention they deserve, and it’s not uncommon for contestants to travel from far-flung locations (many of which may not have a thriving dance scene) to compete, and hopefully take their career to the next level.

Sometimes performers enter belly dance competitions for the sole purpose of setting personal dance-goals, because they want to challenge themselves. For these contestants, winning or losing isn’t the main objective; it’s the whole process that counts. They may be in love with the dance but committed to a job or raising a family, and competing is more about accomplishing something they set out to do rather than jump-starting a career. There are also dancers who compete as a lark, or because they were urged to enter by a teacher, mentor, friends or family.

As someone who has judged a fair amount of competitions, I can tell you that judging is not an easy task.

Personally, I believe that anyone who enters a competition should be given kudos, no matter what-it takes guts to put yourself out there, to believe in yourself and your talents and to compete with your peers! I myself am a lenient judge, and even though the criteria sheets for judges are (most of the time) anonymous, I try to scribble a few lines of encouragement to the contestant, or at least explain the reason why I added or subtracted points in a certain category.

Sometimes, I find the judging process itself completely surreal. Many times, a category I’m judging is so full of great dancers who have wonderful stage presence and dazzling technique, wearing costumes I’d give my right hip for, it’s really difficult to pick a winner. But there are always a few contestants who, sadly, don’t have a clue…and unfortunately, this aberration applies not only to my own personal taste, but also to everyone on the judging panel, as well as the audience! Even though belly dance competitions are not the Olympics, some of the acts appearing onstage during competitions are downright confounding- and I’m not talking about a dancer accidentally tripping on a veil or having a minor technical issue with her music. There’s always entries like the weird, un-choreographed “interpretive dance” that couldn’t even be classified as fusion entered into the Egyptian category; or some poor newbie dancer in a Halloween Headquarters costume that doesn’t fit and is showing the contestant’s underwear. There’s typically someone wearing finger cymbals but not playing them, or a dancer with zero stage presence, no technique and badly-done music editing…all at the same time… Ask anyone who has judged a competition and they will tell you that any of these train wrecks are actually not uncommon!

Once I was judging a kid’s competition, ages 5-13. The contest organizers told us not to get too dazzled by the overall cuteness of the contestants, and believe me, most of them were adorable- not to mention extremely well trained! At one point, I was so impressed with the level of presentation, I wondered to myself why I was a judge- any of the uber-talented kiddies on stage could’ve literally danced circles around me! The age thing had me stumped too: How was I supposed to be judging a category where some contestants had been dancing for years longer than others had been alive? By the middle of the kid’s category, I found myself thinking: I don’t care about plastic surgery; I just want a tendon-transplant from a flexible 9-year-old whose vocabulary doesn’t include the words Ibuprophen or chiropractor!

Also, and this is just my own opinion, I am not sure why nationally or internationally-known professional belly dancers (some with instructional DVD’s on the market) enter contests, since it seems to me that they already have recognition and a good career… but I guess that’s just my own thoughts on the matter

But back to judging: most of the time, competition judges are given sheets with a strict point rating system for the categories they are observing, and sometimes, there is a space left on that sheet for additional comments.

These criteria can range from points for costuming, stage presence, lyrical and rhythmic interpretations, choreography, improv, transitions, and prop use. Often, points may be subtracted for performances or costumes that are not appropriate for the category; or songs or routines that run over the allotted time, or if the contestant’s age or experience isn’t suitable for the category entered. Many contests offer a “People’s Choice” where the audience votes for their favorite performer. The actual contest winner or someone who took second or third place may or may not win this award; sometimes it goes to another contestant that didn’t even make semi-finals. This is up to the crowd alone, who are not given any sort of scoring or point sheet; they just vote for whomever they liked. Once in a while, competitions take a surprising turn, with an un-expected, dark horse winner taking first place, and an audience favorite not even placing as a semi-finalist. This is sometimes due to the judging panel’s personal taste, and also because when determining a winner, all points given by judges are taken into account and tallied up for a total, overall score.

As a judge, I look for the “whole package” in a contestant, and it’s my guess that is what the other judges do as well.

I can’t tell you exactly how to win a competition, but I can tell you things that will help you prepare.

Practice, Practice And Practice…Did I Say Practice?

 There is no such thing as “over rehearsing” for a competition…unless, of course, you injure yourself in the process. Know your routine (whether choreographed or improvised) and know it well. Some contestants practice hours a day for months. Just make sure that during this intense rehearsal period you are getting proper nutrition, and enough sleep to let your muscles –and your brain-repair! Many dancers add on private lessons, or work with coaches when prepping for competition- it’s something to think about, and worth doing if you can afford it. If you can’t, try to seek out a dance mentor who can watch your performance and offer helpful tips. Videotape yourself and your routine and view it to determine your strong points and weaknesses.

Make sure you have everything you need in your dance bag, including all costume pieces, needle and thread, pins, feminine protection, hair spray, back-up copies of music, a cover-up, etc. You can never be too prepared, and you never know what will come up! Know the directions for getting yourself to the contest itself, make travel reservations and confirm them well in advance, pack some light snacks and water with you on the day of the contest, and get some rest- you will need it!

Presentation Is Everything
To become a winner, you must have it all: technique, a hot routine that uses the full stage, a compelling presence and appropriate emotions that translate beyond the footlights, professionally edited music, a costume that fits well and looks beautiful on you… and you also need to stick to the time limits- don’t go even a second over your allotted time.

Categorize Yourself
Pick the appropriate category (or categories) for your dancing… if you are a strong fusion style dancer; do not enter the Egyptian category hoping to be noticed. You’ll only be throwing your contest fee away because you won’t stand a chance of wining. Determine whether or not you are entering into a competition category that is suitable for your age range or skill-level, and make sure you know exactly what certain category criteria is. I have seen contestants get points taken off for a variety of things, but one major blunder is not sticking to the criteria for the category entered. For example: I recently judged a “Specialty Props” category, where many contestants did veil work… and not that much of it…with a single veil. Though I didn’t check with the other judges, I believe we were all on the same page: a veil isn’t a specialty prop- along with finger cymbals, it’s a belly dance “standard”. Specialty props are things like cane, fans, shamadan, veil poi, hula-hoops, trays, jugs, swords, Isis Wings, and double veils. If you are using a fire prop, you need to check whether or not open flames are allowed in the competition-because many times the event- and the venue itself-will not allow any sort of fire or open flames onstage!

Appropriate Costuming
You’re not going to win a contest through your appearance alone, but you can and will get points taken off if your costume isn’t appropriate. It doesn’t matter if your costume is home made or a high couture creation- but it should fit perfectly, flatter you, and be suitable for the category you are entering. Use fashion-tape and safety pins even if you think you don’t need them) wear shoes to protect your feet (there may be beads on the stage from other dancers) make sure all straps, snaps, hooks and zippers are in tip-top shape, hem your veils and skirts, spray your hair, and for Pete’s sake wear enough make up!

Kick Stress To The Curb
If you have rehearsed well and planned enough to be comfortable in your performance, alleviate stage fright and performance adrenalin by taking a few even, deep breaths before you go on stage. Remind yourself mentally to go slow and to finish every movement. Remember to smile- it really “sells” your performance, the audience adores smiling dancers. Even if the judges are keeping poker faces, smile and look them in the eye! A smile and a confident attitude sometimes makes the difference when points are getting scored, so keep that in mind, too. If you miss a few steps in choreography, or have some sort of minor mishap onstage, do not let it show in your facial expressions. Know that you have prepared for this moment fully, and trust yourself and your abilities. Nobody on the judging panel started out being a fantastic dancer or was born that way- everyone worked towards that goal, just remember that! As judges, we admire your bravery and your unique presence, we’re only human…and we too have had mishaps occur onstage, probably more than most of us would ever admit to!

Use Competitions As A Learning Experience
Congratulations, girl: even if you don’t win or even place in the semi-finals, you have done your personal best, and by the very action of entering a contest alone, you are a winner! All of your preparation and practice has not gone to waste if you don’t win; you will only be a better dancer for the experience. Don’t beat yourself up and try not to feel dejected. You set a goal for yourself, and you followed through. You probably also made some new friends, and now people in the community are aware of you, as well.

All that alone is amazing and with the popularity of belly dance growing every day, there will be plenty of other chances for you to enter other competitions!



I will be teaching "Strike A Pose: How To Make The Camera Love You" at BDUC on Sunday, February 17, from 12pm-2pm in...appropriately enough(!!) "The Princess Lounge" at The Long Beach Convention Center...but I'll be there all weekend!

Come on by and say hi!

Photo by Dusti Cunningham

Monday, February 11, 2013


  Long ago in a land far away, I was a confirmed card-carrying rock and roll chick.  Before I started belly  dancing professionally, I was one of the original punks on the scene in Los Angeles; I fronted three bands that put out records and toured all over the place, I was also a music journalist and club booker for years. But then my life got taken over so thoroughly by belly dance that my music career sort of ceased to exist. I made a 360-degree turn in what seemed like an instant, with Om Kalthoum replacing Elvis and   Hakim taking the place of The Cramps. Once in a while, I even felt guilty for my new allegiance- it felt like I was “cheating” on rock ‘n’ roll because  nothing I listened to had lyrics in English!

 I had long since become fully reconciled to my new lifestyle, but then an odd coincidence occurred.  In 2006, I was asked to headline at the Majma Festival in England, where I’ll actually be returning next month.  It was my first major belly dance gig in a foreign country, and I was super- excited!    Just after   accepting that gig, my music publisher contacted me and said that the well-known   UK dirty house deejays   Peace Division wanted to sample   some of my spoken word vocals for a new track they were working on. I said yes, and we signed the papers. Shortly after, I was contacted again and told that my samples had now turned into the lead vocal and the track would be released the week I was heading to Majma.  The song came out as “ “Blacklite Sleaze” by Peace Division, Featuring Pleasant Gehman…and the moment I touched down   at Heathrow Airport, it entered the British Pop Charts.  You can listen to it here:

 Ironically, the moment I’d switched my focus from music to dance, I suddenly had a legion of new fans who wanted to hear my audio recordings, but my dance career kept growing, and I didn’t find the time to do any more recording.  After a while, I began to miss being in the recording studio, as opposed to the dance studio.  I wanted to make a track or track   the melded my   two favorite things- writing and belly dance, but it didn’t seem possible.  

Enter Karim Nagi.

If you are a belly dancer or a fan of cool rhythmic mixes, undoubtedly you already know Karim’s work, released under his own name as well as his moniker Turbo Tabla. But on the off chance that you don’t, Karim   is a multi-faceted artist: musician, deejay, dancer, instructor and orator, who is extremely knowledgeable about the traditions of Arabic music and dance… but he’s also a forward-thinking risk-taker artistically, and ridiculously talented and funny to boot!    In addition to his own  compositions, he’s made “Arabized” cover  versions of everything from Vivaldi to  the 1970’s hit “Low Rider”! In fact, he’s probably the only person on earth who can sing a tongue-in-cheek acoustic version of   the Queen hit “Bohemian Rhapsody” (in Arabic, no less!) accompanying himself on the tabla!  Though this epic bit of clashing cultures will probably never be documented for posterity ( ok, it was an impromptu  dressing room performance after a belly dance show)  I realized at that very moment that I  had finally found my dream collaborator!

 Though Karim and I are each infused with the culture of our native countries, we love, admire and are immersed in the culture of our adopted countries as well. Together we created   “Heart Full Of Cairo” a crazy ethno-soundscape that we conceptualized together.

 I wrote the words and did the vocals; Karim did the music and produced it, putting it all together.  The project came about organically, and of course the idea was spawned at belly dance festivals where we were both working.  We started discussing it at Cairo Caravan in June 2012, and by the time the Las Vegas Belly Dance Intensive rolled around in September 2012, we were onto something. We decided that whatever we did had to be Oriental, but not traditional.  I have done many vocal and spoken word recordings in the past, but I never combined my recorded work with belly dancing- I kind of inadvertently kept those two areas of my life compartmentalized.

Many of you readers may remember my posts about Egypt during the revolution as well as my reports from the Ahlan Wa Sahlan festival in 2011, post-revolution Cairo.  I was nervous about my Egyptian and ex-pat friends during the protests, concerned for their safety. I was also a little apprehensive about the future of a country I loved so much; afraid I might not ever get to return. Cairo is definitely my favorite place on the globe.  The moment I stepped off the plane on my first trip to Egypt, I started to weep, I was so happy to be there, and my feelings for it never change. I get giddy every time I go there; it’s a sensory overload of the very best kind. Karim is from Cairo, so   undoubtedly he has a different “relationship” to the city than I do, and understands it in a way I never will.

 But we both have a profound love for the city often known as Masr, or Al-Qahirah … so,  just in time for Valentine's Day, here’s the audio love letter  to Cairo from Karim and me… Enjoy!


   Karim and me  backstage at Cairo Caravan 2012,  posing as Egyptian Golden Age movie stars

 Photo of Princess Farhana on  "Heart Full Of Cairo" cover by Andre Elbing

Monday, February 4, 2013


 These days, cosmetic science is evolving almost as fast as electronic science- there are so many innovative and inexpensive products coming out on the market it’s hard to keep up with them! Happily, that means that a hefty price tag is no longer a prerequisite for a great beauty product.  Just in case it's not entirely obvious, I'm an absolute  make up fanatic, and one of my is looking for inexpensive cosmetics  that perform well  on or off stage!
 Here are some of my favorite drug store cosmetics, all of which are more than worth their price, and widely available. 


Revlon Precision Lash Adhesive
  I can’t rave enough about this fantastic product! It’s one of the best discoveries I’ve made in the past year, I am totally addicted! The main reason most chicks have a problem applying their falsies is because they put the glue on and don’t wait for it to get tacky enough to set on the lash. But you won’t have that problem with Lash Precision-it’s perfect for those who are not experienced with applying false eyelashes- or those in a rush on their way to a show- because the moment you apply the glue, it’s tacky enough to put the lash directly onto your eye with no wait time whatsoever!  This little gem comes in clear or black glue, and features a fine-tipped brush applicator, which will enable you to paint the glue onto the lash with no messy drips. The formula is also   great for those with Latex sensitivity- no more swollen weepy eyes! A godsend for newbies and make up addicts alike!

Wet N Wild Color Icon Eye Shadow Palettes
 Through out the years, Wet N Wild has offered a great selection of cosmetics for the budget-minded, but these new palettes are just incredible! An absolute steal at under seven bucks a pop, the palettes feature either four or eight trays of lush, hyper-pigmented frosty color, which means you can use them wet or dry. Seriously, the quality of these eye shadows are comparable to Mac or Nars! And the little purse-sized palettes mean they are perfectly transportable in dancer’s gig bag. Two of my fave collections are  “Blue Had Me At Hello” ( some of the shades are pictured on my eye, above) an eight-shadow palette with frosty white, metallic silver, pearlescent teal, minty aqua, royal blue, navy, flat black and black with silver glitter;  and  “I’m Getting Sunburned”, a four-pack with a beautiful blue/pink, a metallic bronze, dark brown with copper glitter and rich black. 

Ardell Double Up Lashes
Some of you might remember a post I did a while ago on double stacking lashes…well, these come that way already!  They have a full, thick and slightly uneven look that makes their appearance a little more “natural”… well… not really, but that’s why we use them, right?  Anyway, these’d be terrific for use onstage or just for a glam night on the town- and they go for $3.99-$5.99 depending on where you buy them. Use them with the Lash Precision glue!

 L’Oreal Paris Telescopic Shocking Extension Mascara
This stuff really works!  You’ll ridiculously get long, thick, luxurious lashes with just a few swipes of the wand. The fibers in it somehow don’t clump into scary Tammy Faye Bakker lashes, either. I was blessed with a lot of things, but beautiful eyelashes just wasn’t one of them…when I use this mascara, you’d never know! Try it, you’ll become devoted.

Physicians Formula Shimmer Strips
 Custom Eye Enhancing Shadow And Liner 
Another handy palette, these eye assortments comes in a cute box trimmed with black lace, and creates perfect, dimensional ombre smoky eyes…of any color. Some are intended for certain eye colors, such as green or hazel, but the Nude palette, a mix of matte and pearly colors, would be terrific on anyone. Under ten bucks, and considerably less depending on where you shop.

 Urban Decay  Glitter Liner
 By far the most sparkly and stay-put glitter liners on the market.  Unlike other brands that barely leave a trace, the Urban Decay Glitter Liners are packed with color and glitter, so they really shine and twinkle when you’re onstage. They look great on their own with a couple of coats, but for extra drama, layer them over eye shadow of the same tone, like bronze on bronze, turquoise on top of teal- you get the idea. They come in eleven different colors, and all of them look like a serious explosion of bling!


Revlon’s Just Bitten Kissable Balm Stain
A super-fantastic cross between lip balm and lipstick, this product slides on easily and precisely, and it is shaped like a chunky crayon with a pointed tip that doesn’t need to be sharpened. The candy-like colors stay put for ages, and have a nice moist sheen, but are not gloppy at all.  There’s a huge array of shades- the one I use the most right now is  # 040, a punchy perfect coral that is not chalky-looking or old lady-ish at all.

 Burt’s Bees Tinted Lip Balm
 I’m sure you’re already extremely familiar with Burt’s Bees incredible line of skin care and cosmetics…but their tinted lip balms are the bomb! They’re perfect for any season- great for winter, because the 100% natural botanical waxes and shea butter condition your lips as they add a pretty color, while being light enough for summer, with shimmering sheer shades that don’t look too over done, and aren’t messy even if you apply the balm a little haphazardly. Available in nine shades, at about seven bucks apiece, my favorite shade is Red Dahlia.


Maybelline Dream Fresh BB Cream
  The new buzzword in cosmetics is BB...and if you’re wondering what the heck a BB is, the initials  stand for Beauty Balm, which is a multi-purpose product that provides skin care and coverage.   Beauty Balms mask imperfections like a foundation, but they are lighter and don’t cake up.  They hydrate and brighten the skin, while providing a sunscreen.
 In other words, how did we ever live without them? 
Maybelline Dream BB Cream is hands-down the best BB I’ve tried yet- and I’ve tried a lot of them.  It glides onto the skin, provides coverage for redness and zits, and it looks dewy and fresh. Plus, Maybelline’s version has five shades, while most BB creams only offer two or three.  While it’s too sheer to use onstage, I highly recommend this stuff for real life, especially on those days when you’re running out to a dance class, but don’t wanna look like a hag!

 Urban Decay Afterglow Glide On Cheek Tint
 I was never really a fan of creamy cheek color; I much preferred powder until I tried this nifty stuff.  The formula is silky and glides on evenly whether you’re putting it on bare skin or over foundation or a BB cream.  Because the tints are sheer and natural looking, you can build the color up to increase the color value. Yummy.  

Boots No.7 Photo Fix Primer
Finally! An inexpensive primer that allows your foundation to slide on easily and faultlessly.  I love this stuff: it’s light and doesn’t feel greasy, in fact it’s barely noticeable, but it also seems to “fill in” problem areas like smile lines or crow’s feet without looking cakey at all.

Lumene Pure radiance Day Cream SPF15
I discovered Lumene products in Finland in 2011, and I just adored them.  On that trip, I started stressing about how I was going to get more, but wouldn’t ya know that the moment I got home, they became available in the USA?  Cool! Their products are natural, mostly made with Arctic Cloudberry. I’m not entirely sure what exactly that is, but let me tell you, all their stuff feels amazing on your face!  Aside from this emollient cream, they make a variety of facial washes, toners, and eye creams, and every single item I have tried just rocks! Super affordable and wildly repairing.  Go for it!

Friday, February 1, 2013


  Working with swords is one of my absolute   favorite things  about belly dancing...but I haven't taught sword  dancing in three years because of neck injuries due to a car accident. Next week,   I  begin  teaching a sword series in Los Angeles at  Dance Garden, and  I am soooo excited!

 I missed  dancing with my gorgeous scimitars a lot. As I got  my  sadly neglected swords out to practice with, I felt very happy, like I was revisiting an old and wonderful friendship.

 Dancers from all over the world  are always emailing me about   how to pick out a sword and where to find  the perfect sword for their style or experience level,  so here are some  points  to consider:

Finding the perfect sword for belly dancing can be a daunting task. This is especially true if you are about to purchase your first scimitar, or if you are shopping for a sword on the Internet, and don’t have the opportunity to try it out in person.

For someone who is just beginning to dance with scimitars , the best are those that are perfectly balanced, height-proportionate, and not really light but also not a big heavy weapon, because you may need to increase your strength and work up to that. Medium size well-balanced dance sabers are pretty inexpensive, so once you get used to working with them, if you want a flashy, heavier sword, it wouldn’t break your bank to buy one after a few months of getting used to your "starter" sword- and that way, you will always have a spare on hand.

You want a saber that'll stay on your head without rocking, and one that won't kill your neck and upper muscles until you build up the necessary stamina and strength. Also, durability figures in- you want it to stay balanced if- and when- it gets dropped, and believe me it will get dropped!

Your selection will depend on a few different factors: aesthetics and personal taste is important. One dancer might want a gleaming new-looking sword that shines under the stage lights, while another may desire a weapon that looks more rustic, like it’s an authentic antique. There are also many shapes and sizes of swords to choose from, ranging from those with relatively thin blades without much curve to blades that have a deadly, sharp curve and get thicker at the end, towards the tip. The way the hilt (handle) looks and feels is also a factor. Some swords have a very utilitarian, simple-looking hilt with a flat cross guard, others are highly decorated, and ranging from ornately carved rounded or pointed pommels to dragonhead motifs. I even have a sword whose handle features a cast-brass figure of a leaping jaguar chasing a rabbit. If your sword features a cupped cross guard and you are left-handed, make sure it fits your hand properly, or get an “ambidextrous” sword with a flat cross-guard.

Personally, I am not a fan of those flat swords, which look like they were cast in a mold. Yes, they are inexpensive, but I like my swords to look like real weapons, even if they were made specifically with dancing in mind. There are plenty available that look- and handle- much better than the cheap flat ones. A few months ago, I was  at a workshop in Germany and one of the students had a flat sword.... which literally broke in half  during the class!

Your  sword choice will also depend on your size. A larger sword might be too heavy or dwarf a smaller performer onstage, while a smaller, shorter sword might look comical on a taller, more statuesque dancer.

More importantly, your sword selection should be based on how experienced you are, as well as in the strength of the muscles in your neck, upper back, shoulders and arms. Remember, you are going to be balancing it on top of your head and will have to remain very stable while doing so, and that takes strength. You will also be arcing and swinging the sword while it’s held in your hand, and so it needs to be light enough for you to easily handle it.

Another factor is price: swords can range from about $25.00 to $500.00, depending on quality, size, whether the sabre is custom-made or antique...but don’t think you need to make a huge investment in order to get a decent sword.

There are many inexpensive options on the market today, so if you are a beginner and unsure of what to get, pick a slightly smaller, relatively affordable sword- you can always work your way up to a larger, heavier and more expensive one later.

All swords balance differently, depending on the weight of the blade, the heft and angle of the hilt-or in laymen’s terms, the handle area- which includes the cross-guard and pommel, which is the decorative bolt at the top of the handle. When buying a sword for dancing, pick one that stands up straight on it’s edge (the blade edge) and doesn’t flop over flat. There are many scimitar options on the market today which are made strictly for dancing and are balanced already, so you will not have a problem finding a sword that suits you and your unique needs.

When shopping for a sword in person, check it out and find the median balance point by testing the blade on the top of your wrist, then try it on your head. The balance point of the sword itself won’t be dead center; it will be more towards the sword’s handle. The optimum balance point on your head will be different depending on what type of sword you are using as well as what is easiest for you. For swords, my balance point is just in front of the center of my head- but everyone’s skull has a different shape. With some practice, you will find what is your most comfortable spot.

If you are shopping for a sword on the Internet, you obviously can’t try it, so find a reputable dealer, and don’t be afraid to ask questions if specifications aren’t listed on the item’s description. Ask about length, weight, and if it includes a scabbard. Also ask how it is shipped, what it will be packed in (it may get banged around on it’s way to you and potentially fall out of balance) and also about the company’s return or exchange policy!

Scimitars and swords that are either real military weapons or decorative items usually won’t balance properly. The souvenir swords are very light, and typically not constructed well- hello, they were made to be decorations! It would probably be much easier for a sword newbie to eschew these in favor of a sword made specifically for belly dance.

Legitimate military weaponry, whether antique or contemporary, may or may not balance- and know that they are often quite pricey. Some were made for actual battle, others for ceremony. Of course they look amazing, but know that if you decide to purchase one of these, you will undoubtedly be gambling: you will have to take it apart yourself, or have someone else do it for you, or at the very least tweak the hilt or pommel in order to get it to balance. Before swords were mass-produced for dancing, I used vintage military swords. I owned a Pakistani Army scimitar, which balanced perfectly when the entire hilt was inverted, but that made the ornate cross-guard sit upside down, so I really had to adjust the way I held the weapon itself. The other was an Afghani scimitar, which sadly never balanced at all but was gorgeous. The last one was a serious antique- a Persian Shamshir that was given to me as a birthday gift. It was stunningly beautiful- but weighed maybe ten or twelve pounds. Well, since it was my birthday, I made the mistake of unsheathing it after I’d ingested three or four margaritas. The blade, full of beautiful scrollwork, was oxidized to a dark color, and it looked very lethal. I immediately got the sense that this weapon had probably killed –or at least seriously wounded- someone, but that just made it all the more glamorous for me!
“Wow, just look at this,” I purred, holding the scimitar vertically in front of me, showing it off. I mentioned I’d heard that in the early Ottoman Empire, to test the sharpness of the scimitar’s blade, that soldiers used to toss a piece of silk up in the air, and when it landed on the blade, if the material effortlessly split in half, the sword was sharp enough for battle. With that, I joked that my present looked like it would definitely split silk.

“Look how sharp it is!” I cried, all full of tipsy bravado.
With that, I ran my index finger down the blade from the tip to the center. At first I didn’t understand why my birthday guests looked horrified, until I realized my finger was bleeding profusely, and my blood was dribbling lazily down the blade-the scimitar was so sharp I hadn’t even felt it open up my finger! There was a brief moment of uproar and some serious debating on whether or not a trip to the Emergency Room was in order. Upon secondary inspection, after I got cleaned up, the wound wasn’t deep enough for stitches, so I just put the sword away, turned the music up and had another cocktail!

That sword took a ton of sanding and scoring to dull the blade enough for me to use it…and even then, though I loved it, it was so heavy I only danced with it on very special occasions. I still own it, but sadly haven't used it in years.

Dropping your sword can throw it out of balance, as can bad storage. For travel to and from shows, I recommend a heavy, stiff sheath as opposed to a casing made of cloth material, because it will protect your saber better… but if you are going to be storing your sword for a long time, it would be wise to remove it from the scabbard and wrap it in cloth, then wrap the cloth in plastic. This will keep the sword straight and un-warped, and also protect it from the elements. For regular storage, when you are using the scimitar often, you can either get a weapon rack, or you can store your sword(s) flat on the floor or on a deep shelf. Most swords have stainless steel blades, so they will not tarnish easily, but anything made of metal can tarnish or oxidize. After each use, you should wipe the blade off with a soft cloth to remove fingerprints, sweat, perfume or any oils from your skin or scalp. Every so often, wipe the blade down with oil to keep it shiny- even if a blade is made of stainless steel, it still could get a bit rusty. Never use abrasive polishes on your sword!

As far as dancing goes, some performers prefer to balance a sword on a wrapped turban, others prefer a bare head, and some people use wigs or falls when doing sword work. There is no hard and fast rule; you should do whatever makes you feel comfortable. Personally, I like to feel the sword sitting right on my scalp, so I know exactly where it is at any given time.

Any way you choose, if the blade of the sword feels slippery on your head, you can “cheat” a little by rubbing a candle along the blade at the balance point, or roughing up the area by filing or scoring it with sandpaper. In a pinch, even spraying the balance point with hairspray so it becomes gummy will add a little traction. Some dancers glue a very thin strip of sandpaper along the edge at the balance point. This will not be visible from the stage but it does help to “catch” on your hair. Some types of swords come with grooves already cut into them at the balancing point- but I myself don’t find this helpful- usually the grooves are too wide for them to be able to work properly. And there are also dancers who don’t use anything, just a bare blade. Again, this is your choice.

And one last word to the wise: even if a sword was made specifically for dancing, it still has the potential to injure you. Remember to warm up completely before you work with your scimitar. If you feel it sliding while you are dancing, take a moment, remove the sword and replace it back to your original, comfortable balance point, and then proceed with your act.

 The main thing to remember when rehearsing or performing with swords is: SAFETY FIRST!

Here's a link which features many great dancing swords…tell them The Princess sent you!

I have three instructional sword DVD’s featuring more hints, tips, tricks, instruction and costumed performances available on my website. You can find them here:

 If you happen to live in Southern California, here's a link to register for my Sizzling Sword Series  at Dance Garden  on Wednesday  Evenings, Feb. 6, 13, & 20, 2013  6:00-7:45pm  3407 Glendale Blvd, LA CA 90039