Meet some of the leading practioners of the art of belly dancing in
Written by Neil Bagley Photography by Joe De Sciose
Talk to anyone who knows anything about belly dancing in Birmingham, and the name Aziza is guaranteed to get dropped. She is something of a celebrity in the area, and there’s no question that she has earned that status. Aziza has been teaching and performing the classic Egyptian style of dance for over 36 years, and she is loving every minute of it.
Since studying with a choreographer in Egypt, she has taken it upon herself to perpetuate the practice of the traditional style of dance, as opposed to the alternative styles that have been growing in popularity in recent years. “There are misconceptions that belly dance is slinky and seductive, but in reality it is definitely more family oriented,” she says. “There is respect in my approach to the dance and where it comes from. I keep it as true as possible.”
Middle Eastern culture has affected her life in nearly every way, and she carries on that tradition in her classes. Women of all ages and sizes, everyday women, enjoy learning a dance where they can “enjoy each other as women.” Many of Aziza’s students have gone on to become successful dancers themselves, and she speaks very highly of them. “It’s terrific to put others in the spotlight,” she says.
Janelle is a Palestinian woman who fell in love with the art and beauty of belly dance at a very young age. She describes it as a simple, blissful art that evokes a full range of emotion and expression through movement. “This dance was originated by women and for women,” she says, “There is a common misconception that belly dancing is done for men laying around on pillows while smoking. In fact, Rags Sharqi (or bellydance) is a way for women to entertain each other, embrace and celebrate their femininity, as well as a rite of passage learned from elders. This dance was taught to me with more than just steps but with its cultural importance.”
Janelle has studied with Aziza for over 17 years, and is now setting out on her own, scouting for troups out in Los Angeles, CA. Thanks to Aziza’s teachings, Janelle has a deep appreciation for the classical Egyptian style, but she doesn’t always employ her classical skills when she dances. “There are times in which the music moves me to make fun choices during improvisation that are not always necessarily traditional movement. This keeps me excited and wanting to learn more, always intrigued by the art form and always-new material to be learned. It never becomes boring.”
Sumaya’s experience is three-fold. She teaches belly dancing as a Ufit class at the UAB Campus Recreation Center. She says this class is good alternative to the Zumba fitness routines and ballet or dance classes there. Her classes focus on improving posture, bolstering confidence and helping class attendees feel “loose in their skin.”
Sumaya also has significant experience dancing at restaurants such as Ali Baba in Hoover. It is a more intimate style of dance, being so close to the audience. The energy of the dance is directly related to how people react to the performance, and the performance can be just as interesting as the audience wishes it to be. It’s all about the vibes in such a small environment.
Another approach she takes to the dance is stage performances at weddings and other events, often in front of hundreds of people. She incorporates props into her style with sword and wing dancing. The sword dance involves balancing a blade on the head. Wing dancing requires her to dance with large golden Isis wings outstretched. It is similar to baton dancing but with huge wings attached to her back. Despite these more unconventional approaches, she prefers the improvisation of the restaurant setting.
Although she is of Irish and German heritage, Sumaya has been known to fool many with the authenticity of her dance style. “They would come up to me like, ‘Oh, you are Arab! We love your dance,’ and I would have to correct them,” she recalls.
Sherry developed a love for dance as a little girl of about five or six. It started with ballet class and developed into an obsession over the years. She loved to entertain people. She was part of her high school dance team and also participated in sports. She says that her involvement with dance and music as an adult has helped her gain a strong sense of self-confidence.
“I feel a great sense of obligation for putting on well-produced shows and have always taken that very seriously,” she says. “I never want to let my audiences down. Whether it was a backyard skit with a bunch of neighborhood kids or a major theatrical performance, I would always approach it from what I wanted the audience to experience and how can I accomplish that.” She goes even further, taping practice sessions and analyzing them, looking for strengths and ways to improve the performance.
Speaking of performance, Sherry’s style is a little bit different. Although she learned the basics of belly dance in a traditional class, she also participated in workshops that were introducing the tribal style before anyone really knew what it was. She now incorporates pieces of all these techniques, from traditional to American tribal style, into her own style called “movement-based improvisation.”
As the director of Ultra Hip Review, Sherry incorporates movement-based improvisation into all of her performances. “I really think of Ultra Hip Revue as dance theater,” she says. “We utilize movement-based improvisation for our dance sets, but we also develop ideas for improv skits. We will throw in some choreography here and there, and we work a fair amount with props.”
Sherry is currently working on a new project called Oddville’s Wicked Cabaret and Medicine Show. The show will be a collaboration with several other veteran performers from Birmingham and will be a modeled after vaudeville shows from the 1930’s.
Growing up, Layla always liked dancing, especially hula dancing. For her, it was the traditional Middle Eastern style of music that first drew her in and sparked her interest. She started taking classes with Aziza at age 19 and has gone on to perform at restaurants, parties and other events. She’s been taking time off since August, studying at the Montgomery School of Bodywork & Massage.
She says that belly dancing is not like “exotic” dancing. In fact, she describes it as personally fulfilling and classy. It is a more traditional style of dance. However, “it is a much more free-form style, and not like ballet,” she says. The dance also connects directly with the audience. For Layla, the energy and reactions of the crowd are inspiring and make the dance fun for everyone.
One of the most exciting aspects of practicing her art is meeting people and making new friends. “People I never would have even met before, people I wouldn’t even thinking of talking to, never had anything in common with, we come together through dancing,” she says. Dancing with friends is also a great way to share moves with others and learn new techniques. “You learn to use new muscles and parts of your body that you’ve never used before,” she says, “it’s a great experience.”
a body in
Petite Jamilla finds in her art a beauty that
is unchangeable yet
momentary, the way
every beautiful thing
in life is.
Photography by Beau Gustafson
Petite Jamilla’s mother (Jamilla Rasa) was a belly dancer who danced, taught lessons and performed up until her third trimester of pregnancy. Petite Jamilla literally grew up with belly dance. “The music, the dancing, the culture, performances, teaching, sewing the costumes, studying the video tapes were a part of my life from a very young age,” Petite Jamilla says. “There have been many reasons of things that keep me in this dance form, but the most stubborn reason is that it’s truly become a part of me. I was made to do this. I really can’t imagine me doing anything else in life as well as I belly dance. It’s my best greatest skill and my truest artistic expression.”
Jamilla joined the Bellydance Superstars almost eight years ago and has danced with them in 31 different countries, both teaching and performing to hundreds of thousands of people. “Bellydance Superstars is an amazing vehicle with which to reach mass amounts of fans, are both educated in belly dance and also first-time viewers. It is a really special experience to be able to say that you are their first experience of this art form. I am proud of getting to be one of only 12 belly dancers in the world to join this amazing company,” she says.
Petite Jamilla’s proudest accomplishment is carrying on her mothers’ legacy. “My mother recently got diagnosed with third-stage ovarian cancer and is currently
undergoing chemo treatments,” she says. “So now I dance for a new reason. For the reason that she can’t right now. For all that she gave me, to inspire and heal, I dance now from a more pure place. So my greatest accomplishment is embodying the feelings trapped inside my teacher/mentor/best friend/mother, the feelings that she can’t release presently.”
She has begun doing performances for the Laura Crandall Brown Ovarian Cancer Foundation to raise awareness and funds to fight the disease. On November 2, she’ll participate in a performance at the Dia de Los Muertos festival in Birmingham. She also conducts seminars and teaches in Alabama, across the U.S. and around the world.