Belly dance - an art form passed down through the ages
By Sally A. Schwartz

On February 16 and 17, I had the opportunity to enjoy the 12th Annual Belly Dance Universe Pageant. The pageant was hosted by the famous mother daughter team, Tonya and Atlantis. During a time when the Middle Eastern culture is under much scrutiny, it's nice to see that the art form of belly dance is really starting to take off. I am taking lessons, as is another staff member of I started taking lessons because it was a sensual form of exercise for the whole body which really brings out the feminine aspects of a woman. Making you not only feel good about exercising, but being the woman you are as well.

I spent Saturday attending a class given by Atlantis and observing a class given by the world-renowned Angelika Nemeth (who also happens to be my teacher). Both classes were given in a step-by-step fashion to better acquire the moves being taught. Although both teachers have different ways of teaching, each offers a very high-energy course, making great use of time, graceful and fluid movements; with tons of humor added in.

Before sitting down with Atlantis, I had some time to put to good use-- shopping for belly dance attire. It was pleasing to see that the vendors were very supportive and offered many items that you just can't find in your local mall. Some of the vendors were local, such as George Moawad from Chatsworth, California, and Pe-Ko International Records in Glendale, California. Then there was Gaylene's Boutique from Amity, Oregon, and Babylon Breeze hailing from Orlando, Florida.

Somewhere between preparing the stage for performances and making sure things ran smoothly, Atlantis was gracious enough to offer me a few moments of her time to discuss the event and her love of dance. Here is what she and I chatted about.

"After receiving a flyer from one of my classes about the Belly Dancer Universe Competition, I naturally went to your Web site to find out more. There I noticed that you had done a docudrama about Hakfet Famey, a belly dancer from the WWII era. I am an avid viewer of the History and Discovery Channels, so I am not sure on which channel I had viewed a program on the history of female entertainers, but was this the docudrama of which you were a part?"

"Yes, yes I was," said Atlantis.

I had to tell her that it was really well done.

"Thank you very much. That is very nice of you to say," with a small, embarrassed laugh, Atlantis admitted that she had never seen the segment herself.

I went on to tell her that I am also a fan of old movies and knew of Famey from some of them that I had watched. I am now more able to appreciate her movies, since I have some understanding of her

"It was very interesting doing the piece," said Atlantis. " I'm glad that you enjoyed it."

As any dancer who looks up to a mentor and their art form, I had to ask, " When did you start belly dancing? I know that your mom dances as well, did you start by taking lessons from her?"

Atlantis thought and replied, " Gosh. Yes, I started taking lessons from her and she has been really the only teacher I had ever needed, to be honest. My grandmother was a professional ballet dancer and she toured with the Albertina Arosh Dancers all over the world, so dancing is in the blood. My mom had also trained in different dance, such as ballet and jazz. I followed suit, working my way up to belly dancing too."

"So then when did your mom, Tonya, start? Did she learn to dance from your grandmother?"

"No, my grandmother actually did not belly dance. She was a ballet dancer, which is a big difference. My mom actually took her first lessons from Esha Ali. They both worked at the Fez night club in the '70s, which was the mecca then. They also worked at the Seventh Veil. All of those places they worked together."

"So then did they work you in by bringing you up on stage?"

Shyly Atlantis said, " Yeah... yes they did. They used to say, 'Look at her roll her stomach.' I guess my abs were a big deal even when I was five. I don't know."

We both laughed, as that is actually a big deal. Most of your strength is drawn from the center out and it all starts with the stomach. They even teach this philosophy in karate! Hmmmm, I wonder if a black belt can make their belly roll? But then again, most bellies roll over the black belt.

"What styles of belly dance to you perform? I know that there are many styles out there."

Atlantis considers herself an ethno-fusion dancer. As she put it, " I take the best of every diverse style the Middle Eastern art form has to offer and infuse them together."

She also incorporates the moorish, Spanish and flamenco influences, as well as a bit of jazz, as they cross over and appeal to the American audience. " The American audience is who I am interested in educating. Middle Easterners, and those that are wild about the culture already, know the gifts of this dance. It is the American public that I address and I am an American and proud to be one. Being one of Greek heritage, it is part of my culture as well."

This led me to ask, "What styles are there? I am studying Egyptian and I know that there is the style of Cabaret as well."

Atlantis reflected and then spoke, " Cabaret-- what that means is that it is performed in a nightclub; there is Folkloric. Cabaret is the movements and where it is presented. Folkloric is mostly done at weddings, social gatherings, et cetera. There is Egyptian, Persian; Turkish, then there is Greek/Turkish and also Gypsy Rum, which is different than a Nine-eights Turkish. Then there is the Moroccan influence. Then it just gets messy and blends together. If you watch someone who is very knowledgeable in their moves, you will notice the diversity in their moves. How they execute them will also tell you what they are doing. Egyptian is very internalized, with very soft movement, more elegant and understated, it is more an emotional projection more than it is movement. The Turkish is a little more fiery in the movements and the release of the soul and the spirit, so they are more buoyant. The Persian style is very lacy, with constant fluidity to a constant rhythm and it is very isolated-- the shoulders, the head, the chest, et cetera, with the different  movements."

Being more educated in the different styles gave me a new perspective on how intense and appreciated belly dance is internationally. I was once asked what style of dance I was studying and I didn't realize that there was such diversity. This diversity has helped the art form merge into other nations and cultures and, maybe too, this is why it is starting to gain more recognition and popularity in the United States even with the times being what they are.

"Oh yeah, most definitely," said Atlantis. "Number one, it's very cyclic. Number two, when you get really high-end, highly visual performers, such as Shakira, Brittany Spears and Jennifer Lopez, who are embracing the Middle Eastern quality of the music, moves et cetera, you can't help propel it into the national spectrum. So if you are not catering to an Arabic audience, I feel that it will work for you. This is because they aren't Arabic performers, they are forgoing the general public with mass media. To me, that is really good  because it shows the crossovers from their nationalities, their music and therefore, shows the public how it can transcend into their life as well."

"You know, that is so very true. Watching some of those hip hop videos, I am realizing that the moves are the same. I never made the connection before until I starting dancing."

"Oh yeah," Atlantis continued. "You'll find that many of the moves are the same. It's just how they are executed and internalized with in the attitude of the performer."

"You know, that too, is so true. With our society being one that is very visual, the younger generation and the kids of today see these performers and say, 'Hey, I want to do that' or 'I want to dance like

"That's right," agreed Atlantis. "That's why we have competitions for little ones and juniors!"

I was compelled to confided in Atlantis a personal story. "I love to sew", I explained.  "It helps me to relax, and I had found a small piece of fabric that was just the right cut for a hip belt for my boss's granddaughter who is just one year old. She loves doing the cha-cha, so I thought I would make her something that would help her enjoy it more. Babies love jingle noise. My boss's daughter called me and thanked me because her daughter has had such a blast with the belt. So much so, that she wouldn't take it off when they went to dinner the night I had given it to her. Kids really and truly do embrace this art form I noticed."

"Talking about competitions, how did the idea of the Belly Dancer Universe Contest get inspired?"

"You know at the time Desert Storm was just starting in 1991? That was our first competition that year." Atlantis explained, "It seemed that there was no really good venue to appreciate this art form anywhere. With the conflicts that were taking place there in the Middle East, it was projecting negativity on the art form, as well as any ethnicity that had to do with that area. So we thought, what would be a good boost that wouldn't focus on just the community? Something that would bring it out front? And we had always wanted to do something in the way of competition, but something with staunch criteria that someone really had some knowledge, technique, and really worked at what they did. So we thought that a competition would be a really good thing to do. Commercially. the things that the public watches on TV, like Miss America, the Miss Universe Competition, lend it a certain amount of spice, and you know glamour and credibility do it. So we decided to go about it in that way. We have the finest judges. We do not judge ourselves, but we have judges that everybody in the community has deemed personally as aficionados and multi-award winning judges. It is the community that has embraced them, not necessarily us ourselves. So we try and pick people that are respectable, extraordinarily creditable; tremendously looked up to in the field, that can be able to judge someone else's capacity.

"What will be some of the things that the judges be looking for?"

"Costuming, rhythm transitions, creative interpretations of the dance, overall appeal and showmanship; things of that nature," Atlantis said. "Rhythm changes are a most definite; a good category to have also because it really shows your stuff and the break down. Plus, if you make it to the finals, the Egyptians are required to dance to a live drum solo that they have never heard before. The universal will have to dance to a whole routine that they never heard before, including a live drum solo. So the universal dancers really kind of get hit hard, but the universal is the dancer that encompasses knowledge of all the regions, she is able to perform under any circumstances and is really the professional entertainer that we are looking for here."

"I noticed that by going to different restaurants offering live dance, there is a difference in performance styles. I also noticed this in class. It's amazing on how we all interpret the music."

"Yes," said Atlantis. "And if you are not doing Egyptian, and it doesn't have to be choreographed, that is where it can be really good for you because it basically is sending your own personal message through your own personal body language."

"When you first start out, you're meek and unsure of yourself, as time goes by you become more sure of yourself and grow into the movements, you know what I mean? It's that little bird that becomes a swan."

"What Tonya and I really stress in our classes is that we don't want any clones," Atlantis went on. "I think it is very important to stress individualization. To stress authenticity and educate them, but know that the dance, once you have acquired it, is yours and to make it your own. Also that you can break away and do whatever you like as far as style and improvisation. I don't really want to get someone out there thinking, 'I'm going to do her head wipes. I'm going to this or that of hers.' Because you know what, that is exactly what people will think. You know that isn't what you want. You don't want to be known for doing someone else's stuff, you want something that comes from you, like any art form."

"Learn from the best, but take that knowledge and make it your own?"

"Yes. Exactly," Atlantis affirmed.

I had heard of MECDA, the Middle Eastern Culture Dance Association, and was curious as to how to join. I knew that Atlantis and her mom were a part of the organization, what I didn't know was that Atlantis is the Beach Cities Chapter president and Tonya is the vice president. So she was the right person to ask how to become a member and do you have to be a professional performer to join.

"No, you don't have to be a professional performer to join," Atlantis explained. "All you have to do is register and send in your money and you're there. To become a member, you can go to the MECDA Web site ( if you wish. It's $20 to join and there is a newsletter that goes out monthly, it informs you of things going on here in California, but truly across the country. Now no one could know about you unless you submit your info to him or her. Everybody thinks that, 'Well you should know about him or her.' Well, this field is quite flooded and it would be really nice if people would heed the deadlines of things. Also be respectful and turn them in. If  you don't turn them in, we don't know about you. That is what the newsletter is all about. As for being a professional, no you don't have to be. However, we do have an auxiliary troupe that is called Veils and Incense. Those are professional women and when I say professional women, I am saying that these women have or own their own businesses. They are professional women by day, belly dancers by night. This is Tonya's troupe and they have been together for ten years. She also has a secondary troupe which is called Of Essence of Veils, which are her primary students that are doing really well."

"How does one join a troupe?"

"That just depends on what your teacher wants to do," Atlantis said. "A lot of groups will hold public auditions. Usually in the MECDA Newsletter, which is called The Happening, and they will alert you to any auditions. You know the best thing to do is probably just walk up to your teacher and ask her if she has a dance troupe and tell her your very interested in joining."

Knowing the benefits of belly dancing myself, I had to ask Atlantis what she thought some of them were. She mentioned that it is a mental release; it makes you feel good about yourself. Also, she pointed out that many people don't embrace going to the gym to pump iron and dislike the atmosphere there. Belly dancing is more creative, you move your entire body to soothing music and it's beneficial to both your spirit and your soul, not to mention ladies, you get to look great while working out.

To finish off the interview I had asked Atlantis what she would like to share with us, something that she felt we, as dancers, should know.

"I think that the showcase that Tonya has at the San Pedro Sheraton Harbor Hotel is something I would like to share," Atlantis said. "It is a fabulous way to have practical application, dance in a beautiful venue and work to live music as well. It's a structure where it's geared to nothing but positive vibes toward the dance. I think that it is very important to those who are seeking to go where there is a positive aspect. A lot of people say, 'Well I don't get paid, I don't get this, and I don't get that.' Well, I would rather see you learn what is correct first before you try and get a job. That is what I mean by practical application, that way you are used to working with people. You know what works on a stage and you know, I am sorry, but usually the stage that you are in. Usually when you do go to a showcase, unless you are going for professional reasons to practice, whether it be as a troupe or personally for a competition or a performance, you shouldn't be getting paid. That's because you don't know what you're doing. I think that it is very important before you go out and either. (Most people will either undercut someone for money just so they can be able to say that they are working). You take a couple of months, take the time to research yourself in public, take the time to get a critique
from someone else; take the time to take a different class or go to another venue. Find out exactly where you stand before you go out and say you're ready to work. You may think that you're ready, but you're not."

"From my own experience, I agree with you. This is because you are paid far more in experience than you are in the value of cash any day," I agreed.

"Yes, yes. Most definitely," said Atlantis. "It is the same way when you are studying with someone as well. You never know what a person has to offer you. To those people who think differently, I feel sorry because when you stop learning, you stop the dance. You know what I mean?"

I complimented Atlantis, telling her that you can tell she truly loves what she does.

With a laugh she said, "Tonya told me that when you quit looking like you're having fun, it's time to get off the stage, so thank you very much."

I also had to let her know how much I enjoyed her class because she wasn't going to let me just sit and observe, I actually had gotten to participate in her class. The energy and spark that flowed from her on to her students was infectious and very obvious. With a very humble thank you, I realized that I have not just gained knowledge in the art form of belly dance, but I saw the love of an art form that had been passed down through the ages, an art form with a philosophy that can span into your whole way of life.

Again Atlantis, thank you for a wonderful opportunity to have such a conversation. My hip goes out to you.

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