PROFILE: Helena Vlahos

Helena Vlahos, belly dance, floor work
Helena Vlahos performing a dramatic hair flip during floor work around 1964. Photo by Robert Cardoff.

For the past two weeks, I’ve spent an embarrassingly large part of my practice time lying on the floor on my elbows trying to flip a quarter using my stomach muscles. I’ve gone from turning deeply red and drenched with sweat, to just sweat, but I’ve achieved the flip about eighty percent of the time. No, I will not be providing video. Instead I will dazzle you with the lady that holds the record for flipping nine quarters up and down twice, then one at a time up and down, then alternating quarters. Yes, belly dancer Helena Vlahos is in the Guinness Book of World Records for Unique Abdominal Dexterity.

While this trick has some serious wow factor, it gives you just the briefest hint of the control and grace Helena maintains throughout her entire body. At 67, Helena continues to flip coins, acquire new dance moves and teach with the patience, humor and skill that lead her to develop her signature trick – and made her a club favorite for over 50 years. She’s the reason why I’m cribbing so hard with that quarter. At the end of this month, Oriental Bliss Productions is bringing Helena to Seattle for a weekend intensive featuring workshops in Helena’s signature 6-part cabaret, sensual chiftetelli, abdominal technique and zils, plus a performance. (There might be some spaces left, click here for more info.)

From timid to at home on the stage

Helena Vlahos left her home in Greece when she was only eight-years-old. After growing up on an island without automobiles and more tourists than residents during the high season, Helena left “water so clear you could see the fish” to make a stop in Chicago before her family finally settled in Los Angeles.

In her earliest memory of the U.S., she talks about the city feeling “like kind of a jungle” with all the people walking around. Timid Helena would turn “red as a tomato” if a teacher called on her, but that shyness didn’t extend to the dance floor. “When my foot set on that stage, it changed me. I’m still shy in certain environments. It’s something about dancing that seems to be where I belong. It’s my home.”

Although Helena’s first teacher (and distant relative), Fofo DeMilo spotted natural talent “that everybody used to like” in Helena’s movements, her skills are the result of hours of practice, observation and breaking down the movements for her students.

Helena Vlahos, Shakour's Oasis, belly dance
Helena at Shakour’s Oasis around 1964 or 1965.

In addition to teaching her the foundation moves such as hip movements, figure eights and arms, Fofo took 15-year-old Helena around to all the clubs so she could watch the other dancers and learn what worked and what didn’t in Fofo’s opinion. Fofo was opening the first belly dance studio in Hollywood and wanted her protégé to be stunning – and help with the other students. She used to say to Helena “Do you love the dance?” Helena says she didn’t know. She’d just started, but Fofo pressed on “You’ve got to love the dance.” As time passed on, Helena says she did grow to love the dance, sometimes, “you have to grow into it.”

Helena Vlahos, belly dance, Athenian
16-year-old Helena Vlahos during one of her early gigs at the Athenian Restaurant in Los Angeles, CA.

Sixteen-year-old Helena debuted at the Athenian Restaurant in Los Angeles. When she was going around viewing other dancers, the MC got her up to dance and the owner liked what she saw and asked her to dance in the grand opening. Since she didn’t have a costume, she rented her something from the movie studios – a something with a very small bra and sparkly fishnet, but it could only be rented for three days at a time. So she was hired for three days. Helena wound up staying on for a year, working weekends for the likes of movie stars Rosalind Russell and Edward G. Robinson.

During the week, she danced in the Arabic clubs like Shakour’s Oasis among others and later moved on to dance at the Greek Village, Seventh Veil, Ali Baba’s, The Fez (see documentary clip and images below), and the Athenian Gardens in Hollywood.

Several shots of Helena performing at The Fez in Hollywood. You can catch Helena talking about what it was like to dance there in the documentary due out later this summer.
Several shots of Helena performing at The Fez in Hollywood. You can catch Helena talking about what it was like to dance there in the documentary due out later this summer.

Power: how to get (and keep) the audience’s attention

In addition to the advice to never date your club owner, musicians or customers, that Helena did not take to heart and resulting in significant heartache, Fofo taught her how to reach her audience through eye contact by knowing when and how and at whom to look. “What I learned later,” Helena says, “is that when you have the attention of one person, you have everyone’s attention, but it depends which person you pick” She advises that you ignore that rowdy one in favor of one “a little bit on the shy side and looking at you in awe. They will attract the eyes of everyone else on you because of their facial expression. This is what gives us more power in the dance. It just takes a few people to help us along in our dance. We’re not just alone. We need the other people to help us along.”

In Houston, Texas, at the Bacchanal Greek restaurant with musicians and Greek folk dancers. From left top row: Gregory Vasiliou on guitar, Katia Gicoudis, folk dancer, Takis on drums, Panagiotis on synthesizer. From left bottom row: George Gicoudis folk dancer married to Katia, Panagiotakis Kogas on bouzouki, Kostas folk dancer and Helena, around 1971 or 1972; belly dance
In Houston, Texas, at the Bacchanal Greek restaurant with musicians and Greek folk dancers. From left top row: Gregory Vasiliou on guitar, Katia Gicoudis, folk dancer, Takis on drums, Panagiotis on synthesizer. From left bottom row: George Gicoudis folk dancer married to Katia, Panagiotakis Kogas on bouzouki, Kostas folk dancer and Helena, around 1971 or 1972

Getting musicians to work with you

In addition to the audience, Helena worked with musicians who helped hone her knowledge of the music and a few kind ones who helped develop her act.

In the mid 60s, Helena joined a group of musicians gathered by violinist Hrach Yacoubian to perform at the Aladdin Hotel in Las Vegas. Classically trained Yacoubian expressed his Armenian roots through a deep love for Mediterranean music. He liked to gather groups of Greeks, Arabs and Americans to create his own unique blend. “Everybody was afraid of him because we all admired him so much because he knew music so well and played the violin so well,” Helena says.

They played Greek and Arabic music as well as Turkish-influenced jazz like Blue Rondo à la Turk and Moscow Nights. In putting together the show, they rehearsed daily, including a head flinging bit that Helena performed regularly. Yacoubian expected the musicians the play perfectly timed to her flinging, but the musicians liked to count on the upswing. For Helena, it felt better counting on the downswing, which led to much discussion and even more rehearsal – so much so that Helena’s neck muscles grew so tired that she found her head wanting to rest on her chest. However, all the rehearsal paid off. At the end of their run, the Aladdin asked Helena to stay on without the band. But at 17, she felt she needed more experience and travelled on with the group to work at Yacoubian’s cousin’s place in Fresno – the Arabian Nights. While the musicians later went on to Bimbo’s in San Francisco, the owner’s wife preferred another dancer. Helena stayed on at the Arabian Nights for the rest of the year, becoming great friends with Yacoubian’s cousin Becky and her family.

Helena’s famed belly rolls started in the studio when she was left to her own devices and was trying really hard but “couldn’t feel what I was supposed to do.” She says she was so nervous that she flopped down on the floor and pretended to quit. Once down there, she decided to give it another try. She tried and tried, finally felt something for the first time and propped herself up on her elbows so she could watch what her body was doing. From then on, she included belly rolls and flutters with her floor work.

A huge influence was Khamis El Fino who played the oud and sang and understood the need to bring the audience along. “He would look at me and try to get as much out of me as possible to follow him.” Wearing a fez and pantaloons, this “great showman” would bring his oud over to play beside Helena during her floor work and belly rolls, playing faster when she fluttered, without ever taking away from her show.

Najib Khoury (formerly married to Antoinette Awayshak, a dancer and Suhaila’s ex-mother-in-law) would follow Helena’s belly work with his voice. “The ones that want to help you are part of your show and they create something really amazing with us.”

But Helena says she also learned from the musicians who wanted to steal her show, including a doumbek player who would “fight” with her musically on stage during the drum solo. He’d try to make his playing too hard to follow, she’d try to outdo him with her dancing. “Even that helped me a lot. You don’t learn dancing just by yourself. You have help from other dancers and from the musicians.”

When working with live musicians, Helena recommends informed respect and knowing your music and rhythms. “Bring the musicians into your act. Don’t act like they are not there, as if you are dancing to a CD. Acknowledge your musicians. Show them respect. As a solo dancer, you have to be in control of the stage. Never let a musician take over your show. Work with them to create a great show. It is your dance, your show. You should be in charge. This way you get the respect of the audience and your musicians.

Helena Vlahos, Arte Johnson, belly dance, quarter flipping
Helena Vlahos astounds comic actor Arte Johnson with her quarter flipping skills.

Growing your act with your audience

The theme of working and learning from everyone around you flows throughout Helena’s career, but figures especially prominently in her signature trick. While on an off night from the Seventh Veil, the whole group was hired by the People Tree in Calabasas, Calif., dancing for a largely American crowd. When it came time for the floor work, the oud player came close and he was funny, so people would laugh and feel like they were part of the show. While Helena was rolling her belly, one of the customers decided to join in by placing a dollar on her belly. The bill caught in the folds and everybody grew very excited. Helena realized she was onto something and began practicing.

She learned to flip the bill up and down and long ways and crease it and open it again. Then she decided to try coins, testing every denomination, but finally settling on quarters.

First she worked with one, then decided to see what would happen with two. While rolling, one stayed put. She went with it and was able to make it happen when she wanted to. Then she added one more, then another as her muscles developed. After she’d been dancing for six years, she could do 9 quarters up and down twice, one at a time up twice each, every other one up and down and the remaining four together.

Achieving celebrity

Helena Vlahos, Dar Michell, Malibu, belly dance
Dancing at the Dar Michell Moroccan restaurant in Malibu, Calif. in 1984.

Helena had relocated to Texas, achieving local celebrity dancing for several years at the Bacchanal in Houston and later at Zorba’s in Austin. When she returned to Los Angeles, one of her students mentioned her act to Regis Philbin, then of A.M. Los Angeles. Regis asked her to be on the show the very next day and a nervous Helena’s celebrity quickly grew. She ended up on That’s Incredible, The Merv Griffin Show, Mike Douglas Show and others, including the Spectacular World of Guinness Records TV Show. In order to be on that show, you had to have a record. Unsure how to register her act, they finally settled on “Unique Abdominal Dexterity.”

(I’ll vouch for that. Sit-ups will never make your stomach burn like trying to flip quarters. Fortunately, Helena tells me she’ll share some tips and tricks to make it easier during the workshop.)

Learning organically; teaching technically

While Helena may have absorbed a great deal of the dance through observation, dancers in the 60s were expected to bring their zils with them and could count on being called up to dance at any time. You were considered “lacking” if you couldn’t play. Dancers were also expected to be versed in veil work, floor work, chiftetelli, bolero, 9/8 and 6/8.  Helena’s sister Maria Vlahos, also a dancer, provided “very truthful” feedback. Not always what Helena wanted to hear, but always helpful. (Below is some rare footage of Helena and Maria Vlahos dancing at the Seventh Veil. The full clip also includes Diane Webber. While the image is quite dark and there is no audio, you can get a small taste of what dancing was like then.)

Helena spent a good deal of her time practicing and learned the hard way that playing the zils while sitting still could lead to trouble. “I used to play the music and try to keep up with the rhythms. I was practicing my zils separately from my dance. I used to sit down and listen and it was a challenge to me to see how fast I could go. A month later, OK I’m going to dance now with my zils. Biggest shock of my life, you can’t do that.” She says she learned how to dance with her zils through “trial and error” and with the help of the many musicians she worked with over the years.

Although Fofo did give her a foundation in the basics, teaching was not so technical then and dancer’s prided themselves on a variety of trade secrets. You would go to see so-and-so who specialized in belly work, another dancer for floor work, someone else for dancing with a great deal of emotion and so on. Each dancer had something unique to her that was a part of her show. And dancer’s guarded those skills like the trade secrets they were. So when a dancer shared a piece of advice, Helena says she treasured that information.

By the time Helena started teaching, students were used to asking questions – a great many questions – so Helena took what she had learned through observation and practice and learned how to break down everything from body part placement and posture to how to step properly with the downbeat. Today, Helena takes a special pride in teaching not only intermediate and advanced dancers, but beginners as well because she feels responsible for passing the dance along, especially to those who are dedicated and willing to learn her way of dancing which she says “can be a little harder.” Calling on her deep experience and technical knowledge she feels prepared to answer students’ challenging questions.

Dump the rules, keep the guidelines

As a judge for the Belly Dancer of the Universe Competition and while watching dancers on the internet and at workshops and shows across the country, Helena sees dancers influenced by ballet, modern dance and jazz. She says she loves the way dancers are dancing today because they know a lot more, but that sometimes dancers dance alike because they’ve been exposed to the same workshops and videos on the internet and worries that some people have developed too many “rules” for the dance.

“I hate when a dancer gives me rules. I am not following your rules. We’d all look the same.” One of her students in Arizona, a psychologist, helped her crystalize her concern: “You have to know when to do something and when not to do it. It’s not a rule; it’s a guideline. That’s what I believe 100 percent. What I’m telling you here is my opinion. Use your head. Use your own experience. Take what you want, throw out what you don’t.” Helena watches herself carefully. “I’ve had to eat my words,” she says, “when a dancer manages to make a move I’ve criticized look amazing.”

While belly dance has become more stylized over the last 50 years, Helena isn’t willing to leave anything out. I asked her what music a dancer should have in her collection and she mentioned Om Kalthoum because the music is so textured and fully orchestrated as well as Hakim, Sa’ad and the old standards like Aziza and Zaina, but she also says, “Collect as many [recordings] as you can of different singers, orchestrations. Don’t limit yourself to one thing. Variety, variety so you can pick different things, when you dance. I don’t believe in limiting when there’s so much.”

And while some dancers snub other dancers because it is not a style they dance, Helena scoffs at the need to snub dancers because they choose a different style than her own: “Do you mean to tell me that I can’t appreciate a dancer that is a really good dancer no matter what style? It may not be my thing, but that doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy a performance of someone who is good and has put so much time into doing it. We’re all in this. There are many types of doctors and a doctor is specialized in one or two things and you need them at different times for what ails you, but why not in dance? We can enjoy different things at different times.”

Cultural exchange

Which brings us to why we need dancers at all. Helena definitely sees the personal benefit to the dancer and to the audience in experiencing entertainment, but also sees the opportunity for unity. “Cultures take from each other, they borrow, they love and in turn they give their own in exchange. The purpose we’re serving is to connect with arts and music and dancing. It’s a better understanding than trying to understand people’s ways. Dancing and music is very beautiful for most people. Kind of a cure for loneliness, depression. Dance is a beautiful thing.”


In the 60s, psychedelic rocker, Damon the Gypsy asked Helena to play zils on one of his albums. He recently remastered the songs and asked Helena to play again — and appear in his music video. They also performed at Amoeba Music in Hollywood.


If you’re in Seattle at the end of July, you can join me at the Helena Vlahos Weekend Intensive. She also offers classes in the Los Angeles area, as well as private lessons and workshops. Visit for more information or email her at or call at 818-618-9746.

[soliloquy id=”571″]


How often do you practice? Not often enough. I practice when I teach and when I teach private students. That’s the time. I try to listen to music when I’m available and practice new things. Sometimes I want to try out a new move, so I teach to one of my really good private students and I show her, so by showing her, I practice. If I want to take that move and make it my own, I have to try and show her so I have to learn it. But I also do it on my own. I’ll think of a move that I want to try out and I want to see how it works or I play music that I’m going to dance to, so I play the CDs over and over and over in my car and then I try it at home. Not as often as I would like, but as often as I can.

What is the best piece of dance advice you ever received and who gave it to you? More recently when I was in Phoenix, Arizona, I asked the Sonia Valle, Director of Dance at Paradise Valley Community College who hired me to teach for-credit classes, what would you advise a dancer. She said, “Don’t anticipate the music. Wait for it to come.” In the back of my mind when I’m missing my cues. This is what I tell myself.

If you could whisper one piece of advice in every dancer’s ear, what would it be? Go out there and dance, and feel like the princes or queen that you are.


Maria Morca

Tamalyn Dallal

Aisha Ali

Know of a belly dancer who needs her (or his) story told? Once a month, I’m blogging about dancers from the 1970s (and earlier) with the goal of educating and expanding an audience for this incredible dance form. The selection process is entirely subjective. Please send suggestions to I also write supernatural noir, urban fantasy and horror. You can check out my fiction here (and yes, there is a belly dance book in the works).

PROFILE: Aisha Ali

Aisha Ali, Vacation Village Barefoot Bar, Belly dance
Aisha holding the audience’s attention at the Vacation Village Barefoot Bar in Mission Bay, California in 1968.

Ever wonder what a lifetime of belly dance will do for your body? Aisha Ali started dancing fifty-four years ago in 1961. She scheduled our interview around getting estimates from various roofers and needed time to climb onto the roof with each of them to point out what she wanted. So, yes, a lifetime of dance will improve your flexibility, grace and, apparently, balance.

I know Aisha primarily from the pages of “Habibi Magazine.” When I started dancing, there were only a handful of online Belly dance sites, so each magazine was a cherished opportunity to learn about dancing around the United States and internationally. I’d sit down and read the magazine from cover to cover, but the memories that most stick out are the black-and-white pictures of Aisha in intense poses as well as the excellent quality of her scholarship. Neither prepared me for the bubbly and passionate person on the other end of the phone line. Aisha is a delight. Go study with her. Just go.

Aisha tells me she’s been hard at work on a book of her memoirs, so what follows is the briefest of appetizers for the feast that is to come.

(Below: Aisha Ali dances in an episode of the TV show “The Girl from U.N.C.L.E”)

Believe in yourself

Aisha’s career is marked by belief and confidence — and a fair amount of luck.

Dracula, starring Frank Langella, 1979
Dracula, starring Frank Langella. Frank was Aisha’s scene partner (see slide show).

During the early 1960s, Aisha was studying drama with Rick Walters at the Theatrecraft Workshop in Hollywood and her scene partner was this guy (the one playing Dracula at right). Yes, she and Frank Langella were studying together during a period when Frank came from New York to check out Los Angeles. It was Langella who told her, “With such long legs, you should be a dancer.” When a boyfriend gave Aisha his fencing credits from The Nico Charisse School of Dance, she was hoping to take belly dance. They didn’t include it, so she settled for “primitive” dance with Ellie Johnson, a Katherine Dunham dancer.

“Frank and I wanted to give a party but didn’t have much money so we invited people and told them to bring food and drinks. We bought a record by Karaman called “The Flames of Araby” and I entertained with my so-called exotic belly dance. It was all phony baloney, but we were both very young and believed in ourselves.”

As luck would have it, the following year, Aisha was working as a part-time draftsperson and was invited to a party of mostly engineers where she met George Rabe, the president of UCLA’s Arab Student Group.  He invited her to the school’s international festival and said that the Arab students were presenting a belly dancer. When Aisha informed him that she was a belly dancer he promptly asked her to perform. She hesitantly agreed only after he told her she would be the star.

Zanouba, Jack Lemon, belly dance, Good Neighbor Sam
Zanouba dances for Jack Lemon in the publicity release for “Good Neighbor Sam.”

Actually Aisha had never even seen a belly dancer, but after consulting her aunt, she and her mother went to The Fez to watch one. Unfortunately, they didn’t consider the dancer’s schedule, so they didn’t get to see a dancer, but many of the Arab students who hung out there danced with Aisha and told her she was great, so she decided, “OK, I’m good. I don’t need to see a dancer”. Fortunately a week later, George Rabe called to invite her to see Zanouba, a dancer from Egypt, who would be performing for a Hafla at St. Nicholas Church. This is when Aisha saw her first authentic belly dancer. “The bare-midriff was shocking to me, but not in a bad way. I was struck by how statuesque and elegant Zanouba was – all fresh and perfumed with a smile that invited the audience to be part of her performance.”

Costume design

Aisha's first dance photo, taken in 1962 by Phillip Harland, while dancing for the Greek Village on Hollywood Boulevard.
Aisha’s first dance photo, taken in 1962 by Phillip Harland, while dancing for the Greek Village on Hollywood Boulevard.

After renting a vintage costume with some pantaloons worn by Betty Grable in an “On the Road movie,” Aisha first performed a week before the festival at the Religious Conference Building on campus. By the festival performance, at Sproul Hall, she and her mother had quickly pulled a costume together: “Black chiffon panels and a silver brocade belt that stuck out in the back like a ducktail. The bra had a few beads dangling from it.” She used the “Flames of Araby” record and danced to two selections. The audience found it curious that she kept dancing during the blank space between the tracks.

The other dancer was Leona Wood who would become Aisha’s closest friend and mentor. Aisha was impressed by Leona’s costume and complimented her on it. Leona smiled and replied “Well after all, the difference between three months and one week of work,” pointing to Aisha’s. “At the beginning, I must admit that it’s the costumes that lured me to become a professional dancer. I was motivated to learn how to design, cut, sew and bead,” Aisha says.

With few other dancers around, Aisha was quickly in demand. Very soon she was making more money dancing than working as a part-time draftsman, so she gave up her job and became a full-time dancer.

Aisha Ali, J. Howard, belly dance
Promotional photo of Aisha Ali, taken by J. Howard in 1968.

Pay and working conditions

Aisha strikes a pose at Yamishiro Gardens in 1965.
Aisha strikes a pose at Yamishiro Gardens in 1965.

Her very first job was in Fresno dancing at The Bagdad, where she brought home $50 for the weekend ($395.65 in 2015 dollars) plus tips. Her next job at The Torch club in Hollywood brought home $15 a night for two 15 minute sets – that’s $118.70 in 2015 dollars. Her starting salary at the Greek Village was $15 for one dance, but when not dancing she had to sit on stage with the musicians and singers and play cymbals all night. At The Fez she earned $25 each night for three long dances. Dancing at parties or “haflas” for Mustafa Akaid and the Arab community, typically paid between $30 and $50. In the beginning, she worked about four nights a week. Later, she had contracts in San Diego, Vegas, and London, where she danced every night.

Aisha Ali, Leona Wood, Ottoman Ghazeyeh
A portrait of Aisha Ali that Leona Wood took in preparation of a painting she did of Aisha as an Ottoman Ghazeyeh.

Aisha had also joined Leona Wood’s dance company, which was to become AMAN International. In addition to fine art oil painting, she learned much from Leona about design, music, and lighting. Since belly dance wasn’t Leona’s primary love, Aisha learned that from watching other dancers. In addition to the Egyptian dancers in Los Angeles, Maya Medwar and Zanouba, she also learned from dancers visiting from the East Coast: Turkish dancers like Soroya Melik and Princess Ayshe. Then there was Marlene of Cairo, aka Marlena Adamo from Brazil by way of New York, who traveled with her scrapbooks and press releases about her career as a ballerina. Marlena was so good technically that she could work in any club she chose for the highest earnings. Several times she fixed it so that Aisha would get her job with the Marlena-earnings by “suddenly” leaving the club owners in the lurch, after providing young Aisha as a substitute. In San Francisco Aisha worked with two Algerian sisters known as Soroya and Fatima Ali, and was influenced by American dancers like Jamila and Dahlena, whom she lived with for a short time.

Aisha Ali, Saadoun Al Bayati, belly dance. Beverly Hilton Grand Ballroom
Aisha Ali performing at the Beverly Hilton Grand Ballroom with Saadoun Al Bayati in 1968.

But it wasn’t all great money and live music. At The Torch Club on Hollywood Blvd, Aisha found herself working for a Greek woman named Helen Capello who imported gypsy musicians from Greece: “She would provide their airfare, room and board and they worked for tips and stayed as long as their visa would allow. When they left Capello would import a new group.”

“Most customers smoked cigars and drank Metaxa and tipping was done differently back then. The Torch was frequented by older Greek, Turkish and Armenian men who would spit on silver dollars and paste them on my forehead or chest. And Madame Capello was often slow about paying me.”

Aisha Ali, belly dance, Egypt
Aisha holds the drummer’s rapt attention while dancing in Egypt.

Traveling to the Middle East

During the 1960s while studying ethnomusicology at UCLA, Aisha enjoyed full access to the archives and had “fallen in love with the folk music of Upper Egypt.”  For nearly 10 years, she used the field recordings of Hans Hickman, Tiberiu Alexandrou and Fumio Koizumi, to teach Ghawazi style to the music of the Banat Mazin whom she would later perform with, film, record, and write about. Eventually, Aisha felt the urge to go to the Middle East herself and “find the roots of the dance.” (NOTE: Aisha has used the 19th-century British spelling “Ghawazee” in all her published works since 1971 when she borrowed it from her sources. Although the term literally means “invaders,” it was a name given to certain Egyptian dancing girls. Since Ghawazee were virtually unknown in most circles before Aisha introduced them, there was no other spelling in use. Today some western scholars prefer to use the spelling “Ghawazi.”  The feminine singular would be “Ghaziya” and the masculine singular would be “Ghazi.”)

During her first trip in 1971, Aisha says she observed various Gypsy entertainers but didn’t find the group she was searching for. Notes with the field recordings hadn’t provided the dance group’s name. “In those days, many non-Arab scholars didn’t understand that the term Ghawazee usually referred to Gypsies.” Aisha tried to explain who she was looking for, but her Arabic was limited and those that did understand her, didn’t consider the entertainers she was looking for as “desirable.”

Nezla El Adel of the Reda Troupe
Nezla El Adel, a ghaziyeh from Mansoura

Due to the Arab-Israeli War, her travel was confined to main roads. At that time, she regularly attended classes with the first Egyptian National Dance Company, the Reda Troupe. She was dependent on Mahmoud Reda who brought Nezla Al Adel (left), a ghaziyeh from Mansoura to his studio so that Aisha could learn from her. He also arranged for Samia Gamal to come and coach her. Travel in the Middle East was significantly different from what it is now. There were no large dance festivals in those days and she didn’t go with a tour or a group of her pals. She went alone, often relying on letters of introduction and luck to make her way. With a dance company and a Beverly Hills boutique at home, Aisha could only remain abroad for a month or two at a time.

In 1973, while staying with an Armenian family in Cairo, she finally learned the actual identity of the particular group of Ghawazi she wanted to find. They told her to seek out a group called the “Banat Mazin” and that they lived near Luxor. While buying a ticket to Luxor Aisha told the travel agent her reason for going to Upper Egypt and he suggested she contact the agent El Baron, who was often used by film studios for arranging entertainers and licenses. When she mentioned Baron to Mahmoud Reda, he advised her against making the contact, explaining that the man had a colorful reputation.

Before leaving for Upper Egypt, Mahmoud wrote a letter of introduction for Aisha, who barely understood what was written given her limited Arabic, but generally it said: “This is my friend Aisha Ali who is a teacher and respectable woman. Please assist her in locating the musicians and dancers she seeks.”

When Aisha reached Luxor, she got off the airplane and couldn’t find her luggage. As she continued circling the small airport, a man kept following her and asking if he could help. Accustomed to being pestered in Cairo, she was rude to him but finally broke down and complained that she couldn’t find her luggage. The man wanted to know who her guide was and Aisha didn’t have one but since he seemed to feel that a guide was a necessity, she gave him the name “El Baron.” He was taken aback and responded with “Why didn’t you say so?” Quickly he located and removed her luggage from a waiting tour bus and insisted she get in his private “limo”, after which he drove her to the Winter Palace where her “guide” was waiting to meet her in the lobby.

Without removing his sunglasses, El Baron, gave her a scrutinizing look, and asked how he could help her. She mentioned the Banat Mazin and then had the inspiration to hand him Mahmoud’s letter. He took the letter and appeared to be reading it, then excused himself for about 45 minutes.

When he returned, he assured Aisha that he would take care of everything and told her to go to her room to rest and meet them later around 6pm at the ferry landing. He advised her to wear a baladi toub covered by a gallabeya.

Aisha explained that she couldn’t afford to stay at the Winter Palace, but he told her “everything was taken care of.”

That night, at the landing, Aisha met the Banat Mazin and Abu Kharage’s mizmar group. The entertainers boarded a river boat and performed together for a group of French tourists. “I watched and followed the dancers and instantly adapted to their loose choreographies. It was easy because I had been dancing to their music for 10 years.” Once the French tourists were dropped back at the dock, they returned to the Nile and floated with the engine turned off while Aisha recorded the music.

El Baron turned out to be rather wonderful and they became great friends. “He was the only person I met in all of Egypt who had a similar passion for the music,” Aisha says. After that night, he booked her for weddings, festivals and parties and whenever she worked with the Banat Mazin, she was able to film them and record the musicians. This continued over a period of more than 25 years whenever she came to the Luxor area.

“At first the other dancers tolerated me, like having an odd duck in their midst,” Aisha says. Over time, Aisha’s costumes may have influenced the Banat Mazin. “Traditionally they wore wide fringed skirts overlaid with panels of coins, and hip padding under the skirts that lifted them and made them swing better. By 1977, they had also begun performing in straight tobes. Later, once the fringe skirts wore out and they sold them, I don’t think they ever went back to that style but it was a great costume, that really moved.” They were curious and sometimes competitive with Aisha, especially when performing for European tourists, but the competition didn’t extend to when Aisha performed raqs sharqi, the Egyptian form of belly dance developed during the early part of the 19th century and seen in countless Egyptian films from the Golden Era. “They were very firm about not performing raqs sharqi because although they were known courtesans, they considered the dance to be indecent,” Aisha says. When their cousin Shadiya went to Paris with Mohamed Murad’s group and performed raqs sharqi, they were outraged.

“Because they respected El Baron, they learned to accept me and I helped make them famous by writing about them and publishing the music. Prior to that, it was mainly the Fellahin in Upper Egypt who knew of them. Over the years, their tolerance of me turned into affection, and certainly, I have always loved them, especially Khyria who was performing even after marriage and was usually my dance partner.” Aisha says.

Ouled Naïl

Aisha recorded this music  in Algeria at Bou Saada, Chellala, and Medea in 1973. The CD is available through
Aisha recorded this music in Algeria at Bou Saada, Chellala, and Medea in 1973. The CD is available through

In 1973, Aisha hauled her equipment into the desert to visit the Ouled Naïl, no small feat given that it was 120 degrees in the shade. “It was so hot you could hear the heat buzz.” At a rug festival near Chellala, the dancers performed in tents. Their feet kicked up sand and the steam from the brewing tea mixed with the dust.

“Their moves were limited but specific. Most typical was the strong control of the pelvic region, which they borrowed from the Ottoman Turks and is still seen in Turkish dance. The defining technique is in the bouncing belly, up and down, lift and drop, then side to side and up and down with fast shoulder shimmies.” The dancers wore layers of dresses made from semi-sheer shadow cloth fabrics.

It was hypnotic,” she says. “The bendirs with snares created a deep buzzing tone that echoed the environment. This was accompanied by goatskin bagpipes played by musicians using circular breathing so they could continue on without stopping for fresh breath.

“The woman were wearing the same gowns that I later saw worn in a French travel film made in 1937. They had given me a gown that was identical.”

While waiting on the set for the movie “Gambit” some reps from Springfield Mills approached us and asked if  would drape some of their new “Gambit" line of sheets over their Ouled Naïl costumes for a publicity photo.
While waiting on the set for the movie “Gambit” some reps from Springfield Mills approached Aisha And Zarifa and asked if they would drape some of their new “Gambit” line of sheets over their Ouled Naïl costumes for a publicity photo.

After reading “Flute of Sand,” Lawrence Morgan’s book about the Ouled Naïl, Aisha says, “It sounded so familiar at first that I got upset, thinking he had gleaned his information from my articles and workshop lectures, but I soon realized I was being paranoid. He has given a pretty good portrayal depicting their human side as well as their mystique in a very personal recollection. Of course, we don’t really know how the Nailiyat felt about him. We can only hear his side of the story.”

A few key dance adventures

Thank goodness Aisha is working on her memoirs because I’m having a hard time keeping this internet-length. But I asked her for some of her favorite memories. Here are a few direct quotes:

“Floating down the Nile in the middle of the night on the ferry boats with Abu Kharage and the Banat Mazin, once we had left the tourists ashore.  With the motor turned off, the water created a perfect sound studio and this was when I recorded many of the pieces on my first album ‘Music of the Ghawazee’ which is so soulful and stimulating.”

“I enjoyed performing to live music in night clubs for close to 40 years. The admiring audiences gave me a sense of purpose and fed my ego.”

“Whenever I was in Cairo, on Thursday nights I would watch the rooftops for colored lights. If there were lights I knew there would be a wedding celebration going on and I often crashed the parties. Because I was a girl carrying a large camera, families would welcome me and move their friends so that I would have a seat up front for the entertainment. Then they fed me and some gave out boxes of party favors. I attended celebrations for couples from all walks of life. They were all different and the dancers were wonderful.”

“The most exciting moment was when I performed at the Municipal Theater in Tunisia for their Independence Day. I was the only dancer, but I had two orchestras, one folkloric and one sharqi. The old style auditorium was large and had balconies.  People threw roses on the stage as I danced, and it was breathtaking. My friend, a Tunisian engineer, was supposed to record it for me on my Uher Report L, but he didn’t know how to use it and the music was distorted”

Aisha Ali, J. Howard, belly dance
This lovely 1968 J. Howard photo of Aisha was also used on the poster when Aisha danced in Nuremberg many years later.

“I have had countless exhilarating experiences on stage, but one of the best was when hired in Germany by the city of Nuremberg to perform at a festival held for the local Gypsies, Arabs, and Turks.  At the time, I was in my fifties, although the posters of me plastered around the area displayed a photo taken in my middle twenties. I was hiding at the back of the outdoor raised stage waiting to be announced and worrying that the audience would be disappointed when they discovered I was not in my twenties, when suddenly a group of young Jordanian boys ran up to me chanting my name. They lifted me into the air and carried me before the cheering crowd and set me on the stage. As I danced at least a dozen little girls from the audience settled down at the foot of the stage with faces propped in their dainty hands, staring at me with rapt attention. I felt totally appreciated.”

Change resisted

I’ve read about American Cabaret dancers being criticized after their friends returned from Egypt, but this is the first time I’ve heard about the dancer who made the trip experiencing resistance once she returned to the States.

After her second trip in 1973, Aisha found a lot of her dance style had changed. She’d spent much of her time watching and working with a group that performed at Sahara City, a cabaret tent near the pyramids.

“Dancers on the West Coast didn’t know what to think about the minimalist movements to more subtle music. At that time, music in most U.S. clubs was primarily Turkish and Greek. It was like a gallop,” Aisha says, “which meant dancing was made up of shimmies with turns, spins, the choo-choo, and Turkish drops or backbends and a dancer was considered good if she was very fast and then very slow for the taksim”

Aisha asked the local LA musicians to learn from her recordings, but they were unable to cooperate. “By then I was doing subtle undulations and responding to the nuances in the music. The local music seemed uninspired and repetitious and after experiencing the real thing, it no longer excited me.”

Persuading club owners to change proved a challenge. “Since the musicians were often from various Middle Eastern countries, each played their own version of Egyptian music, which came out more like neighborhood hafla music, not what you’d hear from professional musicians in a Middle Eastern nightclub”.

After showing her Ghawazi dance footage shot on 8mm film, Aisha overheard some dancers in Oregon commenting:

“Did you see those plump women and what they were doing? Are we supposed to dance like that?” Despite playing finger cymbals regularly, most American students couldn’t keep up with the tempo of the tab’l baladi, which usually accompanies a mizmar band.

However, being able to perform these dances allowed Aisha to offer something different and to develop the subtleties and nuances of raqs sharqi, which is why her troupe was brought to London. Working with the Lebanese drummer John Kannan from London’s original Omar Khayyam was a learning experience. “Formerly the drummer for Nadia Gamal, his technique was precise and professional and he actually watched and followed the movements of each dancer so that there was an exchange between artists.”

After living and working in London, Aisha continued traveling regularly to various Middle Eastern countries over a period of 25 years, staying a month or two at a time. With experience and after learning more Arabic, she began moving around freely, visiting Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Libya, Algeria, Tunisia, and Morocco as well as Turkey. She never got to the Arabian Gulf but in the 1980s a group of Kuwaiti male dancers and musicians came to Los Angeles. After learning their Khaliji dances, she and her dance company, performed with them at UCLA, USC, and UCRiverside.

Samia Gamal’s advice

During 1971 when she was being coached by Samia Gamal, Aisha was disappointed that Samia would never dance with her. “She showed up wearing a sheath dress with nylons and would stand to watch me, telling me what I was doing wrong. Mostly she would nag me to keep my arms raised but she guided me to get rid of any American mannerism I had picked up. Suad, of the Banat Mazin, also stressed keeping the arms raised when I danced with them.

“Middle Eastern people generally lift their arms when they dance. Even if they are not a dancer, they will stand and lift their arms high, which signals a feeling of exhilaration and moves a different part of your body.”

Aisha feels that today there is too much emphasis on technique alone. We should not bring our technique drills to the stage. She would prefer to see more subtle articulation of the chest, for example, raising the chest on an accent without lifting the shoulders or tightening the back.

Still, she admits that when judging for the Belly Dancer of the Universe Competition, she finds there are many accomplished dancers, both local and international, who have the right feeling.

Ideal dancer

As we learn, I think that we have an ideal dancer in our heads. We see someone and long to move our bodies like them. So I asked Aisha how that ideal dancer in her head shifted with her travels.

Aisha says it’s hard to remember when that image actually shifted. She tries to discover traces of her old style while watching some of her students who studied with her 35 or 45 years ago and have come back to dance with her after a marriage, divorce or their kids growing up. Sometimes she can see remnants of her early style in their movements.

But she returned to Zanouba as her ideal:

“Zanouba had intense feelings for the music and for the musicians. She would dance to each one to make him feel special and create a call-response action with her body answering either the melodic lines or the rhythm. Her movements were always elegant and she was beautifully costumed and made up to perfection. Like a geisha, her purpose was to make herself beautiful and share the experience of her performance with the audience.”

Respect for the dance

Aisha Ali, Belly Dancer of the Universe Competition, BDUC, belly dance
A recent photo of Aisha who judges and performs annually for the Belly Dancer of the Universe Competition.

Aisha’s been introduced as a “national treasure” by Peter Sellars at the Los Angeles Festival, she’s been invited to speak at prestigious universities across the United States and has travelled the world representing the dance in international festivals and concerts. Since I continually see the theme of respect turning up on the internet and in conversation with dancers, I asked her what advice she might have for dancers looking to garner greater respect for their art form. Here’s what she had to say:

“Be diligent about researching costumes, music and movement. It’s important if you want to be credible and taken seriously. You must earn the respect of the community the culture belongs to if your goal is to preserve that tradition. If you prefer being more creative and modern, you may do whatever you like, as long as it’s labeled as such, but when you are representing a culture, be faithful to it. Don’t mislead your audience because you would not be preserving culture, you would be corrupting it.”


How often do you practice? In my youth, I rarely practiced because I was performing every night. Later when I had my dance company I had to create choreographies and rehearse with the group, so we practiced the routines two or three times a week.  These days I perform mostly solos and enjoy the spontaneity of letting the music decide how I will move. I get practice when I am teaching my regular classes or when I am just dancing on my own whenever I hear music.

What’s a regular session look like? My weekly classes are my regular sessions and I always play a variety of music from various regions of the Arab World. It gives us a good workout because each style concentrates on different groups of muscles.

What is the best piece of dance advice you ever received and who gave it to you? “Smile honey!” is what many of the patrons at The Fez would say to me early in my career. In the beginning I always had a serious expression. An authentic smile can make up for a lot of inexperience or a limited repertoire.

If you could whisper one piece of advice in every dancer’s ear, what would it be? Enjoy yourself and never worry about how many movements you remember. If you have prepared yourself, the music will guide you and the movements will flow from your subconscious.


If you’re in LA, you can attend regular classes or sign up for private sessions. She also offers various workshops.


You can purchase DVDs that include documentaries with footage from Aisha’s field work as well as performance and instructional videos. Her well-known classic field recordings – first released on LPs – are now available on CD.


Please feel free to encourage Aisha to write regularly. I can hardly wait until her memoir comes out.

Know of a belly dancer who needs her (or his) story told? Once a month, I’m blogging about dancers from the 1970s (and earlier) with the goal of educating and expanding an audience for this incredible dance form. The selection process is entirely subjective. Please send suggestions to I also write supernatural noir, urban fantasy and horror. You can check out my fiction here (and yes, there is a belly dance book in the works).

PROFILE: Tamalyn Dallal

Lovely in whiteNearly every dancer remembers their first encounter with a professional in full costume. For non-dancers, imagine you’re five-years-old again and Glinda the Good has stepped right out of “The Wizard of Oz” to grant you a wish. It’s like that.

I was in the elevator heading to a workshop show halfway across the country when Tamalyn Dallal stepped in wearing her full bedlah. Always gracious, she smiled and said hello and then we rode in silence while I stared at her. She went off to dance and I took my seat without realizing who’d joined me in the elevator. (I’d been dancing all of six months, so I was relatively clueless.)

Probably because I was so new to belly dance, I didn’t know what I was watching. I grew bored, especially with the folkloric stuff.

So did the radio DJ announcing the show. I was about to cut out to catch some jazz across town when the dancer from the elevator took the stage and absolutely killed it. The DJ grabbed the mic and yelled, “Now that’s belly dancing.”

That was 1998, I still get the same feeling every time I see Tamalyn dance.

Tamalyn began studying in the late ‘70s, but didn’t begin dancing professionally until six years later in 1982. For 39 years, she’s travelled the globe, performing and teaching in 41 countries.

We focused our talk specifically on how the dance has changed since the ‘70s, its explosive growth in China and Argentina and explored how the problems of colonialism are reframing how Tamalyn approaches the dance.

Musically inspired

Unlike many dancers drawn to the costumes or inspired by the performance of a dancer on TV or in the movies, Tamalyn was originally drawn to belly dance because of the music, taking the bus from her home in Kirkland, Wash. to the U-District near the University of Washington to buy LPs. Her collection included Eddie Kochak, George Abdo and Mohammed el-Bakkar’s “Port Said,” as well as several from Naif Agby.

That fascination with the music lead her to jump at a belly dance class even though she was only four weeks away from starting college in Arizona.

After she learned just enough for her college boyfriend to call her “his belly dancer,” she decided she’d better take more classes to properly earn the moniker.

Back then, her teacher taught from a syllabus of moves, working through them like working through a vocabulary list. It wasn’t long before the dancer cut Tamalyn loose suggesting that she find a new instructor since the teacher herself only had two years of experience.

In 1979, Tamlayn had her first troupe experience dancing with Shaharazade  Troupe in Seattle while Inzar and Laurel Grey were co-directors. Here's Tamalyn, left, with Laurely Grey and Laura.
In 1979, Tamlayn had her first troupe experience dancing with Shaharazade Troupe in Seattle while Inzar and Laurel Gray were co-directors. Here’s Tamalyn, left, with Laurel Gray and a dancer known as Laura.

Waiting to turn pro

Tamalyn’s first real performance, organized by her comparative religion teacher, happened after she’d been dancing for 10 months. She practiced mornings and evenings every day for three weeks, believing she needed to perform the full five-part routine no matter how many minutes she danced. She also worked in floorwork and backbends.

But it was six years before she went truly professional.

Today, Tamalyn says, students often are in a rush to go pro, but she enjoyed every bit of her journey. “It was a big thrill every little step of the way. Little by little, you get asked to be in student performances. Then to be in the workshop show,” she says. “It was fun being a student. That’s a great phase. I wouldn’t want to skip that.”

The tone of classes was much different in the ‘70s, she says. “some teachers were expected to be tough. Back then there was more sternness in the teaching and you could be scared of your teacher.” But Tamalyn stuck around. “I wasn’t expecting to be catered to. I was there to learn.” Now teachers can be friendlier with students, which is nice, she says, but there is more of a “consumerist expectation.”

After transferring to a college in New Orleans, Tamalyn found Habiba, who she says bore a strong resemblance to Jaclyn Smith from “Charlie’s Angels.” Habiba charged $10 a class in 1976. Adjusted for inflation as of April, 2015, that’s $38.73 a class, which was out of Tamalyn’s price range.

Recognizing her protégé’s talent, Habiba let Tamalyn teach warm-ups in exchange for lessons. “She’d take a lot more time trying to teach me how to teach than if she’d just taught the class,” Tamalyn says.

Tamalyn’s first video clip: 1982 (promo for doing bellygrams)

From beads to evening dresses

By the early ‘80s when Tamalyn started dancing professionally, costumes were already starting to shift. At the end of the ‘70s people were wearing lots of coin bras and belts, circle skirts and harem pants, she says. In the ‘80s that shifted to beaded fringe and straight skirts, but people were still making their own costumes. Tamalyn did a great deal of hand beading throughout the ‘80s. In the late ‘80s, foot-long fringe came into fashion. Her first costume imported from Egypt was “covered in beads.” That was 1993 and it cost $1,000, which would be worth $1,624.37 in 2015 dollars. In the mid ‘90s dancers started having access to lots of costumes from Egypt and Turkey. In the 2000s, the Dina bra and short skirt became popular along with cutouts.

Tamalyn, however, is pushing the other way. She’s dancing in evening gowns she modifies or makes herself, using color, contrast and well-placed crystals to draw attention on stage. This choice is influenced by her age, she says, but not because of body shame. She celebrates the comfort and freedom of dancing in long jersey dresses, wishing to be an example of how a dancer can be beautiful and sensual regardless of how much skin she shows. After years of performing a dance that is often not taken seriously by the general public, Tamalyn says she is personally striving for dignity and respect.

Changing dance styles

On the West Coast, Tamalyn says dancers decked out in coins, assyuit or striped fabrics found themselves influenced by Jamila Salimpour’s style. “Even when you didn’t do tribal, you were influenced by tribal.” When she moved to Florida in 1979 there was nothing tribal, but there she found a Lebanese-Canadian teacher who would invite students to her home for home-cooked Arabic food and dance video viewing. In the early ‘80s Tamalyn and her classmates gained exposure to Egyptian dancing through video, but travelling to Egypt was rare, except for the lucky ones that travelled with Morocco of New York. Now, she says, there are many belly dance festivals organized so dancers can go on their own. With political instability, poverty and increasing religious conservatism, work for dancers in Cairo’s hotels and clubs has dwindled, but the international passion for the dance keeps Egyptian dancers and teachers working at festivals, teaching foreigners.

After dancing all over the world, I asked Tamalyn to list what she thought had improved since the ‘70s. Technique, makeup and knowledge of the rhythms have all improved, she says, but “you can’t get as deep of emotion now because we’re doing little short shows. You can go deeper into your emotions when you have a half hour to 40 minute show. In the ‘70s you did go deeper.” Tamalyn was still to young to enter a night club, but while bussing tables downstairs at the Cedars of Lebanon Restaurant on Aurora Ave. in 1978, she “snuck upstairs to see Badawia, Dahlena and others as they transformed the atmosphere of any room they danced in. Whereas before, people didn’t talk about feeling; they just felt it.”

While many professionals miss the U.S. nightclub scene, Tamalyn’s travels afford her a different perspective. Dance is “exploding” in China, she says, taking off in the last twelve years, as well as in Russia, and now there are “thousands of dancers” in Argentina and Brazil (with the largest belly dance festival in the world, “Mercado Persa,” uniting 6,000 dancers a year in Sao Paulo). She also sees growth in many cities across the U.S. including New York and Miami.

Where she does see it struggling is possibly Europe, where it’s influenced by the economy and in the Middle East where it faces religious challenges. People say it is struggling in Seattle, despite its strong economy and large dance scene. But according to a recent survey, dancers get paid less in Seattle than in nearly every other city in the U.S. Tamalyn feels that if, collectively, people believe in themselves and believe in the dance and its potential, the dance can grow again. No longer is there just Egyptian, Lebanese, Turkish, old-style AmCab styles, but now there’s all kinds of tribal, Bellydance Superstars style, and also distinct Russian and Argentinian styles.

[soliloquy id=”377″]


Addressing cultural appropriation

All of this change brings a growing awareness of cultural sensitivity, but Tamalyn is cautious with the use of the word “appropriation,” preferring to leave the question of authenticity to the audience. “If you’re dancing at an Arabic wedding and they like what you do, you’re doing what they like. They’re getting their money’s worth. If it wasn’t authentic, it was what they want to see. If you try too hard to be authentic, it could be good, or you could be an imitation or character of their people and actually make people feel uncomfortable.” For Tamalyn, “being authentic is to be your most authentic self within the art form.”

From examining her own naïve interest in Orientalist art in the ‘90s, to reconsidering what she wears when she dances, Tamalyn says the hard part is realizing that even the aspects inspired by colonialism are “still art.” Rather than wholesale right and wrong, she advocates a personal increase in awareness and sensitivity as a way for each artist to find his or her own path.

For Tamalyn, that sensitivity is finding its expression, in part, in her costuming choices. “When I wear evening dresses, I feel like I can be as traditional or nontraditional as I want because I’m dancing the way that I dance, but I’m wearing something of my own style that is accepted by even the most conservative Middle Eastern audiences.”

Mainly, she says, “It’s what you do with the movements and how you use them that’s important and that takes a lifetime of study and experience and travel. And that’s the beauty of this dance. It’s a reflection of life experience.”


Choosing knowledge over innocence: Learning about colonialism

Deepening our knowledge of colonial history, may be the best thing for everyone, Tamalyn says. Especially when you realize that “maybe five countries in the world have never been colonies.”

“If we look at what colonialism is and how it continues to have this undercurrent around the world, then I think we can make educated choices about what we do with our dance. Not to feel guilty or ashamed about anything we have done in our dance, but we also can’t be so innocent either.”

40 Days and 1001 Nights

Tamalyn reads her book "40 Days and 1001 Nights", 2010.
Tamalyn reads her book “40 Days and 1001 Nights.”

In 2004, Islamist militants abducted American Nicholas Berg in Iraq and beheaded him as part of their protest of the treatment of detainees at Abu Grahib. Tamalyn was scheduled to travel to Egypt for the “Ahlan Wasahlan” (Arabic for “Welcome) Festival, but in the U.S., everyone kept asking her if she still planned to make the trip. For Americans, it seemed, Islamic countries tended to blur together. Tamalyn happened to be traveling with her brother, Richard Harris, renowned travel writer and editor, in Wash. State at the time. While talking the situation through with him she came up with an idea that would completely alter her perspective on life and bellydance.

She’d make the trip to Egypt. If it proved to be safe, she’d go on to spend 40 days in five different Muslim countries, taking the time to “get below the surface.”

The festival proved safe and Tamalyn let go of her apartment in Miami Beach, moved to Seattle to spend more time with her elderly parents and planned to teach workshops between visiting each country to help finance the project. As she started traveling, she “felt strongly that people needed to see what I was doing.” She started filming with a small, hand-held camera she carried in her purse.

Before the 40 Days trip, Tamalyn was very strict about making sure that everyone in her troupe moved with synchronized precision. Now, Tamalyn says, “I’m opposite all that. Everybody matching perfectly is so the antithesis of Middle Eastern culture.”

These days, she emphasizes the concepts of Earth and Sky, her six points in the body, relaxation and enjoying yourself. There is a groundedness to Tamalyn’s performance and teaching that can draw the eye in a room full of dancers. Her movements suggest a lifetime of a study and expression and after a workshop with her, you can see how she manages to transmit this to her students.

Tamalyn says coming to this new style has been process of shedding, “When you’re from one country and you live in different cultures, you really have to shed layers and layers of preconceived notions and we have a lot of layers drilled into us from the media. Coming from 21 years in Miami Beach, I was very focused on body and body shape and vanity and exposing your body. Being in different Muslim countries, it was nice to be beautiful, but it wasn’t attractive to show off your body. It wasn’t accepted. Living a good part of 2006 covering my body changed my perspective from ‘my body is my value.’ I had to find value in myself as a person rather than the superficial outer aspects of what I look like. As a woman, that’s a huge change in perspective.”

The “40 Days and 1001 Nights” book and film faced a “double-stigma” by addressing Muslim issues and belly dance, Tamalyn says. Eleven years earlier, her first book, “They Told Me I Couldn’t,” based on her dance adventures in Columbia had faced similar challenges.

With “They Told Me I Couldn’t,” bookstore owners would either refuse to take the book or hide it because there was a picture of belly dancer on the cover.

Although more than a decade had passed, Tamalyn faced similar challenges during her book tour through the back roads of the United States.

While she received strong support from various belly dance communities, Tamalyn cited several examples: A librarian in Raleigh, North Carolina was the only non-dancer at the showing. She hid in the back and finally admitted she was hesitant about watching it; a restaurant owner in another state agreed to show the film, but wasn’t comfortable confronting restaurant goers who were loud and rude during the showing and in Santa Fe, a bookshop owner claimed people weren’t going to be interested in seeing the film, although he allowed it to be shown. He stuck around, however, and liked it after all. The book remains timely, addressing much of the xenophobia current in the United States.

“Our perspective,” Tamalyn says,” is still very colonialist. We’re all people. We’re all just in this big world together.”

Lessons from Ethiopia

The most interesting lessons came from several visits to Ethiopia. After her brother became ill and passed away, Tamalyn went looking for some of the joy he was able to find in unexpected places – choosing Ethiopia, in part, because people “expect poverty” there.

But there’s nothing impoverished about Ethiopian attitude.

Although Ethiopia was occupied by Italy from 1936-1941, the country was never truly colonized. “They don’t look up to anybody,” Tamalyn says, nor do they feel the need “to look outside their culture. When you go someplace where no one is going to look up to you or anybody else, you think, ‘Hey, this is the way it should be.’

Global influence

While people in Argentina credit Tamalyn with introducing the sword dance, Turkish 9/8 and the “Zar” during the ‘80s and teaching finger cymbals in the early ‘80s, being an original member of Bellydance Superstars in 2003, afforded Tamalyn a truly global distribution of her art. “Bellydance Superstars did a huge service to all of our careers,” Tamalyn says. “You found those CDs in every single market all over the world. In many countries, that was the first introduction to belly dancing. In China it was, from the Bellydance Superstars DVDs.”

Countries beyond Tamalyn’s already impressive travel list started calling in 2007. Today, Tamalyn teaches regularly in Indonesia, Japan, Taiwan, Thailand, Argentina, the United States and holds a yearly month-long seminar in China that has included first-run performances in their brand-new theaters.

For dancers seeking a similar lifestyle, Tamalyn has the following advice: “Follow your passion and visualize what you want to do and it will probably come to you in different ways than you ever expected it,” she says. “If you love the dance, you follow what you need to do, not what other people are doing. If you teach dance to ten women in a tight-knit community where you change somebody’s life, that’s way more important than being famous.”



How often do you practice? I’m guilty. I used to practice a lot and I love to practice and I recommend practicing an hour or two a day, five days a week. And I should practice more.

In the ‘80s, I practiced improvising to two sides of an LP or tape daily, most days of the week. In the ‘90s, I taught and did so many shows and conducted so many rehearsals that it was a treat for me to practice for my own shows. Around 2000, I started going to the gym two hours a day, five days a week for four years. Now I practice what I’m working on but what I recommend and what I find effective is to practice one to two hours a day, five days a week. Starting with a warm-up and slow moves, then covering shimmies, zils, free style, veil, practicing for shows and, finally, “iPod-shuffle” in which one dances to any kind of music that comes out of the iPod when it is shuffling. (The video below shows Tamalyn dancing to a song she’s never heard before.)

What’s the best piece of dance advice you ever received and who gave it to you? There was a tour guide in the Siwa Oasis in 2004 and they were playing some Bedouin music in the tape deck in the Jeep and the tour guide and the driver started dancing in a way that was very slow and sensual — the way that men dance in Siwa. It was much slower than the music and we started dancing how we know to dance. We were following the beat. ‘Slow down,’ he said. ‘What are you doing?’ And he’s going a quarter of the time and I thought he was crazy. He didn’t know what he was talking about, but I got that reiterated again in 2007.

Farafra Oasis in Egypt and there was a man dancing with strange wobbly legs and he was moving his hips in a crescent motion very slowly and most of the dancers went to bed because they thought the men were drunk. But I was fascinated.

The same year I saw private women belly dancing for each other in Kenya. On the tiny island of Lamu, they do Swahili, Indian and Arabic dance, and when they belly danced, they were moving much slower than the music and it was really in their body and it was really interesting. There’s really something to this. That was a really great piece of advice to slow down.

If you could whisper one piece of advice in every dancer’s ear, what would it be?




Tamalyn offers regular workshops and performances worldwide. You can find out more about her upcoming events here, but a couple of especially fun ones are coming up this summer and fall. If you have the opportunity to study with Tamalyn take it. I’ve studied with her on and off for the last 17 years and have never walked away without learning something new and wonderful that immediately improved my dance.

Week-long intensive at Zamani World Dance near Seattle: July 15-22, 2015

Las Vegas Belly Dance Intensive: September 10-13, 2015

Month-long Intensive in China: September 29-October 26, 2015 (video from last year’s event follows)

Last year’s China theme — Water:

Dancers explored the nature of water crystals, inspired by the work of Masaru Emoto, who wrote the book “The True Power of Water.”

For this performance at a newly built city lakeside park, she’d intended to simulate iceskating to show “ice,” but the day was so lovely, that she adjusted to the location and “just danced.”

Here’s an example of a structured improv where each dancer represents one of the instruments in the song for the same workshop inaugurating a new government theater in Shanghai. The “Water” show was performed both indoors and outdoors.



They Told Me I Couldn’t : A Young Woman’s Multicultural Adventures in Columbia

40 Days and 1001 Nights, One Woman’s Dance Through Life in the Islamic World

Belly Dancing for Fitness: The Ultimate Dance Workout That Unleashes Your Creative Spirit



While working on her book “40 Days and 1001 Nights,” Tamalyn Dallal started shooting footage to take her readers along with her. She’s continued to develop her skills as a documentary filmmaker through a range of projects.

40 Days and 1001 Nights (2007): The visual tale of 40 days in 5 different Muslim countries through the eyes of dance.

Zanzibar Dance, Trance and Devotion(2011): A look at 26 traditional dances from Zanzibar


Ethiopia Dances for Joy (2011): Looking for the roots of dance in the cradle of man’s ancestry

Pockets of Treasure: Traditional dances of the Deep South (in development; trailer edited by Laura Rose)

Global Development of Belly Dance (Future project)



For more information, you can reach out to Tamalyn directly through her dance or film web site.

Know of a belly dancer who needs her (or his) story told? Once a month, I’m blogging about dancers from the 1970s (and earlier) with the goal of educating and expanding audience for this incredible dance form. The selection process is entirely subjective. Please send suggestions to

Previous dancers

Maria Morca

PROFILE: Maria Morca

"Maria Morca's Belly Dance Work Kit" published in 1975.
“Maria Morca’s Belly Dance Work Kit” published in 1975.

During the ’70s, belly dance books flourished. From how-tos to histories, paperbacks and hardcovers with lots of pictures made it into print and, by the ’90s, onto used bookstores’ shelves.

I stalked these books, lucking into volumes by Serena Wilson and Özel Türkbaş, Sula and others. After practicing or class, I’d look at the photos and wonder when I’d be able to stare into the camera with such confidence.

But it wasn’t until I discovered “Maria Morca’s Belly Dance Work Kit” on a shelf at the Capitol Hill Half-Price Books that I came across these words:

“Did you, when you picked up this kit, realize that you were also picking up a way towards personal identity?”

Not then, but I do now.

Maria Morca, flamenco, seattleHave you ever wished a character in a book would just come alive and talk with you or teach you what she knows? Yes, it’s that freaking exciting. More than a decade later, I have the privilege of being coached by Maria Morca. Let me tell you about her.

Although she’s from a musical family, a trip to the movies when she was five secured her future. After seeing the dancer moving on the screen, all she wanted to do was dance. 75 years later, Maria is still dancing, teaching flamenco classes for children and adults in Bothell at Zamani World Dance  and LaVida Dance and Yoga in Bellevue. She also offers vintage belly dance workshops and coaches belly dancers like me and Belly Dance of the Universe champion Roxy Stimpson.

At eighty, keeping up with Maria Morca can still make me sweat.

Maria Morca. flamenco, Seattle
Publicity shot for the Chateau in Hollywood with Manolo Vasques and Maestro Manuel Garcia-Matos, taken in 1967.


Maria’s professional career began when she went on the road with Lola Montes and Her Spanish Dancers, touring the U.S., Mexico and Canada. Maria celebrated her 21st birthday with the group: “When you’re traveling, you can’t gain weight, so desserts were not a problem. I think I had a strawberry shortcake,” she says.

Maria Morca, ballet, Seattle
Maria studied ballet with Bronislava Nijinska (Nijinsky’s sister) and Karoun Tootikian.

But before hitting the stage, Maria studied ballet and interpretive dance with Karoun Tootikian, a Denishawn dancer and Director of the Ruth St. Denis Foundation. Maria’s studies were interrupted when Tootikian went to work on the Hollywood production of “The King and I” as a consultant to the choreographer.

While she was away, Tootikian asked Maria’s parents to continue her studies in classical ballet with Vaslav Nijinksy‘s sister, Bronislava Nijinska.

When Tootikian returned to teaching, she only wanted to teach at the Foundation, which was very far from Maria’s home. As working musicians, her parents could only afford one class — and Maria had to take three buses and walk one-quarter of a mile on an unpaved street to get there (the street is now Ventura Blvd.).

Through Tootikian, Maria became a protégée of the Ruth St. Denis Foundation. Her parents paid for one class and the Foundation gifted her others, allowing Maria to expand her studies.

One of the founders of modern dance, St. Denis built her reputation traveling the world performing dances inspired by Egypt, India, China and other locations. When asked what it was like to study at the Foundation, Maria tells me:

“Miss Ruth did not teach. You absorbed from her demonstration, from her conversation. Teaching wasn’t one of her fortés, but certainly she is a great influence for anyone who was at the Foundation.”

Decades later, Maria continues to draw on that experience:

Maria Morca, Ruth St. Denis, Seattle, flamenco
Eighteen-year-old Maria Morca performing in one of the Ruth St. Denis Foundation costumes.

“Miss Ruth would from time to time tell us stories or [demonstrate] ‘how it should be done’ or she would give us little gifts from her travels. One time she opened a big steam trunk and gave something to each one of us. And there was a picture from National Geographic of a Balinese dancer and I wanted that so much. She gave me an old Christmas card of the Madonna and Child. She could see on my face that that wasn’t what I wanted. ‘When you learn to dance and the audience can believe you are actually holding the Christ child in your arms, then you’re an artist.'”

I asked Maria to tell me if she’s pulled it off. Despite a lifetime of achievements, here’s what she had to say:

“Not yet, my career, as everybody else’s, is evolving, which is wonderful because you never feel like you’ve done it all. There’s always something exciting to look forward to.”

Studying at the Foundation was “very magical” Maria says.

“We would never know when Miss Ruth would appear. She lived upstairs. There was always a lot of activity and one of the reasons it was very exciting was because visiting artists from around the world would stay at the Foundation. What do you do when you’re in-between jobs? You teach.”

During that time, Maria learned from dancers from Japan’s Kabuki theater, Tahitian from several large groups including Hilo Hattie, Javanese and Indonesian dance as well as studying with dancers from India.

Transfer of energy

I asked Maria to share one thing she learned from St. Denis that she still uses on stage today. She said it was “very hard” to pick one thing:

“Miss Ruth also was very much into esoterics and flow of energy and one of the things when she would demonstrate was how to flow one move into the other. It flowed something like you might find in aikido for when you do a movement and your movement goes through your partner and flips them.”

In addition, Maria mentioned St. Denis’s skills as a dramatist and ability to project, “But it took many, many years for these early impressions to surface in my work. The older my work and I get, the more I rely on these things.”

[soliloquy id=”244″]

[soliloquy slug="maria-morcas-fabulous-costumes"]

Maria Morca, flamenco, Hollywood
One of Maria’s favorite photos.

Getting to know her first love: Flamenco

When she was 13, Maria was out front of her school doing “noon duty” with another student of dance. Except her friend was studying flamenco. When the friend’s father learned that Maria was studying with the Ruth St. Denis Foundation, he told his daughter to teach Maria what she was learning and wanted Maria to share what she knew. After that, Maria says, “I was hooked.”

“There is a certain type of nostalgia that flamenco music has within it and it’s kind of like you’re drawn to return to something so nostalgic that it’s probably so far back in your past or maybe even before that, who knows, but it’s a longing to get to back to your soul.”

Maria Morca, vintage belly dance, Seattle

Becoming a belly dancer

Six years later, Maria made her living dancing flamenco and continued to do so until the ’60s when belly dance superseded flamenco in popularity.

By this time, Maria had also made inroads into Hollywood’s studios, accepting calls whenever they needed an ethnic dancer. She met Zanouba of Cairo after watching her bead a costume while on the set. Taught to bead by her grandmother, Maria recognized the complexity of the woman’s work. After asking if she was a “belly dancer,” Maria learned that the woman called herself an “oriental dancer,” but she also invited her to one of her shows.

But it wasn’t until one hot day that belly dance became a possibility. As the Santa Ana winds blew heat into Los Angeles, rendering Maria’s small apartment unbearable, her friend, Zanouba, invited her to swim at her apartment’s pool. The high-end address caught Maria’s attention. As a consequence of the swim, she moved into a nearby apartment at a reduced rate.

That New Year’s Zanouba called her with a paying gig that required two other dancers. She wanted Maria and Aisha Ali to perform. But Maria was worried that she didn’t know how to belly dance.

“Don’t worry you’re a professional dancer, I teach you five steps. You just do it over and over.”

Maria made a costume and danced. As the night wore on, the party got rowdier and one of the guests wrapped an ice cube in a dollar bill and put it down her bra.

After giving him a karate chop, Maria thought she’d never belly dance again, but she’d been working in movies and TV and had let casting know that she had a belly dance costume. A short while later, they called her for “I Dream of Jeannie.” Maria’s dancing in purple in the remixed clip below, followed by Zanouba of Cairo.

At that time, she averaged two or three shows a week, racking up credits like:

Maria Morca, right, In "The Greatest Story Ever Told."

 The Brother’s Grimm

Ship of Fools

I Dream of Jeannie


Mission Impossible TV show

I Spy

The Greatest Story Ever Told
(at left, Maria is on the right)

The Story of Ruth

The Lucy Show

Can Can

Hello Dolly

Funny Girl

The Nutty Professor

Two Weeks in Another Town

Unsinkable Molly Brown

Run For Your Life

Journey to the Center
of the Earth

Plus various television commercials

Toronto connection

In the ’70s belly dance as a fun way to get and stay fit was heading north, Maria relocated to Toronto, Canada. At the time, Maria was teaching, but only had a few students in flamenco and an equal number in belly dance until a local paper asked her to “mentor” an article on belly dance. She was supposed to help the model look authentic during the photo shoot.

She arrived at the shoot with four costumes. The model never showed because at the dance store she could only find a white leotard in her size. Concerned that it would be too see-through, she cancelled.

Maria Morca, vintage belly dance, SeattleThe newspaper turned to Maria. She ended up with a three-page write-up that included her phone number. Soon she was teaching four nights a week, three times a night with 12 students in each class.

Maria connected with George Sawa, who was a student at the University of Toronto and a “brilliant” qanun player. He and his ensemble would play jobs for Maria and her students and she invited him to collaborate on the LPs that went into her work kit. Sawa is now an ethnomusicologist who continues to play and teach in Canada.

For a long while, Maria was the only belly dance instructor in Toronto. Given belly dancing’s challenging reputation and Maria’s understanding of dance history, she began formulating her ideas and wrote several articles for dance magazines.

Around the same time, Penguin Books reached out to her and suggested she write a book on belly dance.

“My whole mission was that belly dancing can be a performing art and the history of why it has such a tarnished reputation, but Penguin Books wanted a book with lots of how to and photos of dancers in skimpy costumes. Exactly the opposite of what I wanted to say.”

When Maria explained her position, Penguin withdrew it’s offer. She says she would have been happy to write a pamphlet for her students, but her husband at the time encouraged her to go ahead with the book. Although the book is currently out of print, she has a limited number of copies available.

Some years later, Maria returned to her “first love” to form “Maria Morca’s Dances of Spain,” creating many choreographies which continue to be performed around the Pacific Northwest. She also created “Maria Morca and the Middle Eastern Ensemble,” appearing at events around the Seattle-area.

Maria passed her dance companies to her gifted students Jacquelina Villegas-MacLin and Deborah Katz, thinking she would enjoy the weather, she went back California several years ago. Finding it too hot, she’s back teaching and performing in the Seattle area.

Villegas-MacLin still produces and teaches flamenco in the Seattle area while Katz passed on Maria’s Middle Eastern Ensemble to Bellevue’s Zulaika after only a few months.

Dance continues to be a form a self-expression for Maria. She also credits dance with maintaining her mental and physical vitality: “The more flexible you are physically, the more flexible you are in life.”

Accepting students

Maria Morca is currently accepting students in both flamenco and belly dance. Reach her at

 Upcoming performance

Springtide at Third Place Books

May 2nd, 1-4pm

(other dancers will also be performing)


Practical advice

Visualization: Maria tells me she’s never liked to practice, but while riding all those buses to get to the Ruth St. Denis Foundation, she developed the ability to mentally practice to the music she could hear in her head. “Most of my planning out of a program or setting a choreography or even teaching a class is done to this day in a nonphysical mode and then is tried with physical movement,” she says.

Maria Morca, flamenco, belly dance, Seattle, Bothell, Bellevue
Maria Morca maintains her stunning posture whether on stage or sharing a pot of tea.

Posture: A session with Maria makes me sit and stand taller for a number of days. One of the most noticeable things about her is her posture, which would be extraordinary on a twenty-year-old and is impressive for someone who’s turned eighty this past January. I asked her what advice she might have for chronic slouchers: “Remember that flamenco dictates a certain upright posture. Notice I said upright, not uptight.” Maria credits many of her postural habits with being born into a family of professional musicians and dancers, but says “one of the benefits of dance is that it improves your posture, “making it easier to breathe as you take weight off your abdominals, which is especially important for women. With proper carriage, you are more flexible and you can move more freely.” Standing and sitting correctly, Maria says, alleviates a great deal of pain “and it’s better than taking aspirin.”

Know of a belly dancer who needs her (or his) story told? Once a month, I’m blogging about dancers from the 1970s (and earlier) with the goal of educating and expanding audience for this incredible dance form. The selection process is entirely subjective. Please send suggestions to


False Eyelashes (or taking cues from the ’70s)

false eyelashes, Seattle, belly dance, J.C. O'Brien
These are the false eyelashes I use for dancing. Wearing them feels like I’ve attached a five-pound weight to each eyelid.

Yes, this week I’m writing about false eyelashes since they’re now the fashion amongst belly dancers. Back when I started, heavy mascara sufficed.

In the ’70s, my mother would painstakingly glue tiny clumps of false lashes to her own. I’d sit on the commode and watch her twease a clump, dip the end in stinky glue and move that mess toward her eyes. I couldn’t look away, but there was no way I was putting that crap on my own lashes.

Flash forward to my first belly dancing gig in over a decade and I’m in the bathroom with tweezers and glue that doesn’t stink and strip lashes I picked up at Walgreen’s and I’m realizing that I’m really glad my husband was a teen in the ’70s because I needed a consult to get the lashes on straight.

As I mentioned before, the things are heavy , like wearing hand weights on your eyelids. A number of gigs later, I can tell you that men get stupid when you where false eyelashes. Whether it’s my husband, his pals, the waiter pouring my drinks or the checkout guy at Rite Aid (pantyhose, not eyelashes — they’re suprisingly reusable) they all suck in their breath when I lift my eyelids high enough to see them. To a man, they act like little boys who’ve found an unexpected present under the tree. Unlike the influence of modern adornments, men keep a polite, but amazed, distance. For someone who’s dealt with sexual harrassment in the workplace and criticism from fellow feminists for wearing makeup and earrings it’s a tantalizing breath of power.

While I hesitate to break the false eyelash spell, I wonder what else the ’70s might have to teach me.

When I started belly dancing in the ’90s, much of the dancing was heavily Modern Egyptian, which wasn’t bad. It just wasn’t the image that made me want to belly dance. Except I didn’t think I had an image in my head.

Turns out that if you watched television in the 1970s, you watched a lot of belly dancing. Nearly every one of my family’s favorite shows included a belly dancer at some point.

Since that time, I’ve learned that there was a shift in America when dancers travelled to Egypt and came back to tell some gorgeously talented dancers that they were doing it “wrong” instead of understanding that what they were doing was different.

Many of the dancers in clubs across the United States tested their talents with musicians from a variety of countries, working to express Egytpian style for one audience, Turkish for another, Greek for a third or performing their own mix of styles that, by all rights drew on heavy Turkish influences.

This is where I want to dance, but sadly, these clubs no longer exist. But the music does and there are a number of dancers that graced those stages and dance floors, racking up hour after hour of experience that has transformed them into true masters of this art that I adore.

While many of these dancers are still teaching and performing, the audience that once loved them has shrunk to practioners of their dance form.

That’s not good enough.

The rest of you are missing out.

There are a whole bunch of people who don’t even know these dancers exist. Well, I’m going to change that. Starting with next week’s blog post.

Once a month, I’ll be interviewing a dancer from the ’70s or earlier and sharing video clips of performances as well as insight and anecdotes and how you can get in touch with them to take classes or watch them perform.

NEXT WEEK: Maria Morca

Maria Morca, flamenco, belly dance, Bellevue, Bothell, Seattle
Maria Morca teaches flamenco and vintage belly dance in Bellevue, Bothell and Seattle.

Next week I’ll be featuring my dance coach, Maria Morca. Maria’s racked up 61 years on the stage and can still make me sweat during our sessions. For dance historians out there, she studied with one of the mothers of modern dance, Ruth St. Denis.

UPDATE: Maria tells me that, despite labeling, Miss Ruth is only in the first clip presented in the video below.

Risky business

I want to be seen.

Don’t get me wrong, I still want to be heard, but some of the time I want to speak with my hips, my hands and my false eyelashes (because belly dancers wear them now … they’re like weights for your eyelids).

While I’ve never vomited before performing, my stomach used to roil (and not because I was doing belly rolls) and my head would spin without my ever turning my feet.

That stopped last August.

Not because I got on the stage when asked, but because a caring teacher planted the idea that I might be ready and, a few months later, another teacher lovingly pushed me into scheduling a performance.

In my head, dancing on a stage is the equivalent of submitting stories: you’re inviting judgment. You may be hoping for feedback, but the opportunity for a negative response is there, which, given the involvement of your heart in whatever you’re doing, could be rather painful.

But I’m realizing that the greater risk lies in practicing, but not showing.

If you never risk being seen, you slowly fade until your spine is a thin line of vapor.

People squint at you and still can’t see who you really are.

So, *deep breath*, even though dance is ephemeral, video changes that. I’m posting the dance that took me over to the other side, to that place where it’s not only OK to be seen, but where the graciousness of your audience can fill in all the thin spaces.

Whatever you do, take the risk and let yourself be seen.

Writing exercise: Pacing

Finger cymbals, zils, zills, Peter Fels, Jamila Salimpour
Learning to play these finger cymbals helped me figure out a new approach to pacing my novels.

A few weeks ago, my belly dance instructor sent me back to zill kindergarten. (Zills are the metal disks dancers attach to their fingers so they can accompany the musicians or make their own music.) Despite the grace displayed in scenes like this one in “From Russia With Love,” playing them takes a helluva lot of coordination — and then you add moving your body.

I’ve spent the last couple of weeks walking around my house, playing the right cymbal, then the left, then the right, starting out on a different foot with each set of three. Luckily I’ve talked my bass player husband, Dan O’Brien, into being my personal metronome, so the pacing-the-house-while-playing is slowly switching to dancing.

What the hell does any of this have to do with writing?


In addition to coordination, playing cymbals requires serious listening. I’m training myself to dance to complicated Turkish rhythms, which means I’m listening intently to how the song is paced. With seven minutes of music, you have an intro, building to some excitement, a lush sexy bit, then more excitement and even more excitement.

Dancing and playing to a song like this is an exercise in pacing, which has definitely affected my writing. I’m more conscious of the need to release as well as build tension. And Dan, who’s been my involuntary beta reader for a long time, noticed a real difference in my latest book, saying it’s more of a page turner.

So here’s my challenge for other writers:

Pick a song you love in a language you don’t know.

Put it on repeat on your iPod.

Listen to it at least an hour a day. More if possible. Play it while you’re driving, dealing with housework, walking the dog.

Continue with your regular writing schedule, but consciously let your song inform your writing.

At the end of the week, take a look at your work and see how it’s changed. My bet is that your pacing will be better, your transitions will be stronger and the need for expository prose will fade away.  That was my experience. I’d love to hear about yours.