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.

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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

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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.”

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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.