Vanessa’s Belly Dance Story: “Blame it on the MUSIC”

This is a story of Vanessa’s journey with Belly Dance. It was written by her in 2015 and as you’ll see, it comes straight from her heart. She chose the title ‘Blame it on the MUSIC’ because the music is what makes her want to get up and belly dance! ūüėČ

 

First taste of music and dance  

As far as I can remember, I’ve always loved music and always loved dance. Being from the beautiful Caribbean islands of Trinidad & Tobago, music and dance is just part of life, so I grew up being exposed to various musical genres –¬†calypso, soca, reggae, dancehall, Indian, chutney, and parang. More than that, the fusion of¬†the East Indian, African, and Spanish cultures in our country, created¬†a wonderful variety of rhythms, instrumentation, melodies and harmonies, so diversity of sound was very natural to my ear.

 

The first instrument I learned to play as a child was the piano, and my ear for music really started developing during that time, as Classical music is so rich and distinctly different. In addition to performing at recitals and competing at local festivals, I also achieved musical qualifications from Trinity College London. Next for me came the classical guitar, a touch of steel pan, and even an attempt at playing the (Indian) tabla. This exposure to varied instruments helped me to appreciate music in a special way, becoming intuitively familiar with timbre and the feel of sound coming from different instruments.

 

The first dance classes I ever took formally were in ballet, and though I remember feeling awkward and inadequate, the lessons of grace, posture and control never left me. Little did I know this foundation in dance, together with the experience of performing on stage, would come in handy later on. For a short time in high school, I also took Latin dance classes, and there I learned a bit of salsa, merengue, and rumba. Indian dance I was never formally trained in, but it was a big part of our culture in Trinidad because of our history.

 

My belly dance story: 2011

Discovering belly dance  

My belly dance story - first solo performance

After graduating high school in Trinidad, I moved to the United States where I attended university and became an Engineer. Then in April 2011, I moved to Miami, Florida. Inspired by the variety of music and dance in Miami’s multi-cultural environment, I started exploring different dance styles. First I did Zumba, then Hip Hop, Belly dance, and even Pole dancing. Each satisfied a different aspect of my personality –¬†Hip Hop called for attitude, Pole dancing sensuality, and Zumba a Latin flair. Belly dance however, captured my heart. I had always been drawn to it, particularly watching Shakira dance, but had never really gotten the opportunity to learn.

 

So I took my first classes at the Belly Motions studio in Miami. There, I learned to create belly dance movements and got some insight into Middle Eastern/ Egyptian culture. I also got the opportunity to perform with other dancers at shows, as well as do my very first solo performance. For me, belly dance felt natural as the movements and the music reminded me of home, and I especially loved the Tabla solos which sounded like Trinidadian tassa.

 

Inspired by my experiences, as well as my teachers at the studio and other studios where I took classes, my passion for belly dance grew. I felt comfortable with the movements, but wanted to learn more about the music as it was from a culture not my own. I also wanted to get a better understanding of how to apply the movements to the music, as apart from the Drum Solos that seemed to escape me.

 

My belly dance story: 2012

Meeting Hossam and Serena  

While reading on the Internet one day, I came across some articles on music interpretation¬†written by Hossam Ramzy, the renowned Egyptian drummer. At the time I didn’t know much about him, other than his name being familiar from songs, but his articles¬†were fascinating and seemed to answer my¬†questions. I wanted to know more, so in¬†August 2012 I to flew to Austin, Texas to¬†attend a workshop taught by Hossam Ramzy as well as his wife Serena Ramzy, a talented and accomplished Belly Dancer.¬†It¬†was life changing – after just a couple of hours of being there, I knew I wanted to study with them. How? I didn’t know – the Ramzys lived in England!¬†Still,¬†they were teaching about the music, not just belly dance movements, and I wanted to learn more.

 

The decision to go wasn’t an easy one. There were many factors to consider – distance, finances, time-off, not to mention the unknown. Yet, in February 2013, I took a leap of faith and traveled to the United Kingdom for the first time.

 

My belly dance story: 2013

England and the Advanced Dancers Course  

My belly dance story - first international performance

The flight was long, the people not-so-friendly, and England was cold. It was actually worse than I had anticipated. Regardless, I met with Hossam and Serena, and began my journey on the Advanced Dancers Course.

 

For the next couple of years, I traveled back and forth between England and the United States for my classes. Each time I wondered, “Is this really worth it?”¬†Looking back, I can now say with absolute certainty that it was, for what I gained was priceless.¬†Training under the mentorship of the Ramzys for almost 3 years gave me a healthy respect and new perspective on the Art Form as a whole – Belly Dance, i.e.¬†Egyptian Dance,¬†and its relationship to Music has never since been the same. It is truly a blessing to have had the opportunity of being trained both by a Musician and a Dancer, especially ones so deeply talented in the art.

 

What a journey! I learned to play the Egyptian Duff (frame drum) with Hossam, who was merciless in his perfectionism. From Serena, I learned love and respect for the dancers from the¬†Golden Era of Egyptian Dance:¬†Naima Akef, Samya Gamal, Nagwa Fouad, Taheyya Karioka, Suheir Zaki. Truth be told, the study of the iconic dancers and history was difficult for me at first – black and white films, with dancers and a culture that I couldn’t relate to. However, over time, learning each dancer’s style made me hear the music the way she heard it. Only then did I truly understand what it meant to be one with music, and only then could I appreciate each dancer’s ability to do so in her own unique way.

 

Lessons learned  

All that I learned on the Advanced Dancers Course was invaluable, but there were 3 lessons that were the most pivotal in my growth as a dancer. Firstly, the art of Egyptian dance necessitates that a dancer really listen to the music (rhythm, melody, harmony, instrumentation, soloist, orchestration), and then respond with appropriate movement. So my initial training with Hossam and Serena, though it may seem simplistic, involved interpreting the melodic sounds of varying solo instruments, such as Nay, Qanun, Accordion, and Violin. The results were quite remarkable Рas my ears became tuned to sounds that were once foreign to me, particularly in terms of pitch, timbre, and emotion, I started to hear the individual instruments within a piece of music, whilst hearing the entire orchestration at the same time. I also started to feel what the musician/ composer was trying to say, and the push and pull of emotion resulting from rhythmic, melodic, harmonic or instrumental changes. This impacted me profoundly, and despite all my background in music and dance, I still felt as though I could hear and feel for the first time.

 

Next, I learned that the true art of oriental dance is to “visually hear the music”. As described by Hossam, the dancer, being the final musical instrument of the orchestra, uses her body to translate the musical sound into three-dimensional movement.¬†So looking at the dancer, you can “hear” her dance. To quote Lebanese-born percussionist,¬†Souhail Kaspar, the dancer “must translate the sounds of the rhythm, instrument and melodic line on her body…¬†If the stage is dark and there is a spotlight only on the dancer, she will appear to be conducting the orchestra with her body.¬†This, to me, is the basic foundation of Egyptian dance and it‚Äôs how I approach the interpretation of a piece of music.

 

Last but certainly not least, from Hossam and Serena, I learned much about the Egyptian culture and history of Egyptian dance. Things like РWhat is Belly dance, where did it come from, the story behind Baladi and Saidi, who played the first Tabla solo, why belly dancers dance barefoot, and many other aspects of the dance that are not so commonplace in teachings today. These finer details have made me into a more polished dancer, as I have been able to understand more about what makes the art form an art, particularly when it comes to the people it represents. The truth is that art cannot be understood apart from culture and history, else it would be just a Science Рand in the case of belly dance, reduced from something so beautiful to pure mechanics of creating movement.

 

My belly dance story: 2015

Turning Pro  

Completing my training with the Ramzys was a turning point for me. It was then that I felt confident in presenting myself as a professional dancer of Egyptian Belly Dance. The line between hobbyist and professional can oftentimes be blurred, so I had chosen to make mine distinct and the Advanced Dancers Course had not just been a time of intense study of the art, but also a transition. It had taken almost 3 years, but all the teachings on Egyptian dance, rhythm, music, culture and history had given me the ability to present to my audience a dance that was not just entertaining but also authentic to the culture from which it came. This had always been important to me, and it’s why despite all I learn, I’ll always be a student of the art.

 

To the future 

My belly dance story - professional dancer of Egyptian Belly Dance

 

My journey with belly dance started in Miami in 2011. A path paved by love for music, from the first hip drop has always been a story not just of dance but of life.¬†Overcoming obstacles along the way, I learned the value of persistence, patience, courage and humility, I learned the value of the past and the value of art. What a journey it’s been, and I’m thankful for it all – all I have learned, all who I have learned from, all who have supported me, and for God’s grace.

 

As I look toward the future, I hope I will always look back Рnever forgetting, that what we dance is Egyptian Dance and what we represent is a people, their culture and history. For giving the world this art, Egypt, may you be blessed, and to our pioneers Naima, Samya, Nagwa, Taheyya and Suheir, may your legacies forever inspire. Cheers to the future, to new experiences and wonderful opportunities to share in the music and dance of this beautiful art form we call Belly Dance.

Love, Vanessa