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Conversations with Delilah and Julia Terr

This conversation was videotaped in 1996 in Seattle, Washington. These are the full transcripts
with additional comments
not seen on the DVDs.

Delilah's Bellydance Workshop, Vol. I

D: My name is Delilah. It hasn't always been Delilah, but it has really become a part of my life and is as real as I get now. I have been dancing since I was about 18 when I was in college. I came from a swimming background and hadn’t taken dance classes prior to that. The sort of antigravity weightlessness, and the fluidity of dance is very much like swimming. Actually, the butterfly stroke has the same quality as the torso undulation in bellydancing, and they share the same technique of using your whole body to direct movement and motion without having to lead with the feet. The reach and extension employed in swimming is the same as the reach you use in your arms to communicate and articulate exotic arms in the dance. It really is about communication, not just calisthenics and movement positions. The difference in dance is that the movements have to be imbued with energy, strength and emotion.

JT: So that's more than swimming, a lot more than swimming . . .

D: Water is an emotional medium, really. So, I think that was a good place to begin to really free up your torso and your entire body, and really feel the flow of energy. A lot of dancers say they first learned to undulate their belly in their bathtubs. A liquid medium is really conducive to understanding this dance.

JT: Fascinating. When you first said that you started in college, not in high school, what does that mean? Do many dancers start in high school?

D: I think most people would think that a serious dancer’s career would begin in grade school. But that is not the case for most bellydancers. My entire dance background began at college. I’d taken a few gymnastic courses, but I wasn't in any dance or choreography courses. I think that was an advantage for me because I wasn't locked into counting and numbers, and approaching dance from that Western point of view. I could experience it from a more right-brain, creative point of view – experiencing the dance and not always having to think from the left brain, analytically, ahead of myself. Sure, I do think ahead of myself, but it's feeling the music and allowing your body to flow through passages from the point of view of the moment at hand. I probably never do two dances the same, ever. I know the music. I know my skills. I practice my technique. But I'm locked into that experience with that particular audience or music in that moment, that day. I prefer to dance to live music, that's a big priority for me. When the music is live, it defines the moment along with the dancer and the total experience is expressed.

JT: You mentioned choreographed versus completely unchoreographed dance and using live music versus taped music. If you have taped music do you usually have a choreography and if you have live music do you usually not?

D: No. You don't have to choreograph. The nature of this dance and what makes this dance form unique is that, by tradition, it wasn't choreographed. Choreography, the idea of choreographing things, comes from a strong Western influence. When you're in the moment, and you're experiencing music, say, in the desert around a tent or in a performance in a cabaret or at a party where people are enjoying food and conversation and you’re dancing – why do you need a choreography ? You need to be in the moment experiencing that place and time. In the dance, you learn your skills, and you learn the format. There's plenty of discipline, but you're allowed that freedom. Its much more like jazz. You can choreograph the dance, a lot of people do, and that's certainly all right. But what is really exceptional about this dance is that you don't have to choreograph it. It's much more intuitive and appropriate to the moment.

Where would you place yourself in the spectrum of bellydancing, with what other dancers are doing around the country?

D: Well, I'm able to make a living at bellydancing, and I think that puts me in a different category than many. I am an American, I see this dance form as being a wonderful therapy for women, a creative art form. In my experience of the dance, I've gone through plenty of different experiences. I grew up through the dance, I learned from different ethnic groups. I had wonderful Lebanese, Iraqi, Turkish, Armenian and Greek musicians who taught me different things about music, dance and their cultures. I’ve enjoyed learning and meeting them but I didn’t become one of them. I’ve always kept my position and integrity as an American woman. My style of dance is called American Classic .

What I want out of this dance form is to encourage women to recognize themselves fully. I feel that something unexplainable resonates within women in regard to this dance form. It defies any nationality. When you study the origins of this art form, you find threads of this dance interlocking so many different cultures. Different politics. The spectrum of time, history, environment and politics bring various pressures to bare and shape the dance. So you can't say that belly dance comes from one culture, it comes from many, many diverse cultures. There are many different religions, cultural traditions, different languages, tolerances, instrumentation, and accents that flavor traditional Bellydance. The overall unifying factor of this dance is women. It isn't a folk dance, it doesn't belong to one single culture. Throughout history, throughout time, it's a dance about women's common creativity, their common gestation process, their bodies, the events and actions in their lives, their stories. One thing I've discovered through the years of my experimenting and growing with this dance is that it contains a secret language that women are remembering. While men's lives and history have been written down in books, women’s history hasn't been recorded in books, it’s been recorded in the body. Their history, or rather herstory, is about our lives, our experiences; attraction, falling in love, loosing loved ones, rocking babies, finding food, nurturing, caring for the sick and injured. It’s the struggle of all our sisters throughout the ages. That pain, that struggle, that beauty, it's recorded in our body. And when we see a dancer do a figure eight, or a hip lift, somehow intuitively we are understanding a secret language that has been lost to us. Why? Because we've been, by Western culture and politics, removed from our bodies. When we begin to explore this dance we start to retrieve that feminine wisdom that lies sleeping, and I think that it's really important for us today, to reclaim feminine energy. Dance is a very important part of that. There are so many prohibitions against dance that go hand in hand with the oppression of women, their bodies, and the larger body of the earth. The earth is a body. Our bodies are earth. This planet would benefit from a greater conscious awareness of the earth as body. If we bring that awareness into our bodies and allow ourselves to express our feminine energy and our feminine power, whether we are male or female, it begins to enlighten us all to care about many more things than just the dance.

JT: What are some of these prohibitions and hurdles dancers have to overcome? And in bellydancing, in the politics of bellydancing competitions or conventions, what are some of the barriers women face? It seems some women are really concerned with only a pure Arabic bellydancing style. Do you think that prevents people from experiencing the things you're talking about — such as the body-earth connection?

D: Yeah, bellydancing should go hand in hand with the study of women, because women are a confused mess. We need to do a lot of work to understand our own actions, because we are products of society. There are so many layers that it's hard to explain in a short statement. I feel that bellydancing is a way to start healing a lot of those things . . . to begin to think for ourselves, begin to feel for ourselves, to bring awareness back into our bodies. All of a sudden you start thinking differently, you start really living your own life. Not just living out the cultural dictates such as being ashamed of your body because you don't have a pubescent flat stomach. You want to be a real woman, you want to accept your body, you want to express your body and not be intimidated by the fear of expressing your creativity and your life. There is so much pressure our culture puts on women.

I did a dance in 1985 while I was pregnant with my second daughter. It was called Dance To The Great Mother. I performed it at different women's groups, it was really powerful. I was performing this dance, masquerading as Isis, the great mother! I was celebrating being pregnant, celebrating the creative process, and life – a new life coming through my body. The persona of Isis, the great mother, was very celebratory for me. Women would come up to me with tears in their eyes and say, “I wish I’d seen this dance while I was pregnant or before I had my children.” Instead, they we're telling me that they wanted to lock themselves in a closet because they felt fat; that they were ashamed of their bodies and they couldn't wait for the pregnancy to be over. I knew what they meant, because this was my second child, and I did not dance through my first pregnancy. Why? Did I have less talent? Was I less available? As I was masquerading as Isis, the great mother, it all came back to me. I thought, “Yeah, I know exactly what you mean, because I wasn't free like this, either, through my first pregnancy.” This just landed like a ton of bricks on my head, realizing how we feel as women. It was the most monumental step in my life to undertake Dance To The Great Mother.

My life changed. My attitudes changed. My creativity blossomed. It was a gift to be able to be performing and celebrating my condition. My physical form and my empowering dance pushed buttons in some people – usually men over the age of 35. They would have some sort of cultural block about a pregnant body. “Oh, she should cover her belly,” they’d say. And some middle-aged women had a problem with it as well. The oldest women seemed to love it. Many women of all ages felt the liberation of it. Why should I cover my belly? We all come from a pregnant body. We should be celebrating this condition, this experience, this image. We should be having Miss Pregnant America competitions. That's when you’re in your power. If we honored this process, we would be a different culture. We would have different associations with the earth, with environmental issues, with life, with guns.

JT: Tell me about Isis a little bit.

D: Isis is an Egyptian goddess, the mother goddess.

JT: What did you do to depict Isis?

D: I do a lot of different creative works and at the time I do them, I immerse myself in the myth and the archetypal symbolism. Isis the great mother is an ancient Egyptian Mother Goddess, bringing life. Your question brings up another topic. Instead of explaining my dance, you have to see it. It’s a common predicament for dancers to talk or write about a dance. There truly isn't a way to do it eloquently or thoroughly. “If I could tell you about it, I wouldn't need to dance,” Issadora Duncan said. Dance is not about words or language or our college institutional ideals, it's about our bodies. We tend to put everything into a library, a book, a text. But it isn't about words. We put everything into a formation of words or a sound bite, thus choreography. Dance is a Left brain-Right brain-Body experience. It puts me at a loss to explain that process. You have to see and experience dance.

Describe your first experience with bellydancing. The first time you ever saw it, and what impressed you.

D: That is really an extraordinary question, because I’ve wanted to be a bellydancer for about as long as I can remember. I always wanted to be a Bellydancer. It makes no sense, right? I’m Norwegian. Just your basic American mix of English and Norwegian. I remember very distinctly before I was in school, I told my mother I was going to be a bellydancer. She asked why I was going to do that, and I said because Spanish dancers have a mole right here [on the face] but I have one right here [on my belly]. It was my mark, it was a sign to me. I was supposed to be a bellydancer. How did I know what a bellydancer was? Did I see a Cecil B. Demil movie or something? Probably. I believe that the bellydancer is an archetype that cuts deep. Women come to me and say, I must have been a bellydancer in another life, this dance means so much to me. Whether it's reincarnation or another lifetime, it describes something uncanny. There is definitely a relationship here. Embracing the bellydancer archetype is like holding a key. The key opens a computer file, and all this forgotten information about living life comes back to you. To dance belly dance is to become a priestess. When I was a little girl, I said I was going to be a bellydancer. It kept reccurring in my life. People would say to me, “What do you want to be when you grow up, little girl?” I’d say, “A Bellydancer, a hairdresser, and the first lady astronaut.” I gave up being the first lady astronaut because I didn't want to learn math (left brained). But I would still love to dance on the moon! I was a hairdresser while working my way through college, and Peggy Paul, bless her heart, came to me and said, “I'm taking the coolest class down at the junior college. Bellydancing!” I said “Bellydancing! I've always wanted to do that!” So, I signed up for the course at Grossmont Junior College. I went on registration night, and there were four classes, 35 women in each class, and 200 women turned away in the pouring rain in San Diego. This was the ‘70s, bellydancing was a total phenomenon everywhere. At that point my grandmother was taking classes, my aunts, my cousins, in all different states. My aunt became a drum Instructor in Corvalis, it was uncanny. Simultaneously all over the country, women were getting into bellydancing. We were coming out of the ‘60s, women were becoming more liberated. It was a phenomenon. So, that night at Grossmont Jr College, I was turned away in the pouring rain. Peggy Paul was registering women, as she worked at the college. She whispered to me, “I snuck you in!” So Peggy Paul is responsible. I immediately became a total belly dance addict. I remember seeing my teacher for the first time. Her name was Shaharazade, she was the most mysterious, exotic woman I’d ever seen. She was my mentor and I became mesmerized. I also remember thinking that I’d wanted to do this all my life, but I didn’t know what it was. I remember thinking, “Shimmy? What?” It was registering with me, I didn't know anything about it but it had been calling me for so long. I quickly had an aptitude for it, as if I had been doing it all my life.

This was a course I couldn't get credit for at the college. I could get credit for jazz dancing, but not bellydancing. It wasn't considered serious. Ironically, I had to quit college because I was too busy dancing professionally. I started a career. I quit hairdressing, too, because I was dancing every night of the week, doing parties and making good money. I bought myself a new car without a co-signer at 20 years old. It was a lot of fun, I had some very amazing experiences. I also had the opportunity that not many dancers have early in their careers and that was to work with some very creative musicians who allowed my imagination to bloom onstage. They would work with us and we would come up with some really interesting dances, just little things that made the staging unique and wonderful. When I was really young I came up with something called the Ancient Egyptian Cane Dance. That was at The Sultan’s Lounge in San Diego. At the start of it’s hay day, people would line up outside. We did three shows a night, where we filled the room, then cleared it between every show – three times a night, six nights a week. Bellydancing was really popular. That gave me a lot of stage experience really early. I also worked at a Greek restaurant in La Jolla at the same time. I did that a couple nights a week, worked the Sultans Lounge a couple nights, then performed with Lebanese musicians at weddings and parties with the ethnic groups. Bellydancing taught me more about the Middle East than I would have known as an average American. A lot of women really wanted to bellydance and the dance form was really speaking loudly to them. Some started learning more about the Middle East, and they were shocked. By our standards of lifestyle, women in the Middle East are treated poorly. A lot of women in the ‘70s got out of bellydancing because they couldn't get it into perspective with their belief system. “I can't do this dance when the Middle East treats women so badly,” they’d say. This was an important intersection. I came to this same place, but I said, I know that this dance empowers women. I know this to be true. Treatment of women in the Middle East has nothing to do with this dance. In fact, the dance is probably the remnants of a time, a long, long time ago, when women had some say, some power, some autonomy, some life to them. It really is a life dance.

Continued on Delilah's Bellydance Workshop, Vol. II

A Companion to Delilah's Bellydance
Workshop Series,
Volumes I, II, III


Visionary Belly Dancing
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