Kajira's Interview with Delilah - 1996
K: Delilah, you once told me a story of how, even when you were a little girl you wanted to be a belly dancer. Please share that story with our readers.
D: When I was in maybe second grade, I told my Mother I was going to be a belly dancer when I grew up. Why? Because Spanish dancers had beauty marks by the side of their mouth and I had one on my belly next to my navel. When I look down at it, it has a pattern that looks like a scarab. Then, as I grew up I used to tell people I was going to either be a hair dresser, a bellydancer or the first lady astronaut . I gave up on the astronaut because I figured I 'd have to learn too much math but I graduated from beauty college before high school. Upon graduation from high school my best friend Tony Burunda and I signed a pact to run away to Hollywood and become bellydancers. We knew there were lots of bellydance clubs on Hollywood Boulevard and the Sunset Strip. I lost contact with Tony for a while after that, but the next time we saw each other I had become a full fledged working Bellydancer before I was 21 years old. She later became one of my students.
I started bellydancing at Grossmont Junior College. I was working my way through college by doing hair part time. One day I was I was doing this lady's hair and she told me about the night classes in Bellydancing at Grossmont. I showed up on the next registration night. There were 4 classes taught by Sheharazade (now dancing and teaching in Miami), there were 35 dancers in each class and 200 turned away in the pouring rain in San Diego! Bellydancing was at its peak of popularity (though at this time you couldn't get any college credit for these classes). I was one of the people turned away that night, but the registration lady was my patron in the beauty shop and she squeezed me in. Peggy Paul was her name and she changed the course of my life. Then it began, I became hypnotized with the dance. It always has felt like I was being danced rather than dancing the dance. I guess because it felt so right. I see god when I dance. It's truly my calling and I believe I've known that since the beginning.
K: I know you feel strongly about the term bellydance. Please share your views.
D: I was pretty young and naive when I began this dance. I matured right along with the growth of this art in America. There came a time when people would say "belly," it's such a funny sounding word, we need to find a new term. Something more "respectable" yet I never heard any one say Beledi was a funny sounding word. I think if we can remember back and be honest, most of us originally came to know the dance by the term bellydance. The many other terms came later in our experience. In an effort to improve upon the image and sound more professional we started calling it Danse Oriental or Middle Eastern Dance, but then we found our selves having to be Henrietta Kissingers to the Middle East and we were mostly pretty ignorant about that part of the world. We just liked to do the dance, but if we were going to call it (especially) Mid-East Dance, then we had to learn more about different places where the dance was popular. The dance has made many American women much more culturally aware about the true diversity of the Middle and Near East, which is a very positive thing. However, along with that education came the knowledge of how women were treated and looked upon in some of these places, sometimes a sad and fearful sight. It made me very glad I was an American women. But women from over there would point out "look around, American Women are dictated to just as much by their society, look how obsessed they are with being boyishly slim." I started noticing how beautiful bellies really were and how diverse in shape they really were. I started realizing that pregnant women in our culture were hidden from view and felt ugly and fat. If we were liberated and had a positive image of womens' bodies in our society, we would have Ms. Pregnant America beauty contests. We would celebrate life and womanhood. So that brought me to realize that maybe we had a problem with the word " bellydance" because we were being culturally manipulated and were commonly in denial about our bodies and weren't facing up to it. We were in effect giving our own power away. So I personally decided to proudly claim the term "bellydance" and quit trying to launder it. I encourage those around me to do it too. The belly is the source of power, beauty and life force energy. It is the threshold through which we all must step into this world. Stretch marks are badges for bravery and this is one place -- if ever -- where diversity of size and shape is welcome! If we all succumbed to the stereotype rising out of our culture's neuroses we'd all look the same. We'd all look like Barbie. How boring.
K: You have a powerful and unique style. Your veil, belly, and floorwork are unparalleled by dancers of today. How would you describe your style?
D: Thank you for your opinion Kajira. I only wish I could live up to it. There are moments I know I am living up to my potential and they make the other ones a sad disgrace to me personally. I think the hardest part of being a dancer is that the more you accomplish and by the time many know your name, the physicality of life draws you away from some parts of your reward. There is so much upkeep! A painter, a musician, a poet is not bound by the constraints of the body in the way a dancer is. For the only way for the dancer's dance to be seen is to dance it again. Video helps but it's a far cry from the live experience of an "in-the-pocket" performance. I know I'll always dance, even in an aluminum walker . . . but I won't be doing Turkish drops! If you have a favorite dancer go see her and support her now, she won't always be there for you. Dance is an elusive art.
K: From what do you draw your inspiration?
K: How do you feel about dancers varying from tradition?
D: First of all, there are many traditions, and how did they evolve? Secondly, your question makes me think you might be alluding to another question: Are we doing someone else's dance or have we evolved our own style and techniques and do we recognize it -- or are we outsiders? If we see ourselves as outsiders we will always be copying. But if you feel a deep personal connection to the source you will know the answer. I think you have to know the art of grace, spatial awareness and timing, before you can vary from a form and be recognized and appreciated. I feel strongly that this is ART we are doing and not social etiquette or even folk dance. Fusion is natures evolution. There has always been innovation. If there was no fusion we would be listening to the same songs sung on Day One.
Traditionally music and dance rise out of the situation of the human condition. Do the minuet and you will feel the fashion of a particular bygone era. The bellydance has been with womankind since the beginning. Our dance is a feminine solo response to the environment at hand, not just one bygone era. Its independence and its success rely heavily on personality and mystique. Each situation in the environment sets the tone: language, music style, clothing, custom, climate, religion, politics . . . . Styles change. Today's "modern Egyptian" is modern. But the history of the dance comes from and has meandered through many cultures over many centuries. Often by political proxy it was disowned by countries it's practiced in. It is traditional that the dance moves from one country to another. At this point in history, the dance is being honored in many new places such as America, Germany, Finland, Japan, Brazil. I see the unifying factor as being not one culture but WOMEN: Feminine regenerative energy, even when done by a man. There has always been this great mystery to women and the birthing process. Women have this privilege to bring forth life from inside their bodies. It is the human psychic metaphor for the creative process, a very mysterious process indeed. This dance crosses international boundaries. Women everywhere are in tune with that, and always have been.
Personally, I've always known that to be a copy was never as interesting as to be an original. People can take it or leave it.
K: Would you say that, for you, the expressing of yourself through dance is or can be of a spiritual nature?
D: Most definitely I have found that the entire exploration of this dance and its integration in my life to be a spiritual experience. It's been my vehicle for self exploration. I subscribe wholly to the idea of god as self realization. The presence I experience within the dance is so awesome I think, "Why me?" I can be a real flake sometimes; but then I realize that when I'm really channeling that grace, I 've learned to let that insecure voice move over and get out of the way. The unworthy thoughts don't even exist; they're replaced by the living presence of peace, joy and compassion.
K: You conduct annual retreats for bellydancers on Maui. Please share what that is about.
D: Each retreat has had its own set theme. They are all journeys into original territory when it comes to the study of bellydance. This year's theme is "Care Taking." Last year's was "Celebrate Life," and the year before was "Beauty." Most years I 've had guest instructors: Suzanna Del Vecchio, Meleah, Sarah Teofanov, Z Helene and this year Carolena Nericcio. I bring the music ensemble Sirocco every year to teach and play music. They have been very supportive and are a pleasure to work with. We have staple events which we do every year like the Gypsy Boat Cruise and Whale Watch Encounter, and our Ritual Dance into the Sea at sunrise. We study belly dance, drumming, hula; we soak in the hot tub under the stars and dance with wet veils in waterfalls. What is the most powerful element is we do this away from TVs, telephones, answering machines, and computers . . . and the demands of our families. We take time out for ourselves. For 10 days we sing, dance, drum and play. For adults that is a rare experience; it's life altering most of the time!
K: You enjoy the out doors. What about Dancing in Nature?
D: I was a swimmer before I was a belly dancer. Perhaps I'd been in training all along to connect the belly to the sea. In 1987 I videotaped the ritual warm-up section of Volume 1 of my Bellydance Workshop series in the California Desert and by 1989 Volume 3 was done in Maui. In 1990 I went back with the specific purpose of doing a chefti-telli dance right into the Sea and incorporating the waves into my dance. That dance changed everything. It was an epiphany of realization, confirmation and a date with destiny. With in a couple months I was organizing my first retreat designed to invite others to be pioneers and explore with me what was unfolding. It's still something that can't be put into words. You are the interface between the connection that can be made though this dance and all the sacred mystery of the worlds. Every year more comes in. Besides Hawaii I've done work in the Costa Rican Rain Forest, and the Hoh Olympic Rain Forest as well as the local parks in Seattle.
K: You teach weekly in Seattle. How do you run your class?
D: I would love to have my own dance space instead of having to cart and carry everything to someone else's space for a designated time! I've been looking seriously. I teach two classes back to back one night a week, Sept-Nov and Feb- June. My classes are noncompetitive, very supportive. The first hour begins with a ritual warm-up similar to Yoga and focuses on the breakdown of techniques used in all styles of bellydance. The second hour is more experiential, working with style and expression and music appreciation. Some times we have guests playing live music. Many students get dressed up to some degree to come to class. It's part of the ritual of pride and celebration. We all dance better when we feel pretty. I just got a letter from a student who moved to another state and, while the teacher there has an excellent reputation as an instructor, she said she missed the support and beauty that was cultivated in our classes. I love my class and I miss them on the off months.
K: Do you have any advice for students and teachers?
D: Yes. Students should stop hanging up shingles as teachers after 9 months of classes -- or even 5 years if their personal experience has been one dimensional! I find it so insulting that they could possibly put themselves on par with those who are established and experienced teachers in the area. All dancers are representing the dance to the greater public. The rationale to undercut the professional is, "I'm not as professional so I won't charge as much for my class or my video isn't really very good so I won't charge as much," yet their video or their class isn't advertised as an "Amateur's Approach to Teaching Bellydance." I've seen it over and over again. Dancers who don't know how to dance (especially to live music) and who have had very little experience start teaching right away. They might be lovely dancers personally, but to teach you need more seasoning. Do you think a student studying with a violinist who'd been studying for only 9 months would be likely to stick with it or go very far? I don't, and we all know what a good violin can sound like but with bellydance many students may not have seen a seasoned performer, all they know is their teacher. If that teacher's a hack, we all lose.
I have encouraged many a professional dancer to do their own videos and I've helped them with advice and information. I feel it's in no way competitive to have more good videos out there. Because if a dancer is happy with a video she will buy another one. It's the bad ones that spoil the market.
I don't feel strongly that all dancers need to perform in public. I think dancing for one's self -- and for each other, within the community -- is important and serves the healthiest purpose. The greater public has a confusing image of what bellydance is, and when we perform it in the wrong situations we make ourselves so vulnerable. Until that changes, I feel that the greatest value in bellydance is personal therapy, not necessarily public exhibition. I don't mean to say public performance isn't OK. Professional, public performance really should be done by professionals. Teachers must be careful about pushing students into public venues too early. Student works should be encouraged at student events, within the support of the dance community that understands what they are watching.
When it comes to professional shows, I prefer them short with interesting variety. I love all styles of dance and play all sorts of music in the classroom. I don't like to hear dancers put any one style down by category. There are good and poor dancers in every style. One should be thankful that there is an abundance of styles so our particular styles can be contrasted.
As for teachers, I think the secret is to always be the perpetual student . That is the secret to invention and inspiration. Make sure you've learned something in each class you teach.
K: You have quite the line of instructional and performance video tapes and companion audio tapes and CDs. Any new projects?
D: We are about to engage in a very novel project. We are still working on the format and cost breakdowns, but our idea is to start a Video Magazine. It would be a series of videos that would come out every couple of months. The video will contain a dance class, a drum lesson, maybe costume tips, interviews with dancers and musicians, festival documentaries, music reviews, performances, even cartoons. The idea is that it will function as a correspondence course so dancers in other cities can perhaps feel a sense of connection with my classes in Seattle. I can feature guest instructors, answer frequently asked questions . . . . It has the potential to be very interactive. Dancers can contribute footage as long as any music rights are cleared. So there will be tremendous opportunities for dancers to become seen and recognized all over the world, who might not have that opportunity. There are a lot of bugs to slowly work out. We've been shooting footage for this project since May. When we feel we've got a formula and a head start we'll begin to solicit subscribers. Watch for the ads or log on to our web site for updates on our progress: http://www.visionarydance.com. If anyone would like to contribute content or ideas, or are interested in a new advertising venue, please contact us!
Thanks, Kajira, for prompting me to do this interview! I'm so sorry it's taken so long. It really was a lot of fun once I got started!