Starting on Monday, the Carrillo Recreation Center will be playing host to the annual Moon Over Morocco belly dance camp with lessons and performances by several of California’s top belly dancers, three of whom live right here.
You could say that it was love that brought Alexandra King to the world of belly dance, back in the days of The Plaka when folk dancing was all the rage. The young ballerina from the U.S. Virgin Islands followed her romantic interest, a folk dancer, into the Greek restaurant and there her world was changed.
“I saw a man dancing with a table in his mouth,” she said. “And then I saw the belly dancer.” After that night King was hooked
Fast forward thirty years. The romantic interest isn’t around (though King keeps a Polaroid of him handy) but the belly dancing remains. She’s now the director of
Life as a professional dancer isn’t easy. But if you’re a belly dancer you also struggle with the connotations of burlesque and strip shows, an age-old association in America that goes back to the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair when a dancer nicknamed “Little Egypt” shocked the audience with her shimmy and shake to more recent times when bans on strip shows had the dancers resorting to belly dance costumes to skate past the authorities.
It’s a sad situation that King has spent her career trying to dispel. One can find it in the stringency of the rules she uses when she sizes up potential additions to her troupe.
“You have to have at least one year of training in ballet. You have to have strong folk dancing technique,” she said. Belly dancing to her encompasses not just sinuous undulations, flowing veils and bare skin, but also a deep understanding of the music, excellent muscle control and flawless carriage.
“You have to have a feeling for where your arms are, where your feet are, what you’re doing with your hips. That’s what classical dance training does for you.”
These days, fortunately, belly dancing has become a little more mainstream and thousands of women (and men) are finding ways to express themselves through the art, as well as pushing the borders of style and expression.
Rather than confine herself to a single style, or decry the newer styles of belly dance – tribal, gothic, tribal fusion, King prefers to explore and incorporate as needed, the way the Roma Gypsies did when wandering from India, or the way Bedouin nomads did when wandering through the desert. For her the art form needs to be as fluid as the dance itself.
If you’re at Chef Karim’s or Zaytoon in Santa Barbara, or even the Greek restaurant in Ventura, chances are the dancer you’re watching is Lesa Zorn.
A professional dancer for over ten years, Zorn got into belly dance first out of curiosity and to get some exercise.
“I had a friend who was teaching, and I thought I’d just try it out,” she said. Little did she know that ten years later she would be one of the South Coast’s most popular dancers.
“I remember telling everyone, ‘I’m not dancing in front of anyone, ever…I mean who in their right mind would do something like that?’” Not long after that, she found herself onstage in front of 500 people at the California State Fair in her first performance.
It was one of the most nervewracking moments in her life. But it was also an experience that liberated her.
“I don’t even remember how I did in terms of performance; everything was such a blur,” she said. “But then afterwards, it became something I could refer back to.”
A dancer of the American Cabaret persuasion, Zorn’s typical venue is the intimate setting, as opposed to the stage. It’s a blank canvas almost every time: what she does depends on the audience, which is usually just a few feet away from her. After years of experience, she can tell if the person in front of her is uncomfortable watching a beautiful woman dance, or could be secretly hoping she interacts with them more.
“I’m not going to say it isn’t sensual, because it is,” she said. “But I see it more as a performance art that contains many of the emotions you can have as a woman. You can be happy and joyful, or serious, or sultry, domineering, or introverted. There’s a whole range.” If she’s doing it well, she said, the audience catches on and it’s more of interplay than just a woman in a skimpy outfit dancing for everyone.
Being pretty much the only belly dancer in Santa Barbara and Ventura County with a regular paying gig, it’s obvious the market is tight. And the money could be better, but she’s not complaining.
“It’s such a gratifying and cool experience,” said Zorn.“If I’m enriching other people’s lives and enriching my own, and making others truly happy, that’s important, and that’s what I get out of it.”
In a strange way, Cris Dixon has three torn ligaments to thank for her belly dance career. After injuring her foot during a ballet performance, the Brazilian-born dancer put away her toe shoes to pursue the more body-friendly belly dance.
But that doesn’t mean her ten years of ballet went to waste. She incorporates the graceful lines of ballet into the way she dances, and teaches her students.
“People were asking me when I was going to start teaching, and I thought, ‘Maybe it’s my time to start sharing what I’ve learned with other people.”
Dixon has a very pragmatic take on life as a dancer.
“I’ve found that you can dance every day, refine your technique and be a great dancer, but that doesn’t get you very far, financially.” Luckily, she is able to pursue another great passion – web and graphic design – that pays the bills while she dances and teaches.
Still, the fact that she’s only part-time doesn’t stop her from aiming for the top. She’s a principal dancer for Alexandra King’s Seher dance troupe, known for her big energy and huge stage presence, and she joins competitions to keep herself sharp.
But learning is still where it’s at for Dixon, who continues to take lessons from her friends and mentors.
“There are so many styles out there, so many ways of dancing. There’s still a lot to learn.”
Noozhawk staff writer Sonia Fernandez can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.