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Gilded Serpent presents...
Bellydance Grows in
West Virginia
by Narah

Yes, Bellydance in West Virginia! You may be surprised to know what a rapidly growing community we have here in the Mountain State. It has ebbed and flowed over the years, but in recent years, Bellydancing has begun to take off in what is a primarily a rural state. I have lived in West Virginia my whole life and learned that what you love and where you live can be reconciled even if there are challenges along the way.

On a lovely spring day in 1993, I attended a Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA) May Day festival in Hurricane, West Virginia.

When a group of Bellydancers began a demonstration of improvisation, my best friend Safia and I were drawn like magnets to their energetic and fluid movements. We knew we just had to learn to do that!

We started lessons with Amie Lamborn and soon found ourselves part of a community of women excited to guide us on our Bellydance journey.  Amie’s classes were heavily folkloric and Turkish style. She taught us the proper isolations and instilled a reverence and respect for the dance form and ourselves. When Amie hosted a party at her house, which of course included Bellydancing, my future teacher, Brigit, declared I was ready to perform and invited me to dance with the current troupe at an upcoming performance at the Huntington Museum of Art. My excitement at the invitation grew as we learned choreography based in a horseshoe shaped formation, featuring improvised mini solos and duets. 

When Amie took a teaching hiatus, Brigit and Susan West took over instructing our group in a community fashion. Sometimes, we had live drummers or used our small-change jar to buy an instructional video. Susan and Brigit branched out, teaching classes to a larger community, primarily using a focus on Egyptian Cabaret styling.

This Egyptian Cabaret influence came from Zahleh Fereshteh who taught at Pennsic, a large SCA gathering, every year. At Pennsic, we took class after class, met dancers from all over the nation, and improvised together around the campfires through the night.

When I moved to Morgantown to go to college I sorely missed our dance community! (There was none in Morgantown then.)  When I visited home, my sister Jala and I attended Bellydance practice at the house of our friend, Cerridwen, not knowing of any current classes. Over summer breaks I started to build my professional knowledge when Brigit sent along some of her “Belly Gram” gigs and invited me to dance at at Aladdin’s Restaurant in South Charleston.

Back in Morgantown, I put in “Bellydance” in an internet search engine and found Fat Chance Belly Dance. I was struck by the sense of connection I felt with these dancers who danced as a group and wore earthy-styled costumes. I bought a performance video and the complete instructional series! Two of my roommates asked me to teach them Bellydance when they saw the FCBD and Zaleh Fereshteh videos repeatedly. Feeling thoroughly inspired, I went on my first dance pilgrimage to Portland and San Francisco to attend classes from Gypsy Caravan and FatChance BellyDance.  I felt I was “home again”!  They used the same style of music I love and the movements and costumes really suited my fusion of SCA, Egyptian and Turkish-style background.   I felt a part of a community (even though I had just met them, and they lived across the country) because it was familiarly similar to my experience with SCA. 

Eventually, I started to teach my own classes; if there were other Bellydancers, I had not found them!

Tribal Desires (from far left going clockwise)
Kali (director), Kamaria, Rikka, Aja (co director), Serafina, Vikki

I approached Alias, the owner of the Ali Babba’s Restaurant, about dancing for his customers.  A very gentlemanly Lebanese man, he used to import dancers from Pittsburgh, which is about 1½ hours north.  He said that he had learned from experience that his customers were not interested in watching dancers; they just wanted to eat.  However, he did hire me when his catering business hosted wedding and engagement parties. 

I wore my Tribal costumes and while he praised my dancing, he encouraged me to buy a “real Bellydancer’s costume”, such as a beaded Oriental style costume. 

When I joined the West Virginina University folk dance club, they were excited to find out I was a Bellydancer and asked me to perform solos at our shows.  The University also hired me to perform and lecture at their multi-cultural festival events.  Even though I turned down offers to dance at fraternity parties, I received some nice opportunities, such as performing for a girl’s coming of age party. Dancing in the medical school talent show with Maria Hamer (then of the troupe Ghawazee, now of Zafira) was a fun experience and a chance to improvise with a friend again. By the time of the next year’s talent show, I had taught a group of students long enough so that we could perform choreography together. Most of the students were in the SCA, so my suggestion to costume in Ghawazee coats went over quite smoothly. 

In 2000, (during my last Occupational Therapy fieldwork), I moved to Charleston, close to where I grew up and started Bellydancing. Though field work took most of my time -and basic functioning the rest- I was excited to find out there was a Tribal dancer in Charleston who wanted to take lessons from me. Kali and I stayed in touch and she waited patiently until I graduated for classes to begin. That first class grew to be bigger than any weekly class I have ever had and later the more advanced dancers were formed into a student troupe. Alexandria, who directs the Amber Gypsies, teaches classes and has long been sponsoring out of area teachers, invited me to teach Tribal Style in Beckley on a couple of occasions. One year at the Capitol’s Multi Fest, there were two Bellydance acts- my dance partner Azurah and me and the neighboring Cabaret Bellydance troupe, Jeanie’s Genies. By that time, there were members of both groups taking my classes. My first Spirit of the Tribes was that year, marked by an adventurous ride from Daytona to Hollywood with my Pennsic buddies Ziah Ali and Asim

We continued the voyage to SCA event, Gulf Wars, in Mississippi, where there was much Bellydance and live music similar to Pennsic. Performances until 2002 in Charleston also included WV State College’s multicultural festival, weddings, parties and a charity event where I was connected with Sinbad’s Restaurant. The owners of Mykono’s Restauant are Greek and Arabic and hired me to dance at their sons’ baptism celebrations and friends’ engagement parties. I even traveled back to Morgantown to dance at Ali Babba’s on occasion.

By that time, Alias even complimented my costumes, which now had more mirrored cholis, belts and vibrant silk skirts. I was busy, had gone full time as a Bellydancer, and hungered for more instruction, more connection.

Tribe of Fire : Andi, Nandita, Narah, Genevieve, Krisy
'Just having fun after the State College, PA Fire of the Soul tour

So, I traveled south to Lexington, Kentucky to take a couple classes from Teresa, director of Rakadu and the Mecca Dance Studio.  Boy, did I know I was in the right place when she played my favorite artist, Prince, in class!  When Rakadu put on their dance theater production at University of Kentucky, Kali and I made the trip to see it.  We were so amazed by their creativity! She even took another dancer, Vikki, with her a second time. When I took a Morocco workshop in Lexington, I ran into Kali and members of Jeanie’s Genies. When I knew we were moving from Charleston, it was Kali whom I encouraged to start teaching Tribal Bellydance. She now holds weekly classes and directs her troupe, Tribal Desires.  These days, Multi Fest, the Stern Wheel Regatta and other festivals in Charleston feature several Bellydance performances.

Dancers from all over West Virginina travel to Kentucky, Ohio, New York, Pennsylvania, North Carolina and beyond to attend workshops and shows. Since my students and I have performed and taken workshops in Pittsburgh regularly, I consider it Morgantown’s sister community.  Pittsburgh dancers and musicians have also come to Morgantown to teach and perform.

In 2005, I took my student troupe, Tribe of Fire, on a performance tour with me.

One of the most rewarding parts of that experience was making connections with dancers out of state, within the state, and seeing the connections that were already there. 

The first show was in Charleston and I had a wonderfully surreal moment when I realized that most of the performers on stage had either been my student at one time, were taking classes from my former students or were currently my students.  There were enough to nearly fill a full length show; all but one performance was Tribal!  I was in awe of how much the Bellydance population in West Virginia has grown since that first class I taught in 1997, when there seemed to only be a handful of Bellydancers between Charleston and Morgantown. 

Avani and Sharon
Both used to live in Morgantown and take classes from me. Avani taught and Sharon assisted with the WVU lifetime activities belly dance classes. They both moved: Avani to Petersburg and Sharon to Princeton area.

Originally, my husband and I had planned to move to San Francisco after the tour.  While getting our house ready and waiting for it to sell, some of my students wanted to start teaching since I would no longer be there. I was so glad when Avani called to discuss it with me since she had some reservations.  Happy for the respect she was showing the dance form, I suggested we set up semi-private lessons so they could learn to teach dance. They attended the lessons, did their assignments, and now I recommend them. 

When our house did not sell in a good market and we re-evaluated what was most important to us, we realized we were happy right where we were.

My teaching “apprentices”, Avani and Nandita, with assistance from Sharon Smyth, stuck with their original plan, taught through WVU’s community program and contributed to growing the Morgantown Bellydance population. Inspired to also expand our community, I opened a public studio in 2006.  My sister Jala, with whom I have made two DVDs, drove from Cumberland, Maryland, to teach a weekly class and I added several different levels and types of Bellydance classes to my agenda. 

Weekly classes and weekend workshops were primarily what paid our bills and were a good indication of student attendance.

Jala, Narah pregnant with Angelo
Me and sister Jala after performance honoring baby/pregnancy in Pittsburgh- “Shimmy”, sponsored by Sterling Painton and Kari Merlina

We held haflas and students had an opportunity to perform and casually dance in a fun, supportive environment.  My students and I put on a show for Hurricane Katrina relief and participated in multi-cultural dance productions.  In the summer of 2007, I sponsored West Virginina’s first out of state Tribal instructor, Ziah Ali, in a workshop.  It was thrilling to have so many dancers attend; large groups came from the southern part of the state. 

After the workshop, I was unusually tired and I thought it odd- until I found out I was pregnant! 

Since I was tremendously busy running the studio (and have an autoimmune condition that is exacerbated by stress), I knew I would have to close the studio in order to relax and have a happy, healthy baby.  It was not easy to do, but at 4 months pregnant, I closed my studio and took a teaching hiatus. While I was taking a break, Krisy Rosier and Genevieve Larimer, previous students of mine, started classes on their own. They, along with Krisy’s daughter Andi perform as Wild Sapphire.

I did my first post-baby performance when my son was 3 ½ months old. My midwife hired me to perform for a “girl’s night out” before her daughter’s wedding—a dinner at Chem’s Lebanese restaurant in Parkersburg, WV.  There I met Sabehah and Serina, Oriental dancers who dance at Chem’s on Fridays, and say it is like a family there. Zahra, who has an annual show, used to teach at the local YMCA and some of her students once performed as a group. Chavi, also from Parkersburg, is of a Tribal persuasion and performs at family friendly events. Raven’s Dance studio offers Egyptian Cabaret classes in Vienna, not far from Parkersburg.

dancing at the Charleston Stern Wheel Regatta.

In Wheeling, Sherry Miller offers Bellydance classes for children and adults at the Oglebay Institute.  Martinsburg and Berkeley Springs are in the eastern panhandle, where Noor el Sahar performs American Classic Bellydance and Tribal, directs a troupe and teaches classes. Moorfield, also in the eastern panhandle, is where Avani is teaching after moving to small and rural Petersburg.  Her last class enrolled 30 people!  They will have a student recital in June and Avani hopes to shed some light on the true nature of Belly Dance. 

As you can imagine in a state where there are fewer than the average number of Belly Dancers, we have to do quite a bit of education, quite often

Your average West Virginian has not seen much, if any Bellydance, so seeing some of their stony, confused, or shocked faces sometimes makes performing a bit challenging.  Those dancers who have experienced this do not let it stop them.  We find the dance, itself, addictive! 

At the Jim Boz workshop in Beckley, dancers from around the state came together to learn and perform at Tamarak, a West Virginia artisan’s showcase. Alexandria, who sponsored the workshop, directs the Oriental dance troupe The Shades of Amber and the student troupe, The Amber Gypsies.  Saffa Newal is a Beckley based Bellydance teacher and directs the Hadrah Dance Company as well as the student troupe Zayna Ziyad. In October, we will have our second out of state Tribal instructor when Amira, director of the Samadhi Dance Troupe, sponsors Onca of Baraka MundiAmira is currently taking a break from teaching in Teays Valley and Ravi is taking over her classes. Ravi founded the music and dance troupe, Gypsy Rock Stars. Close to Teays Valley is Marshall University in Huntington, which includes a Bellydance club in its organizations. Tonya, a local dancer, is currently forming a Tribal dance and drum troupe and is teaching classes at the Dancer Within Studio.  The troupe is scheduled to dance at a Lebanese family reunion this summer. Summersville, southeast of Charleston, is home to Sherry Davenport, who performs Egyptian and Lebanese style Bellydance and teaches classes for children and adults.

Most of these dancers are members of’s West Virginia Belly Dance Tribe. This group is active and has brought together many dancers of the state and surrounding areas to discuss events and topics pertaining to WV Bellydancers and musicians.

It has allowed us to build upon the ties we already have and extend them to other dancers, making a community of sharing and support. 

Bellydancers from this state are linked to each other and with neighboring dance populations. Tribal and Cabaret dancers form the local communities, which are growing rapidly now. You are likely to find us at a neighboring state’s Bellydance workshop, a few states away or even across the country.

While there are a small number of restaurants employing Belly Dancers, we quite often make our own opportunities, just the way we like it.   

click for larger image

WV Belly Dancers at the Jim Boz workshop May 10th, 2008
Front row left to right- Narah, Kali, Alexandria, Zahara, ?, Zahira Luna,?
Second row- ?, Aja, ?, ?, Chavi, Kamaria; Back row- Neesah, Amira, Kaileena, ?,?,?,? Saffa Nawal, Serafina, Denise, Rikka behind her, Krisy, Andi, Sharon

More photos from the West Virginia Bellydance community-

Hadassah, Shaleh, T'Lula (from California), Raquy, Ee-set, Amira
click photo for enlargement

This is at Blackstone Raid, an SCA event in Ripley, West Virginia.
Left to right: Neesah (Teays Valley), Chavi (Parkersburg), Asta (new to Morgantown; formerly Charleston, also drums),
Amira Nagi
(Teays Valley), Narah and Angelo (Morgantown)
click photo for enlargement  

Kali's students- Angie, Denise, Ashlee, Swan

Kali and Swan

Gypsy Rock Stars
Dancers at Samadhi's Halloween Hafla - front row Left to right: Angie, Razi, Sumer
Back row left to right: Marcia, Cimmeron, Kaileena, Nena, Paula, Saffa Nawal and Amiee Lamborn

Workshop with Carolena of FCBD
Andi Rosier, Carolena, Krisy Rosier, Jill Hess, Genevieve Larimer

This photo is truly special- Bonnie was a fellow dancer and wonderful friend
who was supported by her sister dancers in her final weeks fighting cancer (I believe she only was given weeks to live when diagnosed)

Jim Boz and author
These are from the Jim Boz workshop in Beckley:

Sharon and Kamille of Rockabelly
Sharon Smyth in Buffalo, NY fo Kamille’s workshop

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