Gilded Serpent presents...

3 South African Dance Pioneers

Reaching Out to the "New Woman" of Their Country


by Charlotte, Jaie Piers and Shalimar
posted September 15, 2011

Editor’s Note: While on my recent tour in England, Spain, and Morocco, (June 3011) I had the pleasure of meeting and interviewing Charlotte while she was also in Morocco at Simona’s Mediterranean Delight Festival in Marrakech. Her generosity in helping Gilded Serpent give readers an overview of the development of Belly dance in South Africa has revealed a new part of the world to all of the Belly dance community. Each of these following three "Belly dance pioneers" offers her own unique outreach to modern day women of South Africa who are searching for a sense of who they are and who they might become through the vehicle of Belly dancing. Each instructor speaks of grounding her own dance students with an underlying philosophy for living and an ever increasing availability of dance education and performances in this evolving country.

Jaie of South Africa

South Africa’s Belly Dance: Authentic Essence? 
by Jaie Piers

South Africa is a multi-cultural melting pot and Belly dancing is fairly new on the scene here, so its roots do not go very deep even though we have seen some well-known Belly dancers who have come here to do workshops (just as have some South African ladies gone abroad to participate in various workshops). One dancer comes to mind immediately: Hadia! Also, Mahmoud Reda stands out for me now.  There have been many wonderful dancers, such as Tamalyn Dallal, Rania, Danisa (recently), Alia (Miss Switzerland Belly dance), and Yasmina of Cairo, plus many more.
South Africa is beginning to attract some global attention. Women are fusing Belly dance with other styles of dance, such as Indian dance, Bollywood, Hip Hop, Modern, and Jazz. Many students are jumping onto the bandwagon with Belly dance studios mushrooming up overnight! I, too, started my own studio just over ten years ago. Originally it was mostly "fusion" style, and then I experimented and delved into Tribal and Gothic. I have realized the absolute thrill of discovering that the richness of Middle Eastern music in its complexity gives one total freedom to interpret the soul and emotional body of the feminine. After realizing this, I parted ways with the confusion of mastering the art of Belly dance.

Much speculation has been paid to what is authentic in Belly dance. However, all too often a fusion of its more sexual and Western counterpart is blended together and is presented as authentic Belly dancing to uneducated audiences. By no means do I intend to criticize any style of dance. However, over a ten year period I have struggled to discover the essence of this dance, and I believe I now have it safely under my coin belt…

To dance in the authenticity of this dance takes more than a certificate to say that one can;  it’s more a combination of knowing the complexities of Middle Eastern music, and how to express oneself through the dance appropriately to its different nuances.

Plus, to be  fully appreciated as a Belly dancer, one needs an audience that is familiar with Middle Eastern cultural forms. From the stand point of the dancer, one needs to be fully accomplished inside and out, and not dance with a Western attitude, which is prevalent in this country at the present time.

One should dance with the fullness of knowing her role in life, honoring that knowledge in its purity, and following the ideal of Middle Eastern feminine essence rather than dancing from a competitive space.

This attitude is what is perceived in Middle Eastern countries as true Belly dance by women and men both.
As dancers, if we sell out our feminine souls, and trade business for friendships and relationships that are not based on respect, then sadly those women who do sell out will have to deal with what they have created. I stand in opposition to this current wave of behavior which is being passed off as acceptable here in South Africa.

The matriarchs of our society got here by a process which deserves respect! What legacy do we leave behind when we honor only the masculine way of doing things in a woman’s world?

Map of South AfricaI realize that my views are not popular, because generally women feel invalidated and this is, I believe, the underlying reason for displaying poor behavior that is contrary to the feminine spirit. Some dancers are creating a distorted image of Belly dance and its place in society. One’s values and ethics involving one’s self and others dictate the beauty of this dance which is performed from within and pours out from a deep space of truth. We women of South Africa are on this journey because, sooner or later, one realizes that whatever she does in life is a path to self knowledge and truth.

One thing I know for certain is that finding one’s path is difficult, and the search for it has nothing to do with popularity. Once you give up your ego-driven quest and dance only for the purpose of passing on what you have discovered, all these egotistical elements cease to be important. I dance for this reason and can’t expect everyone to understand me (or even agree with me).
My most important assertions are that every Belly dance teacher should be honest about what she/he teaches and why they are teaching it at all.  Respect for teachers by their teaching students must be maintained, and they must acknowledge the input of each one. I would hope that they teach only for the sake of manifesting the sense of the Divine that sustains us all! I hesitate, for various reasons, to be specific about all the situations I have overcome as a dancer in Cape Town, and I’m relatively sure that along the way I have been misinterpreted, misunderstood, and misrepresented from time to time.
For one, I search for my Goddess-essence within a home-based studio that I maintain as a haven for all women to dance in freedom of their own expression and who wish to learn the authentic art of Middle Eastern dancing. If we all try to reach the finish line first, we stumble over each other, rather than looking around and helping others along the way. When we work together, we can all have a party and finish together, not alone. Too often, I have reached out and shared my opportunities with my colleagues, only to be excluded from their activities in favor of women racing ahead of themselves. I used to wonder why, but now I think I understand.

Lately, there has been a move towards competition in Belly dance. I believe this is mainly due to following  trends that set high standards in technique while omitting any focus on the emotional and healing aspect of the dance. This perhaps forces women more into masculine traits, which I find detrimental to feminine psyche in that it robs us of our feminine power.  It takes real strength to be soft.  

I have always believed it is valid to honor my own way of dancing and teaching, and refuse to participate in the world as if it were only a man’s world because I have found my place as a feminine spirit. I feel secure that, in this way, I now know everything from deep within myself. Also, I believe that I have found my own unique expression and am not a carbon copy of someone else.

The quality of individuality is the authentic essence of Belly dance.

At least, I believe it is so.  


Shalimar of South AfricaShalimar of South Africa

In 1976, I was pregnant with my third child when I found a book called “Get Slim With Belly Dancing”. It had 4 moves: pelvic circles, hip thrusts, shimmies, and shoulder thrusts. At the time, I was teaching a class in my lounge called “Keep Fit to Music” for 5 ladies. I worked out the moves described in the book I had found and then went looking for some music. The only music I discovered was the vinyl recording called “Caravans”. When I played the music and tried out the moves, I felt that more moves seemed to come from my soul; the lovely music just pulled it out of my heart!

At this stage, my “Keep Fit“ pupils wanted to learn Belly dancing, as well. I had never seen Belly dancing because it was not performed in public in South Africa. The Turks and Lebanese were not allowed to live in South Africa at that time, and I had not seen any Belly dance on film. So apart from the picture of a dancer in costume and the moves given in the book, I had no idea what I was doing. I knew only that it felt great!

When my pupils started to nag, I went to Mr. Wally Green who was Head Choreographer for SABC Television at the time.  I danced for him, and asked him what he thought I was doing. He said it looked like Belly dancing to him. Then, I felt at ease teaching my pupils.

Word spread quickly, and soon we were dancing at birthday parties! The newspapers got hold of the excitement, and I was given a 3-page article in the “Sunday Times Magazine” that was sent to Swaziland. A Turkish family who saw it contacted me and asked if I would perform for them in Swaziland. I agreed, and they sent me a video of the top Turkish Belly dancer of that time, and for the first time, I saw Belly dancing that I had not taught. (However, I was surprised to find that my dancing was similar.) So off I went to Swaziland, and my dance was much appreciated by the Turks and Lebanese of that country.

I had been teaching for five years before I received the dance that I was doing was something that the people of its origin loved. About seven years later, my pupil (who was an air hostess and flew internationally) gave a video recording of one of my extravaganzas to Bellisa who taught in Perth, and through that, I was invited to attend a “World Congress of Belly Dance Teachers” to be held in Perth. I was very blessed as everything was prepaid, and I had the opportunity of attending a workshop given by Ibraham “Bobby” Farrah who was a renowned teacher from New York. That was the very first lesson I had ever taken!

I had founded the Belly Dancing Association of South Africa about a year prior to my Perth trip but never really ran it as an association–until one of my pupils said she would like to do some form of exam to see how she was improving. Then, I put together an examination syllabus and found that many people wanted exams. At this point, I realized that I was not good at administration, and with relief, let some board members take over the duty. Our Belly dancing association started to become the strong networking association that it is today, with an exam syllabus that is respected and adjudicated throughout South Africa as well as internationally.

I now teach what I call “Belly Fusion” taking on the style of dance created by whatever music I am using at the time–may it be pop, Shakira’s music, Turkish, Arabic, or Egyptian.  Just allowing the music to be my guide, I also teach a “Tribal Fusion Belly Dance” that is very popular and brought my eldest granddaughter high praise as a “Tribal Soloist” at the Miss Belly Dance South Africa 2010 contest. She and her partner received fabulous “First Duet” results. At the age of 66, I am as inspired by Belly dance as I have always been and teach my 14 classes a week that also include 3 classes of “Shumba” (a high-energy, low-impact dance aerobics) that also give me so much pleasure!

Charlotte of South AfricaA Dance Journey: Prominent Milestones
by Charlotte D. Blignaut

The first time I attended a class was in 1989, with Shalimar in Randburg, South Africa.  I was bowled over!  As a very shy woman, I had found at last  a form of exercise that made me feel comfortable and secure!  The style of Belly dance presented there seemed to be more Turkish in origin.  Shalimar taught loads of floor work and back bends, all requiring high energy!  I loved it!  After a very short  time, the instructor invited me to join her Advanced Professional Group.  I remember that wonderful evening as if it were yesterday! The class made a huge, life-changing contribution to my dance, and it changed my life as well!

When an Egyptian travel agency invited me to travel to Egypt in 1994 to experience the Egyptian style of art, I thought I was in heaven for two reasons:

  1. a trip to Egypt for free, 
  2. and the request to dance for their Middle Eastern clients (when they had events). 

I was so flattered and humbled at the thought that I was professional enough to receive these opportunities!  I brought back to the studio new educational information about the style of dance, especially folk-dance, and it was wonderful!

After a few years of dancing at The Tent in Rivonia, (my fantastic training ground for providing a cabaret show plus separate interactive participation), the word spread, and this opened many doors with other Mediterranean restaurants and Middle Eastern venues.  After I helped organize the opening of Sheikhs Palace there, they requested Carmen and me to be the regular dancers at the venue. We were busy!  (I can recommend never performing after 10 p.m. in the western world, however.) Sometimes, we danced five shows a day; the most I have ever done was eleven shows in five days!  The reason I mention this is that different venues have a different clientele, and we found that they each liked a different kind of music.  My dance style evolved out of this milieu and developed into my signature style–one that combined the stunning individuality, presence, and isolation movements that are typical of Egyptian dance, combined with the inspirational high energy of the Turkish dance style.  My high-energy dance became renown among my fellow dancers, and I began teaching private lessons in 1996 as a result.  Increased demand led to the 1997 opening of the studio number one of Jewels of the Nile.  We progressed from strength to strength.  I created a syllabus that evolves all of the time, and eventually, franchised the publicly-acknowledged business.

The more I researched the art form of Belly dancing over the years, the more I saw how much there was, and still is, to learn!   In the light of my growing dance independence, I made a commitment to myself to gather as much knowledge as possible about the various styles and cultures that influence the art.  I have travelled to Egypt five times, once each to Lebanon, Turkey, and Brazil, and twice to Morocco.  I have attended workshops in all of these countries, with fantastic, renowned teachers.  I have met many students, as well as professional dancers and teachers from all over the world!  I am in awe of the dance stars of the Middle East!  I love what they share of themselves when they perform; it is not tangible, but it is uniquely superb!  I adore that they are known by name; most of them use their own names, rather than stage names. Their own!  I love it when a woman stands up, stands out, and owns who she is as a unique individual through the dance.  This is why and what I teach women to do. 

Be the representative of your truth. Be an individual–own it, and dance it–no matter who you are, and no matter what your truth is–just be unique, authentic, and let your inner beauty shine though.

Also, I have  worked with groups of women who have been abused, using Belly dance as our medium.  It can be a powerful tool for empowering and healing when used with trained knowledge. This is where my interest peaked and prompted me to pursue furthering my education in the professional coaching field.  Truly, Belly dance is a healing art form, which is the reason why it is not only limited to a public dance form, it is also useful for private and personal women’s growth.

While it is true that I have experiences some times when I have wanted to stop teaching, it seems that clients and media in South Africa won’t let me.  Every year that I arrive at that point, I have been approached for articles in newspapers, magazines, e-zines , or television and radio interviews.  I have been fortunate enough to have danced at  international and local Belly dance events (some for corporate clients).  Once I even danced for an Arab prince in Seychelles on a floating raft. What fun it was! I was fortunate enough to attend the first teacher and performer certification seminar in Egypt. That was an honour for me!

I believe that by being a Belly dancer I have been blessed with a gift. I enjoy being able to train, teach, and share with willing students and professionals, what it takes to have staying-power and courage (to follow your dreams, make your path, leave your stamp on the world) and wake up feeling authentically glorious! As a Belly dancer, whether student or professional,  you have afforded yourself the best and most varied education in the art of dance, so that you know that what you express is your own heartfelt expression of your soul.  

One can never know what tomorrow will bring and never suspect what opportunities lie in adversity, until it is experienced. Belly dance helped me through so much adversity in my life! Eternally, I will be  grateful for the dance that is constantly renewing my inner drive and passion.

Rhea in South Africa
August 24, 2011 Newspaper clipping showing Rhea performing in South Africa

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