Gilded Serpent presents...

Longevity In Dance

Overcoming Obstacles and Struggles

Panel discusses

by Sabrina Mijares
posted September 13, 2018

“The words "community" and "sisterhood" get used a lot in our field. And yet, sometimes words are so over-used that they get stretched out like elastic and lose the firmness, shininess and purpose that made them useful in the first place. Last Sunday was not like that. It was about recovering the power of words through concrete actions. It was about how holding safe and authentic spaces can help us see both what brings us together and the multiple possibilities we have available to us. The Lebanese Love Affair has been full of wonders. I want to highlight in particular our conversation on Sunday’s panel discussion, "Longevity in a Dance Career."

These women were real, open and giving. It was a nourishing and honest conversation on so many levels and I am grateful to all panelist and dancers who all not just came, but were fully present and open to the experience. This is how that infamous community actually happens. Thank you. Gracias. Shukran. May we meet again.” Diana Soto

The Lebanese Love Affair IV was the fourth of a yearly weekend long raks sharqi event in Miami, Florida, created and produced by Valerick Molinary. It featured an opening show, workshops with the infamous Soraia Zaied, a gala theater show, and for the first time this year, a panel discussion.

The panel discussion began on the Sunday morning of daylight savings, March 11, 2018. In the dim, warm lighting of the Flamingo Theater (an intimate theater bar in Miami), six panelists and host, Diana Soto, sat in a semi-circle at ground level, facing the group of dancers a few feet away eager to hear a discussion on a topic that’s so often neglected; “Longevity in a Dancer’s Career.”

The selected panelists, each with at least fifteen years of professional dance experience, were Adriana Echeverri, Amara Sayid, Francesca Sahar, Portia Lange, Tiffany Madera, also known as Hanan, and Valerick Molinary (see list below for more information). Each panelist achieved success in their dance careers through different avenues. Among the panelists are business owners, full-time non-dance professionals, mothers, artists, and full-time dancers. Each woman harnessed their diverse styles and pursuits in the belly dance community, demonstrating the various ways and perspectives of “making it”. The panel began with the intention of highlighting these differences, but what ultimately emerged was an open, vulnerable discussion that shed light on common threads between the dancers, and all lovers of Raqs Sharki.

Diana began the event with a question of intention – “How did you decide it was time to go solo and launch your professional career?” The panelists marked this moment as the decision to open a studio, perform a solo, perform in a venue, or enter a competition. The answers varied, but they fit into two categories: they were pressured to take the stage or felt propelled to move forward. The commonality amongst their experiences was the choice to take a risk, despite self-doubt. And just as taking risks comes with the possibility of failure, the conversation soon transformed into an honest telling of their faced obstacles.

The women shared stories of rejection and criticism from audiences, months or years of financial and emotional struggle, and even losing entire businesses and homes.

After becoming a highly successful belly dance teacher in Cork, Ireland, Adriana decided to move back to Miami and open a dance and spa center. Opening shortly before the economic crash of 2007-08, the business closed in a year.

“I basically put all my money into that…I lost my home, I lost my studio, I lost everything…I had no money to eat. I was living out of my car for about two months,” she said.

Other dancers recalled periods living off of sandwiches, driving to teach a class where no one would show, feeling defeated, sobbing on a street, and “sleepwalking” through life.

“I was sleep walking and numb,” was how Portia described her emotional and mental state when she first began belly dancing in Gainesville at 23. She dealt with severe body image issues and internalized shame for her “Maltese” background that isolated her from her Caucasian and Italian peers growing up. When she discovered belly dance, it became her coping mechanism.

“It was the only thing keeping me going. It kept me alive,” she said. It was this sense of purpose that steered the course of her life.

And as if their path was a destiny meant to be fulfilled, each woman acknowledged the obstacles as an integral part of the journey. The failures were lessons they needed to live through.
These anecdotes led Diana to probe the next topic; what skills are necessary to persist in this career. The panelists cited discipline, cultural education, consistency, focus, persistence, courage and more. Many touched upon sustaining their passion and vision. Amara noted, “Stay true to yourself and how you feel about it. Then I think you can make it.” Hanan resonated this message with her own dedication; “I believe so strongly, profoundly in my vision, that I never give up.”

But apart from drive, they emphasized the importance of relationships and unity within the community.

Not a single panelist overlooked the necessity of a support system in their career and life. The mothers on the panel seemed to regard this as the single most important thing in being able to balance motherhood, dance, and a career. Those with separate, full-time jobs detailed the importance of their relationships with dance colleagues to endure working two jobs.

With their tales of acceptance and support, came the antithesis; experiences of criticism and rejection from the community, where there were lessons to be learned as well. Valerick related a moment of heartbreak when Yousry Sharif severed ties with her for traveling to NYC to work with his ex-wife Nourhan. It ultimately led to a trip to Lebanon to find new teachers with Simon (also known as “Lebanese Simon”, a professional dancer and good friend of Valerick’s). There she studied with Pierre Hadad, Amani, and Sami Khoury, and learned, “there are no idols and heroes…everybody is totally normal.” Even more, it led to the creation of the Lebanese Love Affair, when she was encouraged by Simon to make a production and bring Pierre as a guest.

Hanan recalled when she launched her show, “Hanan With Other Friendly Gods and Goddesses”, that talked about female genital mutilation. Airing shortly after the events of 9/11, it was strongly rejected by the belly dance community, for fear of persecution. Tamalyn Dallal remarked, “People had an allergic reaction to it.”

To seek out the audiences that would understand her work, Hanan turned to the theater and art world. “It was then that I learned the belly dance audience was not my entire audience,” she stated.

These stories of rejection from the community are interlaced with a return to growth and acceptance. Through a sense of isolation, they sought out their place and purpose, developing new, stronger roots in the community.

“There’s different niches and different audiences…What do I really love? What do I really want to do? And who wants to see that? That’s how you can frame and position yourself,” said Portia.

In a modern, globalized world with an ever-expanding belly dance community, it’s important to focus on who you are versus how you compare to others.

“It can be really empowering to understand that there’s a plurality of audiences of people that can appreciate your art … understand that this is a huge, vast, immense world filled with human beings that can be inspired by your work and that maybe we can challenge ourselves to think deeper about what we have to offer and to bring it to different bodies that can officiate it,” said Hanan.

Hanan and Portia’s stories demonstrate the impact of finding ‘your’ audience, even beyond the belly dance community. Portia has targeted the general public with a commercial marketing style and Hanan has targeted artistic, experimental audiences through her various productions. Working with two separate and greatly different communities, both experienced ample success in their careers and empowered many women along the way.

Continuing on the subject of the dancer’s relationship to the audience, Francesca shared an anecdote of when she was hired by a client seeking a commercial belly dance show. She decided to “convey a message” by adding the cultural aspects to her performance.

“Now I laugh,” she recalls. “The people who are paying you don’t care sometimes… There are different audiences and you need to offer what your audience wants to accept. And learn that not everybody wants to be schooled on a birthday party.”

There are many worlds in the vast community of dance – the commercial, the cultural, the artistic, and more – and each with audiences seeking a specific experience.

Making the decision to pursue a dance career involves figuring out where you belong, who your audience is, and how to balance the ways you want to engage the different faces of this community. Adriana Echeverri and Portia Lange empower women through their dance studios, Adriana with an artistic intention and Portia with a commercial, fitness one. Amara Sayid pursues her love of the culture and dance through the development of an educational and culturally rich dance academy and dance ensemble. Francesa Sahar and Valerick Molinary balance participating in commercial, cultural, and artistic dance endeavors, engaging multiple audiences. And Hanan produces artistic and humanitarian projects through her dance career.

While these women have undergone very different journeys, there is something that connects them, and all dancers. They have felt and continue to feel self-doubt in their dancing and creations. But they persist because they know what this pursuit is about; why we dance. As Amara shares, “When I feel self-doubt I put the dance first. The love of the music, the love of the culture…You put aside all those fears and those doubts and you’re like, I just want to express!”

Panelists and their affiliations:

  • Adriana Echeverri – Creator and Owner of Belly2Abs
  • Amara Sayid – Director of Middle Eastern Performing Arts Academy – MEPAA and Director of Azhar Dance Ensemble
  • Portia Lange – Creator and Owner of Belly Motions
  • Francesca Sahar – Professional Dancer, Instructor, and Assistant Underwriter for Latin America and the Caribbean
  • Tiffany Madera, also known as Hanan – Documentarian, Creator of Havana Habibi, Artist, and Dancer
  • Valerick Molinary – Professional Dancer, Gig Dancer, Instructor, Director of the Belly2Abs Unveiled Troupe, and Organizer and Director of Lebanese Love Affair
Full Panel at Lebanese Love affair
Photo top of page,
from right to left: 1.Diana Soto, 2.Francesca Sahar, 3.Hanan.
This photo –
From right to left: 1.Adriana Echevarri, 2.Amara Sayid, 3.Portia Lange, 4.Diana Soto,
5.Francesca Sahar, 6.Hanan, 7. Valerick Molinary.

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  1. Leslie Robbins

    Sep 15, 2018 - 04:09:30

    Thank you very much for sharing your wisdom.

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