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Teaching American Bellydance:

Ich Bin Ein Berliner!

by Una
posted March 26, 2009

From a very young age, I dreamed of living a dancer’s life. Growing up with strong Latin roots, and according to my parents, I learned to dance before I learned to walk. Now, I have been in the business for 39 years (from the time when I began to learn until the present as a true professional).

I did not put a dance category on my agenda until I had given birth to my last child.  After I suffered a long illness, my ob/gyn doctor suggested that I take some kind of dance lessons. Amazingly, he offered to pay for my dance lessons! (Perhaps, one day, I will write about this unusual story.)

Because of extensive abdominal surgery, Bellydancing came to mind. I had hopes that it would help undo the damage done by my illness. The result was that even members of the medical profession were astonished.

My first performance as a dancer was for over a thousand doctors and their spouses!

I had just about settled into a life of teaching, having spent about 26 years “feeling married" to the Menara Moroccan Restaurant in San Jose. Having to pack, and travel while carrying a costume around does not appeal to me, but I am happy to see that the audiences still want to see me in "action"! So, when Horacio and Beata invited me to teach for them in their studio in Berlin, I was thrilled!

It took me three weeks to pack—unpack—and pack again.  I wanted to do some thing “new and different”; who wouldn’t? I seemed to have forgotten what I always tell my dancers: “Do not try out a new costume or new music for an important gig. You know they have not seen your red costume or heard your favorite piece of music; so, go with all things that make you feel most comfortable and happy dancing!

So I packed my favorite things and finally closed the suitcases. Some of you who have traveled with me know that I always take just one carry on; so here is why I don't like to travel for dancing: dance objects take up an awful lot of room!

E-mailing back and forth to Horacio and Beata kept me informed about the current weather in Berlin. (Remember; it was during the month of January!)

They asked what kind of foods I like or if there was any thing special that I might want. All I ever really feel that I need is plain Perrier, and lots of it! I do not eat red meat but will eat salmon once a week or when I work out extra hard. Also, I try to eat 5 to 6 times a day for my health reasons. As my departure time drew nearer, I became excruciatingly excited! 

I am a professional nanny, and the children for whom I care were very nervous and were filling me with stories of the awful German winter weather, which they found quite amusing and satisfying.

It is a long flight from San Francisco to Berlin, but Air France had Perrier, and I am an easy traveler. Since the Cifuentes asked me to teach my signature veil routine, I busied myself with writing down all the moves, notated what I call each one, and how to go about making them happen with ease.

My Arrival
Upon my arrival, I made my first mistake. (Please pay attention—in case you ever travel to Berlin.) Travelers pick up their bags just inside the doors after deplaning; however, it took us almost two hours to retrieve my bags!

Bobby, Una's husband, in 1988Dancers do not arrive at the destination in costume with make-up on; so Beata and I passed each other about four feet; then, I turned around and said: "I wondered if I would recognize you!” Beata and Horacio are the most excellent hosts! Their dance school is awesome, and they have a very busy schedule. As a privately owned school, it is the best in which I have ever had the honor of teaching!

They arrived at their school just in time to start teaching their class. Meanwhile, I was settled in my nice room located just half a block from their school! Beata advised me to unpack and rest and said that they would pick me up for dinner.  However, they were quite surprised to see me walk in and request to join their class. Thanks to the Perrier I drank during the flight, I did not suffer from jetlag. 

At dinner, I had the best time!  For the first time in a long time, someone remembered (and wanted to reminisce about) my late dance partner and husband, Bobby. I am proud that Bobby and I once won second place in the Mr. & Ms. America of Bellydance. In the near future, Horacio says that he wants to do a tribute to my Bobby, and I am so proud and delighted about that possibility! I am busy looking for material to use for it, so if any readers out there have movies, videos, or relevant photos of interest, please let us know. 

The Classes Begin
My class schedule started on Friday and that is when I found out that Horacio and Beata would have to translate my instruction into four or five different languages!  I had a very enthusiastic group of women whose dancing was at different levels of achievement.  All of us went out to dinner together and they were so warm about making me feel like a superstar! Our dinner conversation was complicated and fun because someone had to interpret every thing I said for the gathering.

Saturday, I taught for three hours after taking Horacio's class. He started his lesson with ballet moves and taught a combination of Bellydance steps, including zils (finger cymbals). Horacio is careful with details, and each one of us came away from his class feeling thoroughly "taught".

My class roster consisted of Bellydance teachers from all over Germany, Spain, France, Norway, Denmark, Italy, Poland, England, the Ukraine, Switzerland, and Belgium! Most of them spoke and understood English, but Horacio and Beata were both nearby to interpret for my students. 

Amazing! The members of the workshop wanted more and more—and even Horacio began trying out my veil moves.

However, I bow to Horacio when it comes to making costumes! I have never seen such detail work, hand sewn, and created especially for his and Beata's figures!  He creates breathtaking costumes that accent them and their performances to the maximum. Horacio is magical with a needle and glass beads; so, if you ever get a chance take a close look at these costumes, you will not believe your eyes!

My Dance Style
In my next class, we covered some typical "American Bellydance” moves. My solo dance style has won numerous awards because I learned all my moves on the West Coast (USA) from pioneers of "American Bellydance” as well as other instructors from all over America. I have remained true to my roots and have developed a strong style in “veil work". My zil playing is very musical, I still create my own costumes, I continue to perform floor work, and I entertain my audiences, connecting with them energetically.

Saturday’s Agenda
Our Saturday class spanned two hours. We covered more veil movements and some of my signature moves using zils. 

I teach zils without specific patterns, because that method of instruction seems to work better for students. They get comfortable playing them sooner than trying to put steps and zils to patterns.  

I had four free hours.  Being an entertaining host, Horacio took me for a look around and a little shopping.  Can you guess what I bought? More Perrier and chocolate! What else? Then, we held the evening show.  What fun I had surprising the audience with my "American" Bellydance; many mouths fell open when I brought out my “belly beads”! I introduced my belly beads in 1983 at the final "Middle Eastern Faire" that Jamilla Salimpour hosted in San Francisco. Her comment to me was, "I thought I had seen everything"! 

Sunday’s Agenda

Yasmin Samra & Bobby Farah
Photo courtesy of Najia

Sunday, I taught two more hours. I took requests, and we did more veil and some turns with zils and in the question and answer session at the end there were many questions. (Do all American dancers use the veil like I do? Why did my zils sound different from theirs? Would I please teach the stomach moves?) The one comment that caused a lot of discussing was, "Were you doing tribal dance moves?" (Most of my "moves" come from the basics that I learned 30 years ago from my mentor, Yasmine Samra, who taught in Palo Alto, California.) It was decided in our discussion that now we understood where the American "tribe" got its moves! Having grown up with what I call the "first movement", I offered my opinion on how and what the dance was back then and what it still means to me now. I believe that someday I will be going back to Berlin, because I felt that I left them wanting more of the American style.

We Bellydancers will never have a secure place in the dance world, or be taken seriously, as long as we cannot agree on what defines "Bellydancing";

so, please let me ask these open questions:  What if American Square dancers (Folkloric dance) decided to wear tights and and get rid of the Caller, (the person that calls out the specific moves)? Would that still be Square dance? When does Bellydance stop being Bellydance?

Why did I leave the Menara? I left because I felt that I was not getting the respect I deserved and because of dancers dancing for less (undercutting), I could not get a well-earned raise. All in all, I was quite spoiled and made top dollar, yet not happy. So, I packed up and left!

Now, I actually live another life and am enjoying time with my friends and family. My five children grew up while I was dancing the nights away; so, I am now trying to catch up with lost moments.  Reliving time doesn't work very well, but I am having fun with my nine grandchildren nonetheless! 

Una Teaches in Berlin
class photo

Click photo for enlargement
Back row, left to right: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8- yellow shirt, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16 - lower woman, 17, 18,
Front row:1, 2, 3, 4, 5 Beata w Mimi, 6 Horacio, 7 Una, 8, 9, 10, 11,
Help us match the names with faces! List of class participants-
Jaqueline- Berlin, Franka - Germany, Natalia - Spain, Franziska- Berlin, Nuria- Spain, Anna - Poland, Rebecca - Switzerland, Stefania - Italy, Baya - France, Sonja -Germany, Marta -Poland, Maizena - Denmark, Andrea - Berlin, Angelica - UK, Claudia- UK, Aleksandra -Poland, Antje -Berlin, Laila - Norway, Ronnaug -Norway, Anna -Poland, Marion -Germany, Sevkiye-Berlin, Jolanta -Poland, Yvonne -Germany, Fedijah -Berlin, Kerstin-  Potsdam, Kerstin - Berlin, Viktoria -Ukraine



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