Asharah: Dark & Dainty and Full of Smarts
by Madame Onça
I have seen Asharah's artistry on a big stage in a festival setting, a brightly lit gallery, and a dim and gritty bar. In every venue, she smolders. Her dance presents genuine feeling, technical acumen, and intense musicality with attentiveness to subtleties and concept. She is a driven performer and a very serious teacher. In the classroom setting, her personal focus is palpable, compelling the students to likewise push themselves, to work hard with regard to detail. Additionally, her instructional dvd, released in 2008, is a practice tool I’ve recommended to my students who want to work more at home, building strength and movement foundation in a fusion style. It is rigorous, precise, and clear. How does she do it all and what drives her?
Onça: Having made a name for yourself of one of the progenitors of the Dark Fusion movement, how identified are you with that genre today?
Asharah: First of all, thank you for asking me a series of really insightful questions. I’m honored that anyone wants to listen to me babble on about myself. As far as the “dark fusion” movement, I have most definitely stepped away from it artistically, but I haven’t abandoned it. I’ve been through some very dark times in the past few years, and dance has been a way for me to work through them. (For those who don’t know, in 2009 I left my day job and my husband, which sent my life into a bit of a whirlwind, but now I am in a much better place emotionally.) However, I’ve also had recent times of great joy and triumph that I want to express through my dance. I don’t think I’ll ever completely leave my darker side behind in a creative or personal sense. Part of the reason I’ve been more joyful in my performances lately is because I had been in such a dark state for so long, so I can appreciate the wonderful things that I have in my life now so much more than I could if I hadn’t lived through the darkness. For those who haven’t been through a divorce (and it’s something I don’t wish upon anyone), it’s a bit like living the Tower card in the major arcana of the Tarot. Everything that you think was solid and secure in your life is suddenly gone, crumbled, and dead... But what better time to rebuild and start anew? One of my biggest inspirations, Neil Peart (drummer of the band Rush) says, “All of us get lost in the darkness; dreamers learn to steer by the stars.” I think that sums it up nicely.
Although, I have to note that I’ve been listening to quite a bit of metal lately. Rawr. And I’ll never stop wearing black.
Onça: After many years in DC, in an urban center, you relocated to South Carolina. How did this relocation impact your life in the dance, both in terms of being open to new influences and collaborations, and the logistics of travel, training and personal practice?
Asharah: Being in Columbia, SC, gave me a great deal of time and space to reflect on my art and my dancing. Being removed from a larger dance community was really wonderful for me as I have been rebuilding my life. For the past year, I’ve been working with Natalie Brown and her two performance companies: Delirium Tribal Belly Dance Company, and her alternative performance arts company, Alternacirque. The last time I had performed with a dance company was back in 2005 with Martiya Possession, and I had never really worked with performers outside of my own discipline before joining Alternacirque. And I’ll say this right now: I’m a soloist at heart. I don’t always play well with others, so at times I felt incredibly frustrated and challenged. But I will also say this: I have learned so much, and all of my fellow performers welcomed me in with open arms, and they have been my surrogate family down here. I’m so glad that I was able to overcome my weaknesses of not being naturally good at working with other performers and become a part of Delirium and Alternacirque.
Traveling has definitely been more difficult here than in DC. Columbia, SC, has a small airport, and flights to and from here are expensive, but at least Natalie and I live pretty close to the airport. Our house here has been wonderful for training; we were able to procure mirrors from an old glass shop for free and have them installed in our front room, so we have a proper dance studio. With Suhaila Salimpour’s online classes (which I highly recommend!), training and practicing has been quite easy; it’s the first time I’ve ever had a dance studio in my home!
At the time of this interview however, I’ve moved back to my home state of California, to attend an intensive Arabic language course at the Monterey Institute of International Studies this summer, and then back to the San Francisco Bay Area to be closer to my family, training with Suhaila, and to prepare for a Master’s program in Islamic history. My undergraduate degree in Near Eastern Studies, and I’m very excited to return to academia again.
Onça: You are known to be a great advocate of Salimpour technique. Would you like to expound on that topic?
Asharah: Ah, yeah... My first instructor taught elements of Suhaila’s technique back when Suhaila was just beginning her certification program. Even back then, I loved the muscular and precise execution of movement. As a former figure skater, the discipline inherent in the format really appealed to me. I took my first workshop with Suhaila personally in 2004, and shortly thereafter I earned my Level 1. I’ve been working with her ever since. It challenges me in a way that no other belly dance class does. Plus, Suhaila knows me as a dancer and as an artist and somehow knows what I need. She’s been watching and guiding my development for seven years, and to have a mentor like her who has my back but also tells me things I need but don’t necessarily want to hear has been a blessing. Without the format, I would not nearly be as physically strong, as technical, as emotionally expressive, or as musical. Part of the reason I’m moving back to the San Francisco Bay Area is to be closer to Suhaila’s studio. I’ve spent thousands of dollars on flights, rental cars, and housing to train with her at her studio in Albany (near Berkeley, California), so why not move back to the area I still call home and be able to train with my mentor several days a week?
Training with Suhaila has been wonderful for me; the format works with my personality and my body. But I also understand that it doesn’t work for everyone. I encourage dancers to at least try it, but I don’t expect everyone to love or take to the format the way I have.
Onça: I seem to recall seeing you for the first time five years ago or so as one of Martiya Possession. That group foreshadowed the future arc of Tribal, in terms of theatricality, being somewhat character driven, and initiating the now au courant nightclub/vaudeville Tribal stylings. How did you come to work in that group and what role if any do you feel it had in the evolution of tribal and your personal style?
Asharah: I should call this answer: The Time Machine!
I had moved to the Washington, DC, area in 2002, right after I finished my undergraduate degree. At that point, I had been belly dancing for about two years, mostly studying American cabaret (for lack of a better term) and more indigenous styles, particularly Turkish Romany and oryantal, but also Egyptian oriental and folkloric, some North African, and a little bit of fusion with Dalia Carella. I was dancing in a local restaurant and at mostly cabaret-oriented hafla gatherings, but I was also going out to the local goth clubs. And somehow (I can’t remember - Mavi will remember way better than I will, I’m sure!) I had heard that a gothic belly dance troupe was performing at one of the clubs I frequented. So, I went to see them perform. At the time, when I joined, there were only three dancers: Mavi (who went on to join Romka with Belladonna), Raven, and Ya Meena (who now dances with Mortifera and Dieter’s Dance Party drill team). Somehow, also, Ya Meena, who created Martiya Possession, had seen me dance at one of Artemis’ student shows. I think I did a Turkish fusion piece, and shortly thereafter, Ya Meena asked me if I wanted to join the troupe.
Being part of Martiya Possession absolutely changed how I thought I could present my own dancing. At the time, and this was 2004 or so, dancing to non-Middle Eastern music was still VERY avant garde, or at least, it was in my mind. You just didn’t do it. You could dance to music made for tribal belly dance, like Gypsy Caravan or Helm, but dancing to anything outside the belly dance world was really off-the-wall. Way more so than it is now, for sure! When I started belly dancing in 2000, “Tribal” was still a bit of a “bad word” in the wider East Coast belly dance community. It was definitely looked down upon, so I didn’t pursue it seriously. (Although I did go to the FatChanceBellyDance studio when I went back to California to visit my parents for the holidays!) So, joining a troupe where innovation was encouraged and expected really opened up my mind to being more creative with belly dance. I think that’s really where I began my journey down the “fusion” path.
I’m not sure how much Martiya Possession affected the wider tribal and fusion worlds. I think that might be a question for dancers who found inspiration in the troupe. It’s hard to evaluate something’s effect when you’re in it and a part of it. I’d like to think that we had an impact.
Onça: How did you come into bellydance, and when exactly did you know that you were going professional with it?
Asharah: I officially started belly dancing in 2000, at the beginning of my spring semester of my sophomore year at Princeton University. I’m not sure what took me so long, though. I had seen belly dancers before I went to college; I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area where I had seen the beginnings of what we now know as “tribal fusion” and I had also seen Hahbi’Ru at the Northern California Renaissance Pleasure Faire. But for some reason it didn’t click that I could belly dance until I moved to the East Coast.
When I arrived at Princeton, somehow I had learned that there was a belly dance troupe and belly dance classes on campus, but it took me a year and a half before I actually decided to sign up. I think I thought that I’d still be figure skating in college, as Princeton has a lovely rink and its own skating club, but the ice times never lined up with my class schedule. I was looking for something physical and expressive to do, and belly dance aligned quite well with my intended academic interest in Near Eastern Studies. From my very first class, I was hooked. The music and the movements worked so well on my body (well, except chest circles - those took a while!), and my teacher, Kim Leary, was always very intent on giving us a well-rounded dance education, starting with presence, walking, turns, and arm carriage before we ever got into hip work and isolations. I loved her approach to belly dance, because it was serious and disciplined, which worked really well for me, as I had just come from the figure skating world. I think that if I had ended up in a more “follow-the-bouncing-butt” kind of belly dance class, I might have lost interest very quickly. A year later, I joined the Princeton University belly dance troupe, Raks Odalisque, and performed solos and choreographed for the company until I graduated in 2002.
After college, I ended up in Washington, DC, and I was taking regular classes with Artemis Mourat. It was she who decided that I should be a professional, i.e., working in restaurants and doing private party gigs. I’m not sure I would have sought out paying gigs if Artemis hadn’t urged me to do so, or if she hadn’t given me the proper training to be a professional dancer. I wouldn’t have had any idea what I was doing.
I started teaching regular classes after two things happened: Artemis told me that I should teach (but I didn’t believe her at first), and a fellow dancer, Marta Vizueta, somehow convinced Joy of Motion Dance Center (one of the largest dance schools in Washington, DC) that they should hire me. I think that was in 2005. So, I ended up teaching “tribal fusion” belly dance at Joy of Motion for several years, and then a few years after that, dancers around the country were hiring me for workshops. In the early days, I didn’t solicit work. People asked me to teach or perform, or they referred me to people who would hire me, which always surprised and flattered me... and it still does!
Onça: Do you have general or specific goals that you care to share?
Asharah: Right now, I’m finding my voice again, although, I think that’s actually just a constant process for me. After my life completely changed in 2009 (left the job, left the husband, lived on a friend’s sofabed for 6 months, moved to South Carolina... like ya do), my dancing changed too. I wasn’t as interested in dancing to electronic music, and I started to get back into oriental belly dance stylings again. That actually happened for two specific reasons: in August 2009, I was at a Level 3 weeklong workshop with Suhaila, and she had me put a choreography that I had done to a Secret Chiefs 3 song to a classic belly dance song of my choice. I chose “Mashaal”, which is like the classic of classic Egyptian oriental dance songs. She had me use a veil and dance it like an oriental entrance, and it worked perfectly! My so-called “fusion” choreography was really an Egyptian oriental dance. Now that was eye-opening! Suhaila said right to my face, “You know, you’re a belly dancer. Be a belly dancer.” And, as she often is about these things, she was right.
The other thing that prompted my move back to more classic stylings was that from October 2009 to May 2010 I lived with my now dear friend Suzana Nour, who specializes in Egyptian style belly dance. Just talking and spending time with her inspired me to go back to my roots artistically. So, I’ve been trying to blend the classic belly dance with my more modern style, but in a way that’s still me, and that’s been really difficult lately. I only feel like in the past two months that I feel like I’ve made any significant headway with it.
Onça: As a methodical and technical person who chooses to present emotive material through your art, can you describe for us anything of how you work through a piece of choreography?
Asharah: Through my Level 3 training with Suhaila, I’ve developed a much more concrete process of developing my performances. When developing a new choreography, is collage the sentiment of the piece. I’m really visual, so this works really well for me. I have a giant stack of magazines that I’ve collected over the years that I cut up and paste into my dance journal. I also use tally marks in my dance journal to mark out the musical phrases, meter, and melody of the piece on which I’m working. After that, I like to identify 3-4 belly dance movements that evoke the emotion of the song, and from there, I develop an outline of what the piece will eventually become. And throughout this creative process, I obsessively listen to the song I’m working on. To prepare for the performance, I make playlist of songs on my iPod that have a similar emotional sentiment that I’ll listen to while warming up so that I’m in the right head/heartspace for the piece.
Onça: Have you any words of wisdom for the aspiring new dancers, the aspiring academic, or for the hobbyist considering a leap to professional?
Asharah: I think this might work best in bullet form:
Don’t pigeon-hole yourself into a style right away.
Take as many stylizations of belly dance as you can.
Learn the classic belly dance songs and know how to dance to them.
Learn about the dancers who have paved the way for you.
Never stop training.
Spend more money on training, classes, and workshops than on costuming.
Seek out knowledge about the Middle East and its history.
It’s OK to imitate your inspirations (that’s how we all learn!), but try not to aspire to be just like them. You are unique!
Try things that scare you.
Challenge yourself technically, emotionally, and artistically.
Listen to your body: Muscle aches are normal, but joint pain is a warning.
Beware of fads and gimmicks; seek out honesty and integrity.
Onça: Well, that’s the word from Asharah. Visit her at www.asharah.com to find out more of what she is up to in her world of international travel and study.