In 1975, when I began studying belly dance, I was a serious balletomane – I took classes all week - point, ballet, barre classes….with jazz and tap as sideline styles. I could never have imagined doing ethnic dance (outside of the Caribbean dance I grew up dancing in St. Thomas, VI). But, I was in love with a guy (still in love with him today) who was a folk dancer and his mother (a former Rockettes Dancer at Radio City Music Hall in NYC) got me into folk dance classes. At the time, folk dance was a huge thing in Santa Barbara (and California) and there was a restaurant where all the folk dancers went – a Greek restaurant named The Plaka. My love, John and his Mom went there all the time, so I headed down one Wednesday night to try and find him and folk dance with him.
The Plaka was a funky place on the corner of Bath and Montecito streets. The Greek music was so loud you could hear it a block away and the line to get in went around the block. I pushed my way in and was astonished to see a smoky, funky place PACKED. There were Greek posters on all the walls. Chinese lanterns hung everywhere and a mirrored crystal ball spun madly over a belly dancer who had just entered and was doing a fast and furious opening with zills!
The dance floor was huge, but she took it all up twirling everywhere. She wore a skimpy Turkish style costume and was drenched in sweat and feeling the music with all her heart! The people were transfixed, shouting and clapping. So was I.
Her 45 minute set was followed by a man who danced with two tables in his mouth, with a little girl on the second table, two glasses and a bottle of wine next to the girl. Then, folk dances got up and danced wildly in circles around the floor, smashing plates and shouting Opa! I’d never seen anything like it – it was astounding! The thing that most stood out was the passion of the performers; their passion was contagious. The audience responded with hoops and hollers, money and plates flying everywhere. I decided then - this was me and this was going to be my life!
So, I found my first teacher – the beautiful dynamic dancer, Diana Ferrari, and began studying. The toe shoes want on the wall as mementos and the rest is history. But, even though I had made my mind up that I was going to work at the Plaka, after 5 years of training, the owner, George, refused to give me a job. But I didn’t give up and finally, in 1981, George gave me a slot on Tuesday nights- when no one was there.
I jumped in and made one mistake after the other trying to please him and do a good job of dancing and entertaining the audience. After a year of dancing to three people on Tuesday nights, I began to gain some ability to entertain and most importantly – to dance! Eventually, I became the “House Dancer” and for twelve years I danced non-stop at The Plaka, drawing a large crowd every week, including LA dancers who came up to see me. It took years but my dream came to fruition.
I never thought of competing, but was encouraged to by students and fellow dancers sign up to compete at the Belly Dancer of the Year competition, which was the only competition at the time. I kept saying, “ Naw, my dream has come true – I’m dancing at the Plaka and that’s really all I care about.” But in 1985 - ten years after starting belly dance – I began competing. I trudged up to Walnut Creek and competed! I got 3rd place. I had worked hard and it paid off - but I also realized that despite my efforts, I was far from "winning" material! The competition bug had bitten and I was off and running, training and practicing and working my tail off to improve! I competed for four years until, in 1988 I won. All the years of working myself to the bone paid off.
I was thrilled to win- and honored that my fellow artists thought me good enough to get first place. Certainly I was not the best belly dancer, but that year I was given the honor of being acknowledged as the best. What I took away from the experience was that there is no such thing as “the best or the worst”- a hackneyed but spot-on truism. What really mattered was how much I had grown by competing - first with myself, to see how far I could - and secondly with my fellow artists. What counted in the end was my own development. And a few sideline perks, including greater humility, confidence and tenacity. I had trained and practiced like a mad woman, taking private lessons, group lessons and spending hours working out. (BTW, there was no internet so it was a vacuum of mystery as to whether I was improving and who was doing what! Everything was real time and space!)
I believe that this work - as a competing dancer - laid the ground work for later awards which I was given that I never expected! When I was informed that I was given the Nafisa Gem Award for Best Instructor in 1995, I was about to go on stage with the Middle East Ensemble, and the director, Scott announced it to the crowd- Wow! What a great motivator to perform! Again, when I was by nominated by the International Academy of Middle Eastern Dance [IAMED] for Best Instructor in 1998 and then won in 1999, I was flabbergasted! Then, again I was voted Best Cabaret Dancer in 2003 by the IAMED, my breath was taken away once more. And, in 1995, The Santa Barbara Dance Alliance nominated me for the Lifetime Achievement Award. I never expected any of these awards because I was so focused on improving that I hadn't noticed that I had transformed from an ugly duckling to a swan!
The most profound truth I have realized from both trying to get the job at the Plaka, winning awards and competing was- give it your best and never give up! Focus on the work – on developing your skills and not on winning! That's when the magic happens! So, to all you restless dancers who dream of competing and winning and making your dreams in dance a reality - never give up! Make this the year you do your best. Train, practice, work-out and focus on improving and giving it your best. Make the magic happen. You have my support!