What does it take to become a belly dancer?

In a single phrase, it takes passion, love for the music, a musical ear, commitment, an open mind, patience, supportive family and friends, and above all, thousands of hours of training and practice! Literarily! As one of my previous students simply put it “belly dancing is deceptively hard.” Like many other dance forms, it looks easy because we make it look easy. We were not born like this, or with any special talent. Any little movement that looks natural and intuitive, any hand position, any head turn comes from many hours of practice of that one single movement. And the learning never ends. There is always something that can be added to any move to take it to the next level, or to make it better. There is always a new move, a new combination to learn, or a new interpretation of the music, or a new style to explore. For who wants to learn.

From my experience, the most common progression of an aspiring dancer is to start in the beginner class to learn the foundation – body isolations and most common moves and traveling steps. On average, it takes two years for most people to get comfortable with these. I am talking coming to class consistently 1-2 times/week, plus additional practice at home. Then, in the intermediate level, they start to be in troupe numbers and learn group choreographies, for a number of years (about 3, give or take). Then, in the advancing level, they start to work on solos with guidance from teachers. It takes about 5 years for most people to start performing solo numbers. After about 7 years, they start making their own choreographies, and explore different styling. Eventually, experienced dancers (over 10 years) are able to do improvisational performances that are meaningful, beautiful, flowy and in tune with the music. Most of the professional dancers that I know and excel in their art have at least 10 years of consistent belly dance experience. At this time (in 2019), I have 14 uninterrupted years. 😊 So, it takes patience, and a lot of it! The good part is that everything can be achieved in belly dance if you give it time and practice.

As I said, the learning never stops, even after we started to teach our own classes. I’m still going to national or international belly dance workshops or festivals 3-4 times every year, take some specialty/advanced online classes, or receive occasional coaching from master instructors. Most of us do. 

As far as my dance background and training, I’ve been active all my life. I started as a young girl in ballet and recreational gymnastics, then later in school and college I was involved in many sports at recreational level (fencing, basketball, swimming, skating, skiing, running, field tennis – for many years, table tennis, and probably others), then I did aerobics, yoga and other fitness activities for many years in my adult life (and still do). But the love for dance was always there. I tried ballroom dance and country dance for a while with my husband, which was fun, but I felt these were not satisfying enough, besides it was hard to coordinate our busy schedules to attend classes together.

My journey started in 2005 when I serendipitously discovered belly dance when I lived in Columbia, MO, fell in love with it from the first class, and the rest is history.

I took classes with Asha Diana for 2 years in CoMo, then moved to Lawrence, continued classes with Zada, and started to perform in her troupe for about 4-5 years. Then I moved to Kansas City and took classes with Zaina Ali and with Melody Gabrielle for a couple of years. Next, I decided to start a solo career, approx. 8 years after I first started belly dance, and started teaching my own classes in Jan 2015.

Meanwhile, along the years, I participated in numerous workshops and festivals with national and international class instructors in many belly dance styles, shows and competitions (won a few awards), and took online and private classes. Some of the most notable teachers I took from, more than one time in several cases, were (in no particular order):

Randa Kamel (several times)

Aziza of Cairo (several times, including master classes in baladi style)

Camelia of Cairo (several times, including master classes in Saidi style)

Luna of Cairo (several times)

Ibrahim Dimos (in Cairo)

Lubna of Cairo

Soraya Zaied of Cairo (several times)

Raqia Hassan (in Cairo and USA)

Dina (in Cairo)

Tommy King (in Spain)

Mohamed Shahin (several times)

Ossama Esam

Ozgen (Romani-Turkish style)

Nevena Tacheva (including online private classes)

Ahmed Hussien (including in person private classes)

Yousry Sharif

Oxana Bazaeva

Daria Mitskevich (in Spain)

Nathalie (of Los Angeles)

Simon Sako

Shahrzad (in Cairo)

Cassandra Shore

Dalia Carella

Sylvia Salamanca




Warda Shahrazd

Joe William (dance workshops on Delsarte three pillars of expression)

And the list is longer. I’m pretty sure I forgot to mention some.  I feel very fortunate that I was able to attend these workshops and that I can continue to grow as a professional belly dancer, as I’m enjoying every minute of it! But attending (or teaching) classes is not enough. It’s the consistent practice that makes it better, and the willingness to receive feedback from those around me (other dancers, teachers, clients) and to improve. Add to that 3-4 hours of my own practice every week, sometimes more before shows.

So, if you ask me, that’s what it takes to become a dancer! 😊

My Teaching Philosophy

I was thinking one day about my teaching philosophy and realized that my role as a belly dance teacher is to help each student find their own dance style and to guide them through this process. I’m merely providing the tools (such as technique, musicality, styling, safety, etc), the best I can. The goal for a belly dance soloist is to be unique, original, and creative while keeping the character of this dance form. For example, many of the current famous dancers (Egyptian or international) were students of the same teacher (notably, Mahmud Reda or Raqia Hassan), and yet they are so different. Every one of them has her own unique dance signature, which is recognizable and inimitable. One can’t be famous if he/she is not original, in other words, creative. As much as we love classical belly dancers, such as Samia Gamal, Soheir Zaki, Fifi Abdou, etc, we don’t want to be known as “the dancer who dances like Samia Gamal”.

That, of course, for those who are considering a solo career. Nonetheless, it’s perfectly ok for a student to want to do only group numbers, or to come to class for exercise and fun, or not wanting to perform at all. There is enough satisfaction and challenge in just attending a class without the pressure of performing in public.

Overland Park Kansas CIty Zona Rosa Lenexa Shawnee Leawood bellydance A'isha

In the same time, I do encourage my students to take classes with other teachers, to attend workshops, and even to try different dance forms, and I’m happy to make recommendations as to what workshop to attend, which teacher, and what to expect. Every teacher has something new to say or explain a certain movement in a different way that might click better with a student. There is something to learn from everyone. To be able to develop as unique dancers, we need to be exposed to everything that’s out there (dance-related) and to get as many learning opportunities as we can.

Online classes either live or recorded add even more opportunities to learn. However, I don’t recommend exclusively online training, especially for beginners. Live online classes with good visual between the teacher and the student are great tools for most levels, but I recommend adding in-person classes for beginning levels. The teacher need to see how your body is moving and provide feedback to correct some of the moves, or add additional cues depending on student’s individual body type. Live online classes are very convenient, saving time and money with excellent results. But they do require access to technology – a computer (it can be an i-Pad, a laptop, or a desk PC), wi-fi or good internet connection. Recorded class work better for more advanced level (intermediate to advancing). They range from focused techniques for specific moves to entire choreographies. However, they obviously don’t allow interaction with the instructor for questions or review, so sometimes, students need to contact the teacher for written clarifications, or even a private live class.

Overland Park Kansas CIty Zona Rosa Lenexa Shawnee Leawood bellydance A'isha

Cross-training in other dance styles is extremely beneficial for those committed to improve their dancing, and have the resources to do so. For me, taking hula classes has helped me not necessarily with moves technique, but with other aspects of dance discipline, such as improving legs-arms coordination, directional changes, counting and being on beat, musicality, and more!
Talking about learning belly dance brings me to another topic that’s I’ll touch briefly here. For the unacquainted public with little exposure to belly dancing or knowledge about it, what we do seems easy, nothing more that shaking and wiggling and spinning (sadly, sometimes it’s presented that way by some dancers). But, as one of my previous students said, it’s actually deceivingly hard. We didn’t wake up like this one day and decided that “I’m going to be a belly dancer from now on”. Every move has a name, a specific technique that we learn and hone over the years. Moves have names such as shimmies, undulations, arabesque, turns, traveling steps, mayas, omies, and so on. We can spend days or weeks to learn a move or a step that takes only 4-8 seconds, or an accent that takes one second to do on stage. For an average student, it takes about two years to be comfortable with basic body isolations, and another two years to master the core moves. Most belly dancers start their solo career after 5-6 years of training, which actually never stops.

Belly dance is so unique and beautiful, and it provides so much joy and happiness to both the dancer and the audience that it’s no wonder that it’s spread all over the world! Keep on dancing!

The Relationship between Music and Belly Dance

I’ll probably bruise some egos here (including my own), but in belly dance music always comes first, and dance comes second. I’ll explain. The essential purpose of this dance genre is to interpret the music by using body movements, so that the body becomes an additional instrument that brings the music to life. So, if there is no music, there is no dance. Our goal, as belly dancers, is to embody the sound of one (or more) instruments from the orchestral ensemble through specific movements representative of this dance genre. Moreover, different instruments are acknowledged by moving specific body parts – as a general rule, the part of the body where the instrument is held while being played (for instance, drums = hips, violin = arms), but, of course there are exceptions to this rule (as with many any other “dance rules”).

Most of the songs used in what we call Oriental-style belly dance (or Arabic, or traditional, or Egyptian, or Middle-Eastern, or Raqs Sharqi) come from Egypt. And here is why this may be confusing: even though Egypt is mostly Muslim, and the language spoken is an Egyptian Arabic dialect, this country is situated in Africa – obviously not in the Middle-East, and the population technically is not Arab. Moreover, the ethnic songs and rhythms from various Middle-Eastern countries are rarely used in a typical belly dance show. But more about this later on, in another blog.

The Egyptian music used in belly dance has a specific sound given by traditional instruments (such as various types of drums, kanoon, oud, mizmar) along with classic instruments (violins, keyboard, etc), and employs specific rhythms (baladi, maksum, masmoudi, saidi, etc). A trained dancer would know these rhythms and which moves go with what, so she’ll be on the beat and her dancing will make sense within the context of that song. Also, Egyptian songs are sprinkled with numerous accents which the dancer will try to catch and express – the more the better. Too keep in mind, not any song is appropriate for dancing. Some songs are not culturally appropriate, or just technically not feasible (some drum solos may fall under this category).

Western songs, or westernized renditions of classic (or more modern) belly dance songs are tricky. Even some modern pop Egyptian songs are tricky. The sound may be more “friendly” to a Western audience (or dancer), as opposed to the “heaviness” of Egyptian songs, but a lot of time they are missing the very parts that are needed for a good belly dance performance, such as the staccato of a kanoon, the crisp accents of a drum, the heavy “dums” and nuanced “teks”. And as the music is supposed to be driving the moves, the result can be a lukewarm dance performance, as the specific sounds of a belly dance song are simply not there. Thus, the core-intensive moves typical for belly dance are substituted with dance elements from other genres (such as ballet, contemporary, even other ethnic styles), or excessive acrobatics. At the opposite side, a good song can actually save an average belly dance performance.

But you may say that that’s the case with any dance forms. Well, yes, and no. Yes, most dance forms are trying to match the moves of the body to the melody or beats in the music, in a characteristic manner. But in Western styles (like ballet, jazz, contemporary, etc) the focus is more on athleticism, expression of an idea related or not to the song, or impressing (even shocking) the audience, rather than following a specific instrument(s) and switching from an instrument to the other with your body movements, which is the point of belly dancing. Nevertheless, the moves in belly dance are very technical, very precise, much rehearsed, where everything is learned and practiced; little should be left to the chance of intuitive moves.

This takes me to the notion of improvisation in belly dance. First, there is no such thing as a complete improvisation, as is absurd to expect a dancer to masterly dance to a completely new, never heard before, song. Or at least the chances of a very good improvisation are slim. Very skilled and experienced dancers can do a better job, admittedly. It’s very difficult to come up with good moves, be on the beat and look smooth and flowy on a completely new song. Most likely, the dancer won’t be able to catch the accents and nuances in the song, which make a performance entertaining.

In reality, most of us do know a lot of belly dance songs, and even if we haven’t danced in the past to a particular song, we are likely familiar with the tune and know what to expect, or we can recognize specific rhythms and patterns for which we may have pre-rehearsed combinations. Or, we may play a song that’s choreographed in certain places and “improvised” in-between (again, to a tune that we know very well). Some songs are truly hard to choreograph entirely (such as baladi songs, or taksim parts), and that’s actually the point of that style – to improvise and go with the flow. But here we know what to expect because we’ve listened to that song a thousand times before.

I guess I got a bit side-tracked in this blog, but I’ll come back to some of the ideas I touched here in future posts. The point I was trying to make is that you cannot expect us to offer a satisfactory dance performance to any song you may have in your playlist, no matter how much you like that song, let alone if we haven’t heard the song before or if it’s lacking the sounds/rhythms of a typical belly dance song. And this doesn’t make us any less competent dancers. On the contrary, a professional belly dancer is very careful in choosing the songs for her dancing because she knows how important is the song to make the most of her performance and to provide the best experience to her audience.” >

To Impress or to Express?

“If you are an artist of any kind, you’ve probably faced this dilemma many times. Even more so if you are a performing artist or a live entertainer when sometimes you’ll need to decide on the spot.
We, as belly dancers, are fortunate to be able to choose between these extremes and the wide range of options in between. Going from the “impressive” side such as including acrobatics, fancy foot work, dramatic poses, impressive prop work, to the “expressive” side, where we try to express our deeper emotions, or to convey our tarab experience to the public, using minimal movements, is full of choices.
With such a large range, how do we decide and how do we find a balance? In my opinion, that depends on a number of factors. For me, the first and foremost driver is the music itself. Our job is to bring the music to life by using our body as an instrument, or to “be the music”, as many of my previous teachers used to say. As I say to my students often times, listen to the music – it will tell you what to do. In almost every Egyptian song you’ll find parts where you can impress your audience and parts where you can freely express yourself.
The second factor is your audience. It’s important to know who you are going to dance for, to know their expectations, their knowledge or previous exposure to belly dance and their ethnic background. Some people may not get your “tarab” feeling because they haven’t seen anything like that before, or don’t understand it and instead were expecting more hips action, while others may be completely unimpressed by your splits and beautiful fan veils work. Knowing who your audience is and discussing their expectations with them makes your music selection, hence dance style, a much easier decision.
Last, but not least, another factor is your personal preference as a dancer, your dance style in general, and what your body can do safely and convincing. Obviously, it’s wise to avoid acrobatics if it doesn’t look easy and comfortable, or the reverse, expressing emotions that don’t look authentic and sound on you. That narrows down our choices once again.
However, that doesn’t mean that you should do anything you want/can/know in your show. Whereas expressing yourself, or showing your creative dance style or presenting a dance in the most authentic form are important to you, you are there to entertain an audience who paid to see you. So now we face another dilemma – how much to be “authentic” and how much to be “creative” in my dance style? But more about this in the next blog. 
To conclude this blog, I know there is much more to talk about this topic, and I’m not attempting to exhaust this topic (or any others, for that matter). It’s important to know that these extremes exist and they are visible to the public. As belly dancers, we need to find the fine balance between how much to “impress” and how much to “express” while on stage, and these are my broad guidelines.