Interview with Zanbaka
DON'T FORGET TO ANSWER ZANBAKA'S QUESTION FOR YOU AT THE END OF THE INTERVIEW FOR A CHANCE TO WIN A COPY OF HER BOOK!
How & when did you first encounter belly dancing?
My freshman year of college in ‘95…. There was a class offered through the UW Electives catalogue for a bellydance class with (my future bellydance teacher!) Mish Mish. I would have to say what got me to class was my interest in music at the time… I was listening to a lot of Dead Can Dance and other obscure music that had a world music feel. I studied years of ballet, tap, and jazz growing up and lost interest in my teen years. This new (and scary) venture turned out to be a serendipitous opportunity that ignited my passion for dance when I reunited with it as a young adult… and it truly changed my life and I wouldn’t be the same today without it.
How long have you been dancing (professionally/teaching)?
More than a decade now…..wow, has it been that long?
Who were some of your mentors/teachers/inspirations along the way?
So many! I’m a big believer in giving credit where credit is due… if I’ve gained a huge revelation from an hour long class or if someone’s inspired me through years of study, I feel it’s important to acknowledge that. Mish Mish, Yemaya (formerly of Seattle), the original ladies of Goddess Squad, Troupe Rose, Dalia Carella, Rubina Carmona, all of the wonderful dancers I’ve has the opportunity to collaborate with in ensemble settings, Oscar Nieto, Sara de Luis, Carolena Nerricio/FCBD, Paulette Rees-Denis/Gypsy Caravan, Yasmela (Shelly Muzzy), Elizabeth Dennis, Melissa Ruby, Madam Habib, Ratna Roy, all of the instructors at Mendocino Music and Dance Camp, Tamalyn Dallal, Jill Parker, Artemis Mourat, dancers who have inspired me from afar Romani Urban Tribal Bellydance, John Compton/Hahbi Ru, Rachel Brice, Zoe Jakes and I’m sure there are many more!
What valuable advice would you like to pass on to novice dancers?
No matter what level of dance you’re at or what your goals are….. Learn how to embrace constructive criticism and feedback with gratitude, grace, and an open heart. This can be a very difficult process if you’re new to dance/movement classes. (And I must mention if you feel that your instructor is being verbally abusive… by all means, RUN!) Understand that when an instructor picks you out to give you feedback, it’s usually because they see something special in you, and want you to reach your full potential. In our society, corrections or feedback are often regarded with negativity… but in dance, we must use these as tools to fuel us, evolve, progress, and push us forward.
What is your favorite or signature style of belly dance that you teach or perform? Do you have a specialty that people recognize you for?
I love all styles of bellydance…. I’ve never really put restraints on myself as far as studying a particular style. I think there’s something to be learned from studying with various teachers who specialize and are comfortable within a particular style. I a love being a bellydance chameleon, but I also think it’s important to be able to recognize ‘bodies of movement’ that are commonly accepted within each style genre and to be aware of those differences when creating your own pieces. With each project or piece I may gravitate toward a certain body of movements depending on the tools of dance composition, purpose, context, solo or group, or what the music calls for.
Do you have any special projects you are working on personally that you would like to share about?
In the bellydance world I’m working on video-documenting some of my old choreographies right now, some new pieces, and outlines for my companion videos for my books and all the other details that go along with that big project.
Why do you love belly dancing?
So many reasons! The music…. the grounded, earthy movements that compliment a woman’s body so well…… the dichotomy and contrast of slow, sinuous movements and sharp, rapid, percussive isolations….. the melding of cultures that has influenced the many branches of older and newer forms of bellydance….. the transformative experiences that that some people gain through studying bellydance, especially the aspects of self-love and body acceptance (within healthy boundaries, of course!), the opportunity and gateway to learn about other cultures, history, current events, etc., I feel that no matter what differences we have across the globe, art is what makes us civilized and art transcends language/borders/religion/politics.
What is your favorite music to dance to? Why?
My obsession with music is akin to those people you see on the ‘hoarding reality shows’ on tv. I’ve got boxes of cd’s in storage and external hard drives that seem to
fill up too fast. As much music as I’ve acquired, I’ve always been pretty picky with music that I dance to. I love to dance to Middle Eastern Music as well as Non-Middle Eastern World music. I really like to honor the origins and context of music no matter where it comes from and when making a set of music, compiling pieces so there is a flow and a purpose to it and making sure the pieces relate to one another. My current fav’s have more to do with musical elements… I’ve really been infatuated with the piano, cello, all sorts of rhythms and syncopation, female voices singing in harmony, the deep tone of frame drums, and the intricacies of flamenco singing.
Favorite costume elements?
My latest costume acquisition is a professionally made Bata de Cola, which is a Flamenco dress or skirt with tiered ruffled and a long train or “cola”. Dancing in it is a dream… and thankfully I haven’t hit the floor yet… those things are dangerous!
Lately I’ve actually been paring down my costume collection to things that are really immaculate, unique, meaningful, rare or well made. I’ve disassembling old pieces that I made in a rush (sewing until the late hours before a big performance, anyone?) and recreating them into something new. I did this with a bangle belt recently that’s adorned with my favorite tribal pendants and coins. Every time I’ve flown with it in my carry-on, it’s a given that I’ll get directed to the bag inspection queue.
Your photo is on the cover of Kajira’s twice sold out editions of the Tribal Bible ( that now sells for no less than $200 online)- since I have never seen one in person, can you tell me about what that book is about and why you are on the cover?
(Awww! I can send and loan you my copy, if you’d like!!!!) I was fortunate enough to be in touch with Kajira when she was looking for artwork/photo submissions for the 2nd edition of her book . (What I would give for an original 1st Edition!) I was so surprised to be included on the cover collage and *extremely* honored. Kajira has put together such a wonderful piece of work. I’ve heard rumors of another edition to be printed and I hope the rumors are true!
You have written the most comprehensive belly dance instructional book series I have yet to encounter (Belly dance for the Versatile Dancer vol. I, II, III). Would you like to tell me about when you decided to take on the task of making a truly useable “textbook” for teaching belly dance? What is the philosophy employed that make your books so very accessible?
Thanks for your kind words, Stephanie! The whole thing began with a pretty serious health issue. I took a step back from teaching group classes and cut a few other dance commitments out to relax and enjoy life for a while! One late night, I was going through my stacks of class handouts and notes and thought to myself… I should really compile these into an organized manual for my students! From there the manuals grew into different volumes for each level or subject and after a while I decided I was going to self-publish on the off chance that other dancers might find the information helpful, too. Once I made that decision, it really helped solidify my vocabulary for explaining *how* certain isolations are oriented or what directions a movement should take. The whole process has had a profound and transformative effect on how I explain things when I teach and I feel the process has made me a better instructor.
What made you decide to make the upcoming book in this series a compilation of work from multiple authors?
There are so many talented dancers, researchers, historians, ethnologists, etc, out there that I felt a second hand offering with the same writing style and voice wouldn’t be as rich and diverse as a collection with all the contributors and their points of view. I want my readers to experience a taste of these great contributors, even if they’ve never studied with them in person. If we can all raise money for a non-profit while we’re at it, then everyone wins!
How many books will be in the entire series once it is complete? What is coming up?
Hopefully Seven… but maybe more?
IV. History, Styles, & Fusion with Fortitide w/ guest writers)
V. Floorwork, Veilwork, Props & Dangerous Diversions
VI. Choreography & Free Form Improvisation
VII. Zanbaka's Repertoire for Tribal Group Improvisation [[[My experimentations in Group Improv which are influenced by work in Flamenco, Orissi, and Folkloric Bellydance, and new takes on dynamic formations]]]
And will any of those upcoming books include the work of other authors like the fourth?
I hope so! We shall see!
What would be your ultimate dream for your books?
I just hope that they’ll always be around, many years from now, for people to enjoy… and hopefully enhance their dancing. I also hope to produce some videos to accompany each volume sometime in the near future.
You are also an accomplished flamenco dancer as well. When did you begin to study this dance form (was it before or after belly dance)? And how were you exposed to it?
I always describe bellydance as my “gateway drug” to flamenco. I took a workshop with Dalia Carella at Caravan Studio in Portland, OR over a decade ago. The high level of dance that she demanded in her workshops, the attention to detail and rhythm, the respect for drawing from fusion forms that she emphasized in her workshops was truly inspiring.
As soon as I got back to Seattle, I ravenously hunted down information for Rubina Carmona’s Flamenco classes, Sawe’s West African Dance classes, and Dr. Ratna Roy’s East Indian Orissi classes. Ratna’s classes were in Olympia, an hour or so drive away from Seattle, but after much begging and arranging for a Seattle studio for her, she agreed to make the trek here on a weekly basis. The next six months were filled with rich rhythms and dance with my zealous attendance to classes. Mondays, I went to an early Flamenco class and taught my bellydance classes later on that evening. Wednesdays I went to Sawe’s lengthy West African dance class with a huge ensemble of live drumming accompaniment hammering out poly-rhythms. Thursdays I had troupe practice. Saturdays more Flamenco, and Sundays I pounded out choka excercises in Ratna’s class. As the demand increased for more group and private classes in my teaching schedule and taking on a student troupe, I had to give up my regular attendance at Orissi classes. When Rubina invited me to join La Pena Flamenca de Seattle, I had to make a choice between that and the time conflict with Sawe’s class. Flash forward many years to present day, Bellydance and Flamenco are still battling it out for alpha dog position in my schedule and priorities. I still drop into other dance classes and new classes as my schedule allows, at least for the experience of being back in the beginner’s point of view.
Do you find your belly dance influenced by flamenco? Or vice versa? Are you influenced by other dance forms or are there other forms of “cross training” that you practice?
I think both forms lend themselves well to enhancing the other, once you’ve studied both for a while. “Cutting and pasting” movements from one into the other can lead to disastrous results and can appear really gimmicky…which is probably true for any venture in fusion. With a mindful approach, the layers of foundations complement each other very well. Flamenco arm carriage was a huge asset to my early experimentations in tribal group improv, because at that time there were no tribal improv/ATS instructors in Seattle (although Seattle has quite a great history
of Jamila style/old-style/classic tribal). Present day in my belly dance pieces, Flamenco has given me so much in regard to attention to fractional and unique rhythms, body lines and composition, turns, and emotive expressions that honor the full spectrum of universal life experiences: the good, the bad, and the ugly as opposed to just the positive side of the emotive spectrum.
Do you think that “cross training” is important in learning to become an exceptional belly dancer?
I think it can definitely help! It really depends on the individual and their background/experience, but other kinds of dance, yoga, pilates, martial arts, fitness, strength training, can all be extremely helpful in enhancing dance and dance longevity. The most important thing is to never stop learning, always be open to new experiences in movement, new music, and new ways to think about movement in a cerebral sense.
For a chance to win a FREE copy of Zanbaka's first book in the Bellydance for the Versatile Dancer Series: FOundations, please leave a comment answering this question:
Flash forward 10 years from now…. It’s summer 2020… where do you see the art of bellydance? Has it grown in popularity? Are the old stereotypes a thing of the past? Are there more theatre productions? Are there more bellydance studios? Are there classes offered in schools and higher educational institutions? What new innovations have bellydance artists incorporated? What elements of tradition of folkloric roots has the dance retained? Describe how you envision bellydance to be 10 years from now!