How do you define “Belly Dance”?
Wow, simple yet somewhat difficult question... Belly dance is a one of the dances that has long history. Through traveling gypsies, the ancient temple dances transformed into distinct movement as belly dance. It carries many beautiful elements of various tribal dances of the orient, Middle East and the Mediterranean areas. Some seek importance in maintaining the Egyptian or Turkish style of belly dance. Some take the basics and add elements from other dances. I view belly dance as something very spiritual, getting in touch with every little part of the body. There is a sense of trance when the soul connects to the music and translates the music into movements. Because I feel that belly dance has deep history that is subtly embedded within each movements, and some emotions of solitude, strength, communion, happiness, sadness etc., it is a powerful dance form.
How & when did you first encounter belly dancing?
There are many instances that were the trigger, but the very first encounter was probably when I danced in a kindergarten dance recital... I was picked to be in the group of girls that had to perform a dance that was over-simplified version of Arabian dance... I remember feeling really good doing it. Since the time I was really young, I used to watch documentaries on different cultures, and when I saw the costuming of belly dance as well as the dance movements, something grabbed my soul.
How long have you been dancing (professionally/teaching)?
I have been passionately learning belly dance for 6 years. I started performing at night clubs and events around town about four years ago, and I have been teaching for three years. I’ve been doing solo performances on top of dancing in Shakti Dance Movement.
Where did you grow up and where do you live now?
I grew up in Fukuoka, Japan until the age of 16. I have been living in Hawaii for 11 years. (Living in Waikiki for 6 years) It’s my second home.
Where is the most interesting place that belly dance has taken you?
Belly dance has taken me to a lot of places (traveling to take workshops and perform, meeting other dancers, having dinner with the belly dancers I worship etc.), and I can’t really say where the most interesting place was... Let me answer with a different twist... The most interesting place that belly dance has taken me is the current place in my life. Through belly dance, I have met my boyfriend, my love of my life, and through belly dance, I have met so many great awesome people and established friendships. It really opened up my perspectives. Without belly dance I would not have had the life I have.
Who were some of your mentors/teachers/inspirations along the way?
Who I get inspired and get the most influence by are Ansuya, Sabrina Fox, Zoe Jakes, and Kami Liddle, and the Shakti guru Kalae. There are many great dancers in the world, but I got to take classes by those dancers more than any other (being in Hawaii, it’s hard to go to workshops in the mainland as often), and their live performances always blow my mind. They are my inspiration.
What valuable advice would you like to pass on to novice dancers?
The most important thing is the love of the art form. If you love it, you will work hard to practice the techniques, go out of your way to make things happen, and things will naturally fall into place. As human being, we constantly strive to improve, evolve and go through metamorphosis.
When I first started, I was able to think of how I wanted to dance but my technique could not catch up; I could not dance the way I wanted to. Over time, with experience (e.g., good performance, bad mistakes, self-realizations, working with other dancers, getting inspired etc.), you will become a stronger dancer each day. It’s a process of metamorphosis.
What is the most unusual experience you have had belly dancing?
Unusual experience... perhaps it’s when I got to dance at the Blaisdell Arena. I belly dance when Kings of Spade (my favorite band, and my boyfriend is the guitarist) has a show, and this particular time, they were chosen to open for Bon Jovi. I was very fortunate to be able to stand on the big stage in this occasion.
Do you have any other special talents/skills/occupations besides (or that compliment) your belly dancing?
I have other random skills besides belly dancing... I do translation and interpretation in Japanese/English (Japanese is my first language). I have a MA in Japanese Linguistics, and a teaching license and a massage therapy license. I can do simple web designing, and video and music editing. I can play some musical instruments... I am currently finishing up my job of video editing, and contemplating what to focus in life.
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?
The style of belly dance I perform and teach is Tribal Fusion Style Belly Dance. Taking the basics from the American Tribal Style belly dance, I fuse some movements from other dance forms, such as flamenco, hip hop, modern dance, and classical Indian dance.
I didn’t know about this dance style when I initially started belly dancing. I used to dance Egyptian cabaret style, however, when I discovered Tribal Fusion Style, I immediately fell in love with this style. The movements are very grounded, muscular, rigid yet smooth, dark yet soft. I love everything about it.
People say that my characteristic of dance is flowy and slow. I personally choose to dance slow and big, but I change the mood and dynamics depending on what kind of music I’m dancing to.
Do you have any special projects you are working on personally that you would like to share about?
I formed a troop that consists of me and my belly dance students. We started off as a simple student troop, but we recently names ourselves Phoenix Dance Project. We are putting together a new performance piece for next Camera Obscura hosted by DJ Nocturna at the Manifest on September 11th.
my website (currently still under construction): nataliephoenix.com
Why do you love belly dancing?
Because my soul connects to the dance form. I love the movements, and I adore the arts and crafts, music and people that are connected to it.
What is your favorite music to dance to? Why? Any favorite bands/groups/artists?
I love many different genres of music, but when it comes to performing, I tend to choose electronic music that has good beats and melodies that have a hint of world music like Indian, Middle Eastern, Flamenco, and Balkan. I especially love melodies played by string instruments such as the guitar, oud/lute, and violin. Something about the sound of string instruments “gets” me. ...So it’s pretty important to have the bass line, drum beat, and the melody that I feel connected to, because I want to express those parts of the songs through my dance. I feel good when I can express certain moods of the music with the dance, and that’s when I can capture the audience.
Favorite costume elements?
When you see me wear pants for performance or practice, it’s by Melodia Designs almost all the time. Melodia makes really cute dance pants and the tribal fusion dancers cannot get away from them :) The tribal jewelry that are used as embellishments of the costume are from the Kuchi and Turkoman tribe of Afghanistan. I wrap many shawls around my hips to have the gypsy look. I personally really love the steampunk fashion and accessories (growing up watching many Japanese fantasy animations), so I attach gears, and old buttons on my costume as well. 1920’s vintage fashion style has become a bit of a trend, and I really love the antique lacy fabric and rhinestones. I can see the ebb and flow in tribal fusion fashion as we move back and forth from and to the good old Egyptian style and Tribal style.
I use scimitar swords for my dance performance many times, and the sword is made by Saroyan. I used to dance with zills (finger cymbals) more before, and those are by Saroyan as well. Saroyan makes really good quality zills and swords.
As for make-up, I use Mac. I dab on lots and lots of black (or dark blue) on my eyelids and beyond. I might use another metallic color on a small part of my eyelids. Then, I put a thick layer of eyeliner and long fake eyelashes. Audience are far away from the stage usually, and being Asian, I need to try harder to make my eyes pop up.
Mmmm... depends, but material wise, I like dark red, black, and cream (off-white). Around my living quarters, I like brown and off white. I like purple and blue stones and silver jewelry. My absolute favorite is the color of the atmosphere, the crisp air with the sense of solitude and comfort around 5pm where the sun is at the angle between mid afternoon and dusk.
Favorite Quotes (regarding dance or life):
“Beauty is a manifestation of secret natural laws, which otherwise would have been hidden from us forever.” - Goethe
“A superior man is modest in his speech, but exceeds in his actions.” - Confucius
“I have no special talent. I am only passionately curious.” - Einstein
You were studying belly dance and had your own troupe before you joined the Shakti Dance Movement. Can you tell me a little bit about your troupe and the sort of performing that you guys did?
The troop I had before Shakti Dance Movement was called Nadeshiko. It comprised of seven other Japanese belly dancers who I met in Hawaii through belly dance. Each one of us had different taste in dance with different dance backgrounds. Since I facilitated the troop, I decided to have a uniformed style as a group, and I chose to do group performances with many pieces from ATS (American Tribal Style), which is made up of universal sets of movement combinations that are distinct to this style. Many of us were not used to dancing in a belly dance troop, let alone tribal style, so I figured it’s the best to start by learning and performing ATS (which is the basis for the Tribal Fusion Style that I now do). The ladies in Nadeshiko also danced salsa, so we performed at many salsa events. That was a change of scene for the salsa community for sure... that inspired some other ladies from the salsa community to do salsa fusion belly dance. Nadeshiko went on for over a year before each of us started to follow our own passion (some Egyptian style, some pursuing salsa, and me-tribal fusion).
What was it like to meet Kalae and become a part of the Shakti Dance movement?
I had seen Kalae dance at haflas when either of us used to dance Egyptian style. A few years after she started the tribal fusion belly dance troop I started going to her belly dance classes. That was around the time I was performing with the Nadeshiko girls. I quickly learned the choreography in class and started to perform unofficially as a part of Shakti Dance Movement. A couple months down the line, I asked if I could be a member of Shakti, she the girls said “Of course. You were pretty much adopted at this point.” I was really happy to join a troop of strong dancers, and moreover, it’s tribal fusion style belly dance, which I connect to the best. Kalae especially strives to make our performance really tight, so she has us drill the moves a lot and makes sure I have my attention to every single parts of my body to present good posture. I learned a lot through dancing in the troop, and my dance techniques definitely has improved a lot. The girls in Shakti are very passionate about dancing, and I love being around them.
You have one the most sensational tattoos! Can you tell me about your phoenix tattoo? What does it signify for you and a little about the design, did you design it or is it a historic design you discovered somewhere?
Thank you very much for the compliment on my tattoo :) It is an Asian Phoenix. It is called “Hoo-oo” or “Suzaku” in Japanese. Hoo-oo is a mythical king of birds having different parts of the body from different types of birds. The realization of phoenix comes out to be different from culture to culture, but the concept and the representation of phoenix exist all over the world. Suzaku is from the Chinese constellation and it is translated as the vermilion bird of the South. It is the guardian of the direction of South, and it represents the element of fire and the season summer.
I did not come up with the exact design until I went to the tattoo artist. He trained in Japan and knows a lot of Japanese art. I made a rough sketch of how I want the phoenix to look and the placement of it on my torso, and showed it to him. I completely trusted the tattoo artist so he began to freestyle and draw the phoenix right on my body with a marker (without coming up with a sketch on paper), I liked it so we just had it inked right away. I didn’t really specify the coloring of the phoenix so it was completely his taste. I did not like the coloring at first (it wasn’t what I imagined it to be...)... but it grew on me... also many people (even random people when I’m out shopping) have complimented the colors so then that helped me boost my liking. And the last thing that helped me love the tattoo was when I went to Japan and saw the phoenix painted on a temple wall... it had the exact same colors. Then I realized that the tattoo artist really knew what he was doing.
I love what phoenix represents (in all cultures). I like the concept of rebirth and metamorphosis... like the Asian philosophy of “change is constant,” and like the quote by Heraclitus “everything is in a state of flux” (which is my other tattoo on my mid-back written in Greek). Also, I was born in summer and I am obsessed with the direction South (from what Suzaku respresents). Someone once told me that my guardian angel is a big bird. So I’m very connected to phoenix.
I have been using the stage name Natalie Phoenix (N. Phoenix to be precise) since I was 12 years old when I used to go to comic conventions in Japan and sell my anime art :)
You also teach tribal fusion belly dance. When and where do you teach?
I teach tribal fusion belly dance every Saturday at Manoa Dance Studio.
2-3pm is technique drills, and 3-4pm is choreography class.
I hope you will come to see Natalie perform this Friday October 1st at the
Chinatown Courtyard in Downtown Honolulu
5pm - 7pm
The Nouveau Gypsy
art exhibit & bohemian night market