How do you define “Belly Dance”?
I define “belly” dance as a celebration of life in the present, past, or future; It is a very personal expression of existence. Also, a celebration of femininity. Although “belly” dance is most often revered as a dance of Middle Eastern origin, I also believe it cultivated from nomadic Gypsy culture as well. Belly dance is about being in total unity with the music and your own emotions... no fear or insecurity.. ideally, total self confidence and acceptance.
How & when did you first encounter belly dancing?
I first encountered belly dancing in Pacific Grove, California. I was about 13 yrs. old and noticed there was a belly dance class being offered in a small yoga studio, downstairs from the restaurant I worked at. I was intrigued, so I tried a class then suggested to my mom that she try the class as well ( her boyfriend at that time was Jordanian.) My mama and I began learning belly dance together.
How long have you been dancing (professionally/teaching)?
I have been belly dancing professionally and teaching for about 4 years now. However I’ve been dancing in other forms since I was 4 yrs. old (starting with ballet.)
Where did you grow up and where do you live now?
I was born in Odessa, Ukraine (along the Black Sea) and raised there until age 5. Both of my parents were/ are artists ( they divorced when I was 3 yrs. old.) When I was 5 yrs. old, my mother got the opportunity to go to America and took me with her, right before the impending collapse of the Soviet Union. She had a 1 yr. student visa but we ended up staying and living in the US for the past 19 yrs. Since that point, I’ve grown up in central California, specifically Monterey Bay. I currently live in the Monterey area. I feel we were very fortunate to end up in such a naturally beautiful, scenic part of the US. I became an American citizen last month... July 2010. As soon as I applied for my expedited passport, I bought a ticket to Ukraine.
Where is the most interesting place that belly dance has taken you?
The most interesting place that belly dance has taken me is into the depths of my hidden/ subconscious emotions. I’ve grown to love classical Arabic music... the compositions are so rich that they bring me to tears sometimes... for reasons I am not even fully aware of.
Who were some of your mentors/teachers/inspirations along the way?
All of my teachers in various dance forms have been my mentors and inspirations: Various ballet instructors throughout my childhood ( most recently in my adulthood, Deanna Ross.)
Valeria Batista-Mason: my first belly dance instructor ever.
Alicia Morena Di Palma: my Flamenco teacher during my teenage years.
* Janelle Rodriguez and Crystal Silmi of Santa Cruz: the teachers who’s belly dance class isolation and layering techniques challenged and excited me to get back into belly dancing.
* A primary reason I decided to commit to learning belly dance again, in addition to the challenging technique format I was exposed to, was that my grandfather in Ukraine passed away during the same time I began trying the classes in Santa Cruz. I had never got to meet him since leaving Ukraine at age 5, and was distraught at his passing. At that point in life, I wasn’t doing much for my self other than working double shifts to pay the rent to live with a boyfriend I wasn’t compatible with. I decided in my grandfather’s memory, to commit to doing something beneficial for myself... and that’s how i got back into dance ( after a number of years hiatus from dance of all kinds): my mom told me about some interesting instructors in Santa Cruz and we began to drive up, every week, to take their belly dance classes there together (sometimes 2-3 times week.)
Authentic Middle eastern Dancers inspire me, particularly Egyptian style dancers.... Most recently, Mohamed El Hosseny ( he is an excellent Egyptian dance instructor currently based in Finland. His passion for the art form is very inspiring.) Yousry Sharif has also been an Egyptian Dance inspiration ( It’s funny how these men can sometimes belly dance better than women... but it is their culture after all.). I also admire Dina, Fifi Abdo, Randa Kamel, Maria Shashkova (Russian) and the list goes on of international belly dancers I admire.
I am inspired by ALL talented dancers I see... of any genre. Flamenco dance, Gypsy dance, Persian, Ballet.. everything that catches my eye.
My mother has always been an inspiration as well... she is the most creative, productive, multi-talented woman I have ever known.
What valuable advice would you like to pass on to novice dancers?
First and foremost believe in yourself, follow your passions/ interests, be disciplined in your training and practice, educate yourself about the art form culturally and historically, study from as many instructors as possible and with the best instructors available, challenge yourself, and never NEVER stop learning... you will never know it all, but strive to learn as much as available to you. Also, don’t let the critics get to you.
What is the most unusual experience you have had belly dancing?
The way my solo performing “career” began is rather unusual, I think.
In 2007, my mom decided to set up a weekly variety show in the middle of a shopping mall in downtown Monterey. She hung a roll of fabric off a stairway balcony as our “stage” backdrop, and she and I and as many other dancers/ performing artists as we could round up would perform every week for the public, free of charge/ by donation. We had belly dancers, musicians, and even a magician. It was called the “BellySema Mystique Show” named after our dance troupe’s name “BellySema”. Our show became rather popular, we had our regular audience members showing up every week. This went on for over a year, and then the show had to end due to the owner of the building citing ‘insurance liability” issues.
There, an admirer ( our dance student/ show videographer/ now friend) consistently tipped me one hundred dollar bills, every week, for a couple of months.. until he ran out of money I guess.. haha.. or realized he could not buy my love ( also, there he met his girlfriend in the audience.. now ex, but good friend.)
Do you have any other special talents/skills/occupations besides (or that compliment) your belly dancing?
I feel that my background in ballet and Flamenco dance has enriched my belly dance style/ vocabulary greatly.
I also played cello for three years in middle school, so I believe that my musical experiences have also helped me in understanding/ translating music into movement. I have a natural sense of timing. For a period of time I was instructing basic Middle Eastern Rhythms for the Doumbek classes in Monterey.
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 admire classical Egyptian style belly dance... but I like to fuse that inspiration with other dance experiences... I don’t want to copy anyone.. we all take and borrow from our inspirations, but i strive to find my own presentation. I’ve been told my dance style is very fluid.
Do you have any special projects you are working on personally that you would like to share about?
I hope to soon make a website for my mother’s belly dance costume designs. It will most likely be titled “BellySema Couture”. My mother is an artist but her creativity extends to many directions, fortunately or me: costume design. She hesitates to advertise her costumes to the public because they are very time consuming, one a a kind, hand sewn creations. She prefers to focus on her art work as that is her profession. However, I get so many compliments on her designs that I feel if someone fully understands the value of her rare creations they should be able to inquire about owning or commissioning one of her costume designs.
Why do you love belly dancing?
I love belly dancing because anyone can learn it with enough focus and training... and it is especially complimentary for female overall well-being. The dance form itself does not discriminate based on age, body shape, weight, height, sex.. etc. Any one can be a belly dancer with enough dedication.
I also like belly dance because it partially stems from Middle eastern social dancing. I’ve noticed many people are afraid to dance in public, and I like to set an example for them/ inspire them to get out of their shells and live a little more. Seize the moment.. we are our own worst critics, so it’s only our own judgements we have to conquer.
When I studied ballet as a child, I never felt I would become a ballerina because i didn’t fit the standard ballet body type: I was tall and later curvy, and that wasn’t ideal for ballet. In studying Flamenco dance, my feet began to hurt having to wear the traditional heeled Flamenco shoes, and I have have bunions which made performing Flamenco even harder on my feet. I liked that belly dance can be performed with out shoes.
I love the fluidity of belly dance, the richness of it’s cultural origins, the variety of styles in the dance form, the complexity of it’s music, and the overall health benefits of the dance.
What is your favorite music to dance to? Why? Any favorite bands/groups/artists?
I LOVE the accordion... it’s nostalgic to me, i think because it reminds me of Russian music from my childhood. I also love Baladi songs... something about the music suddenly dropping into that heavy rhythm grabs at my soul. In general, since I admire the Egyptian style of belly dance, I listen to a lot of Classical Egyptian/ Arabic songs. The music is very complex and it takes me a few days of listening to the same song to fully grasp all of the subtle accents in the classical songs I am captivated by. I also like the “classical’ songs because of the way Middle Eastern audiences react so emotionally to them. I try to research the translations and emote the corresponding sentiment into my dances because i know that Middle Eastern audiences appreciate that... and it’s an homage of my respect/ admiration for the music and artists of their cultures. Some favorite composers include Mohamed Abdel Wahab and Abdul Halim Hafez (singer.) Recently, I’ve fallen in love with Om Kalsoum.... her song “Ba’eed Anak” ( Far From You) is on repeat in my play-list right now. I’ve also taken notice of her song “Ana Fi Intizarak” ( I’m Waiting For You).. the composition is by Mohamed Abdel Wahab and the intro that song is striking. Another musician I enjoy is Hossam Ramzy... he’s an excellent drummer. When I feel like dancing a fusion style, I am inclined towards gypsy/ flamenco-esque music. I feel that my mom and I are gypsies... but sometimes I like random funk, pop, rock, or rap songs too ;p
In terms of “local” musicians, I love the music of George and Elias Lammam ( Lebanese musicians/ brothers) based in San Francisco.. the are excellent musicians and I’ve had the opportunity to dance to their live musical accompaniment a number of times.
Favorite costume elements?
Very fortunately for me, my mama is my personal costume designer and 99% of my costumes have been created by her. I like floral designs.. roses... Russian shawls. I only shop for jewelry.... earrings, bangles, anklets. Also, I like mysterious head pieces ( which may only reveal the eyes) and Afghani tribal style mirrored or Bangara style accessories. I also like cymbals and drums.. musical instruments as props.
I like bright colors: Red, purple, blue, hot pink, piercing tropical blue.. also, I like metallics: gold, bronze, silver. I am generally fair skinned so pastel or light colors don’t complement my complexion as much (sometimes not enough contrast.)
Favorite Quotes (regarding dance or life):
“ We ought to dance with rapture that we might be alive... and part of the living, incarnate cosmos. “ - H.D Lawrence
“ Dancing is my religion. Movement is my practice. When everything is in sync, music and movement are my direct links to the divine.” - unknown
You are originally from Odessa but have grown up in the US. You have recently returned to Odessa after 20 years- this must be very exciting for you. Is the place how you remember it? You were quite young when you left, did you even remember much?
(I am right now responding to these questions from Odessa.)
I have a few childhood memories of Odessa... mostly of the city.
I have a memory of learning to swim.. my mom (and/ or her boyfriend at that time) took me took the beach, and later to my surprise, threw me into the Black Sea, simply telling me to swim back to them.. and that’s how i learned to swim; survival instinct.
I remember the apartment I lived in with my mom in downtown Odessa, and the grapevines in the center of the apartment courtyard. I remember our neighbor and her grandchildren who I would play with when they came to visit. Our apartment itself was one large room, and we had to go out into the communal hallway and enter another door to get to our kitchen. I remember for having a box of yellow baby chicks in our kitchen for some time. In that apartment complex, we had to share one bathroom among several families living on the same floor ( again, had to go out into the communal hallway to access it.). I have a strange memory of levitating... hovering a few inches above the floor in the living room as my mom stepped outside onto our porch, and when I called her name to come back inside and see what was happening, my feet had lowered to the floor by the time she returned ( I realize now that, logically, it was most likely a dream.) I vaguely remember my mom having a female friend/ model over, posing nude, but tastefully draped in fabric ( in our living room ) for her painting.
I remember walking by the bakery downtown and seeing “bubliki” ( similar to thin, dried bagels) threaded in a row, hanging in the bakery window.
I remember the in-comparable delicious taste of home-made apricot ice cream being sold at the beach/ boardwalk/ port area where my mom would sketch portraits outside for people.
I remember walking down the sides of the Potemkin Steps ( at the sides were larger block shaped steps, which seemed very large to me at that time.)
Did you keep in contact with your relatives there or do you feel like you are meeting many of them for the first time?
Ever since we left, my father’s parents have called me every year for my birthday to congratulate me and give me their blessings. My father’s father, Grisha (short for Gregory) passed away about four yrs. ago, and sadly I never got to meet him again. I remember the last time I spoke to him, he and my grandmother had called me on my 18th? birthday and he was wishing me a happy birthday yet crying at the same time... telling me he loved me.. it was always very emotional getting phone calls from them. It was frustrating knowing I had family in Ukraine who loved me but not being able to go visit them due to legal issues and my mom’s fear that we would not be able to return to the US if we went to Ukraine before becoming American citizens. My grandmother was the one who consistently called me ever year after that.. my father was always shy for some reason... it was also frustrating because I couldn't communicate with them very well.. I stopped learning Russian once I came to the US, so my understanding was very basic.. and they didn’t know any English.
Last year, I saw my father of skype video chat for the first time. Last week I met him in person for the first time as an adult.. it’s all still very emotional for me but i try to focus on the positive and be happy and enjoy the somewhat sureal present moments rather than allow myself an emotional breakdown.
My mom didn’t keep much contact with her family throughout the years (or vice versa) so it was definitely like I was meeting them for the first time.
Actually, it feels like I have met all of my relatives for the first time.
Do you think you will be doing any performing or teaching dance while you are there? What is the belly dance “scene” like in Odessa?
I definitely intend to find a few “gigs” while I am here.. we shall see how that goes. I would also like to take some dance classes while I am here.. but that is yet to be arranged. I have not seen any belly dance performers or venues yet.
You are going to be performing in a competition before returning home to Monterey, right? Can you tell me a little bit about that?
I’ll be performing in the Miami Belly Dance Convention competition in early September. Last year I entered that same competition at my mother’s urging.. it was my very first competing experience.. and last year I knew I wasn’t ready or prepared.. but my mother urged me to do it anyhow, so I did. There are many good dancers in Miami.. I look forward to the event again.. and I approach it as a learning experience... I am not a competitive person.. I do it more for the experience and exposure. And to see who my international contemporaries are. My mother is my biggest motivator.. without her support, I definitely would not be where I am now.
I got to take my family on more than one occasion to a restaurant in Pacific Grove called the Persian Grill to see you dance. The food was excellent and you really put on a good show. How long have you been dancing there? You seemed very close with the restaurant owners- do you have a personal connection with them?
I have been dancing at the Persian Grill ( in Monterey) for about 2 years now.. and that also began at my mother’s urging (she’s like my agent.. haha.) I definitely have a connection with the Homami family ( the owners of the restaurant.) It’s an intimate, family owned business and they are very sweet people. I’ve never had any problems with them in terms of business and getting paid (unlike other restaurant owners I’ve dealt with.) The Homami’s have always been very loyal and consistent with me in regards to my dance gig there, so I try my best to treat them them with the same respect.
When you return you will resume performing & teaching … how can readers find out where you will be performing or teaching so they can come see you?
I update all recent info regarding my class and performance schedule onto my website: www.MashaRaqs.com
( “Masha” is my name.. “Raqs” means “dance” in Arabic, for those who may not know.)
Now it is YOUR turn to ask the question!
Masha wants to know:
“ Who is the biggest inspiration in your life and how have they altered the course of your existence?”