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A Series of Fortunate Events – or “How I Became a Writer of Belly Dance Books”

By Sara Shrapnell

Where to begin ? Perhaps back in the UK, when I was the busy Mum of three, who would hide away and write short stories on wet weekends? Or back to a time when I had only two babies, and ran away, one night a week, to belly dance in the local hall. Or perhaps when I was the little girl who had her dreams of being a writer crushed by a teacher, who prioritized spelling and punctuation over creativity?

I will start this story with an unexpected year without work. At the beginning of 2011, I had three children at home, I taught twelve belly dance classes a week, planned two major events and helped with a few more. My life was belly dance and family, family and belly dance.

By the end of that year my children were on three continents, and I could no longer work.

My husband had been splitting his time between the UK and San Francisco, working his dream job. Suddenly they wanted him full-time in the USA, and we had four hours to decide how to rearrange our lives. My youngest son would go into Highschool, middle son had just been accepted into University in Liverpool, and our eldest daughter was planning to dance a second season in India. That just left me without a life plan. I would have to wait a year to get a spouse green card.

After years of work, children, belly dance events and classes, a year off sounded wonderful. It didn’t take long to get bored. I connected with the dance community in San Francisco, took lessons, attended workshops and events. I decorated my house, and we got a puppy. In frustration I turned to tidying my lesson plans and visiting venues, where I would be able to teach once my paperwork was processed.

I stayed in touch with many of my friends from the UK, and one morning, while I was checking my emails at a coffee shop, I saw a message:

“Hi Sara. I’m thinking about setting up belly dance classes and want to start teaching. I just wondered if you had any tips….”

I sent a quick reply, promising to get back to her and pulled out a napkin to write a list of topics to cover:

venues; lesson plans; styles of teaching; styles of learning; music; timing; promotion; history; warm ups; mixed level classes; events; accounting…

My coffee was cold, and I hadn’t scratched the surface. I went home and started to write. Each time I wrote a paragraph, I thought of five more topics that I would need to cover. After a couple of days, I realized that I wasn’t writing an email any more. This was a book. The topics became chapters and I added “practical tips”, as exercises for the potential teacher to try. I double checked with my immigration lawyer. I could write a book, but not publish until I had my Green Card. As if that would have been possible !

By the spring my daughter had returned from her India trip and was beginning her year of

being unable to work. She took on some volunteering work and contacted Dawn Devine to help revitalize her costumes after a hard season of dancing every night in India. Dawn Devine, the famous Belly Dance writer, costume designer and seamstress. One afternoon they were sewing at my house, when my daughter encouraged me to show Dawn my manuscript.

I wasn’t aware that Dawn offered workshops to first time publishers. She offered to help me move beyond a file of notes and to make my book a reality. Through Dawn I met Alisha Westerfeld, who became our official photographer. There followed years of editing, photo shoots and more editing, but in 2014 my first book “Teaching Belly Dance” was published.

I thought it would be my only book, and I was happy. I had my own book on my bookshelf and had made lifelong friends in the process.

Fast forward a year or so and Dawn, Alisha, Poppy Maya and I were taking a break between belly dance shows. We had enjoyed a lunch time event and had time to enjoy each other’s company before an evening show. Over dinner we fell into a familiar topic. I call this the “Someone should tell them…” conversation. You may have had the same conversation with a group of your belly dance friends:

Someone should tell them that their skirt was see through.

Someone should tell them not to bring fried chicken into the changing room.

Someone should tell them their music is Turkish and their costume is Persian.

Someone should tell them to carry a business card.

Someone should tell them to wear make up on stage.

Someone should tell them to bring a spare costume.

We questioned who this “someone” should be. The someone who could share wisdom about the business of belly dance and reach those that would listen. The obvious answer was the dancers’ teacher, but teachers are busy teaching moves, combos and choreography. They don’t have time for history, etiquette, and stagecraft. Instead, perhaps that “someone” should be a respected elder of Belly Dance, but who should they be ?

We looked around the table. Maybe the “someone” should be a group of dancers, rather than one. People with a wide range of experiences, in different cities, in different styles, and in different eras. They would need to be event organizers, costumiers, performers, teachers, and enthusiasts, with years of experience and a kind tone.

The “someone” who should make sure performers had all the knowledge they needed to go from the class room to the stage, was us. There was a moment of realization that swept across the table. Our next book was born.

We set about allocating chapters, organizing photo shoots, and finding a united voice for our book. We wanted to give lots of helpful tips to help the dancer become a successful performer, be that at community events, on-line or on the professional stage. The voice had to be positive in every line. It’s easy to criticize, harder to inspire. We aimed to cover everything your teacher would tell you if you didn’t have to spend your lesson dancing ! We were blessed with the support of the Bay Area belly dancers who attended photo shoots and allowed us to photograph them in venues. The photos were lush, beautiful, and inspiring. We each added comment boxes, to offer a different point of view, or to bring a personal story to a point in the book.

The chapters came easily. We started with practice, workshops and preparing the right mindset, and traveled through collecting music, costumes, and the skills needed to promote your performances. All the way through to packing your bags and reviewing your performances. The hardest chapter was “Etiquette, Ethics and Staying Safe”. I found it hard, as the mother of a touring dancer, not to reach out through the pages and protect new dancers from the pitfalls that might be in their futures.

We used Dawn’s skills as a costume designer and maker, encouraging people who didn’t know how to sew to make or improve their own costumes. I loved the concept of “no or low sew” costumes. Dawn raided her project books for ideas and inspirations that were too easy for people with the confidence to buy her sewing books, but perfect for the dancer who was willing to give it a go. She shared short cuts for decorating bras, converting off the shelf dresses, cutting easy skirts and a simple to cut cover up.

In 2016 “Becoming a Belly Dancer: from Student to Stage”, the Stagecraft Handbook for Belly Dancers was launched. The Kickstarter sold out within hours, and we mailed copies around the world.

Over the next few years, I focused on building my teaching business both in person and on-line. I co-owned and taught for the Belly Dance Business Academy (later the Beyond Dance Business Academy) and offered mentoring for others as they set up their own belly dance classes. Then the pandemic hit, we moved to Arizona, and everyone found themselves with more time on their hands.

I filled those endless months of not teaching, with looking over previous writing projects and dance workshop ideas that were never fully formed. I finished and published my novel, and started focusing on the lesson planning workshop, that has now grown into my fourth book. Once “Teaching Belly Dance” was published, I started to get requests for lesson plans that were ready to teach. First I offered them to the BDBA students, now they are available as a paperback book and on Kindle as “52 Lesson Plans and How to Write 5,000 More.”

Each time I press “confirm publish”, I’m sure this will be my last book. I feel like I have said everything I have to say, shared all my ideas, and exhausted my creativity. Then someone will ask a question, or a character will fill my daydreams and my fingers will move over the keyboard like they have a life of their own. The words tumble and grow out of control, and again I find myself editing, cropping photos, and moving sticky notes around my wall.

The best part of writing ? Not the ideas, or seeing my words in book form, although those spike my adrenaline. It is never the editing. The moments that make it all worthwhile are when I hear from people that my books have helped them on their belly dance journey. Just as I wanted to help my friend set up her classes, I want everyone to have a successful belly dance career. If I have inspired one person to start teaching class, or to request a performance slot, the editing will have been worth it.

Originally from the UK but now based in Arizona, Sara Shrapnell is a belly dance mentor,

teacher, writer, and performer. Through her belly dance books, groups and personal

mentoring, she supports belly dancers on their journey from student, to professional and/or

teacher. “Teaching Belly Dance”, is the book about setting up, planning, teaching, and enjoying

belly dance classes. “Becoming a Belly Dancer: From student to stage”, is the stagecraft

handbook for belly dancers. “52 Lesson Plans and How to Write 5,000 More”, inspires creative

and fun lessons for dancers of all levels. She continues to offer classes, workshops and

mentoring both in person and on-line.

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