Fanoos Magazine caught up with Amustela to chat on the past and future of her career in Bellydance.
Hey Amustela! Let's get started with talking about when you began dancing. Who did you study with? How did you get involved with Bellydance?
Ok …. I began dancing as a child. I can’t really remember how young I was – but really young. I grew up in WV, however my mother was from Ohio and from a very ethnic area – many Greek and Armenian families. I was exposed to “belly dance” at a very young age and decided that “was the dance was for me” – I am thinking I was about 10 years old. Unfortunately there were not a lot of teachers near me back then (1970’s) but I did meet some students who had studied under Johanna of Charleston WV and took lessons from them, so I am a student of Johanna once removed. I went to West Virginia University in 1983 and I was able to see my first VHS videos from Turkey and Egypt. That was life changing. I also got to meet more people from diverse places in the world. I took modern dance and ballroom during that time – and hung out with many people from many areas of the middle east, and learned what I could from them. My real education began in 1985 when I went to Michigan. There I found many teachers and was able to see lots of live shows due to the large Arabic community in the Detroit area. I traveled quite a bit during this time and studied with teachers in Michigan, Texas and Pittsburgh. It was in Pittsburgh that I started hanging out with musicians and learned to dance and play finger cymbals. There were two places – the Taverna and “Pete’s Pub” – owned by two Greek brothers and they would host “jam” nights where musicians from everywhere, Persians, Greeks, Egyptians, Palestinians, and many Lebanese. It was here that I really decided I wanted to perform. For me that meant with a live band and only a live band. In fact I did not even consider there was another option. This is where I grew up in dance – hanging with musicians, and learning from their wives and family members. I started performing with them officially in 1988. In 1992 I moved to Philadelphia. That took my dance into a whole new direction. It was there I met and studied with Habiba of Philadelphia. It was there I learned technique and was exposed to the artistry of the Ibraham “Bobbie” Farrah. I also started to learn about some of the “master” teachers in the U.S. – information was becoming more available. I traveled and took classes from Cassandra, Latifa, and Fahtiem. I “discovered” the Golden Age of Egyptian dancers, and have been obscessed with Samia Gamal every since. I was also able to perform in the restaurants there and in Delaware until I moved to DC in 1997. I moved to the Washington DC area in 1997. There I began to study with Adriana of DC and Artemis Mourat. I also continued to explore folkloric styles with Latifa. I joined the Washington Middle Eastern Dance Association (WAMEDA) and had the opportunity to take workshops with many great instructors – Helena Vlahos, Suzanna DelVecchio (I had loved her from her videos), Morocco, Aziza and many others. It was at this time I also began my journey as a teacher. I was very lucky – I continued to perform with live musicians. However the “full” band was being replaced by 1 or 2 guys with a keyboard and a drum. I was blessed to have the opportunity to perform regularly in the DC area from 1999 to 2017. The live musician was becoming replaced by recorded music especially from about 2000 – 2010. However live music started to make a come back in the area and I was able to spend my last 7 years in the DC area primarily performing with live musicians.
Tell us about some of your performance experiences. Live bands and five-part sets were much more prevalent in prior years, what effects did these experiences have on your dancing?
I am a Live band – restaurant – club dancer. That is in my blood. Sure I have done a lot of recorded music shows – but they don’t hold the same magic as when you can interact with the band. In the 1980’s my shows were much more loose. I would have an fast entrance with zils – then a veil number – and some kind of medium tempo piece. Then I would sit out a song or two with the band – they would play, sometimes I would accompany them on zils. Then I would do some kind of prop piece – sword, candles, candle tray, - I did not do wine glasses – I did shot glasses. There was one musician who would do three shots (usually Oozo) slam the glasses on the floor and then I would dance on them. Because these places were such a melting pot of people – my dance was a melting pot. I learned from Turkish, Greeks, Persians, Lebanese, Moroccans and Americans – so my show reflected that. In the 1990’s through the 2000’s the show became much tighter. There became distinct parts – with no break with the “band” so to speak (especially in the recorded shows).
One of the things I have always prized was learning the historical and cultural background of everything I did. I studied many types of Middle Eastern dance and faithfully brought them together in the style of the American restaurant show. My repertoire included veil, double veil, sword, finger cymbals, floor work, cane, candle tray and on special occasions shamadan. It was important to me for the components to flow seamlessly from one number to the next, yet still preserving the unique magic of each part. That is why my career has taken me from the world of nightclubs, to competitions, to master instructor and a historical lecturer of the art.
What are some acts or aspects that you don't see much anymore that you wish would make a return? Honestly just bring back club or restaurant shows. Live – recorded – whatever, but please bring back the show. The thing that is magical about this dance is the interaction with the audience. A club dancer is not up on a stage – separate from the people. The people are a big part of the experience. Bellydance, Raks Sharki or American Cabaret, whatever you want to call it, came from the celebration of music, food and people. It was entirely impromptu – you never knew what was going to happen, but it was spontaneous, sometimes comical and always entertaining.
The internet has really opened up things for the dance community. How did you get new music, classes, costumes and props before the internet made it so easy? At first you would get whatever you could from your teachers, people you met from the middle east – and yes, all of the corny Amerarabic LP records of the day. I still love Gus Vali, Eddie “The Sheik” Kochak, and Artie Barsamian. When Doug Adams and “Light Rain” music came out I was entranced! Yes I had it on cassette tape at the time. I would haunt the world music section in “Walden’s Books”. Costuming was a labor of love. Literally you would labor over building bras and belts, from sequins and sparkly trim. Learning to sew was a necessity. Some of my first veils were constructed from lace curtains. My first cane was purchased from a flea market and I painted it gold. I purchased my first sword – third handed from another dancer, who got it from her teacher that brought some back from Turkey. Lurex as all the rage. I had skirts, harem pants, veils – you name it from any color of lurex material I could get my hands on. This usually meant a field trip to any ethnic area of a city – if there was a Greek or Arabic community I would try to find out where the fabric store was in the area. I also purchased a lot of sari fabric when I could find a store with things from India.
In your experience, how has the bellydance community improved over the years? How has it not improved? All art evolves. You can’t look at the paintings of Renaissance Italy and say “well painting today sucks”. Styles change. Art, ideas and dance will change as our world becomes smaller and technology brings us more and more exposure to different art and cultures. That is just how it is. No use criticizing change. I love the “new” interpretations. I love the fusion of ideas and cultures. I would be the biggest hypocrite if I said “it must stay the same”, because my “style” is American Cabaret, and it was born from the mixing of cultures, music and ideas that blended together here in the United States. The one thing I may say gives me concern, and this is not a new issue, is just how quick someone can access information – buy an expensive costume – film a video – and call themselves a professional, in 6 weeks. I applaud the enthusiasm but it does take time to mature as an artist. It is also a blessing and a curse, how we can go on Youtube and watch so many different dancers. A blessing to have the access, a curse to not know the context. Also the people that “troll” on dancers performances and make awful comments is troubling.
Why is it so important for dancers to learn about the past and what resources do you recommend? I am a history nut. You need to know your roots to understand the dance. You need to know what you are “fusing” before you “confuse” it. I hope this is not too self serving – but I have spent years talking to dancers, musicians and instructors of the dance. I have researched archived articles, books and interviews. I have spent hours chatting with some of the pioneers of the dance here in the US. I have been fortunate to lecture on the history of American Cabaret at prestigious conventions, festivals, workshops and colleges. It is kind of my thing. There are some great reference on the internet – but there is also a lot of junk. I think if you can access some of the older publications such as the Gilded Serpent, Arabesque Magazine or Zagareet, that is a great start.
How can dancers (female and AFAB especially) prepare and nourish their bodies to dance well into their upper years? What impact does menopause have on dance? The best advice I can give – is don’t stop dancing. Don’t stop moving. As you age it is shocking how fast you loose your flexibility and strength if you stop moving. Stretch! When I was younger I could run into a restaurant, grab my zils and do a 30 minute show with no warm up. Now, a very bad idea. You have got to warm up and stretch. I am sure that some of the tendon and ligament injuries I have suffered have been because I went full tilt without warming up and stretching. Menopause can be very different for everyone – for me it was a loss of energy, flexibility and yes… weight gain. It is not the end of the world. I believe you can’t treat your body the same way you did in your 20’s or 30’s when you are in your 50’s. That doesn’t mean you have to stop it means you just have to do things differently. Eat more protein – to keep your muscle mass. Do more weight training than cardio, and stretch, stretch, stretch. Did I say how important it is to stretch? Also remember that dancing is as much a mental game as a physical one. Keep your mind as positive as possible.
Looking back, is there anything you would have done differently? Nope – honestly. I loved my dance career, I loved teaching, workshops, all of the amazing dancers I have met, the musicians, the restaurant owners and their families, all of it. I would do it all again and I hope to keep going for a long time to come.
What do you believe has been the greatest contribution of American Cabaret Bellydance? The show. The show that brings together all of the cultures, the music and the magic that was the immigration of the Greeks, Armenian, Persians, Lebanese, Egyptians and all of the other people that came to the US and embraced the American dream. It was the first “fusion”.
Lastly, what would you recommend to modern dancers? Words of Wisdom? Evolve with the dance. Don’t get stuck in your spot and not move with the times. Respect what you know, preserve it, teach it and expand it.