Fanoos reached out to the legendary Kamala Almanzar in LA for this year's "Golden Era and Vintage Bellydance" issue. What a Treat! Thank you for being part of this special issue! You've been dancing for over 30 years; when did you start performing and how did you get started?
In the early ‘70s I was in a regional ballet company & drove to Hollywood to study Jazz daily. I went to a lot of auditions, but wasn’t getting jobs because at the time I was considered too ethnic looking. Not the “girl next door” I was told. When I saw Bellydancing at a local popular restaurant, with live music I immediately wanted to work as a Bellydancer because I loved the costumes & I wanted to impress boys. I was shallow, young & naive! Once I started studying though, I realized it was very difficult & I gained more respect for the dance. I was hired immediately in some local clubs, and to go on the road. There must have been 20 clubs in LA with Middle Eastern entertainment, so I was in the right place at the right time. I quit my day job as a radio music programmer & never looked back. That was 1977.
Above: Kamala in the 1970s (click each photo to expand)
What do you remember most about the beginning of your bellydance career? What inspired you?
I remember the first night I auditioned, to live music for an all Middle Eastern audience. I had barely traveled out of my neighborhood & knew nothing of the people or the culture. The audience was sophisticated, beautifully dressed & classy. I was terrified because I really wasn’t ready to be a pro & my mouth would be so dry while dancing I could barely breath. I was hired though. I had the right look, but I had to get my training on the job. I took a lot of flack from women in the audience who gave me tips on performing. I watched the other dancers I worked with and they inspired me. I drew on my ballet/jazz background to throw in some tricks. I pieced together a show of the American Cabaret style that was popular in the clubs at the time. I was inspired by all the money I was suddenly making. I was having fun going on the road with dancers & musicians and I thought the money and the fun would never end!
What have been the biggest changes that you've seen in bellydance over the years?
The early ‘80s was the first major change, when I was introduced to Egyptian music and style. I was obsessed with the incredible music the musicians were playing. Not the pop songs from my AmCab gigs, but glorious orchestrated opening pieces (now called megence). I had to learn to dance all over again by watching the other dancers and through experience on the job 6 nights a week. All dance back then was improvisation. Then as quickly as they had proliferated, the restaurants and clubs started closing. Choreographed group shows became popular and the dance looked more westernized, like slick Vegas shows. Then fusion became popular in the ‘90s because of the Arabic songs that featured Spanish and Indian, etc singers and sounds. Then suddenly the tribal movement sprouted. It was a free for all, now that the influence of the Middle Eastern audiences and musicians was gone in much of the west. Raqia Hassan in Egypt really set the tone for dancers around the world. We all studied with her in the early 2000s. Then the Russians dominated with their athletic theatrical style. There were so few working musicians outside of Egypt and a few other countries. Western dancers are very choreographed and I don’t see a lot of originality that really grabs me anymore. But the dancers nowadays are well trained and knowledgable. There are so many more resources for them. As a club dancer our resources were the audience, the band and our fellow working dancers. I now look to dancers native to the culture for inspiration, as I have for decades.
Above: Kamala in the 1980s (click each photo to expand)
What do you miss most?
I miss something not really tangible. The dreamy feeling of walking into the clubs, the sounds, the camaraderie. Without a lot of documentation it seems like a smokey hazy dream. Waiting in the wings while you heard the opening intro to a glorious song before taking the stage. I miss the freedom I felt, even though it was often times a terribly lonely life. Driving home at 3am through deserted LA streets or a cabby in London asking me why an American girl was coming out of an Arabic club at 4am. The memories are like watching an old grainy movie dug up from the dustbin of an old vault. If I had to say a singular thing, it would of course be the live music.
Tell us your most extraordinary experience in performing.
With working 6 nights a week for 25 or so years, I can’t put my finger on one. Just a few might be working on the “Man with Bogart’s Face” movie, which I’m thankful there is still a clip of. I was very green and got lucky to score the gig. In the mid-‘80s rehearsing with Farida Fahmy as she choreographed for the company I was in, and then performing her pieces. I was so lucky that I’d say I had hundreds of extraordinary experiences!
Tell us about your classes!
Thank you for asking! I love my students so much and I’m here to give away every inch of what I know. I have 2 main classes through DanceGardenLA that are in-studio, live on Zoom and Video on Demand. I’ve taught a Sunday 11:30am (Pacific time) choreography class for years. I choreograph on the spot so the students see, and are involved in the process, then I fine tune it for a few months, almost always culminating in a performance, either onstage or now on video. My favorite class has to be Improvisation. It took me a long time to figure out how best to help students feel comfortable and thrive as soloists. Improvisation brings out the best in a soloist - they convey their own style and feelings, and each performance is one of a kind. I always remind my students, through the music I use and cultural reference, that we are guests in this art form. We treat the culture and the artists within it with utmost respect. I introduce my students to the great musical artists and dancers who have the most profound influence.
Above: Kamala in the 1990s and early 2000s
What is the most important thing you want your students to take away from classes with you?
First, again I would mention the cultural aspect, and I encourage students to explore this through classes and other studies. I always encourage my students to try as many teachers as they like. It’s their dance and their journey to explore as they prefer. I encourage them to travel to the MENAHT region, though I haven’t recently due to pandemic. I want them to know my class is a safe place for everyone and you have my respect and my personal attention. I will bring to students my 40+ years of knowledge.
What would you like to see in the future of bellydance?
It is probably just a dream, but of course I would love to see more interaction with live music for dancers unable to perform in MENAHT countries. I would love to see more dancers of the cultures leading the direction of dance style and fashion, rather than those foreign to the culture. I would love to see a few dance artists from the region burst onto the scene with a fresh new style! I want to see inclusion of BIPOC dancers into the festivals and teaching rosters. I would love to see Bellydance again become popular beyond just the dancers, to bring new audiences to dance events.
What are your goals now versus in the past?
In the past I was hustling dance gigs and didn’t look much further than paying the bills. I’m in my 60s now. I am mostly looking at a career behind me. I don’t take much enjoyment in performing (unless I have live music), and prefer to continue choreographing for students and pro companies. I want to continue to mentor dancers. I want to do more editing of dance videos because I take complete enjoyment in the artistic process of it! I hope to go back to pre-pandemic production of theater shows. I look forward to curating the next “International Raqs Film Festival” coming March 2022. My work life outside of Bellydance is acting background on TV, commercials, movies. I’ve done tons of shows in the last year and I love not having to be young or glamorous, and still take part in the creative part of film production.
Above: Recent photos of Kamala from the 2010s and now
Finally, what continues to inspire you?
It’s amazing that constantly through the years, just when I’ve had enough and ready to call it a wrap, some new opportunity comes along and pulls me back into the dance world, so I’m curious, and stick around to see what else is in store! I still look to the dancers of the past for inspiration. I’ll take the hips of a Dandash or Mona Saiid over all the fancy tricks in the world any day. Watching my students progress with their dance and performance skills, and pass me in proficiency of those skills is so satisfying. I’m inspired by the lifelong friendships I’ve made and that keeps me involved as well.
Kamala Almanzar has been called “living legend”, “icon”, & “an inspiration” in the Middle Eastern dance community. Throughout her 40 year career, Kamala has kept up to date with the latest dance trends, while keeping a solid foundation in the classic styles. Kamala is known for her vintage film clips, her unique choreographies, for coaching competition champions & for her patience, generosity & expertise as a dance educator.
In 1977, Kamala left a ballet company to pursue her passion for Middle Eastern dance. She performed in the mega Arabic nightclubs in Hollywood, Mexico, London & places in between. Kamala was John Belezikjian’s featured dancer for many years. Kamala’s 1970s and ‘80s TV & movie film clips have garnered millions of fans over the decades.
Kamala has worked with the tops in the field, including “Arabesque Dance Company”, directed by “Reda Troupe” principal dancer Farida Fahmy, alongside Sahra Saeeda. She was Assistant Artistic Director of “The Flowers of the Desert”, innovators of experimental styles, with a prestigious dance roster. She has performed for dignitaries and celebrities, including the Saudi royal family, First Lady Hillary Clinton, Elizabeth Taylor & Mikhail Baryshnikov to name a few.
With a 25 year teaching career, many professional dancers in LA & beyond consider Kamala their “Dance Mama”. Kamala has been teaching Improvisation and Choreography classes online & in-studio through DanceGardenLA, California’s most prestigious studio. She was the first teacher to be named “Teacher of the Year” in 2017 by BDUC (Bellydancer of the Universe”), and is a master instructor at “Legends of LA Bellydance”. Kamala produces and edits video performances for herself and her students, and hopes to soon get back to producing theater & gala productions.
Kamala’s pandemic project was producing the “International Raqs Film Festival” in 2021. Filmmakers entered artful videos from around the globe. She is preparing for the 2nd Film Festival to take place in 2022, this time both in person and virtually.
Kamala’s website has all the information about classes, events, and social media links. You can find it all at www.kamaladance.com