From Spain to Dendera
by Yvette Smith "La Reina" I knew six months ago when I started taking American Cabaret belly dance classes in Tallahassee, Florida that I would record my milestones at the six-month mark and again at the one-year mark and so forth. So, here I sit 6 months later; 5 days a week practicing drills at home daily plus weekly classes and Troupe classes. In order to help you understand my journey into bellydance, let's go back to Spain where my dancing began. Fifteen years ago, I entered a US beauty pageant, and the emphasis was on talent as well as the interview. Up to this point in all of my previous pageants I did stand-up comedy as my talent (which, by the way is very difficult but it taught me that funny is funny even when things are not that funny).
However, this particular pageant was also a cultural title and 15 years ago it was very forward-thinking for pageants. The contestants were all races and different cultural backgrounds from throughout the US. My director advised me that since I was representing my Latina heritage that I should dance a folkloric or cultural dance. After speaking to my mother about this and with her support and love she sent me to Spain for three months of intensive Flamenco training. Three months of six days a week, six hours a day of Flamenco classes. It was literally the hardest three months of my life. The teachers are very strict, cold, very organized and amazingly talented. Every day I came back to my room with ice packs on my back or a heating pad for my shoulder, blisters and bloody toes! I lost almost 15 pounds. There was no air conditioning and sweating 6 hours a day can really make you lose weight. My instructors knew my Spanish language skills were weak and often humiliated me in class with critiques that "Americans are lazy" they would often stop class and pull me out and say that I'm holding everyone back because I was not doing the footwork correctly. I cried almost every night, but I didn't quit. I worked harder, accepted the criticism on my technique and just worked harder. Everyone in class was much younger than me. Some were only teens and they were amazing dancers already.
Flamenco is beautiful it's in my soul, my heritage and in my DNA. It's also the hardest style to master in my opinion and after fifteen years of Flamenco dancing and teaching Flamenco I'll always keep learning.
By the time three months was up I returned with many authentic costumes from Spain shoes, and castanets. You name it, I had it. Those 3 intensive months were the equivalent to 3 years of experience dancing. My teachers and my main instructor were ruthless with negative critiques. When I did steps correctly it was more like "Finally! Yvette got it now we can move on to the next section". There was no "job well done" or "excellent" just finally and let's move on.
When I performed my Flamenco routine solo at the international pageant in Washington state, I not only won the pageant but also Best in Talent! First time I ever heard that! And a trophy! And it was also the first-time hearing "job well done, excellent." I remember even after that performance I was worried about my footwork and my timing. By winning that pageant I was literally catapulted to an overnight success and performing for a year Non-Stop.
By my 1-year anniversary of dancing Flamenco people thought or assumed I've been dancing all my life. I'm very grateful for my mother, that she supported me and loved me and always wanted to see me dance. She passed away years ago and that is still with me but lets save that for another story.
Now, throughout the 15 years of dancing Flamenco I have performed for so many exciting events including traveling to Mexico and dancing for the president. I taught workshops, lectures in libraries and schools. The doors opened up for me like it was all meant to be. I think it was about 6 or so years into Flamenco that I started wanting to do fusion dances, but of course the strict Flamenco teachers do not like any type of fusion. I wanted to dance Tribal Fusion with a Flamenco flair. At that point my tribal fusion belly dance ability and confidence was very low so my fusions were always 80% Flamenco and 20% belly dance.
I love to do fusions. Flamenco with hip-hop, modern, Cabaret, Jazz and the footwork I learned help me pick up other styles of dance easier. It allowed more freedom and unconventional music, different costumes and hairstyles. Even new event and performance invites came that I was able to do. I was so tired of wearing all black with my hair slicked back and a very severe and serious face. To me, dance should show joy and passion. Flamenco is my fire and belly dancing is my water. Balance in my dance world.
I moved to Florida near Tallahassee and immediately started teaching Flamenco classes at The Women's Bellydance Center. However, I was evolving and I was not teaching "traditional" Flamenco anymore. It's not like I didn't like traditional Flamenco, I just wanted more freedom. Some students loved it and stayed with me and still take privates with me. Other students didn't like it because they wanted "traditional".
I found my teaching style is quite gentle and patient because I knew know how it felt to be criticized and humiliated because of the teachers that did that to me. I give all my students support and time to grow as a dancer.
Even after 15 years my daily exercises still consist of Flamenco drills. But when the pandemic hit and all of the classes stopped many students dropped out, never returned and many Studios closed. To stay sane, I knew dance was my way to not go stir crazy at home. I set out to learn to belly dance. This time I said to myself, no matter what it's no more 80% /20%: I'm all in! I started with some zoom classes and wanted to find something where I could take classes in person. So, I was so happy to find out that American Cabaret belly dance classes started back up in Tallahassee and Troupe auditions for the Dendera Dancers! I started six months ago on a full moon. It was a Thursday and my first in person class of belly dancing. I was a student again and that in itself was eye-opening and humbling. I was asking the same questions my students asked me! What do I wear? What kind of shoes do I wear? My teacher Aya is very nice and very understanding and always said "dress comfortably" I'm like, say what? I have not dressed comfortable ever in my life especially in Flamenco dancing. Habits are hard, so I still wear my leotard and I wear shoes in class and don't know how to dance barefoot (at least not yet). My first class I was so nervous, expecting to be yelled at or told how bad I was. That was not the case with this class it was like learning to swim in ocean; watery, very flowing, the new music sounds and learning to move my body differently! I knew the style was called American Cabaret belly dance, but my only experience was with Tribal Fusion, so everything was new again. I was awful in my opinion; thinking Am I in Spain again? Am I going to cry every day? Why can't I move my knees to move my hips? Learning to twist was like I never danced before??!! I asked myself what is wrong with me? Why can't I move my damn hips, why are my hip drops so violent? why can't I do a simple chest left. They will hate me; I'm holding the class back!
"It's only been one class, slow down Yvette," I could hear my mother's words. Week after week I went to class and practiced almost every day. Of all the props I had used in the past, I had never picked up a silk veil. You know what our first troupe choreography was? With a silk veil. It felt like I was dancing with a temperamental ghost and as you know a veil has a mind of its own. Sometimes my veil would somehow have some static and stick to my back, sometimes it would jump and stick to my face. Sticking to my face was always my favorite; it made my classmates laugh but they didn't laugh at me they laughed with me. Tiffany, one of my dance sisters during a class helped me with my arms by literally standing behind me and holding my arms in the correct position. My teacher allowing me to record her every move so I can practice from the videos at home between weekly classes. I can't believe it's been six months already. These are some of my personal discoveries and I'm going to tell you, the Good the Bad and the Ugly in my personal opinion and with my little and new experience into the belly dance world.
The good: it's finding in your tribe a group of dance sisters. 100% different than Flamenco. I never found a tribe in Flamenco, and I was surprised to find and make new good friends. Bellydance technique is so challenging, and I fell in love again with dance, but this love grew slow like a friend who turns into a lover or spouse. The costumes are just fantastic! So colorful, so blingy! I love the American Cabaret costumes and all the styles within. All the different kinds of routines you can learn from folkloric, Egyptian, Golden Era, wow! I have so much to learn I'm so happy and the best part of learning a new dance with a new costume and a new show or a Hafla.
The bad: Society and in the media celebrities who have turned belly dance into a highly sexual dance. To the Dancers taking tips in their bra or belt have not helped the Bellydance community change this sexual representation. Recently, I walked into a show at a restaurant fully dressed like a movie star (in my opinion) ready to dance, going over choreography but I heard a far-away male voice yell "Hey guys! The stripper is here!"
What I have observed these past 6 months from what I especially see on social media is that weight and beauty is really the measure of a lot of dancers and that's how you can be successful. So many are judging our weight, beauty, and how gorgeous the costume is. It seems to be so much focus on their/our bodies instead of focusing on technique!
Just recently I got off stage from Winter Festival in Tallahassee and I really felt bad about my performance. You know that feeling right? The stage was sticky, I couldn't turn correctly, my arms looked weird, and I was just thinking "damnit!" in my mind and I walked off stage feeling a little bit underwhelmed. An audience member runs up to me and says "I loved your performance!" and I lit up like a Christmas tree and I said "really??? I've been taking classes for six months and I was so worried." She said," You look beautiful, and I wish I had your hair." My hair?? I never had anyone compliment me on my hair after I danced. Never in my Flamenco career have I ever heard this. All of my comments now are always about my looks or about my weight now that I'm belly dancing. A Facebook friend wrote me, and she said that she wished that she had my confidence at my size. I'm stunned, nobody noticed my arms are too low or my repetitious moves because I couldn't turn correctly on that sticky stage.
The first month that I was belly dancing I could not bear to video myself or take pictures of myself because I was so self-conscious. For 15 years I have been covered, all in black or wearing long sleeves with black tights...my whole body covered and I'm a curvy Latina, in shape and I dance every day, but I still like to eat.
Why does belly dancing, this beautiful art, have all the focus on weight? On hair? Pressure for plastic surgery if you want to be a "successful" Bellydancer? Why is it not focused on technique? Now my technique does not suck but it's not ready for prime time either and I have much, much more classes to take. I'm naturally shy and beauty pageants helped me overcome a lot but I'm body shy. As a Latina growing up in a strict Catholic household and of course all those years dancing all covered up didn't help my body shyness. So, belly dancing made me see myself in a new way and in a negative way. I noticed that now I am so focused on covering my belly with a four-way stretch cover and worried about back fat showing. I had to stop myself from beating myself up and comparing myself to the Instagram bellydancers because never was this an issue or focus dancing Flamenco. I remember my Flamenco teachers being hard on my technique. It was all about my footwork, my timing, Palmas and that heel, toe, flat flat flat! So here I am six months later in love with belly dance, and I have a wonderful teacher I have a new tribe and I'm looking forward to all the new knowledge that I have coming and all the workshops I plan to be taking but somehow, I feel more body ashamed. When I tell relatives I'm belly dancing they ask me "How does your husband feel about that?" I was shocked and I said he loves me and my dancing. They say "Yes, but you're married, and your belly dancing is not what married women should be doing." Belly dancing is not widely respected as a dance form but it's a beautiful dance form. I want to help change this narrative by starting from within. I'm focusing on my technique, and I will get better. I'm not going to quit but we need more education about the dance background of belly dancing. How are we to change his narrative? I think let's stop only valuing dancers based on their beauty, weight, hair and surgeries. Yes, the costumes are glamorous, but it is confusing as a student to see so many resemble Salsa ballroom dresses or Samba costumes. This is my opinion, of course, but I would love to see what I love about Bellydance be celebrated more: the grace, fluidity and technique. For now, I'm continuing my education, planning several upcoming shows and online haflas. Most of all I'm yearning to be a better dancer, to learn how to move my body better, to stop looking at my weight as a measure of success. I want to stop feeling so defensive when people say, "Oh you're a belly dancer that's hot." No one ever said that when I said I was a flamenco teacher! Being a bellydancer is hot all right, have you ever worn a four-way stretch stomach mesh under a padded bra and a form-fitting skirt? I look forward to hearing, "You dance so well, your arms look graceful and those hip drops into those undulations were perfect, where do you take classes?" instead of society still saying "the stripper is here." Let's grow up, let's be professional and be the best we can be at any size, any age and any race. I'm a proud member of the Dendera Dancers of Tallahassee and I can't wait to see where I'll be in 6 more months from now!
I'm performing December 18th via online hafla Tis the Season in the Global Village. I'm so excited, so in love with bellydancing!