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Australian Belly Dance - a History

Updated on April 23, 2020
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After a career as a flamenco dancer, Marisa turned to belly dance in her retirement and loves sharing her knowledge of the art form.

People think of belly dance as a Middle Eastern phenomenon but actually, apart from a few high-profile dancers, the art of belly dance has become debased in its native lands. Instead it has flourished in many Western countries, becoming a vehicle for empowerment for women and a safe, fulfiling exercise for mature women. Australia is no exception.

Dance is an art that is hard to write down, so it's passed on from dancer to dancer. It's humbling to think that we're all part of a long line of dancers stretching back for generations! American Tribal Style has a lovely prayer in which they thank their teachers - and it reminded me to reflect on how my belly dance journey connects to the past, and express my gratitude to that lineage.

Australia's Belly Dance Roots - the 1950's

I can trace my "teaching line" back to the 1950's, when belly dance was brought to Australia by immigrants after the Second World War. Thousands of refugees from all over Europe and the Middle East came to Australia at that time and transformed Australian culture. The foodie culture and great coffee in Sydney and Melbourne are entirely thanks to those new arrivals, and belly dance was another benefit of their arrival!

Rozeta Ahalyea was one of those migrants, from Greece. These days, she lives in retirement on the Gold Coast, and still teaches privately.

She could be called the mother of belly dancing in Australia, because she taught Terezka Drznik and Amera Eid, who taught so many of the belly dance teachers and performers in the country today (including me!).

I did only one workshop with Amera Eid, but my very first belly dance class was at her studio, Amera's Palace. At the time, it was a tiny studio in Enmore, and my teacher there was Shemiran Ibrahim.

I stayed with Shemiran when she started her own school, but I soon wanted to challenge myself more and joined Terezka's classes in her city studio, a cavernous space up a rickety stair which has since been demolished to make way for a huge skyscraper. I learned a lot from her classes; but when she insisted I move up to the Advanced class I felt overwhelmed (many of the other students were professionals). As someone who had already studied ballet, jazz and flamenco, I felt I'd been encouraged to progress too fast through the beginners' classes, and I needed to go back and get the fundamentals right.

Along with Amera and Terezka, there was another master teacher in Sydney - Leonie Sukan, organiser of the legendary Sydney Middle Eastern Dance Festival. Here she is in the green costume.

Leonie was one of the few teachers in Sydney who taught Turkish style - which I love for its "let it all hang out" vibe, compared to the restrained Egyptian style! So that was one attraction. But my main reason for joining her school was that her partner Ruth taught a technique class - or so I thought. Each year, the school mounted a unique and ambitious "belly dance pantomime" and I soon discovered that Ruth's class was turned over to rehearsals for half the year - so although I liked the school and the students, I had to look for another "home".

I found that home at a small school in my local area, run by Faye Leister. It's the closest I ever came to learning from the other famous teacher in Sydney, Jrisi Jusakos (Faye had learned from her). It wasn't a demanding class but it gave me some wonderful performance opportunities at community fairs and old folks' homes. Those events gave me some of my most treasured memories of belly dancing.

But eventually I felt the need to stretch myself again, and I found the answer back where I started - at Amera's Palace! By this time Amera had sold the Palace to Ali Higson and it had moved to a big airy space in Marrickville and my teacher was Cynthia Tabone.

I'm not sure if it's because Cynthia is also a trained teacher in the real world, or because she studied her craft outside Australia and learned a different method, but I learned more about technique from Cynthia than all my other teachers combined. I am only sorry I discovered her so late in life!

There are other teachers who deserve a mention. I've got Rachel Bond from Inspire Belly Dance to thank for finally teaching me to play zills. And Dee Thomson of Tribal Blossoms for her amazing workshop on sword. The mention of Tribal reminds me that I haven't mentioned the other famous teacher in the Sydney area - Devi Mamak. She is the foremost American Tribal Style teacher in Australia and I love watching her perform. Unlike some Tribal dancers she is not an ice maiden - even in a sombre piece you can sense her warmth, and when the mood is joyful she is wonderfully cheeky! I can't claim her as a teacher except indirectly, because I did an introductory term of ATS with one of her Ghawazi Caravan team, Cristie Fuller. Here they are together in a typical duo.

I'm in my sixties now. Without the lure of performing, I"m less motivated to get involved in belly dance, and have been flirting with various dance styles in my retirement. But I will always be grateful to all the belly dance teachers who contributed to my wonderful journey through the art.

© 2020 Marisa Wright

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