Sapphire: Rochester’s New Beginner Belly Dance Troupe

Sapphire Ellwanger outdoor shot #1

Photo by Robert Hill

In early February my belly dance teacher, Michelle Charles, announced in class that she would be forming a new beginner student belly dance troupe. By joining the troupe, we would learn performance techniques, refine the choreography taught in classes, and learn about belly dance costumes and make up. We would also have several opportunities to perform at social and public events in and around the greater Rochester area.Red belly dance art

 

Given my new passion for belly dance, I signed up as soon as the opportunity arose. In addition to my regular belly dance classes, I also started attending weekly rehearsals with Michelle and my new troupe mates. Michelle has a talent for ‘spicing up’ the regular choreography in rehearsals by creating lines, depth and texture with the dancers. I have learned that staying in synch with the music, knowing the dance steps, and trying to match the movements of my fellow troupe members is pertinent to the group performance. In fact, since I’ve joined the group I have been noticing while watching YouTube videos of various troupe performances that even the simplest steps can look amazing when a group is in sync. Complicated steps can look messy when a group isn’t connected or in rhythm.

Sapphire - Outdoor shot #2

Photo by Robert Hill

Once our group was formed and regular rehearsals began, we were fitted for our new costumes. As a new dancer, this was very exciting for me! Our costumes were hand made by another long time belly dancer, Deborah Robinson. The color of our new costumes, of course, is sapphire, with white trim. The costumes are rich and eye-catching, and look enchanting when worn together as a group. Our new jewelry was hand made as well by one of my troupe mates, Kristy Morris.

Sapphire - Eye Linda

Photo by Brenda Washington

Along with costuming, my new troupe mates and I also learned about makeup. The first time I applied my make up for a performance, I thought for sure I would be mistaken for a hooker, but I was assured by Michelle that we would wear far more make up for performance than many of us would ever wear on a daily basis. I soon realized that I actually didn’t even apply enough makeup for the stage and applied more eyeliner. My creative troupe mate, Corinne suggested we also draw our Sapphire logo under our right eye, which I feel distinguishes our troupe’s ‘look’ even more!

To date, Sapphire has had three performances. I was unable to join my troupe for the first show in March, but I did perform with them in our other two shows recently in May.Sapphires Linda and Nikki

On May 3rd we performed at the charming Ellwanger Estate Bed and Breakfast, a mansion located in the heart of Rochester’s Mount Hope Cultural District. The beautiful mansion is over one hundred fifty years old and is a landmark site. The estate is owned currently by Rosemary Janofsky, who graciously hosted our recent Sunday afternoon event. The event that was held at the estate is called a Hafla, which is a casual social gathering with music, food, and belly dance performances. The event drew in dancers from the local Rochester area, as well as some amazing talent from our neighboring cities, Buffalo and Syracuse.

The afternoon was filled with an array of talented belly dancers that performed various styles of Middle Eastern dance, ranging from traditional Egyptian style to fusion styles and Turkish belly dance. Several troupes performed as well as many soloists.

Since I have recently been studying solo veil dance choreography with Michelle, I thought the homey environment of the Ellwanger Estate would be a perfect environment to debut my first individually choreographed solo. This event was also my first performance with my Sapphire troupe mates. Needless to say, I was so nervous before I performed that day that I could feel my palms viscid with sweat. In addition, I had also been recently diagnosed with a stress fracture in my left foot. I knew my body wasn’t in peak condition for a debut performance, but I was so excited about performing that I was determined to at least try.

Amy Ellwanger close-up

Photos of Amy’s solo by Brenda Washington

 

Fortunately, my solo performance was the second number. As soon as I started dancing, I found myself lost in the music and choreography. Amy backbend

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I love the grace and flow of the veil. Although a prop like a veil may potentially cause angst because it is one more thing to keep track of and possibly flub, it can also provide security.

Amy Ellwanger Veil pose

Amy Ellwanger -necklace pose

   My veil gave me something to hide behind, wrap myself in, and invite as a partner in my performance.

I wasn’t dancing alone when I was out on the floor with my veil. It made me feel at home, as did the supportive audience of fellow dancers, friends, and family. I was also delighted that my Sapphire troupe mates were sitting close by.

Sapphire Ellwanger Drum Solo #2

Sapphire dance photos by Brenda Washington

Sapphire performed a few dances later. After performing solo with my veil, my nerves had calmed considerably for our performance as a troupe. The environment was fun and festive at the Ellwanger, and being out there dancing with the six other women in my troupe added even more merriment to the event.

 

Sapphire Ellwanger - Amy and Nikki

Sapphires -Greta Ellwanger

 

Sapphire Ellwanger drum solo

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Once our performance was finished, I had the pleasure to sit back and watch the other talented dancers and roam the breathtaking gardens at the estate.

Two weeks later, Sapphire performed at another belly dance event. This one was in a very different environment, but equally enjoyable. The event was titled Raq City Belly Dance Night, and was held at the Buta Pub in the South Wedge neighborhood of Rochester. Bethany Forsythe, a long-time Rochester belly dancer and teacher, organized this event. The event consisted of an ‘open dance’ segment, which was open to belly dancers and troupes to sign up and perform as time allowed. The second segment of the show was for the evening’s ‘featured’ performers, consisting of one featured troupe and one featured solo dancer. Our beginner troupe, Sapphire, was honored to be invited as the evening’s featured troupe performance. Once again, we were greeted with a warm, open, and friendly audience, many of whom were fellow dancers and their friends. Any fear or intimidation I felt as a new dancer performing nearly melted away when I saw the smiling faces of my fellow dancers and felt the festive energy of our audience.

Sapphire Amy - Buta Pub

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Our dances were followed by the evening’s featured performer; the amazing Ionah from Syracuse, who wowed the audience with a show-stopping finale to the evening!

Iona Buta Pub

Iona black and white

Photo by Brenda Washington

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

During these past four month, I have enjoyed every part of performing in Sapphire…the rehearsals, Michelle’s creative choreography, the costumes, and the performances. My favorite part of all, though, has been the opportunity to dance with the wonderful other women in the troupe: Corinne, Linda, Nikki, Sandy, Kristy, and Greta. I look forward to my next opportunity to shimmy the stage with these ladies this summer!Sapphire Ellwanger outdoor #3Amy and Corinne Sapphires

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For the next three and a half weeks, I will be taking a brief hiatus from my Rochester troupe to return to Thailand for the first time in three years. Come back and visit soon, as I once again take this eastward journey. I depart in just a few days, this time with five new travel companions!

Elephant Kiss*A special thank you to Brenda Washington Vasickanin and Robert Hill for sharing photos from the Ellwanger Belly Dance Hafla.

An Interview with Michelle Charles: Professional Belly Dancer, Teacher and Owner of Goddess Hour Belly Dance with Michelle

m_charles_costumeAfter sharing in my last post about my newfound love for belly dance, I thought it would be fitting to learn more about the woman who introduced me to this art form, Michelle Charles. I had the great pleasure to interview her recently about her journey through the world of this dance.

Michelle Charles is a professional belly dancer, certified teacher, and long time student of belly dance. She is also the owner of Goddess Hour Belly Dance with Michelle, where she teaches beginner and intermediate level belly dance classes and also directs her new student performance troupe, Sapphire.

Her voyage into belly dance began one day in 1997 while at her then full-time job in marketing communications. “One day while I was sitting at my desk, I just felt I needed to do something fun and new,” shared Michelle. “Belly dancing just kind of popped into my head that day, and then I started looking for places where I could learn it!” Since the Internet was not prevalent at the time, investigating where she could take classes took a little more digging. After discovering that there were no belly dance teachers in Rochester at the time, she looked to neighboring cities and found a teacher in Buffalo named Cathy Skora. “Cathy was a really great teacher, and I was so thankful I found her first,” said Michelle. Cathy studied under a man from Lebanon named Bobby Farrah, who was key to the formation and evolution of Middle Eastern dance in the 1970’s and 80’s. Cathy passed on to her students the knowledge she gained from Bobby Farrah about the history and various styles of belly dance. This had a profound influence on Michelle and positively affected her belly dancing and teaching style.

From her first class, Michelle fell in love with belly dance. After only three months of classes she was already performing. “I loved performing right away!” said Michelle enthusiastically. Over the years, Michelle went on to perform in several venues including local festivals in Rochester, international festivals at area colleges, nursing homes, and women’s groups. As her experience grew, she went on to perform dance solos at several venues, especially Turkish events. “I was often hired by Turkish people to dance at weddings and family events,” shared Michelle. Her experience dancing at Turkish venues also included her playing zills, or finger cymbals while she danced. “Turkish dancers almost always play finger cymbals while they dance, so I learned how to use them in my dancing pretty quickly when I performed for the Turkish events.” She stated that finger cymbals were also used frequently by belly dancers in America in the 1960’s.Michelle-Finger Cymbals

Over the years, Michelle continued to study with several influential teachers, including Fifi Abdo, Raquia Hassan, Liza L’Aziza, Sahra Kent, Yousry Sharif, and Mahmoud Reda. In time, she has become versed in many various styles of belly dance. When asked what her favorite styles are, she said that she especially loves American Cabaret style belly dance because “it is a mixture of 1960’s belly dance with traditional Egyptian and Turkish dance influences.” Michelle is also fond of Turkish Cabaret style belly dance. “Turkish cabaret is really fun. There are not a lot of rules and it is really lively and enjoyable to watch.”

After three years of intensive practice, studying and performing, Michelle started to teach belly dance to others. Her teaching journey began when her belly dancer friend, Connie, was teaching at a local church at the time. Her classes became so full that she asked Michelle to help her teach. Connie had studied belly dance all over the United States, Canada, and Egypt. Michelle proceeded to receive her Belly Dance Teacher Training Certification from Hadia of Montreal. She described Hadia as being “one of the most knowledgeable women I have ever studied with. I learned so much valuable information from her about belly dancing and teaching.”

With her marketing background, Michelle wrote up a business plan for Connie and her to teach together. As their business grew, Michelle proposed that they open their own place to teach belly dance and also include other forms of women’s fitness dance classes. In 2003 they opened the doors to ‘Goddess Hour Dance and Fitness,’ where they offered their belly dance classes, along with offering classes in Zumba and cardio pole dancing, which were taught by other area instructors. Michelle said the name ‘Goddess Hour’ came to her from a student who shared with her that for one hour every week she felt like a goddess when she came to belly dance class. Michelle thought “That’s it! That’s the perfect name for our business!” Goddess Hour Dance and Fitness Studio remained active for over a decade in the town of Brighton, New York. Two years ago, Michelle moved her classes to the Kinection’s Dance Studio, located at 718 University Avenue in Rochester. In the transition, she renamed her business ‘Goddess Hour Belly Dance with Michelle.’

michelle_v2Michelle has seen a great deal of growth in herself over the years as a teacher. “I think every year I get better as a teacher. I become more refined.” She stated that she’s also seen a shift in the demographics of her students as well. “When I was a new teacher, most of my students were in their 20s. Now, the average age of my students is around their mid-40s. The routines I’ve taught and the method of how I teach them has changed a bit because of that. Women in their mid-40s are more likely to have families with kids, jobs, and many other responsibilities. Belly dance class may be one of the few times during the week they have time to focus on doing something for just themselves.” Although mid-40s is the approximate median age of her students, any woman who attends Michelle’s classes will find women ranging in ages from their late teens to their 60s and 70s. One of the great benefits of belly dance is that it really is suitable for women of all ages, shapes, and sizes. “One of the greatest joys I’ve experienced teaching is having the opportunity to meet all of the incredible women who come to class.” said Michelle. “Women meet who may otherwise not have met and become friends. I’ve seen friendships develop between women who are 21 years old and women in their 50s. All of these different women come together to dance and they become friends.”

Belly dancing also has many physical and other health benefits. “Belly dancing is really beneficial for strengthening your core,” Michelle shared. “It has even been endorsed by Stott Pilates to benefit greatly in strengthening the core. It’s also a mild enough form of dance that it is suitable for women of all ages and sizes. Women of all walks of life can learn it.” It has also been shown to have positive effects on women emotionally, too. Michelle shared that belly dancing can be very emotionally freeing and also can help women to feel more beautiful and feminine.michellebella(1)

In 2009, Michelle founded “Unveil the Goddess,” a non-profit program to support women and teens in transition. “I’ve had the privilege to teach women who were battling breast cancer, domestic abuse, and teens at risk. I reached out to non-profit groups whose goal was for the advancement of women and I offered free classes to them.” Michelle has also been a speaker for the National Speaking of Women’s Health Conference, promoting belly dance as a beneficial fitness alternative. She also is co-director of Fire and Spice Belly Dancers, a professional troupe that has performed extensively around the greater Rochester area. Recently, Michelle also created a new belly dance troupe, Sapphire, designed for her beginner level students to learn performance techniques and refine choreography from the dances they learned in her classes.

Whether women have the desire to perform one day or just want to get together with other women for an hour a week to laugh, move their hips and have fun, Michelle’s class is truly suitable for every woman. It also may very well be one of the most fun hours of your week, as it has become for me. “Putting yourself out there can be really scary,” said Michelle, “but I encourage every woman to try it. It could change and enhance your life in very positive ways.” I can share first hand that this was definitely the case for me, as I bask in the joy that belly dance has recently brought into my life.

For more information about belly dance classes offered in Rochester, or about hiring belly dance performers, contact Michelle Charles at Michelle@goddesshour.com, or call her at 585-747- 3937.IMG_michelle5

*All photos borrowed courtesy of Michelle Charles.

 

 

 

 

Belly Dancing, Goddess Style

Belly dancer mysteriousAfter the Thailand trip was canceled last June, I fell into a sort of mild depression as I helplessly watched a year’s worth of my work and dreams dissipate before me. Additionally, some family struggles and other life changes caused me to lose my motivation. My typically healthy diet suffered as I became very close friends with my daily gelato. I lost interest in writing, and I was dreaming of moving somewhere warm and far away to practice my massage therapy and yoga…perhaps Costa Rica or a tropical island somewhere. In that moment, my life in Rochester felt stale and old.

When a few weeks had passed, however, I snapped out of these thoughts as I recalled how my health was still robust, and I then remembered all of the wonderful people that surrounded me in my life. I realized how fortunate I actually was. I promptly broke off my summer affair with gelato, stepped up my yoga practice, and shed the eight pounds I had gained over the summer. Autumn was coming, a new semester was about to begin and I needed to get busy. Still, there was this little nagging feeling inside of me that I had become a bit stagnant and bored. I needed something new…something new like belly dancing.BellydanceBlue

I had long been curious about belly dance. There have been several occurrences over the years when women I’ve known have told me how much they enjoyed belly dancing, and that I seemed like someone who would really resonate with it and love it. At the time, though, all I wanted to do was yoga. I’ve attempted many other forms of fitness activities over the years…zumba, aerobic pole dancing, cardio hip-hop, spinning classes, and the aerial arts. Each time I would enter the new class with enthusiasm, thinking I’d be hooked. However, Each time I left one of the classes, I felt they just weren’t the right activities for me. None of them came close to my love for yoga. The spinning classes felt too repetitive, and zumba, which I thought for sure I’d adore, felt a bit like Latin dance on steroids to me. After I took an arial arts silks class, my arms ached so much that I could barely reach forward to brush my teeth for days, not to mention that the average age in the class was about fourteen. My peers in that class were the moms who sat watching their daughters (and me) attempt to climb and swing from the silks that hung from the high vaulted ceiling. Seeing an aerial arts performance is a great love of mine, but I learned that I am better suited for the audience than the stage in that genre.

My expectations were fairly low when I signed up for my first belly dance class. After all of those failed attempts at finding a new activity that would capture me, I was once again testing the waters. In my search for a teacher, I had read several rave reviews about a belly dance business in Rochester named ‘Goddess Hour.’ So, on a whim one night in early September, I called the teacher, Michelle Charles, to sign up for a class that was beginning later that week. My plan was to just take one ‘drop-in’ class to try it out.

Belly dancersTwo days later, I shyly entered the building on University Avenue in Rochester for my first class. The reception area was lively as I saw women of various ages, sizes, and ethnicities gathering and chatting as they waited for class to begin. I peeked in the opened door of the classroom and saw some other students dancing. The women looked quite impressive as they shimmied and spun across the dance floor. They were in the intermediate level class. Having never shimmied before, I wasn’t sure I’d have any idea how to do it. My ballet and yoga background taught me how to keep my hips very still and controlled. I was now about to learn how to unleash them and move them. As I waited in the seating area with the other women in the beginner’s level class, I quietly observed. Many of the women wore colorful scarves with dangling coins around their hips and appeared to already know each other. When the intermediate classes ended, we were promptly greeted with a warm smile and enthusiastic “Welcome!” by our teacher, Michelle. I had a good feeling about the class already.

Belly dancers -artClass began with a few basic belly dance drills along to some upbeat rhythms of Egyptian pop belly dance music. We proceeded with a belly dance ‘warm up’ that included big hip circles, hip bumps, shoulder rolls, chest movements, and forward folds. I noticed how the teacher and some of her long-time students were hamming up their movements with big smiles and flirty hand and hip movements. As I followed along, I suddenly realized that I couldn’t stop smiling throughout the entire class. I noticed that there were women at all different skill levels in the class, too. Some appeared to have been dancing for years, while others, like me, were clueless and just followed along. With all of the diversity of ages, body shapes, and levels of experience, though, there was one thing that all of us had in common. Every woman was smiling.Red belly dance art

Michelle coached us along the way about several basic principles of belly dance. The atmosphere of the class was non-judgmental and lively, but also very well organized and informative. I could easily tell that the teacher was highly proficient in belly dance and knew the art well. As we learned various movements, Michelle would often share the origins of where the different steps derived from. For example, we learned the difference between Turkish and Egyptian shimmies, and how the styles of dance vary in the different countries. Given my love for Asian culture and history, learning about the roots of belly dance was right up my alley…the geography is just moving a little further westward than Thailand and China. As class progressed, we were informed that we would also learn choreography in each class, which would eventually lead to a full dance to a particular piece of music. Although I’m used to stringing together sequences when I teach yoga, I hadn’t actually learned a choreographed dance since I was a teenager in my ballet classes. I was elated that I would be learning to dance to choreography once again, but this time I was allowed, and indeed encourage, to shake my hips, chest and shoulders. Class concluded with an upbeat ‘follow along’ belly dance to an Egyptian Shaabi song, which sounded a bit like Egyptian hip-hop to me. This was a very energetic, playful, coquettish dance that heated up the room. When the final dance concluded, I was exhilarated and covered in a delightfully detoxing sweat.Bellydance class

After that first one-hour class, I already knew I had discovered a new passion of mine that would remain with me for life just as yoga will. The class gave me the most liberating feeling I had experienced in my body since I began practicing vinyasa style yoga over fifteen years ago. They fulfill different parts of me, too, in many ways. Yoga has always felt primarily like an internal journey for me, delving deeply into my body while finding peace within my mind. Even in the most crowded of classes, yoga brings me to my quiet place. Belly dance, in contrast, feels like more of an external journey for me. The movements of belly dance are exquisitely feminine, playful, and even slightly mischievous, yet there are concise techniques involved in learning these freeing movements. When I belly dance with a group of other women, it feels as if we are dancing at a party together. I feel completely unbounded and free. Also, have I mentioned yet how exotic and alluring the belly dance outfits are? Being a lover of both fashion and dressing up in costumes, this is another perfect match for me. Although it has mostly been web browsing at this point, I’ll refrain from mentioning how many belly dance costumes I’ve bookmarked on my computer in the past four months.

 Since eaBellydance veil #4rly September, I’ve continued to study the art of belly dance with Michelle and I take classes weekly at Goddess Hour. My collection of belly dance DVDs is growing steadily. Michelle also periodically organizes recitals and events, and she invites her students to participate if they desire. In my four months, I’ve already had the pleasure to perform one of the dances we learned in a recital with some of my classmates. I also recently performed a veil dance (my favorite type of belly dance so far) at a ‘Hafla,’ which is a social gathering centered around belly dancing and food. My journey into the world of belly dance is just beginning, and I excitedly await all of the new adventures I will discover along the way. Of course, traveling to some of the countries where belly dance derives from is one of my many aspirations on this adventure!

Before I conclude this post, I thought it might be helpful to give a very brief overview about belly dance, although I am new and just beginning to learn about the history of this beautiful dance.Belly Dancers - vintage

The term ‘belly dance’ is a Western-coined name that stems from a French term ‘danse du ventre,’ which means ‘dance of the belly.’ Although the term itself became popular after entertainer Sol Bloom first used it in 1893 to describe the dancers at the Chicago World Fair, the origins of the dance itself are believed to be thousands of years old. Belly dance can take on many forms depending on the country and region the dance derives from. The earliest roots can be traced back to the Middle East. European travelers have extensive documentation of the dancers they saw in this part of the world, especially in Egypt. Classical Egyptian style dance is often called ‘Raqs Sharqi,’ which means ‘Oriental Dance.’ Historically, belly dance, or Oriental dance, has primarily been performed either as a social dance or as a performance art. In the social dance context, it is usually part of a celebration in a social gathering of people in every day society in various parts of the Middle East and surrounding countries. Women, in particular, would belly dance together, often as single-sexed gatherings as a way to celebrate and have fun. This ritual is still prevalent in many communities in the Middle East today.

Vintage Belly dancerAs a performance art, belly dance gathers its foundations from the social dances, but is danced with more refinement and emphasis on the use of space and stage-crafting performances. Focus is also on facial expressions and more dramatic movements. Costuming is also an important aspect to belly dance in the performance art realm. Belly dance has been performed extensively throughout the Middle East, but also in the West in both the U.S. and in Europe. It has becoming popular in many East Asian countries such as China and Japan. The dances can be performed either as solo acts or as group performances.

 

Most modern day belly dance movements stem from Egypt and Turkey, but many varieties of styles exist today. Some of these include classical Egyptian style, Turkish style, American Cabaret style, Gypsy (Romani) style, American Tribal style, and Tribal Fusion style. Certain types of belly dance include the use of props, such as finger symbols (zills), veils, fans, canes, candles, and swords. Musicians also play a very important role in many belly dance traditions, particularly in classical Egyptian and Turkish style belly dance.

In conclusion, never discount the power of newness in your life. When boredom or stagnation begins to set in your mind and body, listen to your little voi

ce. An unfamiliar hobby can develop at any stage of your life, whether you are sixteen years old or ninety. The timing to start is always the right time. If a thought or idea pops in your mind to try something, don’t think about it too much. Just try it. The worst that can happen is discovering that you don’t like it or aren’t interested (or get sore arms). At best, you may find a life-changing avocation that stays with you for life. Never fear curiosity, and don’t ever be afraid to dance!Veil dance twirl“Dance is the Hidden Language of the Soul.” – Martha Graham

 

*Next Post: An interview with Michelle Charles, Belly Dance teacher, performer, and owner of Goddess Hour. Come back to visit soon!

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