After 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.
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 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.
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.
*All photos borrowed courtesy of Michelle Charles.