Am I executing the foot pattern correctly? Do I need to be on higher releve? Do I need to use my turn out more?
Leila Molaei is an international master trainer in Arabic dance. With her dance roots in Iraqi, Arabian Gulf and Iranian dance she also specialises in Levantine and Egyptian dances. As well as being in demand as a performance artist and researcher, Leila also runs Layali Academy in London, offering training in Arabic arts to all.
In this interview Leila shares with us her journey in Arabic dance and her thoughts on belly dance today and its future. Welcome Leila!
1. Tell us a bit about yourself and your dance background.
My family is a mix of ethnic Arabs (from Al Ahwaz in Iran) and Persian/Turks (Azeri from the border of Iran/Turkey). In a female dominated family who were always listening to music at home and dancing, I grew up in with Iraqi dances (ghajari, Basrawi), Iranian dances (baba karam, bandari and raqs chagoo) as well as generic khaleeji and sharqi dances.
Raqs sharqi and ghajari were always my main passions. As a young child, I was educated in English and French and my parents sent me to classes in modern Western dances. I actually got thrown out of my disco dance class for breaking the record player!
I learnt dance informally from my family growing up, took part in amateur shows but I always dreamed of dancing professionally. This, however, was a no-no. While my family is not that religious, it is a big taboo for a Middle Eastern girl to become a dancer or show her body in public. Besides, my parents had big ambitions for me, which they later realised when I worked for Kuwait Airways and Air France and then moved on to business consulting and marketing/communications.
Anyway, my desire got the better of me when I finally went to a raqs sharqi class in London with my friend, May. It was quite strange having what you know stripped down and taught back to you. However, I understood that if I wanted to dance professionally then I would have to get over this.
In the end, I realised that I needed to learn from an Arabic teacher who would be able to help me build on what I already knew. I started attending classes with Shafeek Ibrahim and Meret Gabra as well as Alia Al Zoughbi, Sally Moore and Khaled Mahmoud. My creativity started to emerge, and it was then with Juliana Brustik and a handful of other well-known UK teachers that I learnt how to perfect my basic moves and posture. I will always be grateful to all of these teachers who helped me realise my dream. I used a lot of the professional dance skills (not technique) I learnt in sharqi to apply to my other dance styles too.
2.What does belly dance mean to you?
When watching belly dance performances whether one YouTube or at a hafla, it’s normally easy to distinguish between the student dancers and the professionals. But how do we pinpoint what the difference is exactly?
There is no one answer to this as technique, expression, musicality, movement vocabulary, costuming and many other factors can be used to compare dancers. Today we will focus on just one. A friend of mine heard this nugget of wisdom at a belly dance workshop:
Advanced dancers dance with their whole bodies, whilst beginners focus only on the main movement layer, for example hips or ribs.
What does this mean? It means that a beginner puts all her focus into the main movement for example a hip circle, but is not aware of what the rest of her body is doing. So whilst the hip circles may look fantastic, the rest of the body including posture, arms, breathing and facial expression may be lacking. An advanced dancer, with practice and awareness over time is able to execute the same hip circle movement but with good posture, energy in the arms and hands, breath control and a relaxed expression.
So how can we incorporate this into our own dancing? Here are some suggestions: