Thank you for your ongoing and vital support of this innovative production. In a world of changes and against so many odds, this event has not only sustained and persevered, but evolved beyond imagination! Since founding in 2010, BELLY DANCE OFF has held 23 events in 8 venues across 3 cities, with over 8 spotlights in local and international media. Each event has featured a different mix of dancers, musicians, and judges, with a relentless focus on theatrical quality, entertainment, and widespread audience engagement. I thank the incredible community for championing the spirit of this event and supporting these accomplishments! Through your many forms of participation – whether backstage or onstage, as a competitor, judge, sponsor, or more – you have kept the flame alive and strong.
It is now time to take the next step in our evolution. Our years of touring throughout different venues have been an incredible opportunity to hone event management skills and expand ties across communities. Yet experiencing this show in Teatro ZinZanni Seattle in 2016, we’ve witnessed the core vision truly come life – as if it were made for the place! Thus, Teatro ZinZanni will be the new home of BELLY DANCE OFF in 2017!!!
In addition, there are a number of changes to the format. Since 2010, BELLY DANCE OFF has been held 4-5 times each year – 3-4 preliminary rounds plus a championship. Beginning in 2017, BELLY DANCE OFF will take place in 2 events per year – one Open round plus a Championship. The Belly Dance Off Open will take place on June 17th with six competitors. From this event, three dancers will advance to the Championship on October 21st, and compete for the trophy, title, and other prizes. With this consolidation, there are several notable format changes:
With these changes, the distinguishing values of BELLY DANCE OFF are nonetheless preserved – participating dancers can still grow and hone their talents in response to judge feedback between the events, we maintain focus on audience engagement, and we are still 100% live music! Consolidating to two events per year also means even greater focus on quality. Additional enhancements are on the horizon and exciting possibilities are in store! Thank you for growing with us. And more, thank you for supporting artistic innovation! We look forward to many phenomenal years ahead.
– Suzanna Davis Artistic Director, Host, and Founder
A response to the Pacific Northwest belly dance community (and musicians too!)...
I am exhausted but cannot sleep. A most incredible thing happened last night! Without exaggeration I can say it has indelibly changed me, altered my reality forever, and elevated my sense of what is possible. It’s the sort of thing that happens only in one’s fantasies. I had just finished another epic performance with MB Orchestra, whose music has powered so much of my learning and inspiration for over a decade – I know that’s true for many of us. Just before reaching my changing space, sweaty and utterly spent, I was intercepted by the lovely Angie Thompson ("Fateen" of Rishi’s Egypt), who informed me I was not to change yet and that I needed to return to the stage. One can only imagine how dazed and disoriented I was.
I was met with a stunning bouquet of roses and carefully prepared speech by Rishi, explaining that the belly dance community (and musicians too!) had come together to give me a generous gift in appreciation of my years of hard work and dedication to them, both individually and collectively. I was presented with a 2-night stay plus dining and spa services at Rosario Resort and Spa on Orcas Island! Not to mention some cash to cover ferry costs and transportation.
Just like that, an entire community has joined together and presented me with the most glorious demonstration of gratitude and love! I was and still am profoundly stunned! As exquisite beyond galactic proportion as this gift is, what has me changed forever is the act itself and the incredible words said and written by Rishi and all of you. As I’ve prepared this response, I felt sure I would never find words to express what this has done for me. Love. Pure L-O-V-E love is what you’ve given me. The most powerful force in the universe. Think about that – the MOST powerful – more powerful than the many negative forces that are making us feel powerless and hopeless. Your gift of love cleanses me of all negative elements and background noise I carry from the past. How can I thank you?? In my years of investment, building events and experiences that bring people together, I never imagined anything like this taking place. It seems unimaginable still... I love you too!!
And then there’s trust. Your trust in me as a colleague and friend, fertilizing my efforts by participating, engaging, supporting, and attending, is what has brought all of this about. Seriously, the community we enjoy today is because of each of you. And the reward of seeing the fruits of my labor – a growing audience, wider appreciation of live music when paired with dance, local performers elevating their talents and being celebrated – has been more than enough gratitude and infinitely gratifying. Moreover, through your participation I have personally learned so much about dance and entertainment, about organization, management, and leadership, and about myself and my own life purpose.
Keep growing and creating, and bringing the truest YOU to your life every day. That is what you’ve reinforced in me with this incredibly act of kindness. Whatever residual doubts and negative baggage I’ve been dragging around now must go. I’m profoundly inspired to step up and do better, and with more clarity. The journey is terrifying at times. Thoughts of “How did I get here?” and “What on earth do I think I’m doing?” have paralyzed me on occasion. As this fear becomes more familiar, I’m learning to just get out of the way of myself. Thank you everyone for this guidance that most likely you aren’t aware you’ve given me, of showing me how to be the truest form of me. I can’t ask for greater!
I must confess, part of me wishes I could reallocate your generous contributions toward 2016 production costs. Instead, I will accept your gracious gift and go cleanse, purify, and refresh myself, so I will return stronger and able to bring it to the next level. I can’t thank you enough for this!!! I also wish I could somehow redirect this gesture back out to so many among us that also need to be acknowledged and thanked. But I’m hoping that somehow just witnessing this kind act coming to life will bring about assurance to everyone that gratitude is in abundance. I’ve just found out that I’m being thanked in people’s thoughts during times when I was sure no one cared. That means you are too. Just think of the possibilities of what will come when we all give more of this thing called love.
My theatre professors used to advise writing down all initial impressions immediately upon reading or watching a play. These initial impressions would soon be forgotten with familiarity, and were key to knowing what to highlight for the audience. Thus, I note my initial impressions of Brazil, and in particular of São Paulo and a nearby small town Itanhaém. Just a snapshot perspective that is uniquely mine, and will surely become better informed with time.
During the 11 hour flight from LA while approaching Brazil, I spotted Senegal, West Africa on the flight map, just across the Atlantic – the furthest from Seattle I’d been until now. And still more than 5 hours before we’d arrive in São Paulo on the other side of the equator. The world is massive! And so is São Paulo, a megacity of 17 million people. On arrival, passing through the custodial gates of immigration we were suddenly surrounded by a duty free mall on the scale of a Vegas hotel. My mind reeling, I grabbed a couple more pairs of much needed Victoria’s Secret underwear. As we drove to our boutique hotel, it seemed just about every urban surface was decorated with very elaborate graffiti art. Instead of a few logical turns off a freeway exit, it took many tortuous twists through narrow streets to get to our destination, a beautiful modern room at Hotel Mercure, a three-star hotel which had been through a recent remodel.
From a local perspective, everything in São Paulo is expensive. But with dollars, everything is currently affordable, and you get great value for what you pay. Much of the city looks just like Cairo to me, minus the Arabic, but including the layer of smog. Are all megacities using the same manual for urban planning? Perhaps the same investors? In an attempt to address the extreme traffic congestion of São Paulo, drivers are assigned one day per week in which their cars are not allowed on the road.
Having traveled to many places, what is absolutely exceptional about Brazil is the hospitality, warmth, and sense of friendship immediately established. I’m told São Paulo is on the cooler end of this compared to elsewhere in Brazil, such as the north. However, I can’t imagine how humans could be any warmer! Greeting those you encounter immediately is mandatory. And unless you’re passing right through, this exchange will quickly erupt into a multithread conversation and gestures of kindness. Gift giving seems standard practice between guests and hosts, a delightful practice I hope to adopt.
I am convinced this Brazilian social abundance would do wonders for the US. We are in love with their culture in all other ways, so why not? What if saying “hi, how are you” to every neighbor, store clerk, or person standing beside us at a bus stop were so second nature it would appear abnormal and disconcerting if it didn’t occur? I’m currently reading “The Tipping Point” by Malcom Gladwell, wherein he refers to the Power of Context to explain how such minor, seemingly trivial adjustments trigger sweeping changes in social structures. This may be just the antidote for Seattle’s rapid structural transformation and population growth. Not that I’ve ever been any shining example myself. I’m trying to imagine, how will I get past the inhibiting strange glances in response?
Turn on a TV in Brazil and see no thin thighs. All women (of any race) have big strong muscular thunder thighs and butts, and look spectacular! For the first time ever I felt represented by media. Also, perhaps for the first time ever, my hair has volume! Ironically, this is exactly what most Brazilian girls struggle to get rid of with the Brazilian blowout. The coffee, on the other hand, is never big. Served as shots of espresso, it is much stronger. Order a “long” coffee and you’ll get a bit more. But if you’re an addict like me, you’ll still need several.
If I thought the cheese was incredible in France, I just met its rival. Cheese is in, on, or with just about everything, and the pizza is king of them all. There’s no end to what I could write about all food in Brazil. The banana jam. The feijoada. The many tropical fruits. I’m making a vow to myself to take better care of how I eat when back in the US.
On the other hand, everything you’ve heard about the extreme income inequality is true. However, compared to similar environments I’ve traveled, kindness and graciousness seem to prevail over manipulating tourists for financial gain. I’m sure it happens, but I’m used to it being relentless. This makes a big difference. But the dark side of income (and education) inequality in Brazil is violence. Carjacking is common, and significantly more likely to occur when cars are stopped in traffic, which is often. Knowing precisely the route you’ll drive is also vital, particularly in neighborhoods bordering slums, which appear in random patches among more moderate to lower income neighborhoods. One wrong turn down the wrong street could change destiny. And it’s easy to do with so many one-ways.
Much of this tension has subdued since arriving in the quaint rustic beach town of Itanhaém, the second oldest town of Brazil. Nearby the artist house in which I stay is a huge boulder formation said to have been used as a bed by the first Portuguese priest who founded the town. Not sure if that is folklore, but based on the number of condoms tossed on the other side of the pathway, it is a bed indeed. Gazing out to the ocean you spot a few nearby islands.
One of them is the famous but forbidden Snake Island, with the highest concentration of deadly snakes in the world, apparently discovered the hard way by a lighthouse operator and his family in the 1920s. Inside this lovely town is one of the oldest churches in South America, Convent of Nossa Senhora da Conceicao, built 483 years ago by enslaved natives of Brazil, those peaceful inhabitants that lived here long before any Europeans arrived. The statues of the saints were carefully fashioned to appear as those traditionally made of ceramic, but instead constructed of carved wood and hallowed on the inside in order to surreptitiously transport gold to Europe.
I didn’t mean this to turn into a lesson on history and culture. In truth, the caipirinha and fresh catch of shrimp squeezed with lime are already becoming my most prominent memories. But history and culture are of intrinsic interest to me, so I suppose this focus was inevitable. You may be wondering, where is the dance? Yes, there has been samba and belly dance. In fact the workshop I took in Seattle with Robert Luu on Zouk just weeks prior to this trip came in exceedingly handy with partner dancing! And it seems I am summoned to perform a belly dance show this evening. But with this geographic distance it’s been important to also accept distance from my creative work, to cleanse and refresh mind, body, and soul.
The Arts & Social Change dialogue has many voices. Mine emerges through a lifetime journey studying a diversity of dance and movement forms, each style always with its own distinct community and culture, with very little crossover. Across these dances I’ve traveled, always wondering why so few of us do. In these travels I’ve encountered troubling biases and limited perceptions, those that naturally take root where segregation exists. Specifically, when crossing borders between the dominant Western forms – ballet, contemporary, jazz, hip hop, and the like – and those considered more exotic or ethnic, such as belly dance. There is a palpable sense that dances outside this majority are not high art. Having trained extensively in Egyptian belly dance as well as these dominant forms, I can attest I’ve worked just as hard developing my technique in belly dance as in ballet. On the other hand, belly dance communities mostly keeping to themselves helps these biases remain.
Yet, in my ventures out of this sanctuary for cross-training, traveling from dance class to dance class throughout various Seattle studios, I am again faced with the segregated status quo. I realize that studios need to look out for their financial survival by holding classes that get attendance. However, the consistent lack of assimilation suggests underlying biases beyond just “preference,” a pattern that is also mirrored in dance productions and public events.
Decision makers on arts funding emerge from the top ranks of dominant Western forms. Naturally, they designate limited resources toward what they know and recognize, constraining opportunities for the public to access and discover other styles. The more under-resourced the non-Western forms become, the less competitive their presentations are for proposed funding – those informed few that even bother to apply. The cycle of homogenization and marginalization is perpetuated.
As with lack of diversity on any subject matter, the variables that bring it about are numerous and complex. Observing the dominance of contemporary dance in the arts scene worldwide, I have wondered if creative freedom is the key ingredient that makes a dance form prevalent? Whereas contemporary dance was intentionally designed for unlimited expression and unbound by the rules of any one style, many non-Western forms are recent offspring of folk dance, which involves greater emphasis on accurate cultural representation than pure creative interpretation. Yet nearly all dance was folk dance at some point. So what is "The Tipping Point” (to borrow from Malcom Gladwell) that propels a style into the mainstream mix? Greater inclusion of non-Western forms would provide the fertile ground needed to broaden creative applications.
But beyond implications of equity and inclusion, the segregation of dance just feels viscerally unnatural. Regardless of style, it all lives within and comes from one physical and sensorial place – my body, the only one I have. Dance, like music, is humanity’s universal language. The more dances I learn the more universal it becomes, as I discover similarities that seem to hold the secrets to our historical connections. The more dances I try on, the more movement I discover and the more languages my body learns to speak. With this diverse training my strength and expression has become magnified in every style, as I selectively draw from a broadening palette of movement.
Recently after taking a ballet class at a local Seattle studio, I inquired about the possibility of offering a belly dance basics class there, and got this reply: “Well of course we wouldn’t offer that in our regular class schedule, but you’d be welcome to look into renting when the studio is available if you want to organize your own class.”
This studio also offers modern, jazz, hip hop, yoga, etc. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve gotten this, or similar responses. Our daily lives are filled with so many subtle isms and biases like these. If dance (like all art) mirrors society, what does this artistic segregation and marginalization say about our underlying attitudes on pluralism and multiculturalism? And so I envision the day when a diverse menu of classes in addition to the usual fare can be found in any urban studio. For now, I remain grateful for the groundbreaking work accomplished with Forge Dance Theatre.
A huge thank you to EVERYONE for another incredible Belly Dance Off! Please know how important the involvement of each and every one of you is to this event and project. During my training in Cairo I had the opportunity to see this art form at its best -- on big stages with full orchestras. After each trip I’d return to my restaurant gigs in Seattle with recorded music, no stage, and generally no lights or announcement. Wanting more for this art form, for myself and my colleagues, and for the next generation, I created Belly Dance Off. The incredible musicians of our genre living right here in our region were also among the reasons why this project seemed urgent. I could no longer stand by passively and let the opportunity to present our dance with them languish.
By attending and participating, you have all invested in this, and you are why this event exists today, now in its 5th year. Thank you audience, volunteers and sponsors, judges, dancers, tech support, photographers and videographers, and MB Orchestra! A beautiful diversity of dancers ages 11-50 laid their heART on the stage at Round 1 -- Ashimiyat, Sunniva, Maia, Jennifer, Ava Raqs, Giselle, Rishi, Nancy, and Mellilah! Congratulations Mellilah (Pro) and Ashimiyat (Rising Star) for your win and we look forward to your performance at the Grand Championship this November! All dancers gave winning performances and are in fact winners for the personal best they achieved.
Likewise, I do my best to make each BELLY DANCE OFF better and better, based on lessons learned from the previous. I am profoundly impressed with how much has been accomplished with almost no budget and no staff. BELLY DANCE OFF receives no arts funding and has grown and thrived exclusively from your involvement and attendance! Thank you for your help as we strive to bring more and more new people to enjoy this magical dance and music!