It was a hot summer day in North Carolina, somewhere before the “dog days of summer”, but quite honestly those that are intimately aware of the humidity and almost unbearable summer heat in North Carolina; knows there’s really no distinction of where one ends and the other begins. I arrived for my first belly dance class at the YMCA in a hasty nervous pace hoping not to be late. I entered the brightly lit fitness room with a large mirror that extended the length of the room; unofficially marking the “front”; with the typical equipment found in a fitness room; ballet bars, workout mats, steppers, and exercise balls lined against the perimeter walls. Unfamiliar sounds of Egyptian Pop music filled the room like air, free flowing and inviting.

It felt like my first day of school. I looked for the familiar face that invited me there. My instructor was beautiful and appeared exotic her skin was golden and lightly tanned, and she had a friendly and inviting smile. Her voice carried throughout the room and she was super confident. Her long dark curly hair had auburn streaks and she wore a soft pink Nike bra top, black workout pants, pink coined hip scarf, and bare feet. It was hard to believe that I’d just met her a few days earlier. Her name was Diane, but in class and to her students she was known as, “Daliana”. At this moment, I felt a little “special” because, she and I met at my job, Sealy Inc., yes, the mattress company where she personally invited me.

At the time, I worked in R&D as a Regulatory Compliance Test Technician, and she was our “Pressure Mapping Model”. We’d later have a conversation after my former co-worker, “Paul”, said, “Hey, Myra! Have you met Diane?” I responded, “No, not yet.” With an excited response he said, “she teaches belly dance!” I remember thinking that was interesting and that I couldn’t wait to meet her. When we finally met, I told her that I wanted to lose weight for my upcoming wedding at the time, and she said, “you should take my beginner belly dance class. I’m starting a new session in a few days.”

Fast-forward, now, there I was registered in my first class standing in a circle with other excited belly dance newbies. None of us knew what to expect, but for me, this moment dispelled every negative connotation that I had about this dance form.

I was so wrong to be so judgmental previously, thinking that it was vulgar and resembled exotic dancing or striping. Now, I was intrigued and mesmerized by this art form. Daliana greeted this new group of novice belly dancers, “Welcome everyone! I’m so glad you’re here, my name is Daliana. Let’s warm-up!” The first cords “Angelika Unveiled” by Raul Ferrando— her favorite warm-up song—began to play, and my mind and body ascended as Daliana proceeded through a gentle “warm-up”, and this is the day I fell in love with belly dance! That was circa 2008.

The Progression of my Belly Dance Journey

After reading how I found belly dancing you’re probably thinking, “Wow! That was interesting. I wonder how she’s doing now?” Well, I’ll tell you, fast-forward approximately twelve and a half years later-ish. I still belly dance. I am grateful for the years of dancing with Daliana & Troupe Bellysima in Greensboro, NC because, it gave me a solid foundation. In May 2009, I moved to Boston, MA and one of the things that quickly stood out to me—when I began to immerse myself in the belly dance scene—was the lack of diversity. I will say that I was lucky to find Meiver De la Cruz early on and I was able to take lessons with her briefly in Cambridge, MA. She was a great instructor and reminded me of Daliana. One thing that you must understand is, the environment that I belly danced in was very diverse, and it was probably unprecedented at the time. At the time that I danced with Daliana & Troupe Bellysima there were over 40 women that were of all race and ethnicities, and an age range from 5-50+ (if I’m not mistaken). It was a wonderful and supportive environment to learn and grow as a belly dancer.

However, when I moved to Boston, I was one of only 3 Black women in a troupe of about 9 women and 6 of those were Caucasian. They were nice, but they weren’t very warm and friendly at first. I remember having to come to class and practice a few times before they really began to warm up to me. During that time, I remember feeling so out of place. Also, I’d just come from a place where we had a sisterhood and genuine camaraderie, and to be in a place where it felt cold began to make me feel lonely. I didn’t feel like I had anyone to relate to. Often times, I missed my belly dance my sisters in N.C. There were times when I felt weird because, the women of the new troupe that I danced with didn’t embrace being proud and out in the open that they were belly dancers. We couldn’t post photos on social media of our performances because, some of them didn’t want people to know that they were belly dancers. None of them looked like me. Daliana told and taught us to embrace our “juiciness” and no matter our size, we were beautiful. I’m “pecan-tan” with shoulder length hair, and “juicy” plus-size woman.

So, at times I found it difficult being an African American belly dancer in the Northeast, specifically, the New England area because, I wasn’t Caucasian or Middle Eastern, with long hair and a thin frame.

The Moment I Nearly Walked Away from Belly Dancing

It was October 2009 and I along with my former New England troupe mates were invited to perform in Rhode Island for a Halloween event. I recall performing with my troupe and immediately after, I along with some of my troupe mates were getting ready for our solos.

I recall two of the African American women that I’d belly danced with at the time had just finished performing, and I was in the bathroom getting ready when I overheard two Caucasian women talking. My ears perked up when I heard one of them say, “Black belly dancers suck.” I remember them having a look of shock when I exited the bathroom stall, and I looked at them. I didn’t say anything to them. I performed my number and then I told my husband that I was ready to go.

I was so hurt that evening and I cried nearly all the way home. In all of my time of dancing in N.C. with Daliana & Troupe Bellysima, I never experienced anything like this. It was then that I realized that I’d been in a bubble. It was a “cold belly dance world” out here. It was at that time I decided to pull back and let go.

I wasn’t happy and many of the classes were people that were trying to make a name for themselves and become professional belly dancers, the instruction was mediocre, and once again the class pool wasn’t diverse. So, I decided to support my home Troupe Bellysima, and focused on teaching myself through DVDs, YouTube videos, and taking classes with professional belly dancers as often as I could.

I Never Lost My “Mojo” but I Gained a Renewed Inspiration for Belly Dance

Since I found belly dance in 2008, I never really stopped dancing. I’ve always sought after and absorbed as much information as I could, and I still do. I’m a believer that “we never stop learning.” I will say that I stopped trying to find a new place to “fit in” in Boston, and just supported my sisters in dance back home in Greensboro, N.C. from Daliana & Troupe Bellysima whenever they performed and/or offered classes. I’ve always remained supportive in that way since I left Greensboro, N.C. Recently, I found a renewed inspiration to keep pushing and keep exploring my love for this dance form. As I absorbed as much information early on, I eventually decided that I would only take classes with Professional Belly Dancers because I wanted to learn from the best! I may be a work in progress, but I wanted the challenge and the exposure of learning from elite dancers in this industry. One of the turn-offs I had while dancing and searching for classes in Boston, was that I got the impression everyone wanted to teach and be a “Belly Dance Superstar”, but not everyone had the “presence” or the talent and to be quite candid, I wasn’t impressed. Sometimes it was the instruction or the way in which they carried themselves as belly dancers. At a minimum, I’ve been fortunate enough to take classes with Jillina, Kaeshi Chai, and Louchia to name a few. With that said, I’ve also had the privilege of being a regular student of Amar Garcia (Formerly Amar Gamal) and taking many private lessons under her guidance. So, I know what great instruction is and what it looks like. I admit, I have really high standards when it comes to whom, I decide to take classes with because I know in order to be a great belly dancer it takes a lot of dedication to the craft.

Many of the women that I’ve been taught by are very knowledgeable and well versed in the culture; traveled all over the world teaching belly dance; they are creative and keenly aware of the intricate details and nuances of belly dance; and they understand how to use their backgrounds as trained dancers—for instance, ballet, hip-hop, contemporary—to be better belly dancers. I’ve enjoyed maintaining a connection to belly dance in this way—on my own terms—because, I love this dance form so much. Moreover, I love the fusion of more modern-day music into belly dance because, I enjoy belly dancing to R&B, and I dance to it a lot around my home as I drill and practice. To see more belly dancers, especially African American belly dancers performing to our music is a wonderful feeling. I never wanted to disrespect the culture and roots of where belly dance comes from so when this shift happened, I was definitely excited for it and it felt acceptable to dance to it now. To see this emergence and acceptance has given me more motivation to find other belly dancers that look like me, to dance to the music that I love, and to I hopefully perform on stage again.

With that said, during COVID-19 #Quarantinelife I’ve taken a few belly dance classes, and most recently, I’ve had the divine pleasure of taking virtual belly dance classes with well-known, Washington, D.C. Professional Belly Dancer, “Ebony Qualls”. So, I guess my mojo isn’t gone, I’m just inspired differently and motivated to aspire to belly dance greatness again!

The Importance of the Brown Girl Belly Dance Platform

The Brown Girl Belly Dance Platform is so important because, it gives women of color, specifically, African American women a place to connect with other dancers that look like them. A platform like this has been needed for a long time and now it’s finally here!

We need more Black and Brown faces to be at the forefront of this industry because, there are a lot of phenomenal belly dancers of color that get overlooked. Too many times we are undervalued, underestimated, and marginalized, even as belly dancers. It is not very often that we can find a platform dedicated and targeted to our demographic and uplifting our dancers in one place, but now there is. I wish this platform existed early on.

In 2008, recall being in awe, sitting in Daliana’s living room, as one of the core Troupe Bellysima members, as we watched the Belly dance Superstars on DVD, and seeing Amar Gamal perform for the first time, and as a Black woman, I immediately identified with her. I smiled at beautiful Brown skin and her hair pulled like mine. Now, I’ve always worn my hair pulled back with a long ponytail, and to see her on stage wearing her hair exactly like mine, I couldn’t believe it. I’ve never forgotten that moment. Seeing her let me know, hey, I can do this too. I also recall scouring the internet when I began dancing looking for more “Amar Gamals”, but I couldn’t find many of them. So, you can imagine the joy I felt when I heard about the Bellydancers of Color Association (BOCA) in 2010.

Fastforward to now, I’m so incredibly proud that I can explore more “Brown Girl” Belly Dancers that I can identify and connect with and I owe it all to this platform.

Thank you Brown Girl Bellydance, for creating a lane just for all of us Brown Girls to Belly Dance with confidence and shine!