I don't know that Dahlia really needs an introduction, but if you're not familiar with her work, Dahlia is a local Seattle dancer known for her exquisite musical interpretation, combined with flawless technique. She has won the titles of 2006 Double Crown Performing Artist, 2007 International Belly Dance Convention Folkloric Champion, and 2007 Belly Dancer of the Universe. Dahlia is currently offering classes in Ballard and Bothell. Check out her website for more info.
Meeting at Starbucks, the 38-year-old mother of two, arrives looking very much the 20-something cool kid, in a funky-print hoodie, flip-flops, and minimal makeup, other than the glittery purple eyeshadow that she tells me is leftover from a gig two nights ago. Settling in over coffee, our interview starts.
Alessandra: What is your current dance goal or aspiration?
Dahlia: Currently, my greatest challenge has been given to me by Amy Sigil of Unmata. This year's Blood Moon Regale in Sacramento will mark Unmata's 10th anniversary, so the theme is A Decade of Unmata, where various troupes will perform every single choreography that Unmata has performed since 2003. Amy has given me the task of doing a montage of all the choreographies in one single dance! As far is in my own career, I'm currently focused on ITS, Unmata's signature Improvisational Tribal Style, and hope that will continue to flourish. The nature of this dance format has me once again working and performing in a troupe, which has been adjustment from being a soloist for so long now. I don't market myself enough, which is an aspect I need to focus on more. I also have students asking about an instructional DVD, which I hope to create in the future, although at this exact point in time it doesn't feel like the right timing.
Alessandra: I've always typically thought of you as a modern Egyptian, as well as a folkloric dancer. Is the recent focus on tribal style going to be a permanent focus for you? Or do you intend it to be another aspect of your overall dance?
Dahlia: I'll never let go of being a soloist and an Egyptian style dancer. Doing tribal style is an expansion of my overall dance career. Music is everything to me. It's the heartbeat of the dance. And exploring various aspects of music is my focus as a solo dancer.
Alessandra: What dancers are currently inspiring you?
Dahlia: I'm really into Daria Mitskovich, a Russian dancer, who has a very sensitive Egyptian flavor to her style that is delicious. And always by the greats: Fifi Abdo, Aida Nour, and Tito Seif. Amy Sigil. Recently, I was able to share the stage with Rachel Brice, Zoe Jakes and Sharon Kihara at the Oregon Country Fair and was reinspired by their unique interpretations of classical belly dance music as well.
Alessandra: Thinking back to the first time you stepped on stage, what was your very first performance?
Dahlia: It was a troupe performance at Mediterranean Fantasy Festival in 1994.
Alessandra: So how did it go? Did it feel natural to be on stage or were there butterflies?
Dahlia: I have always been a performer, so it felt very natural for me. I was accustomed to being on stage as I did ballet, jazz, and tap growing up. I was also a musician. I played the flute, sang, and played drums. I was also into sports. I played basketball and was a competitive horseback rider.
Alessandra: We all know that things don't always go as planned or expected. What has been your worst or most embarrassing performance experience?
Dahlia: (Laughs) Costume malfunctions, stage malfunctions, music malfunctions, audience boos and hisses, you name it, I've had it happen. I had a recent performance at a book-signing at a community college, dancing in front of a couple hundred people, and the audience was just indifferent. I'm used to being able to win over an entire audience and when it doesn't happen, I wonder why I am even there. (Laughs) I left feeling like a total spoiled diva. When I perform, I completely get off on getting my audience off. I know when I do well and I know when my audience is responsive and when they are just plain confused. I know that there's a lesson for me in every gig, and every dancer will experience audiences that are indifferent or even offended. These situations demand of us to dance for ourselves in the moment. When I find myself in a gig like that, where I just want to walk out, I have to remember, and am reminded, that there are always a few lives I touch no matter what.
Alessandra: What have you found to the most rewarding part of belly dance?
Dahlia: Finding tarab. Tarab is loosely translated as a state of ecstasy or trance brought on by music. I've been lucky enough to experience tarab many, many times throughout my career. I even had it tattooed on my back in the last year.
Alessandra: What factors need to align for you to reach that state?
Dahlia: It's more common for me when working with live music. Other key factors for me are vulnerability, being present in the moment, being in communion with the musicians, and being in communion with my breath.
Alessandra: (Wow!) Yes, those are all great ingredients in a dance. So what has been the most challenging part of belly dance?
Dahlia: Dealing with the ebb and flow of politics and personal relationship with other professional belly dancers and gig coordinators. I think we all face these types of challenges related to interpersonal relationships in any job. And in belly dance you have a community of mostly women who are very artistic and very intense. It's frequently a solo artist's world and it's not always a one-for-all mentality. In my career I've worked towards creating a really supportive and beneficial market for dancers and our art form, and I strive whole-heartedly for excellent standards for everyone. However, trying to create structure in an art form that is so focused on creativity and self-expression sometimes leads to artists getting upset that they are being contained. I believe the more people share their ideas with each other and share their business practices with each other, the better off everyone will be. I think teachers really need to educate students about what it means to be a professional. We should all be on even ground, rather than having the mentality that individual dancers should climb the ladder by themselves. Ultimately, the bottom line is that the best dancer wins, or should win. Whoever is young, beautiful, and talented is often the dancer who gets hired, and that can be a hard fact to face!
Alessandra: For a student dancer looking to take her dance to the next level, what advice would you give her?
Dahlia: Not to focus in any one particular genre too exclusively. As Amy Sigil says, "dance is dance is dance." The more hours you log dancing in any form, the greater you will become. Pick a small handful of dancers that inspire you and study them, and then move onto another handful.
Alessandra: And what advice would you give to experienced dancers either looking to make the leap to professional or who are newly professional?
Dahlia: Your music is your lover. You absolutely must be unabashedly dedicated to the music you choose and that will be your tool to excel. Remember to be authentic in your work. Always be true to your inner muse, whoever he or she may be, and be careful not to follow someone else's dream or in someone else's footsteps. Belly dance is so free in the U.S. and we have so many opportunities to share and perform different genres and personal interpretations that you don't have to be any one thing. That's been really inspiring for me, and I hope to inspire other women through my own mix of modern Egyptian, folkloric, and tribal.