Mish Mish started taking belly dance lessons over 40 years ago and since then has introduced thousands of students to the music, dance, and culture of the Arab world. She has had a long career dancing in Greek and Arab nightclubs, and has traveled to Egypt, Morocco, Turkey, and Iran. She was one of the first dancers to bring nationally known dancers to Seattle, produce big belly dance shows, and to showcase folkloric dance to the general public.
In 1978, Mish Mish started a trouped based on Bal Anat, Jamila Salimpour's famous seminal group featuring live music and a male dancer. Currently, she directs Karavans, a folkloric group, and Khan Il Kahlili, whose repertoire ranges from contemporary to fusion.
With a background in theatrical design, Mish Mish will be hosting a belly dance makeover workshop at Zamani Culture House on April 14th.
We sit down at the table in Mish's dining room. The same dining room where, not only myself, but many other dancers as well, have spent countless hours rehearsing choreography. An hour and half later, I have so many pages of notes from our chat, that I've actually split this post into two parts.
Alessandra: You've been in the belly dance business for quite a few years. What would you say are the biggest changes you've seen occurring with belly dance over time?
Mish: One of the big changes was the introduction of a more Egyptian style of dance to the West Coast by Shareen El Safy in the last 1970s. Before that most of the dancers I worked with did a combination of Turkish, Greek, and Arabic style dance. Plus we played finger cymbals during the whole dance and did a separate extended veil routine. It was hard for me at first to switch from the five part routine using popular songs like "Mustapha" and "Hadouni" to the highly orchestrated, more sophisticated music composed especially for Egyptian dancers. The posture and the focus were different. The good thing about the Oriental style was it created better dancers overall because it forced them to work more on technique and to appreciate the Arab roots and emotion inherent in the dance. The bad news was that in the beginning, so many dancers slavishly copied the style, that after awhile they all looked the same.
Another major change came about in the 1980s when Fat Chance and the tribal style came along. The good thing was it attracted a lot of new students and gave dancers who were not interested or comfortable with the cabaret style a place to dance. The bad thing was it split the dance community and morphed into some pretty weird stuff. I'm not against innovation or pushing the boundaries, as I remember when Tahia Alibeck was lambasted for dancing to Michael Jackson's "Beat It", but at what point does it cease to be belly dancing?
Another thing that has affected dancers and teachers in the last few years is the economy, which has caused a big downturn in enrollment in classes, the number of workshops and shows, and the dancers interested in going to clubs. When I first started taking lessons, I was out every weekend soaking up the local belly dance scene. Plus, the popularity of Bollywood, burlesque, and zumba has attracted a lot of students who in the past might have taken belly dance classes. The last major change I see is that the young, second generation Arabs are not frequenting the nightclubs. They prefer DJs, hookah lounges, and the modern techno Arab music. In the 1980s and 1990s, the Arab families would come out to the clubs to dance and socialize. The result is fewer places to dance, and less exposure to the general public.
Alessandra: Given the changes in demographics and the economy, what do you think a belly dancer needs to do to make it?
Mish: Network. A dancer needs to network with club owners, musicians, and other dancers. She needs to go out and be seen in the local community. She needs to be willing to dance for free sometimes. It's like an on-going "interview". A dancer needs to look nice and have professional costumes. She should find new venues and set herself up as the main dancer there. There will always be dancers that are more aggressive and know how to hustle, and therefore will be the dancers that get the most work.
Mish: Sometimes I have a hard time with competitions because they are so subjective. I think for dancers considering entering a competition, a better perspective is to look at it as a way to challenge yourself, rather than setting out to win. Remember that only a handful of judges have decided who is the winner.
Alessandra: A number of dancers, myself included, have gotten their start in your beginning belly dance classes. When you're looking at a new student, how can you tell is she has potential as a dancer?
Mish: First and foremost, that she can follow and mimic my movements. Having a background in other types of dance is always a big help. And I need to see that the student likes to dance, and if she really enjoys herself in class that's a positive sign. Plus if she's interested and continues to improve and take classes.
Alessandra: Moving on from student, what qualities do you think a dancer needs to have to be successful?
Mish: There are three things that make a great dancer: technique, appearance, and stage presence. Your costume should fit and be flattering. Technique only comes with practice, but it's not about showing people how many steps you know. Relax. Get into the feeling of the music, make it it look easy and the audience will enjoy what you are doing. You don't have to have the perfect body or the latest costume if you have confidence and a strong stage presence. I have seen some plus size dancers with great stage presence and technique. I encourage dancers to develop a style of their own so they don't look like everyone else, and to create a stage persona they are comfortable with. It can be a reflexion of you, or sometimes a totally different personality. Elena, Bobby Farrah's protege, was like a quiet little moth offstage. Onstage, she turned into a magnificent butterfly. You can be cute, sexy, earthy, coy, or shy. At Tamalyn Dallal and Malia's recent student night, I saw elegant, vampy, slinky and enigmatic dancers. To be a good dancer, you need two of those three attributes. To be a great dancer you need all three. And I would say there's a certain charisma that makes up the last 10% that really tells you someone is a star. When you see it, you will know. The hair on the back of your neck will stand up because it is so perfect and so amazing. That's what it's all about. You will just know.
Alessandra: You mentioned being shy as a persona. I identify with shy, and maybe surprisingly, I think a lot of dancers actually do. How can you work this to your advantage?
Mish: You don't need to look at the audience or be smiling a big smile or make eye contact all the time. Sometimes try looking down, or at the isolations you are doing to draw your audience's attention to the movement. Doing the inherently sexy moves of belly dance, but using facial expressions that are subtle and coy can be really effective. Leila, the belly dancer originally from Washington state who has danced in Egypt the last few years, really perfected this technique.
That concludes part one of our interview. Check back next week for part two, including some wild stories on gigs and performing that you won't believe!