The IntroductionA master instructor and entertainer in the Pacific Northwest, Zaphara is one of the few belly dancers in the U.S. of Greek heritage. She has appeared in nightclubs and taught workshops throughout the Northwest and other U.S. cities. During that time, she has appeared on local, Canadian, Japanese, and National TV shows, including ABC’S 20/20. Zaphara has co-produced, hosted, and performed in four one-hour TV shows on public access; Bellydance 101, My Big Fat Greek TV Show, The Cairo Connection (featuring Cairo’s famous costume designer, Hallah Mustapha), and It’s Greek to Me! She previously wrote a monthly belly dance “gossip column” for eight years for Jareeda , a national belly dance publication. Zaphara has traveled to Greece, Egypt, Turkey, Columbia, and The United Arab Emeritus to study, perform, and teach Middle Eastern Dance. In Seattle, she teaches belly dance classes at the Phinney Center and performs at Yannis Greek restaurant and at Harissa Mediterranean Cuisine. You can learn more about Zaphara and her events on her website.
Alessandra: Let’s start at the beginning. How did you get started in belly dance?
Zaphara: It was in the late 1970s and I was working in a chocolate factory. My coworkers and I were encouraged to eat the chocolate for quality control, but the problem was that I was gaining weight and starting to get jiggly. I had tried yoga, snow skiing, etc., but nothing was working. So I started taking a belly dance class at the King County Parks Department. I loved the moves, but I just couldn’t figure out how to do an undulation. It seemed the harder I tried, the worse I got, and I could see my teacher, Shamiran Pick, from Iran, looking at me like “she’s hopeless.” During this time, Shamiran held her annual dinner show at the Edgewater Inn featuring her students and herself. It was my first time watching belly dance, and I went crazy. I loved it. After the show, I sat by myself, ordered a vodka and orange juice, and muddled over the experience. When along came a handsome guy who says hi, sat down, and handed me his room key. I responded by saying I’m married. Which in turn, he responded by saying that’s okay, I’ll put the key at the front desk for you. Well, the key sat at the front desk and I went home and told my husband. My husband started laughing and told me I was naive, and that the man had thought I was a call girl. After that sank in, I had another drink (and I never drank at the time) and turned on some George Abdo music, and started to dance in my living room. Between the alcohol, happiness from seeing the show, and the shock of being solicited, the undulation came effortlessly. And that was the beginning of it.
Within 6 to 8 weeks later, I had my first performance, and in fact, I had two that day. In the morning, I danced at the Bellevue Arts Fair, and in the evening, at the venue that is now currently Dimitrou’s Jazz Alley. At my evening performance I was so nervous, I had to take a tranquilizer before the performance. I am blind as a bat and at the time didn’t have contacts. My teacher had instructed me to walk to the bottom of the stairs and then remove my glasses before stepping onto the stage. Well, I ended up distracted by a waiter speaking in Greek to me and forgot. So when I’m onstage, I can see my teacher standing with her arms crossed on her chest and a look of dismay on her face! And I think, oh no, a boob has fallen out! But fortunately that was not it. It was because my glasses were still on. So I stopped, took them off, and handed them to her. And I got a huge round of applause for the comedic effect and that hooked me right then and there.
Alessandra: What teachers and dancers have had the biggest influence on your career?Zaphara: The biggest influence has been Shamiran Pick, from Iran, who was my first teacher. Here in the States, I would say Badawia. She was a fiery dancer with great technique. Between her intensity and her beauty, you couldn’t take your eyes off her. I’ve also gone to Egypt twice and I was able to study with Mahmoud Reda and Nagwa Fouad. On my first trip to Egypt, the National TV show 20/20 followed us around for a week, filming everything we did, and it was like being in a movie. I saw Fifi Abdo’s and Nagwa Fouad’s full show which was a great learning experience,. We had the opportunity to learn the basics with them. We also went to the pyramids and did a show with live music for a group of dignitaries. During the trip, I was in a competition at the Sheraton Hotel using Nagwa’s band which had 18 musicians. The drummer asked me what I wanted before I went on and I said whatever you like, not telling him that I didn’t know the names of any of the songs I’ve been dancing to. But the band was so good, that it was just plain easy to dance to, it was as if I had been dancing with them for years. I came in third place, as voted by 12 judges that included Nagwa Fouad, Sohair Zaki, Fifi Abdo, Mahmoud Reda, Egypt’s Minister of Culture, and other celebs.
The other very important influences in my career are the musicians that I’ve worked with throughout the years. Takis Dotis (Grecian Sounds Band), David Saee (Persian, keyboard), Mohamad Meri (Lebanon, oud), Imad Fata (Lebanon, oud), and various drummers including Omar Batiste and The M. B. Orchestra, are some who have had the most impact as I have danced with them for years. I also need to include The Red Elvises. They are a world rock touring group, and for the last 12 years, some members of my troupe and I perform with them yearly when they are in the northwest.
Alessandra: You’ve been in the business for some time now. What are the biggest changes you’ve seen with belly dance as an art form and as a profession?
Zaphara: The dance itself is evolving. Different steps have been added, mixing in modern dance steps that never had anything to do with belly dance. Of course, there’s the big influence of the American tribal style. Personally, I don’t care for these types of fusions. When I watch it, I’m not sure if it’s supposed to be belly dance or modern dance or a parody. Sometimes dancers take tribal, then Spanish, then something else, and then they put it all together. Sometimes the result looks like a hodge podge of style and steps. My opinion of what is “right” and “correct” is to dance it authentically. When I perform, I want it to be an authentic representation, so I don’t blend other types of dancing to my belly dancing.
Frequently, when watching dancers perform, I think where are the finger cymbals? And some of the shimmies? I hear lots of comments at festivals and shows about this subject. Why are they missing? Because it is a lot of work to learn. You are learning to play an instrument! As far as shimmies, there seems to be more locks and accents than shimmies. Why? Because it’s a lot of work! Many instructors are not teaching finger cymbals or the authentic shimmies, and things evolve. I feel that it is part of the “belly dance” experience that audiences love; the whole package, along with your interpretation of the music, your personality, stage presence, costume, and entertainment value.
Another change is that the costume has also evolved to a tighter, more “Las Vegas” style look, almost like a two piece evening dress. Not to say it’s bad, and the new look is gorgeous. Again, personally, I prefer the traditional look of a bra, belt, and flowing skirt, as I feel it elicits a better response from the audience, especially when dancing for the Arab community. Overall, a dancer and her costume should be sensual, not sexual. The show a dancer is putting on should be for both men and women, and shouldn’t be in your face.
Lastly, a big change is that there’s really no nightclubs anymore. Dancers have had to find other venues, such as restaurants, which in turn creates more problems with dancers dancing for free, or undercutting. Not that I would say this is a something new, but it’s evolved more because there is no place to dance. The clubs would have one featured dancer who would perform for months or even years . In Seattle, it was predominately Delilah and myself.
Alessandra: The topic of pay has been a hot button issue in the belly dance community lately, and certain Seattle belly dancers have recently started a guild to promote fair pay. What do you think dancers can do to advocate for themselves and increase their compensation?
Zaphara: It’s the same old, same old problem. It’s hard because you’re dealing with a group of women and a creative art form that has a lot of competition. The guild is a good idea, but I have to say that I don’t think it will work because there will always be someone who won’t follow suite. There should be a standard, but that’s never been able to be held up. Plus, you add in the fact that the owners of the restaurants are cheap! They’re going to try to get whatever they can for the least amount of money. Profit is their motive. Not too many dancers will confront an owner. I remember asking for a raise for all the dancers at a Greek restaurant (not in business any more). The owner went ballistic, saying he would put in Spanish dancing instead. He was so upset about my asking that he stopped the dancing a few months later. Of course, business really suffered, and then months later he called and wanted to restart the dancing with a $20 pay cut, but no go! He finally started again at the same rate. However, it was too late and he is now out of business.
For the model to really work, the reputation of the restaurant’s food, the atmosphere, and the dancer all have to come together and be of high quality to make the business run. I’ve been in clubs where there is a perfect mix; the owner feeds off the dancer and musicians, and vice versa. In my career, I’ve done okay because I’ve had something to offer, and I think that’s the key. The dancer has to help bring in business . You can’t just ask for $X amount of money. You have to bring something to the table as well. Rebecca, (the Fabulous), a former student of mine who books dancers at local restaurants, and I have been pretty good at holding the line with some of the current restaurant owners, but we’ve had to pull teeth to get raises!
That concludes part one of our interview. Check back next week for part two, including some wild stories on performing and her advice to other dancers!