Monday, May 2, 2016

Interview with Suzanna

Photo Credit: Picture Groove (Sarah Lyons)

The Introduction
Suzanna enjoys a career of performing, teaching, and event production. She is a cross-disciplinary dancer with training in Middle Eastern, African, jazz, ballet, contemporary, lyrical, Latin, and hip hop, and a founding member with Forge Dance Theatre. Eventually, belly dance became her ultimate passion, and for the past 14 years she has performed professionally in hundreds of venues, from full scale productions to intimate dinner shows, while training students of all levels since 2004. Still her outlook remains global. Traveling to Africa, Europe, and Brazil, and always finding ways to connect across styles, cultures, and communities, she considers world dance and music a medium to peace and understanding that transcends dialogue. With a professional degree in theatre, Suzanna also designs award winning multicultural entertainment featured in local and international media, such as the touring talent show "Belly Dance Off"

To learn more about Suzanna, you can visit her website.

You can also purchase tickets to the next Belly Dance Off, which is being held in Seattle on Sunday, May 22nd.

The Interview
Suzanna and I met at a coffee shop on a rainy Sunday afternoon in Seattle. As Suzanna sat down at the table, she mentioned that she was feeling nervous, and I couldn't help but think, how adorable. This woman who dances and MCs in front of hundreds of people with so much poise and polish was actually nervous to be asked a few questions by me and my little blog. But then I reckoned back to something that I once heard Sadie say: nerves are a sign that you care. And then I thought, yes, that fits the bill. That's why Suzanna was recently publicly recognized by Seattle's belly dance community; because she cares. And this caring comes shining through in her actions and efforts to elevate her own dance and that of others in this shared dance community. Let's see how she does it.

Alessandra: Let's start by getting to know you a little better. How did you get started in belly dance and what dancers and teachers would you say have had the biggest influence on you? 
Suzanna: I had always been a dancer, studying ballet, jazz, modern, and eventually West African and other styles. But my belly dance career started when I was offered a lead role in a play called Shivaree, in which the character was a belly dancer. Okay, really I begged for it! I was very intrigued by the character and took classes to better play the part. My first teacher was Zarouchi, who lived in Portland, Oregon at the time. I began to realize belly dance was actually a profession one could undertake, which was so great because I was falling hopelessly in love with it! Since then there have been so many dancers and teachers over the years, both internationally and locally. Equally influential have been the artists I've collaborated with; they know who they are. Through the process of creating together, I've learned and developed so much. And then there's Fifi Abdo, who I've never had the honor of studying with, but has influenced me greatly through video. As an artist, I am inspired by everything around me: as I see patterns, I apply them to my art form.

Alessandra: You are the creator and producer of the talent competition, Belly Dance Off. What gave you the inspiration and motivation to bring this project to life?
Suzanna: After years of performing professionally yet finding myself too often performing with no light, poor audio quality, and little understanding among the audience about this dance as a performing art form, I was motivated to create an environment I myself wanted to perform in, and a better experience for the audience. I couldn't continue with the status quo. After investing too much, I felt my art form deserved more. But it was still a journey before creating Belly Dance Off to address this. My second trip to Egypt in 2008 was eventually the trigger.

Around that time, I was arriving at a realization that I wasn't satisfied with the standard path of fame and iconoclasm. I've always felt more vibrant when it's about we and not just me. And there are many, many incredible dancers throughout the world; I would just be one more. I wondered, what was my unique gift to contribute? When I graduated from college in the late nineties with a theatre degree, the dean of my school called attention to my capabilities in directing and strongly encouraged me to pursue it. But this laid dormant for years as I traveled, started a family, and pursued a Master's degree. By 2004, I began to notice an aching desire to create shows.

And so I began creating segments in other producer's shows and festivals, as well as events of my own, like World Dance Showcase. I began to discover the venue as my canvas, and the experience created within was becoming my creative passion. Finally, in 2010, I conceived and launched Belly Dance Off to expand our audiences, elevate the production environment, and advance the talent and visibility of local artists.

Audience participation in Shimmy Challenge at Belly Dance Off. The winner at this event was 10 years old!
Photo Credit: Chris Yetter

Alessandra: For other dancers who might be considering producing shows, what would you say are the top three to five components needed for ensuring a show's success? 
Suzanna: First and foremost, I think it's important to understand that dancing and producing shows are two entirely different areas of expertise. If a dancer wants to be a successful producer, she must dedicate herself to learning the many elements of event and entertainment production with the same passion as she has pursued her dance training.  My B.A. in Theatre Arts involved studying scene design, lighting, directing, method acting, production management, publicity, and so much more. I've since attended numerous workshops on audience development, media relations, fundraising, and other topics. Additionally, my Masters degree in Management, has involved training in management, business development, budgeting, writing, organizational development, and much more.

Thus, with that foundation in mind, the five components I would say are:
  1. Visualization. I sit as an observer with pen and paper and allow the show to play out before me, and I carefully document what I see. This informs your production plan and the resources, people, and venue needed.
  2. Begin with the budget and don't take on more than you're able. Project your attendance conservatively. No matter how artistically brilliant your idea might be, if the numbers don't balance, don't do it. 
  3. Focus on audience experience and not your artistic agenda. This shows up in so many ways. Artists are forever wanting the audience to understand the deeper elements of their art form. I've been one of them. But focus on what THE AUDIENCE wants, what they're hoping to experience. This means figuring out who your audience is. Are they seeking to celebrate their culture or their love of dance? Or are they venturing out into something new, fun, and different? Then you can go deeper. Audience experience also encompasses all aspects, even things you aren't responsible for, like hospitality and service. Thus your venue partnership is essential. Your audiences are your customers: if you make them happy and give them a place to belong and feel valued, they're very likely to return and bring others. But if their first experience is negative, trying to win them back is exceedingly difficult. 
  4. Don't try to do it all yourself. Provide promoting media to artists and other crew, and make it a team effort. Delegate out. Get people involved. This was a big lesson for me. It takes figuring out all the functions and moving parts. This reduces stress and enables you to be present for everyone else. When you are calm, everyone around you feels calmer, including your performers, so they can put on a fabulous show. 
  5. Know your project timelines and stay ahead of deadlines. Things will never happen when they are supposed to. People won't get back to you when they agreed to. So be prepared for this.
Alessandra: Some individuals might make the argument that competition isn't what dance should be about, as it takes the impetus off of artistic interpretation, social connection, and creative expression, and instead makes it about subjective ranking and judging of artists. What would you say to counter that argument?
Suzanna: I don't necessarily disagree and think those are valid points. As a format, competition is optimal in bringing out the best from those who participate.  Whether chess, cooking, martial arts, or the Olympics, we humans seem to respond to the suspense and urgency of competition by taking our talent and skill up to a level we would not have otherwise; achieving a new personal best, a new baseline to excel from. Competition accelerates the growth process. And the personal best you achieve is the primary benefit; not winning, which can be fairly subjective, as you say.

But actually I did not consciously set out to create a competition format anyway. There are plenty of belly dance competitions around the world and I didn't think belly dance necessarily needed another one. But as it turns out, the same suspense and urgency also engages the audience, particularly when you give them the power and responsibility to vote and help decide the outcome. I triangulated this by featuring a judges panel as part of the show; one that we see and hear feedback from after each dancer's performance. This engages the audience to consider the feedback in reference to what they see, and therefore watch more closely in order to evaluate and provide their own score. For the general public that isn't familiar with belly dance, this highlights the nuances and level of skill and talent required for a dancer to express herself effectively. Thus, audience development was my ultimate aim, and I believe that's a worthy cause that benefits us all. 

For the dancer, it functions as a live master class. The judges are careful to emphasize the dancer's qualities and strengths, so she may develop these further and cultivate what makes her unique, as well as provide areas for her to work on and tangible concepts to do that with. The active triangle and dialogue between dancers, judges, and audience members make this a very different competition. Yet, there's a fourth element that makes it even more unique: the live band and challenge for dancers to perform improvised with a focus on powerful performance and entertainment. And I haven't even mentioned the production environment! Presenting the dancer with beautiful performance lighting and in a classy, inviting environment is so important to elevating audience appreciation of our art form. It also provides an excellent photo and video opportunity for the dancer, and these are important items for her professionally. All together, Belly Dance Off is about much more than competition. 

Some dancers walk away upset at the end of the day. To them, I would say, avoid taking the ranking and winning too seriously. This is just good mental practice for the thick skin that you'll need to succeed in show business any how. You knew at the start of the show that there would only be one winner at the end of the day, so take it with a grain of salt. If you don't agree with the feedback that you were given, then prove the judges wrong. The process of training in order to do that  will be a profound growth experience that will lead to more opportunity.. And lastly, even if you didn't win, remember that the audience still loved the gift of the performance that you gave them. Oh, and don't forget the professional photos and video you now have! Sometimes this can be reward enough by itself for participating. In all everyone gains, including the audience, regardless of the results. 

Alessandra: You've had the opportunity to partner with organizations like 4Culture, Seattle Art Museum, Bellevue Arts Museum, Seattle International Dance Festival, and others. What do you think belly dancers and the belly dance community at large need to do to increase opportunities like this so that belly dance becomes more widely recognized as a valid and important component of arts and culture that should be shared, cultivated, and preserved?
Suzanna: Show up and introduce yourself, both in writing and in person. Submit proposals. Be present at community meetups, conferences, and networking events involving the larger arts scene. Submit info to the media. Engage in conversations so that you can learn to speak their language and understand the possibilities. Some ends may amount to nothing, but they can't acknowledge you if they don't know about you. In the void of your absence their biases are allowed to continue, but with persistence they'll come around over time. Like the lottery, you can't win if you don't play.

All of this is very time-consuming work, so don't expect results in the short run. Along with the small sparks of enthusiasm and receptivity, be willing to face the silence, the ignorance, or dismissiveness. Work with patience and grace, and don't allow negative responses to discourage you. I have invested enormous amounts of time into all of these things.with the broader impact hopefully being something that brings benefits beyond me. I show up as an ambassador to the art form, not just for myself. I always bring the other artists along with me, so to speak, so that I can be an access point for the art form.

I've had to endure so many ignorant and underhanded ways of describing what I do. Just like combating any other type of prejudice, come equipped with an incredible amount of grace and patience. Consider yourself a medium for education. The choice is continuing to be marginalized or creating an environment you actually want to do your art in.

Winners of Belly Dance Off 2016 Round 1 - Amy (left), Rising Star; Shiori (right), Pro
Photo Credit: Drumroll Studios

Alessandra: What advice would you give new dancers who are just getting started with belly dance and want to continue their exploration?
Suzanna: Go to shows! This is a live event experience, focused on live performances. To begin to understand the elements of what that means, you have to go to shows. Through that, you can figure out your own style, discover things you're curious about, avoid pitfalls, make new friends, and understand where you want to go with this. And if you decide you're interested in performing, you'll gather many observations on how to make your dance powerful. I would also advise learning to play zills as part of your training as soon as possible.

Alessandra: What advice would you give to dancers who are looking to take the leap from advanced student to professional?
Suzanna: What I ended up learning, through Saqra in fact, is that dancing and performing are two different tracks. You might be a totally amazing dancer by yourself with your cat in your living room. But that's a separate track and skill than performing, and you can only get good at performing by performing. So start performing as early as possible!  I spent too much time in my incubator living room before performing. If you try to become the very best dancer you can be before presenting yourself to the world, you'll find yourself very underdeveloped as a performer. Do it in parallel so that the growth weaves together.

Dance to live music as soon as possible and clear your mind of all assumptions that choreography is easier than improvisation. They are cognitively very different. They require different parts of your brain, and different ways of training. Improvisation involves interpreting the music you hear and expressing it through your dance in present time, somewhat like spontaneously dancing with joy to music in your own private living room, except way more invigorating because you're interacting with the actual musicians playing it and an adoring audience. It's really the most exciting experience ever!

Cross-train, whether that's core strength, conditioning, ballet, running, or other forms of dance and fitness. When you're a dancer, your body is your instrument, so the more strength you have the more access you have to making it do what you want to do.

Develop technique, but don't fall in love with it. Expression is far more important for the audience experience than technique.

And don't be an Elvis impersonator! When we are performing in a cultural context, it's easy to draw on the quintessential vision of an Egyptian dancer. Ironically, as Sahra Saeeda highlights, dancers in Egypt only have the possibility of making a name for themselves by showing how they're different. Get rid of that baggage in your head and be your own dancer. When you do, you'll enjoy the act of getting up and dancing so much more and so will the audience.

Photo Credit:Picture Groove (Sarah Lyons)


  1. Great interview questions! Great response! Full of useful and inspirational information that can be applied to life in general. Thank you for this!

  2. Thanks for asking that last question. My daughter's answer gave me some good advice to use for myself. (Kids nowadays!)

  3. Thanks for sharing Suzanna; so much wisdom around the art field ... and well written Alessandra. Looking forward to reading more articles!

  4. Thank you so much for sharing this great blog.Very inspiring and helpful too.Hope you continue to share more of your ideas.I will definitely love to read.
    belly dance music darbouka

  5. You know your projects stand out of the herd. There is something special about them. It seems to me all of them are really brilliant!
    Egyptian belly dance