INTERVIEW WITH ALIA!
I first saw Alia dance at JeBon, a restaurant in NYC, a couple of years ago. I was completely captivated. Alia has a really special way of drawing her audience in and mesmerizing them with even the smallest movement. Everything she does is so smooth! She is a dance veteran and a former student of Ibrahim Farrah. She has also been inspired by Elena Lentini, Dunya McPherson, Azza Sherif, Tamalyn Dallal, and Leila Farid. Alia is an accomplished dancer and teacher who has danced on three continents, in six countries, and fifteen states.
Alia is also the creator of a cool concept/ online motivational tool called the 90 Day Dance Party Challenge. When I found out about it, I jumped at the opportunity to participate. In this challenge, Alia asks you to dance for 20 minutes everyday, to any type of music. She sends the most amazing prompts and inspiration ( or love notes as she calls them 🙂 ) your way to get you going. My favorite part was getting the love notes, it is so apparent how much time and thought Alia puts into each one.
Being a part of the dance challenge, and seeing Alia dance, sparked my curiosity. I wanted to learn more about her, and luckily I got the chance!
Listen to Alia’s interview above and read along below, where you’ll also find links to some of the things she talks about AND… Listen to her playlist :D.
TBB: So how did you get started in bellydance?
AT: Well, I’m Lebanese, Syrian, Palestinian…that whole area on my fathers side, but my family didn’t really dance, and then one day there was a gal down the street giving lessons, and I thought, “That would be cultural! and sexy!” I went to her classes, we’re still friends actually, this was a long time ago. She got tired of it and she said, well you guys can go to the class I go to if you want to keep going, and the class that she went to turned out to be Ibrahim Farrah’s professional level class, so it was in the deep end…
TBB: Yea, I mean that’s amazing, I read that on your bio, on your site, that it was his class. What was it like to take class with him?
AT: You know, it was great, he really was an excellent teacher, and I went quite often, because I was a teenager and I really didn’t have anything else to do, and I had a job, so I had money. So I went a couple times a week, and no matter how many times I went we did something different every single time. At that time in his career, he didn’t teach any, at least not in class, he didn’t teach choreography. We did combinations, like little snippets of things, we did stuff across the floor, we followed him while he improvised. And you learn very fast, you just get so much stuff so fast.
TBB: Like instant immersion…
AT: Yea, so it was great, and it wasn’t, I had no idea because I hadn’t been to a lot of other classes, it wasn’t until several years later, that I realized what a good education I had had, it was like luck.
So, do you use that in your 90 Day Dance Party Challenge, which I did by the way, and I loved! It was so great, but it’s a lot about improvising…
AT: Yea, ‘cause, the 90 day challenge is really based in dancemeditation™. Dancemeditation™ is very, it’s kind of an internal practice, because you kind of shut your eyes, and go inside and just listen to your body and let it do whatever, and Bobby (Ibrahim’s) classes, they were professional performers classes, so they were like ……. you know they were more outwardly directed, and you got a lot of stage craft and the quality of presentation that you need for performance, so they’re two …
TBB: Different things ?
AT: They’re two sides of the same coin, kind of, I think.
TBB: Yea, okay, I can see that… So how did you start your 90 Day Dance Party Challenge? I really want to know that, how you came up with the idea…
AT: Okay, I was…complaining. I was complaining to my acupuncturist, and I complained for like a half an hour and he just sort of let me whine. Finally I heard myself say, “The only important thing is art.” And I went “Oh,” okay, if the only important thing is art, then you know, what art thing am I going to do, in that case? And I had the year before, I had done 45 days just for myself, and I was posting everyday on Facebook, the music that I used. So that was my accountability, was to post everyday what I had done and what music that I had used. So then well I already did that , and I did it it because I wanted to develop a regular practice. I wanted to dance everyday, because I’m really lazy…
TBB: It’s hard to do that
AT: It really is hard! It’s ridiculously hard! So I had heard that it takes 21 days to get a new habit in place, so I doubled that to be on the safe side and I added a couple of days and that was 45. So I did that, and it was really an outstanding experience. So many things just happened, and my only rule was 20 minutes, dance for 20 minutes. And I have done a lot of dance- meditation™ so I was doing a lot of breathing in time with the music and using a lot of those principles anyways. But, then after that was finished I just didn’t dance. So it was like – “Okay that’s finished” – and I didn’t dance for weeks and stuff. So then when I was whining to the acupuncturist, I was like – “Okay – well I did that, so I can’t just do that again.” So I gotta up the ante, so I decided to double it, and do 90 days. And I thought well how am I going to be accountable, you know I already did the posting on Facebook thing. So I said, well, I know – I’ll invite people to do it with me, and I’ll send them a little note everyday.
TBB: Which I love!
AT: Thank you! I totally thought those little notes were going to be a paragraph – “Yea we’re doing this! awesome! woo hoo! yay team!” And then they just started turning into these thousand word epics and at some point I was like these are too long, I wouldn’t read these if I was getting them.
TBB: I read all of them – they’re so great, they’re so insightful!
AT: Thank you!
TBB: And you feel such a connection I think!
AT: And I wrote them fresh every day, and sometimes I was up until three o’clock in the morning, like , oh no I gotta write my love note.
TBB: Well we felt loved !
TBB: So it was a success!
AT: I’m so glad you liked it, and it was really an outstanding experience for me it was just this huge thing to have done and that so many people were into it and followed it and really liked the whole idea and everything. That was kind of life changing, for me anyways.
TBB: So I need to know this question too, that kind of goes along with your dance thing , What is your favorite song to dance to? If you had to pick one?
AT: There are so many though..
TBB: or three, your top three?
AT: My top three… um… gosh… that’s such a hard question…
TBB: I know it’s a really hard question!
AT: Okay, I’m gonna pick a genre , Roman, that slow heavy Roman music, I like dancing to that, I’m not gonna pick a song out of that though…
TBB: Can you pick an artist?
TBB: I know I’m really putting you on the spot!
AT: You are ! And I know you put that in the thing – I’m like how the heck am I gonna answer that question?
TBB: You know why ‘cause i want people to be able to listen to the same music that you like so they can get an idea of what you like and your style.
AT: Well, I like the song, the Fatme Serhan version of the song Tahtil Shibbak. And what’s another song that I like ???
TBB: I know theres millions that you like…
AT: I know there’s millions of songs that I like! I love Mercan Dede as an artist and that’s not Arabic, and I love Leila’s orchestra (referring to belly dancer Leila), the Safaa Farid orchestra. I mean once you get me started, I’ll just keep naming things that I like, because I have a really, I have very eclectic taste, so I like a lot of different kinds of music, and I like a lot of different.. a whole lot of different things.
[spotify id=”spotify:user:1272124796:playlist:0F9AL2TBHgcyG4XwRakWp0″ width=”300″ height=”80″ /]
TBB: Which by the way was one of the things I loved about your dance party challenge, how you said dance to any type of music.
AT: Yea, ‘cause really if you’re gonna do that you have to have a lot of freedom.
TBB: So that’s good! That’s good for music, thank you! I know that’s a tough one! So getting back to writing, you’ve written a book, right?
AT: I’m writing a book.
TBB: You’re writing a book, okay. So the book is called, “Midnight at the Crossroads: Has Belly Dance Sold It’s Soul?” which is a really interesting title.
TBB: I’m intrigued! It’s very intriguing! So will it give the book away if I ask the question – do you think belly dance has sold it’s soul?
AT: It won’t give the book away. And I think that it’s sort of… there’s a degree of hanging in the balance I guess, right now. There’s a lot of … and this has been true to a degree for a long time, but I think it’s more now. There’s a lot of emphasis on the external elements of the dance. You know, spectacle, precision, beauty, athleticism, and that kind of stuff, does that make sense?
Where what I think is really important about this dance, is the stuff that’s on the inside, the more deeper things, the element of the connection to the music, the communication of feeling, and the, the chaotic quality of the heterophony in the live music where the artists are embroidering all over the place, they never do it the same way twice, the dancers never dance a dance the same way twice, cause they’re doing what they feel in the moment.
So that part, because we have so much where we’re just looking at videos, a lot of that internal element – it’s not immediately visible when you watch a video. You can see – oh there are steps and stuff – but you can’t see necessarily on a video as well that quality of feeling and the improvisation and that it wasn’t the same. Because when you have recordings things are the same every time you look at them . But when you do it, you feel it differently every time, even if you have recorded music you can feel it differently every time. And so in that context each performance becomes this remarkable unique thing that’s never happened before and will never happen again. You have this special connection. So to me that’s the important part of the dance. That’s the part that’s sort of been getting short shrift.
TBB: So how do you think you can be more connected to the music? How can one improve in that way?
AT: Well, you practice; and it’s funny, because we’re used to thinking of practice in terms of working on our technique and having ever more complicated combinations, and ever more absolutely perfect movement. A lot of that to me is an incursion of people’s Western dance training, where in ballet things are very specific and very precise, but in oriental dance they aren’t.They have a lot of whoowahh because it depends on what’s happening in the music, if that makes sense. So the music is going to be different every time. So your movement: the size, the shape, the speed is going to be different every time . And I’m getting off the topic of your actual question.
So the question is how do you get better at that stuff? You practice that stuff! Instead of practicing a platonic ideal of perfection, you practice instead, a much messier and looser of…letting the music come in through your ears and out through your body, and it’s riskier, so it’s a little more scary. And sometimes you’re not gonna be totally pretty in everything. It’s going to take practice before you get good at that skill, because it’s a skill, like every other skill. So you have to be willing to be a beginner again and maybe not look perfect all the time. I’m taking a cartooning class, and I started learning to draw with a brush and ink ,and I’m like , “This is gonna suck!!!! “ And I said, you know what, you know the saying: you can’t get an omelet without breaking some eggs?
TBB: yea, yea…
AT: It’s like that, okay i’m gonna draw a lot of really crappy drawings that are gonna be really splotchy and crappy and that’s the only way to get to drawing good drawings – so fine, I’m gonna draw a lot of crappy drawings. And just feeling like it’s okay to draw crappy drawings makes it a lot easier to draw good drawings.
So the more you just chill out in your own head, and give yourself permission to flop around and not be doing stuff that’s exact, the easier it’s going to be. That being said, all these dancemeditation™ things that I was posting, I need to do a shoutout right now – Dunya Mcpherson – who is the originator of Dancemeditation™ – dancemeditation.org. This all comes from her, she is a brilliant, just remarkable teacher and if that’s what you want to learn then it’s worth following her because that’s what she does. I could do stuff, I could do a lot of stuff before I started learning from her, but what I got from her enabled me to enter a zone with much more ease and consistency. So a lot of the strategies of hers that I’ve posted, like breathing in time to the music, the slow movement, the low space, all of those kinds of things. Those are the kinds of things that you practice when you want to learn to move intuitively without thought. Because that’s the whole thing, is you have to turn off that thinking brain.
TBB: That’s so hard to do.
AT: Yea it is hard to do, and you know it when you’ve done it I’m sure, periodically, you’re like, “What did I just do? I don’t know!”
TBB: Or you leave the stage, and you’re like, “I don’t know what just happened!”
AT: Yes! And those are the best times!
TBB: So when you were studying with [Dunya] is that when you made the realization that…or when you felt most confident, like you could let go and you could be free on stage or did you feel like that before?
AT: I could do it before, but I couldn’t do it consistently and it was really frustrating. Sometimes I would be okay and sometimes I wouldn’t. I would get really thrown sometimes by what I interpreted as weird energy from the audience, and I realized after a while that some of that weird energy was just people – like dancers are a terrible audience you know – they’re all like – “what is she wearing? is that blue or green?” And they’re squinting at you. So sometimes the sense of critical energy is just people looking hard. But if you don’t know that you’re like,“Oh my God, they hate me! I suck!”
TBB: Yea – I can see that, that makes a lot of sense.
AT: And I’ve danced sometimes in a very dramatic and theatrical way, so sometimes people aren’t used to that and they really are looking at me like what the hell is she doing?
TBB: No! I’ve seen you dance and your’e amazing! Everything you try to teach about connecting and emoting is exactly what you do. And I hope I can be like that one day!
TBB : So what’s the most difficult challenge that you’ve had to overcome as a dancer?
AT: I live in the sticks. I live in Vermont. So there’s not a lot of dance here. I’ve been here for a long time. There’s just not a lot of people and there’s not a lot of money, so there’s not a lot of audience. It really helps me if I have to dance. Like when I have classes that I have to teach, that helps me a lot, because I have to do something and show up. So that’s hard to get here and that’s why I’ve been making such a big investment in the internet, and teaching online and doing all the stuff that I’ve been doing, because I need to have that accountability. So that lack of a lot of venues and opportunity to dance regularly is probably the most difficult thing for me. Like you live in a big city, and there’s not that much opportunity for anybody, because there’s a lot of dancers and there’s not a lot of venues, but there’s a bit more opportunity.
TBB: Okay – so this is the last question – I swear!
What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever gotten? And if you could give us a piece of advice, you know, people that read the blog, what piece of advice would you give?
AT: Jees, that’s hard too, because I have gotten a couple of really great pieces of advice. One really super good piece of advice I got, was from Jajouka (a dancer in Ibrahim’s company), and she just came up to me in class and said – every time you start to feel the music, your shoulders go up. That was a really important piece of information, because it’s so interesting, and I think a lot of us have this tendency, because most of us are women, and as women we’ve all kind of been shamed just for being female human beings and having bodies and breasts and what not. All anybody has to do is just point at you, and you’re like, “oh god, I should just die here, haha”. And you know that made me remember too, back when I was a teenager in Bobby’s (Ibrahim’s) class he said to me, “You know you would be a really great dancer if you would just keep your shoulders down.” So it wasn’t like no one had told me that before, it didn’t sink in enough I guess.
So that made me really start to focus, and it took years and years and years, but it made me start to focus on my posture, and this opening here (motions to front of chest under collar bones), it’s not the whole lift your chest, it’s like open and release your chest and finding these places that are more relaxed and open and welcoming. Because you send a double message to the audience like – come to me, no go away. When you’re doing that on purpose is one thing, but when you’e sending it and you’re unaware of it, it’s just a roadblock, so I spent a lot of time working on my posture.
TBB: Posture is pretty key. I was told to take ballet to improve my posture , so I need to do that…
AT: I was probably told that too and I never did it.
TBB: Hahaha …it’s on my list ..
AT: I’ve also found that when I’m physically and psychologically healthier my posture improves all by itself .
TBB: So is that the advice that you would give us?
AT: No, that was my advice – not everybody has crap posture! I had no dance training before I started this. None at all. So I just didn’t have any of that kind of thing.
I think my advice is, it’s kind of two-fold. Half of it is, focus on the feeling, the feelings that you get from the music, listen to the music and let it awaken your emotions and feel what’s in the music, because there’s a lot in there and that the feeling is the most important thing. So that’s the first half of it.
And then, to give yourself permission to have complete and utter confidence in your body, to then express those feelings and convey them to the audience, because this dance is about you feeling, showing the audience how you feel from the music, the feelings that you get from the music. So and it’s not like… you can’t be sad onstage, you can’t bring your outside stuff on stage, like you had a crap day, you don’t bring that on stage, that stays off the stage. If there’s sorrow in the music and grief in the music, and again, you’re not making a big deal of that necessarily, you’re expressing to the audience, you know there’s this sadness here, and you’re letting them feel those feelings, you’re like the sign language person for the music so that they also can feel the feelings.
TBB: Thank you! That was such a great piece of advice – I love that! Thank you Alia! This is so amazing – I’m so excited to have it on the blog!
AT: Thank you, I’m really excited too! It was a pleasure to be here and talk to you this evening, I’ll see you again soon!
WHAT’S COMING UP FOR ALIA
Sign up for Alia’s online composition Intensive for Improv and Choreography: How to Create Dance Art http://aliathabit.com/for-dancers/create-dance-art/
September 4-7: Alia is teaching at Las Vegas Belly Dance Intensive: How to Create Kick-ass Choreographie — Without Steps
September 26th-28th Alia presents at the Safar Conference in Vancouver CA: Different Every Time Chaos, the Blues and Oriental Dance
October 11th Lebanon, NH: How to improvise to live music. With special guest musicians Mike Gregian (Doumbek), Costa (Oud) and Hagop (Keyboard). a rare treat in the Upper Valley! $150 in-person, limited to 15 participants ( as of 7/13 only 7 spots left!)
7:00 P.M.: Special performance with participants, Alia, Mike, Costa and Hagop. Tickets $20 each. Only 25 seats available.