While it can be difficult for an eastern-bred tradition to gain traction in a predominately western-oriented culture, the art of belly dance has thrived in the United States, experiencing a recent surge in popularity due to its widespread acceptance into the fitness community, where variations of the dance have found their way into the workout routines and regimens of fitness studios, personal trainers and celebrities.
Not only is belly dance performer/instructor Kira LaFave well versed in the sensuous arts of Middle Eastern belly dance, but her travels abroad to Egypt, where the popular dance custom originated centuries ago, gave her an intimate cultural insight into the tradition. With hip movements as exact as any handmade Swiss timepiece, and polished arm-work so smooth it would make a serpent blush, the Rochester, New York native is one of the most sought-after performers throughout Ohio, routinely drawing throngs of belly dance enthusiasts as far as Cincinnati and Columbus to her community-driven Kira’s Oasis dance studio in Centerville.
As an American woman practicing an ancient dance that originated from the other side of the globe, immersing herself within the fabric of a seemingly otherworldly set of laws and customs – both written and unwritten – became a exciting, but sometimes harrowing adventure. [NOTE: The author was surprised to discover that Mrs. LaFave was not of middle-eastern descent.] Her respect for the culture, and the women who practice it, however, has garnered this middle-aged mother of three an unprecedented amount of respect from her peers – both inside and outside of the Western hemisphere.
For the last twelve years, LaFavre’s life has been one of movement – a vibrant undulation of rhythmic cycles, not unlike the hypnotizing agitations witnessed at one of her public haflas. The one-time “overweight and overwhelmed” former corporate meeting planner has traveled the world over, from California to Cairo – as both student and teacher – in an unyielding quest to perfect her craft, share her gifts of infectious and unfettered joyfulness, and to pass on the knowledge of the art to a new generation of eager women.
On March 16, LaFave brings that knowledge and her considerable talents to the stage for the upcoming Dirty Little Secrets variety show at Wiley’s night club. DaytonMostMetro.com recently talked with the stunningly beautiful Kira LaFave about her life of dance, her love of the culture, and a few of the misconceptions surrounding the artistry and artisans of belly dance.
DMM: How were you introduced to belly dance?
KL: I went to the Renaissance Festival back in 1998, and I saw Laylai who is a belly dancer from Columbus. I sat in the front row while she was dancing to all of these rhythms. It was magnificent! She danced to all this fantastic music, and then she put her sword on her chin and she dropped on the stage with her legs folded underneath her…she hung her shoulders off the stage with her sword on her head and looked at me with her head upside down. I fell on the floor. It knocked me right off my chair! [Laughs.] So I started pursuing it.
I have studied with every teacher in this entire area, Laylia, Deniz, Nadeja, and many others. I danced in a show that Deniz and I co-sponsored when someone asked me to teach them because they liked my style. I was stunned by this request but began working on the dance from the standpoint of teaching and started about a year later, after I felt I had some competency to actually teach it. I had been dancing over 3 years by then before I started teaching.
DMM: Did you have a dance or fitness background prior to that experience?
KL: I didn’t actually! I had a meeting planning background, and I did that for a few different companies. I stopped my career several years ago to raise my family. I really just picked this up when I ran across Laylai because it looked like so much fun. [The dancing] was beautiful and I had never seen anything like that! I found her very inspiring. I initially just picked it up from a hobby standpoint before I began teaching it.
DMM: What inspired your trip to Egypt?
KL: I’ve been to Egypt twice. I wanted to study the culture in addition to the dance. Once I started being in the dance scene long enough, it started to make sense to me that I really should be taking the culture that it belongs to seriously. It’s okay to be an American belly dancer…but ultimately this doesn’t belong to us. It belongs to the women of the Middle East. So, as I became a more seasoned dancer, I began to take that more seriously.
DMM: Describe music that you dance to, and how does it make you feel while performing to it?
KL: Middle-eastern music is really written for inspiring your emotions. They’re very passionate people and I love their music! They like to change the tempo – they go from fast to slow…from sad to happy. They really like to yank your emotions around with their music! It’s written expressively for this purpose. Their drum rhythms are the focus of their music. Their dancing to a rhythm pattern – and there are many rhythm patterns across the Middle East. Hundreds! A lot of the patterns actually define cultural regions, like Persia and Lebanon. [There are] desert rhythms that no one ever hears unless you travel out there. It’s an incredibly huge art form! There’s a myriad of hip movements and foot patterns that go with these rhythms.
The rhythm patterns actually repeat like a sentence. A seasoned dancer will listen to that and read the rhythms, the violins and vocals and respond to that. The vocal attaches to your soul, the rhythm is going to attach to your hip, while the violin is attaching to your heart area. Typically, you might respond to violin with upper body, and the lower body to rhythm patterns. It’s incredibly emotional. The “job” of a Belly Dancer is to be the visual representation of the music being played – ALL the instruments, like her body is one of them, the instrument being seen with the eye.
DMM: I’m assuming that a lot of women are attracted to belly dancing as a way to get physically fit. Can you discuss a few of the physical benefits?
KL: Like anything, you’re going to benefit more the more you do it. When I was introduced to belly dance, I had just got the last of my three children into school. I had driven them all around for all those years, eating fast foods and such…before I knew it I gained 35 pounds!
When I started belly dancing, I was doing it a lot – just because I loved it! I never stuck with anything before. Step aerobics in the gym? Blech! [Laughs.] It was boring! Anyone that wants to stick with it, spend some time with it…it can be as beneficial as any other form of exercise. I had surgery in December and afterward the doctor said, “Kudos to belly dance, Kira!” She told me that the muscle fibers on the inside of my abs were tight and densely packed. That meant that I had real strength in my abdominal muscles – not just the “washboard ab” look so popular in our culture. That’s what belly dance does. You’re working the core of your body from the inside out. It’s an amazing exercise that’s similar to Pilates.
A lot of exercise just works the top layer [of muscle], and you get that ‘washboard’ look that is so popular here in the US. It is “our” style and we are entitled to it. But, much of the Middle East is still Third World and being as thin as we want our models to be on our magazine covers looks like poverty. To me, it is so much better for a woman to be soft on the surface and strong underneath. Belly Dance builds strength deep inside the body and you can tell when you watch a dancer if she has it.
But I can see the psychological effects belly dance has had on my students. Some women walk in slouching a bit, head down, maybe they’ve put on a few pounds…and after a few months they are like this! [Stands erect, with head straight.] It’s a magical experience that builds poise, strength and confidence. It awakens creativity. It certainly did for me. I create all of my own costumes and I never sewed a stitch before doing this!
DMM: Speaking of the costume? What most of us Westerners see on a belly dancer here – Is that traditional dress for the women over there who practice the art?
KL: The women in the Middle East are very modest. Most of their costumes were originally a dress…and they would take a scarf and tie it around the hips so that the hip movements would be seen. But the whole body would be covered. Somewhere along the line – and the historical accuracy of this sort of thing gets very blurry – this ‘bra and belt’ costume happened. And Hollywood created it! However, the Middle East discovered that Americans liked that, and they started making that style of fashion and shipping them here. But that really is a ‘Hollywood’ thing – the ‘bra and belt’ look. We created it, but they adopted it and sold it back to us.
DMM: You’ve studied in France, New Zealand, England, Egypt…all over the globe. What was one of your more memorable experiences performing abroad?
KL: I danced in a club one time over in Egypt, and it was only by accident because my husband took me there. That was the only way I could get in and see dancing in a club because he took me. They even gave my taxi driver an argument at the door about letting me in because I was an American dancer. It was a tiny club well off the beaten path of Cairo.
At first they put me in the back. They wouldn’t let me anywhere near the stage. After a while, they saw that I was clapping and I knew the rhythms – so they moved me up a little closer to the front. After watching me more they figured that I must really know the music. When the dancers took a break, they asked me to come up on stage. I was terrified! I wouldn’t turn and look at the audience. I danced to just the band. But that was a very unusual thing over there. For us over here, it’s rare that we have live musicians. I’d never danced to live musicians before so I danced to each musician reflecting the music they were playing. The last guy on the end was the drummer. By the time I finished dancing to his playing, he stood up from his chair, then got on his knees and started clapping! [Laughs.] All the dancers who worked there had been treating the musicians like they were not even there – like that live band was nothing more than a CD player. I was THRILLED for the opportunity to dance to what they were playing.
I thanked them nicely, and I went to turn around to exit because my heart was pounding! But the singer headed me off…he stopped me and he physically backed me up. I looked over to my taxi driver to see if this was acceptable. I wasn’t sure if I should stay or go! He started yelling, “Yalla! Yalla!” (“Let’s go!” in Arabic) so I stayed and danced and started facing the audience. I looked back over to my driver for some kind of cultural cues. The singer had stepped aside and I was dancing facing the audience. I began to make my way dancing around the perimeter of the stage but as I was headed toward the far side of the stage, the taxi driver started to yell at me to not go on that side. Apparently there was a fellow over there, a frequent customer, they all new well as an unseemly character and the singer and taxi driver did not want me to dance over there near him out of respect for me! Amazing!
It was one of the most magical experiences I ever had. But also terrifying. I was literally trembling!
DMM: What’s one of the biggest misconceptions about the art form?
KL: That we provide entertainment by taking our costumes off. Not true! There are dancers in strip clubs that like the dance movements and take them from us, and that’s fine. In the end it’s still just dance. That’s absolutely not a part of middle eastern dance. Anybody can take dance moves and decide that they’re gonna strip with them. But it is not what our art form is about, and it is a misnomer.
Some of it is attributed to the fact that, in the Middle East it used to be -and in some places still is – how a dancer makes their money. You may have seen the tradition where they fan the money over the dancer’s head and it falls all over the floor. Or sometimes the maitre’ d collects all the money from the tables, staples it into a necklace and puts it over the dancer’s neck. In some cases, the dancer may allow money to be placed on her costume – but never here [points to her chest.] That’s the only way some women get paid over there. Over here, dancers that get money placed on their bodies are strippers. So when Americans see that, there can be some confusion.
DMM: Lastly Kira, what can we expect from your performance at the Dirty Little Secrets show? (Kira will be performing a solo set, in addition to a collaborative piece with Geborah – a hip-hop dancer making her second appearance at the showcase.)
KL: Geborah and I are going to combine our abilities. We’re going to take a fusion-sounding piece and display how she would dance to it, and how I would dance to it…and kind of blend with each other. And then for my performance, I’ll say that most of the audience at the show will not have ever seen anything like this! [Laughs.] Most people are not familiar with what belly dancing really is. So that will be exciting!