Excerpt from Zaina Brown’s “Fire in the Belly”

The following is an excerpt from Fire In The Belly, a memoir by my friend Zaina Brown (https://www.worldofdancers.com/about-zaina.html) about the thrills and hard knocks of dancing in the Middle East and traveling solo in Africa, Asia, and Arabia. It is set to be released in January 2019 – follow on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/FireInTheBellyBook) and Instagram (https://www.instagram.com/Fire.In.The.Belly) for publications updates and more sneak peeks.

I’ve long enjoyed Zaina’s wit, humor and honesty. We’ve had some great chats over the years about dance, culture and the joys/frustrations of writing. I hope you enjoy the excerpt… and the book!

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I sat on the floor of the empty dance studio and stared into the mirror. Last time I was in Lebanon, I had been an anxious wreck. This time, I was pissed. I was supposed to be working! My agent Panos didn’t directly blame me for what happened in Bahrain, but part of me wondered what he was really thinking. I had now lost two contracts, in less than a year’s time.

I have to do something, so nobody can claim I’m not a good dancer, ever again.

I got up and started re-examining how I did my entrance. In Cairo, every star dancer had her own way of beginning the show. In the Gulf, individuality had no value. In order to pass the smell test, I had to stick to the formula. From now on, I would start spinning the moment I entered the stage. I would shimmy like Godzilla, so big and boisterous that the kitchen staff would think there was an earthquake. I would flip my hair up and down, whether the music asked for it or not, like it was a tick I couldn’t control. No nuances or subtlety, only speed and fury. Art was for later in the show – if even then.

Some years earlier, I had sat on the floor of a studio in Manhattan, just as eager to better myself. The bellydance class had just ended, leaving the air steamy with body heat. Flamenco dancers battered the ceiling from the studio above, and car horns chimed in from the rowdy Eighth Avenue below. The dilapidated building hummed with history. If you squinted, you could see the footsteps of Ginger Rogers, Fred Astaire, and countless other greats on the creaky, wooden floors.

“Stop rushing.”

I waited for further explanation as my teacher, a portly Egyptian man in his fifties, lit a cigarette. He had the appearance of a blue-collar professional – an electrician, or maybe a janitor – and the accent of a bodega clerk. In reality, he was a renowned bellydance instructor, who packed rooms with hundreds of adoring hipscarf-clad women around Asia, Europe, and South America. When he wasn’t touring, he taught five weekly classes in these time-worn studios. I took every single class. He was the reason I had come to New York, and a big part of why I stayed. I often referred to him as my guru, and I was only half joking. As I sat on the floor, at his feet, I didn’t care if the world went up in flames.

He continued to speak, his words slowly framing the image in his mind, yielding to the drags from the cigarette.

“You know that woman on the street…that everyone turns to look at? She may not be the most beautiful one…but there’s something in the way she walks. She draws all the attention.”

He paused to gauge if I was following.

“And she’s not rushing.”

I nodded in understanding.

“That’s how I want you to dance.”

Maybe I can’t.

Minutes ago, I had been dancing a choreography with twenty other women, in my usual front row spot, joyful and confident. But these moments of truth, however constructive, had a way of stripping me bare and defenseless.

This dance is all I want.

I was disappearing between the floor planks like a loose, cracked crystal from Ginger’s tap shoe. My throat constricted. I picked chunks of dust from the soles of my pink ballet slippers.

“What’s wrong?”


“Nothing,” I said without lifting my eyes.

His tone softened.

“When you dance…you really have to love yourself. Everything about yourself.”


In Memory of Millie

IMG_20170221_195619_509This is not a bellydance post. This is about a little dog named Millie.

On Friday May 12th, we let our sweet Millie go. She woke up to Pete and I staring at her (we barely slept so we could savor her last bit of time with us). We gave her a breakfast of freshly cooked burger and then took her to a nature preserve for a final walk before heading to Smith Ridge Veterinary Center. She was happy and walked better than she had in days…weeks even. We felt the horrible pangs of, “should we do this today?” Millie had mast cell cancer. We had, over the years, treated her tumors in every possible way (except for the several thousands of dollars daily IV chemo treatment option). We had her on supplements and medication which worked well for a while, then she underwent surgery for a full tumorectomy, then a cryosurgery, then an oral chemotherapy and then another oral chemotherapy. We were out of options.

Millie was 16 years old, highly anemic, uncomfortable from a gigantic bleeding tumor but she was still– Millie. Her energy was fading, her back legs were wonky and sometimes slid out from underneath her, she had become mostly incontinent and that tumor made it hard for her to get in the right position to sleep peacefully. We wrestled for months wondering how we would know when it was “time.” A dog that can walk and shows desire for food seemed like a dog that was worth fighting for, but we began to realize and accept that she was not comfortable and her day to day joy was declining. Car rides that she used to love became stressful for her, afternoons lounging in the sun became, “take me back inside.” Her life had become bandage-changing and perking up only for meals. It was time to do the right thing for her, even though she seemed willing to live through the discomfort in order to stay with us. Millie never wanted to miss a party. Her love of life was her signature brand.

The process of letting go was incredibly sad and painful, but there was also tremendous love, beauty and gratitude for all Millie had given us. Our veterinarian/good friend was amazing on the morning we said goodbye. Millie loved being at her house and hanging out with her on our vacations so there wasn’t the usual stress of seeing “the vet” in her final moments. We sat on some blankets under a tree on a beautiful Spring day, sobbing and kissing our sweet pup. We hugged and said kind words to her and to each other. When I heard the words, “She’s passed,” I kissed her head a thousand more times and tried to think thoughts for her transition to be as peaceful as possible. Her little body, wrapped in blankets, surrounded by love.

The scene is burned into my mind forever and I beat myself up over things like, was I too early? too late? what did I regret? what would I do differently? Now, I am grieving. I don’t sleep, when I eat …it’s usually crap. I stare at photos and videos and sometimes cry hysterically without warning. I have no attention span for anything that isn’t about Millie. Typical grief stuff. Today, I am trying to process and make sense out of her life and her impact on mine. Focusing on Millie’s contributions seems a fitting way to honor her, and that’s where I want to be right now.

Dogs expand our capacity to love

IMG_20150526_173134Millie was a puppy mill rescue who was full of mange and suffered poor conditions. She was later adopted by a member of our family and enjoyed being a family dog– she even had a dog BFF. Sadly, her dog BFF was killed in an accident and the family situation changed so she became “dog to single guy.” That’s when I met her, visiting friends and family throughout the US on a cross-country trip. I was immediately struck by her quirks and she slept under my bed, snoring wildly all night. Near the end of our visit, my bro-in-law said, “Wouldn’t you like to take her with you?” I did, yes. But Pete was a firm, “No.” So a day later we packed up our car to continue our trip and became dog owners (ha! I won).

Millie’s charming quirks were amusing and I loved her sincere face, but I didn’t know how to bond with a dog that wouldn’t let me pet her. She loved being near us but wasn’t fond of hands. I had never been a dog owner before but I was really looking forward to the cuddles and belly rubs and ear scratches which I could only sneak in when Millie was half asleep. This lasted for at least a year. Then, over time, she gave us the green light and learned to love affection –but it was still on her terms. This was alternately frustrating and endearing. But we accepted that this is how Millie wanted to be loved. We adapted. We enjoyed her and it was an honor earning her trust. We also learned to appreciate those snugly moments a thousand times more because we earned them.


Dogs fill a void and teach us the value of presence.

Leaving NYC and moving to the burbs, I felt like the only person around who didn’t have a house and 2.5 kids. I had shag coats and rock t-shirts when everyone around me looked like they had a professionally designed wardrobe. I bellydance for the bulk of my income and that seemed to be a conversation stopper instead of a starter. Slowly, I began to find my way, stumbled upon some pockets of great community and learned to love what my state has to offer, but I still feel very “square peg” in the suburban round hole. Millie was a true companion who was impossible to feel lonely around. She was always near me. We spent so much time together that I used to tell her, “I’m going to feel lost without you when you leave me.” There is just something about the company of a dog who is, literally, always glad to be with you.

Now that she’s gone, I realize that I need to cultivate more community. I’m an introvert so I don’t really like putting myself out there but I do need people. I already feel a creeping loneliness without my girl and once I’m healed, I will do more to feed my need for companionship.

Dogs are comic relief IMG_20161222_202344

All it took was a funny look, an aptly timed snort, unbridled enthusiasm for a tiny little treat and I smiled or laughed –even in a crappy mood. I was just telling Pete about the time I left Brooklyn at midnight, exhausted from rehearsal, and discovered the highway was closed with a non-moving wall of traffic. As I was about to spew profanity, Millie and I both turned our heads and looked at each other. She looked positively thrilled. With her doggie smile and happy half-closed eyes looking at me, it seemed like she was saying, “This is amazing. I get MORE time in the car with one of my favorite humans.”

Dogs, near the end, will love you even more.

I know that shelters are swamped with dogs that have medical conditions or simply get too old to perform in the way that people like them to. This always made me sad, that people wouldn’t honor their commitment to an animal in the best way they could. Of course, financial restrictions are very real and I wouldn’t judge anyone for being unable to spend top dollar on expensive medications or treatment. But, if people abandon their pets because it’s no longer fun or convenient, they are missing out on a deeper level of connection.

The love that a senior dog has for his/her companion is extra special and I cannot explain how or why. Millie knew Pete and I loved her. I have no doubt about that. She knew we cleaned her messes, rubbed her head to comfort her when she didn’t know why night felt like day, she knew we cared for her when she was getting weak and that we would protect her. I wouldn’t trade any of those experiences. They solidified our bond.

IMG_20170404_235235_991Millie was a dog who lived, loved, snorted, played, road-tripped and ate with gusto. I don’t know how long it takes to find joy again when a being like that leaves this earth. Pete and I are forever changed because of her.

Yesterday, Pete and I shared a moment of sadness and cried in each others arms. He suggested we go outside because it was rainbow weather. Well, the sky did not disappoint. It was the most beautiful rainbow I’ve ever seen in my life and a perfect arch. We drove to the nearby beach to admire it. Standing there, smiling and crying with Pete…under the magnificent colors, it felt like a gift. I said, very softly, so it would feel less crazy “Hi Millie.” We stayed as long as the sky performed…in spite of the chill. As I walked back to the car, a man approached us and said, “I think you’re the couple I snapped a photo of under the rainbow.” He was kind enough to share it with us. I call it Millie’s rainbow, which you’re welcome to think is a bit nuts. But I think it’s ok to be a bit nuts when your heart is hurting and you’re trying to heal. I miss my girl. I miss her terribly. If you knew her, you just might think she was capable of lighting up the sky too.


Dancer Origin Stories #3 – Tava — Grace Notes Blog

Our next installment of Dancer Origin Stories features the glorious Tava. I have hosted Tava in the past for workshops at my studio in Portland, ME and I look forward to the next opportunity to learn from her. Tava has been a professional belly dancer in New York City and the surrounding areas for over 15 years. She’s currently based in Norwalk, CT, where she brings her deep knowledge and caring attitude to her weekly classes, while continuing to perform regionally and teach workshops up and down the East coast. Now… on to Tava’s Origin Story!

via Dancer Origin Stories #3 – Tava — Grace Notes Blog

Oh, Just Leaving Pieces of My Soul

This blog post comes after my most recent experience of dancing with tears. Here’s the thing, it happens, and it’s ok.

I have cried a few times during performances. Once when my cat died and I was still healing. I put a taqsim in my set and dedicated it to my sweet fur baby. Tears flowed. Another time I ripped off my toenail during floorwork and the pain was overwhelming. But, on occasion, I get teary when the music really moves me and I’m lost in the moment of feeling everything I feel when I become a vessel for beautiful music. Now, this may not be appropriate for a high-end corporate gala when I’m hired to entertain –BUT, for a theater show or community event, is it really so wrong to show that we’re human?

I know some people feel strongly that a dancer shouldn’t express this emotion; that s/he should be “on the verge” but never cross the line. I’m not one of those people. I can recall performances where the dancer had genuine tears in her eyes and I followed suit and joined them. To me, there is something so refreshing about the authenticity and vulnerability of real emotion on stage. If I’m being honest, I see more and more faux-motion and less e-motion as people seem to want to emulate the Tarab-like expressive qualities of their favorite dancers on YouTube (ouch! too harsh??)

Nonetheless, I think the audience can generally feel it when it’s real and tears are a pretty good indicator. I’m not talking about balling or being unable to get through a performance because of an emotional release. I mean tears that are like a spice to a performance by flavoring it with sincerity.

As dancers who are sometimes hired to create ambiance or fill a room with “party vibes,” it is a gift when we are able to contribute to a show that is more about our artistry. When you have those opportunities, savor them. Seek them out and support them so others can experience the same. These are the events that drive our passion and give us outlets for our true style. Choose music that challenges you with space to pause not just music that fosters your favorite tricks (I’m not anti-flash…just like a good balance). Enjoy every moment of being true to your artistry.

In the above photos from Bellydance Night at Roxy & Dukes, I closed my set with tribute to David Bowie; an artist with a legacy of creative risks. I had been running at full pace without rest and, perhaps, a little run down. I knew when the song began I was raw and there was no hiding from it. But it turned out, it was exactly what I needed. And I’m happy to say I left a little piece of my soul on that stage.


Tava is a bellydance instructor, performer & choreographer based in NY & CT. To learn more about weekly classes, workshop bookings or events, please visit: www.BellydancebyTava.com

Live With Art: It’s Good For You

Art is about crossing boundaries, building community AND boosting the local economy. Prospective residents are attracted to areas based on their public gardens, art galleries, music scene and other avenues for creativity and culture. So, why aren’t the arts thriving across the U.S. when all signs point to its significance?
Some of the variables mentioned were time, cost, access and resistance to going alone. Well, there isn’t much artists can do about most of those things, but we still need to keep touting its’ value. We need to remind the public about the benefits of dance, music, visual art, architecture and creativity in their lives.
Since I left NYC 10 years ago and became a bigger fish in a smaller pond, I’ve worked tirelessly to instill the value of cultural dance in my community (and beyond). I began to produce events where people could see what we do and be entertained or inspired to join us. Without sponsors or much in the way of a budget, I’ve financed cultural dance events since 2002 with the hopes of breaking even. My goal was to create an experience similar to what I had in New York City — here in my own town.
Fortunately, there are many people who get it and consciously create space in their lives for art. In 2010, when the economy was pretty much toast, audiences at art events provided $74.1 billion of valuable revenue for local merchants and their communities. I suppose the million dollar question is how do we reach people who consider art to be an “optional” perk to explore when time allows? How do we override the other variables listed above?
Hey, if kale can surge in popularity because of it’s benefits, art can too. It’s a much easier sell. Here’s why:
1. Participating in the arts increases well-being as measured by life evaluation, emotional health, work environment, physical health, healthy behaviors. https://www.arts.gov/art-works/2012/hidden-benefits-participating-arts
2. If you’re interested in art, turns out you may be more altruistic, tolerant and racially tolerant. Doesn’t that sound nice? http://news.uic.edu/interest-in-arts-predicts-social-responsibility-study

3. It’s good for the local economy. “Arts and culture contribute to local andregional economies, generating jobs and spending, attracting tourists, and making places attractive to businesses and their employees.” https://www.giarts.org/sites/default/files/public-benefits-value-of-arts-culture.pdf

4. Dance, specifically, improves cognitive functioning and pours awesome sauce on your brain.
5. Cultural dance “serves multiple functions (e.g., traditional/ceremonial practices, celebrations, healing, spirituality, cultural transmission, and social connectedness).” http://www.healthevidence.org/view-article.aspx?a=15502

Michael Baxter Photography (Do not use without permission)

In short, support the arts as best you can. Look for low-cost ways to involve yourself. You deserve it. Your community deserves it too.


Tava is a professional bellydancer, instructor and author in NYC and CT.  She performs regularly for all family friendly events, galas, weddings and corporate events. Tava also performs in creative/theatrical endeavors and enjoys her balance of commercial and artistic fulfillment.  To learn more about classes in Fairfield County, CT or to inquire about hosting Tava for a workshop, please visit: BellydancebyTava.com

Part II of Unraveling the Journey of a Bellydancer (featuring Tava)

I’m delighted to be featured in Part II of Tunnel Vision Company‘s Project “Unraveling the Journey of a Bellydancer.”  I’m glad to have been given a platform to express my goals – both as a teacher and performer.  In the U.S., we tend to hear about all of the violence and political upheaval in the regions where our dance has its’ roots and it benefits all of us to develop an appreciation for the music and the movements that bring it to life.


It is my pleasure to share this dance in Connecticut (and NY) and I am hopeful that our community will continue to shed stereotypes and find more venues that support our art.  It’s too beautiful to be dismissed.  Bellydance is clearly here to stay.  Please enjoy and share your thoughts!


To learn more about Tava and bellydance classes in CT, visit www.BellydancebyTava.com

I Love When Bellydancers are Smart Cookies – Bellydance by Jennifer Interviews Moi!

Recently, Jennifer (Bellydancer in Orlando) contacted me about doing an interview for an extensive research project she was about to begin.  One thing I love to do is to geek out and talk all things bellydance with fellow dancers so, of course I agreed.  Jennifer asked me to give some thought to the issue of standard movement vocabulary as well as other business issues that career bellydancers face.  When the day came, we set up our laptops and connected via Skype.  There was giggling, there was some repositioning in order to demonstrate movements, and there was a lot of honesty.

When bellydancers are smart cookies, it helps our community overall.  Jennifer is one of those gals who combats lingering stereotypes by showing off her business acumen and hunger for knowledge.  I was honored to help her kick off a series of interviews so check out:

Bellydance Terminology & Business Series: Interview 1- Tava!

Like it, pin it, share it.  Stay tuned to Jennifer’s blog to learn more.

Jennifer (Bellydancer in Orlando)

Jennifer (Bellydancer in Orlando)

photo of Tava (Bellydancer in NY & CT) by Adam Jason photography

photo of Tava (Bellydancer in NY & CT) by Adam Jason photography

Norwalk, CT Registration is Open for Bellydance with Tava at NCC

Do you live in Norwalk (or anywhere in Fairfield County, CT)? A new semester at Norwalk Community College is right around the corner and Tava will be teaching her 101 level course. This is a 10-week session which includes 20 minutes of lecture and 60 minutes of basic technique. The lecture will include an introduction to the history, various styles, legendary dancers and popular Arabic rhythms. The dancing will culminate in a short choreography to tie your “new moves” all together in a sequence. Students will fall in love with this rich and beautiful dance, enjoy community and (for registered NCC) students, gain a bit of credit in the process. The class meets Wednesday evenings from 6:30 to 8:50PM beginning in September.

Tava teaches Bellydance at Norwalk Community College

Tava teaches Bellydance at Norwalk Community College

Too Busy Dancing

Every week I have a great idea for a blog post and then fall short on time to write it.  Exciting things are happening and I am so honored to be a part of events that honor our dance from workshops to galas and cultural events.  Here is a highlight reel:

The amazing workshops and Gala show for Assala Ibrahim.  Tremendous thanks to Uza and her team for bring Assala here because I am now completely hooked on this style. What good is being a dancer when we lose the value of learning?


photo by Uza and Saif


A teaser cel phone shot from the Gala show at DROM (NYC)

I also have the honor to bring my mentor Andrea back to CT for a workshop on Persian styling.


Lastly, I am preparing for two community events.  One in CT – a Gala for Nourhan Sharif that features performances from the professional dancers in CT (sponsored by Kelvia) -tickets available here: http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/556650

and Nahara’s Springtime Hafla which will feature professional and student dancers from Westchester and CT.  Tickets available here: http://www.josiedance.com/josiedance/Spring_Shimmie.html

It’s also a great time with rehearsals diving into projects for the Theatrical Bellydance Conference.

Regular blog posts to resume shortly.  I promise!

11 Tips for Better Bellydance Practice

1. Divide your time between technique drills and improvisation.

2. Practice to a range of music styles (taqsim, drum solos, pop, baladi, etc.).

3. Record yourself and watch to help identify progress/areas of weakness over time.

warming up before a music video shoot photo by Francine Grillo

warming up before a music video shoot
photo by Francine Grillo

4. Give yourself a weekly theme such as graceful arms, accents, abdominal work, folkloric, etc.

5. Involve your face as much as possible (aka – don’t have “practice face” on the whole time – include emotional connection to music).

6. Watch your favorite dancers for inspiration right before you dance.  Think of a quality you’d like to try and emulate in your own way.

7. Don’t try to “copy” your favorite dancers.  Allow space for you to develop your own style.

8. Pay attention to your body immediate after practicing.  Are there areas of tension or soreness or do you feel great throughout your body.

9. Once in a while, practice in costume as a treat.  You won’t even realize how much “special sauce” you can add to your dancing when you feel great about what you’re wearing.

10. Don’t go it alone!  Daily or close to daily practice is a companion to your weekly classes.

Tava teaches balancing drills at Work It Dance & Fitness

11. Protect your feet!  Dancing on a hard non-sprung floor?  Choose appropriate footwear.

Happy Practicing!


Tava teaches bellydance classes in Fairfield County, CT with occasional workshops in NY.  For information on classes, private lessons, or workshops, visit www.BellydancebyTava.com