Photo credits: Debra Lee, Peter Paradise and Aria Michaels
"In dance you have to hold your own space, but you have to know what’s going on behind you, beside you, and be graceful about it."
Shirronda Almeida, Director of the Mel King Institute in Boston Massachusetts, came to belly dance through a desire to move her body. Her passion for playful movement always inspires me and I was excited when she agreed to share her belly dance story with me here! Though she has enjoyed dance in many forms since childhood, belly dance came to her at a time when work and adulthood was keeping her still.
I was doing a lot of sit-down work all day, at the computer or sitting in meetings. I wanted to move! And I decided I just didn’t like the gym. It reminded me of some Orwellian dystopian future where people have to be hooked to machines to remember to move their bodies.
It was while working for a youth organization that Shirronda stumbled on a belly dance workshop taught by a fellow staff member who had been training and performing for a few years. Shirronda says she loved it so much she joined her colleague in a Saturday class. From there, she explored more teachers and classes and eventually found herself performing.
Belly dancing was fun. It was social and you wear glittery things! You learn about this folding of culture and new music … it was very appealing and addictive and fun. I met lots of different people and I got to move!
Shirronda described it as an improvised synchronized dance of leading then following requiring everyone to stay on beat, play musical instruments with their fingers also to the beat, balance a sword on their head all while looking relaxed and like they’re having fun. This American Tribal style belly dance is a choreographed and coordinated effort that engages all five senses to stay on beat. “It was a great challenge artistically, creatively and then the costumes are awesome!” she chuckled.
Realizing she needed to keep her body in shape - strong and toned - in between dance rehearsals and performances, Shirronda began to incorporate yoga into her daily practice and dance prep. The mind-body connection in yoga complimented her dance. She often traveled to performances directly from work and actually used yoga to get connected with her physical body before taking the stage. The complicated movements require a lot of strength and after watching her dance, I could see the control and grace for myself.
To celebrate her life as she turned 40, Shirronda designed a tattoo for her back. Influenced by the culture and aesthetic of the American Tribal style belly dance she performed, her body art illustrates the story of the meaningful aspects of her life at that time, sharing on the outside, who she is inside. Her tattoo has a dance influence through the Tribal Indian design, a blissful monkey representing the blissful monkey yoga studio where she practiced and monkeys also represent her birth month of August… “I have to have those little monkeys on my back.” she quipped. The design is completed with the ohm symbol at the back of her neck.
Belly dance also created meaningful relationships with her fellow dancers. When performing with other people, she explained, you need to be aware of both your own physical space and those around you. You also need to be able to adapt to the unexpected.
I’m going to call it ‘emotional improv.’ You’re on stage and somebody drops their [prop] sword. You’re not going to be like, ‘Oh my god!’ You just hope they figure it out and you just keep doing that. There’s that sense of the bigger purpose.
Shirronda appreciated the accessibility of the dance. American Tribal style is a woman’s dance created in the US and is an amalgamation of different types of dance. Unlike ballet, where it might be more about body shape and size, belly dance includes all types of shapes and sizes where dancers are jiggling in all types of places and it's all welcome, creating a sense of women’s empowerment.
The nature of that type of dance is somebody is always leading. So, I was able to build my own leadership development and presentation skills, even though they’re on stage, it’s that ability to be comfortable in front of people ... If I could do that there’s nothing to being in front of a breakfast meeting of 200 people just talking about my work that I do 9am to 5pm. That’s nothing compared to, ‘Look! I’m dancing!’
Eventually the simplicity of yoga won Shirronda away from belly dance and she now teaches her own classes - sharing online during the pandemic - yet the skills she learned through belly dance are with her still, particularly confidence, community and a sense of leadership.