Monday, May 26, 2008

O.C. Belly Dancer Spotlight: Jheri St. James

Talk to anyone in the region about the Orange County belly dance scene, and you can bet Jheri St. James’s name will be mentioned. She’s a prolific performer who began teaching Middle Eastern dance through the Laguna Beach Parks & Recreation Department in 1986 and formed one of the county’s best-known troupes, J.J. & the Habibis Laguna Beach Belly Dancers, in 1990. In 2004, her mastery of the dance form earned her the title of Belly Dancer of the Universe in the divine category.

Beyond her dancing skill, Jheri also has been an enthusiastic supporter of many local festivals and events, and this year marks her 26th as the belly dance director for the Sawdust Art Festival in Laguna Beach. (Check the O.C. Events—column to the right—for the venue’s upcoming schedule.)

For this inaugural O.C. Belly Dancer Spotlight, which I hope to make a regular series, I couldn’t be more pleased to feature Jheri St. James.

What is your style of belly dancing?

I would call my style American belly dancing, as I am an American woman and have no pretenses about being Turkish or Egyptian. I do perform in both of those styles, however, and in my classes always reference what style we are working in. And I hope never to become an “ethnic policewoman,” assessing how perfectly anyone else is dancing in another country’s style. Also dance in tribal styles, American and Middle Eastern.

How long have you been belly dancing, and how’d you get started?

I have been dancing for a couple of decades now and got started as a result of an argument with my boyfriend. I was just so fed up with him and all my prior boyfriends, that I thought, “I’m going to do something wild now and forget all this crap,” signed up for two classes, and the rest is “herstory.”

Who are your favorite or most influential teachers?

Angelika Nemeth at Orange Coast College was my first and main instructor and how blessed I am—feet, hands, correct posture—to have had her as my belly dance “mother.” Other important influences have come from Mahmoud Reda, Faten Salama, Karim Nagi, Sahra Kent, Shareen El Safy, Dahlena, Hassan Deeb, Alexandria from Santa Barbara, Aziza from Washington, etc.

What is your favorite place to dance?

Right now my favorite place to dance is the Southern Rennaissance Faire, as I was invited by Baba Ku, the band in the Turkish section, to dance there this year, and did so twice. Total ecstasy! The trees, the sky, the live music ... yum!

What music do you most like to dance to?

Gosh, there are so many genres here available for an American dancer. I really enjoy that great, rich acoustic Egyptian music with taxim; I also love dense and dissonant Turkish sounds. But I have been known to melt to Dead Can Dance and some of the newer Gothic music. Shuvani’s gypsy music, and Jamila’s Raks Sharki also come to mind.

What was your most memorable performance?

Sorry, there are more than just one: This summer, dancing with Baba Ku at Ren Faire. Winning two trophies at Belly Dancer of the Universe Competition. Dancing with the Habibis for “America’s Got Talent” audition (120 out of 6,000). The year I danced for Senator Howard Metzenbaum’s retirement party. And looking forward to the one on my 100th birthday for all my family and friends who are still alive.

What is your dance regimen?

Yoga practice as a foundation. As I am teaching six classes a week right now, that pretty much covers my dance regimen. I get to practice with zills, veils, work on my figure 8s and shimmies (17 so far), practice my choreographies (30-plus) while teaching them, and whatever else the topic for the week is. As well as work in improvisational format with my Level 4 dancers. We are co-creating a new dance now. Personally, I love balancing dances, and bringing yoga postures into dance. I have a new prop right now that I’m looking for the right music and refining how to balance that thing on my head.

To you, what separates an accomplished dancer from an amateur?

Angelika always used to say you’re not a professional until you dance with live music. The results of that kind of improvisational experience definitely show in moment-to-moment confidence and poise onstage. The twirling hands thing is always a dead giveaway to a beginner, and moving too fast, doing too much. Americans need to slow down and layer their movements, not be busy little housewives doing every chore on the list in one minute. Eye contact and smiling are always good, too. Fake it till you make it!

As there is always room for improvement in dance (just as there is in all art forms), what are you still working to improve?

First, I am always working to bring a yoga/spiritual center to all my life, personal and dance. I’m also working hard on the 17 shimmies and more combinations, refining my choreographic abilities, and studying to be a better teacher. As well, I am always refining my communication skills with other dancers, and networking in the field to promote dance and find/make more dance ops for all. I am particularly interested in findings ways for dancers and women to be supportive of each other, rather than competitive. Women could save the world if they ever really stopped outdoing each other in separative ways like appearance, weight, age, fashion, men, dance and you get the idea.

How long have you been in Orange County?

Since 1971. I came to Laguna Beach after living in San Francisco. I was originally an Ohio farm girl. They’re shaking their heads down on the farm...ha.

Jheri's next class sessions in Laguna Beach, at 515 Forest Ave., will begin on July 8 for Level 1 (at 6:30 p.m.) and Level 2 (at 8 p.m.). Level 3 (7:30 p.m.) and Level 4 (9 p.m.) will begin July 10. The cost is $100 for eight weeks.

If you’d like to learn more about Jheri St. James, visit her Web site at

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