Monday, February 9, 2009

Interview with Jennifer Hepner, Miss Montana 2008

Jennifer Hepner, Miss Montana 2008, took her love for belly dance all the way to the Miss America Pageant last month, when she was one of two contestants to present the Middle Eastern dance as her talent.

Bringing belly dance back to the pageant after its 30-year absence wasn't about breaking with tradition or trying to stand out in a crowd, though. To Jennifer Hepner, it was much more about expressing herself honestly and sharing a love for the dance form she has nurtured with countless hours of instruction, practice and performance.

She was kind enough to take time out of her Miss Montana duties to talk about her inspiration.

First, can you share a little about your background?

I was born in Tacoma, Washington, but have lived in Montana since 1990. I am an Air Force brat who came to know Montana as home because of an assignment my father had at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Great Falls, Montana. I went to grade school, middle school, and high school in Great Falls (a town of 60,000 in central Montana).

In 2003, I headed west and began my collegiate journey at the University of Montana in Missoula, Montana. In 2007, I graduated through the University of Montana’s Honors College as a University Scholar and earned two degrees with high honors (first degree: communication studies, second degree: anthropology).

In 2007, I started graduate school, working toward my master’s in communication studies. I am also a graduate instructor, teaching two sections of “Introduction to Public Speaking” each semester. I took a leave of absence from this academic year as my duties as Miss Montana are my primary focus. In the eight months that I have held the title of Miss Montana, I have filmed a four-week reality TV series (TLC’s Countdown to the Crown), competed in the Miss America Pageant, and traveled over 12,000 miles of Montana highways, talking to educators, parents, children and politicians about my platform: “Beyond the Bell: Afterschool Programs for Montana’s Youth.”

How did you first get introduced to belly dancing?

As a child, I was always drawn in by the mystique of belly dancing! But it wasn’t until I was in college at UM that I actually was exposed to belly dance instruction. I began taking classes at my university and quickly realized that I wanted to know more! I was hooked and knew that if I wanted to develop into my personal best dancer that I would have to look outside of Montana for instruction. In 2006, I attended Rakkasah West and took classes from many of the big names in belly dance. While I have taken workshops and classes from Zoe, Jim Boz, Fahtiem, Susan Delvecchio and Ansuya, my main influences are Jamilia and Suhaila Salimpour. I have been a humble student of the Suhaila Salimpour School of Dance since 2007. I am so excited to practice the Suhaila Salimpour technique as it is taking our art to a new level. I am so blessed to have the Salimpours’ support and encouragement not only in my preparations for presenting the dance on the Miss America stage, but also throughout my personal and intimate journey with the dance.

When and where was your first belly dance performance?

My first belly dance performance was at a student night in 2004 in which I performed to John Asher’s Tiger’s of the Raj for my dance peers and close friends. My first public performance was at the 2007 Montana State Belly Dance Festival. I remember being so nervous because dancing in front of other belly dancers is the most nerve-racking thing for a beginner! Lucky for me I was in a supportive place that promoted sisterhood and goodwill. The Montana belly dancing community is so close knit and supportive, and for that I am blessed! The Montana belly dance community truly empowers me to continuously evolve as a dancer.

Do you still perform regularly? If so, where?

As Miss Montana, I am expected to dance at the majority of events that I attend. Over the past eight months I have danced at numerous schools, farmers markets, outdoor festivals, fairs and youth conferences. When talking to children, I use the dance to drive home a lot of the points I make in my presentations. The dance is a great metaphor for being yourself, which is a big lesson for middle and high school students experiencing stress from bullying and peer pressure. The dance not only helps me talk about identity but also issues of diversity, body image and sisterhood (stressing female cooperation over female competition). Outside of Miss Montana, I love performing at local haflas and at Montana’s annual Belly Dance Festival every May.

What is your practice regimen?

I don’t practice nearly as often as I would like to, but I make a point of practicing every chance I get.

What is your favorite style of belly dance?

Oftentimes I see dancers that are quick to search for audience approval. They feel the need to powerhouse their way through their “arsenal” of movements in order to impress onlookers. One thing that I love about tribal fusion belly dance is that, by its very nature, it is incredibly commanding. I enjoy watching women who are confident enough in their technique and performance ability to take things slow. When I see The Indigo perform, I always find myself so impressed because they can have me hypnotized with a single synchronized hip drop. They are AMAZING dancers who are concentrating on expressing the music rather than winning people over. I love ALL styles of belly dance, but I personally feel most empowered as a tribal fusion belly dancer.

Do you have favorite belly dance music?

I love the industrial and electronic beats of tribal fusion music! The Pentaphobe and Beats Antique are my personal favs! Other belly dance favorites include Solace, Issam Houshan, Mokhtar Al Said, and Raquy and the Caveman. I love my drum solos!

Who are your belly dance heroes?

As I mentioned earlier, the Salimpours are my personal heros. I love the complexity of the Suhaila Salimpour format because I never hit my climax … instead I continue to evolve as a permanent student of the dance.

What is it about belly dance that continues to attract you?

What attracts me to belly dance is the complexity of the art. Belly dance is much more complex than a dance vocabulary or a series of movements. Belly dance is about changing the way that we think about ourselves. The dance teaches us to love ourselves as we are—to embrace our shape, our age, and our unique attributes. Belly dancing is a never-ending journey of self-discovery.

Why did you choose belly dance as your pageant talent?

For me, dance is the ultimate form of expression! In college, I have made a point to further my training in jazz, ballet and modern dance. When it came down to choosing what kind of dance piece I wanted to present at the Miss Montana pageant, belly dance seemed like the natural choice. I feel most like myself when I belly dance. It is a powerful feeling that I don’t experience with other dance forms. I competed for the title of Miss Montana three times, and each year I was the odd duck. Most girls would sing opera, tap dance, sing a Broadway ballad or play a musical instrument. In the world of pageantry, it takes a strong woman to go against the grain. Sometimes being yourself is harder than pretending to be someone else, but passing such a test of identity is the most rewarding experience. In that regard, I felt that I came out of every pageant as the winner!

Were your friends and family surprised by this choice? And if so, what was their concern?

Although supportive, my friends and family were a nervous about my talent because of the conservative nature of both our state and of the pageant community. But they knew that I didn’t just want to win Miss Montana by virtue of being the typical “pageant patty.” I wanted to win Miss Montana as Jennifer Hepner.

What’s in your belly dance future?

I will always be a humble student of the art form. Every time I am challenged I am learning, and when I am learning, I am improving. I will be dancing for the rest of my life! One of my heroes is Jamilla Salimpour as she still whips me into shape at age 82!

You can visit her page here:

(Photo credit for last photo goes to The Right Impression Photography, Glendive, MT)

1 comment:

Theresa and Sarah said...

i grew up with jen in great falls- we went to the same elementary and middle school and had many sleep overs! it's so great to see her doing what she loves. you go jen!!!