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

Monday, May 19, 2008

Raqs L.A. -- the day after

I thought I was playing it safe by taking just one workshop yesterday. But I'd forgotten how many drills, combos and plain hard work Ansuya can pack into two hours! The workshop ran from 11:10 a.m. to 1:10 p.m., but my great friend Enala and I arrived a few minutes early. While we waited, we watched a little of the workshop taught by acclaimed dancer and instructor Morocco as she taught from the main stage of the Glendale Civic Auditorium. When our session with Ansuya began promptly in the Terrace Room, she kicked it off with a warm-up. Then the hard work came: She ran us through an Indian combination, then moved on to a Spanish combo, then a gypsy combo, then a tribal combo and finally an African combo. Phew! We definitely got our money's worth. She was tough, but she was also great about taking questions and breaking down moves, and her sense of humor also made it fun. And thank goodness for the handouts! They break down each move and make it easy to continue practicing on our own.

Ansuya also shared some exciting news with us: She's planning to offer an online instruction series through her Web site that will allow her to demonstrate technique, as well as interact with students, perhaps as soon as August. Isn't technology great?

After the workshop, Enala and I met up with our other great friends Diane and Mara to watch the performances on the main stage and do some shopping. The event's layout was basically the same as it was for Cairo Carnivale during the years that event was held at this venue. Performances ran throughout the day on both the upstairs main stage and a secondary stage downstairs. We saw Bellydance Superstar/Desert Rose troupe member Jayna perform, and Petite Jamilla was on the printed schedule but didn't appear. We were a little disappointed because we'd been looking forward to seeing her. Other beautiful performers we did see were Fahtiem, Angelika Nemeth's Dance Ensemble, students from Anisa's School of Dance, to name just a few.

Vendors were also set up on both levels, and many of the most popular belly dance vendors were represented: Dahlal International, The Velvet Gypsy, Artemis Imports, L. Rose Designs, and many more.

The crowd was quite a bit sparser than has been the case for past Cairo Carnivals, but it was certainly strong for a first-year event. A popular topic of conversation throughout the day was if or how this new event will affect next month's Belly Dance Carnival (which is the new name MECDA has given the event formerly known as Cairo Carnival).

Guess we'll have to wait and see...

Monday, May 12, 2008

Raqs L.A. coming this weekend

If you're a belly dancer within driving distance of the Glendale Civic Auditorium, I know where you'll be this weekend. Raqs L.A., a collaboration between Bellydance Superstars' Miles Copeland and Marta Schill, promises great workshops, great performances, and great shopping. Who could resist?
Not me :-)

Update: Don't forget to bring the waivers that were e-mailed to workshop participants (one for each workshop).

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Bellydance Showcase debuts in Placentia

Members of the fledgling OC Bellydance Meetup Group held their inaugural Bellydance Showcase on April 28 at Sophia's Greek restaurant in Placentia. We were happy to hear from Rachel, the group's founder and event organizer, that the showcase was a hit.

Here's what she says:

"Our first bellydance showcase was a resounding success. The dancers were Perizad (pictured left), me (pictured above), Fatin, Aminah, and Farah (pictured below). Fatin and I were dancing for the very first time in front of an audience. The audience was very supportive and forgiving. Clips are on YouTube under 'oc bellydance showcase.'

"Perizad was the hostess for the first Showcase, and she did a great job. We had a large turnout, and I got to meet lots of great people. Next time we will start the dancing later to let people get their food first. It was a bit chaotic with dancers and waiters trying not to bump into each other. LOL!

"After the performances, we put on the music and let everyone dance ... definitely my favorite part of the night.

"We did forget to pass the tip basket around. Oh,well."

Rachel adds that the group is already working to schedule the next date. Check for updates.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Angelika's Summer Classes

Angelika Nemeth's summer schedule is out:

* A 6-week mixed level class meeting 6-9:50 p.m. Fridays starting May 30 at Irvine Valley College. (She said in class this week that she'd like to include some folkloric steps this term, as well as the 9/8 rhythm karshlima);
* A 3-week intermediate/advanced class meeting 7-9:55 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays starting June 2 at Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa;
* A 6-week mixed level class meeting 6-8:05 p.m. Wednesdays starting June 18 at Golden West College in Huntington Beach;
* A 6-week beginning class meeting 6:30-8 p.m. and an intermediate/advanced class meeting 8:15-9:45 p.m. Mondays starting August 18 through Tustin Community Services.

For more information, check her Web site.