I cannot think of belly dance without thinking of Dora Nasr. A beautiful Egyptian lady that attended the same belly dance class I did for a short period of time. She was from an era before religious leaders of Islam gained a stronger hold in the country. She wore tailored skirted suits. She did not cover her head. She was an engineer. She was strong and she was intelligent. She made it clear to our instructor that she would never perform in public; culturally that was unacceptable. She was strong in her belief of what was right and wrong. Dora had an innate femininity and grace and had a confidence that had just as much to do with her as a woman as it did with her accomplishments; she knew who she was. That was the impression she made on 16-year-old me.
I think for every dancer there is that one person that changes the trajectory of their journey. This person turns up seemingly out of nowhere, believes in you and genuinely wants to help you with no ulterior motive. This person just as quickly is gone from your life leaving an indelible impression. Dora was that person for me.
I was 15 when my mother dragged me to my first class because she felt I needed to learn how to be more 'lady like'. I was thrown into a class where everyone was much older than I was. I entered the class feeling completely out of place. Then the music began. As always, music is a driving force in what I do. I ended up enjoying the class and staying. Fast forward to year 2 where I was picked to do a solo. I cannot remember how I was picked. I do not even remember if I was given the choice or just told to do it! I don’t remember how I picked the music or if I picked the music. I was left trying to pull something together with little or no direction or experience. This is where Dora came in. I can’t quite remember but I feel that during a class she asked me about the dance and maybe how I was doing. My first clear memory was her in our apartment and me dancing. Somehow, miraculously, she was there.
I think it was only one afternoon. It was an afternoon that changed my life. My biggest problem at that time was that I would freeze. She just would not let me. ‘Keep dancing, keep dancing’ she would say. She never once said that is bad, or incorrect or out of step or off beat. She just said, ‘Dance!’ I remember that unlike most of my life I did not feel intimidated or judged. I felt safe, I felt helped, I felt encouraged. She herself did not dance. She did not tell me what or how to do anything. She encouraged me to keep moving and work it out in my body. She told me to keep what I was doing with my mouth. I had no idea I was pursing my lips in concentration. She said it was good. I can’t remember the words she used but with her hand gestures and comments I understood it was becoming and maybe flirtatious.
Dora encouraged me that day and then she told me about the ‘glue’. The glue is the secret. That which joins the steps and changes them from mere steps to dance. The glue is “the story between the steps” to quote Yasmina Ramzy. The glue is the nuance. The glue is the emotion. The glue is what keeps the story going and pulls in the audience. This I learned years later. At that time, I just knew it was the glue.
Dora also told me about having, ‘It’. She explained that a young girl cannot have ‘It’ it is something that only life can give you. Some might think this was a bad thing to say but for me it lifted a big burden off my shoulders. I was not to try to be or act like something I was not. She kept me honest in my dance and she allowed me to stay true to who I was.
I am forever grateful that this beautiful, busy working woman took time to help a disingenuous young girl. I carry Dora in my heart, mind and soul. I carry her when I dance. I will never forget her. One afternoon. It was one afternoon.
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Karen Elizabeth aka Na'ema of Aaliyah Dance
I began oriental dance when I was 15. I love everything about it. It made me who I am today.