Realizing a dream – hard work paid off!

Catherine, Me, Sheila and Layla Katrina in 1997. Call me 'skinny arms' Aziza Nawal.

Catherine, Me, Sheila and Layla Katrina in 1997. Call me ‘skinny arms’ Aziza Nawal.

Twenty years ago this month I walked into my very first belly dance class. It was at Georgia State University as part of their continuing education program. I lived in Lawrenceville, GA at the time so the drive was pretty far, but totally worth it. The instructor taught us core foundations of Middle Eastern Dance – looking back on her teaching style and movement vocabulary, I would say her instructors were from the 70’s and 80’s boom of belly dance in America. Great stuff. I have a special admiration for dancers performing in the U.S. during those years. I seek out their stories of performing in night clubs to live music during a time when the music and culture of Arabs, Turks, Armenians and Greeks was experiencing extreme popularity. I have heard some intriguing tales from Lee Ali and Cassandra about their days in the clubs including the transition from live music to mostly recorded music.

What has prompted this article is a realization of hard work and diligence that has really paid off! As I look around me now, I see that since I walked into that first class, a wonderful community of artists now surrounds me and enriches my life every day. Many of these wonderful souls I am honored to call mentors, students, colleagues and most of all – friends or better yet, FAMILY. Whether they are dancers, musicians, authors, seamstresses, painters, craft makers, welders or aficionados of visual and performance art – this community I live in keeps growing and growing and I gush with gratitude for being a part of it. I’ll quote my Facebook status from earlier last week so you can see my mindset:

Wow! What a night last night. I am still reliving it. I’d tried to savor every little moment so the memory would last. My troupe Banat Nawal was amazing, Samora and I “brought it” and introduced Issam Houshan in a spectacular fashion, my BDE sisters Charlie and Heidi produced a wonderful Tribal tribute to Issam. Then a dream came true to finally perform with Issam. We had worked together for a couple of days on the drum solo and classes and when show time came, I wanted to make it last. I cherished every moment – but it was over to soon. Having so many friends and my wonderful husband in the audience gave me strength. I mentally called upon my teachers – Cassandra, Zhaleh Fereshteh, Aziz, and Layla Katrina, to name a few – to guide me through. I was filled with so much love – this is why I do this thing called dance!

Yeah – I’m still high on that. Since then I have contemplated my journey as a dancer. One of my students and close friends said to me “80% of life is showing up”. Years ago when I was barely a teenager, I vowed to live my life to its fullest. I’ve been accused of being an ‘old soul’ – so that bit of wisdom “stop to smell the roses” inspired me early in life – before I might have become jaded and complacent. That said, some Oriental dancers (belly dancers) might dream of being on the national seminar circuit, touring internationally or performing in Egypt with an live orchestra. I have had these dreams too, and maybe some of those might still come true. But those things do not hold as much importance to me as building a community, making new friends and connecting with people through my artistic expression. This is what drives me – teaching, performing, rehearsing, choreographing and continuing to learn. It truly makes me happy.

Many event sponsors in Atlanta have made a concerted effort to bring quality instructors and top notch events to the area – making continuing dance education very accessible! Keep it up Amani Jabril, Faaridah and Ziah Ali! So proud to call these ladies my friends. They have also believed in me and inspired me through most of my journey but they have especially inspired me in recent years with their own accomplishments – nothing like watching those you love succeed.

Amani Jabril and Ziah – because of these ladies I am grateful to have performed with many talented drummers – Darbuka Dave, Faisal Zedan, Jonathan Gomes Derbaq and Carmine Guida. Thanks to Jan Sarhan and Danny Stern for recommending me to teach with Souhail Kaspar years ago.

Much of my gratitude goes to Faaridah who helped bring Belly Dance Evolution’s Alice in Wonderland to Atlanta last summer. Through that,  I was able to re-connect with Jillina and Sharon Kihara and especially Issam Houshan who I had first met over 10 years ago. He approached me about working together – who knew at that time the success Bellydance Superstars would have? So the years went by. Finally our time had come. Our first time working together was during the Suhaila Intensive at AFBD recently – we taught three workshops, and we performed a very special drum solo together as well. It was a pleasure to work with such a talented musician –  a real dream come true.   I am grateful for my mentors, friends and students who believed in me. I am overwhelmed with joy and amazement of the commitment my BDE sisters and students put into helping me create the show! Let’s relive some of that:

Here’s Banat Nawal featuring Dana, Diane, Malika, Kiki, Robyn Parks, Mara, Melissa, Jaki Hawthorne of Jahara Phoenix, Lara, Olivia, Hengameh, and Terri, performing to my choreography to Issam Houshan’s recording of  Negsem al Amar

Here’s Heidi and Charlie performing to their choreography to Issam’s recording of Path to Goa

Here’s me and the lovely dancer and fellow Belly Dance Evolution sister Samora performing to my choreography to Tabel ya Issam

Learning Choreography Part II

Fellow BDE sisters Charlie and Heidi who composed the 'bow' song

Fellow BDE sisters Charlie and Heidi who composed the ‘bow’ song

In my last post on this subject, I touted the importance of taking classes and workshops from great instructors. My experience provided great tools for learning choreography that comes with being part of a professional or amateur dance troupe. Choreography is also important to a soloist as well. I have been an improvised performer for most of my career but have found that this method can lead to stagnation. The ‘go to’ moves become over used, and I just end up boring myself. I have always enjoyed learning someone else’s choreography in order to expose myself to a different way of interpreting music, new combinations, all while exercising my brain and body.

But how does one effectively learn a choreography? In a workshop setting, it can be challenging – maybe there is no mirror, there are a lot of people to bang into, you can’t hear or even see the instructor. I have an advantage of height, so a lot of times I move to the edge or to the back. Of course if the teacher is one of my favs, I do take advantage of the shyness of other workshop participants and plant myself on the front row. A good workshop instructor should switch lines anyway and I am happy to move to the back.

Music is so important to my retention of a movement set. Without it, I go blank. Having that soundtrack gives me cues to what movement comes next. Maybe there is an interesting instrument to follow, a catchy melody line or a familiar drum riff. A music composition tells a story of sorts. Take the standard dramatic structure  – exposition, rising action, climax, falling action and resolution. Choreography works the same way – especially in a megeance where there are several different rhythm patterns that inform specific movement sets. Outlining that story line will help you organize your own cues.

My fellow Belly Dance Evolution sisters and I had a tough time remembering all of the choreography for the Alice in Wonderland show. Our biggest challenge was the bow choreography, which was very long, at the end of the show and while the movements weren’t difficult, they were similar to other movement sets earlier in the show. On top of that, the formations were quite intricate. So a couple of the girls came up with a remarkably catchy song to guide us through. If it weren’t for that silly string of sentences. I would have surely had to excuse myself from that bow!

Years ago I had the pleasure of studying with Morocco. When she taught choreography, she would take you through a set of steps and then repeat it three times. Such a simple concept – it worked like a charm. Good instructors will use repetition to get your muscle memory activated.

Try to examine your own learning process. Do verbal cues help you remember what comes next? Does the music give you cues in the instrumentation or accents? Does repetition provide the muscle memory and training to improve upon your execution?  Perhaps all of these apply. One last tool I can mention that really helps is video taping your progress. You can see how your transitions look, how your form is holding up and if you happen to have your troupe mates with you, how well are you matching each other.

Hopefully this tidbit of info is helpful!

AFBD is Moving!

The studio where I teach my Thursday evening classes will be moving in January! Here’s the official announcement:

We are extremely excited to announce that AFBD is moving in January 2015!!!! Same zip code, still in Midtown but a much BIGGER dance floor, more class options and shared space with Miss Belly Dance, top seller in wholesale Belly Dance Costumes and ethnic dance jewelry!! We are so thrilled to be partnering with our new family at Miss Belly Dance!!!

As of January 2015, AFBD will occupy the space formerly known as Pera Dance studio! Over 2000 square feet of dance floor, lounge area, private AFBD office, 2 restrooms! Same class schedule but MORE class options!

New address: 1015 Collier Rd NW, Atlanta, GA 30318 near the intersection of Howell Mill and Collier Road.

What’s changing? We’re giving the studio a new look! Over the next 2 months, Faaridah, Nahari and Uncle Denny will be busy painting, designing and decorating our new space. Wait til you see what Nahari comes up with this time! Aaaannd….We plan on offering daytime classes as well as more evening and weekend class options!  Current All Access Pass members will be “grandfathered in” so make sure your pass stays current through the year!

IT’S A CELEBRATION!!! Join us for a New Year New Look Open House Sunday January 11, 2015 4pm-6pm! Class demos, performances, cocktails, hors d’oeuvres! We will also have some brand new AFBD swag available for purchase and spot prizes (workshops, show tickets, and more!) See you there!

Please note: classes will continue to meet at 500 Bishop Street NW until Sunday December 21. Studio will be closed December 22-January 4. New classes at AFBD Collier Street location starting Monday, January 5, 2015!

Interested in renting our space for an event? Contact Faaridah at

Aziza Nawal’s Megeance at Nicola’s

A “Megeance” is the name used to refer to an oriental dancer’s opening routine. It is also sometimes referred to as a “mis en scene”  which translates to “taking the stage”. The music is typically composed for the dancer and features multiple rhythm changes. Safaa Farid is the leader of a fantastic orchestra in Egypt and has played for many top dancers including his wife, Leila. They have produced several wonderful recordings and I chose two selections for the showcase on April 13th at Nicola’s Restaurant. Enjoy!

Belly Dance Class Schedule

Aziza Nawal teaches belly dance classes in the Buckhead/Sandy Springs area of Atlanta conveniently located near 285 and 400 off of Roswell Road.


Class Card Pricing (8 classes)

$88 if paying with cash or check
$91 if paying with credit card

Purchase class cards online here
Please note that this discounted rate requires a one time membership fee of $20.

7-9pm: All levels class covering Middle Eastern Dance fundamentals. Each class will focus on a different technique topic and include a warm-up and cool-down.

8-9pm: Fast paced Intermediate/Advanced level class focusing on technique and combinations of a variety of styles including Tribal Fusion, Modern Egyptian, Turkish and more.

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