Maryland Bar Bulletin
Publications : Bar Bulletin : June 2005

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Do You Wanna Dance?
By Patrick Tandy

Alexander

Belly dance instructor/sole practitioner Michelle Alexander (third from right) leads her students in her annual hafla on May 21 at the Wilde Lake Community Center in Columbia, Maryland

The auditorium could be inside any suburban community center in the land; but for a few hints dropped by the jewels and fancy colored cloth flitting about the outside lobby, the audience filing in and taking their seats on this warm spring evening in Columbia, Maryland, could be here for anything. That is, of course, until the house lights go down, and from the nowhere and nothing of the darkened stage emerges a procession of exotic beauties of all ages, shapes and sizes, each sparkling and jingling to the strange and enticing rhythms rising from the sound system…

♦♦♦

'Are you
from Delhi?'
'No, I'm from
Detroit.'

Michelle Alexander

“Most people know belly dance as the girl in the I Dream of Jeannie outfit,” notes Michelle Alexander, a Columbia-based middle-school media specialist and sole practitioner who moonlights as a teacher of Middle Eastern dance. “But what most people really don’t realize is that in most of the dances that are out of the region the women are mostly covered, which really kind of goes against the stereotype. If you go to Egypt or to Turkey, you’re not going to see the kind of fusion you would see here; you’re not going to see hip-hop and belly dance [there], even though they have hip-hop belly dance [here]. And there are some types that are totally American. I always like to educate the public about what it is and what it’s not. Like the jewel in the navel. The jewel in the navel is totally inauthentic. It [was] Hollywood censors – when they did movies in the ’30s, showing a woman’s navel was just scandalous, so they stuck a jewel in the navel for those films. They don’t do that in the Middle East at all. In fact, in Egypt you’d probably have to wear a belly cover.”

Alexander is responsible for organizing this evening’s hafla, an annual three-hour event held in Slayton House at Columbia’s Wilde Lake Community Center. “Some people spell it hafleh,” she notes. “The word basically means a party, show or event. Essentially, it’s my recital for my students at the community center so that they have a performance opportunity. They can invite all their friends and family and coworkers to see [them perform]. And the costumes – they get to buy false eyelashes and put on all the makeup and the glitter and the bindis. We use a lot of East Indian stuff, actually – a lot of saris for veils [and] skirts. It’s kind of an interesting crossover. The people on University Boulevard in DC [with] all of those sari shops know the belly dancers because the belly dancers come in and buy the jewelry, the ankle bracelets, the glittery stuff and the nose rings.”

From flamenco to ballet to African, Alexander herself has been dancing almost her entire life. She took her first steps in the art of Middle Eastern dance seven years ago when she went to see a massage therapist for recurring back pain.

“When I went into the waiting room, I figured I needed to do some sort of exercise in addition to [the therapy],” explains Alexander. “So there was a brochure for yoga and there was a brochure for belly dance, and I asked the lady, ‘Which one do you think I should do?’ And she said, ‘Yoga has a lot of backbends and things that would likely aggravate your condition. Belly dancing strengthens the abdominals and will probably help your back,’ which is true.”

Alexander has been teaching the form for the last five years. Her students vary in age from teenagers to grandmothers; physically and professionally, they are just as diverse. “I think the thing about this form of dance is that it’s very accepting to really any kind of body type,” Alexander admits. “You can weigh 98 pounds, you can be 300 pounds and be a good dancer. It isn’t really so much about size – in fact, this is one of the few forms where if you’re too thin it doesn’t look good. You need to have some stuff that’ll shake or you see nothing. I’ve had some little, young teenage girls and I’ve had to say, ‘You need to eat!’ It’s like, if you’re trying to do an orange at lunchtime – you need to eat some food! [For larger body types,] I say, ‘Hey, this is the thing where you go against everything your mother told you – I don’t want you holding your stomach in.”

“If your thighs shake and rub together, you’re doing it right!” she laughs – a sincere and robust laugh that enjoys life’s every minute. “I want everything shaking at the same time!”

“I find that in terms of stage presence, the older women or the middle-aged women…in some cases I think they’re more interesting on stage,” she continues. “When you’re looking at where people are when they go on stage, the women that are in their 30s, going into their 40s have lived a little longer, they’ve got some experience, and they have life things to communicate through their dances, which makes it much more interesting because you want to see something just beyond technical skill. You can put a lot of your personality into this, and that’s what makes it fun. That’s where the joy of the dance is.”

Outside of the classroom, Alexander performs professionally under the name Mia Naja al Sephira (www.mianaja.org). She and her troupe perform throughout the region in a variety of venues, from local cultural festivals to community colleges and universities.

“It’s just boomed,” she says of the form’s burgeoning popularity and scope in recent years. “There’s more diversity in people. [For example,] I’m not Egyptian; I’m African-American and Native-American. I have people think I’m Egyptian all the time. Egyptians think I’m Egyptian. What’s really interesting is when I have Ethiopians and Somalis get mad, [insisting] ‘No, you’re Ethiopian!’ I’ve done East Indian parties, and they’ve thought I was Indian. ‘Are you from Delhi?’ ‘No, I’m from Detroit.’”

♦♦♦

If the Motor City-native’s sundry careers indeed share any common ground it is her pervasive interest in helping people improve themselves.

“People do such nasty things to each other,” says Alexander from beneath the weight of nearly a decade of practicing family law. “No one’s ever happy – they really aren’t, unless it’s an abuse case and you’ve got to get someone out of that situation really quickly. But in a lot of cases, you know, it’s hard on the whole family.

“I like teaching, and it’s interesting because it’s kind of like all of my ducks are lining up in a row. This is my 14th year in public education, in middle school. I went back to it – I left a high school for a middle school and won’t leave. Am I crazy or what?”

It is providing positive reinforcement for young girls and helping to improve their self-image that Alexander takes particularly seriously.

“I sponsor a dance club,” she says. “Sixth-, seventh-, eighth-grade – little junior belly dancers. For me, it’s a counter to what they see in the music videos, because – I hate to say it – what girls see as something to emulate in a music video is ‘Be a video ho.’ And you know what? That’s got to stop. It’s kind of interesting – when I opened up the dance club, I had like 80 to 100 girls sign up. When they found out it wasn’t going to be hip-hop, a chunk of them quit. Now I’m down to a core group of basically 10 girls who have learned the dance. But they’re learning that you can move and you can dance in a way that is beautiful, that is sensuous but not sexual. That’s what it’s really about.

“I do a lot of reeducating, [and] not just middle school girls. I have teens and adults that come to my adult classes that, you know, want to shake it like that. And I have to say, ‘No, it’s not like that.’ Middle Eastern dance is hard to master. It’s fun, but, if you’re going to be proficient, it is as hard to master as any other dance form you would take.”

♦♦♦

“I’ve had kids in the school say, well if you’re a lawyer why are you here?” says Alexander, who has admittedly downplayed her law career in favor of public education. [And I answer] ‘Because I like working in the media.’ I’m a part-time sole practitioner, but I [don’t] like the isolation of being a sole practitioner. I like being in the media. I like being involved with books and technology and education and children and seeing someone go, ‘A-ha! I get it!’ and empowering that child to move to the next thing.”

Alexander applies the same sense of public service to her adult dance classes. “In some cases, it’s helping some people feel better about themselves, or it’s that awkward girl that comes in who leaves being a little more coordinated,” she adds. “It’s the grandmother or older lady that comes in that doesn’t feel old, that regains her youth, that feels like it’s not over yet. ‘I can still move. I’m still a woman. I’m still beautiful.’ Those are the things. In all of it, it’s a service – in law it’s a service, in education it’s a service, in dance it’s a service.”

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Publications : Bar Bulletin: June, 2005

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