What sparked your interest in bellydance?
I saw my first bellydancer at age 14. It was at a goddess fair in Langley. Being a Bohemian hippy teen, I was super inspired and wanted to learn how to dance like those women. I had studied ballet for several years and then jazz dance, and bellydance was something totally different and up my alley.
I had also been fascinated by Egypt since I was little, and the music seemed to touch a chord deep inside me. I started to look around White Rock, where I grew up, for classes. And I came across a teacher named Nahida who had danced in Egypt. I started taking her classes in 1995, and the rest is history!
Was dance and performance part of your upbringing?
I was a natural performer since pretty much from the time I could walk. My parents and younger sisters don’t dance, but my father loves to perform and be on stage. He was often organizing lip sync contests at his work where he was the lead singer, and was quite addicted to karaoke for a while! My paternal grandmother was a dancer and danced pretty much up to her death at 85. I definitely take after her. She was one of the brightest sparks I ever knew.
You have been traveling a lot. Is it usually for dance that you travel?
I have traveled a lot in my life and have seen so many amazing sites. But I started getting a bit lost and aimless when I was traveling for traveling sake. So I usually only travel for dance now. Incorporating dance into my trips has really been exciting for me. Going to train in different cities and countries is my new passion. I get to meet dancers from all over the world, train with international instructors and see new places. It’s the best! I keep saying I need a non-dance holiday but that doesn’t seem to happen!
How do you decide where to go?
I train with a few Egyptian teachers, namely Randa Kamel, Tito Seif, and Mohamed Shahin, so traveling to where they are teaching is my priority. I used to take individual workshops with teachers from all over. But I realized that it is really important to choose teachers to study with intensely so that they can help you grow and change your dance more. Randa Kamel has been the biggest influence in my dance, and I make sure to train with her at least four times a year. This often means going to Egypt. In 2016, I was lucky to go to Egypt twice, as well as to New York, Toronto, and Miami. 2017 is looking very similar!
What were some of the highlights of your most recent trip?
A highlight from my last trip to Cairo in February was being selected as a finalist in the competition there. The level was really high, and it was a huge honor to have been selected to compete with a live band. Dancing to a live band in Egypt is about as amazing and scary as it gets! Another highlight was being able to study with Randa Kamel and Tito Seif for a week. We were dancing five hours a day. This immersion helps so much in developing my dance, and I feel like I grew a lot in this course.
Sometimes you invite drummers to your classes to drum live for your students. How does this contribute to your class?
I am fortunate to have met drummer Tim Gerwing right when I started performing. I was a “baby” dancer and he was a “baby” percussionist. We decided to jam one day and we have worked together ever since.
Having Tim in class allows my students to listen to the rhythm in a skeletal sense – just the drum alone. It helps get the rhythm in their body and understand the feel of the rhythm. We encourage the students to really feel the sounds and shapes from the tabla. Rhythm is the backbone of Egyptian dance, and each rhythm has its own set of technique, emotions, and culture. So it is important to understand how to dance authentically to the rhythms.
I LOVE the fact that Tim can accompany me when I am teaching – if I need something slower, or with a very pronounced rhythm, he can do that on a dime. When you have a live musician, you need to interact with them, connect and inspire each other. This is something very valuable, and the earlier you learn it, the easier it will become over time.
Bellydance seems like a very difficult dance to teach to others. Yet you manage to have a good balance between being able to teach the technique as well as the more abstract aspects of this dance. Were there teachers or influences that were great role models to you in this regard?
Wow! That is a huge compliment. I adore teaching and I am so happy that you had that experience in my class! I have to honestly say that I didn’t come into my own as a teacher for several years after starting teaching. I felt that I was regurgitating movements and teaching structure from my instructors. I wasn’t defined enough in my own dance; therefore, I didn’t know how to translate what I was doing to my students. It took a lot of personal acceptance and confidence to start teaching the way that I danced!
What do you think helped you develop this?
Working on my physiotherapy assistant diploma, and learning how to teach exercise and therapeutic classes, was very helpful for my teaching style. I was able to adopt what I was doing in school and work, and apply it to my own classes. I also talked to, and continue to talk to, other dance teachers. You learn so much from others, and realize that you are not alone in your experiences. I brainstormed with people and asked a lot of questions. I also analyzed video and online material to get alternate examples of explanations, and to grow my ideas.
You seem really invested in your students, which is a beautiful quality to have as a teacher. Where did this come from?
I really love working with people, and I want to see everyone succeed so much in my classes. So I try to provide as much information as I can, balanced with a strong dose of acceptance and humour. Dance can be very frustrating if you feel that you can’t get a movement. We have all been there! So I want to try to limit that kind of discouraging experience as much as possible. The frustration can start to limit our personal perception of what we can do. Dance is supposed to make you feel good at the end of the day, so I want that to be the strongest take-home feeling. I am now studying to be a pilates instructor, and I feel that my background in teaching will serve me well in this field. I have learned a lot from both my physiotherapy work and also my work as a dance teacher.
Randa Kamel has also been a great role model for me in how to approach teaching. She focuses a lot on the muscular movements, but also on the feeling and energy of the movement. This is equally important in these oriental dances. I try to embody this in my classes, and remind my students to really feel the move- both in a physical sense but also in an emotional sense. Dance is more than just the movement of our bodies. There is a feeling to it.
What do you think is one of the benefits of this particular dance for your students?
There is something very magnetic about the movements and the music – very addicting! But in all honesty, I think this dance allows for a lot of personal expression and self confidence. I have personally witnessed many of my students come into class for the first time, quiet and shy and hiding in the back of the class. And then, over a period of a few weeks, they are suddenly moving up to the front the class, talking with their classmates and literally transforming in front of my eyes! It is amazing to see.
What made you choose bellydance as your dance of focus?
Bellydance just makes sense to my body and spirit. After years of ballet and jazz, which I loved, this dance form spoke to my heart in a very different way. Learning oriental dance was not, and still isn’t easy to learn. But the dance is so feminine, strong and emotional. Oriental dance also embraces women of all shapes, sizes and backgrounds. Through the music, we can each individually express our own stories and emotions, and this is something so powerful! There is so much intrigue and draw to watching someone perform this dance.
The beauty of the dance is that you can let your life experiences spill out into your dance and you are all the better for this. Dance has been there for me in some of the most joyous times in my life as well as in the darkest times. And I hope it continues to always be there.
For more information about Ashley and her classes, please visit
Ashley Dance at http://www.ashleydance.com