Today we’d like to introduce you to Heather Ward.
Hi Heather, we’d love for you to start by introducing yourself.
I started belly dance on a whim when I was in graduate school. It was an extremely stressful time in my life, and I needed some kind of outlet. I thought belly dance would fit the bill, so I found a local teacher and started private lessons. At the time, I didn’t really know anything about it – the cultural background, history, etc. What’s more, I didn’t bring any of my academic background (in anthropology and history) to bear on my dance training, so I had some huge gaps in my knowledge. As time went by, I started to notice a deep disconnect between what I thought I knew about belly dance and what I discovered as I interacted more deeply and meaningfully with people from the cultures of origin in the Middle East and North Africa. I realized that my “academic brain” and my “dance brain” needed to be reconciled, and I needed to correct a lot of misconceptions and expand my knowledge. This set me on a path to rediscover belly dance as a cultural dance and a gateway into a deeper understanding of the peoples and cultures of the Middle East. Eventually, I started traveling to Egypt – the real homeland of this dance form – to conduct research and to add to the body of knowledge. One of the first things I teach new beginners in this dance form is that the real name of the dance is raqs sharqi, which is Arabic for “dance of the east” (i.e., Middle East).
Would you say it’s been a smooth road, and if not what are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced along the way?
When I started doing belly dance professionally, it was a side hustle. For years, I was working full-time while running my dance business. Somehow I even managed to write a book, on top of all this! It’s truly challenging to make a full-time living from something that is rather niche. However, in 2017, I took the plunge: I quit my “day job” and have been fully focused on my dance business. It has not been easy, but it has been tremendously rewarding to be able to concentrate fully on something that I love so much. More recently, as a positive side effect of the pandemic (believe it or not), I have started doing a lot of teaching and lecturing online, which has allowed me to reach belly dance aficionados all over the world. This has been enormously gratifying.
Can you tell our readers more about what you do and what you think sets you apart from others?
I am, above all else, a nerd. I am obsessed with the history of belly dance in Egypt – so much so that I ended up writing a book on this subject: “Egyptian Belly Dance in Transition: The Raqs Sharqi Revolution, 1890-1930.” In this work, I have attempted to bust up some long-held myths and misconceptions about the history of this dance form, using primary sources, including Arabic-language sources (which are often neglected by belly dance practitioners outside the Arabic-speaking world). I am happy that dancers around the world can now look to me as a resource for learning about Egyptian belly dance history – I am trying to be the sort of resource that I wish I had had when I was starting out!
What sort of changes are you expecting over the next 5-10 years?
I think that the belly dance industry has come a long way in the last five years, shifting from a focus on fantasy to a focus on fact, with greater attention to issues such as Orientalism, cultural appropriation, and so on. There is widespread interest in learning the real cultural context of the dance. I think this interest is going to endure, and we’ll finally be rid of the “Arabian nights” vision of the dance that has been so persistent in Western media for the last 100-plus years!
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The Dancer’s Eye and Misfit Hue Photography