This installment of Dancer Origin Stories features the positively magical Shahrzad.
Since childhood Shahrzad has been immersed in the dances of the Middle East and North Africa. Now based in Cairo, Egypt, she travels around the world to teach and perform.
The first time I encountered her was in 2014, when her performance at the Las Vegas Belly Dance Intensive inspired an immediate standing ovation.
About a year later, I was planning a visit to Cairo and heard that she would be there. She was kind enough to arrange a private lesson for my friends and I. Her teaching skills were deeply impressive and I resolved to bring her to Maine at the next opportunity.
The time has finally come! This coming weekend, Shahrzad and her partner, Marshall Bodiker are coming to Portland, Maine to teach workshops and perform at the 10th anniversary Springtime Spectacular!
Let’s learn about Shahrzad’s origin story.
Q. What is your first memory of dance?
A. Now that I think about it, I cant really remember a time when I wasn’t singing and dancing, I can’t even pinpoint a certain moment because it was always there.
Q. Was social dance or music a part of your life growing up? If so, how?
A. My parents were always playing music, all kinds of music, so I was really interested in music from a very young age and loved moving to it.
Q. How did you first encounter the dance form that you primarily teach and perform now?
A. I saw belly dance videos advertised on TV!
Q. What phase of life were you in when you took your very first dance class?
A. I was maybe 10 or 11 years old. I had recently started home schooling and my parents were very open to letting me explore my interests, so when I saw belly dancing and started asking for classes my mom found them for me pretty quickly. She ended up taking them with me for several years.
Q. What led to you becoming serious about your dance studies?
A. My mom will be the first to tell you that I decided I wanted to be a professional dancer almost immediately after starting classes. I was so young, I’m not sure what exactly it was that drove my ambitions, but once I started my obsession with dance really took over my life and I was willing to train and practice as much as it took to get me where I wanted to be.
During my teenage years I tried all different kinds of belly dance but once I started to learn about Egyptian dance and folklore, I was hooked.
I have always been a history nerd so learning about the cultures, traditions, and history surrounding Egyptian (and general North African) dance styles I became really fascinated. The fact that there was a seemingly endless amount of things to learn really drew me in.
Even now after 15+ years of dance I feel like I’m just scratching the surface–and I love it!
Q. How do other dance forms you have studied inform your primary style?
A. I have dabbled in lots of dance styles! I’m always training in different Middle Eastern and North African folkloric styles to add to my repertoire but have also studied ballet and Indian classical dance.
Q. Tell me about one of your most influential teachers.
A. I have trained with so many amazing ladies, but there are four in particular that I feel had the most influence on me and all in very special ways.
The first is Habiba of Philadelphia. She was one of my very first teachers and was the first person to introduce me to Egyptian style dance and folklore, she solidified my interest in style and really started me on a great path.
Habiba sent me to Nourhan Sharif who strengthened my technique and her rhythm training classes had a huge influence on me, having those classes gave me a great sense of musicality early on.
Nourhan sent me to Faten Salama, a former member of the national folkloric troupe of Egypt. Faten gave me a huge amount of folkloric and oriental training. Having all of that folklore early on was a blessing and shaped my style a lot.
All three of these teachers encouraged me to study with Madame Raqia Hassan when she came to teach classes in the United States. Her technique, musicality, and choreography was so beautiful to me and although it was difficult at first it just seemed to fit my body and felt so natural.
I feel really lucky for the teachers that I have and really respect the fact that they all knew what to give me and also who else to send me to so I would have really well rounded training.
Q. Share the memory of learning a movement that came easily to you…
A. Most hip movements were fairly easy for me to pick up when I started dancing. I was really flexible, especially in my hips and back, so I think that helped a lot. I started dance at a time in my life when I was very shy and had low self confidence. I just remember feeling so great coming out of class every week feeling like I was actually good at something.
Q. … And a movement that you had to work hard to master.
A. There is one shimmy that I learned first at age 17 and I swear I am STILL trying to master it!
It is a shimmy from Soraia Zaied where you lock your legs together and move both of your knees at the same time instead of back and fourth… it’s hard to explain. At least I feel like I can do it now but it might take a few more years to really do it full speed like she does.
Most hip technique has been relatively easy for me to learn so I really love when I find something I cant do, it gives me something to work towards.
Q. Tell me about one “ah hah” moment that you recall, whether technical, emotional, or conceptual.
A. This is kind of random but I recently had an “ah hah” moment when I was in the states and dropped into a yoga class.
We did a little shake out at the end of class and the teacher said something to the effect of, “If you watch animals you will see that when they feel stiff or feel tension they have no problem just shaking it all off. As humans we hold so much tension and emotion in our bodies and never give ourselves the chance to let it out.”
It got me thinking about why I dance. When I’m on stage or in class I feel euphoric and the less I dance the more stress creeps into my body and mind. Nothing feels better to me than shimmying for hours on end and I feel like now I finally know why that is!
Q. What dance skills translate to your everyday life?
A. Oooo, I’m not even sure how to answer this. I’m a full time dancer so my dance life and every day life are one and the same. Everything in my life at this point circles back to dance in some way so its hard to feel any kind of separation between work and every day life.
Any small amount of time that I’m not doing dance related things I’m usually just curled up at home in bed or on the couch, haha!
But I guess relating to what I said before, dance is really a huge stress reliever for me, the more I’m working the better I feel mentally and physically.
Q. What else would you like to add, if anything?
A. Lately I’ve been having some weird ‘How the hell did I get here?!’ moments so it was nice to think back on where I came from and how my dance career started.
Shahrzad has been enchanting the stage since she discovered her passion for Arabic dance and music at the age of 11. Since then, she has immersed herself in a variety of dance disciplines–including Modern Egyptian belly dance and many regional and folkloric dance styles from North Africa and the Middle East. Her professional career started when she was 17, working full time performing with live bands at top venues and events in the United States. Most of Shahrzad’s technique and choreography is influenced by her training in Egyptian dance. She has been mentored by some of the top Egyptian dance instructors in the world including Madame Raqia Hassan, Nourhan Sharif, Faten Salama, Habiba, and many more. She has traveled extensively to do in depth study about music, dance, and cultures from which these arts come from so that she can give students a deeper knowledge of the roots of belly dance as well as its modern uses. Inspired by her interest in teaching, Shahrzad underwent a 2 year Pilates apprenticeship. Now as a fully certified Pilates instructor with extensive training in anatomy and movement she is able to bring a new level of education to her students by breaking down technique in detailed terms right down to what each muscle of the body is doing. Shahrzad currently lives in Cairo and travels internationally to teach.