Ne-Kajira: How did you become interested in bellydance?
Suzanna: The 1970's were a time of inner exploration, particularly for women. The awareness movement intrigued me. Exploring my inner self felt satisfying. "Yoga, Youth, and Reincarnation" by Jess Stern was one of the first inspirational books that caught my attention. I took up Hatha Yoga lessons and this filled a need of working with my mind via my body. Within a short period I came across another book called "Getting Clear, Body Work for Women". It contained interviews with women in different vocations who spoke of their satisfaction with their work. One was a belly dancer. She spoke so highly of the dance and how healing it was.
Ne-Kajira: When did you realize you wanted to pursue this as a career? How did you go about establishing yourself as a dancer?
Suzanna: I was immediately intrigued. Soon after, I began dance lessons and saw my first live performance and knew that this was what I wanted to do. What I didn't know was that I would make a full time career out of it. I was of course unaware of how it would all come together but was eager to begin. I moved from Cincinnati, Ohio, where I grew up, to the Seattle, WA, area in 1974 or thereabouts. I called The Beledi Centre for Traditional Belly Dancing after reading an article about them in the Seattle newspaper. I told them I wanted to be a professional, and they said they could help. So I enrolled and studied for about 2 years. I took their teaching courses as well. I was fortunate to have Mary Dossett for a teacher. She was excellent at breaking down movement. She put out some fine dancers as evidenced by her Beledi Dance Troupe.
The music, costuming, and beauty of the dance movements was so exciting. I had performed as an actress in High School and colleg and loved it, but didn't see it as a career option. Dancing filled the void I felt in leaving acting behind. The Greek restaurants/nightclubs at that time featured solo dance artists who made their living dancing, and this sounded attractive to me. I thought I would do it for a while, maybe 5 years or so. So I practiced hard and auditioned at various places, and usually got the job, at least for a while. Back then, a restaurant/nightclub would hire one dancer for 3 to 6 months, advertising their establishment in the newspaper with the dancer's photograph. Eventually they wanted a change and would hire someone else. Then I would leave town and seek work elsewhere. I danced ongoing for about 10 years in Greek restaurants/nightclubs in Seattle, Cincinnati, Vail, Co and Denver. In 1981 I was invited by Lorie (Muir) Graff and Jean Wood who originated Jehlor Belly Dance costume patterns and Jareeda magazine, to tour the Northwest with them. They would teach costuming and I dance workshops. This began my journey towards building a national reputation as a teacher as well as a dancer, and I am grateful to them for this opportunity. I liked the traveling as well as the dancing. It provided many stimulating experiences that were personally satisfying. In 1978 I toured with a group of Greek musicians, singers and folk dancers in a program called Holiday in Greece. I learned costume making from the dancer Zahmeenah who was also on tour. She orginally called me about the job offer. They were looking for two belly dancers and Zahmeenah suggested that we go together. So we did. She left early but I stayed for 2 1/2 months. The consistent dancing helped me polish my technique and style. It was also on this tour that I fell in a job performing at the beautiful Greek Restaurant "Kostas" in Vail, Co. I got a lot of publicity while I was there, and it was very glamorous. I left there in the spring of 1980 for Denver where I continued to dance regularly in clubs for another 6 years. I now make my home here.
Ne-Kajira: Were there times you questioned your choices?
Suzanna: Yes, many times during the nightclub years. It seemed a consistent struggle. The dancing to live music was great, and it appeared glamorous, but life is always full of challenges and dancing through them was so healing. However, the atmosphere in some of the clubs was difficult for me. I didn't smoke or drink much and didn't like the late hours that I sometimes had to endure. Sometimes I talked with interesting people, but frequently was just hanging around. In those days in some clubs, a dancer was expected to chat with the customers who would frequently buy her a drink. I didn't like this at all. I kept trying to get out of doing this and finally one of the owners in the last club I worked in suggested that he would call me if he needed me again. On the way home that night I thought, "Now what am I going to do?" But I was so relieved to leave it behind, and knew the universe would provide. This was 1986. During the early 80's I was invited to teach a few workshops and I wanted to pursue this. I enjoyed the stage performances of a concert-type much more than nightclub dancing, and frequently did performances of this nature in conjunction with the seminar teaching. In order to further my career, I had to establish myself on the workshop circuit. My goal was to get on the cover of "Habibi Magazine". I went to my first Rakkasah festival in Richmond, Ca, so the editor Bob Salot could see me dance. It worked. He put me on the cover in 1984. I then began to advertise my availability for workshops and performances and this began a new phase in my career. I continued to teach classes here in Denver and to perform at private parties and various functions. I did what I could to bring in more income, including teaching dancersize and yoga when needed.
Ne-Kajira: Do you feel you have given up anything in order to pursue this career?
Suzanna: I never gave up anything to pursue this career, except perhaps a more stable income. I had originally planned to become a schoolteacher and enrolled in Education in college. I was really just grasping for something to make a living at and thought I would make a good teacher, but was not happy in Education, and eventually dropped out after 3 1/2 years. When I read that article about belly dancing, I knew this was what I wanted to do. Life unfolded as it did, and I'm happy with the choices I've made. I've often thought that I wanted to be married and have a family, but I'm one of 10 children, and observed the hardships of that lifestyle, and steered clear of it. This wasn't necessarily a conscious choice. My family is very close and supportive of each other, and wonderful friends have filled my life over the years. I never felt that I fit into mainstream society, but I realized this was okay because I wasn't missing anything. Occasionally the preconceived ideas of people had about belly dancing caused me to feel a little isolated, but I dealt with this over time.
Ne-Kajira: What are some of the highlights of your career? What are some of the most memorable moments?
Suzanna: I've met so many wonderful people from all over the world, and many are still friends. I think my first big highlight was in 1983 when I auditioned for the Colorado Dance Festival. This is a mainstream national dance event, and teachers come throughout the states to teach and perform. It was a live audition in front of a panel of three judges from throughout the country who were classically trained dancers. Everyone auditioning was either a ballet or modern dancer. My "Oriental Dance Suite" was chosen as one of the acts. I had some friends surprise me by driving down from Washington State to be in the audience. It was so satisfying to have my work recognized by "real" dancers. I began to see myself as a real dancer after this, and I felt more secure pursuing belly dancing as a career. Teaching in Germany for the first time was a highlight, as well as a 1998-performance tour of Germany. The audiences in Germany can be large, 700 and more. Once for a special event in March of 1998 in Dusseldorf, I performed in front of 5000 people.
In February of 1998 I was invited by the dance department at the University of Wyoming to participate in their dance festival as a master teacher. All the students who took the class were from ballet, modern and jazz backgrounds. They were fun to work with, and it was quite satisfying to see their intense interest. There have been many highlights in the 25 years I've been dancing. Dancing with women from throughout the world at my annual dance retreat is always a great honor, and performing at the Rakkasah Festival throughout the years has been great.
Ne-Kajira: What advice would you give to other dancers who wish to pursue teaching as a career? Professional dancing as a career?
Suzanna: My advice would be the same if pursuing teaching or dancing. You know I'm tempted to suggest that one combine it with something else, do it part-time as an occupation. It was such a struggle for my personality the first 10 years and there do not seem to be as many opportunities to dance now as there were then. But we are all different. Learn all your craft well. Know what it is that you are doing. We have a saying in Yoga: let the mind know what the body is doing. This is especially true if you are a teacher. It is important to know how to break movement down and explain it well. This takes time and a willingness to learn. Teaching is a skill that has to be learned, and it carries a great responsibility. However, performing in public also carries a great responsibility. It is important to be good at what you do. It takes a lot of practice.
Ne-Kajira: You have gone through a number of style changes during your career. Can you talk a little about this?
Suzanna: I don't think my style has changed all that much. I'm a stronger, more fluid dancer now, which is the result of experience. When I stopped being a nightclub dancer, which for me meant dancing to fast Greek music and not using choreography, I began to use Egyptian and fusion music in my performances. I then started to develop choreographies. I became more of a concert stage dancer, which has a different feeling to it. The movements will be more complex if the music is complex, and I incorporate themes. You can see this difference in my "Habena" dance on "Dances from the Heart" and the "Oriental Suite" number on "Dances from the Heart II". I still do veil and floorwork and use lots of spins. I rarely do the typical American 3 or 5 part routine on stage any more. My costuming has changed over the years and I've incorporated some of the Egyptian hip movements and arm gestures. If you saw me perform at a private party without choreography, you might not think my style has changed so much, except hopefully I've slowed down a bit and am more thoughtful and relaxed in my dancing. I am still refining my dancing. I've been much more content in myh life over the past 10 years as well, and this will contribute to one's dance expression also.
Ne-Kajira: What do you see as the most important thing you have learned during your career?
Suzanna: Everything (meaning choices, successes, and disappointments) was a direct learning experience. I was consistently being challenged along the way. My pride and insecurities got in the way many times. To relax and let myself be really touched by another dancer's dancing is one of the most important things I learned. To know that there really is enough to go around is a great revelation. To relax my judgements and have compassion for those who would make my path difficult is still challenging. And to fully accept the love and support that has been given to me by so many people is quite a learning experience.
Ne-Kajira: You've traveled a lot during your career, teaching workshops. How would you compare students in the different regions of the U.S.?
Suzanna: People are the same everywhere. We have the same fears, hopes and dreams. These fears and joys are reflected in our bodies. There are always a few exceptionally talented. And then there are many more that get by okay in a performance. Generally in the bigger cities, there is more available in the way of teachers, workshops, etc. and this is reflected in better performances. For awhile the Eastcoast seemed to reflect the Egyptian style more than the Westcoast, or perhaps that was what was more visible to me at the time. Now I think you have a greater variety throughout the U.S. because of the availability of videos and more workshops.
Ne-Kajira: Do students differ in other countries in terms of skill, knowledge or expectations?
Suzanna: I don't think so, not greatly. Some may disagree with me, saying for example that the Germans work harder, and some do, but some don't. I really am under the impression that human beings are very much the same everywhere, given similar circumstances. The more there is available, the better the dancing generally, anywhere.
Ne-Kajira: What other disciplines do you feel it is important for a student to study to be their best?
Suzanna: Any discipline that builds strength, flexibility and balance, especially one that works on aligning the body and opening the chest, is very helpful. This discipline should cultivate self-awareness if it is to really penetrate.
Ne-Kajira: You have always performed as a soloist. Have you ever considered working with a troupe, or have you worked with a troupe? What would be the advantages and/or disadvantages of this?
Suzanna: I actually did dance in a troupe for a short while. The Egyptian Folkloric dancer Amira El Katan lived in Denver for a few years and I was one of the dancers in her troupe studying Egyptian Folkloric Dance. It was a great challenge for me because her technique was so different. But I learned a lot from her. I eventually dropped out because I didn't get as much personal satisfaction dancing the folkloric style. I did enjoy being part of a team, as this was the greatest advantage. It was time-consuming also, and I had to get on with my own choreographies. I've often contemplated putting a troupe together, but I haven't wanted to put the time in just yet. I also realize that this is my career, and most other dancers have less time to devote to practice. This could be a source of frustration to me.
Ne-Kajira: Are there teachers that you would strongly recommend students take classes or workshops from? What people have been your greatest inspirations?
Suzanna: There are many good teachers. I would suggest to a serious student that they study from a teacher whose dancing they like. Most students will absorb the movement style of their teacher. But sometimes a great dancer is not a good teacher. Then I would say to study with someone who knows the basics well and can impart that knowledge well. Viewing performance videos of your favorite dancers regularly can be helpful for absorbing their style, if that is what you want. I've been inspired by many people along the way for different reasons. Delilah, Amaya, Cassandra and Suhaila Salimpour are full-time professionals who come to mind. Horatio Cifuentes, and Bert Balladine and two male dancers who were inspirational. You inspired me in my early years, Ne-Kajira. My teacher Mary Dosset inspired me. I find the work Horatio and Beate Cifuentes are doing in Berlin inspiring.
Ne-Kajira: What other resources would you recommend for the serious student?
Suzanna: Regular classes with a good teacher are the best resource. Nothing takes the place of a good teacher. Then workshops and videos. You have to take to heart what you learn in a workshop though, and practice the material afterwards. And you have to use videos regularly. When I want to be inspired I get out my collection of favorite dancers on video. Then I get up and create.
Ne-Kajira: Belly dance has gone through many changes over the past 30 years. What are the best aspects of these changes? Do you feel there may be negative aspects?
Suzanna: We can't have growth without change. So it's all been good. Costuming now is much better. There is so much available to buy readymade. The information and resources to make your own is tremendous also. The interest in the Egyptian style made choreography more popular and I think this is a good aspect. I would much rather see an inexperienced dancer perform in public to choreography rather than to just get up and "wing it". Dance retreats and longer workshops are getting more popular, so the possibilities for intense study are greater. The most important aspect though is that dancers and teachers throughout the U.S. seem to be more supportive of each other. There is a greater sense of co-operation. This was not always the case and this is not necessarily true in parts of the world where the dance is still new. I can't think of any significant negative aspects. Frequently we have to do down before we come up, and this can cause unneeded suffering for some. But usually this balances out later. However the easy availability of materials and teachers via workshops could cause a student to get overwhelmed and therefore not to develop a strong foundation. I feel beginners are better off sticking to one good teacher for at least a year in order to develop a strong foundation.
Ne-Kajira: You currently have some excellent videos out on the market, both performing and teaching videos. What were your goals for the videos? How did you develop your concept of what you wanted your teaching videos to be like? Can we expect more videos in the future?
Suzanna: My instructional videos are practice videos for students and dancers who already have some knowledge of the dance. They were intended to help the dancer refine her technique, while developing an awareness of how she moves in her body. They are not meant for just learning new moves. It can be difficult to develop a personal practice, and using videos can help stimulate one to develop that practice. This was my intention. I also wanted to stress how important it is to know what you are doing, and to develop a strong foundation with strength, flexibility and balance. My combination dance movements were designed for this. Frequently a student will mimic a teacher and do what she thinks the teacher is doing, without actually knowing what is going on in her own mind and body. This is okay. Some of us learn this way. But eventually it is good for the mind to know what the body is doing. I try to stress the importance of being mindful of your actions (movements) and intention. This can create awareness and harmony that trickles down into your daily living and dance becomes a metaphor for life. It can be exciting to use dance in this way. Like a Yoga practice it can begin to develop into a spiritual practice, bringing mind and body together, teaching us to be more compassionate beings. I was inspired to do the videos through my study of Hatha Yoga in the Iyengar tradition. One of our senior teachers, Manouso Manas, has instructional yoga videos on the market. I sometimes use them to practive my yoga postures, and was inspired by his teaching methods on his videos. I modeled Precision Motion Workout after his video, and my subsequent videos are of a similar format. I stress physical alignment as much as I do because I've hurt myself dancing. I have an anatomical misalignment and have had to adjust my execution of the dance movements to compensate for this. Studying Iyengar Yoga has taught me how to do this. My teaching style for dance is modeled after the style of teaching that I learned through the study of Iyengar Yoga. The goal of the performance videos was to create a work that showcased not just my style, but the many different themes that are possible within the dance. I wanted each individual performance to have a different feeling and to explore the various emotional possibilities within the dance without diverting much from the basic form of the dance. The videos have been well received, so I will continue to produce and market videos as long as they are helpful to people.
Ne-Kajira: Many students feel your teaching videos are some of the best on the market, both for clarity, presentation and an overall workout. Did you script your videos and a "game plan" prior to production? How did you determine how you wanted your video to look?
Suzanna: I do script my videos. I contemplate what I want to do first. I might do this for a year. When I feel I'm ready to do one, I set a date to videotape. The previous week or two before taping, I reduce my classload and then sit down and hand-write my script exactly as I will do it. I use voiceover in my instructional videos, so I write everything exactly as it will be read. Then we tape this and I practice with it. It takes me at least one whole week 4 to 6 hours daily, of writing and planning before I'm ready to do the voiceover. Of course there are many other details that must be attended to. This last video "Lock, Roll & Flutter" was easier because of my experience. It is quite an ordeal, but I love it.
Ne-Kajira: I understand these videos can be ordered direct from you?
Suzanna: Yes, they can be ordered on-line from my website www.suzannadelvecchio.com.
Ne-Kajira: Do you plan to continue offering workshops in the future?
Suzanna: Yes. I love teaching workshops. I especially enjoy my annual dancers' retreat, which I hold here in CO up in the mountains. I will continue to travel and teach as long as I have something to offer and keep getting invitations to do so.
Ne-Kajira: Some people have suggested you offer yearly week long dance camps, with intense instruction for upcoming professionals. Is this something you would consider doing?
Suzanna: I thought about offering longer dance retreats and I think in the future I will do so. Right now, I'm happy with the three full days. I hold my dance retreat in Grand Lake, CO, about 2 1/4 hours from Denver in the mountains. Dancers arrive at Shadowcliff on a Thursday afternoon. We have dinner there at 6 pm and officially being at 8 pm Friday; Saturday, we have five hours of classes and three on Sunday. On Sunday a drummer accompanies us. I teach 1 hour of Hatha Yoga in the mornings with the intention of creating an awareness of how we move in our bodies and to encourage the length of the spine, and the open chest that is needed for dance. In dance classes, I try to bring in all areas of technique. Sometimes I will teach a full choreography, but usually I work with mini-choreographies and combination movements. I frequently have a guest teacher from the Colorado area, who teaches for 2 hours on Saturday. We have a show on Saturday night and invite staff and othe guests from Shadowcliff. There is plenty of time to explore the exceptionally beautiful area with many things to do. On Friday evening we go to the famous Hot Sulfur Springs which are about 30 minutes away, and we also take a cruise on the lake. There is horseback riding, fishing, swimming and hiking, and lots of shopping. The town of Grand Lake is full of shops. I have a library of books, magazines and information on the dance, as well as a video collection. Dancers are free to enjoy these between classes. The food is great, mostly vegetarian. There are 3 or 4 dancers to a room with showers down the hall. We have a spectacular view from the lodge and the chapel where we dance. I also love to watch the drama the hummingbirds create. It is such a nice place to teach and to study. Many dancers return often. I've had dancers from Canada, Australia, Norway, Japan and Ecuador and across the U.S.
Ne-Kajira: You're one of the few international dancers who continues to perform floor taqsim. What led you to leave this aspect in your routines when so many others do not include it?
Suzanna: When I studied dance, floor taqsim was taught and it was expected to be part of a nightclub dancer's routine. I always liked it because it adds another dimension to one's performnace. It is part of the image I have of a belly dancer. It canbe very powerful, as it requires strength and skill. Combined with a sword or other balancing props, floor taqsim can add great interest to a dancer's show. Perhaps when the Egyptian style became popular, many dancers dropped it from their performances. I understand these days in Egypt it is forbidden to drop to the floor. This was not always true though. I saw a video of Nadia Gamal doing veil and floor taqsime. Perhaps it was easy to let go of floor taqsim for some because it is very challenging. My study of Yoga keeps my strength and flexibility up, and I have never stopped doing it. I rarely teach it at workshops because I tend to loose some of my class. Because of the strength and flexibility it takes, many students and dancers shy away from it. I find this unfortunate. Of course it is not always appropriate to do floor taqsims. Without the development of the grace it takes, it can come off looking quite vulgar. One must have the proper stage or venue for it, and take care to do it well. I have been asked to teach it at an upcoming seminar in Florida, so perhaps the interest is returning.
Ne-Kajira: What do you think about when you are dancing? Do you concentrate on the dance itself or do you move more into the emotional aspects of the music? What happens out on the stage? Is the stage persona your true self, or another aspect of yourself?
Suzanna: When I'm dancing, if I'm relatively calm, I'm listening to the music. My body responds to it, and I do move into the emotional aspects of it. I guess I would say that my stage persona then is as close as I get to my true self on stage, because I can only guess what you mean by "true self". I usually do not contrive emotion or expression. I find that difficult and uncomfortable.
Ne-Kajira: Can you talk a little about your future plans? What can we expect from Suzanna in the future?
Suzanna: I plan to keep up my teaching practice here in Denver and my seminar/performance schedule throughout the U.S. and abroad for as long as I continue to be inclined to dance. I plan to do a "Yoga Stretches for Dancers" video for 2000 and perhaps another performance video also. I love choreography, and plan to choreograph for other dancers. I would like to see my works performed by a group of dancers on stage. One never knows what life will bring, so I try not to hold tightly to my plans. I'm not one to set many goals. I would like to continue to explore the possibilities this dance has to offer, and offer my knowledge to interested students.
Ne-Kajira: Is there anything else you'd like to add?
Suzanna: I would like to thank the many people who have made my work possible. I have received such wonderful support throughout the years, and I appreciate the love and joy I have experienced through this dance. I thank the many students who have tolerated and continue to tolerate my mistakes. I also thank you personally for the opportunity to do this interview, and your patience in waiting for me to get it done.
Interview with Suzanna Del Vecchio - July 1999 - ©
© Copyright 2012 Suzanna Del Vecchio. All Rights Reserved.