…A Behind the Scenes “So Long” from the Raqs Archivist in Residence
I’ve been writing and editing, re-writing and re-editing a book about the growth of Atlanta’s Raqs Community for the last 3 years. It’s embarrassing how it hasn’t been published yet but alas it’s in my possession and goes in as deep as I could about how amazing things became. My fear is that without the studio, certain partnerships and more will be lost. But I have these memories…and I will cherish the day that AFBD and others helped raqs dreams come true!
When AFBD First Arrived at the Studio
I can’t remember what year it was…maybe 2013 or 2014. I had literally retired from teaching and even performing at weddings in the International Community with fellow expatriates. I was swelling beyond belief from stress, excess cortisol and what I didn’t know at the time, an onset of Cushings Disease – it makes you swell up like a whale, feels impossible to walk normal, makes a gluten allergy worse and is related to thyroid issues. This was brought on after 12 years of going non-stop (no holidays), living in two cities at once (Los Angeles and Atlanta) and just coming back from a short move to New York. I was pretty messed up from doing too much, covering too many events and running myself ragged with very few resources to support my work (e.g. not charging the right price for my media services, ignorantly accepting low pay from corporations and businesses). Lesson learned. So, promoting the then Pera Dance Studio was out of the question. I had a fulltime job at CNN International. I didn’t have time to spend another 8+ hours every night going to from studio to studio promoting the opportunity to dance in ours. And you know what, I didn’t want just anyone to dance at Pera! I wanted it to be a home for the real deal…for Atlanta’s Bellydance enthusiasts not just “class space.” One weekend afternoon I invited Samora and tons others to come over and take a tour. My goal was to tell them that the studio was all theirs to use at their leisure. Sadly, the then “security” (for lack of a better word) didn’t allow me to do that. He hauled us all out even though I told him we had a short event that night. So, that went out the door. Few people wanted to work around someone like that and I couldn’t blame them.
About a year later, Faaridah was visiting along with several others from Atlanta Fusion Bellydance. I loved their work and the presentations that they showcased. I felt like they were professionals and on a mission to really raise the standard of how raqs sharqi is being presented in this town and as a whole. Being Nigerian and having lived in an international community all my life, I know what raqs looks like in various settings. Even in our private international communities, we rent out a hotel ballroom and make room for the entertainment. It’s a big deal to us! AFBD was making the appropriate big deal out of raqs sharqi and I wanted everyone to know it. I wanted to give them the keys to Pera Dance Studio and let them turn it into what THEY wanted and could do. But you see, Pera was never mine. I was a guest…friend of the original owner and volunteer. I have absolutely no ownership.
Who Is the Real MissBellydance.com? Surprise, it’s not me!
Step back to 1998, when I was overseeing Raqs al Sharqi International in another city’s cultured comm. I had begun to stare at bellydance hip scarves and clothing quite a bit. Most of which were from online stores, mostly through eBay and international import stores including those of a guy from Turkiye, named Melih, who was living in Atlanta. I had literally lost the time and energy to sew my own. I was still in school and it was impossible to go to class, get a passing grade and still come out with a decent GPA by the end of the semester while staying up all night making beladi dresses (though I tried very hard and made several to the detriment of my grades – but damn I looked good back then on that dance floor). So, I needed ready made clothes and he was my supplier. In our cozy home at the time, I spent hours in the big computer room that was lined with PCs for international students to use – think of a co-ed Fraternity where you rarely hear English and at any time there’d be falafels and tea in the kitchen to enjoy. I spent all Saturday and Sunday there researching and connecting with these merchants while trying to convince my fellow expats that tribal bellydance was a cool thing. We even got a big tour bus and came down to Atlanta to see some of the people I had found online (e.g. Istanbul Café, Awalim, the Turkish Community and a big wish to see Aziza Nawal who we remembered from the cover of the Casbah in Little 5 Points).
Leaving my old international community to go Atlanta’s would be bittersweet but I was very excited to be around people who were presenting raqs on larger stages – cause in our comm we were still pulling the curtains closed and dancing only at Eid parties (never in public). Rebellious me wanted more. Also, everyone was getting married and moving on and I knew I had to do the same. I also chose Atlanta because my professors had been introducing me to people at CNN for years. CNN eventually called me a few years later and I left to head to the A to fulfill my dreams of spending hours in the newsroom with weekends at Istanbul Café and Nicola’s Lebanese Restaurant.
But a detour led me to a coffee shop instead of the café. Right there on Lenox Road next to the mall I coincidentally met Melih, the original owner of the brand MissBellydance.com (remind me to tell you about how I was upset when he decided on the name of the company, I don’t think we spoke for a month – I obviously got over it).
The Beginnings of MissBellydance.com
I kept telling him to take this brand to another level and don’t think small. Every few months he’d have something really cool to show me including a tall mannequin named Alev who had served as a model for the clothes. He always gave me something to take with me in return for any advice or I guess just being present. I told many members of the Atlanta Bellydance Community about MissBellydance (MBD) and tried to get orders for the store. There were times I literally took dancers in person when MBD got a store in Little Five Points near the old Casbah (shukran jazillan Suhad, merci mamnoonam to Saroya/Farzan family for being some of the first customers at that location – I remember it like it was yesterday).
Then suddenly one day, they moved to bigger studio off Collier Road. The first 3 years were rocky. While sales for the clothes were going great, the studio itself was empty with a few classes here and there. Aya of Istanbul was faithful and showed up every week to teach her class. We tried everything but without ad dollars and a marketing budget, the studio remained word of mouth. I was still volunteering when I could but I could not just give up a career in media technology with one of the largest news networks on the planet to promote bellydance classes on no budget. To assist, Suhad drove in from Alpharetta on weekends to teach, Aya on Thursdays and Lawanda came several days a week to teach Zumba. Chebba Raqs held an amazing workshop with Aunt Rocky (Morocco) and Shira, as did World Bellydance Alliance, Fashion model icons Allure, The Real Housewives of Atlanta, Atlanta Salsa Society and many others. But we wanted a fulltime team to take the space and share our dream of supporting huge bellydance events. I had Faaridah and Samora at top of mind but they had their own spaces. I hung in there and just prayed.
Atlanta Fusion Bellydance Moves In
One day Faaridah was in the studio. She was trying on costumes and getting things for her team. I flat out said in all honesty, “You should be here. This should be your home. I wish it was.” She didn’t agree at…at first. But I kept saying it. And one day, when Judith (VP of products for MBD) and Atinc (the current CEO/owner) were all chatting with her and talking about all the things we wanted to do and how we wanted her to be a part of it, she suddenly said, “Okay, let’s just do it.” She moved in very soon after and I felt like life was about to get better. We were about to see some mega raqs dreams come true. And they did!
The Pera Dance brand was quieted and limited to just clothing – a sparkling paisley line of MissBellydance.com wear that was introduced when Melih (the original owner) was still with us (he’s since gone back to Turkiye). Atlanta Fusion Bellydance became the face of the establishment and MissBellydance.com supported them with costumes and being present at their events as much as possible. Not only was I at events but Judith and Atinc would show up as well (e.g. Bellydance Evolution Presents Alice in Wonderland at the Rialto Theatre).
Respecting Real Raqs Sharqi
Promoting Bellydance and cultural art is not easy. Any regular readers to this space and other publications know that without sponsors it’s very hard to get things moving. MissBellydance.com did their best to be a main sponsor of events in Atlanta related to raqs sharqi. I was pretty much in charge of those community relationships with groups who promote the culture and not just “the dance moves.” I continue to do so when possible. But again, I’m not a staff member, I’m a volunteer. I’m not on their official payroll. I used to get a monthly stipend to help cover the time and cost of running social media, technology, community liaison work and assistance with the Amazon store but I’m not official MBD by any means. So, everything anyone saw MBD do was because the team was trying to be a community supporter. Still we had a hard time being respected in some cases. First of all, I’m not the stereotypical raqs artist in American culture – I’m a foreigner’s child and I’m not cute, petite and small by western standards – looking the way I do in this country has come with social and financial consequences. I only dance in our specific international community events (e.g. Norooz Eid, Chaharshanbeh Soori). Second, I don’t give away the company’s money – it’s not my company. Third, I don’t even wear bellydance life attire. I’m fulltime Japanese Street Fashion now. I don’t look like a bellydance ambassador. Many Americans were not ready or respectful of what I brought to the table …which was a realistic picture of what raqs looks like (e.g. real Maghreb women in full clothes, of all shapes and sizes, not speaking English and not playing Nour el Ain at anytime during a show but instead local music in our own dialects). This was not the bellydance they wanted to do because in too many’s opinion, the real deal was just too hard and they didn’t want to have anything to do with it. Thankfully AFBD was the opposite. They embraced the true culture, knew how to present fusion vs. confusion and featured artists that are literally from Egypt and or have studied there on the soil. And that’s what I wanted MBD to support…the actual artists from the region and those who respected it in its true form. People knew I was not going to let that company put its name on just anything. They knew that if they were not as polished and professional as AFBD, then they’d likely get nothing from MBD.
False Brand Assumptions
There were also those who assumed that because MBD was in this beautiful space alongside one of the city’s top dance groups that it was also sitting on piles of cash that could be dished out with the right words in my ear. While I am not privy to their accounting, I know that the cost of the building and overhead for products isn’t cheap. MBD helps where they can, they are not dance company moguls. They are well-known supporters of a community in the best way they know how. It’s Atinc, Judith and her dog plus some really kind support staff and a technical media volunteer (me). To get angry with any of us for not giving out lots of money is just absurd. I’ll never forget during a conference back in 2010 some hotel guests came down to the ballroom to see what was going on (they heard the coin belts and hipscarves). I told them about the conference. The guests asked me where they could begin to learn about the dance art as they had never heard of it and had never seen any place to learn. I told them about the studio and just the mention of it sent the host (who had been eavesdropping) flying into the hallway to yell at me and tell me never to mention the name of the studio again because MissBellydance.com had not put forth the money she expected to support her event. She also said that I should be charged $75 for just mentioning them. The result of her behaviour: two shocked hotel guests who didn’t return the next day to join the conference as planned and a severed friendship. I guess MBD’s purchase of a fullpage ad in the conference event book wasn’t good enough. Not to spread false rumours but I heard that person passed away and may they rest if it’s true.
A Lesson in Stress Management
Managing that space could be stressful. I’ll leave it at that. There were things that I feel could have been done to alleviate the stress but that meant hiring more staff and investing in a marketing budget. AFBD had no problem with that. Since day one they remained cognizant of staffing needs, often having people to sit up front to help with sales for MBD. MBD, however, was focused (and remains so) on dance clothes and being an online dance clothing business that supports the art. This left gaps for stress. But despite difficulties and differences of opinion, they stayed at that space on Collier as did AFBD and together they had numerous talks of what we can all do to be better as a whole even if it meant leaving the space and doing something that was better for all involved. Both groups made a name for themselves. Having AFBD around was the icing on the cake for the company. There were times when I heard people say, “Faaridah owns MissBellydance.com now. She bought it.” Or “They all own MissBellydance.com.” I never correct strangers. So, the rumours perhaps became even more interesting. In my mind, it was always a partnership. I feel that having AFBD there was one of the best things that ever happened. Because of them, MissBellydance.com was in direct contact with one of the most kind and professional troupes on the east coast. AFBD also had models at the ready to assist with photo shoots. MBD was also able to coordinate their sponsorship of conferences by being present at the events that AFBD hosted whether I was able to volunteer or not. AFBD also helped with sales after hours. Despite any difficulties, it was a win-win in my perspective. I’ll always see it that way.
Where is Everyone Going Now?
AFBD have announced they are moving to another space. I’m super happy they found one. As for the future of MBD, they also have moved out of the studio space. I’m volunteering remotely because of COVID19 but not in the capacity that I was and I don’t see that changing in the near future. I hope that both brands will continue to have a winning relationship. The last partnership event in that space took place this past week. I learned about it through my email subscription to AFBD. It was a very engaging virtual shopping event. A member of AFBD showcased cool clothes from both brands with the majority of the items being some of the really cute dance attire that MissBellydance.com has produced over the years. It was super nostalgic for me to watch as they featured each piece of clothing. I wanted so badly to type out the history and scenario of how each garment was made in the comments section with hopes that the buyers would know they are getting a piece of true dance history from a very important time.
Through those doors, we’ve seen the growth of a dance community with, of late, Suhaila’s lead. Faaridah’s outstanding business sense, determination and skills plus the love of countless volunteers brought us so many incredible memories. That studio has seen some big names over the years:
• The Bellydance Superstars
• Aunt Rocky (Morocco)
• Aleya of Cairo
• Amar Gamal
• World Bellydance Alliance
• Raqia Hassan
• Asma Bellydance
• Jilinna’s Bellydance Evolution (x 2)
• Ranya Renee
• Mayte Garcia
• The Purple Hafla – a celebration of Prince
• Andru(s) Ramir
• Professor Kay Hardy Campbell
• Issam Housham
• Amani Jabril
• The Real Housewives of Atlanta
• Suhaila Salimpour
• Bellydance Fashion Week
• Numerous Tribal Bellydance teams and icons (I can’t even name them all)
• Thousands of hours of cultural dance classes
• Fashion Shows with top modeling agencies
• Various community celebrations…
What Made it All Worth It
I remember waking up extra early to greet dancers at 7:30am on a Saturday or go in early just to see a star walk by and try not to squeal. Many times I sat on that bench in the showroom and just thought, “The dream came true. There they are! AFBD, Ranya Renee, Ozgen, Aunt Rocky,…” and a ton of others that I have loved for so long. I feel very blessed to have seen it and I’m so grateful to have had the chance to work along such dedicated dancers all these years. I wish AFBD and MBD all the very best in their new spaces! I’m grateful to all who helped make that studio what it was. Shukran jazillan!