We recently had the chance to talk with lovely Elena Faye. Elena Faye is an award-winning performer and teacher based in the DC metropolitan area. She started belly dance at a very young age, and continued to grow during her time at Columbia University as President of the Belly Dance Troupe. During her time in New York she made a variety of dance connections and received her degree in Middle Eastern Language & Culture with a Minor in Dance. She currently resides in DC where she preforms as a soloist, Nomad Dancers, and Ancient Rhythms Dance Company. She also teaches weekly classes at Saffron Dance, which you can view here. To learn more about Elena please visit her website, http://www.elenafaye.com.
First time you saw dance?
I honestly can’t remember – my mother was a modern dancer so I am sure I saw a fair amount of dance as a toddler. I will say that my earliest memory of really being engaged while watching dance was seeing the VHS of the original Riverdance show in my grandma’s living room. I was totally entranced and had my parents sign me up for Irish Step dance lessons. I must have been in about 1st grade, and I continued Irish Step dance until my freshman year of high school, when I discovered belly dance. I continued Irish Step dance for a few more months, but soon belly dance completely took over.
First time you saw bellydance?
When I started belly dancing, Shakira had just become extremely popular, and I credit her with the fact that my teacher’s class was 90% teenagers. So belly dance was going through a pop media fad, and that was probably the reason it came on my radar. I don’t actually remember seeing live belly dance before taking my first class. However a few months after starting classes, I was having dinner with my mom at a local Lebanese restaurant which had live music and a dancer scheduled to perform. And who should walk in the door but my teacher, a gorgeous woman named Najwah (aka Karen McLane). I was so surprised and delighted to see my teacher – who at the time I didn’t yet know very well, but whom I totally idolized – performing in her richly adorned costume, right before me at this small little place just up the street from my house. The whole thing felt very serendipitous and special. My teacher even forced me to get up and dance – by myself! It was terrifying. But when it comes to performing, there’s nothing like being thrown off the deep end.
How did you get started?
One of my best friends and I randomly decided to try out a belly dance class at a local studio in DC. Again, I can’t remember exactly why we decided to go – I think we also took some flamenco classes – but I wouldn’t be surprised if the “Shakira effect” had a part to play.
Having grown up with Irish Step dance as my only real dance experience, being in a belly dance class was extremely liberating and an entirely new experience. My imagination and heart were totally enthralled by every element of it, from the costuming, to the ability to use my arms after years of holding them down by my side (my mother, the ex-modern dancer, was very relieved), and especially the music. I had never heard real Middle Eastern music before, but it pulled me in and brought me a sense of joy and expansiveness that I had never really experienced in dance before. It felt both invigorating and familiar. When I looked back, I realized that I had actually grown up listening to a fusion of sorts, in the music of Loreena McKennitt, a Canadian singer and composer who uses a mesmerizing combination of traditional European and Middle Eastern instruments, including tabla, oud, & qanun. My dad would blast her music throughout the house fairly often, and soon enough I had stolen all his cds of hers and added them to my own collection. So it turns out I had been listening to Arabic instruments since I was a little kid without even knowing it! I can’t over-emphasize the effect her music had on me as a child, and I think finding Arabic music as a teenager kind of blew my
mind and was a huge part of what drew me into the dance.
Why do you dance?
There are many levels of answers to this question. At the core, I dance because being in motion and in unison with music that speaks to me is like soul food. It brings me a unique and effervescent sort of happiness, and when I first started I would regularly seclude myself in my parents’ basement, dancing by myself for hours at a time simply for the joy of it. I also dance because it is a way for me to connect to my emotional center, and to connect with others. I am generally pretty shy and sometimes very emotionally guarded. Performing dance gives me permission to expand and connect with my audience on a level that sometimes I am not always comfortable with doing otherwise.
Additionally, I dance because it is continually offering a variety of challenges and projects – from technique, to choreography, to trying a new style, to making costumes or cutting music. It can become a truly holistic and all-encompassing art. Finally, I love collaboration. So being able to use dance as a medium for connecting and partnering with others – be they other professionals, other teachers, or even my students – is another r
eason I will keep coming back to it.
- Educate yourself. The internet is an amazing resource. Let yourself get taken down the rabbit hole that is YouTube. Read articles, books, essays, theses – there is a lot out there and most of it is very accessible these days.
- Cross train. I love seeing students jump out of their comfort zones, studying with a variety of teachers, exploring other types of belly dance, or even taking other dance styles entirely. Personally, I grew so much through my study of Central Asian dance. There is so much knowledge to be gained from a variety of dance styles. Also I think remembering to keep studying no matter how seasoned you are is a great way to keep growing and to stay inspired.
Anything inspiring you lately?
The past 6 months I’ve really been working to make time for myself outside of work. I’ve been taking Swing dance classes as well as a lot of Zumba (I’m going to start teaching this month), started an Etsy store (thefaeryringboutique.etsy.com), and for the new year am going to work to spend more time outside. I’m definitely finding a new renewed sense of inspiration in all these different endeavors, and they’ve influenced my general well-being as well as my creativity. For 2017 I’d like to keep it up by reclaiming my role as a student – I’d like to learn how to sew better, improve my Photoshop skills, and continue taking some non-bellydance dance classes (I’m thinking Salsa and dancehall next!).
More information on classes and where you teach?
I teach at a belly dance studio in Arlington, Virginia called Saffron Dance. We’ve been around since 2007, and I think our program is pretty unique. Students can sign up for just technique, or if they would like to perform they can join a year-long Student Company. Depending on the year we have anywhere from 7-11 Companies, ranging in style and technique level. Students remain with the same group and the same teacher the entire year. This allows them to become comfortable with one another and makes for some great friendships. Each Company performs 3 times a year, and is outfitted with custom-made costumes. We also have Performance Classes, which don’t have the year-long commitment and give students a chance to try out new styles, such as Persian Classical Dance, Tribal Fusion, Khaligy, Bollywood, and Balkan Fusion. I love teaching in such a strong community of hard working students that are genuinely excited to learn and improve.
What’s up next?
Elegant Universe is a Middle Eastern and world dance theatrical spectacular featuring international artists. It has two USA shows coming up soon. The first is Friday, January 13, 2017 at 8pm in Arlington, VA. It is featuring Annie Lum, Elena Faye, Faith Chang, Jenna Shear, Monet, Serena Spears and with special guests Al Massraweya & Banat al Beled. The second show is Saturday, January 28, 2017 at 8pm in NYC, NY. It is featuring Annie Lum, Elena Faye, Faith Chang, Jenna Shear, Monet, Serena Spears and eith special guests Alura, Kaeshi Chai & Sandralis of Bellyqueen, & Syrena Nikole. It also is being presented in partnership with Columbia University Bellydance. For more information about Elegant Universe or to buy ticket please visit http://www.elegantuniverseshow.com/
How did this show get started?
In 2015, I went to Paris to dance in a theatrical show called “Les Memoires de Bastet,” created by my good friend Faith and another French dancer. I spent almost a month there, and ended up helping out a lot in terms of costuming, editing video projections, making the programs, and other elements of show prep. Faith and I had met in college through the Columbia University Bellydance troupe, and collaborating on this project reminded us how much we enjoyed working together. After the show, Faith and I quickly started daydreaming about another show, one that we would create together and that would have a range of styles and influences. Each time we went out to eat, we’d end up brainstorming, and by the time I left for the U.S., we had come up with a preliminary set list and settled on the name “Elegant Universe.” Over the next year we recruited our cast, wrote the script, created the choreography, and made the costumes, and come April of 2016, I was back in Paris preparing for the debut!
What is the idea behind this show?
“Elegant Universe” is a reaction to a few things. First, we wanted to create a stage show with a variety of group and solo numbers, as we were both tired of belly dance shows comprised of 30 soloists. We also wanted to collaborate with others, so we selected cast members who would not only dance but also contribute their own choreographies. Third, we wanted to incorporate a range of world dance styles, such as Persian, Salsa, Samba, & Tunisian, in order to make the show even richer and more varied in terms of costuming, music, and styling (and also a bit more accessible to the general public). And then of course there is the narrative theme, which is an exploration of the night sky – each dance is an interpretation of a myth surrounding a star, constellation, or planet – an idea I first had many years ago and was excited to develop in this show.
Any Advice for anyone looking to start their own show?
Chose your partner(s) wisely. If you aren’t happy working with your team, then you won’t have a positive experience.
Anything else you would like to share about this show?
I am so humbled by the amazing cast we have joining us, and am looking forward to seeing how the show will continue to change and grow with their participation. Faith is of course here from France, as well is Hayal, one of the dancers from the original Paris show in April. Additionally, we are joined by American dancers Jenna Shear and Annie Lum of Saffron Dance, and Serena Spears and Monet from NYC. We also have some amazing local guest artists for the DC and NYC shows.
Lastly, I am really happy to be bringing “Elegant Universe” to the States. When we first created the show in Paris, we raised money on Kickstarter, and a lot of our support came from our community here on the East Coast, so it’s really special that we can now bring the show here for them to enjoy. Creating art that I know my students, family, and fellow East Coast dancers will see is admittedly somewhat nerve-wracking. However it’s such a thrill and I am looking forward to being able to share this dream with them.
1.) Photo by Stereo Vision Photography
2.) This is from Elena’s dance recital in 2006 in DC. My mom is on the far right.
3.) This is Elena’s first solo from 2007, in Najwah’s production of “The Oasis: An Arabian Fairytale.”