Belladonna is a modern fusion belly dance instructor, performers and show producer from Washington DC. She is also a certified yoga instructor, fire dancers, troupe director and artist. Inspired by the power and healing dance can evoke she belies that self expression is essential for ones well being, and hopes her performances inspire others to find a passion they want to pursue. She is best known as a pioneer of modern sword dancing, and for her theatrical performances, creative concepts and her ability to break down and teach complex subject matter.
Belladonna teaches weekly classes in the DC & NOVA area and travels to other cities and countries for specialty events. Over the last several years she has produced 2 sword instructional DVDs and developed her own belly dance teacher training and sword certification programs. To learn more visit baronessofblades.com or bohemianbellydance.com
First time you saw dance?
The first time I remember seeing dance was at one of my cousin’s dance recitals when I was probably six or seven. The piece that stood out to me that I always loved was the can-can piece, and after that I always liked anything dance related. I was very interested in gymnastics and dance. My friends and I would get together and make dance routines to different songs. You know, Wham and Bon Jovi, and that’s what we would do if we had sleepovers or stayed overnight at each other’s house.
I didn’t get to actually take dance classes until I was in fifth grade. I took tap, jazz, modern and ballet for about a year and my teacher moved away. So my only classical training was just for about that year, but during that time I was in fifth grade, and I got really tall and learned I would never have a dancer’s body. It was so intimidating for me because I was the tallest, fluffiest kid in my dance classes. But I just loved it so much, and my mom encouraged me to me to keep going.
She was a musician and a singer so being creative was always a big part of our life. She just let my friends and I goof around and I performed for the first time dance-wise in a lip sync contest. I pulled together my cousins and we were the midnight rockers and we were maybe in fourth grade. I think this was before I even took dance classes and we wore all black in the summertime. It was hilarious and I wore a black leather skirt, so some things don’t change. We danced to a Madonna song in the lip sync contest, but we were so focused on our dance, we forgot to lip sync and we didn’t win any prizes.
Before that I sang since my mom was a singer, so I had sang in a couple talent shows and I liked performing. So as I got older I got focused back on singing, because there wasn’t a lot of dance opportunities. However when I went to college I wasn’t really singing anymore. I didn’t know anybody and I found belly dance accidentally at a medieval re-enacting event. It was one of those moments where I saw the belly dancer for the first time and thought that’s the coolest thing I’ve ever seen in my whole life and I have to learn how to do that. She was just chilling around the fire with some friends who were playing drums, but her movements were so amazing.
So I wrote to her after that event and asked how can I learn to belly dance? I would just come home and practice every single day when I got home from work. I made a deal with myself to buy my first video, I had to get an A on my psychology test and then I could buy the VHS tape. The funny thing was I had to go to a friend’s house to watch it, because I didn’t actually have a TV and VCR. I just remembered being speechless, and I made myself learn how to do a belly roll. I was like alright if I’m going to be a belly dancer, I have to do a belly roll.
I would just practice what I could remember her doing. I would try to do my arms or do a shimmy. I didn’t know what anything was called, and I would stare in the mirror every night and watch my stomach and be like, “Okay, you can do this!” Then one night it happened, and I’m thought wait, what happened? How did I do that? And realized I have no idea. Then I had to wait until I could do it again and again and again. When I finally got the video and they did reverse belly rolls and I thought “Oh fuck my life. I’m never going to be able to do this.”
So it’s funny I tell my students and it was a journey for me. I’m a tomboy from northwestern Pennsylvania who found belly dancing in Clarksville, Tennessee and now it’s my full-time deal. So if you practice and you love it, you can do it. I didn’t have a dancer’s body. That was the thing I loved about belly dance, I had always felt too tall or too chubby or too whatever. Then on the video when Carolina had said about music matching the sway of a woman’s hips and it being so beautiful and it being for everyone, and that’s what I was looking for. I didn’t want something that was exclusive to anyone. I didn’t want it costing a lot of money or only being for people with a certain height or size or color or age or anything. I loved how inclusive it was.
How did your belly dance career get started?
I was totally self-taught for the first several years of my dance career and I saw Kathy in September at an Equinox event and by May I had auditioned for a restaurant and was hired.
I started dancing in a restaurant in Nashville in the spring of 1998. I danced there every Friday night for a season, because they didn’t have dancers in the winter and then I danced there for the second yea. Also I started doing multicultural events, and I did events at my college.
There just wasn’t a lot of belly dancers in Nashville at the time, so I did a lot of shows in Nashville and in Knoxville and was doing American cabaret because that’s all there was. It was kind of a fusion of Egyptian and Arabic styles. At that time there was a little bit of a difference between Arabic styles and Egyptian styles, but now it’s all what we call American cabaret. I just learned from videos and I learned from clients, people who would get up and dance with me at the restaurant.
Then I started going to more events where there were teachers and I traveled to Atlanta to a conference. Also I would take classes from a woman I found in Kentucky, and just kept at it. I just practiced relentlessly and really started playing with my sword in 2000, because I wanted to get really good at dancing before I started dancing with a sword. When I found out you could dance with a sword, it was like the sky opened up and the sun shone down and all was well in the world. I collected knives and daggers and had always been obsessed with sword fighting. That’s how I even saw a belly dancer was I was at a medieval re-enacting event. Then I quit sword fighting because I was so focused on belly dancing.
How did you get started teaching?
Well it’s funny, I graduated in 2000 and I was looking for a job and I walked into this little metaphysical bookstore that had opened thinking I could maybe I could get a part-time job there. The owner was like, I can’t hire you, but thanks. And I said, “Well, would you want belly dance classes, because this friend of mine’s been telling me I need to start teaching,” and she was like, “Oh yes, that would be amazing.” And I was like oh shit, what did I just do? I thought to myself “I’m not ready to be a teacher. I don’t even know what I’m doing. I’ve only been dancing for two years.” I had a friend convince me to start teaching though since there were really no teachers around.
So I put my class schedule and my class criteria together based on a workout video. We would warm up. We would do the exercises or the movements that we were doing for the day, and then we would cool down. I had to start teaching. I had no idea that it would turn into a passionate thing for me. It was literally just I needed a job and she was interested and Kathy was telling saying, “It’s time for you to start teaching.” A lot of the stuff that’s come up for me has happened that way. Where someone says, “Bella you need to do this,” and I’m like no, no no, but then for some reason the universe it like yep.
For example with the sword work even, people are like, “Well who taught you?” I’m like well, I kind of made it up. I wanted to treat the sword like a real sword, but integrate it into dance so it was an extension of my dance, not just a metal piece that I put on my head. I had a woman who was a famous Egyptian dancer corner me in the bathroom at a show, and she’s like, “Well obviously you’ve done this in a past life because it was perfect.” And I’m like oh thank god, because I’m afraid she’s going to be, well authentically, that’s blah, blah, blah. Just like anything though, it just comes with practice. For me there’s a thin line between tricks, like I like to have tricks, but it also has to be about the sword. It’s not just about the tricks, because if it’s just about the tricks it doesn’t have to be a sword that you’re dancing with.
Also I like the history, iconography, meaning and symbolism of it being a sword for my dances. I enjoy all kinds of sword dances and all kinds of different styles and props and things. This just happens to be my approach, that I don’t change the blade in any way. We maintain the blade of our weapon. We clean our weapon just as if we were a sword fighter, and having people do exercises to get comfortable with it, so that it feels second nature, rather than just like a dance prop.
How you got started with deciding to do your sword certification process?
I was teaching a workshop in Pittsburgh and had booked two different workshops in one day. One was a technique class and one was a choreography class, and I said, “You know what would be really cool, would be to do a whole weekend of sword.” And everyone was like, “Oh yeah totally, that would be awesome.” And I was like, “Really? You guys would be interested in that, because I think it would be really fun. We could get a lot done because we’d have more time.”
Normally when I did my summer intensive, we would only do two hours of sword and then we would do drills and then we would do something else. But then I had done my yoga teaching certification and I had started my teaching certification back in 2010. 10, It was really validating when I did my yoga teacher training, because I was already doing a lot of the same structural things in my belly dance teacher training but it let me know I was on the right path.
so when I sat down to kind of map out what it would look like to do a whole sword weekend, and I realized there was more stuff than I could do in one weekend. This is also how the double sword DVD came to be. Originally I was just going to make one DVD and then there was so much material, we could barely fit it on two. So I kind of put my feelers out to my regular students, and I said, “Hey guys, I kind of laid out this outline. Is this something you guys are interested in?” And they were like, “Yes, yes, please.” So that’s how it started. Originally there wasn’t going to be any kind of certification or level checking, but what I realized is we wouldn’t be able to start with the material that was based on other material, unless everyone had done the previous material.
If someone came in at level three and had not done level one and level two, it would take too long to explain what we had already done in level one and level two to get through the material I wanted to teach in level three. By talking to people I decided I have to qualify it and have a test or have a certification so that they can prove they know the material before they move on. I don’t like being exclusive, but it just makes sense because it’s all cumulative, and that’s how the certification came to be.
Why do you dance?
I think dance is really important. I think that our society gets so caught up in our bodies just carrying our brains around that we forget to be in our bodies. I think even a lot of yoga practices nowadays are so geared toward getting a workout, but that’s not the point. The point is integrating and respecting the fact that this is the container that our spirit lives in for this lifetime. I think there’s a lot of disease in our society because of that. We have a lot of physical ailments and limitations and diseases that come up, because we don’t trust and listen to our bodies.
I find that for me, dance is a way to honor that and express myself in a way I can’t with words or even with painting. I think music is magic, and it’s like nothing exists and someone can make music. So being able to be moved by that is what helps me, kind of like therapy. I loved taking dance classes when I was in college because you could be so stressed out about life or family or finances and go dance for an hour and just worry about where your elbow is or worry about actually physically being in your body in that moment. I think it’s really healing, and particularly belly dance because we are accessing energy centers in our body.
Energy healing is one of my other hobbies/interests/pseudo-professions and belly dance really goes hand in hand with energy work. We’re accessing these energy centers and we’re trying to manipulate our body to release things in a healthy way. I think that it is healing even without people necessary going to it for healing. I know specifically one of the reasons I keep dancing is when my students come to me and say, “Taking your class has helped me reclaim my body after sexual abuse,” or “Taking your classes has helped me leave an abusive relationship.” I know from my personal experiences, it helped me heal.
So I teach it because I want to make that available to people. I wanted to go into a dance therapy at one point, but I realized when you put that label on means it’s someone who’s looking for therapy. A lot of us need therapy without wanting to say I’m looking for therapy. So it’s just belly dance. It’s just whatever we’re working on technique-wise or choreography-wise , but I think it’s such a powerful way to embrace and accept and connect with our physical form and in doing so help us release and heal from emotional trauma.
There is other issues that can come up with ego and with resentment and with competition. I think that because it’s such a personal thing to people and that sometimes causes those things come up. I think it’s important for me as a teacher to stay aware of those things and speak to those things so that it doesn’t become dramatic. I am very protective of our Bohemian classes and community. I have seen the rotten apple and the breeding of discontent and how misery loves company, and I have done a lot of work and try very hard as a leader in this community. I stay positively focused on the good that we can do and being the best that each person can be, rather than having people comparing themselves to each other or feeling competitive or resentful toward each other.
We work together to try to respect and treat each other with support and love and even when we feel our egos getting hurt or feel insecure, to talk about it or bring it to the table, or communicate in a way that everyone still feels that it’s healthy and still maintaining that healing perspective.
I try to teach in my teacher training the facets that I have researched as a teacher from the psychology behind dance, to good leadership skills, and the energetic properties behind it. So you know how to speak to something respectfully and compassionately. When I do my training it’s very comprehensive. It’s about the energetic side and the subtle body side, as well as the anatomy, and the technique, and the history. That is what I have found has kept me going as a teacher. If it was just about technique, I would have quit a long time ago.
My advice is there’s a book called The Four Agreements, and I think everyone should read it and it should be a life manual. The concept is to always do your best and to not make assumptions. Also to be impeccable with your word and don’t take things personally.
You can’t take it personal when somebody else does something. If you’re always doing your best, it doesn’t matter how good or bad anyone else is doing, because you’re doing your best. If you don’t make assumptions, because assumptions can lead you false truth anyway. You never know what someone’s motivation are or what’s happening in their life. Being impeccable with your word just means talking about people as if they were there in the same room. If you’re always honest and impeccable with your word without slandering people it saves you from a lot of poison and it just prevents a lot of drama.
So because it is a community those are the aspects I think that are the most concise to keep people moving forward in a positive way, in a healthy way. A lot of times people feel frustrated because they know they’re not doing their best, but if you’re really doing your best, then nobody’s going to get upset. Anybody worth their salt wants to see people succeed. It’s challenging to put yourself out there and to expose your belly. It’s so vulnerable, so just knowing that you’re trying is such a big deal. Just keep your inquisitive spirit alive and check your ego at the door.
Any upcoming events?
We have picked up doing a Bohemian brunch every other month, at a restaurant here in D.C., because it went so well as the brunch after Raven’s Night last year. There is one that is coming up on August 12th and we have three professional dancers who come in and then we have a student/rising star/amateur spot that someone gets to dance in every month.
Then we have another brunch in October after Raven’s Night and then our final brunch of the year will be in December. Then my summer intensive is coming up the first weekend in August, and this year is a rejuvenation weekend, so we’ll be focusing on rekindling your creative spirit. We’ll be doing some journaling. We’ll be talking about the healing of dance and we will be doing some collages. We also do a yoga practice based on strength and serenity and a yoga practice based on trusting your intuition and a couple of new fragments section. A Phoenix and a Dragon fragment based on the dichotomy of the phoenix and the dragon from Chinese culture. Our fragments are our ITS vocabulary. We do ATS that’s Bohemian style, and we’ll do just some drills and some shimmies.
I’ll be vending and performing at Jewels of the Orient in Delaware at the end of August. I’m teaching and performing at Rakkasah East, the second weekend in October, and then my next sword intensive is a level three, the first weekend in November.