Shimmy Support recently had the honor of interviewing Raqdoll, a professional belly dance troupe in the Philadelphia area. The troupe consists of Jenna, Chrissy, and Melissa who have been dancing together for several years. They do a variety of performances from improv to choreography tribal pieces. Support these lovely ladies by liking them on Facebook.
How did you decide to form your own troupe?
Jenna:I actually came up with the name a couple years before I actually started the troupe, and it was something that was an idea that popped into my head, Raqdolls, and I thought that it was a pretty catchy name. I said, well you know, someday when I have my own troupe, which I felt confident that I was going to have my own troupe, that would be the name.
The first performance that came around was me and Melissa committing to perform at Tribal Fest 2014. We had both made the decision in November that we will sign up for workshops and then take it from there. So we signed up for workshops and we thought, well, if we’re going to be in California, why not try to go and perform? So we filled out our performance applications, and hoping that we would get in, and we got accepted to perform at Tribal Fest. So that was our first performance.
Melissa: Ha! Isn’t that insane?
Jenna: Tribal Fest ’14, and it was a pretty big deal. It was pretty nerve-racking, but it was also an amazing experience because I had never been to California. We had never been to Tribal Fest before.
So that was our first performance and it was pretty amazing how our set came about. We had the freedom to basically choose our costumes, to choose the music, which for me was one of my most favorite parts, was getting to dance to music that I really really loved.
Putting a set together, you have this moment that you feel proud that your ideas have materialized and now you’ve performed it, and then you have the video as a memory, as a sort of photo album, and we thought, okay well, this could be something. This could be a thing, and then, when we got back from California, we decided to perform this set again at the student salon in the summer. Then, come fall, we had pretty much talked Chrissy into joining us, into doing this as a full-time thing. So after the student salon in the summer, Chrissy and I did a duet under Raqdoll for a local hafla.
And that show, we were more creative with. We really went out with the costumes and the props that we used for the set. We just kind of kept going, and then we got into Spring Caravan this past year. That was the first time the three of us were actually dancing together as a trio. It was the first set. This year, when January came around, we decided that we would dedicate our time to doing this, to really make it something amazing and fun and different, and here we are.
So would you say it wasn’t so much a conscious decision? Was it more like you were going to Tribal Fest, so you thought this was just a good time to do it? Or was there a decision, like now’s the time to do it?
Jenna: No. It was kind of Melissa and I originally trying to find someone on the East Coast to commit to going to Tribal Fest, and like seven months in advance is pretty difficult. I had tried to find people just to fly out there for the experience in the past, and never got people committed.
I found somebody who was committed enough to actually sign up for workshops in November and then we made plans just to go, and just to experience it. Then we thought, well, if we’re going to go, how about performing?
So, we needed a name and I said I have this name, Raqdoll, let’s use it. It just, everything kind of snowballed. Everything just kind of fell into place.
Melissa: I think what needs to be said is that performing at Tribal Fest gave us confidence, because we knew that we could do it. So when we came home, we were like, yeah, we can actually do this. Because I think before you start your own troupe, you have hesitations, like you’re not confident enough that you could think of your own music and choreography. Because when you in student troupes, it’s like you never have to think about anything. You just show up. It’s like someone else is doing all the thinking for you, so you don’t feel as confident.
Chrissy: I think it comes down to creativity. I think each of us with belly dance would contribute to whatever troupes we got involved with, but creatively we always wanted to give our two cents. Sometimes, it’s frustrating because when you’re working with other people, you’re not always on the same wavelength. I will say that Melissa, Jenna and I, have differences, nothing’s perfect, but for most part our wavelengths are the same creatively. We just seem to have similar ideas all the time, and it just came into wanting to perform our ideas. Use our ideas for costumes, and our ideas music. Dance is a form of expression and we wanted to express ourselves, and we like to express ourselves together.
If you decide that you want to branch out this troupe and make it bigger, start teaching more, what would you look towards doing that?
Melissa: I think this first year is really important for us to find our own identity together as a three, and then that would be a bridge that we would pass when we crossed, or when we got to it. I think it’s really important for you to know your identity as a troupe as you begin before you include others, because if you found something, a connection with other people on that level creatively, you don’t want to mess with it in a negative way by accident. Also, you don’t want to give a new member a negative experience, in trying to come in on something that is still trying to find its’ identity.
Jenna: Yeah, we’re still in our little baby stages. We’re still working through things, and figuring things out on our own, and I think really this is just we kind of use this also as a great outlet to dance together, because we never always had the opportunity to perform together. We really enjoy performing together, and so this is an outlet for us to do that.
At the moment, we’re not even in the thinking stages of expanding the troupe. I think we’re happy where we’re at, and we’re still growing as dancers. Like I said, it’s in the infancy stages still and I feel I still have a lot to learn.
Chrissy: It’s like when you go with any activity that you put your heart and soul into, you want to make sure that the people have the same amount of work ethic, the same amount of creative input, the same amount of effort, the passion. You would need to find commonality.
Jenna: I’d say that’s a big factor is finding the common ground between everyone who’s involved and secondly, everyone being able to commit to the practice time because that is absolutely essential in building your reputation and building your dance skills and your abilities. Really, having people who are committed to making that time, we’ve managed to do that. I trust the people that I’m dancing with, that I’m in this troupe with, because they constantly show that they’re committed. That’s the important thing.
Besides just knowing people at your studio, do you think there’s any other good ways of finding people to get a troupe together?
Jenna: Absolutely! We attend different haflas, we’ve gone all the way down to Delaware. We’ve been to Maryland, New York, New Jersey, it’s making connections.
Melissa: Workshops. Taking workshops together.
Jenna: Taking workshops. Absolutely. You can find people. It’s amazing with internet and social media, it’s even easier to keep in contact with those people, that you feel like you might be able to start something with.
Chrissy: I know that there are a few dancers, professional dancers, that give lessons over the internet via Skype. I know that being able to communicate in that way is available to us now because of the internet and social media, but of course, location is a big deal. You want to be able to hook up to dance with people that in somewhat livable distance from you, because you really do need to do things in person.
Jenna: It depends on how committed you are. I know some people who drive two hours one way just to get to their troupe rehearsals. So I mean it all depends on how well creatively you get along with the other people, but definitely putting yourself out there, and attending performances, and getting into a community. Start some place, and then you can build from there.
Melissa: I think you need find you, it’s important to know who you are as a dancer. How you like to express yourself, what format, what style, maybe you don’t have a style, but then find like-minded individuals such as yourself and then go from there.
Was there some point that you as a dancer realized you were at a level of dance skill to get together a professional troupe?
Jenna: Definitely. It’s a combination of factors. One, I’ve been dancing with these girls for like six years, and I’ve known their skill level and I’ve always felt like we all match in skill level. Definitely Tribal Fest was a defining moment for me personally, in that not only we did we get to perform, but I felt we did really, really well, and the audience really responded positively to us. So I feel like that was a nice confidence boost, and then not to mention, we’ve come up with our own moves over time as well. We were excited to develop new moves, to have our own vocabulary implemented, that sets us apart from other troupes. It’s kind of nice to be able to come up with something fresh that no one’s seen before.
Chrissy: For you to be considered a troupe apart from any other group of dancers that you’re dancing with, you need an identity. Identity includes creativity, that would involve new moves, costume ideas, your style. That stuff’s really important.
And you can’t claim to be anything extraordinary unless you put in the work to be not ordinary. I feel like Tribal Fest is a big confidence builder as far as, we can do this, we can make the commitment. On stage, the confidence is there, especially for Melissa and Jenna with that experience.
It was just putting your ideas out there. Everything that leads up to that. Having the ideas. Feeling the confidence on stage to try new things. That stuff’s really important.
How have you guys found shows and venues to preform at?
Jenna: It started out as us seeking other opportunities, so seeking out rakkasah, haflas, dancers we know really well, and from then on, it’s kind of branched out. At those haflas, we meet new dancers who invite us out to their haflas and that’s just kind of how it’s been.
All three of us do actively seek performance opportunities, so it is a split. It’s half people coming to us, and then half us finding it.
Melissa: Our most recent experience was when we went to Spring Caravan, there was a troupe from Rochester, New York that was sitting in the audience, and they loved us.
The Bombshell Belly Dance Girls, they really liked us, and they were saying they were from Rochester, New York, and my brother-in-law lives there. So in following them and friending them on Facebook, I come to find out that Bethany runs her own hafla, and then she was inviting another troupe called The Lunachix to perform at her hafla and they’re not from Rochester either.
I also met one of their members at rakkasah too, so it was like through meeting people at Spring Caravan, then all of a sudden, you make connections with these people on Facebook, and that’s how that opportunity came up for us. It was like, “Oh, I’m having this hafla,” so I got her phone number and I called her, and I’m like, “Oh! I want to go visit my brother-in-law the same weekend that you’re having a hafla. Would it be okay if we got a performance slot?” I didn’t want to drive six hours and then not perform.
So that was how we got that, and then, we just drove all the way up there to do that. Then the one girl that we reconnected with said that she is studying Hotpot style, ITS, and that once she gets certified in level 1, she really wants to do a workshop. We’re like, “Oh my god! You should come to Philly!” So, it’s like an ongoing thing where you stay connected with people that don’t live where you live, and so I think the traveling has really expanded our performing opportunities.
Chrissy: I think there’s two parts to it. Fifty percent of making connections is bringing it. Being prepared, having yourself together, being practiced, presenting yourself in a manner that you would like to present yourself, your best. And then the other half of it is being personable, whether it be on social media or in person.
We haven’t had it happen just yet, but I imagine with posting our performance videos, that not only was haflas making connections with performances in that way, you could probably get messages from people saying, “Hey, I saw your performance online. I think we would really enjoy having you come.” Social media lends itself to that as well, but definitely bringing it, and then also being a kind person when you’re there.
Jenna: Also, the most important aspect of it all is how well you perform. How well you dance together. That is always first for us is how well are we in sync together? We do video critique constantly. If you perform well, people will see that, so that’s probably the most important aspect.
Chrissy: You would think with, especially tribal dancing, tribal style, it’s all about your interactions with others, and you’re communicating with others in some way or another. You’d think that that would come naturally in all circumstances. It definitely doesn’t always, and you have to work at it. Even when you get along, you still need to work at it. It’s a relationship and being in a troupe, it’s friendship but it is also business.
Our troupe, since we started dancing together, meeting on a weekly basis, it’s a commitment. It’s like a part-time job.
Melissa: We all have significant others, and we all have real life jobs. It is a big commitment and you have to respect each other and you have to respect your audience. It’s a lot of work, but at the end of the day, if you enjoy it, if you enjoy dancing together, it’s worth it.
What style would you guys consider yourself?
Jenna: ITS, fusion. We always put the fusion in there, just because we might take some elements from Indian dance or maybe modern. It’s kind of whatever inspires us to put something together in a song, but I would say, ITS fusion.
What, up until now, has been your favorite show?
Jenna: Probably Spring Caravan this past year was my favorite. Even though there were little hiccups in the beginning in how we started, but that was probably my favorite performance and plus, that was our first performance as a trio.
Chrissy: And our first performance debuting our new moves that we had been working on.
Who’s your favorite dancer?
Jenna: I have a tie for number one, and that’s Rachel Bryce and Colleena Shakti
Melissa: My number one is April Rose.
Chrissy: I have to say, I have a tie and I’m a little swayed because I started studying with her and she’s amazing. Always, Belladonna and also I’m very influenced by Kami Liddle.