Silvia Salamanca – Dancing from Experiences and Cultural Roots

Silvia Salamanca – Dancing from Experiences and Cultural Roots

Silvia Salamanca

While at Art of the Belly in March, we had the honor of interviewing Silvia Salamanca. Silvia Salamanca is an internationally acclaimed performer and instructor from Mallorca, Spain who started belly dancing in 2001. An incredible belly dancer she has preformed and taught around the world. As a teacher she is very receptive to her students needs and is open to helping in any way possible, all while sharing her love of belly dance. As a performer, she draws from personal experience to create powerful and dynamic artistic performances that stun audiences. She currently lives in Houston, Texas and teaches regularly. To learn more about Silvia and her work visit her Facebook.

When was the first time you saw dance?

I think I was two years old. My mother explained to me that there was ballet on the TV, and I was wiggling to the dance and music. She always said, “Before you could walk, you were dancing.” So dance has been a part of my life since very, very early.

When was the first time you saw belly dance, and how did you get started?

I started when I was 26, and I had absolutely no idea what I was stepping into. I danced my whole life. I began taking classes when I was five because that was the youngest that they took children back then in Spain. I took flamenco and ballet, and I wanted to be a ballerina. When I was eight, I was admitted into the official arts school that we call the conservatory for the degree that I currently have in classical dance. In Spain, you can declare flamenco or you can declare classical dance and nowadays, contemporary. Where I live, only classical dance was possible. I loved dancing so much that’s what I wanted to do. However, my professors told me that I would never make a living as a ballerina because my body, it’s not ballerina cut.

Now if I would have had better informed professors, they would pushed towards modern dance or flamenco. However they didn’t, which I don’t think is a coincidence because I probably would have never discovered belly dance. I had decided that I would get my degree and then do something else with my life, which I did. I studied biochemistry, but I said to myself, “I just need to dance for me.” It was not about being a professional. For me it was like, “I just need to dance. If I don’t dance, I’d die.”

In Barcelona, the university had a company. The company danced in contemporary, and that’s what I auditioned for. I passed the audition. The company was semi-professional, meaning we didn’t pay for any classes that we took. They trained us three times a week, two hours every day. We were supposed to perform in the university festivals for art exposure.

This ties into how I began belly dancing. In ballet and modern dance, my experiences were of teachers that were extremely harsh and very negative-oriented. They would insult students. They would call us names. They would say, “What the fuck are you doing? You’re a fat pig,” or whatever, or “You’re retarded.” I remember when I finished the degree from ballet going to modern dance, I thought, “These people must be open-minded.” No, the tiger changed the stripes, but it was still the tiger. The person who ran the company would yell at you if you were not modern enough. It was like, “What?” I felt like, “What’s the deal here? You have to yell at me? Why do you do that?”

I was really crushed down, and decided to take a break. After 6 months, at the age of 26, I decided for the first time in my life to pay for a dance class. I remember looking around in community centers thinking I don’t want anything to do professional dancing where I am supposed to hit a certain standard. I don’t want anyone to mistreat me ever again in my life, and I saw a belly dance offer. It was completely random, but I wanted to try something new.

I went to the class thinking, “All right. She yells at me once, I’m gone.” That was my mentality, you mistreat me and I leave. I am putting money in this class. I will leave. By then I was not 15 anymore; I grew up and knew that nothing gave them the right to treat me so badly. What happened was that the most amazing experience of my life was about to be delivered. I remember arriving to class, and it was all women, and it was so relaxed. Nobody was looking down at anyone, nobody was yelling.

Then there she came, the teacher. She was wearing all colors, and veils, and earrings. She put some incense on. She said, “Hi, this is about expressing the feminine divine and getting in touch with your pelvis. Everyone here is a goddess. The more relaxed and happy you are with yourself, the better this is going to go.” I remember thinking, “This is a fucking joke.” However by the end I was saying, “Oh my God. What on earth? I am never leaving this class ever. I don’t care. I am not leaving this side of this world.”

The first movement was breath. Let the belly go out, let the belly come inside. I was crying on my first belly dance class. I remember going into the streets, hopping and doing each step, because I just felt that my pelvis could move like I never experienced before. Also I had the right to breath in air. That women would look at my body and they would think it was something beautiful, not something to be ashamed and be perfected.

I fell in love with my very first class. I didn’t know that shows existed. I knew nothing. I just took one class and that was it for me. After that, it was give me more. I could not get enough. It’s been, honestly, a joyful journey all along.

Why did you decide to become a professional belly dancer?

When I began belly dancing, the idea of becoming a professional dancer was so out of range because of my conditioning. I was always told, “You will never ever make a living as a dancer or as an artist.” So it didn’t even occur to me to make a career from dance. I just knew that I needed to be there because it was erasing the painful memories of narrow-minded teachers. Also, for me, it was very therapeutic.

Silvia SalamancaAt the time I began belly dance, I also began therapy. There was something more happening with my body than just dance issues. What I felt in belly dancing is that I could express my sensuality and my sexuality in the sense of moving the pelvis, and the hip, and the belly, and really that is something sacred. Meaning it was the first time that I felt my body being beautiful instead of being ashamed of it. I found out pretty soon that this was helping me heal, like therapy, from the trauma I was in.

I know it’s not the same for every single one of us, but I think that there is quite a big population that finds belly dance as a safe environment surrounded by women. I felt safe to express myself, and at the same time, I didn’t feel ashamed about the joy that I was feeling. That’s why I needed to keep doing this.

When I went on professionally, it was because at the same time that belly dancing was coming high for my life, biochemistry was going low. My ideals about pharmaceutical research were rapidly changed by experience. I also realized that my body was not an impediment to be a professional belly dancer.

Also, the more I knew about belly dance festivals, belly dance conventions, belly dance workshops, I could not believe how wonderful this community was. I kept thinking, “Oh my God, could I see myself doing this? Wow, it would be amazing.” This community is so supportive, so loving. I just told myself, “Okay, just give it a shot. Yeah, I love it. Seriously, give it a shot because you have something to say. It’s not coming just from a place of surface. It’s coming from a deep place of knowing.”

Also because my teachers, when I asked, “Do you think I can?” they were like, “Girl, are you kidding? Go take them,” versus, “How do you dare?” It was all the support and encouragement that I did not receive before, that now I was receiving within the belly dance community at that time. Still today it brings me to tears to see what I’m doing as a living.

When did you start teaching?

I began taking classes at 26. It would have never occurred, the thought of teaching belly dancing after you have had four, five, six years of training. This is because in ballet, no ballerina would take six months of ballet and go teach, and that was my background. Actually, it was not until much later on that I saw that people take classes six months and then teach.

I don’t want to say it’s wrong, but I would like to encourage everybody to realize that six months of instruction usually is not enough to teach others. You have to immerse into the culture. You have to know much more than what six months of instruction gives to you. Being a teacher involves a lot. I began teaching when I was halfway through my 30s. It was four and a half years, after taking lots of classes and lots of workshops, that I decided I could teach beginners when I was in Houston.

I moved to Houston when I was 28. I have been living in the states for the past 12 years in Houston, although I traveled back and forth a lot to Spain. Probably next year, I will be based again in Spain, but I will keep traveling back and forth a lot.

Is there anyone else in the Houston area? Possibly any collaborations?

Tribally speaking, not really, April and myself are the two. You have Kimberly Larkspur emerging who collaborates a lot with April. Cabaret you have more people. You have Sahira and Simone in Houston. Then in Dallas, you have Isis who organizes the Halla Ya’ll every year, which is a big festival. Kata Maya who is in San Antonio.

There is also Draconis won belly dancer of the world, I believe last year. He’s been teaching here and there, but he is also in Dallas. Although he doesn’t have his own studio, he’s a fantastic dancer. I know that he is emerging as well.

3rd Coast Tribal had its last festival this January but it will be taken over, and substituted by a new festival called Migrations in Austin. We definitely like tribal and tribal fusion.

Is there any one teacher in particular that was the most supportive or had the biggest influence?

The very first one, someone that nobody else knows, her name is Tasnim Melendres. She barely performs, and lives in Spain. She just teaches women because she’s a woman. Her influence on me those first months tilted the scale. She had wired me into loving and nurturing community, which was so different from my past dance experiences. It’s not the person who I’ve learned the most technically speaking, but it’s who connected belly dance to me.

She was, I would say, the biggest influence because it was the surprise. After her, I could name at least a few people who changed me into the style I currently dance as. First was Rachel Brice. Seeing her in video was like, “What? Can I do that?” It got me quickly sucked into the tribal community here in the US, which I feel very blessed that I have been able to take so many classes and so many workshops with all the pioneers of tribal and tribal fusion. Another is Helena Vlahos who I adore. I think she’s a goddess.

After those, I could give you a list of people. Donna Mejia is another person that made an inflection point for me. She’s a professor, which made me go, “Wait a second. We’re changing the game one more time.” Meaning here we are in conventions, but we don’t have belly dance professors in universities. You have ballet or modern dance professors. Donna is a transnational dance professor and she’s a lecturer. It inspired me immensely to blend all the humanity and the welcoming that we have, and to say we are as legitimate as any other dance form in the world.

Why do you dance?

I think I began dancing as a baby to stay alive. I think that the wisdom of my body took over what was going on with me in my very early childhood. Dancing was a natural way for me to express and let go of all sorts of emotion and feel alive. Dancing was precognitive, before I could even think about what I was doing, I was dancing. The story is the same today, we just have added consciousness to it. If I don’t dance for more than a week, things begin to go to a dark place.

Dancing is expressing myself in a way that is more authentic than practically anything else. Since the path has been a conscious one, I feel very blessed that I am capable of having it as a resource to navigate through life. It gives me the chance to process what happens with me in life, simulate it, digest it, and let go of the bad feelings.

I had been working on a piece that actually was first dedicated to one of my grandmothers, but when my husband passed away the piece changed. I changed the initial prop, which was going to be a little table with a bottle of wine. I was tapping into a history of darkness, and sexual trauma, and alcoholism to tell a story about pain, and passion, and the frustration about how I cannot do anything about it.

I must say that as painful as the story is, it is one of the biggest gift that I have in my life that I can enhance it. The blessing that it was received in a public arena, everyone and accept it. When the piece was over in my head all I could think was, “Oh my god. Thank you. Thank you.” I don’t mind sharing this story because just after the week he passed away, I was dancing on that stage. Of course, I was not well. However, once I finished, and I was at the backstage, I expected to be crying for half an hour. I remember very well saying to my sister, “I don’t know what’s wrong. I’m okay.” It was because every single inch of fear was let go on that stage.

I’m not here trying to say it has to be the stage. It has to be a performance, but you can do the same thing in your kitchen. You can do the same thing in the studio. You’re releasing emotions through dance. It doesn’t mean you have to professional on stage. It means releasing emotions and events. I keep dancing because, for me I need to keep dancing to stay alive.

Silvia SalamancaWith whole humility and with personal experience, I’ll be more than happy to help anyone who wants to walk this path, help them navigate, and show them what it can bring to them.

Tapping into our family history, which we carry it in our genes their feelings and emotions. Many, many, many women in my family are talented dancers and singers. They never had the chance to take one class or step onto the stage because in Spain, any woman who dances in public would be of ill-repute. But I remember very clear my first performance, and when I stepped on that stage I thought, “Wow, this is what I want to do.” Meaning, I had this feeling of this is where I belong. This is what I’m meant to do. This is my place.

My mother, my aunt, my grandma, her sisters, plenty of women who would have loved to do this but couldn’t. I feel that I’m doing it for everyone. I feel that all of my ancestors are coming with me and saying, “Yes, you go, girl. I’m with you.” I do have this strong feeling that every time I step on stage, we are a legion. There are plenty of women that now are allowed to do this without being called literally a whore, but I’m just saying it out loud and proud.

Recently you have received a lot of attention for your amazing sword work. Was it a decision to start performing with a sword more?

Half and half; I have to say that I love Belladonna. She has been one of my biggest inspirations, and she was dancing before I was. I remember watching her videos and seeing what she was doing and was amazed. I started using a sword because I have my own troupe that performs at the Texas Renaissance Festival, and we need a big prop to call attention. Now though, my sword performances pull from emotions and personal history.

My late husband has three beautiful and amazing girls. He had them very young. The girls right now are 28, 22, and 20. After he divorced the mother of these three girls, their mother passed away three years ago due to cancer. When she passed away, we were living five minutes away from the girls, and the two youngest ones lived with her. I witnessed Patricia, which is the name of the mother of the girls, battling through cancer and I witnessed my stepdaughters’ pain. I witnessed the pain watching her mother fade away.

I was so angry. I was so angry at God and the universe, and like, “Why? How come?” I was so full of rage that the only thing that I could do is go to the studio. At the time I was working on a sword piece and the idea of creating a sword piece that represented the struggle came from this life experience.

The first double sword that I did with all the crazy shit was from witnessing things here and there from videos, and then thinking, “I want to convey a struggle that was bigger, and bigger, and bigger, and bigger, and bigger.” I finally finished the piece after she passed away, but the idea of not letting go pushed me to carry on with this piece. It is what pushed me to try things that I would have given up on in the past, but I was angry and that pushed me.

It was not a conscious decision, or a decision to do something fancy. Actually, nothing that I do comes from there, which I know some people will not believe. However I do have a critical eye and I always take a good look to make sure routines don’t look horrible on stage. My performances do not spring from looking good, theyspring from the idea of, “This is what I’m feeling and I cannot do anything but dance.” That’s where the swords came from because you have to be strong and it is another mental fight through performance.

I wanted to honor Patricia, the mother of the girls, because she fought with tooth and nail to the very end. I know that my stepdaughters got it. I remember when the youngest one lived with us after her mother passed away, and she saw my performance live for the first time and how I locked eyes with her in the audience and both of us cried. She understood what was happening and what I was saying. Actually, I lost a contact lens during that performance from crying.

I would never go on stage and do an introduction like this before I preform. I think that art is art, I want everyone to take what emotions and experience they can from the piece and not have my experiences direct them. Overall, if you feel something, then mission accomplished.

Do you have any advice for fellow dancers?

For new students, I do have advice. If you encounter a teacher that yells at you, walk the other way. After all my life experiences, I am convinced that when a teacher does not teach you, but just corrects you sharply, and you don’t get any better, it’s the teacher’s inability to detect and diagnosed what’s wrong with the movement. You have the tools to correct it, and it’s the teacher’s problem if they are not capable of letting you learn at your own freedom. It’s the teacher’s ego.

Silvia SalamancaAny beginner student who likes belly dancing needs to find a good teacher. There are plenty phenomenal teachers who lovingly will guide you through this and never be afraid of asking and inquiring. Take as much instruction as you can with as many teachers as you can. If you encounter someone who yells at you, or tells you my way or the highway, or tells you don’t take classes with anyone else, leave and never look back.

For the community, I would say honor the dance and refine it. Honor the fact that this dance form is practiced in the west as a form of feminism, reclaiming on our bodies, feeling the sisterhood, and authenticating our movement. I love student recitals, and I love watching students perform. They are fantastic and magnificent, but when we step into the performance arena, something else comes into the room and it has to be a critical eye. Sometimes, we’re too nurturing and nice that we lose our critical eye of a performance.

One more time, there is absolutely no need to be negative. We can critique in the most nurturing way. We can say to someone. “You’re not ready. You need to be training six more months, and then you will be ready.” We can be encouraging and nurturing to that person, but I would say clarification into, “This is where you are right now, but you will improve.”

Also, I would say keep walking the path of integrating this dance form with the rest of Eurocentric dance forms that are out there in the world. The level of sophistication of our movement has nothing less than ballet or modern.

Is there anything lately, or any dancer, or dance style lately that’s been an inspiration to you?

Donna Mejia is a great inspiration for me since I’ve been applying for a professorship in Spain. Right now there needs to be more legitimate dance professors and belly dancers in the world. So she has inspired me greatly by her dance and by her authority. As artists, so many inspire me..

Rachel, I think, will never cease to inspire me. Also Zoe Jakes, April Rose, and Kimberly Larkspur, who is emerging but she’s an esteemed colleague of mine. Mia Shauri never ceases me to inspire me. I already named Belladonna, but I am going to name her again because I have to. I would say, and this is not just being nice, that practically every instructor that I encounter in a festival inspires me one way or another.

What do you have coming up next?

Next week, I’m in Mexico. The week after, I’m in Cues & Tattoos. Next month, I’m in Tribal Elevation. I have lost count. I thank God for all that I have. I’m traveling a lot, and I feel blessed with every single one of these events. Follow me on the Facebook to keep up, because I’m traveling a lot. DVDs, every year in the addition of Belly Dance Masters. Belly Dance Masters is the event produced by my beloved manager, Andrea Farese, from Stellar Advantage, and I will be teaching there. With this event we are striving to actually to create a college education for belly dancers. Every belly dance masters I shoot two new instructional DVDs. The new ones are going to be about how to transform pain into dance and flamenco based. I think this is going to be a very interesting couple of new DVDs that I’ll release very soon.

Any last anything you want to comment on?

I feel loved and blessed and so grateful for this community. Thank you so very much for anyone who I encounter in my life and is a part of it. Every single one of you ladies is a goddess, acknowledge it and honor it.

Photo Credit in order from top to bottom:
1.) Picture by Konstanze Winkler
2.) Picture by Carrie Meyer
3.) Picture by Andre Elbig
4.) Picture by Carrie Meyer (The Dancer’s Eye)

Article written by Katie Montella and Edited by Keely McGroarty