Belly Dancers... Their Stories, Their Experiences and Their Confessions

Ivy League Belly Dance Students: Welcome to Columbia University Belly Dance!

What images come to mind when you think of students at Ivy Leauge Schools?  Perhaps, future lawyers, doctors... even a future US senator, congressman or even president... burning the candle at both ends with schoolwork and campus belly dance troupe rehearsal?


Meet the life of an Ivy League College Belly Dance Troupe!  Brown, UPenn, Harvard, Cornell, Yale, Princeton and Columbia all have campus belly dance troupes and from what we can see, ALL  belly dancers could learn a lesson or two from these talented students. columbia university belly dance,, belly dance, Dilara Sultan


Jennifer Shearer, Vice President of Columbia University’s Belly Dance troupe, gave a virtual-tour of CUBD - and how the campus club stays focused.


What are the biggest obstacles the group faces on campus?
Our number one challenge is balancing our rigorous rehearsal and performance schedule with our schoolwork.  All of our dancers take their academics very seriously, and it's hard to pull them away from homework and papers for an exhausting rehearsal, but it's a sacrifice we each have to make. 


We have a strict team attendance policy that forbids dancers from missing rehearsals because they have a midterm or paper due the next day (obviously, exceptions are made when they have multiple tests and papers due the next day).  Every troupe member faces the same academic challenges, and our policy is intended to ensure that each dancer contributes an equal amount of her time.  This way no one feel shortchanged, and we can use our time most efficiently.  However, we have had girls decide to leave the team after struggling with their academics.


Our second biggest challenge is funding.  We're performing in the best gigs on campus and often close-out shows, but at the end of the day, outfitting an entire team of dancers in professional quality costumes is no easy feat.  Presentation is everything, and if we want the college community to respect our work, we have to look professional. 


Most college dance teams pass down their costumes from year to year, but for obvious reasons, we can't do that.  Each costume needs to be carefully tailored to the girl who wears it.  Furthermore, each style of bellydance we perform requires a style-appropriate costume, and we aren't willing to cut corners.  Our team is fortunately blessed with dancers who are so dedicated to their art that they contribute to our costume expenses out of pocket, but we look forward to the day when we can relieve them of that burden.


How many girls try out?

It changes from year to year, but we have anywhere from 20-40 girls audition in the Fall.  For some, it is their first belldance experience while others have been training since high school.  We invite everyone to show up and give it a try.  Some of our best dancers were those with zero experience who just had a lot of talent and determination.


How many girls make it?
The number of girls accepted onto the troupe depends on a variety of factors.  We try to keep our troupe between 12-15 dancers.  If, for example, we had 6 seniors graduate the previous Spring, we're going to accept a higher number of dancers than if only 1 senior graduated.


We also look at our budget and consider how many girls we can actually afford.  Of course, we will never turn away talent.  If we see a dancer at auditions who makes us say "Wow!" we will always find a place for her on the team.


How often do practices occur?
We have a regular 2-hour practice once a week, and troupe members are required to attend our weekly 1-hour Open Level class which is open to the entire campus community and taught by us.  Naturally, when we have a big show approaching the number of rehearsals increases dramatically.  The week before any major performance we generally have a rehearsal every night of the week.  We never go on stage unless we are fully prepared.


How supportive is the staff on campus? the students? local community?
Columbia University Bellydance has been blessed with a wonderful club advisor who we adore!  He works so hard for us, and we couldn't put together all our amazing events without him.  We also work hard to maintain happy and healthy relationships with Columbia's tech staff.  We're big on thank-you cards for our stage managers, and always remember an extra slice of pizza for our lighting and sound guys.


The student body is just starting to wake up to our amazing team, but the day after a performance, we often get stopped by students on campus or fellow classmates who tell us how much they enjoyed our dancing.  We also have upwards of 30+ regular students in our Open Level class each week.  They are our troupe family, and we always stop to say hello when we run into them on the street.


The NYC bellydance community has been a great place for the troupe and our individual dancers to thrive.  We've had a troupe feature at Djam under Je'bon and have collaborated with Kaeshi Chai's company, P.U.R.E. (Public Urban Ritual Experiment).  Furthermore, our dancers have gone on to dance at Lafayette Grill, Tagine restaurant, the Grisly Pear with Efendi, Rakkasah festivals, and with local bellydance artists, such as Ranya Renee and Dalia Carella. 


Our current president and an alum who was a founding member of the troupe also danced in Jillina's NYC production of Bellydance Evolution.  We encourage our troupe members to be as involved as possible in the community at large, because it will only make them grow!


belly dance, columbia university,, dilara sultanWhat would you say is the goal of the group? now and later?
First and foremost, our goal is to present belly dance in a professional light and to showcase its astonishing diversity.  We believe that bellydance is an ever-evolving art and do our best to embody that in our work.  Secondly, we seek to challenge ourselves creatively and to express our experiences as people and dancers.  Finally, we want to have fun! We dance because we love it, and if you suck the joy out of our work, then there's no point in performing and sharing it.


How many performances does the group put on?
We host two performances annually: MEDC during fall semester and our full-length production, HIPnotic, during spring semester.  However, throughout the year we are invited to perform at events hosted by other campus groups.


Have there ever been any men try-out?
We have never had any men try out before, but we do have some men who regularly come to our Open Level class.  We also have a team "Meet the Boyfriend" tradition, where boyfriends are encouraged to attend class (and actively participate!) before they receive troupe approval.  It's pretty silly, but our troupe is a family and every family has its quirks!


But besides practice, strenuous school schedules and being BFF's, the ladies of CU Belly Dance host a Collegiate Middle Eastern Dance Conference. The conference date for this year is November 12-13, 2011.


The Conference has series of workshops taught by professional NYC-based belly dance instructors, and ends with a showcase in which they and the other attending college clubs perform. The showcase is open to the public, and aims to increase awareness about the growing Middle Eastern dance community, especially among college students.


What originally started as just an Ivy League conference to open up the doors of communication has opened it’s doors to any college belly dance troupe!


Current CUBD President Joanie Atkinson explained the beginnings of the first Collegiate Middle Eastern Dance Conference to


“During her sophomore year, CUBD founding member and past president Faith Chang was working in the University performing arts office.  Assigned with researching various student clubs and organizations across many college campuses, she realized that there was a noticeable lack of connection and community among student groups of the same nature from campus to campus.  For example, the Chinese students club at Columbia had no knowledge of or interaction with the Chinese students group at Brown.


“Puzzled by this lack of coordination, Faith, at the time president of CU Bellydance, naturally wondered what if there were other college belly dance teams in the area, and if so, what sort of potential existed for creating links between them.  She began researching, trying to find as many regional belly dance clubs as possible.  Upon discovering several teams, many within the Ivy League, it became clear that there was little to no communication between the different groups. 


“Thus, the idea of the Collegiate Middle Eastern Dance Conference was born.  Faith began contacting clubs, asking them if they would be interested in attending a belly dance event specifically for college groups, held in New York City.  The response was unanimous, and soon CU Bellydance found itself host to the first annual MEDC.”


If you are a member of a college-recognized belly dance organization, we’d love to hear from you!  Contact our staff at