Teaching Adults and Children The Belly Dancing Spirit Despite a Hostile Community
It’s not easy being the lone beacon of belly dance in your hometown, but Barbara Donahue is determined to keep shining. Read to see how this modern dancer discovered belly dance and teaches her passion to students ranging from 3 to 70 years old.
It’s not easy being the lone beacon of belly dance in your hometown, but Barbara Donahue is determined to keep shining. While her light may not be recognized by those walking by her riverside studio in Tiverton, Rhode Island, her passion for belly dance has turned her into a self-proclaimed “internet queen”, drawing a crowd from far outside her city limits.
A Raq-y Start
Her love for belly dance is strong now, but Barbara’s path to raqs sharqi was rocky. Her first meeting with belly dance was quite unconventional; she discovered a belly dancer standing at the entrance of a dress, nail and hair shop. With dark skin, black hair, and blue eyes, the beautiful dancer alone would have turned heads, but she was also clad in an all-turquoise costume that resembled something straight out of an episode of “I Dream of Genie”.
“She told me she was a belly dancer but I didn't know what that was,” said Barbara.
Without pause, Barbara asked if she taught classes. The daughter of a gypsy, it was the dancer’s father who had first taught her to belly dance. The two arranged a class at a convent down the street where Barbara taught creative movement and ballet. When the dancer arrived in a black t-shirt and tights, she taught movements that, while uniquely belly dance, did not strike Barbara as so different from movements she already knew.
“I thought learning a dance for such a costume would be much different, yet I didn't know how. I wanted to learn a dance to perform,” Barbara said. “Soon after I went to see this dancer perform... I had never been to such an event. The dancer made her entrance all in red playing zills, shaking her abdominal skin all over and taking dollars in her costume. I was shocked by the whole thing and thought, ‘I will never do that; why would I?’”
Ten years passed before Barbara would try belly dance again. Following both the 9/11 tragedy, as well as the death of her father, she sought belly dance at a YMCA. This dancer taught using her arms, hips, torso - even her eyes. The fluid and graceful movements immediately hooked into Barbara’s soul.
“When I did my first hip circle I felt connected to heaven and earth in a way I never had before while dancing,” said Barbara.
Shining The Light
When it was time for Barbara to open her own studio, a friend tried to convince her to take over the space she was leaving. At first, Barbara was reluctant. Though the space was in an ideal location, it was much too small, in Barbara’s opinion, to teach classes effectively. But when she saw the space, she knew she had to have it.
“It was right on the water, like a dream, so I went for it,” said Barbara.
Being in such a beautiful spot, her studio encounters a great deal of pedestrian traffic. Though locals pass by, they rarely stop in. As it turns out, Barbara’s home town of Tiverton doesn’t accept the beauty of Middle Eastern dance.
“Locals in general are not interested in Belly Dance,” Barbara said. “I have had constant backlash about Belly Dance where I live for any age at all and for even choosing this as a career from those near and dear to me.”
Regardless, she is determined to share the art whether by hosting her own performances in the studio or joining in other local events. Her studio performances began two years ago, beginning with the desire to showcase belly dance without the distraction of eating and drinking, as most performances in the area occurred in restaurants.
She makes the most of her limited space, and is able to provide a dressing room, 16 chairs,16 floor pillows and makeshift stage using an oriental carpet. The end result is a space to dance that is equivalent to most restaurant gigs.
To students, she is always quick to give the advice, “If you can dance here, you can dance anywhere.”
In an attempt to share the art of belly dance with the greater community, Barbara participates in two local events a year. One is an outside arts festival, the other is a fundraiser to raise money to fight hunger. At each event, she organizes a group show, and is the only dance group participating.
Teaching The Dancing Spirit
Certainly, Barbara had a background in dance. Since the age of four, she has learned creative movement, modern dance and ballet. She choreographed her first group dance when she was 16, and began teaching classes when she was 18. When she discovered belly dance ten years ago, immediately she saw the potential her experience had for sharing this art form with others.
Her students range in age from 3 to 70, and move in and out of her studio from locations far and wide; no one student has lasted in her doors more than 5 years, though she hopes to one day teach a student from child to adult.
“Students come from all over and find me at different times for different reasons,” Barbara said.
As the students come and go, she is able to pair people up and showcase a variety of talents to the community. From a duet performed by an 11 year old and 64 year old, to teen and college best friends using their friendships to creatively enhance performances, Barbara loves to create dynamic pairings. She even had a group that spanned the ages of 13 to 50 and included a mom with her teen daughters.
She likes to mix different dance types with different music genres as much as possible to express her creativity, which comes in handy when dealing with the distracted nature of children.
“I'm not sure strict Belly Dance really is for kids. I always mix it up with creative movement because otherwise it isn't fun enough for them,” Barbara said. “The challenge of teaching any age is to find the balance between engagement, control, excitement, entertainment, education, humor and enjoyment.”
To Barbara, success in belly dance requires dance training that extends beyond learning belly dance vocabulary, though she recognizes that there are many opinions on that subject. The fact her students are consistently composed of non-trained dancers surprises her. She hopes to see modern and ballet dancers pick up on belly dance, but that just hasn’t happened yet.
“I understand on one hand why they have no knowledge or interest but on the other hand, I can't imagine why they wouldn't be curious and I feel they are missing so much fun,” said Barbara.