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The Arts

Suspira: In the middle of the movement


They say when you find a true calling you’ll just know. You can’t define it. You just feel it.

A lot of us feel it in our hips.

Why belly dancing makes so many women feel like they’ve come home – the minute they tie the hip scarf – is hard to say. It could be our collective memory of an ancient art. It could be our joy in the femininity that modern life often cheapens, distorts or subdues.

Or it could just be fun. Rhythmically rolling your hips, shimmying your shoulders and interpreting this soulful music is the most exhilarating exercise you can ever get in public. And it’s too glamorous to feel like exercise.

Hundreds of women find their zhuzh at Orlando Bellydance and their inspiration in Suspira, owner, founder and the petite powerhouse who teaches all of her 800-plus students herself.

“It’s a pleasure for me,” says Suspira, looking decidedly different (though just as poised and pretty) at rest and in glasses than she does demonstrating hip bumps, undulations and head slides. “Many people come to belly dance as a form of healing. … They’ve been through illnesses, divorce or just not liking themselves for whatever reason.”

The “sadness and pressure” women feel about their bodies are a regular hurdle for her; she often assures newcomers, “We’re not supermodels. We’re all real women.” She even sees it in her children’s classes: “Body issues … at age 7. I do everything I can to demolish that.”

It works.

“It’s a subtle transformation … and then it’s a huge transformation. They hold their heads higher,” she says, and the discovery of their inner vixen makes her students just glow. Middle Eastern culture doesn’t emphasize homogenous body types like the West does, she says. “They believe it’s offensive to God to criticize a creature that God made.” And at Orlando Bellydance, though you work hard and learn a lot, camaraderie always outclasses competition.

“I have never been one to dance, anywhere. I was scared to death walking into class the first time,” says Nina McLarry, 39, an account manager from Altamonte Springs. It has been two years since McLarry took those first tentative steps through the door, and now she’s in Suspira’s Masters 1 class. “Belly dancing is truly one of the greatest things I have ever done for myself. It remains my ‘happy place,’ where you can just let all of your stresses from the outside world go.”

“Suspira puts you through the paces, but doesn’t force you into too much, too soon,” says Rita Howard, 48, programming coordinator for WFTV and one of Suspira’s level-four dancers. “She sees the beauty in each person, even if that person doesn’t see that beauty herself.”

Before belly there was ballet. Coming from a family of dancers, Suspira started dancing at age 5 in South County, R.I. She began teaching at 15 and taking as many classes and styles as possible, eventually doing residencies with both Alvin Ailey’s and José Limón’s dance companies. Her first encounter with a more exotic dance style was African; there wasn’t even any organized instruction of belly dance in her area, so she learned it from Arabic friends.

She got the gig of a lifetime in 1996, moving from Providence, R.I., in order to dance for Disney at Epcot’s Morocco pavilion. The tireless performer did seven shows a day, five days a week, with a live band and loved meeting people from all over the world. It was a dream gig – but there was another calling that was audible over the music.

“My heart was telling me, ‘You need to have your own place,’?” and so, on the two days a week she wasn’t already booked, Orlando Belly Dance came into being. Eventually she gave up the coveted Disney contract to be a full-time teacher. It was gut instinct, but her dream of having a troupe has turned into a reality of four troupes (Gypsy Za’har, authentic gypsy dance from many countries; Troupe Ahlaam, classical Egyptian cabaret; Serpentina, an eclectic and experimental troupe; and Orlando Dance Theater, professional, classically trained dancers doing a variety of styles). Her classes range from beginners to masters and she’s opening a new studio Oct. 20 in Winter Park.

“It’s a dream come true,” she says of the two studios in her new location – a smaller one for private classes; the other 1,200 feet of floating hardwood floors to accommodate her ever-growing student body. It’s hardly surprising that dancers gravitate here: In addition to the very structured belly-dance class (from Level 1 through Masters 2), there are opportunities to learn other styles, plus workshops in genres from Bollywood to burlesque. An amazing retail shop sells what you need to make your outer sparkle match your inner one.

To celebrate the hard work on the part of the teachers and the students, attend An Evening Unveiled 11, the semi-annual showcase. The shows do sell out quickly, and it’s quite a lot of belly for your buck.

Increasing the visibility of belly dance in the community is part of Suspira’s goal in these shows. “Anybody can learn dance steps,” she says, but belly dance “is spiritual to watch.” There is an incredible intimacy and connection between dancer and audience that makes it impossible for a dancer to hold back. “It just leaks out of them,” she says. “You’re getting a glimpse of something primal.”

That’s the word! Primal. Leave it to the pro to come up with the right word for why so many of us feel so familiar with belly dance when we try it. Gentle, playful, sensual, spiritual, communal and powerful … it sounds too good to be true. But at OBD, you’ll find it in the mirror.

(Liz Langley is a student and a teacher of belly dance and can wiggle her way into – or out of – anything.)
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