Shajara is a dancer originally from Chicago (USA) and based in Madrid (Spain). In addition to specializing in rock-metal dance and other styles, she is a writer, translator, and language teacher. Her academic background includes bachelor’s degrees in Anthropology and Creative Writing, and a master’s degree in Middle Eastern & North African Studies.
We interviewed her to learn more about this eclectic artist, who launched BellyRock in Madrid in 2013. This show has greatly contributed to the birth of rock-metal dance in Spain.
Her first steps and evolution
A dancer living in Spain but born on the other side of the ocean surely faces many difficulties, but also enjoys the best of the both worlds. Tell us a little about your life in the US as a dancer and your time in Spain.
I grew up in a town outside of Chicago, and there were absolutely no opportunities to learn bellydance when I was growing up. In fact, the first time I saw a bellydance class offered in my hometown was only 10 years ago, and it was a very basic beginner level course. As an adolescent, I did a couple of years of martial arts, and as a teenager, I took out videos and books on bellydance from the library. It wasn’t until I was 26 years old, when I finally moved into the city, that I actually started studying bellydance in a studio. Before that, my scarce experience had come from SCA events and sporadic workshops offered at my university. So I must say, I do envy the dancers living in metropolitan cities who started young! By the time I hit my thirties, most of my dance teachers were my age!
The first gig I ever had in Chicago was performing with a clarinet orchestra. It taught me many things, because as an early level dancer, I had to prepare two 15 minute choreographies to orchestral music, so it was largely interpretive/theatrical dance. That completely opened my mind to what could be done in bellydance. Funny how the deeper a dancer gets into the competitive world, the more inclined a person is to be self-critical, because my confidence back then was skyrocketing despite my limited technique.
I think there were several pivotal points in my life as a dancer. One of them was passing the audition for a variety show troupe in Chicago. The act I’d used, inspired by The Indigo, was a Vaudeville-fusion dance with a bustle and flamenco fan to Paolo Conte’s “Via con me.” With the troupe, I had to develop a new choreography at least every 2 weeks, and it was intense, but a great learning experience. Most of the other performers were burlesque dancers, so trust me, I learned how to break a few “bellydance police” rules. This was also my entry into dancing to rock music, since we were encouraged to be daring and eclectic.
We were encouraged to be daring and eclectic: this was my entry into dancing to rock music.
Another pivotal point was meeting a now close friend of mine, Andrea, who was a professional singer and violonist in Chicago. She shared the same artistic vision I had. We were both literary, quirky and cosmopolitan, and combined our energies to create numerous cabaret projects that blended world music, theatre, comedy, and various forms of dance. We eventually named our production company Vaulted Chamber Productions, which I continued to use even as a solo producer, since living in two different continents has prevented us from regularly working together. My collaborations with her included our very first rock-metal dance show, which I’ll explain later.
The last two pivotal points for me were in Madrid. One of them was beginning classes with Lucia Wegner (Chandra), because it more than just built my dance vocabulary, but motivated me to experiment musically and stylistically. The second pivotal moment in Madrid was seeing Gothla for the very first time, and the dancer Teardrop’s mind-blowing peformance to a heavy metal song. That was the moment I told myself, “This is what I want to do. I want to convey that feeling.”
Dance connects the body, mind, and spirit in a way that few arts and athletic activities can.
That being said, dance took on a very personal meaning for me, and it changed my life. It made me see myself in a different way, and interact differently with others. I think every woman in the world should dance, whether it be in an informal or formal setting, because it connects the body, mind, and spirit in a way that few arts and athletic activities can. It asserts the power and strength we all have, because dance is about acquiring and honing skills, it’s about self-expression and the soul, not about having the perfect body or face. Dance reminds every woman of her unique beauty.
And BellyRock was born!
In 2013, you created BellyRock in a foreign country, and with virtually no financial backing. A risky bet. Could you tell us about your idea and inspiration at that moment?
When I moved to Spain in 2011, it was my fourth time in this country, and I had lived in several other countries outside of the US before that. One of the reasons I wanted to live in Madrid is because it’s a great place to be an artist; it’s full of history, nightlife, theatres, inspiration, and many talented people.
That being said, I was fortunate that other dancers were interested in working with me, because my Spanish wasn’t fluent and moreover, I was a foreigner trying to organize a show in a country that wasn’t my own. I am extremely grateful to have found such a supportive network of dancers here.
Back in Chicago, I had acquired experience organizing shows both from working in the troupe, as well as through co-producing themed cabarets with Andrea. I had long wanted to dance to tribal/ethnic versions of heavy metal songs, because so many of them seemed to lend to that style. Just think of the Indian influences in “Wherever I may roam” by Metallica, or the tribal rhythm of “Trust” by Megadeth. Why not make tribal fusion versions of these songs?
I proposed the idea to Andrea, and she was willing to take up the experiment. That was the birth of a show I called Raqs n’ Roll. The first version of it included Indian, Arabic, and reggae versions of metal songs, using violin, bass, and synthesized drums.
A year later, Andrea had moved out of Chicago, so I decided to try producing Raqs n’ Roll on my own. I wanted to give it more of a metal feel than in the first manifestation, so I put out a call for interested musicians, including electric guitar. I was set on having a female vocalist, because one of my goals was to feminize the traditionally masculine art of heavy metal. The result was spectacular; the musicians were incredibly committed, and all of us had an excellent time. The performances included both tribal fusion and oriental bellydance, neo and classic burlesque, glass-walking and fire-eating.
When I came to Spain, I aspired to recreate the same type of live music rock/metal dance show that had been accomplished in Chicago. However, the performing arts culture is not the same here. In Madrid there are a lot of aspiring professionals in music and the performing arts, people expecting pro-level wages and prestigious venues, but not a huge DIY culture like there is in Chicago. Chicago seemed saturated with dancers creating and producing their own shows, some of them reaching exceptional levels in their endeavors, but there was no shame in starting small. I’ve always wondered why the dance world isn’t more like the rock music world; practically all rock bands started out in garages. That whole DIY philosophy has been a big part of my vision in shows like Raqs n’ Roll and BellyRock.
In Chicago, there is a huge Do It Yourself culture.
Needless to say, I wasn’t able to find a band nor a group of musicians to recreate Raqs n’ Roll in Madrid, but luckily there was no lack of motivated dancers. Basically, I wanted an outlet to grow as a dancer, a place in which rock-metal dance could be appreciated, and to share the opportunity with other dancers who were interested in the same thing. That, of course, was how BellyRock came about.
You organized BellyRock practically on a monthly basis between 2013 and 2015. How has this path of three years been for you, in which you’ve contributed so much to the birth of rock-metal dance in Spain?
The short, honest answer is: exhausting! I decided to organize BellyRock on a monthly basis mainly for the purpose of improving my own dance skills; I wanted to get more comfortable on stage and reach my personal best. In the meantime, I ran into some serious physical problems that have made me realize I could never pursue dance on a professional level. Rehearsing every day worsened a medical problem I didn’t even know I had, and I’ve had to cut back significantly on how often I bellydance.
I was very passionate about dancing to rock and metal for many years. It has been priceless choreographing to songs I loved listening to while growing up, and revisiting them through dance. BellyRock, and it’s predecessor Raqs n’ Roll, have also been immensely therapeutic for me. One of the reasons I first launched a rock-metal show was to empower myself during an emotionally difficult moment. This is what I think the point of rock-metal dance is; to empower oneself, especially in a world in which few opportunities offer feminine empowerment.
Last year, I decided to focus my energy more towards a different project, Cabaret Noir, and leave BellyRock in the hands of my colleagues. I’m so happy that they have decided to continue the show, and are taking it to new horizons. It will be great to still participate in BellyRock as a dancer, even though I’m no longer organizing it.
Shajara as a rock-metal dancer
In regards to your identity as a dancer, tell us a little about your work within the realm of rock-metal dance.
I remember the first time I ever danced to heavy metal. It was for a variety show that a colleague organized in a rock bar, so I prepared a sword dance to Megadeth’s “Symphony of Destruction.” I couldn’t believe how positive the audience reaction was! It was also one of the most challenging choreographies I’d ever prepared at the time. Metal songs are extremely dynamic, and I struggled to match bellydance movements to all the different parts of the song. But the degree to which the audience enjoyed the act encouraged me to try dancing to rock music more often.
The first time I ever danced to heavy metal, I prepared a sword dance to Megadeth’s “Symphony of Destruction”.
My second performance to rock music was a song called “Ess” by the Jordanian heavy metal band Jadal. If any bellydancers out there are thinking of experimenting with heavy metal, I highly recommend this song. It’s less than 2 minutes long and combines an Arabic dumbek with electric guitar, making it truly “oriental metal.” Once again, the audience loved the act, and by that point I was on the road to using rock and metal almost exclusively. Basically, if it had electric guitar, I could guarantee a crowd-pleaser, and nothing feels better than seeing audience members smile, clap to the song, and roar with applause afterwards.
Over time, the types of music I prefer dancing to has evolved, naturally, as has my inspiration over the years. When I started dancing to rock music, I picked bands that I had especially loved as a teenager, performing to songs like “Burn in Hell” by Twisted Sister, and “Wherever I may roam,” “Enter Sandman,” and “Devil’s Dance” by Metallica. But some heavy metal songs I love are simply too angry or depressing for me to comfortably rehearse to day after day. In the past few years, I started choreographing to the electro-rock Depeche Mode, another longtime favorite of mine. Also, mixing dark cabaret with rock dance, I’ve taken to dancing to jazz versions of songs by Nine Inch Nails and Marilyn Manson. Since I’ve moved to Spain, I’ve become a huge fan of Leo Jimenez’s past and present music. A few years ago I’d created a choreography to “Mascara de Seduccion” by Stravaganzza. Just recently I completely reformed the choreography, simplifying it to accomodate a different costume, and basically adapting the dance to my current inspiration and state of mind. It shows my blending of dark cabaret with gothic fusion, as I’m wearing tango heels, which in combination with a narrow, restrictive skirt, ultimately affected my fluidity and mobility.
What are the easiest and most difficult aspects of choreographing to this type of music?
Some say that heavy metal is the “modern classical” music, in its complexity, technique, and dynamism. In a way I believe this is true, and that’s what makes listening to it such a powerful experience. This is also what differentiates it so much from traditional tribal fusion music, which has a simpler structure. Metal songs are unpredictable. You have the introduction, 3-4 different refrains, bridges, guitar solo, and finale. The rhythms are typically fast, and above all, the dance movements should do justice to the power and dynamism of the song. This is the hardest part; there are songs I haven’t even started choreographing to because I feel I need to be prepared to do it justice.
I feel that intensity of movement is what characterizes what I’d consider “rock-metal dance.” Exaggerated, powerful, shocking, daring, and sometimes risqué movements are what typically match a heavy metal song. Head bangs, kicks, sudden drops, backbends, splits, and lunges are things I have tried to integrate into my choreographies. Once a show host told me, “I thought you might do a cartwheel on stage.” Lol!
Exaggerated, powerful, shocking, daring, and sometimes risqué movements are what typically match a heavy metal song.
Also, in their dynamism, heavy metal songs often tell a story. This is what I think can be relatively easy, or at least useful in choreographing to it. Usually the message is clear, and all it takes is envisioning the movements that convey that message. When choreographing I usually ask myself: What character do I see telling this story? Are there any movie, book, or theatre characters that I think of when I hear this song? How does the mood change throughout the song, if at all? At any points, does the song transform to calmness, insanity, seduction, anger? How can that be expressed through movement?
Heavy metal songs are like a script in themselves. It just takes time to decode the message and translate it into corporal language.
Heavy metal songs are like a script in themselves. It just takes time to decode the message and translate it into corporal language.
One thing that has inspired me in rock-metal dance is just watching metal musicians with good stage presence. So much of a heavy metal concert is about demeanor and movement, especially the lead singer. Hair whipping, warrior stance, and gestures of power are all aspects of an entertaining heavy metal performance. As a kid, I used to love this clip of Dee Snider kneeling on a car, and later in life I created a metal dance movement based exactly on that.
Here in Madrid, I had a cabaret theatre teacher who was teaching us the concept of command on stage, and he used James Hetfield as an example: all James had to do was enter the stage and raise his arms to have the whole stadium at his mercy. This is why I say that rock-metal dance is empowering, because it can convey the same command as a heavy metal concert. While nerves can certainly get in the way as a performer, it is something to strive for.
Rock-metal dance is empowering, because it can convey the same command as a heavy metal concert.
In Chicago, you worked with a metal band. Could you tell us a little about that collaboration? Have you worked with any similar groups in Spain?
As I mentioned earlier, the rock/metal band I’d worked with in Chicago was a collaboration specific to Raqs n’ Roll. The interesting thing is that these musicians had never worked together before. I picked them each individually, and they collaborated to learn the music. Some of the musicians I’d found online, and a couple others I’d seen perform at a concert and approached them afterwards. In fact, we had two different drummers and two different singers, since there were 6 shows total and some of them weren’t available for all the dates. These musicians were great and I owe them a lot, for all the time and effort they contributed.
Our repertoire included songs by groups such as Metallica, Megadeth, Rammstein, Marilyn Manson, AC/DC, Ratt, Alice in Chains, and Slayer. Each dancer would pick her own song, and then the musicians would learn it. The version of Rammstein’s “Mein Teil”, by both of the singers, was absolutely awesome. Experimentation can yield some incredible things!
Being a DIY show, we had limited video and audio footage that we took ourselves. I compiled it into a demo video so we could have a memory of the show. The audio is from both the first “pilot” show (ethnic-tribal music with violin), and the later rock-metal versions of the show:
Also, as I’d mentioned earlier, here in Madrid I did try for a year or two to find musicians or a full band to recreate a similar live music-dance show. Based on the many musicians who contacted me, I have the feeling that most of them are looking for the stepping stone to the next level in their professional career, and Raqs n’ Roll and BellyRock are simply not that. These shows are artistic experiments with many components that would need months or years of commitment to reach the quality needed to bring it to a prestigious venue.
In Spain, collaborations with music groups is rare, though not unheard of. However, we hope this will change in the future. As a dancer, is there any group in particular you’d like to collaborate with?
In all honesty, and of course within reason, I would collaborate with any group who was interested in working with me. Sure, there are bands whose music I adore, but it doesn’t mean that they would see rock-metal dance as something desirable for their shows. The one thing that all of the Raqs n’ Roll musicians had in common was appreciation for the show concept. Without that appreciation, collaboration would be an unbalanced and empty experience. I’m not a professional dancer, and I acknowledge that, so I’d expect a band to be aware of my specific style and level.
The other thing I keep in mind when considering live music collaboration is that rock-music dance can take up a lot of space. It’s been hard enough performing in rock venues *without* a band, on a stage that has instruments in the background. Also, and without judgement I say this, but I feel many rock and metal bands have too much of an ego to involve dancers. Solo dancers are used to taking center stage, and so are lead vocalists and guitarists, so often there’s a conflict of interest.
An artistic path as intense as eclectic
Although you’ve contributed quite a lot to the rock-metal dance scene, it’s not the only component of your artistic path. What other activities do you do within the world of dance, and what other projects do you pursue?
I would consider dance my secondary passion, for the reason that I started so late in life and have chosen not to take it to a professional level. On the other hand, I have pursued creative writing all of my life, and have a BA in Creative Writing. The great thing about writing and dancing is they use such different parts of the brain, and yet feed into each other constantly. I often take choreographical inspiration from book, movie, and theatre characters, as well as emotions that I’m exploring in creative writing. Also, my fiction writing is very corporal; I love talking about gestures and movement, and dancing helps me become aware of these nuances in human behavior.
Writing is also what inspired me to create Cabaret Noir, a dark cabaret-vaudeville that is heavily character-based and has a cohesive storyline. The host’s storytelling ability was of major importance to this show. I had the feeling that, unlike BellyRock, the show could also be better translated to a theatre context. I organized the show for a couple of years in small venues, but for lack of time, I’ve put that on hold. For it to reach its full potential, it really needed a theater director in addition to my script writing. I neither have the funds nor contacts to arrange that.
I originally became interested in bellydance because I loved the cultures of North Africa and the Middle East. I studied anthropology and have a masters degree in area studies of the Middle East & North Africa. I became exposed to folkloric and bellydance in the popular realm of countries like Morocco and Egypt. Bellydance is a folk dance; it always has been. People dance it at parties and weddings. I can’t remember in which country it was, but once a friend told me that weddings yield a competition as to who could do the lowest backbend while hip dropping!
At the same time, oriental bellydance as a profession has a bad reputation in many North African and Middle Eastern countries. While in Egypt, I went to a nightclub where a live singer and bellydancer were performing, and I was the only woman in the audience! For that reason, I’ve wanted to take my interpretation of bellydance as far away from classic oriental as possible. That is what tribal fusion has done; it’s blended many ethnic dances with European and American modern dances, and has branched out into many distinct styles. I’m all about artistic innovation; that’s how cultures have always developed. I think we can blend characteristics – in dance, costume, and music – from many different civilizations to create something that personally resonates.
I’m all about artistic innovation; that’s how cultures have always developed.
One of my aspirations has been to organize a fundraiser show, as there are many causes out there that are greatly in need of support. I’m a huge advocate of animal welfare, as well as human rights issues across the world. I was especially disturbed by the unsafe boats that refugees are regularly given, which is purely and horrifically unjust. Living near the Mediterannean creates an even greater sense of empathy towards what is happening in and around it. This is the 21st century; nobody should be perishing in the sea just because they need to escape a civil war. I decided to donate a portion of funds made during Cabaret Noir to MOAS (Migrant Offshore Aid Station), so as to build awareness of this crucial human rights issue. I do believe that all art should have a higher cause, as artists are often the most progressive humanitarians out there.
Shajara: where to find her?
Vaulted Chamber Productions (BellyRock & Cabaret Noir): vaultedchamber.weebly.com
YouTube Channel: https://www.youtube.com/user/shajaradance