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Meet Nadira Jamal of Belly Dance Somerville

Today we’d like to introduce you to Nadira Jamal.

So, before we jump into specific questions about the business, why don’t you give us some details about you and your story.
I’m living proof that you should listen to your mother. In 1998, my mom was sent to review a dance performance for a newspaper in Buffalo, NY. When she got home, she said: “you should try this; you’d be good at this.” And she was right.

I did some dance as a child: a little ballet, jazz, modern, and even took a lunchtime West African dance in middle school. I loved moving, but none of the forms I tried felt like they fit me. In particular, ballet felt like fighting my body, not working with it.

So when I tried belly dance in 2000, it was like coming home. That’s not to say that it was easy. Some people think belly dance is just “shaking it”, but we have technique that needs to be mastered like any other dance. And the focus on hip and torso movement can feel really foreign for someone with western dance training, which focuses more on the arms and legs. But that way of moving just fit.

I also loved that there were women of all shapes and sizes dancing, not just in class, but also in dancer showcases. I had left a world where nobody is ever good enough, and entered one where variety was appreciated.

In 2003, my teacher, Amira Jamal, nudged me to start performing at the student night at the Athenian Corner in Lowell, which features live music. This was very different from the recitals I had done up to that point: we did full-length shows (6 songs, 15-25 minutes in all), and we danced with a live band, so we needed to improvise the entire show. (And I didn’t know it at the time, but the band leader, Fred Elias, was a legend, having recorded dozens of albums including Middle Eastern and classical music. He even played Carnegie Hall.)

After a few years earning my chops, I began taking paid work in 2006, performing at weddings, parties, and supper clubs. I got my first teaching experience at that time, teaching lessons at bridal showers, and workshops for other dancers.

In 2008, my teacher (herself an MEd) started offering teacher training. In addition to taking her pedagogy class, I did a teaching apprenticeship, student-teaching with her for the Harvard Belly Dance Club.

Near the end of my apprenticeship, I discovered there was space available at Third Life Studio, so I started my first class. I sold out my first session, thanks to the Somerville Arts Council mailing list, and referrals from another teacher who had just moved out of town. Since then we’ve expanded from one weekly class to four, covering all levels from newbies to professionals. My students are now performing at all levels, from our annual recital to nursing home showcases to supper clubs and parties.

In addition to my local work here in Somerville, I coach dancers around the world, focusing on improvisation skills and building a practice habit. I do that through online courses, instructional DVDs, and workshops (which I’ve taught in 6 states.) I also host a monthly online radio show, The Belly Dance Geek Clubhouse.

We’re always bombarded by how great it is to pursue your passion, etc – but we’ve spoken with enough people to know that it’s not always easy. Overall, would you say things have been easy for you?
I had a series of injuries that made it tough to keep up my performing career. From 2008 to 2015, I had seven different issues that kept me off the stage for part of each year. Luckily, I was able to teach by having a more experienced student serve as a “demo body” while I hobbled around in my air cast giving corrections!

Only two of the injuries were caused by dancing but each one taught me a lot about the dance. I adapted my technique to use less force, became much more aware of the role of each muscle in movement, and learned alternative ways to generate each move. Besides making it possible for me to dance, it has given me more options to offer students with physical issues.

And it deepened my artistry: when you can’t use your preferred moves, you have to dig deeper and be more creative.

So let’s switch gears a bit and go into the Belly Dance Somerville story. Tell us more about the business.
At Belly Dance Somerville, we offer group and private belly dance instruction for all levels from newbies to pros.

We believe that everybody can and should dance. Where most western dance wants uniformity, belly dance is about variety. The dance looks totally different, on different bodies, and it’s supposed to. This is traditionally a solo improvised dance form, and it’s highly individual. A single dancer gets on the stage, and shares what she feels, what she hears in the music, and how she enjoys moving. But in our weight-obsessed culture, accepting your body is not easy. So in that spirit, we have a strict body-positive policy, no “diet talk” policy in class.

What I’m most proud of is that we dig deep. The class is always fun and we always sweat, but the dance is about much more than moving. We keep the dance rooted in its cultural origins, getting into context, history, customs, music, and even learning some language tidbits. (I’m conversant in Turkish.) And we geek out on how the dance works, so each student can create her own expression, instead of becoming a cookie-cutter copy of me.

Has luck played a meaningful role in your life and business?
I’m very lucky to be dancing in Boston. According to Amy Smith of Belly Dance New England magazine, Boston appears to have had the first venue in the US to offer Middle Eastern entertainment to the public. (Club Zahra, which opened in 1953.) To this day, we have several venues where dancers can perform to live music, as well as large communities of people of Lebanese, Greek, and Armenian descent.

I didn’t know how rare this was until I started teaching workshops in other states. Besides being much more satisfying to dance to, live music teaches you a lot. I’ve learned as much by performing with good musicians as I have in the classroom.

Teaching improvisation has become one of my specialties, and I might never have learned how if I lived somewhere where recorded music and choreography were the only options.


  • Weeky classes (paying for the semester in advance): $22.50 per 90-minute class
  • Weekly classes (drop-in rate): $28 per 90-minute class
  • Party lessons: start at $275

Contact Info:

Image Credit:
Bruce Mount
Michael Baxter
Somerville Producer’s Group

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