Today I am super excited for you to read this interview on the 4th installment of the Bellydance and Business Series interviewing Karen Barbee of Tx! I met her a few years ago at Bellydance Masters here in Orlando, and was blown away by her and have been wanting to do this for quite some time. I hope you enjoy reading her words of wisdom, take her advice and get to know her a little better. Click HERE to be taken to my About page and learn a little bit more about the author 🙂
Q: In your experience, how has the fact that belly dance does not have one universal naming standard affected you?
In the beginning it affected me tremendously when I was learning (40 years ago). As a student this was messing me up because I came from a ballet background where everything had a name. As a teacher I couldn’t care less, because personally I like to distill things down into the tiniest visible component when working on movements, so it doesn’t affect me.
I keep thinking about one of my teacher training exercises where we will call out a movement and everyone does it. I will look around the room as the students are executing the movement and examine every version of it (usually there are about 10 variations) and then I will say “okay, now we are going to do all ten versions!” This makes everyone realize how many variations are going on just within that one movement.
There are many possibilities within a movement, so when you look at things with an acute attention to its’ fundamental properties, then it does not bother you whether or not there is a name for it.
Q: Who do you look to as the best source for correct movement terminology when you do not/did not know what the name of a movement was?
Suhaila is my go-to simply because I think my brain works like hers in that I “dissect, dissect, dissect”.
Q: As an instructor, does the wide array of names for the same movement cause any confusion amongst students who seek your instruction from around the world?
Not really because of the process I use of getting to the little detailed pieces that create a movement. My students and I end up having long conversations (which they may or may not find interesting) about what they did in “so and so’s” workshops compared to what I am asking them to do.
Q: What do you call the following (or do you have another name you use for them) and breakdown what they are:
- a)wrist circles: I call them by the same name and would break it down as: hold your arm out, fingers to the floor, then to the mirror, up and flip. Or palm upwards, towards you, down and flip”.
- b)jewel: I have seen this and would tell a student to start the movement with a forward figure 8, let it go all the way back, do a little twist, and then a pelvic tuck.
- c)alternating hip lifts and chest raises and drops: I would describe this as an accented hip sway, then an accented rib up with tummy in, followed by an accented hip sway (other hip), and finishing with accented ribs down.d)African shimmy: I don’t use this term. I would call it …whatever it lands on. One way to break this down would be to do a pelvic drop and tuck and add ribs forward and back in opposition and count it on the “in” (contraction) and speed it up so that this becomes a shimmy.
- e)Lotus hands: when I see this kind of movement it looks like the stuff out of the 70’s to me!I just tried to explain this to myself and it made the most sense when I thought of each hand making a figure 8.
Q: What is your view on belly dance certifications? Have you done one yourself? Do you offer certifications of your own? Pro’s / Con’s?
I don’t like them. I understand the overall idea, but if we had some kind of national or international governing body that certified the certifier I would feel much better about it. But as it stands right now, anybody can say “I can certify you”.
The public is impressed by this, but the public is also impressed if you are simply a good dancer instead, so I don’t get it. I have noticed that certifications tend to turn into a “business thing” with people paying a lot of money to get this piece of paper for their own self esteem. I have seen it happen where a certifier will say “come spend 3 days with me, pay me a lot of money, and then I will give you this piece of paper”. To me it is the whole standardization of terminology thing written at large.
So going back, if there were some sort of huge international association that could govern all of this and reduce the greed, then I could possibly see this being a positive thing.
Q: If there was one aspect of belly dance you wish could be standardized (if any) what would it be?
One thing that I think would be helpful would be if we could agree upon “these characteristics make it Egyptian, these, characteristics make it Greek, these Turkish and etc… Having really deliberate articulation of what makes a dance from a region would be very nice.
Q: Tell me about your latest projects, or research studies, and reasoning behind it for our readers.
Latest fun project … well last year when we had our annual show (recital) and I selected a piece of music called Nebtidi mnain el hikaya and we did the ENTIRE original piece! It was really fun choreographically, and culturally it was a great lesson for people. This year we are performing Inta Omri, so we are going to divide the pieces from her 1964 concert into 39 dances that we will weave together, to make this upcoming years’ show for July 2015.
Belly dance as a Career
Q: Before belly dancing, how did you make your living?
I worked at USAA financial services (United Services Automobile Association) it was formed to give people in the military car insurance. When I graduated from college I went to work there, and I transferred from department to department to try and find my niche, but then I realized that it wasn’t in my building lol! My last job was in computer programing, and then I quit and started my own studio.
Q: What is your full time profession? Did you go to college?
I own a dance studio. I have a Bachelors Degree in Computer Science and Accounting. I have also started 3 masters degrees! I first began to go for my MBA which I quit, then I began a Masters in Education (I didn’t really intend to finish, I was just really curious about leaning a bit more about a few topics), and then I began my Masters in Middle Eastern Studies. I quit that one only because the drive from San Antonio to Austin was too much to handle.
Q: Many woman who work a “regular job” dream of being able to dance for a living full time but know that it is risky, difficult to achieve great success, and etc… what would be your advice on this? Should one ever leave their day job?
Here is the truth…I started the studio twice. The first time I opened my studio I fell flat on my butt because I ran out of money in a year due to the fact that I did not set up a great plan, and frankly I was pretty pompous and was not willing to do certain things (I was 26 years old), and afterwards I had to tuck my tail between my legs so to speak and go back to USAA. I swore I would never dance again (I even cut my cut hair very short) but that didn’t last long, so I started teaching again. I began to think about how to do things right if I were to open a studio again, so I began by saving money. I started to create a budget and a plan and get my head around it all so that I would not make the same mistakes.
For me, it is all about numbers, so if numbers are not your thing, then you need to find someone who is good at it to help you have a plan for at least 3 years down the line. Allow for some dry times and flows, and make sure you wrap your head around as many possibilities you can think of so that you are better prepared.
Don’t be so pompous that you wont go dance for free at a neighborhood party. There is a point where you can shut that off, but realistically in the beginning you have to get your studio out there and do these types of things.
Q: Have you ever struggled in paying the bills as a successful belly dancer or has it been pretty easy flowing due to your popularity in the dance industry?
Not since I began putting numbers to my projects and have been realistic about them. I have had to do things like cut projects that I have wanted to do because after I do the numbers I find out that it is too much money, and I am not going to take out a loan to do it. Once I became more business minded, it hasn’t been a struggle.
Q: What business advice would you give to full time belly dancers who have already taken the plunge into leaving their day job in order to pursue their dreams?
Never put all your eggs in one basket. I have gals here in San Antonio who are trying to make it as a performer and do nothing else (shakes head). You need to travel outside of your region if you want to make it and you must diversify! Anyone who wants to make it in San Antonio needs to realize that you have to break into the workshop market, bring others artists in, reach out and explore the demographics in their area and every possibility beyond that to make sure the numbers line up.
I know for me it is good to not have a safety net to fall back on. You need to know yourself and figure out if safety nets are good for you or a crutch that keep you from going into this 100%.
Q: What mistakes should a belly dancer avoid making if possible as a full time belly dancer?
Do not get so wrapped up in being a teacher that you aren’t still yourself a student. This is something that I think as a full time belly dancer one must be really cautious about. Don’t get bored!
This is why I closed down my huge studio years ago. It was humongous, and from the outside everything looked great, but it became a choreography factory and I became bored stiff. You have to keep that spark and enthusiasm going, it is so important.
Q: How do you plan to sustain your career well into the coming decades?
I feel like having my online library will sustain me because I can reference that even if I physically cant stand up and do the movement anymore myself when I am older.
From a personal stand point, I am taking a step back from performing because the fire in me is dimming a little bit in this aspect. I am trying to be very realistic with myself now. I have been performing since I as 13 (40 years now) and there comes a point where I realized that I wanted to gain more depth rather than width (props and veils and candles) in my performance as it would be more stable in the long run.
To Jon Q. (public), a 25 year old with 3 swords is more impressive than a 50 year old with 3 swords if she doesn’t have something different to make her stand out. The sooner you start thinking this the better.
Q: A fear many belly dancers have is the effects of aging on their abilities, is this something you think about often as well?
When I started dancing at clubs in Houston they forbade me to do any floorwork which I was not thrilled about as I was really acrobatic. Because I couldn’t use my acrobatic abilities as often as before, from 1989-2004 I lost some of it. I think about this now though and if some one were to say “do a Turkish drop”, I internally feel like scremaing aaaaah.
When I watch myself on video my biggest critique is that I look too energetic for my age, so there is this weird battle that goes on in my head of looking like I need to calm down because I am “supposed to”. It is always in the back of my mind; my physical ability and how people are reading that. This is especially true if I am dancing locally and there are people there who remember me from restaurant times in the 90’s. It is like my husband says “Karen you and I are in vanity filled worlds, you just need to understand it”. I don’t see it as a problem that it spirals in my head all the time, but I think it is important.
Q: Who are your belly dance idols in performance and in business?
I am really impressed with Jillina because she is a dancer who just popped out of the blue as far as I was concerned, and now she is up there in terms of status. She has really made a name and a brand for herself in a big way.
In terms of my belly dance hero that would be Cassandra Shore from Minneapolis. She is older than me and everytime I watch her I can honestly say “ I want to be just like that”.
Q: Why do you do this? Why do you Belly Dance?
You know…it is just what I do. America Tru asked me this as well and I was just like, “omg…yeah”! I love belly dance and it loves me. It just works.
TEN FUN FACTS ABOUT YOU:
1. I am the baby of my family
2. my husband is running for Mayor of San Antonio
3. I can drink an entire pot of coffee by myself
4. I can eat a jar of peanut butter
5. my favorite color is green
6. I am a slob when it comes to my desk
7. I move constantly, I can never just sit still
8. I hang all of my workout clothes on a clothing line even though I have a dryer
9. I have this huge $2,500 mac computer thatI don’t know how to use, but at least my tech crew uses it.
10. When I was 25 years old I told my band in Houston that I would retire when I was 30! Now I say I am going to double the number! I still work with the same guys.
Any final words that you would like to say?
Make sure your doing this for the right reason.
KAREN BARBEE, a true Master Trainer and mentor , began studying Belly Dance at the age of 10. Over three decades later, Karen has developed a teaching methodology for this ancient dance form based on technical precision, soulful innovation, and cultural respect.
Having begun her study of Belly Dance during the 1970’s, a period of limited explanations, she developed her own. Her background in Systems Analysis enables her to analyze movement, decompose that movement, and explain it to others in a logical way. Karen’s years of teaching have enabled her to hone her teaching skills and develop a strong philosophy and curriculum, which have evolved into progressions she refers to as “From Mastery to Mystery”.
Karen has directed numerous staged productions of Middle Eastern Dance, studied and performed in Egypt and Lebanon, and has worked with some of the most highly acclaimed musicians in the business. In addition, she has produced invaluable instructional DVDs, music CDs and currently runs an extraordinary multi-level on-line training resource which provides answers and solutions to students and dancers daily. Karen has trained and continues to mentor highly regarded talents internationally. She also develops a limited number of customized in studio intensives when her busy training schedule and life as the wife of a prominent politician permit.