Women of Color Spirit Gathering

12 Mar 2017
Photo by Robbie Sweeny

Photo by Robbie Sweeny


“We have been raised to fear the yes within ourselves, our deepest cravings.” ― Audre Lorde

Women of color can spend a lifetime saying yes to others, giving of ourselves, to our community, to our families and loved ones. Especially in these times, a great deal of our emotional labor is spent enduring the pain of sexist, racist, homophobic and other arrows of oppression thrown our way. We need a place that allows our bodies to rest, to work it out, to move our bodies and spirit toward healing.

The Spirit Gathering is a space to say yes to ourselves and be in community with other women of color. This is a non-structured movement space. There will be no choreography to follow and no instruction on dance technique. It’s just music, movement and you. Just move something!

Where: Ellen Webb Studio, 2822 Union Street

When: Sunday, April 16th 1:15pm – 2:45pm

Who: Self-identified cis/trans/genderqueer women of color. Please respect that this is a community-specific space.

How: There is no fee.

Donations for Girls Raks Bellydance and Body Image Program are welcomed, but not required.

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Revolutionary Dancers

26 Sep 2016

We are excited about our Resistance and Revolution production this year because Liberated Bodies in Motion is a theme that is wholly embraced by our guest performers. They bring, not only their talent, skill and creativity to the stage, but powerful stories of defiance, beauty, joy and ancestral promise fulfilled.


Antoine Hunter

In The Root Antoine Antione Hunter calls on our ancestors and presents American Sign Dance, expressing felt syncopation through the body. A Bay Area native, Antoine Hunter is an award-winning African-American Deaf and Hard of Hearing choreographer, dancer, actor, poet and Deaf advocate and the founder and artistic director of Urban Jazz Dance.

monica_high_res_riq_logoEgyptian style bellydancer, Monica Berini presents, Safety Dance, an investigation of the social tug-of-war between traditional and modern healing practices. Berini’s style mixes a long career of professional performing for and with pan-Arab diaspora communities, an ongoing study of the complexities and joys of Egyptian dance, and a love of Arab, North African and Mediterranean music and performing arts. She is also a performing member of Aswat Ensemble.


Ifasina ThaHood Alkemist

With her offering, The Embodiment, ThaHood Alkemist mixes it up with a fusion of hip hop, West African and deep south Black church praise dance. ThaHood AlKemist is a wellness worker and dance teacher. With 15 plus years of dance experience she empowers others, and creates unique dance spaces that challenge external and internalized notions about the way bodies are supposed to look and move when we dance.

ss2With their piece Magical Bodies, the contemporary and hip hop group, Shapes & Shades Dance Company creates something mystical from the struggles with body image and societal pressures. Founded by Megan Briceno this dance company promotes diversity in dance by creating art on bodies of all shapes and shades and sharing it through performance. The group hosts age-appropriate workshops for children to introduce them to dance and body positivity.

Andrea Sendek

Andrea Sendek

Andrea Sendek’s interpretation of Mawood (I’ve been Promised) a tarab song crafted to invoke complex emotion, will be nothing short of breathtaking. She will finish with a pulse raising drum solo. With over two decades of bellydance experience, Sendek has performed and taught across the United States and internationally, including appearances in Japan, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Canada, and South America. In 2015 she founded Khepri Dance Company.


Matilda St. John


Jessica Erin Judd

Jessica Erin Judd and Matilda St. John tackle the lure and the lie of an individualist politic and the power of connection in the face of injustice with their piece, System Failure: The Weight of Individualism. Jessica Erin Judd and Matilda St. John have been dancing together with Big Moves, a service organization dedicated to getting people of all sizes into the dance studio and up on stage, since 2002. They are also Co-Artistic Directors of emFATic DANCE, Big Moves’ resident dance company.

Check out these and other great performances at:                                                        Resistance and Revolution: Liberated Bodies in Motion                                                   

Free! Saturday, October 8th, 7:30pm

Laney College Theater, 900 Fallon St., Oakland

RSVP here!

Can’t attend the show, but you want to support Girls Raks?

Great! Find out more here!

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Resistance and Revolution: Aiwa!

26 Sep 2016
Photo by Robbie Sweeny

Photo by Robbie Sweeny

In the Egyptian Zar spiritual tradition, your jinn is that spirit that is the anxiety, the voice of trickery never leaves you. Unlike Western medicine, that claims to rid you of what ails you with one cure-all or another, this tradition recognizes that we carry trauma in our genes. So you are never rid of your jinn. But on occasion you can, as the Buddhists say, invite it in for tea and discover healing through truth and understanding.

dsc_7852 Through the journey of creating the Zar-based pieces, How is Your Heart (Kayf Haalik?) and this year’s Aiwa! I have found that healing. I have asked myself, “How far, how deep, how wide can this woman say yes to herself?” As a Black woman, society makes it difficult to say yes to the totality of who you are. In this historical moment where we are bearing witness to a particularly commanding expression of Black womanhood, this an especially compelling question. If, in the face of daily transgressions to my very being can I say yes to the whole of who I am? Is this possible to be whole and healed? If so, what does it look like? How does it feel? How does it make me move? What sounds does that healed liberation make?

Robbie Sweeny

Robbie Sweeny

Aiwa! is my story of finding the courage to say yes to the totality of my experiences and to the body that bore witness to it all. Arabic for yes, Aiwa! is an affirmation of self and the claiming of one’s wholeness. Grounded in bellydance’s Berber origins through song, drum and movement, Aiwa! is in essence a liberation ritual. The dance is a healing salve that restores the soul from decades of systemic oppression and intergenerational trauma. Northern African trance-music the Zar, grounds the piece in the notion that there can be no personal evolution or social revolution without healing. Aiwa!

Aiwa and my 2015 piece, How is Your Heart (Kayf Haalik?) are bookends to a series of pieces that will be performed by me and other Bay Area bellydancers in a 2017 production called The Healing Suite.

Check out Aiwa! and other great performances at:                                                      Resistance and Revolution: Liberated Bodies in Motion                                                    

Free! Saturday, October 8th, 7:30pm

Laney College Theater, 900 Fallon St., Oakland

RSVP here!

Can’t attend the show, but you want to support Girls Raks?

Great! Find out more here!

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Resistance and Revolution: The Girls Raks Experience

26 Sep 2016
Monica in rehearsal with Girls Raks

Monica in rehearsal with Girls Raks

It was a classic bellydance song. Lushly orchestrated and dripping with drama, Alf Leyla Wa Leyla had our dancers captivated. And we took note. For six weeks, guest teacher, Monica Berini not only taught Girls Raks some cool new moves, but introduced them to this old school groove, and a few Egyptian bellydancers who have shimmied to it. And so their 2016 piece was born.

Meaning 1001 Nights, Alf Leyla Wa Leya is an Egyptian song made famous by Oum Kalthoum, deemed to be the most gifted and loved Egyptian singer of the 20th century in Northern Africa and the region. Much like many of the songs Kalthoum sung, 1001 Nights is a love song ostensibly about two lovers. But also like many of her songs is doubles as a song about love of Egypt and its people.

Girls Raks

Girls Raks

You and me my sweetheart, my life.

Let us live in the eyes of the night, let us live in the eyes of the night.

In a night of love as sweet as one thousand and one night,

They say it is the life.

What is life, but a night like tonight, like tonight, tonight, like tonight.

Girls Raks

Girls Raks

Girls Raks takes the lyrics even further to embrace love of self. Knowing that our society has a way of turning us against ourselves, their performance flips the script and embraces the concept of self-love. This act of love is compelled not by ego or vanity, but by a sincere appreciation for all that we are, our whole beings.

Check out Girls Raks new piece and other great performances at Resistance and Revolution: Liberated Bodies in Motion                                                  

Free! Saturday, October 8th, 7:30pm

Laney College Theater, 900 Fallon St., Oakland

RSVP here!

Can’t attend the show, but you want to support Girls Raks?

Great! Find out more here!

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Resistance and Revolution Performances: Debut!

26 Sep 2016

Raks Africa, Photo by Lisa Ellis

Resistance and Revolutions: Liberated Bodies in Motion is a theme that holds a great deal of charge for Raks Africa. That word, liberation, speaks to the core of our work. Liberation is a lived experience, not an intellectual exercise. In these historic times that we are living in we cannot ignore that on a daily basis our very bodies are on the front lines struggles to define our world, our nation and ourselves. Liberation is about the space you fill, the name you choose, the people the love and the unapologetic public expression of self that demands respect. It was in this context that we decided to create our piece for Resistance and Revolution: Debut.


Etang of Raks Africa, Photo by Michael Baxter

Debut pokes a bit of fun at the centuries old tradition of debutante balls. These were grand galas where young women from a socially acceptable family, schooled in the social graces were presented to society and potential husbands. The tradition continues in many “upwardly mobile” communities across the country. And many of its sentiments are deeply intertwined with the broader society’s view of what women are supposed to aspire to today. Just check out the bias present magazines on the newstands or how Olympian medalist Gabby Douglas was treated by the media.


Photo by Michael Baxter

Etang and I know that we are social outliers in many ways. I mean, how many full-figured, Black, middle-aged bellydance duets do you know of? Our lives are filled, by necessity if not by choice, with redefining professional success, family, the presentation of a whole dance genre and womanhood. The alternative to living this way is conformity.  Conformity may give you momentary comfort, but we were not willing to pay the price of self-worth that it demanded. We know that losing pieces of yourself with every compromise is even more painful.

So Debut, is our own special coming out ball of sorts. Like any debutant ball, it includes beautiful ball gowns, sparkles, bright colors, lush music and a statement. And we have a great deal to say, and shimmy about with our coming out.

Check out Debut and other great performances at:                                                      Resistance and Revolution: Liberated Bodies in Motion                                                   

Free! Saturday, October 8th, 7:30pm

Laney College Theater, 900 Fallon St., Oakland

RSVP here!

Can’t attend the show, but you want to support Girls Raks?

Great! Find out more here!


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Creative Growth Brings It Home

11 May 2016


It’s been a crazy morning. I’ve been hard at it since 7:00 a.m. answering emails, rearranging my schedule, preparing for trainings and moderating a phone conference. After a quick lunch, I’m on my way to downtown Oakland. As soon as I cross the threshold of the Creative Growth Art Center everything changes. The artists greet me with smiles, hugs and unbelievably inventive watercolor, cloth and found-object creations.

Our Programs 250x670For the past two years, I have been teaching a monthly mid-day bellydance class at Creative Growth, which serves adult artists with developmental, mental and physical disabilities. A quick look around proves that the phrase on their website “providing a professional studio environment for artistic development, gallery exhibition and representation and a social atmosphere among peers” is no exaggeration. It’s a place where you can buy the funkiest jeans-turned-tote-bag for a few bucks or witness the transformation of a canvass that would have given expressionist Jackson Pollock a run for his money.

Exhibitions-top-of-page-imageIt’s my job to get them out of their chairs and on their feet. So our classes are more like a dance party, where what is most important is that you move something! Unlike many bellydance classes, half of my students are men who shimmy just as joyously as the women next to them. And whether it is Egyptian walking to an up-tempo Shabby tune or a doing snake arms to a slow takasim, the artists are happy to take a break from a desk full of chalk, stencils and fabric. I feel really fortunate to have the opportunity to have fun dancing without an agenda, connecting with them and appreciating their work. I often think of my Aunt Eula, who loved music, braiding hair and making cookies, and who had a developmental disability, as well. I am glad to know that there are now places like Creative Growth that embrace the full humanity of the people who walk through their doors.

JohnMartin300x200-300x198But don’t take my word for it. Check out their current exhibit, Home 2016: Where Horror Meets Hilarity Meets Adventure, a title borrowed from John Martin’s drawing of a Simpsons character gone rogue. The exhibit features new work from more than 50 artists. Gallery hours are Monday through Friday from 10:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and Saturday from 10:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m.

Raks Africa gives a special thank you to Studio Manager Julie Alvarado for introducing us to this wonderful organization and Client Services Coordinator Cristina Moraes for assisting us with our monthly classes. You can find out more about the current exhibit here.


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Revolutionary Women

11 Nov 2015

Resistance and Revolution: Sisters Challenging and Changing the World is the manifestation of the belief that strengthening the bonds between girls and women in Oakland with those in Egypt is vital to the global campaign to stamp out violence against women.

This multigenre show features North African, modern, Capoeira and, of course, bellydance! Thanks to the support of our communities, we are able to stage this performance with no admission cost. We’ve posted blogs about the pieces that will be presented by Girls Raks, Raks Africa and solo performances from Tammy and Etang. We’d now like to give you a sampling of the pieces that will be performed by our guest artists Amel Tafsout, Sarah Bush Dance Project, Hala, Stephanie Bastos and Monica Berini.

Amel Tafsout Presents Ifriquiya

This performance calls in Amel’s ancestors and tells the story of her journey through North African Maghreb Dance. Amel’s dance opens with an interpretation based on North African Amel 2Tribal rev. 2013(1)spiritual influences through her unique dance style, then flows into a traditional Andalusian dance from Algiers that conveys the history of the Moors from the Oasis of Biskra , where bagpipes and strong rhythms invite you to join the joy of the dance.

The legendary Amel Tafsout, meaning “Hopes of Spring”, is an international and inspirational first source master dance artist, choreographer, instructor, frame drummer, singer, poet, energy worker and one of the finest exponents of North African traditional and contemporary Maghreb Dance of our time.

Sarah Bush Dance Project Presents Always At The Mercy Of The Elements

Performed by Nina Wu and choreographed by Sarah Bush, this piece is done to the backdrop of the poem “My Own True Thing” by Sarah Webster Fabio. Fabio ( 1928 – SBDP2015-222-FINAL1979) was a poet, literary critic and educator. She taught at Merritt College in Oakland. Students at the time included Maulana Karenga, Bobby Seale and Huey Newton. Fabio’s poetry quickly became associated with the Black Arts Movement through her work in establishing Black Arts departments throughout the West Coast.

This season, SBDP invites you on a journey of site-specific performances to celebrate the wild of our city and ourselves. In a time defined by constant development, technology and distraction, SBDP calls us back to This Land. Oakland.  Visit for more information.

Hala Presents A Celebration of Confidence

“Ma Teegi Hena” (Why Don’t You Come Here) expresses the voice of a strong female character who takes initiative in romantic relationships, expresses herself fully without being shy, demure or playing games. This is a relatively new trend in Egyptian pop songs.HalaBluePointing The woman is no longer the shy, passive one to be pursued and wooed. Today’s girl knows what she wants and goes for it with no apologies. The performance concludes with a lively drum solo that celebrates our natural human rhythms.

Hala grew up in Egypt and has been dancing since childhood.  She has been performing and teaching her native art all over the world since 1997.  In 2006, she opened Halanda Studio in San Jose, where they offer classes in many international dance and movement arts. You can find out more about her at

Stephanie Bastos Presents Timeline

imageTimeline is an intimate and abstract movement study weaving choreography, poetry and song to offer a visceral experience of a dancer’s life through themes of love, fear, identity, discovery and loss. It is choreographed by Leymis Bolanos Wilmott in collaboration with Stephanie Bastos.  A first-generation Brazilian-American, Bastos received a BFA in Dance from New World School of the Arts in Miami and has been performing and teaching Modern Dance for more than fifteen years throughout the United States, Germany and Brazil, after losing one leg in a car accident. Winner of the 2011 San Francisco “Izzies” Award for Outstanding Achievement in Performance Ensemble with Ase West Dance Theater Collective, she has also worked with the Isadora Duncan Dance Ensemble, Urban Bush Women, Axis Dance Company and Ron Brown’s/ EVIDENCE.

Monica Berini Presents OM AL DUNYA

Monica brings a lifetime of inquisitive, respectful and passionate study of Egyptian dance to the stage to combine Saidi style music, stylings and movement with Cairo style dance and presentation. Saidi is an adjective referencing the region of Upper Egypt, an area Monica_Berini_Shamadan_HighResPromosouth of Cairo and north of Aswan. Her first piece, a traditional Saidi song, asks “Oh my healer, why have you left me down and out?” Her use of the stick references tahtib, a very old men’s martial art from Upper Egypt that was adapted by folkloric dancers and belly dancers to be staged as a dance in the early to mid-20th century. A woman playing tahtib is out of the norm and in the context of Egyptian dance can play a bit with traditional gender roles. This is followed by a slowly intensifying song that features the rababa. Finally, Luxor born Metqal Qanawi sings “Salamat Salamat” as Monica plays along on sagat (finger cymbals). The song offers warm greetings, and Qanawi sings “I miss you, and my mind will not rest until I know you are happy.”

Monica is a San Francisco-based performer and instructor who has studied the culture of the Middle East, North Africa and Turkey since her teens. She had a lengthy professional solo career and has spent the last decade focusing on teaching, including at Alonzo King Lines Ballet since 2003. Find out more at

Check out these pieces, Raks Africa’s Two Women, and Girls Raks’ The Calling, at Resistance and Revolution: Sisters Challenging and Changing the World.

Saturday, November 21st, 7:30 p.m. at Laney College Theater, 900 Fallon Street, Oakland. It’s FREE, and it’s about FREEDOM

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How is Your Heart? Kayf Haalik?

11 Nov 2015

“In many Muslim cultures, when you want to ask them how they’re doing, you ask: in Arabic, Kayf haal-ik? What is this haal that you inquire about? It is the transient state of one’s heart. In reality, we ask, “How is your heart doing at this very moment, at this breath?” When I ask, “How are you?” that is really what I want to know. I am not asking how many items are on your to-do list, nor asking how many items are in your inbox. I want to know how your heart is doing, at this very moment.”  Omid Safi, The Disease of Being Busy

My piece for Resistance and Revolution is a story about my personal journey from heart break, to tender-heartedness to healing. When I climbed aboard the plane to Egypt in December of last year I was heartbroken. The weight of conducting trainings and coaching sessions as a racial equity consultant, while bearing witness to the death of black men and women at the hands of a society that condoned and even mandated their demise, left me weary and heartsick. Feeling scorned by one’s own land, like Baldwin, Baker and many other African American artists, I sought solace in another. TJ Nile

But then the brother said, “We are connected through struggle.” While waiting for a show to start in Cairo, I chatted with a man who inquired about the grand jury decision in Ferguson, Missouri. He reminded me that the struggle to resist tyranny of all kinds was a global one. We are not alone, but united in our demand for freedom. And like a deep cleansing breath, those words allowed my heart to once again become tender and open. Then I stepped inside of the Egyptian Center for Culture and Art and felt the beat of the Zar delivered by the Mazaher Ensemble. I was healed.

So this piece, How is Your Heart? Kayf Haalik? is about the transitions of a woman’s heart as she deals with the violent death of women in her world. The piece begins with the calling of 27 names of women who were murdered by state sponsored violence and social acceptance of their plight. There is grief and anguish as she realizes the loss of sisters, mothers, friends and other women around her. Then her heart rages and then finally breaks as she protest the tragedy of their deaths, through a sax taqsim called Bint Beladi.

And finally, there is healing as she does a trance dance with Arousa, the bride in a Zar. Through it she is restored to the fullness of her own humanity. The Zar is a North African ritual used primarily by women to gain relief from spirits through rhythmic movements. The Sudanese Zar referenced in this performance calls on Arousa (the bride doll) is followed by women playing a daf (a kind of drum.)

The Zar section is of special importance to me because it is my firm belief that there is no real revolution without healing. It means that at every opportunity we sincerely ask each other How is Your Heart? Kayf Haalik? We care. We take action to address any harm done. Social change and racial justice is temporary without healed hearts. So please join me on Saturday, November 21st in revolutionary healing.

Check out this piece, Raks Africa’s Two Women, and Girls Raks’ The Calling, at Resistance and Revolution: Sisters Challenging and Changing the World.

The show is Saturday, November 21st, 7:30pm at Laney College Theater, 900 Fallon Street, Oakland. It’s FREE!

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Two Women

28 Oct 2015
E&T Cairo

Etang & Tammy in Cairo

As women navigating the culture of violence in society, we have many stories to tell.These stories, are our memories of violence that are not only endured by our bodies and psyches, but even limit our ability to speak and define ourselves. Two Women, a bellydance choreography created by us, Raks Africa, attempts to tell those stories. It’s a story of pushback, of finding one’s voice and solidarity with others amidst the chaos of a broader social revolution. 

We were fortunate to find the talented Anand Parmar of the Sol Collective, who skillfully remixed Lauren Hill’s I Find It Hard to Say (Rebel). The song now has a prominent dumm of a doumbek that creates a heartbeat that emotionally and sonically moves the piece. The drive of the drum and Lauren’s plea of “Rebel! Rebel!” matches our own desire to connect the lived experiences of the women that we met in Cairo and the young women that we dance with in Oakland. 

Protest Street Art in Cairo

Cairo Street Art

Cairo Street Art

Cairo Street Art

And so Two Women was created. Two women from different cultures, Cairo and Oakland, forging a new nation through revolution and through the demand to Say Her Name

Two women, seemingly fighting in isolation from each other, eventually finding solidarity in each other’s struggles and triumphs. Two women united in the fight against violence against women and for dignity for their communities. We have a voice. We have agency. We can and will rebel. Rebel! Rebel! 

Cairo Two Women

Cairo Street Scene


Andri: What I wear does not equal consent

Check out Two Women and Girls Raks’ piece, The Calling, at Resistance and Revolution: Sisters Challenging and Changing the World. The show will be held Saturday, November 21st, 7:30pm, at Laney College Theater, 900 Fallon Street, Oakland. It’s FREE!

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The Calling: From Catcalls, to Calling Out, and Calling In

19 Oct 2015


It’s an invasion, a demand and even a threat that starts with a glare and ends with a “Hey baby, smile for me.” It’s symbolic of the all too familiar catcall that women around the world fear as an emotional and physical assault to their well-being. Whether it was from the HarassMap leaders in Cairo, Egypt or the young women we have worked with for six years of Girls Raks, we have heard the same stories, over and over again.

The newly formed Girls Raks troupe has created a dance piece that speaks to the verbal dodgeball women face as they simply try to walk down a street. The Calling: From Catcalls to Calling Out and Calling In is a three act dance performance that starts with a theatrical retelling of such an event, shifts to the dancers reclaiming the streets and concludes with gestures of solidarity among women. How do the young dancers feel about creating The Calling? Here’s what they had to say:

Kayla  “This dance is important to me because it is going against the stereotype that women are something to be owned. It shows our true power. This is something women my age need.” Kayla, age 16




This piece is important to me because I get to show how I rebel against what others say about me through dance. I get to become another person and be free to let everything else go that is stressful in my life though bellydance.” Alexis, age 17



This piece is important to me because I can rebel against any negativity that comes my way through dance. It makes me feel free and confident knowing that no negativity can bring me down.” Jade, age 16



The Calling speaks out on a topic that, unfortunately, all women are familiar with. This dance is a way of resistance against the constant cat calling women face every day and empowers me to stand up against it.” Ana, age 17



This piece is important because it empowers us women by taking something degrading and using it to fight back. When we come together and dance, we’re unstoppable. I could get used to this feeling.” Andri, age 17


Check out Girls Raks at Resistance and Revolution: Sisters Challenging and Changing the World, on Saturday, November 21st at 7:30pm, at Laney Theater, 900 Fallon Street, Oakland. It’s FREE!


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Girls Raks Troupe Audition in Oakland

9 Aug 2015
Girls Raks Troupe Audition in Oakland
Learn Egyptian style bellydance and perform in a dance company for young women ages 13 to 24.Saturday, August 29 at 1:00pm – 4:00pm (plan to stay the entire time)

Audition Format: Class Choreography and Interview
MetWest High School
314 East 10th Street (between 2nd Avenue & 4th Avenue)
Close to Lake Merritt BART
Oakland, CA 94606
For more information:
Raks Africa Slideshow Image
– Selected dance troupe members rehearse once or twice on Tuesdays from 4:30-6:30pm and/or Thursdays from 5-7pm and perform throughout the year.- Dancers of all shapes and sizes are encouraged.

– Experience is not as important as effort, work ethic and commitment.

– Learn Egyptian style bellydance.- Learn about global women’s liberation, community empowerment and social justice.

– Connect with other young women ages 13 to 24 in a body-positive artistic group process.

– Learn from working with professional bellydance artists.

– Selected troupe members receive a stipend for their participation and commitment.

Please click the link to download the Girls Raks Troupe Application 2015.
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Call for Dance Artists – Resistance and Revolution: Sisters Challenging and Changing the World

28 Jul 2015

Call for Artists – Resistance and Revolution: Sisters Challenging and Changing the World

Deadline for Artist Submission: Friday, August 28th

Raks Africa is seeking dance acts to perform in Resistance and Revolution: Sisters Challenging and Changing the World. What is your statement on violence against women and global women’s liberation? Selected acts will participate in a work-in-progress artist salon on Sunday, October 25th, a technical/dress rehearsal on Thursday, November 19th and the performance at Laney College Theater on Saturday, November 21st. All acts will be compensated. Please submit a letter of introduction and video samples to

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Making the Connection: Girls Raks Oakland to Egypt

28 Sep 2014

slide-newWe have gathered them in our dining room and mirrored dance studios for five years now. Every session starts out pretty much the same way – the girls hold back, texting and teasing each other. One watches in silence our every movement with a slight, guarded smile. They are distinct personalities, each brimming with talent and a special sparkle of her own. Each and every one knows the sting of name-calling, judgment and unwelcome advances. Then they talk, they listen, they write and they dance. In the process of creating something new in a collective sisterhood, they begin to resist the labels of others and embrace new affirming definitions of themselves. It’s a new way of being.

Fast forward to a 3am video conference call that connects faces, voices and hearts in Oakland to those in Cairo. Noora talks passionately about how Egyptian young women and men take to city streets, enlisting bystanders and allies to take a stand against the harassment of women. “We want to make it unacceptable to not intervene. We are creating a new norm,” explains Noora. It’s about shedding old labels and creating new ways of being.

561_0245When we started the Girls Raks Bellydance and Body Image Program in 2010, our intentions were to use bellydance as a vehicle for self-definition and resistance. With community partners, volunteers, dancers and supporters we have created a safe, empowering and transformative space for young women of all sizes who struggle with body image and self-esteem, by providing them with the tools they need to grow, thrive and reach their full potential.

Now it is time to take the Girls Raks program to a new level. Through the Girls Raks Oakland to Egypt Project, we are connecting the fight against violence against women and girls here in Oakland to the women’s liberation movement in Egypt. The project is a manifestation of the belief that strengthening the bonds between girls and women in Oakland with those Egypt is vital to the global campaign to stamp out violence against women. Women and girls can learn from each other’s struggles, support each other’s efforts and send a united message of resistance, solidarity and hope. Our work with girls and women has taught us that bellydance is a perfect tool for this work. Through it one reclaims their body and declares to the world a definition of self that is one’s own creation.

In December 2014 we are traveling to Egypt to learn more about the country’s women’s rights movement. Our accumulated research, interviews and workshops will inform new Girls Raks curriculum and a special 2015 theatrical production, Resistance! Revolution! In addition, for the past two years Girls Raks participants have written and recorded solidarity letters to Egyptian young women that we will pass on to their counterparts in Egypt.

1002547_542776242455319_2123673645_n-1We have raised close to $5,000 to cover most of the expenses of this project. However, we are still $2,000 short for covering the cost of translation services, in-country travel and project documentation (videography and editing). Please support this effort by making a tax-deductible donation at this link today. Supporters who donate $100 or more will receive a Girls Raks Oakland to Egypt t-shirt (available in sizes Small – 5X). Your support is and has always been worth more than that to us and the young women who participate in our program, and we thank you for that. We are so excited to be kicking off the Oakland to Egypt Project with you. Donations at any level are greatly appreciated. Thank you for making it possible.

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Owning: From Auction Blocks and Pedestals to Platforms

2 Jun 2014

Raks Africa

By Tammy Johnson and Etang Inyang

Let’s go there! That was our mantra when we began developing our new piece, Owning: From Auction Blocks and Pedestals to Platforms. We knew that it would touch on some contentious themes, challenge us to stretch our dance chops and reveal ourselves to our audience in a very different way. After more than a decade of dancing, five years of promoting body positivity through Girls Raks and two years of spreading bellydance, body justice and joy with Your Body Raks, it was time for us as Raks Africa, the dance company, to step things up as well.

2014 has been a year of tremendous discovery and growth for us. It’s a time of inspiration and perspiration! We have been attending dozens of theatrical and dance performances from a wide variety of genres throughout the Bay Area, taking note of what inspired and challenged us. We peeked in on the conceptual development of the work of other artists and attended theatrical workshops. Adding regular classes and coaching with Monica Berini to the mix has strengthened our grasp of the Egyptian bellydance style. More classes. More rehearsals. More conditioning. More dreaming.

The dreaming led to doing. And before we knew it we were buying lumber and assuit cloth, writing scripts and listening to countless drum solos. Owning was born. Here’s a peek into our own artistic process.

For us this piece is about definition. Women throughout history have always been on display, objectified by others who defined their womanhood and worthiness. We invoke the memory of three women in our performance as we see them as historical markers of moving from the labels of others to an affirmation of self-definition. The image of Saartjie Baartman, known as the Hottentot Venus, initiates the piece. A Khoi Khoi woman of South Africa, Saartjie was exhibited throughout Europe in the early 1800s as a sexual oddity and imperialist scientific curiosity, even after death. Appearing in the “A Street in Cairo” exhibit of the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago, a Syrian dancer called Little Egypt introduced the United States to what would be known by the misnomer bellydance. And then there is Nabaweya Moustafa, who danced with great revelry in several Golden Era (1940-1950s) Egyptian films. As Raks Africa we are constantly redefining what it means to be bellydancers in the 21st century. So for us there is a transition from the gaze of others (auction blocks and pedestals) to possessing the platform for our own view of self. YBR_projection_images2We must emphasize that we did not do this alone. It would be a bit too easy to step into fusion and add elements of modern dance or other forms. Our teacher and dance coach Monica Berini, kept us rooted in the Egyptian feel that is so important to ground the piece. Craftsman Rene Lake brought our vision of the platforms to life, with a visual nod to drums that beat out Egyptian rhythms. And then there is our costume designer Sandra Escott, who has done wonders with a precious few yards of Egyptian assuit fabric for our costumes. platformsassuit

So yes, we went there! We’re rakin’ about issues of body image, definition and resistance. And you should go there too and join us! We are excited about premiering this work at The Next Big Thing, the annual production of Big Moves Bay Area. The show will be held at Oakland’s Laney College Theater (900 Fallon Street) on Saturday, June 14th at 8pm and Sunday, June 15th at 2pm. Advance tickets are $13 and $18 at the door. Other performers include Big Moves Bay Area’s own resident dance company, emFATic DANCE and guest performers include Magnoliah BlackKitty Von QuimThe TartlettesBahiya Movement, Tigress and Sarah and more!

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SAVE THE DATE: Hotter Than July Show – Saturday, July 19th at 6pm at Eastside Arts Alliance in Oakland

19 May 2014

The 5th annual Hotter Than July show is a free community celebration for the 2014 Girls Raks Bellydance and Body Image Program. This is a fun event where community members will hear some great music, see fantastic dancing, and give much needed encouragement to girls who have learned that they are perfect just as they are. Girls Raks 2014 students will makes their debut performance.

Saturday, July 19th, 6pm
Eastside Arts Alliance
2277 International Blvd in Oakland

The show will feature a youth performance by the 2014 Girls Raks students and the amazing talents of Bay Area professional bellydancers.






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Girls Raks Partners with Youth UpRising

29 Jan 2014

The 2014 summer Girls Raks Bellydance and Body Image Program is poised to be the best one yet! This year we have joined forces with Youth UpRising(YU). Located in the heart of East Oakland, YU is a neighborhood hub offering young people services and programs to increase the physical and mental well being, community connection, educational attainment, and career achievement among youth members. Youth UpRising envisions a healthy and economically robust East Oakland powered by the leadership of youth and young adults as well as improvements in systems and environments that impact them. After conducting a half day workshop at YU in 2013, participants wanted more. So stay tuned as this partnership grows!

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Raks Africa Auditions at the Ethnic Dance Festival

7 Jan 2014

Raks Africa will be shimmying our hearts out at the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival Auditions this Friday, January 10th at 4:30pm. This year’s auditions will take place at Zellerbach Hall on the UC Berkeley campus. The admission is $10 cash at the door for adults and free for kids 12 years and under. It is suggested that audience members arrive 20 minutes ahead of a particular performance. The Festival itself is held annually in June, and celebrates traditional classical dance, sacred dance genres, vernacular dance forms, social and folk dance presentation of diverse cultural communities in Northern California. It’s a great show! Check out our Facebook page for audition photos. And if you can’t make it, then send us some good mojo!

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Alanna’s Lines

28 Mar 2013

Tammy's HeadshotLines and symmetry. Lines and symmetry. I’ve been consuming a lot of media about dance lately: documentaries, books, online blogs, magazines, Facebook memes and tons of photography. The theme of lines and symmetry is repeated like a mantra in all of them. Artistic directors, choreographers, critics and dance industry gatekeepers have their eyes trained to spot them or the absence of them: lines and symmetry. And if you are too tall, too short, too busty, too hippy, too dark and definitely too curvy (read fat) and you disrupt this edict, you’re out of line and off the stage.

Alanna Kelly says the hell with all of that. Trained in ballet and jazz technique, Alanna dances with Big Moves Bay Area’s emFATic DANCE Company. It was her 2012 piece, Hurt So Good that captured my attention. It was her lines, curves, reach, and intensity that grabbed me. Alanna knows and owns her body, and meticulously uses every inch of it’s movement to create an undeniable emotional pull with Hurt So Good. Yeah she has some serious dance chops.

Recently Alanna auditioned for the producers of the reality show, So You Think You Can Dance. She brought it! And although she wasn’t chosen as one of the finalists, she was given the respect any serious dancer deserves. By stepping into that space with her full self, Alanna is challenging the industry’s concept of “correct” lines and symmetry. Symmetry, the creation of balanced proportions, is not relegated to straight lines. Alanna proves through her talent and passion that there is balance in roundness and beauty in the lines created by bodies of all shapes and sizes. Alanna’s personal statement says it all:

I’m here to make a big fat ruckus about how much I love dance. Dance is for every body. Dance is for me. Dance is for you. Dance is for anyone and everyone. Every Body. My mother put it this way: Alanna, you are opening the heavy, bank-vault-style door between the “real” world and all the fat art and self acceptance that must come out.

Keep up with us daily on Facebook, “like” our page, Your Body Raks!



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In Appreciation of Asata

21 Mar 2013

Etang's blog headshot
We all start somewhere. In July of 2001, I found my way to bellydance as a means of adding movement to my life. I walked into the Albany Community Center tentative, unsure and disconnected from my body. I did not know much about bellydance. Really, I did not know much about dance. I just knew that I was not the stereotypical image of a bellydancer at all. That July, at twenty-nine years of age, I walked into my very first dance class. I was uncoordinated, and lacking in both confidence and musicality. Bellydance felt safe and accessible to me because I saw that the instructor Asata was explicitly introducing the dance to women of color and full-figured women. She helped me see myself in the dance. I don’t think I would have taken the chance otherwise, and I am glad I took the risk. I wonder if I would have found my way to bellydance without Asata.

Our first bellydance teacher, Asata

I am grateful to Asata for holding space for people like me. In our work with Your Body Raks, Tammy and I work to plant seeds and to seek out folks who have never considered bellydance. Asata was our mirror and now we are the mirrors for others, too. Thank you Asata. I celebrate your grace, your courage, and your passion. Thank you for introducing bellydance to me in a way that helped me to connect to my body and myself. Thank you for igniting a joy, a love and a freedom inside of me.

Who inspires you? We invite you to join Your Body Raks in our celebration of Women in Dance this month by submitting a photo or video with a message about the dancer to They can be an international, national or local dancer from any dance style.

Keep up with us daily on Facebook, “like” our page, Your Body Raks!

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Inspired by Miasia

13 Mar 2013

Tammy's HeadshotIt is only natural. When you set out to do something new and scary, you want to know that you are not alone. So you search the horizon for others like yourself, others who have survived the bias that you have faced because of their skin, their size, their look or their way of being. You seek out sister travelers who get you because they have been there themselves.

For many years I was in that space. When I looked around the bellydance community there weren’t many, especially professionals, who were like me. Dark skinned, busty, full figured with locks was a combination rarely seen at any bellydance event. I was making a transition from baby dancer to something that felt intangible, because there seemed to be no models to guide me. Then one day, I stumbled on a video and the world changed. She was beautiful, enchanting, commanding and yes, a bellydancer, like me.

Miasia is a Washington D.C. based bellydancer, specializing in Turkish, Egyptian and American styles of Oriental Belly Dance. To describe Miasia’s dancing is like describing fine silk, strong, luxurious and captivating. Her mentor and teacher, Artemis Mourat says it best:

“Miasia is an extraordinary dancer. Of all the thousands of women I have taught, she is the best of the best. Her stage presence is intoxicating and her joy is infectious. Miasia’s technique is flawless, but a true artist must be more than that. A master technician must be warm and engaging. Miasia is what I call a heart, gut, soul dancer.”

Etang and I have had the pleasure of meeting and even sharing a stage with Miasia. As a bellydance-sister she is generous, informative and hilarious. It was a lively conversation about costumes, teaching, performing and traveling to Egypt and Turkey. We left with heads whizzing, full of possibilities. But what I remember most about her was the way she held the audience in curve of her hip. Every shimmy, undulation and dramatic pause was met with wide-eyed wonder and smiles. What a dancer. What an inspiration.

Who inspires you? We invite you to join Your Body Raks in our celebration of Women in Dance this month by submitting a photo or video with a message about the dancer to They can be an international, national or local dancer from any dance style.

Keep up with us daily on Facebook, “like” our page, Your Body Raks!

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Celebrating Women in Dance

7 Mar 2013

Etang's blog headshot
Here’s a test: When you think of “women in dance” what images come to mind? Do you see variety and differences in those images? Do you see yourself in those images? For so long, I did not see myself in those images. My own reflection was invisible as a dancer.

Tammy and I celebrate women in dance every single day. For March, women’s history month, we thought it was appropriate to promote visibility and to shine a public spotlight on the diversity of women in dance over on our Your Body Raks Facebook page. We honor the pioneers, the innovators, the mentors, the unknown, the overlooked, the hidden treasures.

Here’s a visual sampler of our Women in Dance Celebration so far:

“Dance is bigger than the physical body. When you extend your arm, it doesn’t stop at the end of your fingers, because you’re dancing bigger than that; you’re dancing spirit.”-Judith Jamision, dancer, choreographer and artistic director of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater

Magidah of Portland, Oregon performing at the 2007 Belly Dancer of the Year Pageant

“If anything at all, perfection is finally attained not when there is no longer anything to add but when there is no longer anything to take away” – Maria Tallchief, the first Native American to become prima ballerina and choreographer. She was the first American to dance at the Paris Opera and danced with the Paris Opera Ballet, the Ballet Russe, and the Balanchine Ballet Society, later renamed the New York City Ballet.

”We should realize in a vivid and revolutionary sense that we are not in our bodies but our bodies are in us.”-Ruth St. Denis, American modern dance innovator

We have not forgotten those dancers who inspire us and in our own work we hope we inspire others to find their own voice and spirit in movement. Who inspires you? We invite you to join Your Body Raks in our celebration of Women in Dance this month by submitting a photo or video with a message about the dancer to They can be an international, national or local dancer from any dance style.

Keep up with us daily on Facebook, “like” our page, Your Body Raks!


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A Shared Mission

27 Feb 2013

Sometimes you just don’t know what you are getting into until you are in it. When Etang and I started Your Body Raks, our intention was to create a safe space for people who wanted to move, but didn’t fit neatly into the confines of society’s dance and fitness boxes. There are so many us who look nothing like the young hopefuls gliding across the stage of So You Think You Can Dance. But who says that you have to?

To our surprise, there are a lot of people who agree, including the great staff at Oakland’s Women’s Cancer Resource Center (WCRC). Keeping to their mission of providing services that assist women in coping with various forms of cancer, WCRC creates opportunities for their community to stretch, meditate, move and dance in a safe and accessible way. After seeing us perform at a local event, Community Outreach Manager, Margo Rivera-Weiss felt that Your Body Raks was a perfect match for WCRC.

In addition to teaching regular bellydance classes at the Center, we were invited to participate in a February 6th community dialogue entitled: Fitness and Movement as Medicine: Making Exercise Work for YOU & Understanding its Relationship to Cancer. It was a great opportunity to hear women share their movement tips and concerns, and the need for more advocacy around issues of access and fairness.

As people who have family and friends affected by cancer, our partnership with WCRC means a lot to us. It reminds us that this dance that we do is a part of a long tradition of awakening our body’s wisdom and healing power. And for that we are grateful.

The Women’s Cancer Resource Center’s services are mainly for women with cancer, but community members are welcome to participate in these classes. Your Body Raks WCRC bellydance classes are free, but you must register at this link. The classes are held at 5741 Telegraph Avenue. The dates and times are as follows:

Thursday, February 28th @ 6:30pm

Tuesday, March 26th @6:30pm

Every 2nd, 3rd and 4th Tuesday starting in April @ 6:00pm

Keep up with us daily on Facebook, “like” our page, Your Body Raks!





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Exploring New Stages

20 Feb 2013

Etang's blog headshot
Boxes are safe. They are all about straight lines with equal angles. They have four corners that all measure 90˚. They are predictable, limiting, and yes, safe. As Raks Africa, we have adopted the slogan, “Big Bellied Girls Doing Big Things!” While that is certainly true and a source of great pride, as a dance company we strive to embody much more beyond that box, the novelty and spectacle of full-figured Black bellydancers shaking it.

Raks Africa
photo credit: Michael Baxter


This year, Tammy and I have made some goals beyond the safety of the box. One of our goals is to seek out new stages to dance our hearts out on and new audiences to captivate with our sparkle and joy. Last month, we had the challenge of auditioning for the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival. This was a new stage for us, outside of the comfort zones of the bellydance community or the size acceptance community. In that setting, we had no peers except each other. Taking that risk and dancing beyond the safety of the box is what this year is all about.

And we’re about to do it again! This Sunday, February 24th at 7pm we are taking the stage in the 9th Annual Black Choreographers Festival Next Wave Choreographers Showcase at Dance Mission Theater in San Francisco. This three-weekend festival of performances is typically loaded with dance work from the modern, contemporary, and ballet worlds. We believe this may be the first time that bellydance has been included in the Black Choreographers Festival. We are thrilled to represent ourselves and our dance genre to present a beloved choreography that will have its San Francisco premiere. Ticket information for the Black Choreographers Festival is HERE.

So while some may prefer the safety of boxes with clearly defined boundaries and predictable angles, we have opted to reshape them into platforms for our art. Bellydance and big bellied girls deserve nothing less.

Keep up with us daily on Facebook, “like” our page, Your Body Raks!

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Daydreaming and Dancing

13 Feb 2013


Tammy's Headshot

Daydreaming can be a beautifully dangerous thing. Your mind just goes there, way out there. It goes places that you dare not otherwise imagine. And if you really let go, you begin to believe that the daydream can become a reality. That’s what happened to Etang and me during a cross-country gig in November 2011. Exiled from the land of nine to five jobs, and feeling a bit heady about appearing in a historic film about bellydancers of color, we began to daydream.

What if this could be our life? What if we could spend our days helping people of all shapes and sizes feel good about themselves? What if we took bellydance to places that it has never been before, and burst the bubbles of thinking that say bellydancers looked like this and that the dance was all about that? And what if we danced all of the time? What if it was our job, our duty, and our purpose in life to just get out there and shimmy to our heart’s content? What would that look like? How would it feel? Is it possible?

Head in the clouds, Etang and I peeked over the edge of the cliff, took a deep breath and jumped! Falling. The events of the first few months passed us by in a blur. As we came down to earth we were all business. We created a name, a logo, a website, filed our business papers, drafted business and marketing plans, created curricula, and hired a bookkeeper and a business coach. Yes, we put a lot of energy in getting all of our administrative ducks in a row.

Then we had to step out of the comfort zone of our studio-office and actually make it happen. We taught dozens of classes and workshops. We organized, fundraised and hosted the third year of Girls Raks Bellydance and Body Image Program, and produced the Hotter Than July Bellydance Extravaganza benefit show. And of course there was dancing, dancing, and more dancing, nineteen performances in fact! Dancing that required two to three days a week of rehearsals, two new costumes, three new choreographies, new techniques, and lots of glitter and sparkling smiles.

Living the dream wasn’t easy. As with many other small business owners, the nation’s economic climate wasn’t kind to us, but we shimmied on. Etang and I had to learn how to take our partnership from the dance floor to negotiation table as business partners. But it was the dance that kept us united and focused on our goal. And somehow we shimmied through failed promotional schemes, undercutting competitors and cynical naysayers.

Luckily our cheering section was deep and broad. Drowning out the pessimists, they attended classes and performances, donated their expertise, referred us for gigs, “liked” our Facebook page, shared our blogs, and never failed to offer a kind word of support when we were feeling low. And the good stuff doesn’t stop there. From the woman in recovery who was grateful to be able to be move her body with a sense of well being, to the post-performance giggles of women who never imagined bellydance done the Raks Africa way, the moments of grace have been priceless.

It is one year later and Etang and I are still living the dream. We are teaching bellydance through collaborations with community groups like the Women’s Cancer Resource Center. We are storming new stages as featured artists at the Black Choreographers Festival’s Next Wave Choreographers Showcase. And in a few months, we are unveiling a new project for Girls Raks, and producing a special show this fall. But more than anything we are grateful. We are thankful to have the backwind of support of our family, friends and well wishers. We are thankful for the dance. But most importantly, we are still dreaming and dancing.

Keep up with us daily on Facebook, “like” our page, Your Body Raks!


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Resolving to Love the Hot Mess

30 Jan 2013

Tammy's Headshot

It’s a good thing that Etang edits my blog because it’s one of those days where keeping it real could go really wrong. You see, this morning I looked in the mirror and said, “Tammy girl, I’m just not that into you today.” A savage headache didn’t help the situation much. I finally got it together enough to put on some ill-fitting jeans and a hoodie, and pulled my locks into a nappy ponytail. But I didn’t put on earrings and barely had enough gumption to brush my teeth. And yet, today of all days I have to write my Resolve to Love blog, where I blather on about how I love my body the way it is. Umph! I’m so not feeling the love today.

I am feeling like a hot mess. I can’t focus on anything longer than two minutes. I don’t want anyone to call, email, text, tweet or Facebook me. I don’t even want to listen to any ‘70s rock, watch bellydance videos or read the comic strips. What I really want to do is slip into my ratty old housecoat and plunge back into my unmade bed. There is nothing sexy, sparkly or joyous about myself in this moment. And you may be lovely people, but I really don’t want to be bothered with all of you today. WHINE! MOAN! GROWL! SNORT!

The harsh reality is that we all have our moments. It’s the day that your car battery died, your rent went up and you’re out of chocolate. It’s finals week at school. It’s hell project month at work. It’s that year of deep depression that just wouldn’t let you go. I can testify to every one. And for me all that stress, fear and sorrow manifest themselves into a knot in my back, foot cramps and grinding teeth. Oh yeah. I’m really good at taking it out on myself before I even get around to inflicting my hot mess on others.

But it’s during these trying times that the resolution to love myself matters most. I have to force myself to remember that I am here, and although it may not feel like it right now, that’s a good thing. This is my spot on this earth and there is so much to do with it, IN THIS BODY. Some days all you can do is just be and that’s enough. So today I’m trying to have a little compassion for that girl in the mirror and say back to her. “See that sour puss? She’s got a funky attitude today, but I love her.”

Keep up with us daily on Facebook, “like” our page, Your Body Raks!




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Beyond the Tip of the Iceberg

23 Jan 2013

Etang's blog headshotI woke up on Sunday morning a few minutes before my alarm was set to go off at 6am. This was the big day, our audition for the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival. I gave myself some extra time this morning to meditate, stretch and do my make-up. But let me tell you what happened on the way the theater! My partner, Bo, agreed to drive us to our venue, the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Lam Research Theater in San Francisco, so we could just hop out and not worry about parking. We made it to the Bay Bridge toll plaza in record time. As we pulled away from the tollbooth, the front left tire hit something in the lane. Deep breaths and silent prayers all around. By the time we were halfway across the bridge, it was painfully clear we had a blowout. We slowly and safely made our way to the Fifth Street exit, left Bo with the car to wait for AAA and got out to catch a cab to our venue. There we were a sparkly sight on the street corner on Sunday morning in full stage make-up, sequin melaya dresses mostly concealed by our cover-ups, pom-pom bonnets, carrying our garment bags. After walking to a couple of different corners, we finally hailed a cab successfully and made it to the theater on time. Whew!

Just like that the audition is over. Those five minutes on Sunday are now a blur of movement and music and expression. We are so proud of what we presented. Tammy and I started seriously working on our audition set for the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival in October.  Have you seen the meme that illustrates “the performance” as the tip of the iceberg and “the preparation” as the invisible sizeable mass below the surface? That graphic depicts our experience perfectly. When we started visioning the piece, returning to a beloved piece of music, Saad El Soghayar’s shaabi hit, El Enab, we knew that we needed to stretch ourselves to a new challenge. We decided to pair El Enab with a live original drum solo. We worked with Bay Area musician, Nader Shahin on our live drum piece. From attending the auditions for years, many of the acts that we loved were those that had a live music element as part of their presentation. We knew we were taking a risk because we were not working with canned music. Live music has the element of surprise. Will the rhythms be played the same as we rehearsed? We are pleased with our presentation and working with Nader was a great learning experience for us.  We look forward to additional opportunities to include live music in our sets.

Raks Africa backstage at the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival Auditions

Raks Africa with Nader Shahin backstage at the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival Auditions

There’s an old saying that nominees for the Academy Awards use, “It’s an honor just to be nominated for an Oscar.” People laugh, believing that the actors are just shining the public on, that in their hearts they want to win! Yes, it’s true. We would love to be part of the June festival. After years of dancing and pushing through the barriers of race, gender and body politics that others have placed before us, dancing in the festival would be a feather in our bonnets. But what is also true is the great appreciation for the level of care and professionalism that we experienced throughout the audition process. The informative and timely emails, the thoughtful check-in process, the care given to lighting and sound, and even a follow-up phone call to ensure that our staging was correct, all of this for an audition was astounding. In many ways, we have already won. Through hours of rehearsals, flat tires and the blur of the performance, we gained a lot of confidence, pride and support. That feels like a win to us!

Keep up with us daily on Facebook, “like” our page, Your Body Raks!

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Dance Auditions and Other Life Challenges

16 Jan 2013

 I sat there staring at the email for a long time. Is this for real?

Hello Etang and Tammy. We will be in San Francisco for one day only this Saturday September 24, 2011 for a showcase audition and I would love to invite you. Please contact me ASAP, I LOVE your energy, dancing, rhythm and charisma!! Looking forward to hearing from you, and give you more insight about it, 90 seconds who could change your life!!

The invitation-only audition email, signed by a casting producer from America’s Got Talent was indeed real. So we quickly began rehearsing our routine to exhaustion. We also combed through the fine print of the contract that covered every aspect of our audition and (if chosen) our appearance on the show. After consulting with those in the know about the legal aspects of the matter, we nervously signed on the dotted line. Etang and I have seen what so-called reality shows have done with the image of women, people of color and full-figured people, and were not impressed with their track record. But if we could use AGT as a platform to promote a very different image, a positive one, it would be worth it. Right?

Days later, we found ourselves standing before a camera and a Hollywood producer in a chilly Hilton conference room. A mini-interview kicked off the session. Why were we wearing dresses and what were those black sparkly wraps that we were carrying? What were our other costumes like? Did we have a compelling back-story? Etang and I took up the challenge of educating them about bellydance: the culture, the people, the history and the different styles of the dance. Then we schooled them about the meaning of body justice in the context of the dance. And then we danced. A couple of broad smiles and one blank stare concluded our audition.

Fast forward to January of 2013. Etang and I are in the final stages of preparations for the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival Auditions and we are feeling pretty darn good about it. There is no denying that the element of competition has helped us up our dance game. But just as important is the feeling of being a part of a whole, a dance community that honors folk dances from across the globe. We are one of several fine Bay Area bellydance acts, including Shabnam Dance Company, Raks A’Diva, and Oreet, participating in the auditions. And we will also share the stage other dance companies that appreciate a diversity of body types.

Author Jeremy Aldana once said, “It’s not so much the journey that’s important; as is the way that we treat those we encounter and those around us, along the way.” What has become clear to me as I move forward in my dance journey is that demanding and giving respect to others is essential to creating community, and challenging the norms and stereotypes of the broader society. As a central component of culture, dance plays a critical role American society. Dance symbolizes who has the right to move, to take up space and to be seen. So I keep that in mind when Etang and I step into dance spaces that many have never experienced the likes of Raks Africa.

If you are in the California Bay Area, come cheer us on this Sunday at 11:50 at the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival Auditions. You can find details here.

Keep up with us daily on Facebook, “like” our page, Your Body Raks!



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Resolve to Love

9 Jan 2013

Etang's blog headshotEvery New Year’s Day, my partner Bo and I have a ritual of going to the ocean or the woods to make an offering and to share our intentions for the year. This year, we went for a hike in the woods along a creek. We enjoyed spending precious time together, moving together and the sounds of nature cocooning us. We heard footsteps up ahead as a woman with a dog approached us. We stopped to greet the woman and her adorable poodle. She remarked on the beautiful day and congratulated us on starting the new year with a work out. As she passed us, she said “New year, new you.” Swivel-head. Huh?! The assumptions are unnerving.

At this time of year, it’s hard to escape the incessant booming command of the weight-loss industrial complex. Body shaming is all the rage. Jenny Craig, Weight Watchers, and gym after gym after gym are all in line hungry to collect fat dollars. Star diet evangelists like Jennifer Hudson and Jessica Simpson are in the pulpit testifying of their weight-loss success, overcoming the evil power of the fat devil. It really doesn’t matter what size you are. You can be a size 2 or 22, they want your money all the same. The barking noise of weight-loss related resolutions is ringing in this new year. “You’re too much!” “You’re not good enough!” “You’re out of control!” Put that mess on mute. What would happen if your own voice was the loudest voice? Your Body Raks wants you to hear yourself and embrace radical self-love.

Resolve to Love. You are enough as you are right now. Join us in making a resolution. No, not the typical and expected “lose x lbs. by the end of the year.” Instead, join Your Body Raks to make a body-loving and affirming resolution to love your body, no matter what. Come on over to our Facebook page to join in on our Resolve to Love Campaign. Take a photo of yourself holding up your own typed personal body-positive resolution, “I Resolve to Love…” and send it to us at We will post your photos to our Facebook page as we receive them. 



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Why the Artists Vote Matters

1 Nov 2012

Tammy's HeadshotI used to be a hardcore political junkie. I watched all of the talking head pundit shows. I organized election and issue campaigns. I read three to four newspapers daily, lobbied, wrote policy papers, and trained candidates and canvass volunteers. And you just didn’t want to be on the opposing side of a heated issue debate with me. I was driven, righteous and ruthless.

I have to admit that these days my political behavior is a bit more tempered. I continue to hold strong views, but there has been a significant change in how I believe change happens. That’s no surprise since I’ve changed. Identifying as a dancer and artist-activist has exposed me to a litany of new ways people can engage, transform, and reimagine systems, rules, lives and communities. And yet, as flawed as our electoral system is, the vote continues to be a critical means of giving voice to our struggles and demands, even as artists.

My point is not to tell you who to vote for or how to vote, but to remind you that yes, your vote does matter. Here are a few issues that I know artists care a great deal about, issues that will be affected by next Tuesday’s outcome.

Health Care. Dancers, and artists in general, have some of the highest rates of uninsured coverage in the nation. Due to our employment patterns and the nature of our profession, individual artists, theater and dance companies have significant difficulties securing health insurance. And the many health clinics and practitioners who provide care to our population are often the first ones hit with state and federal budget cuts. Along with the poor, elderly, disabled, communities of color and immigrant populations, artists have a significant stake in how U.S. health care policy shakes out.

Education The defunding of public education and the lack of thoughtful systemic reform has weakened our nation’s ability to create space for a child to dream of being whomever they want to be, be it a doctor, an astronaut or dancer. The dramatic decrease (and in many cases elimination) of funding for the arts in schools, along with increased class sizes, draconian testing policies, and the proliferation of bullying of all forms, demands our attention now. Our vote is a step toward changing this tide.

Our Rights We are artists. But we are also members of a larger community of people who have rights that are being trampled on every day. The passage of state and local ballot measures and initiatives across the country will impact on those rights. Access to education, health care, employment, to the right to claim our bodies and the ones we love are being challenged on November 6th. As people whose art often starts with self, we recognize the importance self-definition and a sense of agency within society. Let’s affirm that belief with our votes.

The Arts At a time when our nation really needs the love, the light and an alternative perspective that a play, a mural or a photograph may provide, government funding for the arts is being slashed to the bone. Some would argue that with limited resources we cannot afford funding for what some may think of as leisure trifles. I say think again! It was during a Great Depression of the 1930s, that we as a nation stepped up and created the Works Project Administration (WPA), which funded art, music, theater, literature and many other artistic endeavors that employed thousands of artists. And their work documented cultural and national history that would have been lost in time, laid the foundation for new industries, boosted local economies, and provided beauty and vibrancy to a nation in great need of uplift. We’ve done it before and we can do it again.

I say all of this to make the point that the artist vote matters. So please, if you haven’t already, get out there and vote next Tuesday. Your vote and your voice is much more important than a singular issue or an individual candidate. It’s part of a national legacy that many have fought and died for. Honor their memory and defend your right to be heard. Vote!

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Listen and Keep on Moving

25 Oct 2012

Etang's blog headshotI’m a planner. I appreciate structure and organization. In meetings, I like to have an agenda beforehand. What’s happening? Who will be there? What are our goals? How can I most effectively contribute? I like to know what to expect—beginning, middle and end. Life isn’t a fixed choreography. Some of the rigidity of my personal need for structure can put me in a box. I get stuck. I’m learning to embrace the spontaneity and the improvisation of life. Life isn’t in the future. Life is right now, in this moment. What garden will I discover when I take time to drive a different route home? Who will I meet when I walk in the door to a new autobiographical writing class?

Raks Africa dancing to shaabi music at Rakkasah in 2011

Choreography in my life and in dance has been somewhat of a crutch. There’s a clear necessity for choreography when dancing in the duet Raks Africa with Tammy. We strive for precision and synchronicity in our dance together. Hitting that beat at the same time on the same hip is everything. In a new shaabi duet piece we’re working on, we have been opening up to the idea of having a few moments that are looser and freeform. In rehearsal during that section of the song, every time is a bit different. In those moments, I feel present and not in my head. I’m listening and my body is responding to the music.

Etang, improvised dancing October 2012

For my solo dancing, improvisation has been a challenge. Fear and resistance get in the way. There’s no script. Just listen and keep on moving. What? I have been listening to Hoda’s shaabi song, “Bin Narain” over and over again on my iPod and as I’m working and when I’m driving. So, my structure cup is full in that I know the song and the changes of the song. However, every time I dance to the song, it’s been different. I have a skeleton outline, but not an A-Z choreography. My expression is the same each time because of the joy that fills me when listening to the song, but my movements are in the moment. I needed this and I didn’t know it. Bring on the next song!

You’re invited to join us for BOO Raks, a Halloween-themed benefit hafla for the Girls Raks Bellydance & Body Image Summer Program. We’ll see you this Saturday, October 27th at 1pm at the La Peña Cultural Center Lounge, 3105 Shattuck Avenue in Berkeley. We’ll be dancing duet and solo pieces and we’ll be joined by wonderful Bay Area bellydancers!

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Oh You Brown Girl!

4 Oct 2012

Tammy's Headshot

It’s all Yosifah’s fault. Since August I’ve had this earworm, a song repeating relentlessly in my head. It started when I agreed to perform a solo to live music at El Morocco. After an afternoon of sampling the selection from the Al Azifoon (Yosifah’s band) online playlist, I chose a classic: Samra Ya Samra. Why? Well as they used to say on American Band Stand (yes, I’m dating myself,) the song had a good beat and I could dance to it.

The song also has a great history and meaning. Samra Ya Samra roughly means oh you brown girl in Arabic. The lyrics tell of the singer’s admiration of her.

Samra, oh Samra
Time after time I see you
Your love disturbs the hell out of me
Your light blood*, she’s cute.

*”Light blood” is a compliment in Arabic, it has something to do with a person’s mood. (See more of this translation at

But there is more. The song was written by the great Egyptian actor and singer Karem Mahmoud (1922-1995), known as the Melodious Knight.” The story goes that Mahmoud wrote the song for the Egyptian bellydancer, Nagwa Fouad. One night Mahmoud found Fouad crying outside a club. Her band was a no show and she lost the gig as a result.  “Don’t leave, I will sing and you will dance,” responded Mahmoud. And the rest is history.

Being not as fair skinned as other famous dancers of her time Nagwa Fouad could have easily suffered from the colorism that plagued society then (and still does now.) But Mahmoud’s lighthearted love song gave credibility to not only Fouad, but countless other dancers who came after her. Including me. Mahmoud’s song tells me that there is a place for someone like me in this rich dance and musical tradition. And this brown girl is all the better for it.

Check out Tammy’s solo to Samra ya Samra at Boo Raks, on October 27th!

The singer is the legendary Karem Mahmoud and Nagwa Fouad.

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Shaabi Love

28 Sep 2012

Etang's blog headshotAs the duet Raks Africa, Tammy and I are known for our upbeat, joyful expression of the dance. So much of our ease with emoting comes from the inspiration of the music we dance to, especially with our favorite Shaabi music.

I was first introduced to Shaabi music in a workshop taught by Tarik Sultan at the 2005 Bellydancers of Color Association Festival in Washington D.C. As a self-conscious baby dancer, that workshop was liberating. I learned to relax into my posture and ground into the beat of the music. My perception that I needed to constantly hold myself lifted because “that’s what dancers must do” was thankfully shattered. The dance and the music reflect the spirit of the people. I learned that this dance is not just about mastering movement and technique, but also about communicating feeling, spirit and attitude.

Tarik Sultan of New York performing his own choreography to Saad Il Sughir’s Shaabi song Il Abd Lelah


Shaabi in Arabic means “of the people.” In Egypt, Shaabi music refers to the music “of the people.” Shaabi is class-based music–the music of the streets of Cairo. There’s no pretense in the music, it gets to the raw emotions of the human condition. The music has a strong beat with a party feel and the lyrics are laced with social commentary or cheeky double entendres. Shaabi music is infectious and makes me want to shake it ‘til I break it.

Living in the Bay Area, we are so fortunate to have a local treasure that is a Shaabi enthusiast and historian, Amina Goodyear. As we continue to grow in our contextual understanding of this dance and develop new works, we are excited to learn more about Shaabi from Amina. For more information about Shaabi, check out this excellent history of Shaabi written by Amina.

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Stepping Into Context

13 Sep 2012

Tammy's HeadshotI have a secret. I’m a nerd. A major nerd! I like to figure out how things and people work. When I go on one of my nerdy benders it becomes a no holds barred adventure. I want to know everything about a thing. I want to know about the conceptual thinking behind it. I want to know about its origins. I want to read books and watch the documentaries about it, and to talk to people in the know.

And of course, I am no different when it comes to bellydancing. In fact, I’m in overdrive with my passion. Since Etang and I have made a conscious effort to recommit and re-introduce ourselves to the dance, we’ve been particularly focused on immersing ourselves in the history, the culture and the people from which the dance springs.

We have learned so much from wonderful teachers like Ranya Renee, Ahava, Monica Berini and Amina Goodyear, who place equal importance on teaching context as well as technique. Why? Because a dancer has some significant choices to make, even when doing something as seemingly simple as dancing with a stick (raks assaya or cane dance.) Is this a community or stage version of the male Tahtib mock fighting game? Or is it daintier female performance? What nuances are there in the playing of an Egyptian style accordion that I should be aware of when dancing to a taqasim (improvised solo?) What is Shaabi singer, Hakim really talking about in El Hala Eh when he sings?

It’s our destiny. It’s our fate. After these long years let’s be happy. Forget our suffering. The years of longing are forgotten. Our happiness will last forever. It’s getting better.

Of course, Etang and I have picked up juicy tidbits about Golden Era bellydance stars and the nuances between various dance styles over the years. But somehow, post Arab Spring and our own personal revolutionary shifts; the ante has been raised around how we present this art form. For us it begs the question: Are we just learning about a new step combination or technique? Or are we consciously stepping into the full context of bellydance, understanding what’s behind, underneath and in front of that step. It makes a difference in how we presents the art form, especially to those in the general public who know little about its history or the people who created it. What we know and attempt to communicate to our audience is that our shimmies are grounded in centuries of struggle and joy. We wouldn’t have it any other way.

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Grateful To Be A Student

30 Aug 2012

Etang's blog headshotGetting pushed beyond my comfort zone and my perceived limitations with bellydance is exactly what I am craving. Yes, it’s what’s for dinner and I’m hungry. I have been complacent. Safe. Comfortable. That box that I created for myself about how I can move in this body is bursting at every corner. There is so much more I want to explore, learn and create. As the duet Raks Africa, we adopted the tagline for ourselves: Big bellied girls doing big things! That statement is true, but it has boundaries and it doesn’t tell the complete story of our vision.

After Ranya Renee's Modern Oriental workshop sponsored by Monica of San Francisco

At the beginning of this month, Tammy and I wrote some individual reflections about our visions for our work together with Raks Africa, Girls Raks and Your Body Raks. We both strongly agree that we need a shift to have dance more intentionally centralized in our work. The past couple of weeks have been filled with challenging, new learning opportunities because we recognized this void in our own professional development as dancers, and we have plans for more instruction and self-study in the upcoming months. I think about my first classes in 2001 as a baby bellydancer and again in 2006 when Tammy and I did a series of local drop-in classes in search of a mentor (and we found the amazing Nanna Candelaria). That level of openness and self-discovery were wonderful times of personal growth for me. So now in 2012, I find myself with different goals, but feeling new to the dance again in workshops and private classes with Ranya Renee, Ahava and Amina Goodyear.

I may find myself turn-challenged and in my head far too often in a choreography workshop, but then I have a new world of possibilities explode for me with learning new styles, techniques and combinations for shimmies. In addition to learning stronger technique, I am also excited about a deeper understanding of the social, cultural, political and historical context of bellydance. That contextual understanding is connected to my passion for this dance and I’m all in, ready to love deeply and rigorously.

Keep up with us daily on Facebook, “like” our page, Your Body Raks!

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The Dancing Critic

23 Aug 2012

Tammy's HeadshotThese were the voices in my head during my last practice video review session: “Walking around. Listening to the music. Good. Hmm, the arms are a bit busy here. Oh, that was a nice shimmy-arm circle combo. Get that hand off your hip. Stop fidgeting! You can’t see the movement! OK, you are in your head here and are not listening to the music. You’re thinking. You’re not dancing. Come on, you know this song. Relax into it. Umm. Missed the first set of takk, takk, takk. The next accent was so, so.”

Song: Taht El Shibbak as performed by Al’Azifoon

And so it goes. Picking myself apart during a video review session is easy. Somewhere deep in my subconscious there is a film clip of what the dance is supposed to look like. It may even be an image of another dancer performing the piece perfectly. And that, what I am seeing on the screen, is not the way it is supposed to be! Or at least in that moment that’s what I tell myself.

TJ Video Review

It is difficult to find the balance between productive reflection and soul crushing self-criticism, especially when our bodies are a part of the running commentary. It happens more often than I care to admit. I could be getting dressed for a coffee date with friends (oh that blouse makes me look like a box!) or preparing to facilitate a meeting for a client (will wearing my locks in a bun make them take me seriously?) Those voices make it difficult to show up and be my genuine self and bring something unique to the situation.


Showing up for life, being fully present, is not about being perfect. In dance, technique is important. In our weekly classes our students often remark how surprised they are by the difficulty of the movements. Bellydancing is hard! You can learn the movements, the fancy combinations and dazzling travel steps. Luckily, the Bay Area has several wonderful bellydance teachers who can help me with my technique, like quieting those busy arms and adding a show stopping combo or two to my repertoire. Perfecting my technique is one thing. But learning how to get out of my own way, to really enjoy the music and dance with it, and not at it, is a whole other matter.


This has been true for me in every aspect of my life. For instance, I almost didn’t write this blog. Was I really brave enough to show the world a raw, unpolished practice session, with me fumbling and looking awkward? Etang and I have been careful, especially with the criticism that full figured, bellydancers of color face, to present ourselves in our full sparkly glory, whether it be through our website, Facebook page or at live performances. But the fact is, this is me too. Imperfect. Learning. Fully embracing life as it presents itself to me. This blog was a risk worth taking. Why? Because as the author, H. Jackson Brown has said, “Opportunity dances with those already on the dance floor.” So here I am, center stage, shimmying!

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Dance Is Our Core

16 Aug 2012

Etang's blog headshotAugust 2012 marks the six-year anniversary that Tammy and I hit the stage in our first performance as the duet, Raks Africa. This month also marks the six-month anniversary of our launch of Your Body Raks. Wow and wow! With the whirlwind pace of our annual Girls Raks Bellydance and Body Image Program and annual Hotter Than July Bellydance Extravaganza winding down, this has been a perfect time to pause and reflect on where we are and our vision for the future. We have been working non-stop to build our business and programs and time for reflection is rare, precious and so necessary. We recently hit the pause button to stop and discuss our visions for moving forward.

Raks Africa in performance, July 2012. photo credit: Raina Franklin-Baker

Bellydance is what originally brought Tammy and I together in 2006 as the duet, Raks Africa. We both had the same teacher and wanted more discovery, intention and rigor through the dance. Similar revelations have surfaced for us. Dance is our joy, our core. These full six months of Your Body Raks have taught us that we must continue to centralize dance in our work. We have so many areas of focus with Your Body Raks—weekly group and private classes, workshops, presentations, events, and more. We are working to have some shifts so that our dance study and performance development is the priority among multiple areas of focus.

We are excited about the growth this next year will bring to our dancing. We are open and accepting of new challenges. Through performance we want to introduce and educate wider audiences and our communities—people of color, social justice, youth, queer, fat—about bellydance. We intend to bring a social, political, cultural, historical lens to bellydance. We are excited about using the dance to tell stories of hope, survival and revolution. Stay tuned as we dig in to develop new dance works!

Keep up with us daily on Facebook, “like” our page, Your Body Raks!


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You Are the Spark

9 Aug 2012

It can be easy to come to the conclusion that the world is a dangerous and evil place to be. The fear, anger and sadness triggered by multiple mass shootings of the past month are enough to make me want to curl up in a ball under my bed sheets for days. The refinery explosion in Richmond, California, furrows my brow as I worry about the health and well being of friends, colleagues and the communities that call that place home. And this morning a friend of mine commented on how at every turn, from a workplace survey to her casual self-help summer reading, she is being bombarded by unwanted comments about her weight. Negativity seems to be everywhere.

But we know better. After completing weeks of preparation, fundraising, program work and then a big show, Etang and I know from experience that there is more good than bad in this world. Despite hectic schedules, tight budgets and the non-stop demands of daily life, people gave their money, time and talent and made the Girls Raks Bellydance and Body Image Program a great success. We are immensely grateful.

Girls Raks

After the Hotter Than July Bellydance Extravaganza, one audience member shared this comment with others, “The costumes and the women dancers were visually stunning. The dancing was great entertainment. Most of all, it was inspiring…I was touched by three young women/girls who got up on stage and gave it their all. I thought they were so brave. There was talk of not hiding your belly but embracing it as a place of power.”

“At times our own light goes out and is rekindled by a spark from another person. Each of us has cause to think with deep gratitude of those who have lighted the flame within us.” Taking our cue from Albert Schweitzer’s words of hope, Etang and I want to acknowledge the community of people and businesses who stepped up to make sure that this program happened, not only for the girls who participated, but as an example of what is possible if we pull together to shine a light on the good that exists in the world.

Raks al Khalil

So a big-bellied girl thank you goes out to people like our guest speakers Hala, Ahava, Dr. Virginia Frederick, Hatty Lee, Ellisia Hill, Aqueila Lewis and Marilyn Wann, and our interns Thais Rose and Sridevi. We are appreciative of the donations from local businesses like Little Black Egg, Tanjia restaurant, Nanna Candelaria,, Peets Coffee, Monica McCartney, Title Nine, National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance, Shiny Sparkly Things!, The Applied Research Center, Heartwalker Studios and Dreyer’s Foundation. And the contributions of those who performed at the Hotter Than July Bellydance Extravaganza: Masouma Rose, Raks al Khalil, Monica, Shaunte, Shabnam Dance Company, Nanna, Ahava and the mistress of ceremony, Tigress Osborn.

Thank you all. And please, keep shining your light!

Shabnam’s Dance Company
Masouma Rose

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Rak’in The Movement

2 Aug 2012

Etang's blog headshotImmediately following the end of Saturday’s whirlwind celebration, Hotter Than July Bellydance Extravaganza, Tammy and I hustled to the airport bound for Portland, Oregon. In March, we were invited to present a workshop at the Western States Center Social Justice Training Conference, Activists Mobilizing for Power (AMP) at Reed College. In the months that followed, we worked on planning our 5-hour AMP workshop, Rak’in The Movement Bellydance Style.

AMP participants learning bellydance movement vocabulary

As organizers we routinely put ourselves last in the pursuit of justice. Bringing our whole selves to the struggle means that we must reconnect and reclaim our bodies and souls. Through the application of Your Body Raks® Principles of Full Bodied Movement Work, the workshop worked to get AMP participants (dancers and non-dancers) out of their heads and into their bodies. The Your Body Raks® Principles of Full Bodied Movement Work are intended to connect the aims of various social and racial justice movement work to the physical, emotional and mental sustainability of the individuals who do that necessary work. Movement of the masses is not feasible without the movement of our body, our mind and our spirit.

AMP participants writing letters about what we need from the movement and in our work

We were thrilled to present to organizers in our workshop from Oregon, Washington State and Idaho. Through reflection and letter writing about what our bodies and souls need in our work to learning bellydance movement vocabulary to writing and sharing what we need from the movement and our allies to learning an Egyptian drum solo mass movement choreography, we all did some necessary head and heart work in community with each other.

To bring this workshop or another Your Body Raks® workshop or presentation to your organization or conference, please contact us: and (510) 229-0539.

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Girls and Weight

24 Jul 2012

  Yesterday, the participants of the Girls Raks Bellydance and Body Image Program, Etang and I had a blast making Yay! Scales® with fat activist, Marilyn Wann. Yay! Scales® are Marilyn’s brilliant invention. Instead of telling you about your relation to gravity on earth (your weight) the scale gives you wonderful affirmations like smart and cute. As you can see from the photos, the scales were off the chart beautiful. While we cut, pasted and played with all sorts of sparkly things (so much fun!) we also talked about the labels others use to diminish us, the health assumptions made about people of all sizes, and 101 recipes for the huge zucchini that I just picked from my garden. Yesterday was a lot of fun. But don’t take my word for it. Check out the photos.

You can see more photos from the Girls Raks Program at the Your Body Raks Facebook page. And come out this Saturday to support the Girls Raks participants at Hotter than July Bellydance Extravaganza, at La Pena Cultural Center in Berkeley.


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Beauty in a Challenge

20 Jul 2012

Etang's blog headshotWe’re just ending our first week of this year’s Girls Raks Bellydance and Body Image Program and wow what a full week! From discarding the labels and criticisms that others place on us, to identifying our own terms of self-definition, to an historical overview of the origins of bellydance and the varied styles, to conversations with Bay Area bellydance luminaries Ahava and Hala, to a discussion on safe posture with chiropractor, Dr. Virginia Frederick, to mindful eating and body meditations, to a night out at Tanjia Moroccan Restaurant, and of course, to lots and lots of powerful shimmies. This week has been both exhausting and energizing.

Tammy leads Girls Raks girls in muscle memory

This year, Tammy and I outreached to Oakland high schools, youth programs and our own networks to recruit for Girls Raks. We met a lot of young women who expressed interest and completed applications on the spot. We felt energy around our outreach efforts and we were anticipating that the program would be at our capacity of ten students with a waiting list. In our phone calls to girls and their families to confirm their participation, a sharp reality surfaced. For the population we want to work with, low-income girls of color, we cannot compete with the financial magnet of a summer job. We lost six girls from the program because they were able to secure summer employment. A free two-week summer program where you walk away with lifelong tools of empowerment and resistance, a costume, a bellydance choreography and more is no match for that feeling a young person has when she has money in her pocket. And for the girls we work with, that money is not just for herself, but it is also helping to support the survival of her family.

Girls Raks girls learning choreography

So what does that mean for Girls Raks this year? We have three wonderfully dynamic, fierce young women, Audea, Jazzmine and Ternisha. We are lucky to have them. The three girls travel to our North Oakland site from East Oakland. These girls are fabulous and bring so much heart, curiosity and energy every day. They have other options this summer and have committed to Girls Raks. We have decided to accept girls to join us until the end of the day on Monday, July 23rd, for the 2nd and final week of the Girls Raks. The program is Monday, July 23rd through Friday, July 27th, 12noon – 4pm each day on Telegraph Avenue in North Oakland. The program closes on Saturday, July 28th with a performance recital, Hotter Than July Bellydance Extravaganza at La Peña Cultural Center in Berkeley. The second week of Girls Raks will be just as amazing! We will have Yay! Scale® making with fat activist Marilyn Wann, a panel of size diverse and culturally diverse women reflecting on their body acceptance journeys, waist-bead making, mask making and lots of dancing! If you have a young woman in your life that could benefit from the body positivity of Girls Raks, please contact us immediately at (510) 229-0539.

Keep up with us daily on Facebook, “like” our page, Your Body Raks and check out our Girls Raks Bellydance & Body Image 2012 photo album!


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Doing the Dance Thing…Completely

10 Jul 2012

What is this? Etang and I had arrived at a point where we needed to stop and ask, “What have we gotten ourselves into?” So much had happen in so little time. The idea was sparked last November during a DVD shoot in Baltimore. In December and January we started laying the groundwork for what is now Your Body Raks. Since then, we have jumped through a litany of the governmental bureaucratic hoops. Became networking divas. Done nearly a dozen performances. Completed a business course. Taught two weekly classes. Developed new choreographies and designed new costumes. Created a new logo, motto, website and promotional materials, and set up business systems. We also began to prepare for the 2012 summer session of Girls Raks. And we lived a bit of life on the side, nursing partners, getting sick and well again ourselves, somehow paying the light bill, finding new roommates, hosting family gatherings and sometimes sleeping. Yes, it takes a lot out of a person to do this dance thing, completely.

By the time we sat in the morning plenary session of the Dance/USA conference in late June, we were thoroughly overwhelmed by it all. What we didn’t know is that we were about to receive a major injection of wonder, connection and hope. Right off the bat, the keynote speaker, Simon Sinek, challenged us to revisit the reason we started

L to R: Tammy, Heaven, Etang & Monica. Bellydancers!

Your Body Raks. With a focus on the big “WHY,”-the passion, the origin story—we could then use it as a source of inspiration for ourselves and for others. Attending Arts Marketing in the Digital Age, Dance and Community Arts and the Power of Documentation workshops gave us fresh ideas and insights. And imagine sitting in a workshop about the healthcare of dancers on the very day that the U.S. Supreme Court released their ruling on the Obama healthcare plan. It was fascinating and immensely helpful.

And then there were the people! Over 450 dance professionals from throughout California and the country called for some furious card passing and rich conversation. We seized the opportunity to connect with Bay Area dance notables about upcoming projects. And what do you know? There were other bellydancers there, too. The precious time spent comparing notes about our careers and hopes for the future (outside of a bellydance event) was golden. We need more of that!

As bellydancers we were welcomed into a broader community of dancers. And yes, for us that was no small act of validation. As we were treated to a series of performances ranging from ballet, modern and plenty of folk dances from Cambodia, India and many other countries, I couldn’t help but feel that yes, this was my community too. Like any community, it has its imperfections, controversies and struggles. I accept that. In fact, because of my sense of belonging, I feel obliged to add whatever talents and knowledge I have to that struggle.

Raks Africa are cover girls on the latest issue of Indance

The questions of what does it means to be a dancer in this body, at this time and in this community were not silenced by the Dance/USA conference. Where we go from here will depend on how we apply what we have learned. But more importantly, we are energized and inspired to move forward with bellydance, body justice and joy!

PS: We want to send out a special note of thanks to Wayne Hazzard and Dancers’ Group for assisting in our participation in the Dance/USA conference.

Keep up with us daily on Facebook, “like” our page, Your Body Raks!




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Yay! for Marilyn & Girls Raks

26 Jun 2012

Etang's blog headshotThis year, the Girls Raks Bellydance and Body Image Program is excited to welcome back fat rebel activist, Marilyn Wann. Last year, we were fortunate to have Marilyn participate in our Women Warriors Speak panel. She shared her fat acceptance path, activist journey and strategies for fierce self-love. We ended last year’s panel with smiles and giggles by individually stepping up on a scale. What? A scale? Marilyn developed and designed the brilliantly radical, Yay! Scale®. Instead of the weight focus of traditional scales, Yay! Scales® offer the gift of a positive message with absolutely no numbers involved.

So what you weigh is radically shifted to what you yay! – cute! perfect! fine! adorable! amazing! and more! So many of the girls we work with see their self-worth defined by the numbers of a traditional scale. This impacts girls of all shapes and sizes. They deserve to feel affirmed and celebrated as they are right now, no matter what they weigh. The Yay! Scale® is a liberating way to change the number focus and begin the path of making peace with your body. We knew that we wanted Marilyn to join us again this year to share her inspiration and courage with Girls Raks. We are so excited that Marilyn will be joining us for a special Yay! Scale® making workshop with the 2012 Girls Raks girls.

The Girls Raks Yay! Scales® will be exhibited at the Hotter Than July Belydance Extravaganza Benefit at the La Peña Cultural Center on July 28th and then the girls get to take them home to share with their families and friends.

We are in the home stretch of raising funds for the 2012 Girls Raks Bellydance and Body Image Program. We need to raise an additional $500 by the start of this year’s program. If 50 people could support the program with $10, we’ll get there. Tax deductible donations can be made via our fiscal sponsor, Dancers’ Group.

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Preparing for the stage

12 Jun 2012

Storytelling and Self-Identification

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Got Pride?

5 Jun 2012

Etang's blog headshotOk, what’s one of the many archaic myths of this dance form? How about bellydancers gyrate for the male gaze? The fair, slight, sequined, almost bare body of the dancer quivers and vibrates to a frenzied crescendo for the pleasure of men. In this stereotype, the dance is a performance of heterosexual womanhood. I am rendered invisible.

So here I am, a woman of African descent, fat, sparkly queer femme, and a bellydancer, dancing with pride for my communities and for myself. I shimmy for visibility. I hip bump beyond boxes and stereotypes. I undulate for my sister to see herself represented. I dance for a gaze…a gaze turned inward. With bellydance I can finally fully see myself. And I like what I see. I take my space in the world and on stage because I need it and I deserve it.

June is LGBT Pride Month. While pride moves with me and through me all year long, pride season is a time to reflect on and celebrate all the parts of myself. Happy Pride! Celebrate yourself, dance for yourself and perform your own story of pride every single day.

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Summer, The Food Police and Me

30 May 2012

Tammy's HeadshotIt happens every year about this time. I am at a cookout or a new foodie hot spot with friends, looking especially cute in a girly summer dress, with hair, makeup and nails done just right. I’m feeling great, even a bit flirty, like nothing can get me down. And then boom! That voice or that look that says those six ugly words, “Do you need to eat that?” changes everything.

Honestly, my gut reaction is to twist my full plum-red lips into an explicative that ends with you. Yes, the devil on my shoulder wants to read that joker like RuPaul high on speed and a double shot of espresso. But somehow that lets the culprit off too easy. The summertime food police (our families, friends, the stranger eyeing your plate from across the restaurant) are on full alert. And throwing some shade won’t help the situation.

As I have gone through my own journey around food and body issues, this form of shaming has particularly triggered me. It’s been a major issue, especially in the last few years. Can you imagine telling the world that, as a full-figured, black, woman in her 40s, you have decided to become a professional bellydancer? For a while it seemed that everything I put in my mouth became a marker of my dedication to my art. I could be dancing and doing yoga several times a week and eating fresh veggies from my own garden, but being spotted sipping a Fentons milkshake, brands me as a poser, someone not serious about her health, and therefore couldn’t be taken seriously as a dancer.

At this point I could counter with volumes of stories and data that show how food policing and body shaming are actually counter-productive, encouraging self-destructive eating disorders. And for sure, the Health at Every Size® movement offers a great alternative to the yo-yo hell of dieting and attempting to seize the unattainable images of mainstream perfection out there. But again, to be rigorously honest, that’s a socio-political argument (one which I too make on occasion) that for me, doesn’t feed the soul (pun intended).

What has really helped me through this maze of judgment and misinformation is clarity around my own journey. Through becoming comfortable and even fully enjoying the skin that I’m in, I was able to chart my own path to health. That’s what we, at Your Body Raks call body justice. Clearing away the external debates, being fully present and aware of what’s going on with me, physically, emotionally and spiritually, allows me to define what kind of life (in this body) that I want to live. Most importantly, self-definition has allowed me to discover what makes me happy right now, not three dress sizes from now.

So for me, the best response to the food police is to give them a knowing wink, bite into that juicy burger, and live a full and happy life.

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Burning With Confidence and Heart

24 May 2012

Etang's blog headshotI’ve been thinking about our Girls Raks girls on the first day of the program last year. Girls Raks girls come to us with varied life experiences and in all stages of personal development and self-esteem. I remember the layers of hurt, shame and disappointment one wore as a mask. The quiet, timid, shy strength cloaking one girl as she struggled with finding her voice and her rhythm. The thick walls of toughness, bravado and self-assuredness camouflaging one girl’s fear of failure. The harsh, overbearing, idealized expectations of beauty that one was both critical of and attracted to. These are all Girls Raks girls.

This week we are reading student applications for this year’s Girls Raks Bellydance and Body Image Program and re-reading the applications from the first two years. The themes that come up over and over again for these girls of all sizes are about learning self-confidence and self-acceptance with their bodies. Most of our students do not identify as dancers. To take their space on a stage, dancing in synchronicity with each other, in front of a supportive audience cheering them on is a life-changing experience for these girls.

Hotter Than July Bellydance Extravaganza is our annual celebration and benefit for the Girls Raks Bellydance and Body Image Program at La Peña Cultural Center. For our students, the show marks the culmination of the two-week summer program and their debut public performance along with a fantastic lineup of performers. For most of our students, Hotter Than July is a safe step well beyond their perceived comfort levels.

2011 Girls Raks students after performing at La Peña Cultural Center


Last year, our Girls Raks girls at Hotter Than July were beyond brave and beyond amazing. They filled the La Peña stage with their confidence, hearts and wide smiles of survival. They danced as sisters moving to the same beat and they danced as individuals embracing the spotlight as took their turns in mini-solos.

Mark your calendars now for this year’s Hotter Than July Bellydance Extravaganza on July 28th! This not to be missed event features Bay Area professional bellydance treasures Nanna Candelaria, Ahava, Monica Berini, Shabnam Dance Company, Shaunte, Masouma Rose, Raks al Khalil, multi-instrumentalist Tabla Queen Amber Field, with Tigress Osborn as MC and special performances from summer program participants, Girls Raks and event producers, Raks Africa.

Saturday, July 28th, 1pm
La Peña Cultural Center Theater
3105 Shattuck Avenue
Berkeley, CA
Sliding Scale: $10-$25; 100% of the proceeds will support Girls Raks Bellydance and Body Image Program.

Girls Raks is fiscally sponsored by Dancers’ Group
1360 Mission Street, Suite 200, San Francisco, CA 94103

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A World Without Girls Raks

22 May 2012

Tammy's HeadshotAfter a day of making mud pies, one of my favorite things to do as a little girl was to climb “the mountain” (my grandfather’s station wagon) and gaze past my yard, past the street, past the wild field beyond that, past the distant highway and even past the smokestacks of the quarry beyond that. In my mind’s eye I’d see beyond all that was known to me to the world that I would discover one day as a photojournalist. Thanks to strict TV rules and PBS, I already had my future mapped out.

Tammy in Third Grade

But the world around me had other ideas about who I would be. Southern traditions demanded unquestioned obedience punctuated by “yes, Sirs” and “no, Maams.” Answers about the who, the what and the whys of life took a back seat to making the honor roll and learning how to play the violin better than the Jones’ little girl. Meanwhile, I watched the aunties, play cousins and Maams in my life frantically diet, pick each other apart and endure familial abuse of all kinds. The message was clear. Life as a woman was all about constantly comparing yourself to and competing with other women, and wearing the badge of being a long-suffering sister for the sake of your family and community.

A dress fitting before the pageant

Entering a local beauty pageant in my teen years was an essential part of my escape plan to college. But there was a problem. No one told this wide-eye dreamer that pageants were about image, not scholarships. During the pre-trails a judge, with a nasty sneer, said that I looked too matronly. I dropped down to 135 pounds and was still the largest, breasts and all, in the competition. All I really wanted was a couple of grand for school, an A&W root beer float and a burger with extra pickles. But I plastered a goofy smile on my face and kept going. I lost, but was enthusiastically told by judges afterwards that if I dropped another 10-15 pounds I would be a shoe-in next year. No thank you.

I think about my youth a lot when Etang and I are preparing for the Girls Raks Bellydance and Body Image Program. The painful memories of the labels that others placed on us while we were girls are the reason we are adamant about providing a non-competitive space for self-definition. During our Head and Heart sessions, we explore the language that we use when we talk to ourselves, to other women and girls, and the language that is planted in our ears by our culture, family and friends. And because bellydance was key to helping us to discover our whole selves from inside out, the dance portion of the program is sprinkled with body-positive messages. By learning that her body is capable of doing wondrous things, like a hip drop, a girl can begin to consider that she is capable of more than she has ever imagined. Girls Raks helps her peer over the mountains of negativity to a world of limitless possibilities.

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The Light and Joy in Their Eyes

14 May 2012

Etang's blog headshotJust three months. Tammy and I started teaching Your Body Raks weekly group classes at two Oakland locations just three months ago, on February 13, 2012. Wow. In this time, we have been so lucky to build community with some amazing, courageous women. Your Body Raks women cross intersections of age, race, size, sexuality and personal experiences.

This past Saturday, we held a hafla (Arabic for party) to celebrate our Monday night and Wednesday night students at the Center for Third World Organizing Retreat Center. At our hafla, it hit me just how much our students have learned in three short months. I think back to my own steep learning curve as a baby bellydancer, and just remembering to look up, breathe and let go of negative self-talk was plenty for me to handle. Choreography and performing was a whole other level of fear for me. Tammy and I believe that movement vocabulary and muscle memory drills through the teaching of choreography are strong ways to accelerate learning and musicality for our students. Besides that, it’s fun, and our students just love the choreography part of our class.

In front of a small, supportive audience of family and friends, our students danced the two short choreographies they have learned—Hossam Ramzy’s samba-inspired drum solo, “Brazilian Pearls” and Malik Adouane’s funky rai fusion, “Get Up”. One of our students made a colorful drawing with the word “breathe” written on it as a reminder for herself and for the group. What made this performance especially fun was that both classes for the first time danced together as a group. We loved watching the women in call and response to each other—strong knee shimmy from Monday night to sassy shoulder shimmy from Wednesday night. Watching our students dance was thrilling and reinforced why this work is so important to us. It’s that budding confidence, the internal transformation in progress and witnessing the light and joy in their eyes. This hafla inspired us so much that we plan to host them every few months for our students.

Our weekly group classes are open enrollment and new students can start at any time. Your Body Raks women can shimmy like nobody’s business, and we want to shimmy with you!

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The Hips that Changed the World

9 May 2012

Tammy's HeadshotThere are these sweet moments during our weekly classes that I live for. A woman is dancing. She is taking her space, working on a move, breathing and sensing how that hip feels when she places it right there. There is nothing like the look on her face, the look that is focused, inquisitive and present. It’s not about right or wrong technique, or bellydance at all. Blasphemy, I know! But it’s bigger than all of that. It’s about her hip. It’s about the discovery that she can place it in front of her, to the side, push it back or make it jiggle up and down. Her hip is now the eighth wonder of the world! The energy in the room crackles like lightning. Zigzagging, bouncing from hip to hip, each woman catches a spark. And the next thing we know our students are asking us to play the song one more time, just once more so that they can move that hip.

The Iraqi-American author and independent filmmaker Armand Nassery once said, “Do you know what happens when an Arabian woman dances? She does not dance, she protests, she loves, she cries, she makes love, she dreams, she goes away from her reality, to her own world, where love is really meant and she does not want to come back, because that is her reality.” While most of our students are not of Arabic decent, they fully embody this sentiment. The discovery of the wonders of their hips unlocks a door to a new reality about themselves and the world around them. And whether they realize it or not, the joy of that discovery creates space for the woman dancing next to them to do the same.

Etang and I decided to channel those sparks by hosting a student hafla (party!) It’s a gathering just for our students, where they can, outside of a structured class, celebrate that eureka moment with others who have similarly embraced the wonders of their hips through bellydance. There is no formal show or featured star. We will dance, giggle, share our various talents, cheer each other on, sample some tasty morsels and dance some more. This will be another iteration of the Your Body Raks community, a no body shaming, food policing, or competition zone. It’s a place where a woman can “go away from her reality, to her own world where love is really meant,” as Nassery puts it. The student hafla is our way of being the change that we want to see in the world.

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The Girls Raks Gift

7 May 2012

Etang's blog headshotIf I had had the Girls Raks Bellydance and Body Image Program when I was a girl, I would have had some tools to resist the beauty ideal demands of the media. In the eighth grade when I put Nair on my sideburns, burning the skin off of my face, I didn’t know any better. I just knew what was around me. At thirteen, I knew that if I had hair on my face, I needed to remove it. Quick. I felt ugly and ashamed. In my eyes, I was a hairy monster. With Girls Raks in my life, I would have learned about the media and institutional oppression and the beauty industrial complex. My eyes would have been open to a deeper, more inclusive understanding of beauty. I would know in my bones that I was beautiful.

If I had had Girls Raks when I was a girl, my pain over feeling like I was not enough and too much would have been reframed for me. When I was a girl, I felt like I didn’t fit. I was not enough of this or too much of that. I would have understood that who I am, with the full body that I carry in this world, is perfect and whole. I would have learned to embrace my body rather than obsess about changing it. I would be seen and heard and valued for being a bright young woman of color. I would be praised and affirmed for my courage, my strength and my heart.

If I had had Girls Raks when I was a girl, I would have known that dance is for everybody and every body. When I was a girl, I didn’t dance. Fat, self-conscious and shy, I thought that dance was just not for me. It was for those girls who were lithe, long-limbed and graceful, not me. With Girls Raks in my life, I would have been introduced to the idea of size diversity in dance. I would have learned how to close my eyes and feel the rhythm of the music and connect to my body. I would have an appreciation that dance movements look different on different bodies, and that is absolutely okay. I would have discovered the secret joy and passion that lives inside of me with dance.

Now in its third year, the Girls Raks Bellydance and Body Image Program is a Bay Area treasure. Our 2012 Girls Raks summer session is just around the corner, and we need your support to provide scholarships for our students. Please donate $20, $50, $100 or whatever you can. The program tuition is $250 per girl, and it’s our goal to enroll ten participants this summer. Please make your online tax-deductible donation via our fiscal sponsor, Dancers’ Group.

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Making the Connection

2 May 2012

Tammy's HeadshotYvonne and I are great travel buddies. We get each other’s sense of humor, understand the value of doing nothing on a beach all day and have perfected the art of flirting with taxi drivers just enough to get a good fare. After a night of rumba and rum, we ease into sunrise sessions about heartbreak, triumphs and the scary and hopeful unknowns. Our time together allow us to pause to reflect on our lives while letting our worries drift into the ether. I treasure those sister-friend retreats from the barking demands of the world. In them, we create space to dream, to laugh and to just be.

If we are lucky we all have little reprieves with our loved ones during our daily lives. They take the form of a coffee date here or a phone call there. But they tend to be fleeting moments that sometimes aren’t enough to shield us against the sharp judgments about who and what we are, and especially what we look like. Isn’t it amazing how easy it is to add another soul-crushing meeting to our calendars, and how difficult it is to keep from once again canceling a play date with our girlfriend? The thing is, we desperately need that connection to another woman, one that is positive and affirming. We need it because every time we turn around, magazines, newscasters and the person behind us in the checkout line are giving us bogus reasons to dislike the image in the mirror and to see every woman that crosses our path as competition. <<Insert sonic scream here!>>

Tammy and Yvonne in Mexico City

Building community with other women, a community that is a safe, soul-affirming place to be, doesn’t just happen. Like vacations, they have to be planned. That is why Etang and I created the MotherLove Bellydance Workshop. We are asking women to bring their mom, cousin, sister-friend or whatever woman in your life that you hold dear. In duets, we will try some new tools that will fill your spirit and help sustain a positive connection to each other. And oh, yes, we will bellydance! In fact, we have created a duet choreography especially for this workshop. Meanwhile, consider calling that special someone to see if she’s free May 12th.

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Listening and Making Peace

1 May 2012

Etang's blog headshotWhen I was twelve years old I went on my first diet. I remember the worn paperback book with the golden embossed pineapple and the title “Beverly Hills Diet” blasting from its cover. As a girl living in Northwest Philly, Beverly Hills was planted in my imagination as the land of diets and deprivation. My mother, my two aunts and I did this diet plan together. I did not have a choice. We were a team, but at the same time competitive with each other. I was already developed and self-conscious at twelve, and now getting a clear message that my body must change and I need to change. I learned that the bodies of all of the women in my family were flawed and out of control. I learned to embrace the competition and comparisons. I looked forward to the daily weigh-ins. I don’t have a memory of weighing myself on a scale before “Beverly Hills.” Did we even own a scale before “Beverly Hills?”

In high school, I took a break from dieting until 12th grade. I knew that college was my opportunity to escape and reinvent myself. In my senior year, my mother and I went to Jenny Craig. I was on a mission to change myself no matter what. I was scared to go to college fat. For me, the limited calorie intake of Jenny was not enough. I was not losing weight fast enough for my college timeline. Now the competition was with myself; how fast could I lose weight? I was obsessed. I abused over-the-counter laxatives and diuretics by the handful. I was empty, dehydrated and out of control. I lost over 70 pounds in less than 6 months. I went away to Smith College sick. My disordered thinking was again triggered. I went on medical leave for a full year after my first semester of college. I was ashamed and felt like a failure. I came back home, went to therapy, got a job and took classes at my local public university. I started to work on myself and on my disordered mindset. I went back to Smith College and stopped dieting for good.

May 6th is International No Diet Day (INDD), an annual celebration of body acceptance and body shape diversity that was started in 1992 by Mary Evans Young of Great Britain. When you think about body acceptance, keep the focus on yourself and think about self-acceptance. Wherever you are in your body acceptance journey, use INDD as a day to examine your relationship with your body. Your Body Raks because it is yours! Listen to your body and begin to make peace.

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Going Solo

25 Apr 2012

Tammy's HeadshotA few times a year, I attempt to challenge myself artistically and pull together a solo routine. Since it was a special occasion, I decided to try something new at our April Raks Benefit for the Girls Raks Bellydance and Body Image program. My sister Stephanie, who has never seen me dance live, would be in town. And I had a lovely new costume and a few Shiny Sparkly Things to show off. So why not?

Actually, there are a lot of reasons why I could choose not to solo. It’s just me out there on that stage. It’s just me, the music and all of those eyeballs in the audience watching my every move. It’s a lot like life. Stepping out in the world alone facing all sorts of uninformed judgments about me, and what I am doing is scary. I could be unfairly compared to other dancers or to my performances as Raks Africa. And the ‘what ifs’ can be stifling. What if I freeze up? What if people don’t like me? What if I’m just so-so? What if, all alone, up on that stage, in front of everybody, I fail? Oh the horror of not being fabulous! But this is what I do. It’s what I changed my life for. It’s what I ached for in my bones, and what satisfies my spirit. So damn the ‘what ifs,’ press on and dance!

Image of Tammy DancingUnlike choreographing a Raks Africa duet where we attempt to match energies and movements, the planning of a solo is a whole other animal. My solos tend to be only partially choreographed. Choosing music that I love helps me glide from one move to another a tad more effortlessly. I continue to depend on the seasoned eye of my teacher, Nanna Candelaria, for polishing the rough edges. And at some point I try to stop fussing with the particulars, relax, be in the music, in my body and enjoy myself. And then it’s show time.

When I dance I care about using proper technique. I care about presenting the dance, the history and the culture of the people who call it theirs, in a dignified way. But what I mostly care about is transmitting the joy and freedom that bellydance has given me. So when I go solo, when it’s just this full-figured black woman’s body shimmying on stage, I remember that I’m not really alone. My big hip circles encompass all of the women, of every size, who need to see me up on that stage, those who nudge me to take my space there and the future baby dancers who will take center stage themselves one day. And damn, I’m a fabulous bellydancer!

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The Mother in You and Me

23 Apr 2012

Starting in mid-April for the past few years, I have tried to avoid all things Mother’s Day. From the commercial solicitations of flowers, cards and brunches, hiding from Mother’s Day is damn near impossible. In my inbox this morning, I get the triggering reminders “Don’t forget Mom” and “Moms get it done with double cash back!”

My Mom passed away in January 2009. When she died, I lost my biggest cheerleader, my inspiration and the person who has always had my back unconditionally. She encouraged me, pushed me to find and use my voice when I was fearful. I think about her every day, but Mother’s Day season has been tough for me these past few years.

In my grief, I stopped doing what I loved. When she died, I took a half-year break from dance. The joy that bursts inside of me from bellydance died, too. I was stuck. I realized that I was repeating my mother’s cycle. Just like my Mom, I was putting other people first and neglecting myself. At the time, I was a high school teacher with many of my students in crisis themselves. In my need to rescue, there was nothing left for me. As I heard and felt the call to come back to bellydance, I slowly started to listen to myself. My mother followed her heart excessively. I also finally listened to what was in my heart and returned to dance. The mothering I extended to my students, I needed that care, attention and love for myself. For me bellydance has been a form of self-care and mothering.

Starting this year, I am no longer hiding from Mother’s Day season. I embrace it. On Saturday, May 12th in honor of Mother’s Day, Tammy and I are facilitating a MotherLove Bellydance Workshop. We invite you to bring your mother, daughter, sister, partner or best friend and join us for a special affirming workshop that uses bellydance, writing and meditation as tools of self-care. As women, we need to mother each other and ourselves. There is power in mothering ourselves. The MotherLove Bellydance Workshop is only for duets, so bring a sister-friend or loved one.

MotherLove Bellydance Workshop
Saturday, May 12th , 10am – 12noon
Center for Third World Organizing Retreat Center

1218 East 21st Street in Oakland
$60 covers the workshop fee for 2 people!

Pre-registration by May 10th is required.
For more information, please contact us: and (510) 229-0539.
For registration, click here.

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Girls Raks Girls

19 Apr 2012

Etang's blog headshotWe have been privileged to work with and mentor phenomenal young women. We are now in our third year of the growing Girls Raks Bellydance and Body Image Program, a fiscally sponsored project supported by Dancers’ Group. In our development of Girls Raks, we had an understanding that it was not enough to just teach girls some bellydance movements and choreography. We knew we had to go beyond bellydance. Before the girls could even begin to engage with the dance, they required some “head and heart” time to have some tangible tools to resist the negative messaging about themselves and their bodies.


Ellissia, Girls Raks 2010

Ellissia is one of the young women we worked with in our first year of Girls Raks. Soon to complete her junior year at Dillard University in New Orleans, Ellissia is a bold, bright gem. When I think of why Girls Raks has meaning for me, I think of Ellissia as a high school student—bursting with beauty, missing her mother, scared to leave Oakland, and on the edge of understanding her power as a young woman. The woman Ellissia is growing into is whole.

At our April Raks! Benefit this Saturday, Tammy and I are dancing for Ellissia and all of the brilliant Girls Raks girls we have mentored and will mentor. We see your faces painted with courage, strength and survival. We hear your quiet stories of resistance and risk-taking. We celebrate your hearts and your reflections. We dance for you to love yourselves fiercely and fully.

If you are in the Bay Area, please join us on Saturday for our April Raks! Benefit. If you are not local to us, please help build our 2012 Girls Raks Scholarship Fund.

April Raks! A Benefit for the 2012 Girls Raks Bellydance and Body Image Program
Saturday, April 21st at 2pm
La Peña Cultural Center Café Lobby
3105 Shattuck Avenue in Berkeley
$10-$20 Sliding Scale

Girls Raks 2010

Girls Raks 2011

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A Special Blog, A Special Week

16 Apr 2012

One correction: The YBR free class is from 1:50 to 2:40 pm, Sunday, April 22, at The Beat in Berkeley. More information can be found here.

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April Raks!

11 Apr 2012

Tammy's HeadshotDo you ever get the feeling when you walk into a room that, “Yes, this is the place for me”? That is how we feel about the La Pena Cultural Center. It has been a grounding space for us for some time. We have held rehearsals and our annual Girls Raks program recital, Hotter Than July: A Bellydance Extravaganza there. The center is very intentional about being a community resource, stating that their vision is to promote “peace, social justice and cultural understanding through the arts, education and social action.” As the location for the April Raks, a benefit for the Girls Raks Bellydance and Body Image Program, La Pena makes good on this intention.

As Girls Raks goes into its third year, we are poised to grow substantially, with more girls, more fun activities, more life lessons learned, and of course more bellydancing. Fundraisers like April Raks help us provide scholarships to more participants and build a broader community.

2011 Girls Raks Photo:In Her Image Photography

Held in the La Pena café lobby, April Raks will benefit from lots of good mojo from past events like their monthly Rumba Drum Circle. And we’ll create some of our own. In addition to a Raks Africa performance, a solo from moi, and some fantastic shimmying by an array of Bay Area bellydancers, we will be joined by Tabla Queen, Amber Field. So if you are in the East Bay on April 21st, La Pena is the place for you to be.

Can’t attend? Send a donation here.

April Raks! A Benefit for the 2012 Girls Raks Bellydance and Body Image Program

La Pena Cultural Center Café Lobby, 3105 Shattuck Avenue, Berkeley, California

2:00 PM, $10-$20 Sliding Scale

Keep up with us daily on Facebook, “like” our page, Your Body Raks!


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Take Back Our Bodies

9 Apr 2012

Etang's blog headshotWhen I was an undergrad at Smith College, year after year I rallied with hundreds of women of all stripes on my campus for Take Back The Night. With homemade signs and linked arms, we stood together full of pride in solidarity, standing up and speaking out against violence against women. Tammy and I have been invited to perform at the Mills College Take Back The Night next Monday, April 16th. We make this offering of healing and radical self-love from a place of deep gratitude.

Imagine if women and girls could take back our bodies and be comfortable, free and present. Imagine if we were encouraged to embrace our bodies and love our bodies as they are. Imagine if we accepted our bodies no matter what. Imagine if we resisted the pervasive media programming that challenges us to change our bodies and hate our bodies. Imagine if we united in solidarity to stand up and speak out against body shaming and size policing. Imagine if we were visible to each other. Imagine if we listened to our stories of survival. Imagine if we celebrated the power, strength and courage that live inside of our bodies. Imagine if we danced together.

When Tammy and I dance together, we are a sisterhood that breathes in resistance. We invite you to dance your truth and love yourself fiercely and fully. Our bodies are all beautiful and all different. They don’t conform to impossible beauty standards. We encourage you to stop and think – really think – about your relationship with your body. Own it. Honor it. Reclaim it. Take back your body because your body raks!

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Bringing Bellydance Back to the Community

4 Apr 2012

Tammy's HeadshotJust as we were wrapping up our day of dance, a mom and her little one joined us at the Lake Merritt pillars. The baby girl came bounding out of her stroller toward us, clapping to the beat of an Egyptian Shaabi tune still playing on the boom box. Etang and I just had to join her! The more we shimmied, the louder she giggled. We giggled and shimmied even more. I couldn’t tell you who was having more of a good time, Baby Giggles or us.

The last week of March was a blast for Your Body Raks. The women in our Monday and Wednesday classes were nailing the choreography, even improvising a bit, laughing and high-fiving all along the way. On Friday, we joined dancers all over the world in taking dance to the streets during Dance Anywhere. Then we topped it off on Saturday by helping Destiny Arts raise a few dollars during their daylong Move-a-thon, where one budding eight-year-old bellydancer, in particular, kept wowing us with her intense snake arms.

Enjoying high praise from a great audience.

And it felt good, real good. What all of these gatherings have in common is that they are essentially about building community. And that’s what Your Body Raks is all about, really. Our classes are about nurturing a community of women who support each other, creating a safe space to move our bodies and enjoy ourselves. Events like Dance Anywhere and the Move-a-thon put us in front of people who may not be familiar with bellydance or us. So we are out there with our hip scarves and hip bumps, inviting them to rethink their assumptions about “normal” body types and have some fun while they are at it.

Bellydance was, after all—and still is, in Egypt—a community dance where everyone gets to shimmy to the beat. So we’ll keep doing it. Have boom box and hip scarf, and will travel. See you at the next community mixer!

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Our New Logo

2 Apr 2012

Etang's blog headshotLogo artwork for bellydancers is rare. For most, a photograph of the dancer serves as their logo. While our photographs represent us as Raks Africa, the performance duo, we wanted a different look for our business, Your Body Raks. In January, we contacted artist Karin Turner to commission art for the logo identity of Your Body Raks. From our very first laughter-filled phone conversation with Karin, we felt at ease and confident that she “got us.” Based in Oakland, Karin is most known for her whimsical, colorful figurative portraits of full-bodied African-American women.

To start, we selected some of Karin’s work for inspiration and then met with her in person. A few weeks later, Karin sent us some preliminary sketch options:

We loved the options that Karin offered us. We appreciated that she really saw us and captured our spirit. We gave her some feedback, requesting that the body be fuller throughout, especially the breasts and belly.

When Tammy and I went to Karin’s studio to see the final design, we were stunned by the bold, full-color, big-bellied beauty.

Your Body Raks is not only Tammy and Etang—it is you, too. We invite you to see yourself in this image. We see you. Beauty. Passion. Grace. Joy. What do you see?

Our Your Body Raks logo design is almost complete. Hatty Lee is designing the typography to accompany this artwork. We cannot wait to unveil the complete design.For more information about Karin Turner, please visit her website.

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Radical Bellydance

28 Mar 2012

Tammy's HeadshotIt’s not easy to walk away from what you know. And it can be even harder to come back with a whole new perspective and feel accepted. But there I was. About a week ago I got a call from an old friend, someone who knows me from my previous career. What she had to say almost knocked me out of my seat. “We want you to do a radical bellydance workshop for us!”

The “we” is the Western States Center (WSC), a great outfit whose mission is “to build a progressive movement for social, economic, racial and environmental justice in the eight western states: Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming.” Their annual summer conference in Portland is an amazing three days of intensive training and networking, with workshops ranging from Beyond Diversity: Dismantling Racism, to Civic Engagement 101. I had facilitated racial equity trainings there in the past.

When I moved on to shimmier pastures, I half-jokingly suggested that they bring me back to teach radical bellydance to their participants. But for them it was no joke! There is a major lesson in that response for me. I had always taken my justice work seriously, with a little twinkle of levity, of course. But had that changed? Did I view writing an article about racial disparities in health care differently from a blog about body justice? Shame on me if that was true. The mission of spreading the gospel of bellydance, body justice and joy, of helping women to love our bodies and demand respect for them through our classes, workshops and performances is just as worthy a cause.

Your Body Raks’ presence at the WSC conference makes an important statement about the need for social movements to embrace the arts as more than just a pretty accessory; they are an essential strategy that keeps our humanity intact while we demand justice for us all. And knowing from personal experience how women in the movement routinely put ourselves last on the list of justice, our work is especially needed to reconnect and reclaim our bodies and souls. So leading a five-hour workshop at the WCS conference is indeed validating. But it is also good and needed work that we do with great reverence.

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Anywhere, Everywhere

26 Mar 2012

Etang's blog headshot“What if the world stopped to dance?” That is the question and invitation that Dance Anywhere poses to us. The day to share a moment of movement with the world is approaching. This Friday, March 30th at 12noon, Tammy and I are participating in Dance Anywhere. Now in its eighth year, Dance Anywhere coordinates simultaneous dance happenings across the world with conceptual public art performances. All around the globe, from Oakland to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia to New Orleans to Budapest, Hungary to Chicago to Guanajuato, Mexico there are individuals and groups gathering just to dance. Spontaneous dance. Improvisational dance. Choreographed dance. Just to dance….anywhere. Wherever you are, intentionally stop and dance. At work? Take a break to dance with your coworkers. On the train or bus? Shimmy in the aisle. Waiting in a line? That line will move faster if you throw in some hip bumps.

Our purpose in participating in Dance Anywhere is to share our Your Body Raks joy and heighten the visibility of size-diverse dancers. Dance is physical, emotional, mental and spiritual. Larger bodies are under constant attack, scrutiny and shame in the media and in our culture. When we dance, we embody joy. We are present, mindful and take our space to account for the full, dynamic, layered dimensionality of who we are. Moving our bodies as they are and creating art for audiences is our conscious resistance to size policing and body shaming. We invite you to just stop and dance. Turn off your mind, listen and feel how your body responds to movement.

For the full schedule of dance internationally on Friday, March 30th, check out the Dance Anywhere website. And if you are in our area, join us at Lake Merritt in Oakland. We’ll be out there doing our big-bellied girls thing—choreographed and improvisational performance and impromptu teaching, rain or shine, at the Pillars off of Grand Avenue and El Embarcadero.

See, even Tito is stopping to dance on a bus! Dance anywhere!

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Dancing with Justice

22 Mar 2012

Tammy's Headshot It came to me in the quiet moments of my Sunday morning meditation. Justice. I have spent most of my adult life working for justice, mainly around issues of race, gender, and class. I have helped write policies and collaborated with community groups on campaign strategies. Justice was something that I strove for from sun up to sun down. But Sunday I sat and pondered this question: What does justice look like in my own life, especially now?

Like many, I have been trained to think of justice in grandiose terms; as a law, a mandate or universal right restored to the oppressed. But I have come to see it differently now. Justice is not simply an end point or a singular action. For me, justice is a process. It is the restoration of the humanity of the oppressed and the oppressor, while finding peace along the way. It’s soul work, the expression of true love for all of creation.

Tammy at Rakkasah in 2009

Well that sounds like a grandiose statement, indeed. So I come back to the question of what does that look like in my life? Justice starts with me. That appears to be a selfish statement. But I think that it’s more about starting with what is real and true in my life. Asserting my own humanity means that I have the right to honor the whole of who I am. All of my life, the mainstream media and cultural norms told me that I could not be a professional bellydancer. But the loudest voice screaming out that message was my own.

So, my first step toward justice took the form of honoring my life’s purpose and passion by saying out loud, “I am a bellydancer.” This simple but powerful statement still brings tears to my eyes. Making this claim was key, because it forced me to recognize and validate the whole me. If I could not treat myself, my dreams, the very core of who I am with dignity and respect, how could I extend it to others or compel the naysayers to respond in kind? My pursuit of happiness is a justice-based endeavor. For me, right now, it’s about dancing.

Dancing. Dancing. Dancing. For many women, a dance class, much like the workplace or society at large, can be a place full of competition, judgment and devaluation. The Your Body Raks principle of Body Justice is about recognizing the humanity in each other, dancing with purpose, with the goal of being at peace and happy. Body Justice creates space for self-definition in the context of community building. We dance with compassion and clarity, and somehow find ourselves stepping in time with the women around us. Each one claiming her space and making space for the other: that is justice with a shimmy.

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Size Me

21 Mar 2012

Etang's blog headshotSince I hit puberty, I have shopped at the “fat lady” clothing stores. It was impressed upon me from an early age that I had limited options. In cramped dressing rooms with a pool of clothing at my feet, I was pressed by my impatient aunt, “Hurry up and decide between that pink flowery dress and that orange n’ green striped dress.” What a choice! It didn’t matter that I hated the dresses from their top stitch to their bottom hem. I hated the prints of the dresses, hated the shape of the dresses, hated the length of the dresses, hated the fabric of the dresses, and hated the cut of the dresses. Just hate.

It didn’t matter because the dresses more or less fit my hard-to-fit body. With my broad shoulders, full back, luscious breasts and narrower hips, my body is not proportioned like fashion industry standards, even on a plus-size scale. I was encouraged to be grateful for finding something that sort of worked. Personal style was not on my radar. This was the beginning of my understanding of scarcity realness when it comes to plus-size clothing. I learned to buy clothing, and even hoard clothing because when you find something that fits, you need it in every color of your size.

Fast forward to ten years ago when I was a baby dancer. I remember walking in circles around the Rakkasah West Festival at the Richmond Auditorium. It was my first Rakkasah, and I was in a sensory-overload daze. I had my stack of fat girl dollars in my purse, and I was ready to spend, spend, spend. I must have walked miles at Rakkasah, back and forth, that year. I looked and looked for some sparkly, beaded explosion of a dress for myself. I resigned myself to purchasing the dancer’s accessories–veils, hip scarves, zills, a sword, and too much jewelry. I found a few clothing options, some bellbottom pants here and a skirt with an elastic waist there, but nothing that was stage-worthy.

Raks Africa in saidi dresses performing at Rakkasah

Five years later, Tammy and I danced together at Rakkasah West for the first time as Raks Africa. We were on a mission, determined to find proper professional bellydance costumes that we could make work for us, when we stumbled upon the Dahlal booth. With tables filled with jeweled bedlahs in every color of the rainbow, we stopped in our tracks. They had saidi dresses sized “XXL.” We went into the makeshift dressing rooms with silk veils for walls. Taking a deep breath, I looked the gown up and down and psyched myself up to try it on. Was I really going to find something off-the-rack at Rakkasah, of all places? Before I could get my gown over my head, I heard Tammy’s burst of giggles and delight from the dressing room next to me—“It fits!” What? Tammy’s excitement only made me wiggle the dress down my body faster. We both stepped out of the dressing rooms at the same time. We twirled for each other, admiring the fit, so happy that they worked. We ended up buying four dresses from Dahlal that year.

Raks Africa in melaya dresses

Since that time we have had opportunities to have items custom-made to our measurements. The first time was in 2010, when we decided we wanted to do a melaya leff choreography. There was no one we could find making plus-size melaya dresses. We started a search for seamstresses and costumers. We found a local seamstress, Louise Austrie, who specializes in bridal gowns. With lots of faith, a few photographs of our vision for the dresses, and a fair amount of our fat girl dollars, we went through the custom dress-making process with Louise. She took careful measurements and was very precise about alterations. From start to finish, we met with her six times. Each time, she closely tailored the dresses to the shape and curve of our bodies. We thought we found dresses that fit us before. No. We now know what an exact fit feels like. And we like it.

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More Shiny Sparkly Dancers Than You Can Shimmy At

14 Mar 2012

Tammy's HeadshotFor the first time in many years, Etang and I are not dancing at Rakkasah. You might ask, what is Rakkasah, and why does it matter? Rakkasah Middle Eastern Folk Festival and Fantasy Bazaar bills itself as the largest bellydance festival in the world. Held in Richmond, California, hundreds of bellydancers from throughout California, the nation and even as far as Ludwiggstadt, Germany come to perform, attend workshops, enjoy the live bands and sample the wares of jewelry, costume and a variety of other merchants. As an audience member, you are treated to a cornucopia of bellydance styles, personalities, costumes and music choices.

Raks Africa at Rakkasah in 2010

Performing at Rakkasah has been an annual ritual for us. Hours of preparation were spent finding the right music, rehearsing new routines and altering costumes. The event was an opportunity to step up our game and ready ourselves for a year of dance challenges and triumphs. But this year we were unable to secure a performance slot through the festival’s lottery system. This felt like a curious start to a year full of new experiences and unknowns. Our mainstay was no longer there for us. Could this be an ominous omen?

Raks Africa at Rakkasah in 2011

We settled into this reality, deciding to embrace it as an opportunity. As the saying goes, the only constant in the world is change. So go with it! After all, we have changed. We are not walking into Rakkasah in 2012 as the same bellydancers that we were in 2011. Who we are, what we are doing and even how we dance have radically changed. As Raks Africa, we are still very much performers. We enjoy the energy that we give and get from an audience. But as owners of Your Body Raks, Rakkasah this year is a space for us to engage the bellydance community in a very different way.

Our conversations about the dance are from a new perspective. I got a taste of this at last year’s festival, when I chatted with a friend about the various responsibilities one takes on when teaching dance. And then there is the dance itself. I’m excited about watching many of my favorites, like San Francisco’s Oreet, Ranya Renee out of New York and Leila Haddad of France, as well as discovering up and coming dancers. And this year, Etang and I will be in the bellydancer’s version of a candy store. Surrounded by all that glitters, we will be assisting Sherri at the Shiny Sparkly Things booth. Can you say joy?

“Like” our Your Body Raks Facebook page and become eligible to win a $50 gift certificate at Shiny Sparkly Things and pass it on to your friends.


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A Force When We’re Together

12 Mar 2012

Etang's blog headshotWe have history. Tammy and I have been dancing together since 2003, when we were in a larger troupe together. Since 2006, we have danced as the duet Raks Africa, performing and choreographing as a team. I remember our very first performance as Raks Africa at a club in San Francisco when someone passed out right before we danced. What? We cleared the stage, huddled in a corner, hearts beating fast. What would happen? Was the person alright? All of this build-up…would the show get cancelled? The show was interrupted for close to an hour, an ambulance arrived to the venue to swiftly take the person to the hospital, and then we hit it. The audience that remained loved us and cheered so loudly that it felt like a full house.

In this time together, we have learned each other’s rhythm. I’ve discovered that in a pinch, Tammy will sink into an omi, and she’s learned that my default movement is a full body figure 8. We may interpret the story of a song differently, or we may hear different accents in the music. That is okay and part of the process as a duo. It is our willingness to listen to each other and respect our differing perspectives, then finding agreement that makes us powerful.

In our process together with Girls Raks and Your Body Raks, we have discovered a team teaching dynamic that works for us. We alternate in leading the different components of our classes. For example, in this week’s classes, I am leading the warm-up and muscle memory components of our class. “Muscle memory” is a term that we use instead of “drills” because—let’s face it—drills sound militaristic and so far removed from the pure joy and fun of bellydance. Plus, we prefer to highlight that muscle memory is exactly what we are doing to learn a movement.

This week, Tammy is leading the choreography component of the class. Our students are learning a fun Hossam Ramzy drum solo that Tammy choreographed just for our classes. When we are the lead teacher, we demonstrate the movements, and give students praise and adjustments, while the one acting as assistant teacher serves as the demonstration model for students to follow, aka “the bouncing butt.” We informally trade off on the Soul Train Line and Closing Circle parts of our classes. The Soul Train Line is an opportunity for students to improvise with the dance and take some spotlight for themselves. Our process offers students the opportunity to experience each of our teaching styles, personalities and joy.

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One Good Reason

7 Mar 2012

Tammy's Headshot“Join me in bellydance class. It’s fun!” That’s my usual invitation to our weekly classes. Then, often with a coy smile, the reasons a woman gives for her hesitation come flowing: I am too shy to dance in public, especially bellydance. I have two left feet. I don’t look like a bellydancer. My body doesn’t move that way. I need to lose ten pounds before I even think about doing anything physical in public. I am afraid that I’ll make a fool out of myself. I don’t want people seeing me flailing and failing. I don’t want to do this alone. I’m too old. I’m too fat. I’m too skinny. I’m too busy. I’m too busty. I have no hips. I am just plain scared.

I get it. The bellydance stereotype is daunting, even when the antithesis of that image is staring you in the face with an invitation to try it on for size. From its arrival to the United States in 1893 to the modern-day depictions in movies like Charlie’s Angels, the dance has been presented as the purview of women with unattainable model-like figures who are using bellydance to seduce men. What sane woman wants to deal with that hot mess? And then there is real life—a woman’s personal experience of being repeatedly shut down, shut out and made invisible.

The reasons are real and are not going away any time soon. But here’s a more important consideration: How do we begin to get past these barriers so that we can grow as women into our best selves? A good friend of mine recently reminded me that the world will give you 99 reasons to have anxieties about whatever is going on in your life. But a greater spirit will give you one good reason—the one that really matters—to move you forward, anyway.

A round of high-fives at the end of our Monday night class and the squeals of joy after Wednesday’s session let me know that that spirit was in the room and on the dance floor. After a few weeks of working on shimmies, snake arms and other moves, the women tried a short choreography. For many, getting the moves down is one thing, but putting the steps together into a recognizable presentation would be enough to send them running for the hills. Not these women. We were a little shaky at first. Words or movements that made the steps click in the body of one woman didn’t work for another. Eventually, we all arrived to the same destination. Joy! The joy of enjoying one’s body, the joy of sharing a sense of triumph with a community women and joy for its own simple sake is reason enough.

So consider celebrating International Women’s Day today by boldly tapping into your joy! Do whatever makes you happy and serve as an example of a fully realized woman for the countless number of young girls—not to mention women your own age and older!—looking for role models of liberation. And maybe try something new, like putting a bellydance class on your calendar next week. See you in class!

“Like” our Your Body Raks Facebook page and become eligible to win a $50 gift certificate at Shiny Sparkly Things and pass it on to your friends.


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Empowered Bellydance

5 Mar 2012

Etang's blog headshotI am a daughter of empowerment, but I am still growing in my understanding of the concept. It has become so overused and everyday that its own power and punch have become weak and trite. Is there a beginning, middle and end to empowerment? Does one cycle through a process and come out the other side somehow newly whole, strong and “empowered”?

On Saturday, we had the wonderful opportunity to perform in front of an estimated 700 attendees at the 27th Annual Empowering Women of Color Conference at UC Berkeley. We fully enjoyed the conference and got a lot out of the workshops, speakers and the conversations we engaged in throughout the day. We are thrilled our performance was so well-received, but we wonder what images and stereotypes surfaced when people found out that bellydance was part of the entertainment lineup. Is there a contradiction for some with empowerment and bellydance? Did the image of the slight, fair, seductive dancer gyrating for a male gaze come to mind?

When Tammy and I dance together, we flaunt our rejection of stereotypes about the dance and who has access to the dance. We are a spectacle. Big-bellied. Black women. Loving every inch of our bodies. Fully present. Jiggling, shaking and shimmying synchronicity. Heads held high. Fierce technique. Expressing our secrets, passion and joy. How dare we? To shimmy our hearts out and dance our truth on a stage in front of hundreds of sisters of every hue, age, size and shape is an empowered homecoming. That is empowerment that flies in the face of the image preferred by American media and culture.

The theme of this year’s conference strongly resonated with us: “A Holistic Approach: Justice, Access & Healing.” At Your Body Raks, we know that there needs to be a holistic approach in how we see our own wellness. We celebrate body diversity and dance at every size, age and ability. Through bellydance we strive to inspire women and girls to live lives directed by a sense of agency about their health, well-being and community. Empowerment indeed.

“Like” our Your Body Raks Facebook page and become eligible to win one of three $50 gift certificates to Shiny Sparkly Things.


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The Path of Inspired Women

29 Feb 2012
Tammy's HeadshotLast Friday morning, I sat in my living room feeling grounded, at peace and most importantly, happy. My life is not worry-free. I’m plagued by the unknowns of tomorrow, have bills to pay, and am constantly bombarded by the “shoulds” from the television and tea buddies. But still, there I sat, savoring the moment. So I cannot help but believe that this is what happens when a person, a woman, follows her bliss.As with most revolutions, the spark for Your Body Raks was created by young women. Your Body Raks was inspired by the success and the expanding demands of the Girls Raks Bellydance and Body Image Program. The repeated refrain of “I need this” from their mothers and other women compelled Etang and me to take our work to next level. This simple declaration reminded us that, as women, we never totally shed the body shaming and the repetitive demands of an image-obsessed society that we experience in our youth. And as we looked around, we found that these women continue to suffer from being immersed in a culture that tells them that they are not good enough, from the lyrics of the songs that they dance to in the night clubs, to the food policing and weight-focused mantras of well-meaning family, friends and colleagues.

Sridevi, Nanna Candelaria & David of Scandinavia Badyal, Girls Raks Panelists

In the Girls Raks program, we tackle these issues head on. Using bellydance as the foundation, we investigate the impact of societal rules and expectations around gender, race and class. For instance, in a curriculum module titled So You Think That You Know Bellydance: Truth, Lies and the Dance, we developed a video presentation that lays out the stereotypes and the history of bellydance. Then a panel of bellydancers talks about how they address these stereotypes, the tools that they use to counter them, and how they maintain their dignity. A closing discussion, journaling session and a guided meditation allow the young women to process what they have heard and consider how they can incorporate the new tools into their own lives. This portion of the Girls Raks day is called Head and Heart Time, a safe space created for media and language analysis, and personal introspection. And then we dance! Learning choreography for the program’s recital, participants are taught basic bellydance moves and much more. The execution of an Egyptian Walk, with a lifted chest and head held high, takes on special meaning in this context.

Etang and I intentionally set the focus of Your Body Raks classes, workshops and speaking presentations around bellydance, body justice and joy as a result of our work with young women and the demands of their elders. Through these services, women will have the opportunity to engage in similar curriculum pieces, as well as totally new offerings. For us, it all starts and ends with bellydancing. A woman can only dance with joy when she has peace within.

“Like” our Your Body Raks Facebook page and become eligible to win a $50 gift certificate at Shiny Sparkly Things.


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Stepping Out of the “I’m Too…” Corner

27 Feb 2012

Etang's blog headshotLast Thursday morning, while Tammy and I were out and about on Ashby Avenue in Berkeley, we met a woman around our age. We gave her a postcard about our classes and invited her to join us. She studied the card, looked at us and looked back at the card again. She paused, smiled widely and exclaimed, “Oh, I’m too awkward to bellydance!” The feeling she expressed was familiar to us. We encouraged the woman. Bellydance is a dance for everybody and every body.

We have met too many women who perceive that bellydance is not for them because something is wrong with them. Some deficit. This feeling can be paralyzing, backing us into corners we feel trapped in. I think about all the times I have stopped myself from something new because I’m too _________. Really, just fill in the blank. Too awkward. Too uncoordinated. Too shy. Too fat. Too proud. Too poor. Too busy. And on and on.

What has gotten me out of the “I’m too…” corner is to really challenge myself and look inward. When I say I’m too awkward, what is behind that? Where is my block or fear coming from? For me, it has definitely been attached to how others view me. Before I took a chance on bellydance, I allowed myself to be consumed by the perceptions of others. Other voices directed me. My own voice was there, but barely audible to myself. Bellydance has helped me to connect, listen and be gentle with myself. By listening to myself, I have learned that I’m not too anything. My own voice is now at my center and guides me.

In our weekly group classes, there is no place for judgment or competition. We are building a supportive community of women. At the close of every class, we have a Your Body Raks “Soul Train Line” where women zaghareet and cheer each other on as they take their turn down the line. This is a space to allow yourself permission to try something new. Join us for bellydance ~ moving to an African beat, body justice ~ uniting women of every size and joy ~ embracing who you are. “I’m too awkward to bellydance” will be transformed to “I feel too awkward NOT to bellydance my way out of this corner.”

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To Dance With Meaning

22 Feb 2012

Tammy's HeadshotAfter a few years of investment in costumes, classes, weekend workshops and performances, I was ready to take my bellydance experience to the next level. So there I was, sampling class number three on my list of local bellydance offerings. Facing a mirror, I attempted to mimic the instructor’s every move. I couldn’t help but think about how I looked like no one else there. This wasn’t an unfamiliar feeling. I had felt this way through grade school, college and in many professional settings. But it was a strange sensation to have with bellydance. Unnerving, even. An hour later, after paying for the class, I didn’t get as much as a hello or thank you.

Etang and I have had many conversations about this and other experiences in dance classes. Bellydance for us has become more than a way of gracefully moving from point A to point B. The dance has become an essential means of self-connection, as well as a way of creating community with others. In the hour spent working on technique, we want something more. That is why we begin each class with a warm-up routine that explicitly incorporates the Your Body Raks four central values.

I would think that it would be difficult to be a good dancer if you weren’t fully present. So we start there, asking each woman to listen to her body and be open to learning something new about the dance and herself. Extending the connection from self to others comes next with the concept of awareness. This acknowledges that we are building a community of women who confidently take their place on the dance floor, but consciously make space for others, as well. We do all of this with language and actions that embrace the concept of body love, leaving judgment of self and others at the door. And finally, but most certainly, there is joy, a sense of levity that helps you embrace the movement, smile and breathe!

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Dance At Every Size

20 Feb 2012

Etang's blog headshotAll bodies deserve love and acceptance. Your Body Raks encourages love and acceptance for bodies of all sizes and shapes. So many of us, of all sizes, have been impacted by body image deterioration. In Your Body Raks classes and workshops, we do not promote an “us” vs. “them” value system. The often-promoted language of “real women” is false, harmful and divisive. All of us, with all of our unique experiences, are “real women” with “real bodies”. We acknowledge the self-image struggles that women and girls of all sizes face. We do not erase anyone’s truth. Our intention is to build a community, a movement of women of all sizes embracing who they are through bellydance.

The dance movements will look different on different bodies. When we work with beginner bellydancers, it is necessary that the dancer learn to feel and experience the movements for herself. We prefer not to teach in spaces with mirrors. It is so easy to get caught up in the mirror reflection and how we look as we are practicing a new movement. As a baby dancer, when I took classes with mirrors I was taken with my image. I was mesmerized with myself. It’s a noteworthy change because for so long I avoided mirrors and my image. At that time, I could not get out of the mirror–I looked at myself and everyone else. I was inwardly critical of myself and compared myself to others. I was in my head and not in my body. I connected to what I looked like rather than to what I felt. “My shimmy does not look like your shimmy”. And I know now, that is ok–our bodies are different sizes, and we are shaped differently. There’s no way we would have the same shimmy.

Now, when I practice, the mirror is there, but I look beyond the mirror. I project and emote my own story and the story of the music. We encourage women of all shapes and sizes to join us for body love. Dance at every size!

Keep up with us daily on Facebook, “like” our page Your Body Raks!


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A Beginner’s Bellydance Journey

15 Feb 2012
Tammy's HeadshotI didn’t even own a hip scarf, let alone one with those pretty, jingly coins on them. So I took a deep breath, put on some sweats and a t-shirt, wrapped a scrunchy in my hair, and headed out to my first bellydance class. I had watched a friend dance for a while and longed for the sense of liberation that she carried with every step. But that longing didn’t quiet the voices in my head that screamed “Run and hide!” every time I went to a gym. Will I look silly, clumsy and laughably uncoordinated? Am I wearing the right thing? Will I pick up the routine easily or be the odd one out? Will my body be able to do those things? Will this be fun or another ego blow?

Then something big happened. This was not another 1, 2, 3 & 4 workout drill. This was something else. One class led to two, a week, then a month. It’s a decade later, and I’m still dancing. What happened?  I liked bellydancing, but more importantly, my body loved it. Yes, there were times that I got tripped up by the steps. And truth be told, it still happens on occasion. But those challenges taught me to be patient with myself, to appreciate my body’s own rhyme and reason. Eventually, my body would make those moves its own. I just had to remember to be patient, breathe and have fun.

And, yes, it was fun! The music had an undeniable beat that dared me to stand still. So, along with the other women in the class—some younger, some older, of all sizes, races and backgrounds—I moved. We became a community of women, sometimes dancing in unison and at other times taking our turn at a solo. Listening to the music, we flirted, smoldered and laughed to the story that it told. We cheered each other’s dance triumphs and encouraged each other to take that next tricky but satisfying step.

All of this comes back to me as I reflect on the first week of Your Body Raks classes. After months of dreaming, planning and hoping for the best, the women arrived. Together we stretched, shimmied, walked like an Egyptian and yes, laughed. But how did they feel?  R. wrote in her survey, “I felt supported and accepted, with so much ease and grace. It was fun. I felt like the goddess I had forgotten I was.” Yes! That is what Your Body Raks is about: bellydance, body justice and joy.

Etang and I feel so honored that these women have chosen to us as their guides through the wonderful world of bellydance. See you next week!

Keep up with us daily on Facebook, “like” our page, Your Body Raks!


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Dancing At The Intersection

13 Feb 2012

Etang's blog headshotI have been thinking a lot about the different intersecting identities I claim and the communities I belong to. For so long, I have felt compelled to divide up the pieces of myself. And others have seen me as compartmentalized, parts of a whole. Censored, and even silenced. I am the sparkly bellydancer, the third generation educator, the documentary filmmaker, the queer fat femme of African descent, the survivor, my mother’s daughter, the shy girl with uncontrollable giggles. I am all of these things and more, but seldom have these identities been fully integrated. I have lived with a disconnect. The me that surfaces often depends on which community I am with and where I am. One part of my identity quieted for the spotlight of another piece of myself. As we are building Your Body Raks, it has struck me that this work is encouraging me to be my whole self. I am at the intersection of myself. I no longer have to choose just one street to dance down. Now, I am shimmying with entire communities. I no longer have to choose between bellydancer or educator, bellydancer or queer, bellydancer or fat, bellydancer or my mother’s daughter. All of these pieces of myself intersect with Your Body Raks.

At our launch party last week and again when we receive e-mails, phone calls, and meet new people, I pause to observe the many intersecting communities who support us and want to dance with us. As we launch Your Body Raks, Tammy and I want to acknowledge and appreciate the different communities that we are a part of and that have shown support for us over the years. Thank you so much for your love. We love you back.

Keep up with us daily on Facebook, “like” our page Your Body Raks!


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The Launch of Liberation

8 Feb 2012
Tammy's HeadshotIn a traditional Egyptian bellydance performance, the band may play for a minute or more before the audience even sees the dancer. When she finally appears, she makes you wait a bit longer, circling the stage with her veil, showing off her elaborately beaded costume and her brilliant smile that hints, “Look at me. I’m beautiful and am about to dazzle you right out of your seat.” After a few twirls, she discards the veil, and the magic begins. She proceeds to captivate you with her soulful taqsim, rouses you with a Saidi cane dance, does a whimsical call and response drum solo with the tabla player, and leaves you wanting more at her finale. This is why I love bellydance. The dance tells a story, one full of drama, elegance, angst and joy. It mirrors my own. For years I waited in the wings while the music played. For a while, I cheered on others, with a secret desire to join them. Afraid to step out on my own, solo opportunities were rare, but liberating. And having sampled a taste of what the dance could offer, I was then told to wait. Wait for the right time, the right body or somebody else’s right moment. Would anyone hire someone who looked like me, who doesn’t reflect the clichéd Hollywood ingénue in age, weight or manner?

Then it happened. In January 2011, a revolution was sparked in Egypt, the home of bellydance. The decades of tyranny and suppression of rights were being met by the voices and bodies of millions who drew a line in the sand. The country’s future was uncertain, but liberation from the status quo was not. It was a time of reckoning for me, as well. As I was planning a transition of my own, I watched the protest with a sense of awe and urgency. It was time for me, too, to break away from the rules of others and chart my own course. Today, the people of Egypt are still in the streets fighting to be totally free.

And so am I. Today, I can proudly lay claim to something that I was taught to doubt. I am a bellydancer. What’s more, I am a professional bellydancer. When the time is right, and not a moment sooner, I enter the stage with a brilliant smile. And as I discard my veil and prepare to wow you with my dance, I think to myself, “Yes. This is where I belong.” So join me on this journey full of drama, elegance, angst and joy. This Thursday’s Your Body Raks launch party is just the beginning of our own revolution. It’s going to be liberating. See you there!

Keep up with us daily on Facebook, “like” our page Your Body Raks!


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Discovering Bellydance, Discovering Myself

6 Feb 2012

Etang's blog headshotI did not grow up with dance. In fact, I grew up self-conscious of the way I moved in the world. I was a fat biracial black girl raised in a white family. I took up too much space and not enough space. I grew up receiving a lot of unwanted attention for my full, developed body. I thought I was just a body. I tried to hide in oversized clothing. Though I was a big girl, I tried to move like I was tiny. Visible invisibility or was it invisible visibility? From my teen years through most of my twenties, dance for me consisted of bopping my head to music and shuffling my feet back and forth in an awkward two-step. The musicality gene did not make its way to me. I was generally off beat and forever behind the music. I was so not a dancer. You know that saying, “dance like no one is watching”? Well, for me everyone was watching, and I was watching. I could not let go and enjoy movement. I could not release what I thought I looked like to other people. I envied women who danced. They closed their eyes grooving to an internal rhythm. They were attractive to me. I wanted to be them. I thought they possessed a powerful secret that was out of my reach. I wanted to know their secret.

Etang as a baby dancer in her 2nd solo

In 2001, when I was 29, I stumbled upon a bellydance class taught by Asata Iman. I never sought out bellydance, bellydance found me. I was interested in North African history and culture, but I had very little knowledge of the dance. I just knew that I was not the stereotypical image of a bellydancer at all. A woman on a local e-mail list announced that Asata was teaching a class in Albany geared for full-figured women. I went and tried it out only because I felt safe knowing there would be other women like me. I took that step. I don’t know if I would have stepped into the class without that comfort. In the routine of the class, something sparked for me. I looked forward to going each week and signed up for an additional class. I had spent my entire life disconnecting from my body. Here I was forced to feel the music and feel the movements of my body. At 29, I was a baby dancer. Learning choreography was over my head, and I often got my left and right mixed up and just forget about spins. But those things did not matter. I was learning to connect to myself and unlock my own power, my own secret. I found myself when I relaxed into a tuck, opened my arms and raised my chest. I found myself when I sunk into a hip drop framing my hip. I found myself when my hips swayed and rotated in an unending figure 8. I found myself when I grounded into a strong, powerful shimmy. There’s nothing invisible here. I took my space to account for my whole luscious self.

In the eleven years that have passed since I walked into my first bellydance class, I have claimed the identity of dancer for myself. I am still conscious of an audience when I dance, but it is totally flipped. When I dance now, I perform. I play to the audience, connect, share my joy, tease and flirt. I see them, and they see me. I embrace my visibility. When I tell people that I am a bellydancer, I see their wonder and curiosity. I think they want to know my secret.

We invite you to take that step and join us in our classes. We are working intentionally to create a warm, welcoming community of women. We want to dance with you! Join us and discover your own secret.

Keep up with us daily on Facebook, “like” our page Your Body Raks!


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It’s All About Bellydance

2 Feb 2012

Tammy's HeadshotI’m currently working on a solo routine to Tarek El Sheikh’s Shaabi song,  Meya Meya. It’s a fun, upbeat tune that I have seen performed by one of my dance heroes, Tito Seif. It has taken some doing to get to the point where I’m bold enough to go beyond daydreaming about dancing, to actually turning the iPod on and piecing together a shimmy here and a hip drop there into a full choreography. My journey from activist to bellydancer to businesswoman was not an easy or natural transition. How did I get to this place in my life? Bellydance was the key.

Before bellydance, I lived my life very much in my head. I leaned heavily on my ability to maneuver around heated debates about race or to engage an audience of five or five hundred in solution-based thinking. What kept me going were the flashes of hope and the knowledge that there were meaningful local victories that never made the front page of the New York Times. But eventually, the years spent as a community organizer, policy analyst, racial justice trainer and writer left me heavy-hearted and soul-weary. As fulfilling as the work could be, there was clearly something missing. An important piece of me was being left out.

Then I discovered bellydancing. I would walk into class bone-tired and mentally drained from a day doing battle with data and dogma, and walk out with a smile on my hips called a shimmy. And in the decade that followed, dance helped me rediscover poetry, music, culture, painting and many old loves I had left for dead in my school girl journals. Bellydance introduced Tammy to Tammy. “These are your hips that do this and your tummy that does that. And that’s a good thing.” said bellydance. And I agreed! This was a body that craved to move so much that I started sitting on a yoga ball at work, because being immobile for hours was no longer an acceptable option. Bellydance got me out of my head, into my body, and eventually completely captured my heart.

The more I dance, the more I want to dance. Oh yes, the girly girl in me loves the bling, the makeup and the costumes. The applause is validating. I love how this dance makes me feel and how I have made others feel through it. That only happens because bellydance allows me to be fully present in my body, bringing my whole self (full chest, ample hips, wide smile and all) to the dance.

Now there is a growing balance among the mystical forces that dictate what I think, how I feel and what I do. So as I weave together this new routine, I do it with an awareness of the culture and the people who created the dance and the music. Muscle memory and musical sensibility tell my body what steps to take. And the dance would not be complete without the expression of joy that it gives me. Finally the head, heart and body are grooving to the same drumbeat. This is what my life’s work, Your Body Raks, is about. The YBR purpose statement makes it clear:

Through bellydance we strive to inspire women and girls to live lives directed by a sense of agency about their health, well being and community.”

I am all about living a life fully present in my body so that I can mindfully engage the world around me. I want that for myself and for others. Together, we can make that happen. And we can start by celebrating the launch of Your Body Raks on Thursday, February 9th.  I hope to see you there!


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The Birth of Your Body Raks

30 Jan 2012

Etang's blog headshotWe are so very excited to launch our dream, Your Body Raks, an Oakland-based business that introduces bellydance to women and girls with a Health At Every Size® perspective through classes, workshops and retreats. As we’re days away from the opening, we thought it would be helpful to understand our history and how we got from there to here. Why Your Body Raks?

Tammy and I both found our way to bellydance classes as a way to add movement to our lives. In 2001, I began to attend group classes at the Albany Community Center taught by Asata Iman. There were women of every size and shape in those classes. There were no mirrors. I looked inward, listened and felt the way my body responded to the movements and the music. I could turn off the judgment and the shaming, and turn on the joy that was filling me. This felt new and scary and liberating all at the same time. I connected to myself, and the bellydance bug captured me.

Asata with Troupe Raks Al Tasneem

After almost a year of classes, I joined Asata’s student troupe, Raks Al Tasneem. I met Tammy in 2002. She attended all of our performances and claimed her spot as the “troupe roadie.” Helpful with a safety pin here and an encouraging word there, Tammy wanted some of the sparkle for herself and started classes with Asata and soon joined the troupe.

In 2006, we decided to form a duet as a means of mutual support and to celebrate dance at every size. We named our duet Raks Africa after the first song we choreographed together, “Raks Africa” by Paul Dinletir, and as an intentional claiming of bellydance as African dance. As a duet, we had more visibility and less of a safety net. We found that very few dancers looked like us or represented our identities. We embraced our visibility and dubbed ourselves Big Bellied Girls Doing Big Things! At the time, we had no idea exactly what big ideas would later bubble up to the surface for us.

Nanna Candelaria

As we started together, we took loads of drop-in classes with teachers in the East Bay in search of a mentor who spoke to our sensibilities. We knew that we wanted to be so much more than the spectacle of big-bellied Black girls dancing. We wanted strong technique along with being dynamic entertainers. We decided to study privately with a Bay Area treasure, Nanna Candelaria. We found ourselves as newbies in the dance again, trying to find our individual dancer voices and our collective identity as Raks Africa.

Over the years, we have had a shift. Bellydance has become so much more than a hobby. Our shift in identity is in seeing ourselves as professional dancers. This dance has emerged as a core passion in my life. I cannot imagine my life without earth-shaking shimmies and sensual full-body figure 8s. I have discovered hidden, buried pieces of myself through bellydance.

In 2009, we started to have an increase in non-dance meetings. We did a lot of brainstorming and visioning about how to give back to our communities through bellydance. We decided that we wanted to work with and mentor young women with bellydance as our tool. As a high school teacher, I was on the front line of witnessing the body image deterioration that so many of our girls are struggling with every day. We had an understanding that it was not enough to just teach girls some bellydance movements and choreography. We had to develop a curriculum that was beyond bellydance. Before the girls could even begin to engage with the dance, they required some “head and heart” time to have some tangible tools to resist the negative messaging about their bodies. How can we dance freely and confidently when we are listening to voices that shame and police our bodies? In our program, an intentional framing of a positive self-image before dancing supports the students’ musicality and technique. We are now in our third year of the growing Girls Raks Bellydance and Body Image Program, a fiscally sponsored project supported by the Dancers’ Group.

Girls Raks students, 2010

Two years of directing Girls Raks has been fulfilling. To witness the positive self-image and growth in young women has been amazing. Then something interesting happened. As Girls Raks grew, many women told us that they wished we taught a similar program for them. Somehow the gyms and fitness programs that they experienced didn’t speak to the need for self-definition. What they got instead were barking orders and a wagging finger of disapproval about who they are and what they look like. These women wanted to have the final say about their bodies. And they wanted to move, to have fun and to bellydance just like we did when we discovered the dance for ourselves. Your Body Raks is the response to this need. Our philosophy states it clearly:

“We believe that Your Body Raks is a necessary intervention for confronting body shaming and size policing of women and girls. Because of its history and culture, bellydance is the perfect tool for addressing these issues. Through our work with the Girls Raks Bellydance and Body Image Program for teens, we have witnessed the power of body image transformation and positive self-definition. We share identities with the communities we work with, and we have a calling to interrupt the institutional, interpersonal and internalized oppression of women and girls through conscious media resistance. Nutrition professor Dr. Linda Bacon counters this with a new approach: “Health at Every Size® is based on the simple premise that the best way to improve health is to honor your body. It supports people in adopting health habits for the sake of health and well-being.” We believe in dance at every size. Your Body Raks is inclusive, serving women of all shapes and sizes.”

Your Body Raks Directors, Etang & Tammy

We hope to see you in a class in the next few days. We want to shimmy with you! Remember…Your Body Raks!

Classes start February 13th and February 15th!

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