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Belly dance Competitions: Through the eyes of Ahava

By John Clow

Ahava, a veteran of belly dance contests, has amassed 6 titles in 7 competitions. She first studied tribal fusion with Bay Area instructor: Frederiqu. Later she took AmCab lessons with Leea Aziz, who Ahava said: "taught me to be a professional dancer, and to always be prepared for a performance." Here are her thoughts on belly dance competitions.

John: What's the biggest issue you face in preparing for a competition?

Ahava: For me, it's the challenge of coming up with a new choreography, one that will allow me to be the best dancer I can be. And honestly, the best way to know what people think is to see how the judges and the audience react to it.

John: What's the first component you consider in that process?

Ahava: Always the music! That's where I have to begin. Much of the time the music will tell me what to do, how to choreograph my performance.

John: With so many contests out there, how do you decide which ones to enter?

Ahava: Some times it's just a chance to see another part of the country. Like last year, I went to Dallas to compete in Little Egypt's contest just to visit Texas. Another factor was that the prize was really nice: a free trip to Egypt. That was probably the most fun I've ever had at a competition too, because all of the people were so nice. And it was a workshop with FiFi Abdo, which I didn't want to miss.

John: Do you look at who the judges are at each contest?

Ahava: I just want to know if I've ever heard of them; that makes a difference to me. More of a curiosity factor, really.

John: What's your process for choosing a costume for a particular performance?

Ahava: Sometimes it starts with the music. Once I know what I'm going to dance to, it all seems to just fall into place. Other times, I'll pick a costume style-whether I'm going more modern or traditional-depending upon the competition I'm entering.

John: What are your costume color preferences?

Ahava: Anything bright... vivid. I tend to gravitate to any bold color because I think that those types of colors look best on me.

John: When it comes to costume accessories, what are your thoughts?

Ahava: Most often, it depends upon my mood. I'm not really a veil person, but sometimes if the music has a really great entrance piece, I'll use it to spin around a couple of times and then discard it. Otherwise, I'm not big on accessories. I have my regular jewelry that I'll wear- a necklace and a few bracelets. But that's normally about all I'll wear; I'm very careful not to overdue my jewelry. I'd rather too little than too much...

John: Is the lighting of the environment a consideration in your choices?

Ahava: Oh, yes! It's nice to know what you're getting into, but that isn't always reality. My biggest concerns are in my make-up: lipstick and what I do with my eyes. It's funny because I've always been told that I need to wear bright lipstick, but I don't like lipstick at all. I like lip gloss because I think it looks best on me.

John: After you've signed up for a performance, when do you start preparing?

Ahava: I hate to say it, but I really procrastinate. I start with the music I'm going to use and tell myself: "All right, I'm going to use this." But then if it's too long, I'll pick another song, and choreograph my performance to that song. Then I often go through that process again; but I almost always go back to my first choice. But when the competition gets closer, about a month before, then I really go to work. Then it's a matter of rehearsing the number until I've really got it down.

John: Are you big on dieting and exercising before a competition?

Ahava: Not really. To me, I am what I am and I have no great desire to change. I eat what I want and most of my exercise comes from the dance, and that's good enough for me. I'm comfortable with my body image, not to say that I'm perfect. But the bigger issue is that this is belly dance, and you don't need to have a 'perfect body' to do it. In fact, in my opinion, several moves look better when there's a little meat on your bones.

John: Do you have 'signature moves'?

Ahava: I really like omis . . . those small, internal hip circles. And I've always been told that I have really nice arms and hands. Again, my philosophy is not to over-use them; I like to keep my arms still to frame my movements. I want my audience to focus on my dancing, not on my arms. Actually, they should barely be noticed.

John: At competitions, what is the time limitation?

Ahava: Usually you have to keep your routine under five or six minutes. But that can vary depending upon the contest, and how far you progress. Like in the Belly Dancer of the Year, the limit in the preliminaries was six minutes, but for the finals it was twelve minutes. But some competitions don't have those steps; all you get is six minutes to show what you can do.

John: Have you ever had any funny experiences at a compeition?

Ahava: (Laughs) Oh, yes! The first time I competed in the Belly Dancer of the Year pageant I had a slight costume scare. During the preliminaries I was waiting backstage and I decided to touch up my make-up and I have the bad habit of wiping my hands on my thighs. The problem was that I was fully dressed, in a white costume at the time! Fortunately, there was a costumer in the room who helped me get the stains out.

John: What title means the most to you?

Ahava: Though I'm proud of all of my titles, two of them really mean a lot to me. The 2008 Belly Dancer of the Year, because I retired from competitions after it, and the 2006 Queen of Raks Sharqi. Winning the Raks Sharqi title changed the way I danced. Until then, I was more American Cabaret, but I felt like I no longer needed all of those props. During that competition weekend, I got to study with Nagwa Fouad, Dr. Mo Geddawi, Zahra Zuhair and Randa Kamel. Their influences altered my style, wanting to absorb all I could from them... especially Randa. And Nagwa and Dr. Mo taught me how important it is to 'feel' the music-to BE the music!

John: Since you've been in several competitions, what are the pros & cons of competing?

Ahava: For me, I really enjoy meeting so many nice people-the judges, the vendors and the other dancers. What has helped me in competitions is that you are given your score-with comments for the judges-after it's over. That's how I find out what I need to work on. And if you're really serious about your dancing... your art, you'll take those constructive criticisms to heart. I always look at those remarks as a motivation to improve on the areas that they saw as weaknesses. I look at the competitions as a means to grow... as a dancer. Winning, of course, is nice, but that's not what it's really all about to me. It's the... experiences that I walk away with that I'll never forget.

John: What advice would you have for a first-time competitor?

Ahava: There are four things I would say.

1. Don't go there expecting to win. Competing is about growth, learning and challenging yourself.
2. Read your scores and judge's comments and take them as constructive criticism.
3. Don't drive yourself crazy with choreography, and don't be afraid to improvise. Bottom line: if you know your music front to back and inside out you'll be fine.
4. Remember that it's supposed to be fun. That, after all, is why we dance!

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