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Interview with Belly dancer Suzanna Del Vecchio

by Salome

Suzanna Del Vecchio is an Oriental Dance Artist that has been dedicated to the dance since 1975. She is a noted choreographer both in Oriental and mainstream dance communities. Her choreography was selected by the Colorado Dance Alliance to be included in the Colorado Choreographers' Showcase for three consecutive years and was engaged by the dance department of the University of Wyoming as a master teacher in their national Dance Festival.

Suzanna was awarded "Best Choreography" for her dance "Passion" from the G.A.M.A.L. Academy Awards of Middle Eastern Dance and also named "Choreographer of the Year" from the International Academy of Middle Eastern Dance. Suzanna teaches and performs nation wide and internationally, and has released five videos on the International market.

Suzanna Del Vecchio -
award winning choreographer and international belly dancer.

Salome: Your choreographies have been praised and recognized both in Oriental and mainstream dance genres. What process do you go through when creating choreography?

Suzanna: When creating choreography I listen to the chosen music over and over. I then start dancing to it spontaneously. I don't think about it at all. I just dance and feel the music and let it take me away, being aware of how it makes me feel.

Usually I do this for a short time - maybe 15 to 20 minutes. I then listen and dance again within a few days. I am aware of movements that fit well together and I write these combinations down. So it goes like this for a while.

At some point I think - well it is time to really choreograph this. I look at my notes and as I'm listening to the music and dancing, I begin "blocking" the choreography - placing the combinations into the musical phrases where they fit best. I write these down. Sometimes if the music is more complex I will note the phrases and counts so I can see how the whole musical piece looks on paper. I then know how many movements I have to create. If I am creating the choreography for my students or another dancer I sometimes have to adjust movements to make them less complex or easier depending on the level of expertise of the performers. Of course I always take into consideration the history of the music and what moves may or may not be appropriate for it. It might or might call for a prop such as veil or cane or sword.

I buy a lot of music and every once and a while something really appeals to me. However frequently I listen and am not particularly attracted to any of the music. Then a few weeks or even months later I might listen to the same C D and a particular piece of music calls to me. Perhaps this has to do with the mood I'm in at the time I hear it.

Salome: In 1997 you toured Germany in your production "Fire Dance". In it you fused "Arabic and Spanish" movements. Was this blend specifically for your production or would you classify your style of dance as fusion?

Suzanna: In 1997 I toured Germany with several other dance artists. I was one dancer in a particular oriental dance production. I performed twice within each show. My 2nd performance was entitled "Fire Dance" which was also the name of the music. It is a very powerful piece created for the Flamenco Dancer Maria Pages who performed in the original production of River Dance. I was really taken by this music and wondered if I could create choreography for it. It called for an "Arabic/Spanish" fusion as the music was Spanish and it only made sense. I was an Arabic dancer with very little training in Spanish dance and the music was very complex. I listened to it for many months before deciding to have a go at it. My style of dance is not fusion, although I do occasionally blend other dance elements into my choreographies. I think of myself as a traditional Arabic oriental dancer who uses elements from other dance forms such as modern and ballet, as long as they work well and make sense. This may sound vague, but I really think of my style as eclectic.

I sometimes have a theme for a particular piece of music, as was the case with the "Fire Dance" choreography. For me it was the blending of the feminine and masculine qualities inherent within us all, and the joy and passion of love. In the original River Dance production that I saw on PBS television, the flamenco dancer begins with slow arm and hand movements with a wonderful backdrop of flames. The music builds and picks up speed. In the middle Michael Flatly joins her - he is the masculine- the "Bull" and they come together to dance.

In my version, I enter strongly spinning with a Veil and then drop it and begin a soft Standing Taqsim. As the music picks up, I use my hips where a flamenco dancer would use her feet to punctuate the music. My expression is soft for the feminine and then harder as I express or project the masculine. I think I pulled it off okay. I performed it so many times that Iím a bit tired of it and have pretty much retired it for now.

Salome: Floor work is becoming a lost art, but I understand that you teach and promote it as a valid part of Oriental dance. When do you introduce it and how do you approach it with your students?

Suzanna: I love floor dance/work. I believe it adds a whole dimension of beauty to the dance. It is difficult as it takes flexibility and strength and a lot of effort to develop these qualities. I introduce it slowly to my students by increasing the difficulty of my yoga warm up & cool down movements in my weekly classes. I will have students lie on the floor on their sides and do what I call a "reclining side figure 8" to warm up the hips or do a "seated hip roll" at the end of class. These are both floor dance movements that I use in choreographies. I sometimes create choreographies in which students drop to their knees with a veil for example for a minute or so to give them experience in floor work. I occasionally give workshops for interested students to learn my sword dance choreography & they must drop to the floor and do backbends to perform it. I am a certified yoga instructor in the Iyengar tradition (BKS Iyengar is a yoga master who lives in Pune, India), that highly trains its teachers, so I feel a responsibility to encourage students to develop strength, flexibility and good body alignment. I teach my classes the proper and safe way to do backbends and have yoga props in my studio for this purpose.

Salome: What are your thoughts on creating a universal dance vocabulary, and certification system? And what body of people do you think should guide that process?

Suzanna: I think it would be good to have a universal dance vocabulary and certification system but very difficult to implement at this point. We are still not that mainstream, and the instructors who would be involved in the process might be too opinionated and perhaps too attached to their particular styles or systems to agree on a universal certification system. Creating a universal vocabulary would be easier and maybe we could start there. I take my teaching seriously and am amazed when students come to me after 2 or more years of study elsewhere & are not familiar with the basics. It is frustrating but Iím afraid that we will always have to endure the 6-week to 6-month wonders that think they are ready to teach. There are many certification programs for teachers in the field of yoga and yet you still find highly visible yoga schools that give bad instruction. Hopefully those who are talented and earnest in learning to dance and teach well will find good instruction.

Salome: You offer a dance retreat in Colorado. What inspired you to organize this type of event and what do you hope students come away with?

Suzanna: I started the retreats in 1988. I was talking with a dance friend way back in the late 1970's about having a dance camp some day. I felt it would be most beneficial to spend several days studying without the daily interruptions of normal life. A weekend of nowhere to go & nothing to do, except immerse yourself in the dance. Several years later I taught a workshop in Michigan. One of the sponsors had been instrumental in starting a dance camp with Cassandra, which is still going on today. I told her about my idea and she encouraged me to bring it about by offering some suggestions. I went ahead and executed a plan.

I hope that students come away from my retreats inspired to improve their dance skills especially if they want to dance in public, and to recognize how rewarding this dance is just dancing for yourself and friends. It is so healing on a lot of levels and so very much fun. Sharing what you love with others who love the same is very satisfying and inspiring. Strong friendships develop as a result.

I believe in developing a strong foundation in technique first before being able to relax enough to express yourself emotionally, and that good body alignment is necessary for good technique. I always begin the retreat classes with this in mind as we review all the isolations with good alignment in mind. I use knowledge gained from my continuous studies of Iynegar yoga to guide me in this process and I find it very, very helpful. I sometimes use yoga props for this purpose. I think what is the most important however is that we become better people as a result of studying this dance. I try to encourage the art of "being present" during the retreats, as I find this personally to be the greatest challenge. We end all classes with a yoga relaxation, which ultimately encourages an awareness of how we each live in our body, which hopefully helps us to overcome our habitual patterns in our everyday lives as well as in our dance movements.