Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Alia Thabit: On Power, Improvisation, and the Kindness of Strangers

Photo by Dunya McPherson

Writer and dancer Alia Thabit says she trains treasure hunters. And she wants you to know that every beautiful, magical jewel you desire is waiting at your fingertips.

Forty years ago, she attended her first belly dance class near her home in Brooklyn and was hooked.  Love brought her to northern Vermont. She stayed, raised her children, and earned a degree in creative writing from Lyndon State College.  Through it all, she never stopped dancing.

Nor has she stopped pushing the limits of her talents or curiosity.  Thabit has studied with world-renounced dance instructors, and has traveled the globe performing and teaching.  A few years ago, a broken ankle taught her a lesson on the fragility of the body and urged her to focus her energies.

That focus, combined with the perspective gained through travel, has brought her to where she is today: a widely admired and sought after instructor and mentor with much to say. 

Known also as Oriental or Middle Eastern dance, or raqs sharqi, belly dance, Thabit argues, is at a “cultural crossroads.” A new book in the works explores what she calls the loss of the “mystical core” of the evolving, ancient tradition she so loves, one that offers “a magical key that unlocks artistic, physical, and spiritual transformation.”  Eschewing rote mechanical technique, she encourages “embracing the soul” of the dance through feeling and improvisation.  In doing so, she says, miracles and healing are within a dancer’s reach.

Beauty, magic, and power are words that pepper Thabit’s writing and teaching, and they come easily to mind upon meeting her.  Gracious and self-effacing, she’d like nothing more than for her students and readers see -- and to treasure  -- those qualities in themselves. 

As your thousands of friends and followers on Facebook know, you rarely sit still.  You've danced and taught in six countries and 15 states. How has travel enriched your life?

Travel has helped me feel more confident, competent, and grounded.  I'm from NYC anyway, so I have a lot of navigation skills. But flying into foreign countries, taking cabs with folks who don't speak English, and generally traipsing around expecting everything to work out, you realize the overall goodness of the people in the world.

Even when stranded in Egypt during the revolution, people were unfailingly kind and helpful. I've been lucky, yes, but I start from the belief that whatever happens is the exact right thing and go from there. So far, so good. 

Stranded during the revolution?

I had gone to Egypt with my friend Lisa for a dance camp on a Nile cruise boat. One day the Internet just went away. Our final night in Aswan, there was a curfew. Text messaging got shut down too. We had to hustle to get to our hotel. Then the government closed the trains to stop people traveling to Cairo for the demonstrations. Soldiers stood in formation in front of the train station. Demonstrations and tear gas rocked the marketplace. It was pretty dramatic.  

We were stranded in Aswan for several days--most of which was kind of fun. Finally airplanes started flying again, and we were able to go home--only one day past our original plans, so that was pretty good.  

Alia calling friends at the American embassy 
while Lisa shows off the sign she got at the protest.
Luxor Egypt Jan, 2011. Photo courtesy Lisa Talmadge.

I admire your solo drive across the country. Is there a journey that stands out as most memorable? And has your sense of "home" changed over the course of your travels?

Aw, thanks! That first cross-country jaunt was pretty epic. The whole trip was about 13,000 miles. My boyfriend William and I drove from Vermont via southern Florida all the way to Portland, Oregon, then back down to his home in Santa Barbara.

We stopped in a dozen places to visit friends and dance. We only stayed in motels I think three times the entire trip. One night we texted a friend in New York, "Who do you know in Iowa?" He texted back in 5 minutes and sent us to some great friends. We went to their daughter's dance recital.

The whole way, I was teaching two sections of English online for Lyndon State college. So I was constantly scanning for Wi-Fi, stopping at highway rest areas and checking in to the course forums. It was really fun. I drove back across the country by myself, visiting and dancing all the way.  It was a little weird to come back to Lyndonville and have everything be exactly the same when I was so different. 

How were you different after that trip?

At first I felt trapped by the sameness. But over time I’ve come to a place of understanding that I am now a global citizen. So it is okay that Lyndonville and my house are the same, because I am different. I am free. I can come and go.

You have careers in two worlds -- academia and dance -- and you don't stand still in either.  As a teenager, you fell in love with dance, but then studied creative writing at Lyndon State College, where you are a long-time instructor of writing and research.  Meanwhile, you've been teaching dance and writing plays and novels. In "Midnight at the Crossroads: Has Belly Dance Sold its Soul?" you've married your passions.  Tell us about this new book.

I've been a writer even longer than I have a dancer. I won honorable mention in a citywide writing contest at the age of 14. NY is a big city, so that is no mean accomplishment. I still have the certificate--signed by Amiri Baraka. I began dancing seriously at 16, though I remember tuning in on Monday nights for twist lessons with Chubby Checker.

My field is oriental dance, often known as belly dance. It is an ancient dance of joy with a deep, deep core and a focus on improvisation, sensual experience, and emotional expression. In the last decades, it has been pushed towards a focus on choreography, spectacle, and stylization. I found this disturbing. It's been exciting to write the book because of all the discoveries and connections that continue to appear--from chaos theory and the Platonic ideal, to snowflakes and blues music.


There are some dramatic differences between Western dance and music and that of the East (and by East, I mean to the lands of this dance—primarily the Near East and North Africa). In the West, we value the Platonic Ideal--that there is a perfect form to which we aspire. In Ballet, for example, moves are stylized and must be repeated exactly. Classical music must be played as written.

However in Eastern dance and music, everything is improvised. Dancers dance what they feel from the music--and musicians play what they feel. Technique is the servant of expression. Musicians pride themselves on never playing a song the same way twice. This is a radical difference. Like the strange attractors of chaos theory, any two moves will be similar, but not the same. In nature, nothing is exactly the same--look at snowflakes. Our own Snowflake Bentley never found two snowflakes the same.

Our American Blues masters are an exception, as they also pride themselves on never playing a song the same way twice. The Blues came from enslaved African musicians’ attempts to play notes that didn’t exist on Western instruments--and there is more and more evidence to show that many of the Africans here were Muslim, and this same music was their music. So we are maybe more connected to belly dance than we might think.

I’m curious what your teenage self wrote to win that contest.

It was a play. I think it was a playwriting contest. I don’t remember the story, except that the main character’s brothers were attempting to build explosives.

When and where can readers get their hands on a copy of Midnight at the Crossroads?

I expected to have the book published by December, but it is taking longer than I expected. This is disappointing. However, allowing the material to gestate longer has brought me to a deeper understanding, so the book will be even richer when it is done.  

What's next for Alia Thabit?

Once the book is out, I'm gearing up for a tour! It's going to be quite an exciting time. 

To follow the progress Midnight at the Crossroads, please join the waiting list (and get some great sneak peeks and treats),   For more about Alia, check out her site:

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