Shake it off

September 1, 2017 | By More

Few people show as much lifelong dedication to their craft as Terry Holland of Russellville. She’s been practicing the Middle Eastern art of belly dance since 1974. Over the years, she has become a prolific dancer and has been instrumental in developing Arkansas’s belly dance community.

Terry, or “Zahara” as her audience knows her, got her start after watching a Miss America pageant in the early 70s. One entrant performed a mesmerizing belly dance full of shimmies and rolls for the talent portion of the pageant. “It was absolutely the most beautiful thing,” Terry says. “She had a stunning deep green and white silk costume and veil and put on the most fantastic dance I had ever seen.” That sense of wonder still fills Terry when she performs and teaches.

Few people show as much lifelong dedication to their craft as Terry Holland of Russellville. She’s been practicing the Middle Eastern art of belly dance since 1974. Over the years, she has become a prolific dancer and has been instrumental in developing Arkansas’s belly dance community.

Terry, or “Zahara” as her audience knows her, got her start after watching a Miss America pageant in the early 70s. One entrant performed a mesmerizing belly dance full of shimmies and rolls for the talent portion of the pageant. “It was absolutely the most beautiful thing,” Terry says. “She had a stunning deep green and white silk costume and veil and put on the most fantastic dance I had ever seen.” That sense of wonder still fills Terry when she performs and teaches.

Terry’s first teacher, Carroll Russell, taught her an Americanized version of one style of belly dance and still inspires Terry today. “You never forget your first teacher,” she says. Soon Terry picked up the name Zahara, which means desert flower in Arabic. “A lot of dancers will pick up a dance name. When you dance, it’s a little bit like stepping outside yourself. It’s a different persona,” she says.

Within two years she started her own troupe called Desert Fire. It was then that she picked up a second dance name: Mama T. “I get girls who haven’t taken classes in 20 years who will say ‘hey Mama T’ as they walk in the door,” Terry says. Although she loves to dance and performs often, her real passion is teaching. She taught classes at the Fayetteville youth center for 26 years before moving to Russellville in 2003 and starting another studio called Mirage.

Belly dance is a direct descendant of some of the oldest known forms of dance. It has origins in the Middle East, Africa, and India where it was used in fertility ceremonies. “It was brought down from mother to daughter through the generations,” Terry says. “Belly dance was taught to make birthing easier.” She explains that the nomads of the time moved around so much that mothers didn’t have time for a long labor. Their days were long and the travel was difficult. “The mothers might have to get up and travel the very next day after giving birth,” she says. The nomads needed a way to make childbirth as quick and painless as possible. The belly rolls and other moves helped build strength to make the process easier.

While traditions varied from region to region, Terry notes that the dance was developed by women and performed for women. Unlike media portrayals, this form of dance is not meant to be sexual. “There’s a fine line between seductive and sexual,” Terry says. Much of the sexualization of belly dance comes from Hollywood portrayals in the early 20th century of belly dancers who were either slaves or deceitful women using their charms to trick the main character. Traditional belly dancers haven’t always had an easy time overcoming this stigma. “I always tell my girls that what they do at home is their business, but once they put that costume on they are representing the troupe,” she says, “I tell them to stand up straight, you carry yourself well, you watch your language, and know you are representing a culture that is not your own.”

Even though her troupes have always been respectable, she has had her fair share of detractors. “We were dancing in a mall in Northwest Arkansas, when I had Desert Fire, across from a Bible book store,” she says, “We were completely covered up by our clothing, but a girl with short shorts and a tight t-shirt that said ‘I’m a Pepper’ came out, looked me in the eyes, and told me I was a sinner.” Terry took the insult in stride.“I felt sorry for her and her narrow mindedness.” Although people do occasionally have a problem with the style of dance, the majority of people love her performances. “You’re always going to have people who treat you that way,” she says.

Modern day belly dance has a rich history and is a melting pot of different styles. Many of the moves come from Turkey, Egypt, and India with influences from the West coming later. What started as a tribal dance eventually grew into styles such as Egyptian Cabaret, American Tribal Style, and Tribal Fusion. “Everybody kind of picked what they liked from it,” Terry explains.

Her favorite style is a type of Egyptian Cabaret, which is one of the more traditional styles and the one she has studied since the beginning. “I love the glitz of the costumes and the elegance,” she says.

American Tribal Style (ATS) is another common style that is gaining popularity. ATS is always performed in a group and is less choreographed than other traditions. “Instead of memorizing a set of moves, ATS girls use hand signals to coordinate their movements,” Terry say.

According to Terry, belly dancing has numerous benefits for women. One big benefit is that it’s a huge confidence boost. “It takes a lot of guts to get up there in front of people on stage,” Terry says. She explains that the dance and performance builds not only confidence in front of an audience, but body confidence as well. “It shows that anyone can be alluring. It does not require a perfect figure or youth and beauty,” she says. “The emphasis is on creativity, talent, and effort.” Emotional and physical resilience are also byproducts of belly dance. “I’ve seen belly dance help women get through divorce, and I’ve seen it help women who have arthritis and are losing mobility,” she says.

It’s also a great way to make lifelong friends, and anybody can dance. Terry’s current students include a mother, daughter, and grandmother. “It’s fun, and that’s how I try to keep it,” she says, “If I were in this business to make money, I would have gotten out of it years ago.”

One other aspect Terry enjoys is the costumes. They often involve colorful and flowing wrap-skirts with beaded embellishments. Different styles use canes, swords, and zills (finger cymbals). When Terry began dancing, there were few places to buy pieces for belly dance outfits. Pointing to a photo of herself decked out in full costume, she says “I hand beaded that over one winter.” It’s a tedious process that can take dozens if not hundreds of hours. Other items she was able to buy from friends who traveled to Egypt. These days she is able to buy much of it online.

During her 43-year career, Terry has built quite a legacy as a dancer, educator, and now organizer. She started the annual Shimmyfest in Springdale in 2001 that brings in teachers from all over the United States. The festival and seminar is a two-day event that started as a way to expose Arkansas belly dance students to teachers from all over the country. “It’s important to learn from a variety of teachers, but not all of my students were able to afford travel,” she says, “We try to keep it inexpensive enough that Arkansas dancers can afford to attend.” Although the festival started small, it has since grown to more than eighty dancers from six states.

Terry shows no signs of slowing down, and that may be entirely due to her hobby turned lifestyle. I ask her about plans for the future. “I’m going to keep dancing,” says Terry. “It keeps me young.”

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