Tribal Corner and an Interview with Colleena Shakti

Originally published in Bellydance Oasis Magazine

Issue 54

Wow! What a busy first half of the year we have had in our small community. I don’t remember a busier year down under. With more and more classes on offer and more teachers sponsoring overseas guests for workshops it’s getting harder for us die hard fans to be able to attend all the wonderful events on offer. Still variety is wonderful and we are lucky that we have so many dedicated teachers and sponsors willing to take on the daunting task of sponsoring overseas artists as our dollar continues to plummet.

For the team at Oasis magazine we do our best to keep you informed of what is up and coming but you the readers, teachers, sponsors and students can help us out by dropping us an email to tell us about your event. I’m always happy to pop in a mention of your up event in Tribal corner and of course for those that can’t get to everything we want to hear the goss once its all over!

Here are some of the events I’ve been too over the last few months.

In April, I took a little train trip to rural Orange in N.S.W. I was sponsored by the lovely Nicole Kennedy of Essence who is trying to get a decent size ATS® troupe up and running. Not an easy task in rural areas where taking a dance class is probably not of the utmost importance. It’s great to have dancers, teachers and artists in general helping to keep art alive in the rural areas. We had ladies come from Orange, Bathurst and Canberra, some seasoned dancers and some who were trying a dance class for the very first time! They were happy to give it a go and many signed up for Nicole’s weekly classes which is great.

May/ June was very busy starting of course with the Sydney Middle Eastern Dance Festival where I taught my sold out workshop on isolations. This year Ghawazi Caravan did not perform at the Friday concert but tribal style was still represented by Sydney’s fabulous troupes Oreades and Onyx Tribal.

During the Sunday showcase we joined forces with the gals from Buasavanh Canberra. We had never performed with these lovely ladies before but after a quick run through backstage we filled the stage alongside Irina who plays the most exquisite handmade harp. So there we all where improvised music by Irina and the beauty of ATS® improv with 2 troupes who have never performed together before. This is probably the most exciting experience as an artist.

Next I was off to Brisbane to visit Rita Marwell and the lovely ladies of The Hush Gypsy. The weekend was a busy one with 2 full days of workshops and a HUGE gala show on the Saturday night. Dancers from all around Brisbane and as far as Toowoomba came to participate and be part of the show. There is many a talented Tribal dancers in Queensland and seeing them all under the one roof again made it feel like a big reunion.

A week off and I was off to WAMED. It has been many years since I had been to WAMED and I was once again reminded what a tight ship Keti runs. Having organised the very first Tribal and Trance festival in 2006 and knowing how much is involved I decided to never organise another. The sheer amount of hats to be worn when producing a festival is overwhelming and I have the deepest admiration for those that manage a successful festival. There was a huge amount of workshops on offer and a wide variety of styles to suit all tastes. The festival also showcased 3 different performance nights including a night with a live band, a night dedicated to Tribal dance and its off shoots and a night of Oriental dance. Although I’m not usually a fan of separating the various styles, preferring a more varied show the separation did lend itself to smaller more intimate gatherings which I generally prefer.

The market day of course saw many great stalls and all day performances. With all that going on, several performances and teaching 3 workshops I did manage to get myself to Belyssa’s workshop which I thoroughly enjoyed. Although Belyssa is far from Tribal she is a wealth of knowledge, makes you think outside the box and is hilarious to boot. It has been many years since I have done anything with Belyssa and I still always walk away with something that I can apply to suit me and my style or a different way of approaching the dance.

The week after The Blue Mountains welcomed the lovely and amazing Colleena Shakti for a weekend of workshops and a fantastic show. Fellow Ghawazi Caravan member, April Erzetich put together the whole shebang with dancers coming from all over the country including the amazing Teresa Tomb from Kentucky USA who we had the pleasure working with in 2011 at the FCBD Devotion show in Berkley California.

Colleena is a huge wealth of knowledge when it comes to Indian dance spending half of every year for over a decade living in India and immersing herself in the people, culture, music and dance of India. The workshops were interesting, varied, informative and fun. Colleena is a very gracious and giving teacher. The performance evening was a stellar showcase of Oriental, Tribal, Flamenco fusion, Persian and of course a variety of Indian dance represented. Colleena the star did not disappoint. Her expertise and grace is unparalleled.

Last week in Sydney Kami Liddle also came to share her expertise with local dancers from around the country. Unfortunately I was unable to attend due to prior commitments but would love to hear from anyone who attended more about that weekend. From all accounts I hear it was fantastic.

Coming up in tribal land down the track ,of course we have the AMAZING Rachel Brice coming to Melbourne in August. Can you believe that her workshops were sold out in a matter of hours and many are attending from around Australia just to be able to go to the show. If by the grace of god you can somehow manage to get yourself a ticket then you must go as who knows when Ms Brice will grace our shores again.

A few weeks later I will once again be hosting the mamma of ATS®. Miss Carolena Nericcio Bohlman and Megha Gavin for General Skills, Teacher Training and The Business of ATS®. This is a great opportunity for dancers to hear it straight from the creator of ATS®. This is also an opportunity for dancers who have already sat for their GS certificate to obtain their Teacher Training certificate and the possibility of joining the growing number of teachers gaining the Sister Studio status and joining the world wide ATS® family. Dancers from all over Australia, N.Z, Japan and the U.K are attending. There are only a few spots left, so if you are thinking of learning more about ATS® who better to learn it from than Carolena herself. Contact me for more info:

October is an exciting month with the very first Adelaide Belly dance festival! It’s about time Adelaide! I for one will be there! Contact Kylea for more info:

During the months of September and October the lovely Kristine Adams from FCBD who has been travelling the world for the last 3 years whilst spreading her love of ATS (r) will finally be wrapping her tour up and visiting us here in Australia. Kristine and I will be joining forces for a weekend in Lismore for workshops and a gala show. If you are interested in learning from this inspirational dancer and seeing what the two of us will be cooking up together then please contact Danielle:

I will leave you there till next edition but not before this fabulous interview between April Erzetich and Colleena Shakti.


When and how did you start dancing?

I studied dance as a child but it was when I discovered bellydance in the late 90’s that I fell in love with dance and wanted to study more and more.

It was, for me, the improvisation and a new perspective on femininity that really made me fall in love with Belly dance and the music, Eqyptian Music, Arabic music, North African music, I just fell in love with the feeling in it.

How did you fall into Indian dance?

I was a belly dancer for several years and I was studying dance in college and one of the classes was Dances of South East Asia. When we finally got to Indian dance I was very interested but it was when I saw Odissi dance for the first time that I went mad about wanting to learn it and I decided sitting in the class room then and there that I was going to India to study this dance. So that was where I found out about it and then I went to India on my own to find a teacher in 2001.

Was it your first Odissi teacher that inspired you or was it the dance itself?

Oh that’s an interesting question. It was the dance itself, it wasn’t a particular dancer. Then I finally saw Sujata Mohapatra who is the greatest Odissi dancer alive and she has been my huge dance inspiration and finally she became my dance Guru. I never thought it would be possible because she is ‘THE’ great Sujata Mohapatra. Finally I had a chance to study with her and instantly felt a connection with her.

Who have been your dance inspirations /teachers past and present in other dance styles, Belly dance or Egyptian dance.

In the beginning of studying Bellydance, it was people like Amel Tafsout, Surah Saida, Aisha Ali and it was always women that were well informed about the dance style that inspired me. They were very integrated and knowledgeable about the culture therefore their dance brought an air or and ambiance with it was not simply technique. I love the woman who is on the stage dancing it and the intelligence and the investigation behind it. Those were my early dance inspirations. My current dance inspirations and biggest dance inspirations in general are the amazing esteemed Classical Divas who I have had the chance to see in India. There are so many great classical dancers that are legends such as Sujata Mohapatra, Aruna Mohanty or Priyadarshini Govind. These Dancers are great to see because they are so deeply trained and informed about their dance. They have dedicated their entire life to it. It’s the same thing in Belly Dance, I would say definitely Rachel Brice and dancers who clearly have dedicated their whole life to their art form and you feel that presence of sacrifice in their dance and dedication. Also Dancers who are big inspirations to me are people like Akram Khan who is an Indian Contemporary dancer from London Shantala Shivalingappa, who is a Kuchipudi Dancer and contemporary dancer based in Paris, who did some work with Pina Bausch that really inspired me.

You spend half of your life in Pushkar India. What is your life like there?

I travel a lot but Pushkar is my home. It is a very small village, I don’t need a Rickshaw or a car to get anywhere. I love to live in a place that gives me time to completely immerse myself in my art. A typical day in Pushkar when my school is open is class starting at 9am, and I’m pretty much there until 8 or 9pm with a lunch break. That’s 6 days a week.

So basically when you are in Pushkar you live and breathe the school and your dance practice?

Yes I teach Yoga and Meditation in the morning. We do our training exercises then I teach various levels of Odissi. I also have to maintain my own practice in the day, administrative stuff for the school plus various other projects I would be working on. At 5 pm when the classes are finished we do our theory class where I teach philosophy of Yoga and Indian dance. We might do another dance class in the evening then after all of that I might rehearse again myself. That’s a typical day.

It’s a very, very exhausting schedule but its blissful at the same time because I’m just completely breathing and eating dance.

Tell us about the students you attract at the school. Are they mainly tourists? Are they all returning students or do you get fresh new students each year? How do you train them?

My school has evolved a lot over the years. It has changed dramatically. In the beginning we used to have more people dropping in or passing through experiencing some traditional dance. Now the school has grown in its popularity and I myself as a teacher have developed the curriculum. Each year I continue to develop it, so now it is a very competitive process to get into the school. Now we have an application process where I screen the students. Many students wish to return. Sometimes we have to turn even returning students away because its very specific how I select people for the training.

What I’m screening for is a classical dance academy mixed with a Yoga Ashram. It rally feels like Ashram life to me which is a very Sattvic environment. We meditate. We do yoga. We keep talking to a minimum in the school. The atmosphere is very charged because of the activity of the Temple, the worship that is happening within the temple also within our own school on the Alter. That’s the ambiance of the school and it takes a person of great self-discipline to participate in that kind of ambiance. The training itself is quite rigorous.

As I’ve evolved in my own dance, even in recent years when I’ve switched Gurus, and styles of my dance, It has become even more refined. How I’ve developed the training process is using for example strength training exercises from Ballet, Pilates, martial arts, or classical Indian dance exercises. Then I follow my Gurus protocol or syllabus of how to rear up a new Odissi dancer, which in our style is known for its refinement and control in movement. Technique-wise, it’s a strict environment but the rigidness and the discipline of technique and the meditative atmosphere is also mixed with what we teach in our theory classes which is the higher philosophy of Vedic Philosophy, Yoga philosophy and Indian aesthetic theory around the dance and the art.

I also feel it is a very inspiring atmosphere and non competitive. Its a very holistic program that I try to build so I feel like it’s a healthy environment whereas some classical schools have a competitive energy.

There are so many different dance styles in Indian. Can you tell us a little bit about the different styles on offer at the school.

We also have Khalbelia “Gypsy” women who come and teach classes in our school so we are working with folk music and dance. We have folk Musicians who come in to the school as guests so it really is fun. It’s a freer dance style. We also teach fusion dance classes.

Fusion styles are so popular right now. What in your opinion makes successful fusion?

Ha ha ha BIG question! What makes a successful fusion is authenticity and intelligent harmony. Fusion is a blending or binding together in a harmonious way. What creates harmony is understanding the elements we are mixing together. A dancer who is informed and well intended. If she has good intentions on how she is mixing the styles that will show in the flavour of the dish she has created with the different elements. Successful fusion is authentic in the way that it is real to the person who is creating it and makes sense to that person but also authentic for other people to participate in that its not so obscured from reality that there is some spark of truth in it that everyone can relate too.

How was the Nakarali line born?

Oh the truth is my personal jewellery collection was getting so out of hand I had no choice but to sell off some of my precious jewellery to buy more. But then in a professional sense Nakarali is an expression of my deep, deep love for Rajasthani culture because culture is represented through dance and the music, which I love to be a part of but it is also in the way that people dress, the traditional dress of a culture. What made me just mad about jewellery in general is in Rajasthan women adorn every part of their body in ways that in the country I was born in we never even conceived of. Living in Rajasthan it made me a jewellery lover and a jewellery connoisseur. I started by collecting the antique jewellery or very traditional jewellery specific to a particular caste that I work with, like the caste of my musicians have a very interesting style that they wear, or the Khalbelia etc. In the last few years it has evolved as a way for me too recreate old designs that have disappeared and keep the techniques alive by employing traditional silversmiths in my village to continue old techniques that can get thrown away when that jewellery is no longer being made. And now the latest evolution of Nakarlali is that I’ve completely designed my first collection which is not a remake of a traditional design but is my own ideas drawn out on paper and manifested in precious metals and stones. That is very exciting as an artist to have a vision and watch it materialise.

Was that the collection you recently had photographed in Vogue?

We did a photo shoot in Santiago, which we are hoping to get into South American Vogue. Yes that’s the secret soon to be revealed “Nakarali Original Collection”.

What are your plans for the future?

I’m excited about the new evolution of Nakarali and that’s my latest big inspiration.

So would you like Nakarali to go that way in the future? To be your own original designs and not just the Traditional pieces?

No I would like it to be a combination of both because I believe in our mission of promoting and celebrating culture through the jewellery and the stories connected with the Jewellery, however artistically I have Ideas that I am really excited to share so I hope that we can do both. As for the future I am hoping to launch Nakarali in new directions and explore myself as a designer and Jewellery visionary. I recently started training in Kilari BAtu. A South Indian Martial arts from Kerala which I fell deeply and madly in love with and I really see that being a huge part of my future. It fits with my Yoga, meditation and dance practice already. I just want to keep digging deeper into India’s treasure trove of culture, wisdom and tradition.

When not dancing what do your like to spend your time doing?

I like talking about dance, I like reading about dance, I like watching other people dance, I like dreaming about how I would dance, I like stretching so I can dance better, I like travelling to various destinations to dance, I like researching weird subjects related to my dance, Oh and I like wearing Jewellery.

What about going to the beach and drinking out of coconuts?

I like drinking out of coconuts after dancing!

What advice would you give to the bellydancer looking to incorporate Indian dance into her repertoire?

Oh thank you for asking. I think we should be intelligent and respectful in our fusions when bringing cultures together. My advice is to consider the deep traditions and Religious symbolism that the dance is steeped in or rich with. It is unfortunate to see people misuse or disrespect religious symbolism. I would be careful with religious symbolism so as not to offend people because I feel art should uplift and enlighten yourself and society and there is no sense in an artist creating art to create more chaos and hatred and confusion in the world. I don’t think that’s what art is for. I encourage careful investigation and enthusiastic study of the culture before mixing something in.

I also encourage people to think beyond the physical technique to integrate. Fusion is not just sticking one move next to another. It’s blending the intention behind the movement, the mood, the ambiance, the feeling behind the dance, maybe costuming, music, facial expression, a foot pattern, a hand gesture but it doesn’t have to be that you just get say a DVD of Bharat Natyum and then you stick it next to a Baladi movement. There is deeper potential awaiting you in fusion. There are more subtle ways you can bring your inspirations into your dance and maybe it doesn’t have to look Indian to use Indian artistic concepts in your fusion dance.

Finally, how have you enjoyed your time here in the Blue mountains for From Folk to Fusion?

I loved it here! I loved doing the workshops because I felt all the students were very sincere and genuine in their interest and desire. I didn’t feel like there was any barrier between us. I felt very welcomed to share even my personal experiences of my dance and my personal opinions. We had some interesting discussions come up in the classes and I was really happy to hear how people are thinking about for example the responsibility of fusing the styles or the responsibility and follow through of learning traditional dance and how do we make it our own. I was really happy to see the students be a group of women who are thinking as well as dancing well. I am going away with a lot of good moments especially watching the truly unbelievable Ghawazi Caravan perform. I was standing in the wings watching the Rajasthani piece that they did Choreographed by you April Erzetich! I was reminded of the time you have spent at my school in India and while I was watching the Choreography and seeing the women who were in my workshop I feel these women are with me on my dance journey, it feels like our dance journey. Seeing what I have put out there, seeing it digested and recreated in a very respectful and very beautiful and very inspiring way that makes it great as a teacher to see. I’ve put myself out there in many different ways, forging a way to find some of these dances in Rajasthan. As one of the first teachers to travel the world teaching this dance style you worry that people will miss interpret it or miss use it or not show it in its true glory. I was delighted beyond description to see such a beautiful display and I feel that that was the quintessence of my experience here. Seeing those women so beautiful in very simple folk movements and just joy I feel that that was the energy we had in our workshops and that was the people that I met since I got here and it absolutely warms my heart.

Oh thank you for saying that And thank you for joining us in Australia!