She calls herself the belly dance geek, but it’s not because she holds two degrees in ocean engineering from MIT.
Nadira Jamal, a 33-year-old Somerville resident, prides herself being a geek because of her desire to learn every single aspect there is to belly dancing, from technique and form to its culture and evolution.
“I like to understand how the music works, to analyze the particular attributes of a particular style, and understand what’s going on and why,” said Jamal, who also happens to hold both bachelor’s and master’s degrees in ocean engineering.
Jamal loved belly dance so much, she couldn’t last in an engineering job after graduating in 2004. She wasn’t feeling the level of variety as an engineer that she felt as a student.
“I’m one of those people who likes a lot of new challenges and new information,” said Jamal.
She quit her job as a robotics engineer at Vecna after one year.
“It’s not that I hated the job, but when I wasn’t getting that level of satisfaction, I started looking at what does make me happy,” said Jamal. “I realized that dance is what makes me happy.”
Jamal’s husband, Jonathon Reed, was very supportive of her decision because he could clearly see that belly dancing was her passion.
“These days, it's just as important to know what you don't want to do for the rest of your life,” said Reed, who works as a student liaison in IT at MIT. “The days of starting a job at 21 and retiring from it at 65 are fading fast, if they're not already gone.”
In the summer of 2007, Jamal made her decision to turn what once was a hobby into a career. She completed a three-month teacher-training course and a nine-month apprenticeship where she student taught for the Harvard University Belly Dance Club. At the end of her apprenticeship, in April 2008, Jamal started her own class. Since then, she has built a belly dancing empire.
Jamal not only performs professionally in clubs and at private parties throughout Boston, but also teaches two classes in Somerville (levels 1 and 2), and coaches inspiring professional belly dancers. She has three different websites to distinguish her three target audiences: BellyDanceSomerville.com, NadiraJamal.com, and Taktaba.com
Not long after Jamal started her first class, in June 2008, she started scripting her first instructional DVD series. It was released in October of that year. Her second video was released in March 2010, and she is currently working on the third. Jamal said there are five total in the works.
“I realized that at the end of my life that if I didn’t do any more engineering I’d be OK,” said Jamal. “But if I hadn’t danced as much as I wanted, I would have been really upset.”
It’s evident that Jamal’s students are happy about what she calls her geeky passion for belly dancing. Level 1 student Kelly Moltedo from Everett said Jamal’s teaching style is exactly what she was looking for.
“She’s so knowledgeable,” said the 38-year-old Moltedo. “I would have questions about, well where did this come from, and what kind of music is this, and where did this movement originate. Nadira can tell you, probably down to the year, where something came from.”
Jamal has been a dancer since early childhood, having been raised in a dancing family with her siblings. Her mother was a dance reviewer for Art Voice, an alternative news magazine in Buffalo, NY, where Jamal grew up.
“I did some ballet, but it didn’t feel like me,” said Jamal. “It felt like very lovely exercise as opposed to dance and expression.”
She started belly dancing at the suggestion of her mother.
“My mom saw a belly dance show, and she came back and said ‘you should try that, you’d be good at that,’” said Jamal. In 2000, Jamal signed up for her first belly dance course in Rhode Island while on a summer internship with the U.S. Navy.
“I only took six classes there, but it was enough to get hooked,” said Jamal.
Jamal being an analytical thinker breaks down belly dancing styles into three umbrellas, each with its own culture with a continuing evolution: Folklore style, cabaret style, and fusion style.
Folklore is the oldest and more traditional style. The most common is the cabaret style, which started to appear in the 19-teens and 1920s with the formation of live entertainment venues.
Cabaret transformed traditional folklore belly dancing into a bigger and splashier performance, with a lifted poster and longer arm movements, as opposed to focusing on the hips. The big three cabaret styles were Egyptian, Lebanese, and Turkish. This form of belly dancing arrived in the United States in the 1950s.
Jamal dances the American Traditional Style, or “Vintage Orientale,” which is a cabaret style influenced by of the many diaspora communities in the U.S., especially here in Boston.
The ethnic melting pot in the U.S. also brought the Fusion styles, which arrived later in the 1960s. Fusions, such as American Tribal Style, are any variations of more traditional styles.
Moltedo loves soaking up Jamal’s extensive knowledge of belly dancing culture. Having taken a few classes with other belly dance instructors, it’s what drew her back to Jamal’s class for a second semester.
“She really is the most knowledgeable person I’ve ever come in contact with,” said Moltedo, who works as a caseworker for psychiatric patients.
Jamal’s husband admires the passion she puts into her hobby-turned-career.
“When her interest is piqued by something, she will gather as much knowledge as possible, reading many books, etc., where the average person might stop after the Wikipedia article.”
Jamal’s students said her passion and desire to share the belly dancing culture brings a friendly atmosphere to her classes.
“She’s pretty bubbly and enthusiastic, and tends to focus on the positive,” said Sheryl Kane, a 31-year-old level 2 student.
Maltedo said Jamal has a credo that she goes by.
“She never wants to hear us talk about what we don’t like about ourselves and what body parts we don’t like,” said Maltedo.
Kane also said Jamal never criticizes the students, and instead uses different imagery to try and explain something.
“She doesn’t tell you, ‘oh you’re doing that move wrong’,” said Kane, a bioengineer and resident of Somerville. “It’s more, ‘ya know, it would be better if you could try to imagine it like this.’”
Level 1 student Jamie Kimmel from Somerville, 25, said it’s why she registered for Jamal’s class in the first place.
“She seemed very patient and very optimistic,” said Kimmel, who watched Jamal’s online instructional video before signing up. Kimmel said she wasn’t disappointed.
“She’s very willing to explain the mechanics of things, as well as showing us,” Kimmel said.
Jamal helped Kimmel improve her form by showing her a method of placing two flat fingers on the base of your spine, perpendicular with the floor.
“It’s all about controlling my stomach,” she said. “If I can keep my stomach tight, then I can keep my butt from sticking out.”
The level 1 and level 2 ladies practiced all semester long for a private recital for friends and family. Kimmel said she was nervous, but Jamal does a good job of preparing them.
But a belly dancing performance is a lot different than western dances, explained Jamal. Proper belly dancing etiquette doesn’t mean the audience is silent and claps at the end. The audience participates in the performance by calling out to the dancers. Belly dancing is also extremely personal, and is usually all improvisation.
“When you’re in a live music situation, it’s like there’s this triangle of energy,” said Jamal. “The audience is influencing all of this, and you’re bouncing the energy and everyone’s responding to everyone else.”
Jamal said heavy stage makeup is crucial – darkening the eyebrows and wearing at least a medium lipstick.
“In belly dance, the dancer is never just a body,” said Jamal. “It’s always a person with an emotional response to what’s happening in the music and what’s happening in the room, so you’re expression is the doorway to that.”
Though it’s not just makeup that’s important. Costuming adds to the ambiance of the performance. Cabaret dancers will typically wear a skirt and a “bedleh” (Arabic for “suit”), which is a matching bra and belt set. The costume is heavily decorated with moving parts, such as beads or coins.
However, costumes vary by style. Folklore dancers often wear a large “kaftan” which is like a dress. Some fusion styles also call for dresses, though different from folklore dresses, and are often decorated more with embroidery.
Jamal said the costumes often cause people to think differently about belly dancers.
“Most Americans think we’re strippers,” she said.
Jamal said, in part, it has to do with the history of belly dancers. In Arabic cultures, belly dancing was originally designed to be a private interaction between close family members, never a big performance.
Interestingly, the first Middle Eastern nightclub to offer live entertainment for the public was here in Boston, says Jamal, according to the research of Amy Smith, editor of Belly Dance New England Magazine. Club Zahra opened in the 1950s, but is no longer open.
“There were private social clubs long before that, and there were probably other public nightclubs as well,” said Jamal. “But Zahra was the first we know of that offered music and dance and was open to the public.”
A big influence on the culture was from the Romani people, pejoratively called Gypsies, when they migrated to Turkey. They played a major role in the Turkish style of belly dancing. However, even though Romani women were the most sought after entertainers, they were looked down on for dancing in public.
“[Belly dancing] was not something you wanted your daughter to do,” said Jamal. “I think it's also important to note that a hundred years ago, being an actress or dancer wasn't a respectable profession for an American woman either.”
As evident in the past century, Jamal said belly dancing is a living art form, not a museum piece, and it’s always evolving. Though she may seem like a belly dance encyclopedia to her family and students, Jamal said there’s always something to be learned.
It’s what confirms that she’s made the right choice about following her passion.
“When I’m learning about something, that’s when I feel alive,” said Jamal. “Learning something tickles my brain and gives me energy.”
This article is being published under an arrangement between the Boston Globe and Emerson College.