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Jackie Barzvi, a belly dance instructor who has been teaching at Joy of Movement for four years, calls herself an ambassador, not just for the ancient art of belly dancing but for the rich cultural traditions of the Middle East. Jackie finds joy in helping students learn the dances, but more so in helping them become more confident, more comfortable with their bodies, and more aware of the history behind the dance. We encourage you to read more about this talented dancer and cultural ambassador.
Tell me about yourself.
I’m originally from Queens, New York, but I’ve been living in Chatham County for four years now. I’ve been a dancer all my life. I think I was three years old when I performed for the first time on stage. It’s just my way of living. I can’t imagine not dancing. In terms of Middle Eastern-style dance and what I’m really passionate about, I think that’s a product of how I grew up. In Queens, you’re surrounded by many different cultures in a seemingly never-ending world of spices, languages, food, and customs. I feel so blessed to have that upbringing because it’s just the fabric of who I am now. No matter where I live, I have that foundation of being immersed in all these cultures.
My family is from Israel and I get to go there a lot, which is amazing. I have this deep connection with the Middle East and North Africa through music and dance. Here in Pittsboro, I teach, perform, and host events. A lot has changed because of COVID, but there have also been a lot of different projects and opportunities that I’ve gotten to do while I’ve been at home.
How did you get started with belly dancing?
I grew up with a friend who was Turkish. I used to watch her dance, and then go home and try to mimic her movements. This was before YouTube so I couldn’t just Google how to belly dance. I would just go home and explore with my own body. I found it really interesting to see what my body could do. In my head, I thought I was inventing movements; I discovered that I wasn’t when YouTube came around. Being immersed in all the different cultures around me, going to weddings and family celebrations, listening to the music, and seeing how women danced really shaped me. I remember being forced in the middle of the dance circles with a hip scarf, being told to just go dance.
When I went to college at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, I discovered that they didn’t have a belly dance club, so I decided to start one with a few friends. It ended up being a huge club on campus with over 200 members. I started to realize what a huge gift this was at a very young age–not just the performance aspect, but teaching it, too. There are so many ways that dance helps people grow. I saw a lot of other young women start to connect to their bodies in a new way. They would come to class in the beginning and start in the back of the room. They would tell me that they’d never danced and were so nervous. But a month or two later, you’d see them right in the front with their own costumes and asking to do solos. They evolved as individuals through the dance, learning a lot about their body images and their relationships with their bodies. How amazing is that for 19- or 20-year-olds? We live in a world where the standard for beauty is almost unattainable these days, so it was so cool to have that connection with other young people because we had people of every size, gender, and ethnicity in our club. To see other people around me blossom like that was absolutely incredible. I knew this was really special to share with others and a way to build community. I think that’s a thing we’re all searching for.
What was it like moving to North Carolina from the Northeast?
My husband and I love living here in North Carolina, but we have no family here so we had to start from scratch and make new friends, which can be really tough. Looking for a community is really important, but it’s a hard thing to do. I realized this dance is such a good medium to bring people together. It’s been such an incredible four years here in Pittsboro. I never thought I’d be dancing so much in North Carolina.
When I first moved here, I remember thinking, “Oh my gosh, what’s going to happen? Will anyone be interested in this style of dance?” But before we even found a place to live, I saw the Joy of Movement studio when we were walking through Chatham Mills. I knew immediately that I had to dance there. It’s so beautiful and open; it’s honestly the most beautiful studio I’ve ever seen in my life. I called them right away and asked if I could start teaching classes there, and I’ve been there ever since.
What do you love about teaching dance now?
I’ve been able to connect with so many women here who come from all different walks of life, different stages in life, and different backgrounds. We come together to dance, but we talk and we share about our lives, families, fears, and wants. It’s helped build a community, and it’s still doing that today.
But I think the main reason why I started teaching dance and why I keep going is culture. This dance is a connection to many cultures that are still active and modern today; it’s truly a folkloric dance, a dance of the people. Bringing the cultural aspect to my classes helps people open their minds, learn about different walks of life and different parts of the world.
When I teach, I start with asking questions such as, “Does anyone know where this dance comes from? Can you guess which countries?” People typically have no idea. I like to start with the basics of moving our bodies and minds to the Middle East. People get really into it because some of them haven’t had a lot of chances to connect with a different culture as much as they would like. It’s been amazing to connect personal identity, community, and culture all through one dance form.
Do you find it’s been different teaching here versus teaching in Massachusetts or New York?
What I love about Chatham County is that people are very hungry for culture and art. Because we’re a small community, I feel that we are all very connected. I think everyone has a pulse on what events are happening.
There’s also a personal layer to it, where I find that people are not only interested in the cultural aspect of the classes but also the personal connection, where they’ve gotten to know me and I’ve gotten to know them. So it’s like, “Oh, Jackie, I know you teach a dance class, let me try it out.” It’s on a more personal level, and I love that so much. Every time we’ve had an event here in Pittsboro that was open to the public, a live music performance, a dance show, or a workshop, I’ve been amazed at how many people who have no connection to dance or music will attend. I always talk to them afterwards and ask how they found it and what brought them there. I see this genuine need for different cultural events, which makes me so happy.
Do you think there are misconceptions about belly dancing?
Oh yes, for sure. I struggle even with the term “belly dance.” I think a lot of my colleagues in the belly dance world do as well, because there’s this different connotation when you hear it. Interestingly enough, “belly dance” was a term coined by a Frenchman in the 1800s. When he went to Egypt and saw the women moving that general area of their body, he called it the dance of the belly. That just took over. The term is actually Raqs Sharqi, which means dance of the East, but I can’t advertise the class with that. So in a way, we all have to use it because that’s the reality. But once you bring people in, you can really dissect and explain what we’re doing.
When people come into the studio, I tell them that we’re learning a more modern variation of this folkloric dance. When we learn choreography, I tell them that the song is from [X] country, which has an interesting history, but here’s what’s going on today in that country, and then really talk about it. I also explain what the lyrics are saying and show them which region the dance comes from. You can imagine across the Middle East and North Africa how many different styles there are. But “belly dance” does get them through the door. People think it’s going to be one thing, but then it’s really fun to prove them wrong. I love showing them the power in it — the strength of femininity and the connection among women. We are bringing this ancient feeling of sacred women’s space right here to downtown Pittsboro.
Tell me about how you blend Judaism and the more cultural Middle Eastern elements in your dance teachings.
I’ve never lived this far South, where I guess you can say there aren’t as many Jewish communities as up North. I actually came here originally for a Jewish job. My life had also been in Jewish education, including working at Hillel, among other places. Being Jewish is a huge part of my identity and my husband’s. We’re very proud of our heritage. When we have people over, they often notice our mezuzah, and our sign that says “Shalom, y’all.” There’s no way of hiding it.
It’s been an interesting experience to be so openly Jewish here. I haven’t encountered anything bad, but when I first came here, people were a little bit surprised to find out we were Jewish and seemed to be careful when talking with us to make sure they didn’t say anything that would offend us. I think I might be the first Jewish person that a lot of people have met who talks so openly about being Jewish. I truly think there’s been a good response here, and that people are super respectful and interested.
In my classes I use a lot of music in Arabic, Hebrew, and various Judeo Arabic dialects to try to mix everything together because at the end of the day, it’s a beautiful building bridge between cultures. Judaism is a Middle Eastern-based ethno-religion with a Middle Eastern language. It all connects together in this really beautiful way through Mizrachi dancing. Mizrachi means Eastern in Hebrew. Mizrachi Jews are from the Middle East and North Africa, but now most live either in Israel or the US. Jews have lived all over the world after they were kicked out of ancient Judea, which is modern day Israel. Most people think of Jews living in Europe, but so many Jews fled to the Middle East and North Africa. They lived there for thousands of years.
One thing that I don’t think a lot of people are aware of is that Arabs and Jews share an incredible culture that is so similar. We share the love of the same music, the dance moves are so similar, the way we celebrate, the way we use dance to heal, to show our emotions — it’s all so similar. It’s such a beautiful building bridge to connect groups that are told not to like each other sometimes, or we think they don’t like each other, but in reality are so similar.
I like to remind my performers that we’re always educating when we perform. A lot of people here have never seen belly dancing before or even Middle Eastern styles of dance. These dances represent people. It’s not only a fitness class, and it’s not just some ancient dance that hasn’t been revived for thousands of years. It’s very much alive and well and in modern practice. I feel like we’ve become ambassadors of these cultures, and I myself have become an ambassador of my culture and my religion, which I love. When I lived in Boston or New York, everyone knew someone who was Jewish. But here I get to really tell my story, in terms of Mizrachi dance.
How did COVID affect your work?
My family is Israeli, but we have an Iraqi Jewish background. There’s all this deep, rich history and culture, and I’ve always been interested in it, but I never had the time to explore it the way I wanted to because I was either teaching multiple classes a week or going to different events. But then COVID happened.
When everything shut down, I got some time to do research, read, watch videos, and attend lectures from all around the world. That was a really positive aspect. I was finding all this information about Mizrachi communities, their dances, and their music, but I didn’t see it cultivated in one place. One day I spent hours looking for just one video in the depths of YouTube, and I remember thinking that I don’t want other people to have to do this to be able to find these incredible gems of this culture. So I decided to put them all together on a website called the Mizrachi Dance Archive, which is open to submissions if people would like to submit videos from their celebrations or events. As the older generations start to not be here anymore, we can preserve a lot of the memories of the music and dance that come from these communities. It’s been rough this year, especially for artists with no stages, no theaters, or in-person performances. But that website was one good thing to come from this year.
Tell me about some of the things you’ve discovered while you were building this archive.
I started to use social media to share clips and recreate dances with my own artistic approach. I’ve taken old clips of a famous Iraqi orchestra and Jewish Iraqi musicians and created my own new ways to present this historical information or make it a little bit more relevant and fun. Through social media, I’ve met so many other Jewish dancers around the world who were feeling similar to me, in that we had to almost hide a little bit of that identity in the dance world for political reasons, for fear, for safety, whatever it may be. We were all doing something similar without really talking about it. I got a lot of messages saying things like, “I’ve never seen anyone be openly Jewish like this in the dance world. Thank you. I feel represented. I feel seen. I’ve never seen anyone openly dance to all these songs in Hebrew and reclaim this identity.”
I’d love to hear about the two special online performances you did this year around Hanukkah and Passover that featured artists from the Middle East. How did those come together?
There are many cultural celebrations that feature a lot of music and dance. One of them is a really cool holiday called Chag Habanot, which means the holiday of daughters. It’s a North African holiday around Hanukkah that honors the story of Judith. Usually during Hanukkah, we talk about the Maccabees, but there’s also a story of Judith, who knew a general was coming and was going to destroy her village. She single-handedly got into his tent using her wit and beauty, got him drunk, and then cut off his head. The army was so scared that they fled so she ended up saving her whole village. So Chag Habanot honors her, but also women in general — women in our lives, the lineage of women, and the strength of women.
In my research, I’ve found a lot of musicians around the world who are reviving this identity like me, such as Lala Tamar, an Israeli singer who is reviving her Moroccan background. I asked her if she was interested in participating in a Chag Habanot event where I would dance to Jewish Moroccan music and she would perform a Hanukkah-themed concert live from Morocco. It blossomed into this amazing online program that was featured in Arabic, Hebrew, and in English. It was all these women coming together to dance, sing, and celebrate. We also had the first Moroccan Jewish rabbi join to light the candles and do a blessing. We also had the first Moroccan female rabbi join to light the candles and do a blessing. And I was here in Pittsboro, thinking, “How is this happening?” It was really a global event, and that was so special.
For Passover, there’s a Moroccan Jewish holiday called Mimouna, which is at the end of Passover. It’s a beautiful interfaith holiday. Since Jews are not eating bread products for eight days, their Muslim neighbors would bring them flour or yeast and have this big party with them at the end of Passover. It’s an incredible show of coexistence and neighbor relations. We put together an online program where we had singers in Morocco and in Israel (because there’s a new cultural alliance between Morocco and Israel that we wanted to celebrate) as well as the consulate of Israel and the consulate of Morocco in New England. It was a huge production. For my part, I partnered with a Muslim Moroccan musician who now lives in Raleigh, Samir LanGus. I did a trance dance, accompanied by Gnawa music that people would use to heal themselves spiritually or physically. The music is very hypnotic and there’s no choreography. It’s very intricate, and it’s connected with the slave trade of black Moroccans. A lot of their instruments represent the shackles that were put on them. If you see the video, they use something like castanets, which represents their shackles. His guitar is shaped like a boat, representing the boat that they came on. So there’s this deep connection to their history of slavery, which is similar to how we as Jews remember our slavery during Passover. There’s this incredible connection between our cultures. Telling the same story and connecting that through music and dance was just so beautiful. A lot of people don’t want to see these two groups connecting in that way. So when he and I work together, we have this understanding that we’re doing something different and courageous. If we don’t start working towards peace now, who’s going to do it?
What do you think that the future holds for you?
I feel really connected to Chatham, especially as an artist. There’s this love for art here, which I really appreciate. When I think back to the times pre-COVID, we had so many events here. I hope to bring back a lot of those in-person events because there’s nothing like experiencing live music and being together. I hope more people can join us to learn and share because with so much going on in the world, I think we need music and dance to bring us together. You don’t need to speak the same language. You don’t need to even talk to each other sometimes; you can just connect on the deepest human level through movement and through music. The more we can use that, the more we can bring people together.