So far my blog has been devoted to Egyptian belly dance, which I love. But I am also interested in the roots of belly dance in the United States and specifically the flourishing Bay Area belly dance scene of the 1960s and 1970s, and so this is the first of what will be many more posts on this topic. My both my mother and my aunt were dancers in the South Bay in the 1970s, and this is how I first became interested in belly dance, watching them practice, make costumes, perform and teach belly dance as a little girl.
Studying belly dance in the Bay Area for so long, I have of course heard a lot about Roman "Bert" Balladine.
He was one of the first teachers of belly dance in the United States. And during his time in the US, he was based in the Bay Area, so stories about him and repetitions of his wisdom abound to this day from the generation of dancers that he taught and inspired.
After hearing so many beautiful and intriguing things about him, I wanted to learn more about his life and career. He seems to have left a strong, positive and enduring impression on those he taught. And there are so many wonderful quotes of his that you still hear teachers passing on. I will weave as many of his words of wisdom as I can into this post.
Bert Balladine Documentary Once More With Feeling
Luckily for me and my research, I was able to track down an out-of-print DVD documentary about Bert Balladine called Once More With Feeling, which was produced by his dance partner Amaya.
I really enjoyed watching it and loved seeing the lovely vintage clips of him with his dancers and students, and hearing his voice for myself. You can really start to see why he inspired so many dancers. The film also gave a good feel for those early days of belly dance in the United States. There are a few snippets from the film on YouTube:
I was excited to see my own teacher, Amina of San Francisco, interviewed in the DVD. She had told me about studying with him in class. I loved her quote about him:
I feel like this sentiment infuses so much of what I have learned from Amina, who is the most wonderful teacher in her own right.
Bert Balladine: Early Dance Career
Bert Balladine was one of those all-around entertainers that they don't seem to make anymore. He started out doing ballet in Germany, but he wound up performing fire eating, acrobatics, musicals, circus and nightclub acts and tricks on horseback for audiences all over the world.
He first saw belly dance while performing in Lebanon and Egypt, where he knew the legendary Egyptian belly dancers Taheya Carioca and Nagwa Fouad. Later, while performing in Hong Kong, he worked with in the same show with an Egyptian belly dancer and learned belly dance from her too.
Bert Balladine in the San Francisco Bay Area
Bert Balladine came to the San Francisco Bay Area in the early 1960s, when belly dance was first taking hold and gaining a following. He started out teaching one or two students but soon had large classes of women from all different walks of life: professional dancers to housewives needing an escape. He made all of them feel beautiful and special and helped them use their imaginations to see themselves as queenly dancers. The film I saw referred to him as a "dance psychologist" and I have also heard Amina say this about him. In the film he called belly dance, "a vehicle for the personality of the girl."
I think my fascination with him stems from this, his emphasis on the importance of feeling, emotion, expression and soul, as Amaya says in the documentary. In an age when we see our dance becoming more and more technically driven, Bert Balladine's words about feeling beautiful and empowered, the importance of a dancer's inner world and her personality, connecting with your audience and expressing yourself really feel refreshing.
I'll leave us with one last quote from him, this one about teaching itself, which I find so inspiring as I myself move more into teaching this dance that I love so much.
Thank you so much to anyone who read to the end of this longer-than-usual post! I really enjoyed learning about Bert Balladine and would love to hear any other stories or memories about him in the comments below if anyone knows any! Please share this post on social media if you liked it.
And if anyone would like to learn more about him, there is a wonderful interview with Bert Balladine in the Best Of Habibi archives. The interview is done by one of my other amazing teachers, Ma*Shuqa, who was also his dance partner and who is featured in the film documentary as well.
xo Alisa Greer