Yogi Belly Dancer Johanna Zenobia on Music, Magic and Moving Past Perfection – ALLAF 026

Johanna of Hip Expressions helps us stop and take a breath, tells us her secrets to building great dance music playlists, and she shares some very fun and surprising danceable songs that you will love.

Alicia Free:

I am so honored to share the wisdom of this goddess of a teacher and performer with you all today. The multi-talented Johanna Zenobia dedicates her life towards the evolution of belly dance and community. In addition to being an absolutely fabulous dancer and drummer, Johanna has a superpower that we all need in our daily lives. She has the power to deeply relax us, giving us permission to move as if we all had all the time in the world.

That was a profound gift that you gave me at Super Fun Dance Camp when I took a yoga class with you, and it stayed with me. Like, I’d never given myself that kind of permission, so thank you. And this is another reason why I’m just so excited that Johanna’s here, because we’re all going to get something really great out of this podcast.

Johanna owns, directs, and teaches at Hip Expressions in St. Petersburg, Florida. This is 20 minutes from the beach. She’s so smart. Hip Expressions is an inclusive movement community that since 2004 hosts over 25 instructors, hundreds of students, musicians and artists from belly dance to Polynesian, to Samba and Burlesque. She runs a dance teacher training course, directs the Hip Stars Belly Dance Troupe, and perform all over, including on a Belly Dance Party Cruise in the Caribbean, correct?

Johanna Zenobia:

Yes, absolutely, every year.

Alicia Free:

In February, which is when I need to get out of Upstate New York. And she herself produces this belly dance party cruise. She’s also a massage therapist, a yoga teacher, a reiki practitioner, and a fire dancer, and holds two degrees from the University of Chicago in anthropology and art history. Through yoga, massage, reiki, meditation and dance, I’d say Johanna has had more training on wellness than about 99% of the people in the world. And it’s fantastic, and I know this interview is going to give us so many great ideas that will our lives a little lighter, and maybe even a lot lighter. So, let’s begin.

DANCEABLE RITUAL

Alicia Free:

Johanna, you have a really fun video on Instagram of you dancing in front of the Bellagio Fountains in Vegas at night, and I feel like that’s a lot of the essence of this danceable ritual that we have where we’re dancing in a place that’s not a dance studio, that’s not in a dance context, where we’re moved to dance and we’re incorporating more dance into our lives. The description of the video on Johanna’s Instagram channel, which is bellydanceyogini, by the way. The description says, “Dance everywhere.” So do you have a danceable ritual that you’d like to share?

Johanna Zenobia:

Absolutely. You know, I think we get so caught up in trying to do dance right since we’re trying to get the technique right and everything, that it’s really important to remember that we dance because it comes from our hearts, because it feeds our soul. So the ritual that I recommend, and I put this in my dance teacher training, which we’re going to talk about later as well is, first thing in the morning is the best time to do it, and just get quiet and still and then the magic of taking three breaths with no music around, nothing, just standing, taking a moment, taking three breaths. And really just checking in with your body and how you feel. It may be a body scan. And then deciding with what intent you want to dance.

Johanna Zenobia:

So, we are so inspired by music, and we all have our favorite music which we love to dance to. But really deciding what my intent to dance today. What is the purpose of my dance, before I get stuck up into why I’m inspired by the outside, right? I can dance to anything, so why am I dancing? And then taking one piece of music that fits your mood, and just free-dancing to it. No mirrors, nothing.

How does this music manifest within my body? And just taking that moment to have that intention before we put on the music, because I know if I put on the music first then I’m going to get caught up in whatever intention that artist has or whatever feelings that music has. But I can create my own intentions first and then get stuck up into the music and then combine that together, then I can really connect with my inner self.

Alicia Free:

Wonderful. So it’s the first thing in the morning is ideal, you’re saying.

And maybe even just every time before you turn on music, you can take these three deep breaths and think of what is your intention when you’re listening to this music. That’s beautiful.

Johanna Zenobia:

Yeah, because I think often we use dance, or I know I can use dance and music as an escape. Where I don’t want to use it as an escape, I want to use it in addition to what’s already happening in my life, to augment my reality, not to avoid it.

DANCEABLE SONG

Alicia Free:

Is there a danceable song that you would like to share?

Johanna Zenobia:

So I have two awesome danceable songs. The first is very introspective and it’s by Krishna Das and it’s called My god is Real. And it’s all about giving into that beautiful reality of the power of nature and the flow. So I use it when I’m in a place I really go inside and ready to blossom from the inside out. It’s very quiet and meditative. Krishna Das is a kirtan artist and that means he plays chantable, it’s like singalong yoga music, and so he’s got some really great yoga chants. Some of it’s in English and some of it’s in Sanskrit, and I love that because if I’m not so caught up in the words, then I can again sort of add my own emotion to it and really tap into the vibration of the sound, which is what yoga chanting is really all about.

So it’s very meditative, very introspective. I’m a very spiritual person, not a religious person, so I definitely have this humbleness in the face of nature. We are so powerless in the world, once you think about it. And there’s this amazing power of nature that’s just so much greater than me. I used to be not okay calling it God because that’s such weird connotations for so many people. But lately I’m just like whatever.

My friend sent me a video of the honey badger video. Have you seen that one?

Alicia Free:

Nope.

Johanna Zenobia:

Oh, my god. So it’s this honey badger in the Nature Channel who’s running around, that goes into honey and eats, the love of bees and bees are singing to him, you know, “Honey badger don’t give a shit,” you know? So I’m like, honey badger don’t give a shit. It’s like attacking snakes anyway. So whatever, God, goddess, nature. It’s all the same, but it’s real, it’s out there.

And if I can tap into that divine flow then I’m doing the right thing.

And then the other one is for just like dancing out the bullshit. It’s by Lizzo and it’s called Good As Hell. Lizzo, I was just introduced to her actually by a new group instructor I was talking to. And she plays real go-out-and-get-em type of stuff. So it’s, “How you doing, girl? I’m good as hell!” You know?

Alicia Free:

Wonderful. And we’ll have links to both of those in the show notes as well as on the Belly Dance Body and Soul Spotify playlist.

THE MAGIC OF LIVE MUSIC

I love that when I asked you about a danceable song you wrote, “Live music.” You want to talk a little bit more about that?

Johanna Zenobia:

Yeah, so for me, I mean, and I love choreography. I do lots of choreographies. I love tribal improv, I love choreography, I love complete improvisation. But for me the real juice to belly dance or any sort of dance comes when you’re inspired in the moment and you’re creating in the moment. It’s something that happens once. You can video record it but it’s not same as being there. It’s a complete embodiment of just being present and living in the now. So if I can just dance and be in the now with live music, who, these musicians are also being there in the now, I mean, this magic. This is the stuff that dreams are made of. You’re all just co-creating together in a moment of complete freedom and flow and creativity. That’s where I love to get my groove on.

Alicia Free:

I totally agree. And I see this trend too with less live music. There’s less live music venues in our town. It’s just more DJs. I think it’s just easier for bars to make money with deejays. I feel very blessed to have bands in my town and be in a band and have live music in my life. And I know so many dancers don’t have that, so they have to go to places like the Belly Dance Cruise. What is it? The Belly Dance Party Cruise, right?

Johanna Zenobia:

Right.

Alicia Free:

Or Super Fun Dance Camp, which is no more, but you have to seek it out sometimes, right?

Johanna Zenobia:

Absolutely. And there’s a real magic that’s being lost. I see so many people come to dance classes and they just want to learn the steps and learn how to do the thing. It’s got to come from inside. So teaching technique and improvisation at the same time is so important.

Alicia Free:

That was another interesting thing about the haflas at Super Fun Dance Camp, was watching some people that are in ATS not have any idea what to do on their own with live music. And you just look and think, “Wow! Okay, I’ve come so far,” so that’s nice to realize. And also, “Holy shit! These guys are dancers and they don’t feel comfortable in this space,” and so I really like fusing those worlds, the Tribal Fusion of the ATS and more classic forms of belly dance and music. It happens at places like Super Fun Dance Camp.

Johanna Zenobia:

Well, there’s such, I think, a drive in us to be better. And then I think for me, at least, a lot of my perfectionist tendencies come out. So I’m really worried about what do I look like and am I doing it right? And the bottom line is in life, nobody really cares.

Alicia Free:

Nobody remembers this stuff you think they’re going to remember.

Johanna Zenobia:

So doing something honestly and with integrity and with passion is so important. And I think the way we need to raise our kids is to follow their dreams, let them do what they want to do instead of telling them they should do this or that or can’t to whatever. And I think it gets worse as we get older because then we get like there’s ways, there’s paths we need to follow and things we have to do.

MUSIC PLAYLIST BUILDING TIPS

Alicia Free:

There’s one more thing you wrote about playlists. How important playlists are. Do we want to talk about that a little bit?

Johanna Zenobia:

Yeah. So people are always asking me, “Johanna, I love your music, I love your … Where do you find it?” As if there’s some magic place that people just go like, “Click, here’s all my music.” The truth is that it takes a lot of work to put all that music together. Playlists are really important. And I love Spotify, and there are other programs out there too, that you can create a playlist. So when I hear a new piece of music I like, I stick it into my playlist.

There are a couple different ways I organize playlists that I find useful for people. I organize them by emotion, by theme or by intent.

Is this more meditative? Is this party music? Is this sexy, inspiring, is it playful, is it motivating, whatever it is. And then I know, “Oh, I want a cool-down song. Okay, I need something that’s more meditative. I want to warm up a little peppier today,” then I can go to that playlist. And I also organize these things by beats per minute.

I’ve been in classes and I’ve been in there myself where I’m like, “Okay, I need a song that’s just slightly faster than this. But, which song?” But if I can organize by beats per minute, 100, 105, 110, 115, 120, 130, 140, whatever, then I know immediately.

Or if I’m teaching a class and I need something a little slower, I can immediately like, “Oh, let’s slow it down.” So that’s a really powerful tool. And then when you listen to the radio options, they offer you different things, and then you can explore than artist and then you can stay a radio station based on that artist and show you more things. So it takes time and effort but it’s still worth it once you get it all organized together.

Alicia Free:

What a great tip for teachers about the beats per minute, because you can read what your class needs, right? They need it to slow, they need a break, or they need it to speed up because they’re yawning or whatever, right? So it’s a great tip.

WOMEN KNOW HOW TO LISTEN

So, you’re a fantastic drummer. When I was watching you at Super Fun Dance Camp, you were just killing it. What do you wish someone told you before you started drumming with other musicians?

Johanna Zenobia:

Most drummers don’t listen, and I don’t mean the ones when you go to Super Fun Dance Camp, or on the cruise. Drummers that are trained in Middle Eastern style are the ones that listen. But if you just go to your average drum circle, no one’s there specifically to listen, because they haven’t been trained, right? They see, “Oh, I go and I play on a drum and I’m going to make some noise,” right? So then you get there and you get with people that don’t have that sensitivity.

And the difference with Middle Eastern drumming is that there has to be a huge sensitivity. Belly dancing has all these intricate movements because it matches the music.

Original Middle Eastern ensembles were quiet. There were no amplifiers and microphones and speakers. So you have a ney player, which is the flute, and it’s very quiet. You have a violin player, which is not super loud. You have an oud, which is not a loud instrument. It’s a soft guitar. And you had a riq player who’s playing the tambourine, the Middle East tambourine, and it’s soft and quiet and intricate. And then you have this intimate gathering of these musicians, and maybe a dancer there who’s also dancing all these intricate moves.

Most of the drumming at the drum circles is African drumming. And if you’ve seen African dance and African drumming, it’s very big. Their arms are going, everything is loud and fun. It’s interesting how the music matches the movement. So, if that’s the style they’re playing then that’s the dancing that goes with that style. And they’re not going to get all the intricacies that we need. I was on a sunset cruise once and I was on the top deck, and they had a bunch of drums out and people were like, “Oh, let’s just jam and play.” So the guys got on there, they had no training whatsoever and of course a bunch of beers. And so they’re just playing and it’s just chaos. Nobody is listening to anybody else. They’re on different beats and I’m like, “This is ridiculous.”

So I get on a drum and I’m like trying to hold that bass beat for them, trying to hold, and they get frustrated after a while because they can hear that they’re not playing what I’m playing. And some guy’s wife slips up next to him and then she starts playing on the edge of his drum because she can hear me. She’s listening. And then she’s moving in, and then he slides away and she’s playing and she’s listening because she can hear what I’m doing. She can see me, she’s paying attention. So within 30 minutes or less, all the drums had been taken over by women and we were playing a beautiful arrangement that was all on the same beat at the same time and I just laughed to myself that, “Wow, what sensitivity. Women, we are trained listeners.”

And not that men can’t listen either, but I think immediately through whatever our role in society, our position, whatever reason, that women tend to be better listeners. And so I love playing with drummers like Casey Bond. And she’s also been a dancer so she knows exactly where I’m coming from. And there’s many, many men that do the same thing. I mean, Carmine is fantastic. He knows how to pay attention. I dance with other bands and they don’t really know how to pay attention and they’re just playing their music and I get to dance along. But it’s not as fun as paying attention, zone in and working together on stuff.

Alicia Free:

But thank God there are a lot of male drummers who do listen really well. There are too many alpha males. A lot of them don’t even know what the hell they’re doing.

Johanna Zenobia:

So going in there as a woman and then you’re kind of intimidated because they seem to know what they’re doing. It, “Oh, yeah, it’s okay. Just stick to what you know and you’ll be good.”

Alicia Free:

I totally agree. Tell us about your dance studio and this teacher training course that you’ve been putting out.

Johanna Zenobia:

I moved here to Florida in the year 2000 and immediately started dancing. And within the first year I met a dancer names Karen Sun Ray and we started working together. And in 2004 we started Hip Expressions together. And at that point we were teaching sort of all around town different places and we started working together and sort of building this studio. And it’s evolved into, I’ve got over 25 instructors now. We opened the dance studio in 2008. We ran it together for a while and then she stepped down. Now she teaches and co-produces our shows so she’s still very involved.

But now we’ve got over 25 instructors and it’s a variety from belly dance, to Polynesian, to burlesque, to samba, to jazz, tap, a little bit of the traditional stuff, but mostly very nontraditional. Nia, which I don’t know if you’re familiar with Nia but it stands for non impact aerobics, or neuro integrative activity, and it’s kind of like if yoga could dance. So any dancer who’s been to a yoga class and been like, “I can’t sit this still.” Nia is fantastic because it combines martial arts and modern dance and Tai chi. And it makes you improvise.

I have some belly dancers that will go to a Nia class and be like, “I don’t know what to do. No one’s telling me what to do.” And it’s like, “You got the dance from your heart.” So we’ve all sorts of wonderful, mostly adult dance classes, and a community of artists. We do monthly showcases, we do a big fire show twice a year. The real focus is how to be an inclusive creative movement community. How do we welcome everybody? Make it an accepting place. How do we inspire people, of course? And then how do we connect as a community and really nurture that side of things? Because working together we can accomplish more than we can alone.

So, as I trained people, almost 20 years ago, those training people, now they’re my teachers. So I kind of joke that we just outgrew our competition, because we just kept absorbing everybody, right? So now we have three rooms so then nobody had to go anywhere else to find a place to teach. And the fact that it’s all under one umbrella means that we’re all going to each other’s events and we’re all supporting the haflas and all this stuff, which is fantastic.

With wanting to support this mission, I train all my staff in how do we create community, accept everybody, and inspire people. Our goal was not excellence. Our goal was not to lose weight. It’s accepting yourself the way you are, and then of course, as a byproduct of movement and dance and inspiration, you’re going to feel better about yourself, you’re going to have more self confidence. Possibly lose weight and tone muscle, whatever. But that’s not our purpose. Our purpose it to be who we are and then enjoy ourselves.

So then for the teacher training that I’m doing, that came across because I was trying to train my teachers of, “How do we make sure that every class, every event really supports this mission? How does every class make sure we acknowledge everybody in the room?” And it’s by using different formations in class. So many aerobics classes and yoga classes, instructor stands at the front of the room, everyone’s in the back and they follow along. You can hide in the back and nobody actually sees you.

But when you use different formations like getting in a circle, moving across the floors together, you’re sharing names, I mean, that really creates a community.

But at the same time you don’t want to get bogged down and just chitchat conversation because everybody’s there to dance. So that’s one of the main things I address in my teacher training, is how do we make sure our mission is supported in the classroom? And then also with my background in massage therapy and yoga and anatomy, I bring in all those things that I never learned as a belly dancer. When I started learning almost 25 years ago, it was to sort of follow the bouncing butt, like my Egyptian teacher and we’d hop along and she’d make us improvise and all this stuff. But no one taught about anatomy or dance safety or what muscles I’m using and which ones I should stretch out after class.

So I’ve been really trying to take all that and say, “How do we incorporate that into the teacher training?” Along with, of course, how do you break down music? I was never taught to do that. How do you break down music? What are the basic building block belly dance moves, and then how do you create a combination out of them? How do you listen to music and then create something from there? How do you compose? So all these different elements all just come back to supporting our mission.

And I like to share Johanna’s one rule for belly dance. I test my students all the time. I’m like, “What’s the one rule?” And they come up with smile. I’m like, “Okay, that’s a good one. But the number one rule for belly dance is do what’s appropriate in the moment, for your body.”

So what’s appropriate for your body in this moment? What’s appropriate for the setting, right? Moves you might do when you’re belly dancing in the bedroom might be little different than you do with like the kids’ birthday party. And then do what matches the music, too, and the costuming.

I mean, that all has to come together and be like, “Well, what’s being asked of me right now?”

And every teacher has a different style of teaching, so my teacher training really focuses on not telling people what their style is, not telling people how to be a dancer, but how do you take your skills that you already have and then add breaking down the music, the anatomy, and then creating these ways to support the mission statement to accept everybody. And not get caught up in an ego trip, not get caught up in the comparisons, not getting caught up in the perfectionism. Because that’s where, as students, our mind immediately goes to, “I’m not as good as the teacher. I can’t do this right, I’m not doing it correctly.” So how do we say, “That’s not even an issue. Let’s just focus on exploring the fun of what dance has to offer.”

Alicia Free:

Can you tell us a little bit about your dance background? You’ve gone through all different styles of dance, of belly dance.

Johanna Zenobia:

When I started I had an Egyptian teacher in Chicago, Terry Suri, and it was follow the bouncing butt all the way. And I had another teacher, my first, first teacher was Susan Simpson, who ended up moving to Colorado, but she was all about that joy in the dance. And it was mostly I guess Egyptian and folkloric style. And then I was introduced to travel belly dance through Paulette and Gypsy Caravan. Then a Fat Chance troupe sort of popped up in our area and I was introduced to tribal, and I loved that too. And so I was also starting to dance in the nightclubs there, and back then, and there still are lots of Arabic bands in Chicago, so I was dancing cabaret style in the clubs.

And I started to study and travel from places. Delena was there. She was doing a lot with the clubs too. So I started cabaret when I moved to Florida in 2000.

So I started belly dancing because my grandma took me to Turkey when I was in college at the University of Chicago. My grandma took me to Turkey and I saw my first belly dancers there in the Turkish nightclubs.

And back there all they were was like these little bikini tops, right? And like voluptuous women, they came out and I’m like, “Am I supposed to be watching this even?” And there’s my grandma on this tour. And I look at my grandma, and my family is Ukrainian. My parents came over when they were young so my grandparents are immigrants from Ukraine, and they’re European. So they were like, “Yeah, you watch the belly dancer and you do this.” And I was like, “Well, I’m going to enjoy this then.” And I loved how people went in the nightclubs and everybody would dancer. Grandmas, children, men, women, everybody. And I was like, “I don’t know what that is, but I want it,” because I always just did like little white girl dance in high school or whatever.

So I just came back and started studying. So when I moved here in 2000, I loved the inclusiveness of tribal, I loved the earthiness, so I started a tribal dance troupe. We started doing Spirit of the Tribes back when it was in Miami. I ended up teaching fire out of Tribal Fest. So doing lots of the tribal route. But at the same time, I was making a living in the nightclubs here and in the restaurants. So I came here to do massage therapy thinking I’d do belly dance on the side, but belly dance became my world. I started teaching tons of classes and I started dancing in the restaurants and the private parties and the nightclubs and other nightclubs, and the Wednesday night nightclub.

I did that for years and years and years. So my background’s kind of been in both. I have one foot in both world and it depends what I’m feeling at the time and what I want to do with it. The premise at Hip Expressions was belly dance is the same moves. It’s the same basic fundamental isolations, right? So when you have beginners come in, they need to learn chest lifts, they need to learn all that stuff, so basic isolations. And then how you stylize it is then what style it becomes. The original dancers, I mean, I took Suhalia training a few years ago, and back in that day the same dancers that were performing in the nightclubs were the ones that were performing at the Ren Fair doing tribal during the say.

So there’s no separation between tribal and cabaret and folkloric. There’s different styles, there’s different music, there’s different stylizations, there’s different costuming. But my jazz instructor, who I met in massage therapy school, Evelyn Tosi. She’s a retired showgirl from Guam. When she was introduced to the belly dance world, she was like, “Why do some call them tribal and some call cabaret?” She says, “When in a show, sometimes I’m doing the country western number, and sometimes I’m doing the tab number.” She does a show with all the things so she doesn’t understand as a dancer who’s expected to do all these different things why the belly dance world is so segregated.

So from the beginning, Hip Expressions was like we’re doing all the things. And we still do. We’ve got tribal fusion and ITS and cabaret Turkish and all that different stuff.

Alicia Free:

It’s so much fun that we can dabble and figure out what we love and then just go for it. It’s beautiful that you guys are offering all of that in the same studio.

Johanna Zenobia:

And apparently we spoil our students because it’s pretty unusual I hear.

Alicia Free:

Totally. I wish you guys were in Ithaca. We have awesome dancers around here but nobody’s doing what you guys are doing around here.

Johanna Zenobia:

Well, and dancers move away and they stop dancing because they’re like, “I haven’t found a place like Hip Expressions,” and I’m like, “Well, sorry.” The main thing is that I want to make sure that when I am doing different styles, that I’m really embodying that style. That it’s not just, “Johanna in a tribal outfit, Johanna in a cabaret costume. Now she’s doing folkloric.” I really want to be stylistically and energetically completely different when I do those different styles.

Alicia Free:

I’m doing this three-part series on the history of belly dance. Yeah, part three coming up. That’ll be fun.

This show may be over, but this interview with Johanna is not over. It was just too full of amazing information and amazing dance wisdom for me to cram into one show. So, the second half of this interview will come up in about two weeks when the nest episode of A Little Lighter comes. So please subscribe and it’ll pop right up in your podcast feed.