Fire, Cancer and the Dance Community: Johanna Zenobia Interview Part 2 – ALLAF 027
Welcome to the second half of this heart-filled interview with multi-talented belly dancer Johanna Zenobia, the owner of Hip Expressions in St. Petersburg, Florida. Hip Expressions is an inclusive movement community that was created in 2004 and now hosts over 25 instructors, hundreds of students, musicians and artists from belly dance to Polynesian, to Samba and Burlesque.
In addition to running her dance studio, Johanna runs a dance teacher training course, directs the Hip Stars Belly Dance Troupe, and performs all over, including on a Belly Dance Party Cruise in the Caribbean in February. And she herself produces this belly dance party cruise. She’s also a massage therapist, a yoga teacher, a reiki practitioner, percussionist and a fire dancer, and holds two degrees from the University of Chicago in anthropology and art history.
In episode 26 Johanna gave us a Danceable Ritual and a couple surprising Danceable Songs, as well as tips on building our dance music playlist and creating a dance studio experience that accepts everyone as they are. The second part of this interview will begin with a layering Damn Sexy Dance Move and suggestions on how you can master it.
DAMN SEXY DANCE MOVE
I went to the video from your performance at Super Fun Dance Camp this past summer in 2019. Your costume was ridiculous, with the lace cutouts on the side, with the big lace cutout. It was just gorgeous. And I was so happy that you had that video because I got Casey Bond has been in one of the shows too in episode 20. She’s drumming for you, and Carmine’s there and there are so many good moves in that video. You’re right next to the oud in the video when Carmine’s playing something all beautiful and you just start to do your shimmy and your undulation. And the flatters you put in. There’s these super surprise flatters that are so cute.
I do love teaching belly flutters. I think those are great. And the doing a shimmy and undulation at the same time. I think shimmies and undulations are like the hardest thing to do. Not even at the same time but separately. I’m going to spend the rest of my life working on my undulation and reverse undulation. And I’ll spend the rest of my life working on my shimmy, because there’re so many variations. As soon as you put in a weight shift or whatever.
But I think having the shimmy and the undulation at the same time is the sexiest thing ever, because they’re two completely different energies.
You’ve got that smooth, you can call it the feminine energy. And then you’ve got the sharp masculine energy, and there’s so much moving in that. I think it’s fantastic.
But I think for dancers it’s really important to know that playful is sexy. You’re really enjoying yourself.
So if you’re struggling on stage to get that one move sexy and you’re thinking about it really hard, it’s not going to happen.
It’s not sexy when someone’s trying too hard. It’s sexy when you’re enjoying yourself.
So practicing moves until you can reach that point is important before bringing them out on stage.
So your undulation and shimmy combination that you do, did you have to practice that a ton in front of a mirror? Did you do one at a time? Do you remember how you got to the point where you could actually do that and smile?
Well, it’s important to know that when we do layering, which is more than one move at a time, that something has to be an automatic.
So I can’t be thinking, “Okay, my hips are going right, left, right, left, right, left. Okay, now a chest lift, now a pull down now. Okay, now throw in the … ” No. Something has to be an automatic, and that means muscle memory. Practicing the shimmy, just the shimmy over and over again for hours and hours.
They say it takes 10,000 repetitions for something to be put in your muscle memory. One of my students broke it down, she says it’s like two and a half hours. So if you practice your shimmy for two and a half hours, it’ll be in your muscle memory.
Now, that doesn’t mean that it’s going to be perfect, but it means it’s attainable because you’re not going to sit and practice for two and a half hours because you’ll get muscle fatigue way before then. But if you do five minutes a day, 10 minutes a day, it adds up really quickly, and then you’ll have that in the muscle memory. And then you can start to layer.
So practicing each element separately. “Okay, now I’m going to practice my shimmy, and practice and practice. Okay, now I’m practice my undulations. Different speeds, different timings. Maybe one is on the up, maybe the one is on the down. How do I really break that down,” before you ever try to get to layering. The belly flatters I really got with practice over time, and a lot of my yoga training really helped with that too. So just exploring the belly area is super important.
We do these 30-day meditation challenges. I love the idea of a 30-day one minute shimmy challenge or something where you could really just build in that muscle memory practice and not have to think about it. I would like to do that.
The last tip I would say for practicing those two is that once you’ve practiced all the different elements and start to put them together, put on music and then really have your movement match the music. So put on something that has a lot of changes or an oud playing or something, or a drum solo, and really switching it up. It’s like four counts, four counts, four counts. Really listening to the music and then letting your body now that you’ve kind of got your muscle memory, how is it going to play with all that and create those different textures?
Great point, because you don’t want to just do it just because you can. You want to do it when the music speaks to you, right?
DANCING WITH FIRE
Now we’re going to talk about fire. I’m planning on doing a whole show on dancing with fire. I don’t dance with fire but I love to watch it, and I want more people to do it. How did you get into dancing with fire and what do you wish that someone told you before you started dancing with fire?
I was super lucky that I ended up friends with Fire by Riz, who was one of the toolmakers, and he is right here in this area. And so as he was developing his fire dancing tools, he actually came to me and was like, “Hey, what do you think about this grip? What do you think about this? How is this going to work better?” And I wasn’t the only one he was asking, but because we were so close he’d be like, “Here, take this home and play with it and let me know how it goes.” We started playing with his tools and then there ended up being a place up on the beach that we could go and just practice.
And there’s a great fire community still here in St. Pete that will do that. And we have beaches where we can go and practice. I know Belladonna in D.C. does amazing fire but there’s no place to practice because it’s the city and you’re going to get shut down and taken to jail real quick if you set something on fire and start flinging it a round.
I was drawn to the tools that I could hold and add to my dance. I’m still working on my ploy, I’m still working on my stuff. But if I can hold it in my hands and then belly dance with it, so like the fire palms, fire fans, fire sword. There’s different ways to play with it. When I got my first set of fans, I was actually going to a party that night, just a random party. And I brought all my fire tools stuff and it was my boyfriend’s friends and so he was going to hang out with them and I hang out for a while and then I was like, “I’m going to go in the backyard.”
And I went and I lit up and kept lighting and playing and lighting and playing. I was probably there for two hours. People from the party would come out and watch for a while and they’d go back in, come back out and watch.
And I learned just so much by playing with the fire and being inspired by it. I mean, it’s an element. This is an uncontrollable force of nature that is now our dance partner.
Any prop you develop a relationship with it. Every veil is a little different, every sword has different balance. But this is like 10 gazillion times that because it’s fire, and you have to have the proper safety procedures too. So just playing with it and I just learning so much from the sound of the flame and the sight of it and the life. It has a life to it, with lights up quick and then it kind of dies down. That’s really amazing.
We would go and perform down at Spirit of the Tribes and then I would also go out West to Tribal Fest and performed and taught there. It was really a blessing. And Riz is my fire daddy. He will always be. And he was an amazing, amazing dancer and amazing mentor. He is retired from making the fire tools and he actually passed along the company to me, so now I’m creating the fire tools, which I helped create in the first place. It’s this cool thing that my boyfriend and I are now creating these fire tools, specifically for dancers.
So the company was Fire by Riz, and now we’re just calling it Fire by Dancers so we can honor the original creation but then also stay true to our brand now.
Alicia Free: Is that firebydancers.com?
Johanna Zenobia: .com.
Alicia Free: All right, easy to find.
It’s interesting because a lot of fire tools on the market are made for flow artists, so you see hoopers and spinners and all those stuff. Flowing arts is a different thing and has different needs for fire tools. But our tools are designed for dancers. We need them for different things, we need to do different things with them because our art is not just in what we’re creating here so much as already in our bodies that we need fire tools that showcase that. It’s not just about the fire tools, but what is the body and the spirit doing with that fire tool?
And then the one thing I wish someone had told me was, “Don’t bring your friends,” because our first live performance, we showed up at Sacred Lands, which is this Native American land that we actually do a benefit for twice a year in our Tribal Burn show. I happened to be doing a concert there with something live musicians, and our fire dancer didn’t show up. We happened to have all our tools just in case we were going to jam afterwards and we’re like, “Well, we promised people a live show so let’s do it.”
We dance with fire a lot so never having performed we’re like, “Okay, we’re going to do this thing.” And so I had this brilliant idea that she was going to light them behind me. She had two in each hand and I was in front of her and I would come up and grab the fans.
So there’s this super dramatic moment where I’m down on my knees and doing this thing and she’s just lit up with a fans. There’s a great picture of her looking at the fans like, “Oh, shit!” Because she’s singeing her fingers because you shouldn’t light two fans in one hand. They’re really hot.
And I look amazing in front of her because I have no idea what’s going on. So I’m sitting here like this rising up out of the flames, and she’s got this oh-shit look on her face. It’s a great story. She ended up throwing the fans down to the ground before her hands burned. Of course, we were dancing on a rag and there was an electrical cord going across it. So she throws them down, I don’t know what’s going on because I’m in front of her. Riz was there. Our fire daddy was there. He runs out, picks up the fans, puts out the electrical cord, hands us the fans and the show goes on.
I love how you guys got so ambitious. “I got it. Let’s double up the fire fans and do something we’ve never done before.”
Exactly. We were like, “Oh, this is a great idea.” Yeah, another example, this is a long time ago, of why you should practice everything first and not experiment on stage, especially with fire. My motto is, “If I’m going to dance with fire, one of my friends is going to get hurt”. (Laughter) Of course, we teach fire safety. We’ve developed a huge fire safety program that was not around when I was first learning fire. And I learned all sorts of great things like not to light two fans in one hand.
And you guys all looked fabulous that night with fire fans. “Oh, it’s like a coven of witches.” It just looked so beautiful the way you guys were just creating this magic together.
It’s so magical and powerful, and it’s always wonderful to dance with Belladonna. I mean, they were doing fire sword and we had a fire hooper that showed up too and we all knew what we could do and we knew the parameters and we knew how to keep the show flowing. That’s a whole separate art and flow and scale. And we teach those classes at Hip Expressions too, so we’re very blessed. Karen does fire. She’s done fire with me from the beginning, so we’re very blessed to have everybody on board with that.
FEATURED LIGHTEN MY BODY FOOD
Is there one vegan whole food ingredient that you love that you want to share with everybody?
I have a favorite food, and it is avocados. I eat one a day. It’s good fat, it’s just so good for you. But I do want to emphasize that everybody’s body is different and so I’m not going to tell you what you should eat. I mean, everybody’s got different needs and different backgrounds, so it’s really important to do what works for you. I was vegan for a year and then I was vegetarian, and I was pescatarian, and then I realized my body really needs meat and I don’t do as well without it. I have been through chemotherapy and I’ve been through all these treatments and drugs and what works best for me right now is making sure … and I don’t need a ton of it, but in moderation my body really thrives. So it’s important to find what works for you.
I am so glad that Johanna said this. She’s totally right. Our bodies are all different, and it’s really important to figure out what works best for each of us and stick with it. And this Lighten my Body Food segment of all these belly dance podcasts is never meant to exclude anyone. I know the word vegan can do that. Johanna made me realize that I never said that I respect you and what you choose to eat. This segment is about bringing more whole food into our lives and feeling art and movement with whole food. Inclusion is one of Johanna’s many superpowers. Whole plant food is a passion of mine, and I share that.
I previously worked with world-renowned nutritional biochemist, Dr. T. Collin Campbell. He was the co-author of the best selling book, “The China Study”, and he did a huge research project on humans and cancer in China. Colin taught me quite a lot about nutrition and cancer and our society’s obsession with meat. The fact is that we can get every nutrient that humans need from plans, except for vitamin B12, which we can get form B12 fortified nutritional yeast or pills or sprays. And also vitamin D, which comes from the sun.
Everything else that we needs is contained in plants, especially the whole food versions of plants. When my father was dying of cancer and going through chemo, we were so happy if he ate anything at all. At that point, it didn’t matter what it was as long as it had calories. There’s a lot of cancer in my family, and that’s part of why I went to work for Dr. T. Collin Campbell. I’m working toward a world with less cancer and less suffering. That’s a big part of this podcast too, and Johanna’s work supports that as well. Back to avocados.
You can make avocado chocolate pudding. I faked out my grandpa with that once. He’s like, “This chocolate pudding is great.” And I’m like, “He he he he. You’re eating an avocado.”
If you visit aliciafree.com you’ll see a bunch of avocado recipes. There’s a potato salad with fava bean cream and avocado, a sweet potato-avocado salad with cashew and tahini drizzle.
Some soft corn tacos with red rice and avocado. A five-minute vegan pizza with avocado sauce that I found in Indonesia.
Creamy avocado red bean and spinach salad. A whole bunch.
MAKE YOU SHINE COSTUME TIP
You’ve got to feel good in it.
That’s my costume tip. I love the shinny costumes, but then you try it on and you’ve really got to feel good in it. There is something about energetically syncing up with that costume. It’s got to fit you right. If it even feels off just a little bit, don’t do it. You still look like a sparkly goddess and all your friends are going to tell you you look amazing because you do look amazing, but if there’s something that’s just a little off, then you’re not going to feel good in it.
I’ve held on to costumes for way too long. They were never going to be right. There are so many costumes in the world.
So close though. So close. Like the color’s perfect. Let it go, let it fly.
Do you have a feel-good-look-goddess habit that you’d like to share?
Absolutely. So I’ve been studying meditation for probably over 10 years now, and feeling good and looking good really comes from the inside out. I’m a big fan of starting every day with meditation, even if it’s five minutes. It doesn’t have to be seated like “ohm” sort of a thing. It can be walking or just really focusing on doing one thing at a time like drinking your coffee or tea or whatever you have. Personally I don’t drink coffee. Everybody’s different, as we talked about with diet.
But the idea of meditation is that it’s just focusing on one thing at a time, right? Just being completely present in the moment, so when I’m dancing, I’m not thinking about my shopping list. It’s basically meditation. If I’m sitting and feeling my breath. That’s one thing. That’s meditation. When I’m just focusing on how good my tea tastes, that’s one thing. That’s meditation.
But the other part of meditation, it’s kind of like, remember the affirmations with the Saturday Night Live? “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough and gosh, darn it, people like me,” right? It’s making fun of it, but our entire society tells us that we don’t look good enough, that we’re not thin enough, that we’re not pretty enough, we don’t have the right clothes, we don’t have the right car, we don’t have the right makeup. We don’t have the right whatever, hair products, you name it.
So just to kind of keep all that aside I found a self practice that was really life-changing, and I would like to share that if you want to do that with me. You just going to take both hands and put them on your heart, and you’re going to close your eyes. And we’re going to take a deep breath and just kind of get centered. And follow the breath in and out. And then we’re going to say three times, “I love, forgive, and accept myself.” Let’s say it together.
I love, forgive, and accept myself.
Alicia Free: I love, forgive, and accept myself.
Johanna Zenobia: I love, forgive, and accept myself.
And take a few more breaths, and then smile to yourself, and on the next exhale, softly open your eyes and share that smile.
Thank you. I meditate, but I never put my hands on my chest to really feel my breath. And you know, when you lose touch with your breath, there’re all kind of things you can do to come back and this is one I’ve never done. Thank you very much. That was really beautiful. Yeah, to forgive yourself.
I know the person I judge mostly is myself. “Oh, I should have done this, should have done that differently. Oh, I forgot to do that.” I’m doing the best I can with the tools I have today. That’s it. And some days are better than others, and if I can extend that forgiveness myself, then it’s easier to also extend it to other people. And then accepting ourselves is such a huge part of it too because I know many of us often wish we were a little different. But again, the media tells us we should be different, so coming back to the fact that, “I’m okay the way I am.”
Everyone says life begins at the edge of your comfort zone, which is true. But there’s also wisdom in the opposite, which is, if you sit within your comfort zone, it naturally expands.
So if you come into, “Okay, I accept myself. Do I want to lose five pounds? Maybe. Do I want to be like whatever? Maybe.” But if I can just accept myself the way I am, then things change without even trying to do anything different. So I love, forgive and accept myself. I am okay the way I am.
I am the way I am for many good reasons and I can’t negate any of those reasons because that’s reality. And once we start fighting with reality, well, good luck ever being happy.
I mean, happiness is just saying like, “This is reality, and I’m okay with the way I am. And then what do I need to do to keep those happy feelings going?”
How can I follow the joy?
I love what you fuse, what you teach together in these beautiful packages. You were talking a little bit about chemo, and I know that you’re a breast cancer survivor of almost 12 years. Do you want to talk a little bit about that? Maybe even highlight how dance has played a part in where you are now from where you were when you figured that out?
It all started when my fiance was killed in a boat accident in 2005. And I mean, we had planned the rest of our lives together, I was helping raise his kids, and he was killed suddenly in a boat accident. So within two months, I was having breast cancer symptoms. I had blood coming out of my nipple. And they say that 80% of cancers happen within two years of a major life crisis, so there you go. So I had this major life crisis, and then I had this other life crisis on top of it, and I had lost all faith in God, the universe, humanity, all that stuff. And I just felt super undeserving and just really, really down on myself. I didn’t have health insurance at the time either. What ended up happening is there were fundraisers in California, in New Orleans, up in D.C. I mean, dancers Amy Sigil (of Unmata and ITS) came out from California, here to Florida and did a fundraiser for me.
It was just amazing. All these dancers came out to help support me through my treatment. It was incredible. I didn’t feel deserving of it at all. I was like, “This is just me. Why are you guys helping me?” And I realized that that’s what the dance community does. It’s not me. It’s everybody. That’s what we do, is we pull together. So they raised over $20,000 towards my treatment.
Alicia Free: Wow!
Oh, it gets better. I’m a fairly holistic person and so I was like, “What do I do in terms of treatment and whatever?” The doctors had told me one thing. I’m not ready to fly to Mexico and try to do some weird treatments. It wasn’t as prevalent as it is now, alternative therapies. But I didn’t have really access to this, so I thought, “You know, there’s a belly dancer in Sarasota, just south of here who’s a friend of mine and she runs a medi spa.” I was like, “Let me get her advice on what the heck to do.” So I call her up, Dr. Margaret, and I was like, “What do I do Margaret?”
And she says, “Don’t worry. I can do your mastectomy and your reconstruction, and I won’t charge you a thing.”
And I was like, “Well, what do you mean? No, i have to pay you.” She’s like, “Johanna, it’s just a couple hours of my time.” She said, “Don’t worry. There’ll be other charges. Like you got to pay the surgery center and all the stuff.” And I was like, “Okay, fine.”
It’s the little things that she did like, you know, when I had chemotherapy, they usually put a big scar right here in the middle of your chest and they put a mediport. She put mine down here, right where it’s covered by my bra line. So I go into my oncologist and she’s like, “Where’s your mediport?” I’m like, “It’s here.” And she goes, “Oh, that’s weird.”
And I’m like, “Why is that weird? You know, I’m a 32-year-old woman, and I don’t want a big scar in the middle of my chest. That’s weird?” So thank God for Margaret.
Another dancer came forward and an acupuncturist offered to see me free of charge through my treatments. And so through chemotherapy, I was getting acupuncture and eastern herbs. It was really powerful and it really showed me that I was part of this community. And that was in 2007, and I lost all my hair. I had blonde hair down to my butt and I totally lost all my hair. It was quite a spiritual experience. I couldn’t dance through it, which was the worst thing. But I was able to do some mediation and a little bit of Tai chi of Qigong, and I started dancing as soon as I could afterwards, of course.
That was in 2007. I finished my reconstruction in January. And then in April we opened our first belly dance studio, because I was like,
“This is a thing. All this community energy and effort, this is not the end of my dance career. This is just the beginning, just the beginning.”
So that’s when Karen and I opened our dance studio. We started with a little one-room place and now it’s these three rooms and a boutique and a lobby and all that and so we’re just continuing to grow. When you’re faced with that kind of thing you realize what’s really important.
That’s so inspiring. Thank you. That’s the thing about cancer, it’s this wake up call. I mean, terrific, don’t get me wrong. It is f*ing terrific. But at the same time it’s get your shit together. Whats important, right?
Johanna Zenobia: Yeah, totally.
Beautiful. And you turned it into a whole dance studio of inclusiveness and community.
SAINT OF TRUTH
The Saint of Truth part of the show is usually where I confess what I want to work on, but this is your turn. What is your Saint of Truth that I want to share?
Being an artist, I’m pretty much inspired by everything. This brings me joy, this brings me joy, and I want to do all the things.
But I’m realizing that my mission in life is not to do all the things. That my mission in life is to be really clear about what’s really important, kind of like what we just talked about.
How can I let go of the busy work? Like oh, these pretty things that inspire me. What do I need to let go off and why do I need to work with the tools that I already have?
My life is already so rich, so what am I doing with what I have?
It really reminds me of doing the work in front of me. So I can wake up, I stopped doing to-do lists because I could come up with a gabizillion things I could do. “Oh, I should do this and this and this,” and at the end of the day I’m like, “I didn’t get to any of that, oh, my God.” And then I come up with a gabizillion more things I should do tomorrow, right? So now it’s like, I wake up, I try to have some clarity. Universe, source energy, what do you have planned for me today? That’s what I need to do.
So yesterday when my car broke down and I couldn’t go to the 10 different things I was supposed to because suddenly I’d had a battery failure on my two-year-old car. I was like, “Well, that’s okay.” And then I went to the bathroom while waiting for my boyfriend to arrive and it was like, “Oh, and I started my period today.” I’m like, “Oh, well, that’s okay too.”
It’s all about just staying in the flow. And it reminds me of the Zen koan, which is, “Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.”
It’s about staying present, right? Just because I can do all these things doesn’t mean I should. It means that there are things in front me, there are factors in my life that I can’t change. I have family members, I have a business, I’ve got studio community, and I’ve got all these amazing things. What am I doing with what I have? Not searching for something else that’s out there. It’s all in front of us. And can I do it with the most presence of being with the people that I’m with? Of staying in the moment instead of worrying about yesterday. I mean, worrying about tomorrow, worrying about yesterday. Just be in the moment and be where you are. That’s my mission. That my Saint of Truth. Be present.
Chop wood, carry water. Chop wood, carry water. I’m going to have to think about that one for a long time. Tell us about something exciting you have coming up. What’s on the horizon?
I’m continuing with the teacher training. Okay, I did it as a 12-week course, so every week we met, which was great. It was intensive. The girls got so much out of it. But it’s really inaccessible for out-of-town dancers, unless you want to come move here for a few months, which is totally cool with us too. So I’m working on taking my curriculum and putting it into workshop forms that I can offer for local dancers, and also into a longer weekend format. Maybe a couple weekends format that I can do intensive trainings. And it can be applied to any dance form, and so there’s modules that are specific just for how do you keep this mission going no matter what your dance form is. And then there’s some that are particular to belly dance.
And again, I’m not teaching belly dance basics. Like you come in with whatever you got. I am going to give you a list of here’s all the basic moves, here’s how we create choreography, here’s how we break things down. People come to regular classes. You can learn to belly dance anywhere. You can do it online, although having a live teacher is so critical. So I’m not teaching that except for at the studio. But in the teacher training, what are doing with what you’ve got? And then creating a format around that, and continue to integrate all these anatomies and yoga physiology and from being a massage therapist, all my knowledge and applying that specifically to the belly dance world and to belly dancers that have specific anatomical needs.
The human body is so fascinating. My body, I’ve had triple scoliosis so I have three curves in my spine. And I’ve been diagnosed with herniated disks in my lower back and every disk in my neck. I know so much about the body because I have to study my own so well, and I can take that and apply that to, how do we dance without pain? How do we dance through injury? So that’s been just a lifelong study and endlessly fascinating because my own body is my testing ground. If I have pain, I don’t have pain. This all tells me different things.
And then aside from that, I’ve got my troupe the Hip Stars. We do our fire shows twice a year. I’m doing a live music concern downtown at the big Palladium Theater with a live band, Kafkasso which is coming up.
And then I’m starting a meditation class, training my staff at the studio, and then planning our Belly Dance Party Cruise, which we’ve been doing. This will be our eleventh cruise, and Amy Sigil’s coming. She’s all about inclusivity and acceptance and community. She’s really wonderful. So she’ll be on the cruise this year, so we’re putting that together. Coordinating with cruise lines. I mean, it’s just kind of insane. But it’s always so much fun.
Lots going on, and in the meantime just trying to stay present and also enjoy the beach sometimes.
My vision is that our mission continues to spread out through the world. Not as Hip Expressions but that community. That love, that inspiration, that acceptance, that continues to spread.
Johanna, you have been a fabulous guest as I knew you would be. Thank you so much for being on she show. Sending all of our love your way with all you got going on. Thank you so much, Johanna.
Johanna Zenobia: Thank you so much for having me.