Maria Hamer on Spinning, Silk and Sisters – ALLAF 022

Belly Dance Podcast maria hamer

Folkloric Fusion Belly Dancer Maria Hamer of the Hamer Sisters talks about collaborating with Tribal Fusion stars Jill Parker, Zoe Jakes, and Mardi Love as well as how she spins and incorporates silk into her belly dance costumes.

Alicia Free: We are here at Pennsic Medieval Festival, and you can hear a tent stake being hammered in the background…because we are camping!

I’m here with Maria Hamer, a long-time belly dancer out of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Training tirelessly and passionately for over two decades with some of the most sought after teachers in this dance form, meaning belly dance, belly dance fusion, tribal fusion. How do you describe yourself?

Maria Hamer: I like to think of myself as a folkloric fusion belly dancer. And I love vintage belly dance, American ’70s belly dance, West Coast belly dance from the ’70s. And I’m open to all folkloric styles, and oriental styles and cabaret styles. I love that all, too. And then all my authenticity comes out throughout that.

Alicia Free: Maria has trained with some of the most sought after teachers in this dance form, including Jill Parker, Suhalia Salimpour, Helena Vlahos and Aisha Ali. She holds certificates with Jill Parker and Level Two of the Suhalia Salimpour format. Her love for belly dance has evolved through many styles over the years. She has co-directed and helped in pioneering East Coast tribal companies such as folkloric inspired “Ghawazee Middle Eastern Music and Dance Ensemble” in the mid-90s to the more theatrical and earthy, glamour-contemporary elements of the award winning “Zafira Dance Company”, active for over 11 years.

She has spearheaded and been part of many successful events and festivals in the Pittsburgh areas with shows from big theater stages to small, intimate settings. She’s traveled the globe studying, teaching, performing and has collaborated with some of the most notable dancers in her genre such as Jill Parker, Zoe Jakes and many others. I saw you have Zoe Jakes coming for an event.

Maria Hamer: Yeah! It’s going to be her first gig post baby. She may even bring the baby, it depends on how she feels. My family is very much into babies and family when it comes to belly dance. I’ve brought my kids to lots of events. The first one was Tribal West North West in Portland with Paulette Rees-Denis, way back in the day. That was my first baby-brought gig.

Alicia Free: Nice. I saw you dancing with one of your daughters the other night and your daughter was so confident on the dance floor.

Maria Hamer: She’s hilarious.

Alicia Free: She just loved it. It was really a treat. It’s always a treat to see mothers and their kids dancing together. Thank you for bringing that.

Maria Hamer: It’s important to me.

Alicia Free: Currently as a solo artist, Maria collaborates with her sisters, Christine Andrews and Jennifer Imashev as the Hamer Sisters, as well as with local dance artist Joanna Abel as Starry Moon Dance Company. As a local Pittsburgh teacher and belly dance-community supporter, she contributes with her exciting student troupe, “Evil Eye”.


Alicia Free: So, thank you so much for recording here at Pennsic with me and sharing all your light and your talent with the podcast listeners here. What danceable song would you like our listeners to enjoy?

Maria Hamer: That was a really, really, really hard question for me. I like a lot of music, but I’m going to pick one. It is called Shoukran, S-H-O-U K-R-A-N, by George Wassouf Allah Kareem, and it’s really great fun.

I like mizmars and I love heavy, slow, saidi. I also like Saidi Party by the Gizira Band. It’s just got a nice, dragging, slow, metal bang. It kinda has that but it keeps you going. It’s like a slow, choo choo train, for me.

Alicia Free: And shukran, I believe, is the Arabic word for thank-you.

Maria Hamer: Yeah.

Alicia Free: Maria also wanted to add the songs Dalil by Najwa Karam and Cedars of Lebanon by Mosavo, so they are also on the Belly Dance Body and Soul Spotify playlist.


Alicia Free: What damn sexy dance move would you like to share with our listeners?

Maria Hamer: Damn sexy dance move. Well, damn sexy, I don’t know if it’s damn sexy or not. I just like to squeeze out every movement. I guess more of a feeling as opposed to a move. Whenever I’m working a taksim or something, I really like to just squeeze my spinal cord. That means the back of my spinal cord where I’m accenting my rib cage forward, I might squeeze my spinal cord in the back slower like I’m trying to squeeze out a yogurt tube, a grasp, or honey, maybe. Honey sounds sexier, as a honey tube.

Maria Hamer: And then, if I were to do it in the front of me then it would be like my rib cage is the down beat and I would be dropping it and pulling it into my belly button and squeezing it out and just playing with that dripping, squeezing element. So, if I could just say, instead of a move, more of a feeling whenever you’re removing. Like a honey tube, not a yogurt tube.

Alicia Free: One of the many things I love to watch you do when you’re dancing is your spins. So, can you tell us a little bit more about how you’ve mastered the spin?

On Mastering Spinning…

Maria Hamer: I love spinning and I love the Sufi spin. I love getting lost in the colors that fly past you when you’re in this bubble of color and you’re in this very sacred, dimensional spot in the world and you feel confident and relaxed. I think a lot of people, when they spin they get scared and they tense up and they pull their shoulders up, and they maybe lean forward a little bit because they’re afraid they might fall backwards or something. And so they lean forward and then they’re off balance. There’s a lot of fear and tension and misalignment when it comes to spins.

I had to get rid of my fear first. So, when I was probably 16 or 17 I had a gig at a renaissance festival, and post-gig, we were all just really hot and tired. We were just relaxing on this giant, grassy field. All the other dancers and drummers were just laying down on the grass. I decided I was going to take this opportunity to spin and I couldn’t stop. I went for 45 straight minutes without stopping. I couldn’t stop spinning, I just spun and spun and spun because I was locked into this feeling and releasing tension and sitting into my tailbone and just settling down into it.

This was all on uneven ground, and I didn’t have a spot or a stage or an audience or anything. I just kind of let go. The only connection I had was to the sky and to the ground because everything in the middle was blurry. And I was just in this safe little bubble. I think at that point I realized why the Sufis spin, that feeling. I felt very connected and very solid it’s almost like I couldn’t stop if I wanted to, and I didn’t want to. I felt very safe and very grounded and very relaxed. And that sounds like really out there, but that’s a true story, 45 minutes of no spotting, just sitting in and recognizing, and being a scientist and an observer and recognizing where I hold my tension when I spin, and just settling in and relaxing and letting it be a moving meditation, I guess. It really, really helped me and ever since then, I love spinning.

So I do spot. And I will spot like John Compton used to spot and spot around the room, and I will spot wherever I want to spot and then I stop there. And I’m not dizzy, and I feel great. I dance around fires with uneven grounds at Pennsic every night and I spin, spin, spin. There are not a lot of spinners around the fire because it is kind of dangerous if you’re not comfortable with it. I’ve seen people literally fall in the fire. It’s happened and it’s scary, but I feel very comfortable. I’ve been doing it for almost 30 years around fires now. So, it’s just one of those things, it feels good.

Alicia Free: It’s so cool to hear your background on spinning, because you can see your power in your spins. It’s very clear. I had no idea there’s all of this other experience behind it.


Alicia Free: What is one vegan whole-food ingredient that you love?

Maria Hamer: I am an animal about young Thai coconuts. The ones that sometimes you can get at your co-op or local whatever that is white on the outside. I have some information about that though, that if people do like young Thai coconuts. I learned that they soak, even the organic ones, they’ll soak the coconuts in nasty chemicals. It doesn’t affect the meat or the water inside, and I’m going to get to that in a second, but when you’re cutting it open and you’re shaving it off the top to get into the hard-part center, keep the Saran Wrap on it so that your fingers aren’t touching the nasty chemicals. Because apparently, the people when they’re preparing it, they wear gloves and stuff when they’re preparing it. That’s an unfortunate part, unless you can find an actual young Thai coconut that has the green on the outside, which is hard to find.

Dairy-Free Granola with Apple Sauce and Coconut Water

Otherwise, I know Whole Foods sells it with the plastic wrap over top. It’s a little tricky. You need to go on YouTube and find tutorials on how to open the coconut because it is a little scary. You’ve got to get a hatchet. I think there are some gizmos that can help open it up easier, I’ve never used them. I just use a hatchet and I shave off the white and then I just kind of tap, tap, tap it until I find a little lip and I then I pry off the top and it’s full of water. I can taste it right now just talking about it. It’s full of the coconut water and I pour that into a big bowl. I just put the bowl on top and dump it over and then I get a spoon and I spoon out the amazing white coconut meat. And I just eat the whole thing by myself. I don’t really like to share it!

Actually it’s a really great electrolyte rejuvenator. So if you’re at a festival and you’ve been dancing all day, or you’re at an intensive and you’re dancing all day … When I have a coconut and I drink the water fresh from the coconut, not just the ones you can buy in a bottle or cardboard bottle or whatever, but an actual, real-life coconut and drink it and eat the meat, I’m 100% better. It’s like the fountain of youth. The fountain of electrolytes. It’s magic how it works on me. So that’s a big tip for people that are doing intensives or workshops. Get some young Thai coconuts, not the hairy brown adult ones, the young Thai coconuts. They’re the best and I am salivating for them right now. I don’t have any here at camp.

Alicia Free: I love that you’re highlighting that ingredient. We spend a lot of time in Thailand. I was in Peace Corp there. So I always have had somebody open them for me. I’ve never had to open a coconut. I give props to you for figuring out how to open it.

Maria Hamer: Don’t hurt yourself. I don’t think I’ll have a bunch of belly dancers going to the ER with sliced opened hands. Yeah, be careful. (laughter) Everybody’s got lacerations…

Alicia Free: (joking) People will say “I learned how to do this from Maria and the podcast A Little Lighter…”

Maria Hamer: …Just got a little darker. (laughter)

Alicia Free: Oh, dear.


Alicia Free: You always are wearing very interesting pieces, especially jewelry and your textiles. You have a really clear sense of fashion and sense of style in your belly dance garb, and probably your everyday garb, too. I just see you in this kind of situation where we’re all in costume all the time. (laughter)

Maria Hamer: Oh, yeah.

Alicia Free: Do you have any costume tips for us?

Maria Hamer: Well, I love the use of silk scarves. I use them here at Pennsic, but even for performance they flow off. You can get 100% silk. My mother, putting a plug in there, she sells them. If you contact me, she will hand-dye fabrics and bleed them into different colors. So, find a beautiful, silk scarf or a gauze is always nice, too, silk gauze.

Maria Hamer: I drape it. Like if it’s a rectangle, take the two short ends and tie them into my top a little. And then loop it around to the back, either between my legs or on the side of my hip and then tie it on the back, and then put a belt over top. It’s got this sort of cowl-neck look and open on the sides, and it’s pretty and airy and comfortable. I love wrapping it around my neck. I love doing it as a sash. So I tie it on the shoulder and then diagonally pull it to the hip. And it billows and it flows. When you’re moving it just accents your movements even more and it looks more ethereal and light and airy. And then there’s a color accent there, too.

So overall, I just feel like the silk scarf doesn’t have to be used as a prop necessarily as dancing, of course it can. But it also can be used as a costuming piece that I really love using on a regular basis.

Alicia Free: In your troupe Ghawazee, you wear layers of fabric, including a full Ghawazee coat, turban, big skirt and harem pants. I can’t handle that. I don’t know how you guys dance with so many layers on. Do you have any tips for staying cool, even in a hot costume?

Part 1 TURKU in concert with the Ghawazee dancers, January 30, 1999, at the Newberry Opera House. Enjoy the show!

Posted by TURKU, Nomads of the Silk Road on Saturday, October 10, 2015

Tips for Staying Cool in a Hot Costume

Maria Hamer: Well, those were the days that I did that. I don’t really do it anymore. It is very hot and we had 100% wool turbans. One of the things that we did though, we didn’t tie it as tight on our heads. We would have one tied tight and then we would keep it loosely stacked on our head so it wasn’t as compact on our head. So that was one thing. And then, the skirts, just spin a lot, because when you spin all that air comes up. So that’s another reason why another reason spinning helped me. Silk is a bizarre fabric that you can use, even raw silk, where it’s cool when it needs to be cool and hot when it needs to be hot. It’s strangely is insulating and it also is very cooling. So, silk, use silk, lots of silk.

Alicia Free: Silk and spins.

Maria Hamer: Silks and spins, that’s the name of the next troupe, Silks and Spins. (laughter)


Alicia Free: I’ve seen you do some dances from Tunisia and very cool, very niche ethnic dances, at least from my dance experience. How do you keep even the more niche forms of ethnic dance that you do authentic?

Maria Hamer: Study from the source. I haven’t been to Tunisia or North Africa yet, but I try to train with as many people that have studied from the source. Like, Aisha Ali has some great material for North African and Tunisian dances.

Alicia Free: I’m actually going to interview Aisha soon.

Maria Hamer: Oh, sweet. Perfect. Yeah, we had her for an intensive and we did Tunisian all day. I love Tunisian dance. Malia DeFelice, she was a part of Bal Anat, and she also worked with Jill Parker for a period of time on and off, and I think she still does actually. She also does Tunisian dances, as well. And I learned through Jill, that way. Then YouTube also. It’s not direct, but YouTube is a great resource for raw, on the spot, from-the-source Tunisian dance.

I’ve had other teachers, too, but those are the main things. Just get from the source as much as possible. And know that you’re also a filter. It’s like the telephone game, so whatever you’re training from and the source, you’re interpreting it your way. You didn’t grow up in that environment, you didn’t grow up in that culture, so you’re going to have your own take on it, respectfully.

So, just doing your best to respectfully get the feel of that folk dance but also have your own voice, that’s a fine balance. But it’s important, I think, because it’s dying art forms and we should all learn it. We should all be tracing back to our roots and learning our roots of all the styles. If you’re a modern, oriental, cabaret-style dancer you should be studying your folk roots. Same with tribal dancers especially, because they’re tying in with folk with their tribal. So everybody should be studying it if they’re into Middle Eastern dancing and whatever genre you’re in.


Alicia Free: I have always been impressed with your brilliant choreography for your dance troupes. Can you tell us something about your process for choreographing?

Maria Hamer: I will change it sometimes. I’ve done more strict things which I’ve learned from Jill Parker and Suhalia, of mapping out the music. I’ve seen so many dancers map out their music differently. You can map it out by counts, by measures, by where the chorus is and the other parts of the song, A, B, A, A, things like that. What’s the feel of the song? Close your eyes, dream the song and listen and feel, where does it take you? What are the colors that come up in your mind when you hear the music? Are there any stories that play out in your head when you’re listening to the music?

So there are all sorts of different mappings, technical mapping but also creativity mapping. I don’t do that all the time though. It’s only whenever I have a lot of time and I want to really get into a song or I’m really, really excited about a song. Sometimes what I do is I work as I go. And I sometimes even work on the spot. So if I’m with my students sometimes I’ll choreograph right in the moment and I’ll change it 50 times and they hate that.

That’s my go-to choreographies that I do. I do the special mapping for special projects, but for the most part I am in the moment. What does this feel like as I’m moving? What does this make me want to do? I don’t necessarily highlight a move. There might be something like, “Oh, I might want to do this move”, but I don’t really keep that as stuck in my head because I feel like that hinders me from feeling what the music is actually asking me to do, so I don’t usually do that. And sometimes I’ll work backwards from the song because I like crescendo. The crescendo is the end, and I like building up to that crescendo. So sometimes I’ll rework the ending a whole bunch of times to get that right feel. So I might even work backwards instead of front and back, and back to front.

Alicia Free: Meaning you choreograph the ending first?

Maria Hamer: Yes, because that’s the big ending. That’s the crescendo. That’s the part where you want to be like, KABOOM! I learned that actually from my sister’s Russian ballet teacher. He was a principal dancer at the Bolshoi Ballet and he taught Baryshnikov. He was pretty epic and he passed away a few years ago, and my sisters were his proteges. He loved my family, he said, excuse the term because I don’t use it, but he called us, “Gypsy. Your family is gypsy.” He was from Russia so he was allowed to say that. But yeah, he just loved us and he would choreograph for us. He always worked the ending first. He never did it from beginning to the end. He always worked back to front, because he wanted that ending to be worked on more than the beginning. So that was his big thing and I learned that from him.

Alicia Free: Well, it’s the most memorable part of the piece, right?

Maria Hamer: Exactly.


Alicia Free: Tell us something exciting that you’re creating.

Maria Hamer: I feel like there’s so many different things. I’m actually starting to work with Joanna Abel and Christine Andrews, we’re doing Starry Moon Dance Company and we’re creating a new dance company together. And so that’s on the horizon, we’re building a new project together. And that’s an organic partnership. There’s a lot of people that I love and I want to dance with, Joanna is just one of those people.

Maria Hamer: Obviously, my sister Christine, I danced with her since I was a child, so that’s a no-brainer. Joanna folds into that like nobody I really know. There’s a lot of really intelligent and amazing dancers around me and I like working with them, but she’s just been a special edition recently that we really enjoy working with her. It’s kind of kismet in a way. And I know some people are like, “Well, why can’t I be in that dance company?”, but it’s really just because she’s really special. But anyway, that’s really exciting on the horizon, working with that company and building that up.

And then, specifically, I’m working on a really fun acapella, and sometimes not acapella, finger-cymbal dance with my students in Pittsburgh and that’s something that we’re working on slowly. We’re going to work up to performing it and it’s kind of high-speed, fun. I’m excited working on that one.

And then all the things on the horizon, geez, working with Mardi Love in New York. I don’t have dates in front of me right now, but maybe you can mention it. And there’s the Animoon Festival she is putting on and I’m honored and humbled to be a part of that. She asked us to be a part of that. Art of the Belly, I’m really excited to be a part of Art of the Belly in the next year. This is my first time there. Starry Moon will be coming and having some cameos at some of these places. And then also, Tribal Revolution in Chicago, next summer.

I think my sister Jen, who is also the other Hamer sister, is going to join us, I believe, in Chicago. So we’ll have the full-on Hamer Sister experience. And also I think I’m going to be collaborating with Jill Parker, at that event, too, separately. There’s just so much, just dancing as much as I can, with as many beautiful people as possible. And of course, it’ll be Zoe Jakes in the winter, in January. So it’s all very exciting and I jumped around on the calendar there for you.

Alicia Free: Maria, thank you so much for taking a little time out from playing with your kids. You’re going to a water battle right now after Pennsic. And thanks so much for all that you’ve brought to this festival and to the world, and to Pittsburgh. And we hope to see a lot more from you.

Maria Hamer: Thank you so much for having me as a guest. I’m excited that you invited me here and I’m honored. Thank you so much for the great questions, too.