Nikki Irwin teaches students from all walks of life. She speaks about her disability class, how politics has influenced bellydancing costumes and how our setbacks can sometimes be our greatest blessings.
My name is Nikki. I’m a belly dance teacher. Actually, belly dance is not the term we usually use, it’s oriental dance. But it’s the widely accepted term, or the publicly accepted term, for oriental dance and it doesn’t really have a lot to do with the dance at all.
Actually, when you talk about the Orient in Australia, most people relate it to Asia, not the Middle East, where the Orient Express travelled. Again, this term isn’t the greatest, as it is a Western perspective. Oriental dance is what those countries call it; belly dance is a Western term. There was a fair in Chicago in the 1900s and the promoters gave it the name then, just to indicate there would be a dancer there with her belly bare. We’ve been trying to lose it for many years, as it doesn’t do the dance form justice. It’s not a tacky dance, it’s tactful and skilful. The style where your belly’s bare, that’s just one style of hundreds. But it was extremely good marketing. In Egypt they call it Ratshaki, but it changes by style.
It’s like everyone has bellydancers at their celebration, but nobody wants their wives or their children to be one.
So, I started belly dance when I was about fifteen years old. It had already been in my family because my mother was a belly dancer. Her teacher here in Perth was a lady called Yasmin. She was the first woman to teach belly dance in Perth. She was Armenian, and she moved to Egypt with her family – actually, I believe her family was exiled from Armenia – and moved to Egypt, where they were a very well-to-do family. She had lots of maids and nannies, and she actually learned how to belly dance from them. She kept it a secret for many, many years, because within that cultural context, it’s not actually considered the thing to do.
Dance and Politics
Sometimes you have conservatives in power, so through Egyptian history, when there was change of power, there was change of lots of different things so… in the late fifties – 1955 to 1958 – there was a change of power, and the government decided that belly dancers couldn’t show their bellies. They also couldn’t do floor work. And it was kind of funny, because prior to that the costuming was beautiful, beautifully classic and really quite covered. They would have like, long slits up to the belt, but otherwise long sleeves, thick belts, very well-covered bras and the style was classic, very Golden Era, just like in Hollywood at that same point in time. And then, this came along, and they said, ‘now you’ve got to cover up’.
So they did. They covered up their bellies, their costumes ended up with bodystockings and often they’d co-ordinate it with the rest of the costume; so if they had a blue bra and a blue skirt they’d wear a blue bodystocking, which ended up looking a bit like a dress. But at the same time, what they did is they made the belts smaller, so the belts dropped down the hips a lot more, they made them thinner, the skirts became less full so there was a lot more leg, and usually two legs showing, and the bras became not-so-covered… so it’s funny; they weren’t allowed to (show their stomachs) but they kind of put their own spin on it and… [she laughs] They still managed to put their own thought into the costume despite the fact that by law there were certain things they had to follow.
I started dancing when I was three years old; I’ve danced my whole life since then. I started in the more conventional styles, so, ballet, jazz, tap, modern, acrobats, and I did that all the way up until my teens. And then, when I was about fifteen, we heard about a contemporary dance company and I auditioned for that. It was a company where they auditioned for year eleven and twelve students in Perth and just took the top twenty. And that was our company, so I did that for two years; it was my first and only introduction to contemporary dance and it was great actually, because my mum had already been doing belly dance, and my friends all thought she was amazing and cool and I was absolutely mortified, because I had grown up doing these very conservative forms of dance.
But when I did contemporary dance, it really changed the way I thought not just about dance, but about many different things. I became influenced by some really great people, but my biggest influence from that time was Claudia Alesey. She’s a contemporary dancer, she’s amazing, and actually, she helped form my love for all things vintage.
So then I kind of opened up to other dance possibilities. I had lots and lots of input from many places; we worked for the Western Australian Ballet Company, Two-dance Plus, Chrissie Parrot’s Dance Collective, and Rig Osbourne.
I went overseas when I was about twenty three; I went to Indonesia and I stayed there for ten years. I didn’t do a lot of dancing when I was over there.
When I did come back here to Perth, the dance scene had completely changed, and I really felt like I was completely out of my depth.
And I was a trade dancer—as a trade dancer you mentally think ‘oh yeah, I can do that, that’s fine’, but, there’s following along, and doing the choreography. With oriental dance especially, it’s not just the steps, there’s the feelings that go with it. And getting to know the feelings and getting to understand the music behind it is a layer on dancing that I don’t think I’d ever experienced before, with all those other dancing styles that I did while I was growing up. Because we used to put our costume on, put our make up on, our hair’s done and we’re out on the stage and we’re immediately smiling.
It was kind of really fake, and I feel now, when I dance, if you see me smiling, there’s nothing fake about it. It actually comes from inside me, and it comes from connecting the music with the movement and I just love it. I love it.
My mum first had Bellydance Central, which is my company now. I’m not sure what year she started that, but we had a studio in Osbourne Park and we had that for eleven years. She retired in 2014 and me and my sister took over the studio. Then, a year later, my sister retired from belly dancing, so I kept going until they demolished the studio to put up factory units. That’s when I started to branch out a little bit and not just have one centre, one base.
I was absolutely devastated when we did lose the studio. We watched the whole thing get demolished, because I made an agreement with the studio next door to do classes in their studio, but the whole time—and all of my students too—we’d turn up to dancing and we could actually see how they were just demolishing it. And it was such a beautiful studio, too.
But yeah, I didn’t realise it was a blessing at the time. But it definitely was a blessing. And a lesson. Because often when things like that happen you think the worst, you go ‘oh my gosh it’s the worst thing in the world’, but you never know where it’s going to lead you. Lots of different paths can lead you to lots of different places.
My biggest achievements are definitely my sons. I’m a single mum, on my own, their father lives overseas, so I don’t get much help. So, I’d say my biggest achievement is them, but I’ve also excelled in lots of different areas. I have lots of different levels that I’m teaching.
I teach a disability class, which I absolutely adore. I’ve actually been doing that for nearly ten years in Guildford.
At the same time, I started teaching a lady who was blind. She was Turkish, so it was part of her culture, and I’ll never forget the first time she came to my class. Somebody had called me just to come and do a one-off class at Subiaco Arts Centre, and she arrived with her friends and they weren’t interested in dancing at all. But she wanted to dance. And she danced in these high heels that were so huge, and I did suggest she took them off, but she said, ‘oh no, I’m fine’.
And she was fine, she managed the class and she was absolutely fine. So, I went on to start doing private lessons with her. And it was amazing for her because she had grown up in a culture that dance and music was such an important part of, and she’d always been told that she would never be able to dance. And she could, it just took the right person to guide her.
I also want to mention that I do have my own dance style called vintage belly dance. With vintage belly dance, we take inspiration mostly from the Golden Era of Egypt, but I have actually looked at other areas, in particular America, because they were huge all over the world. Still are. This year, is our tenth year anniversary of vintage belly dance in Australia. People do it all over the world now, and in Australia all the master teachers are doing it, but we were doing it for years and years and years and were the first here to really teach it.
Continuing Her Journey
I have my disability class, I’ve got all levels from beginners, intermediate and advanced, I have a professional performance troupe, and we do four terms a year and each term is a different choreography. So this term – I actually start next week – some of the dances that I’m doing I’m rehashing, so I don’t come up with new choreography all the time, because some of my choreography, like my advanced choreography, can take up to twelve hours to choreograph. It’s quite involved. So, I usually do only one new choreography a term, sometimes two. Depends how brave I am and how much time I think I’m going to have. And sometimes I do two when I really shouldn’t! But I can’t help it. I hear a piece of music and I have to do it.
I’ve got just one this term. Actually, I’m doing something a little out of my comfort zone; I’m doing a sword dance. The use of the sword is actually more fusion in style, it’s always taken really, really well by the public though and my advanced class requested it because it’s been a while since we’ve done one. I like props that are actual extensions of my body, so I like to zill, or I like to use the stick, and to a lesser extent, the veil, but when I’m dancing with the veil I still find it’s like an extension of my body. The sword, for me… it doesn’t fit into that at all. So, for me, it’s going to be a bit of a challenge. And the movements are very different, not traditional at all, the music is not traditional, so it’s completely out of my comfort zone.
We can move with the sword, balance it on our heads, do floor work with the sword on our heads or the hip, there’s lots of different things on the shoulders.
And I think for me this will be a lot about how we block as a group and the group dynamics will become a really important part of the choreography, not just the movements. So that’s my new one for this term. I’m also doing Ashabi, which is like street dancing in Egypt, great to pop music.
Why do you dance?
Because I have to. I can’t not dance. I’ve danced my whole life, and if I don’t dance, then the boys will remind me that I need to get back to dancing because I just get grumpy. It’s my outlet and it’s my passion. It keeps me sane-ish.
This video shows Nikki and her troupe performing vintage bellydance with Milaya Leff.