Tag Archives: holly shaw

Poetry In Motion

Holly and Farima after the Jewish Nutcracker production at ODC Theatre San Francisco

Holly and Farima after the Jewish Nutcracker production at ODC Theatre San Francisco

Today I had the pleasure of working with San Francisco Bay Area dancer and ethnologist, Farima Berenji.  Farima and I met while we were both doing the run for my friend Katy’s production The Jewish Nutcracker . Farima made a most exquisite Persian Sufganiyot Fairy as you can see from the picture. Farima has been working on this Poetry in Motion project using Persian poetry for over a year now.  She thought it might be interesting to collaborate with me as a flamenco dancer. As she was describing  this project it reminded me of my piece from last summer, Describe Yourself As A Work of Art.  For one section of that presentation, I had audience members do a writing exercise where they described themselves as a work of art and then also explored what they were resisting in that moment.  Then, in the dance performance with the girls, I read one of the audience members’ prose and the dancer interpreted  it. This was a truly powerful experience for both the dancer, but also the woman whose writing was danced.  She was about 40 years old and came up to me later and expressed how moved she was to have something so close to her heart interpreted by this teenage dancer. Farima was thrilled to hear about this experience and we decided to also include this exercise in the upcoming performance. So if you come to the Salon just know we may be asking you to write a little something for our dance inspiration;)

This is just a taste from today’s rehearsal.  The “music” is Persian poetry. I can’t tell you what its about cause its a secret;) Come to the salon and find out the answer! We are performing this as an improvisation at my event the Sunday Salon coming up January 27th at the Garden Gate Creativity Center in Berkeley.



Why I Teach Belly Dance


HollyShawbellydanceWhen I first moved to the San Francisco Bay Area in 2001, I got a job teaching belly dance at 24 HR Fitness.  I had never taught dance before but I quickly fell into the role of fitness dance teacher.  I needed a job, but didn’t know it would be sooo fun! Belly dance is alluring to people for its fluid beautiful lines and body conditioning potential, but it can also have a deeper purpose in its body awareness that can surprise and awaken people.  I LOVED teaching it. It often felt like I was acting from a separate new part of myself. A wiser part of myself. I carved out technique exercises for the class, but the places I would lead them to through the dance and the things I found myself saying would surprise even me.  It was as though I was speaking from a higher self.  I experienced a high after classes that would last for hours. I felt like when I was teaching I could really truly see people and together we reached great natural heightened awareness.  I remember looking out at the crowd of sweating smiling women who had been dancing for an hour and feeling such appreciation to be leading such beautiful people.

But then inevitably, as I was trying to pay San Francisco rent prices, I got another job.  My accounting job. I hung onto the teaching for awhile, then I had Aleister and I had to make choices between belly dance and flamenco. Flamenco is much more challenging for my body type and so that desire won out and belly dancing mostly feel by the wayside for a number of years.


Holly (in blue) teaching belly dance at 9 months pregnant

So of course recently as I saw my accounting job coming to an end, I wanted to seriously ask myself, “What do I want to do?”  And very important to that: “What would be fun to do?”  Any time I contemplated getting another accounting job or doing bookkeeping even on a freelance basis, my heart would sink.  I’d log onto Craigslist and as soon as I clicked on Jobs/Finance, I would feel nauseous.  Well, my body didn’t need to shout at me any longer.  It was clear to me, whatever I do next it would not include a lateral move to accounting. It was time to get back to where I belonged.

Naturally I remembered my belly dance teaching days and realized I had several very good reasons to teach it.


Holly teaching BellyDance for Mamas

Belly Dance is accessible to many people.  One of the things I love most about belly dance is that it is so accessible to so many people. While it is true that it can take years to really master a movement, it also is true that it can take only one hour to learn a few movements and be dancing it, even if you don’t consider yourself a “dancer.” The movements may be rough and not as refined as you desire, but you can still get the satisfaction of dancing from the minute you begin learning.

Belly Dance allows you to appreciate where you are. There is no other dance form as forgiving and accepting of your body’s fitness as belly dance. It meets you where you are. Truly.  Go ahead. Wiggle and shake your jiggly thighs. Bless them.  You can see the movements best on thicker women anyway.  I remember when I was 22 years old traveling the world, and I


Holly dancing in nightclub in Cairo circa 2000

spent some time in Egypt, dancing at a three star night club in Cairo.  The dancers there are beautifully voluptuous and large by Western standards. By the time I had danced there for three weeks I was so slender from all the dancing that the patrons were regularly complaining about me. “We can see her ribs” they were saying.  “Eat eat!” They chanted at me in Arabic.  When I began there, I was a fun anomaly “We love America!” they cried.  But they got tired of watching my skinny body move.  Move over Skinny, there were “real” women to see.  I never felt more appreciative of Arabic men as in the moment I realized I was in the wrong place.

This generality about belly dance has become a core value in my teaching as a whole: If you truly desire transformation, then love where you are now.  By accepting and blessing and embracing all of yourself, you allow yourself to “catch up” to your expansion of all you desire to become.  In belly dance class this philosophy is in plain sight: Bless those curves, bless them!

Belly Dance has props! One thing that is so fantastically fun about belly dance is there are about a million different props and things you can add to it to make it more fun, use different muscles, or simply switch it up: colorful veils! add rhythm with finger cymbals! and let’s not even talk about balancing things on our heads? swords, trays, candles . . .the list is endless.


Holly teaching dancing with veil

It’s great for the core muscles. Let’s just speak to what everyone is thinking.  Belly dance can have a tremendously thorough effect on your core muscle tone. No amount of pilates, yoga, or crunches can compare to the nuanced workout of belly dance. I remember when I was teaching at 24HR Fitness, there was a young woman there who was a bit on the pudgy side.  Not really overweight, just sort of shapeless.  As she came to class week after week I noticed that her clothing went from baggy tshirts and boys’ sweatpants to more slimming fitness gear.  After a couple of months, she came up and gave me one of the most memorable testimonies I have ever had the pleasure of receiving, “My body has CHANGED!” she said to me with enthusiasm.  “I’m telling you, I never used to have a waist. At all. No waist line. Just a block of body from my chest to my hips, but now there is a WAIST THERE!”

And finally, like I said from the beginning, teaching belly dance is fun! Teaching belly dance is only one piece of my new career.  I also do creativity coaching, choreograph, and perform.  But being a belly Hollyfeatherfansdance teacher is such a natural fit with all of that. I love having an influence on women’s lives and I love that belly dance can reach so many women.  I love the non-exclusivity of it.  It has a wide loving embrace.  I love that women can come to my class and love themselves, every part.  Dance has the power to transform the way we think about ourselves. Physical movement can usher the internal movement of our minds and spirits – providing new resources through metaphor.  The body has its messages and wisdom to impart. I can only hope to provide a space for those who want to


Holly and her son on Halloween this year


Holly is a full-time dancer, choreographer, coach, and mom living in the San Francisco Bay Area.  She currently teaches weekly BellyDance for Mamas classes in Oakland and Berkeley. Click here to find out more about BellyDance for Mamas classes.

365Dances: What I learned this year? Lean Into What You Love


When I began this project my intention was to make a different dance every single day.  Oh! The things I would learn about choreography! Oh the learnings and the amazing art which would follow! Well, after about twenty days when I was shaking from the exhaustion of not getting enough sleep (see the video Crossroads? That is a woman that needs to chill the bleep! out). I realized I needed to come to some sort of modified agreement with myself.  It was not really realistic for me, a single mother working full-time 30 hrs a week AT A DESK to create entire dances every single day.  Laundry has to get done at some point. What I could do is vow to create a little sketch every day. Ah! Yes! That feels better! A little dance sketch.  Could be a 30 second sketch off a gesture I observed during commute, could be an entire five minute improvisation, could be something I’d been thinking about in the back of my mind for days.  But whatever it was, I realized, I needed the freedom to just let it be and not judge it.  This is tough when you are putting your videos on youtube.  But that was important to me too.  We don’t make art to live inside of bubbles.  Art is supposed to be out there.  And so even when things weren’t WOW really good, I still liked posting them for the moments of value that I found in them. For the transparency of the process. When I began this project, I couldn’t have predicted how my life would change, but I did know on some level that it would. You can’t set a plan to do something every day and NOT change. It would be impossible for me to list all the things I learned this past year, but I’ve tried to highlight some of the major points:

Things I have learned this year:

Take It Seriously, but Keep It Light:  I noticed that in order to keep up with my 365dances challenge, I had to maintain a certain amount of discipline – which means sometimes I just had to make myself get in there, put down the other “busy” work of day to day life, and just do it.  Dance a little. Throw on some music and find out where my body is.  But on the other hand, sometimes if I pushed too hard on myself, I reaped very little benefit. Extreme frustration would follow. Disappointment. There is this important balance between fun and discipline. The optimal creative conditions are when you are inspired to work. You are in a playful mood, but feel compelled to do it. The “discipline” doesn’t even enter into it. The best work was when I was having extreme amounts of fun, so much so that I wanted to keep working at it.

When Taken Seriously, Ideas Keep Showing Up: The more I started listening to my ideas, the more ideas I seemed to have.  Nobody asked me to make dances you know.  Probably some would rather I stop. I decided that my dances were important. Once I made the decision to care about them, my ideas became stronger. Try it. Try taking your ideas seriously and writing them down for a week. It pays to take yourself seriously this way.

Work With The Best People You Possibly Can:  I think it is really important to try to put yourself in situations where you can learn from people who are much much better than you.  Often this is scary. Sometimes you have to be brazen and swallow your ego. I don’t pretend to know everything and I love to learn. I studied with some outrageously talented people this last year. Often I would be in a class and wondering what the hell got me into this situation and who did I think I was trying to do this stuff? I think it is a good check on yourself as an artist to challenge yourself. And you can really take your skills to a whole new level when you do this.

Making Dance On Yourself Is Limiting: Yeah, I got really bored with my dancing. I mean, not forever or anything. I’m still dancing and loving it, but creating work on myself is limiting. For one thing, it is really impossible to be impartial whatsoever.  I have a really healthy body image, but still got annoyed with myself for giving undue criticism. It’s tough to take yourself out of the art when the art is you.  Of course there is no such thing as being objective when looking at others either, but I have really generous eyes for dancers I create on and this tends to make everything work better.  The most rewarding experiences were working with other dancers and musicians.

Creating On Others Is Challenging and Rewarding:  As a choreographer I make work to enhance the individual I’m working with. Not everyone does this, but I do.  Maybe I’ve been on the other side too often, trying to make someone else’s choreography fit on me. But whatever the cause, I don’t think of a piece and then try to find dancers for it. I find dancers I’d like to work with and then begin imagining pieces made on them.  The work comes from their strengths and sometimes their weaknesses too.  Those things that will also leave them vulnerable and expose some of that real depth to the rest of us.

Making Art Is About Being Resourceful: Let’s face it. Nothing is created entirely “new.” Being resourceful matters. The universe is a place that is ridiculously abundant with ideas, art, people, things.  The San Francisco Bay Area is full of people making things all the time.  Rather than being discouraged by all of this, I find it a delightful source of inspiration.  I praise innovation everywhere I see it. Being curious is the engine of resourcefulness. I am both very curious about others and their art AND very resourceful.  This is part of the reason I study many different kinds of dances.  And then those dances become my resources. Some of my best ideas are when I realized there is one wonderful thing that has never been put alongside another wonderful thing. I put them together. I feel like a genius. Then I see a youtube video of someone doing the same thing fifty years ago the next week.

Give It A Break Once In Awhile: I love to dance, but bodies do need rest.  I’ll be the first to admit it. There were definitely some days here and there that I sort of “eeked” by on my intentions because I just bloody well didn’t feel like doing it.  Also, besides making a dance “sketch” I taught dance, took workshops, had rehearsals for performances, coached and worked with other dancers, and I did sometimes let that count towards the project.  One of the most important things I’ve learned is the value of rest. We dancers say that it’s important, but do we mean it?  On those occasions when I would allow myself a day or two of no real physical activity, I noticed a difference when I hit the studio again.  I’d be amazed after a lazy weekend that I actually felt stronger.  And my body and imagination would be itching to create and move again. Rest dancers. Rest!

And a couple more things I learned on a more personal level:

My Family is Awesome:  I never once forced Aleister to dance with me, but a few times did suggest it and he was game.  And I think that shows.  I love those videos with him and know I’ll love them even more as the years fly by all too quickly. I realize that he and I aren’t what most people imagine as a complete “family.” But this year, I realized we are. We are perfect.  His maturity and support of me as an artist is generous beyond his years. And I think this has something to do with the level of fun that we have with dance in our house.  Art isn’t just something I do.  It is something that pervades everything in our home life from the food we eat to the artful way in which we ride those scooters. I am really proud of that.

There Is Still That WannaBe Movie Star Inside of Me: This project began as just a dance project. The videos were supposed to be really very secondary. I initially imagined terse and perfunctory videos made in the dance studio.  Clearly, I very quickly realized the possibilities of my awesome little iPhone (I am still waiting for them to call me and offer an endorsement!) and the videos themselves took a life of their own.  At a certain point I realized that there is probably still that little girl in me that always wanted to be on film.

And Finally. . .

Lean Into What You Love: I discovered a million and one different “techniques” for creating and coming up with ideas: games to play with myself, exercises to do, different types of meditation.  This project taught me more about those creative pathways than I could have imagined. But all those pathways can be boiled down to one simple lesson: Lean into what you love.  What? you say. . . that’s it? Really? Lean into what you love? Yes really.  Every creative step is a step taken in desire. The more you follow that trail of what you want, the more you know what you want. The more you know that, the more it shows up. The more you lean into it, the better you become at feeling your way towards it. I will probably spend a lifetime exploring this and teaching this, and yet it really is that simple. Lean into what you love.

Intimate Audiences


Finally I got a good video of this piece! And I ask you, what flamenco dancer doesn’t want to dance in front of flames? This piece, Effort and The Triumph of Being debuted at the LEVYdance Salon on June 2nd earlier this year.  I am still working it and refining it.  This was an interesting performance because it was challenging to perform something like this for an intimate audience.  It forced me to be brave and play with the audience.  Genius. Just what I needed.

Fun is Funner


Today I went to go watch my friend, Kathryn Rhone, belly-dance at the Carnival of Stars belly-dance festival in Richmond.  Unfortunately, it wasn’t a huge turnout in audience at that hour on a Sunday, but Kathryn was vibrant in her shimmying and filling up the room with her performance anyhow.  Afterwards, she brought her beaming smile over to where I sat and said lightly, “oh, the dancer who is supposed to go next is injured so she just left. . . wanna go on?”  “Oh! Really?” I inquire coyly, “well, of course! ha hahahah. . . I mean, I don’t have a costume or anything.” With a twinkle in her eye, Kathryn grabs my hands and pulls me to the stage (and you know me. . she really had to twist my arm;) throwing a hip scarf over my skinny jeans.  So. Then. This. Happened.

All I remember is the feeling of there being no expectations and having tremendous fun.  And later when I watched the video just now I thought: wow, this is proof that spontaneity and joy really are fun to watch.

Raising A Boy Who Dances

Raising A Boy Who Dances

The scenario is far too familiar: I’m at a dinner party, out with my friends, or on a date and a male friend, boyfriend, or a husband of a friend, knowing that I’m a dancer will, at some point in the conversation admit they’ve always wanted to learn to dance but have felt trapped inside their “rhythmless” white bodies due to prevailing American culture.  I have found myself in an interesting role of coach to some of these men and have, in many instances, found real ways to help them overcome their fear of dancing and experience joy on the dance floor instead of dread.  I’m happy I can help them but have been thinking lately of ways I could address this interesting relationship of American men to dancing at an earlier point in their lives. I’m the mom of a boy who loves to dance.  Boys, often athletic and full of energy, are natural dancers so why not begin where it’s easiest? Rather than helping men “overcome” their fear of moving, why don’t I put some energy towards creating a space in our culture for boys to dance like they want to? But where is this space? Does it even exist?

I was having a conversation with another mom the other day.  I noticed that her son was very dramatic in his expressions and full of energy.

“He is really expressive.  Have you ever thought of putting him into a theatre camp or class?” I inquired.

“Well, I agree,” she said, “we tried putting him in a camp at (local dance studio) but found that it was just really geared towards girls.  He wasn’t particularly happy there.”

“That is so disappointing,” I said and then it hit me: Someone really needs to put together a program for dance and theatre that is geared towards boys.  Something the caters to their learning styles and interests in movement and expression. *

I have a son who dances.  I can tell you how I have raised him in order to make it seem as though his dancing is all my doing – and certainly I can take some credit: we’ve been dancing around the living room since he was a toddler; I play all kinds of different music that he might enjoy;  I have sent him to martial arts since he was three years old which has trained his coordination and body awareness fantastically, but I waited until he was eight years old to enroll him in formal ballet training;  he has been to more dance performances in his nine years of age than many adults; and yet, I will admit to the fact that I don’t believe I have taught him to dance, but rather enabled him to dance.  Made the space for it, normalized it, made it part of his culture.

When my son was in Kindergarden, I came and taught creative dance to his class once a week.  The students, a mixture of girls and boys, were introduced to different types of dance from around the world, different music, and encouraged to explore the different textures, similarities and feelings that arose through the dances and encouraged to experiment with movement of their own as well.  As I have continued to teach workshops with kids and adults over the years, I have become increasingly impressed with the fact that all humans, and that includes boys, are natural dancers.  And also that you can teach them a particular style and try to impart them with a new language vocabulary, but people’s bodies have an overriding desire to express themselves idomatically – that is, creative ideas arise from learning dance.  Alas, when I taught my son’s class, it only lasted one year, but I am happy to note at school events ever since, that it is my son’s classmates who are the first to hit the dance floor, and that it is the boys especially who are most likely to dance.  Being the mother of a dancer and having these teaching experiences over the years has led me to a couple conclusions:

Boys are often natural and enthusiastic dancers when they are given the space, context, and the social “permission” to express themselves through movement. Create a culture where other boys are dancing and they will rise to the occasion, often surprisingly being more likely to dance than girls.  Also, having boys dancing in a class with girls adds a different dynamic to the dancing for the girls.  Unfortunately, dance classes that are exclusively all girls can often be centered around appearing pretty, light, delicate.  Add boys to a class and the athleticism often increases, the movement opens up to include more emphasis and a fiercer quality.  I often make the analogy of baseball to dance.  Since boys are very little they are encouraged to “hit the ball out of the park,” so to speak.  In learning sports, they learn to push themselves to their physical limit.  So when you get them in a dance class, asking them to really “go for it” is an easier step for them to take.  Girls who aren’t involved in sports may not have experienced being pushed to the edge of their physical limit and so the journey is a little longer to get there.  They aren’t as comfortable at first when asked to do it.  They are sometimes worried they will look ugly, silly, too macho.  But put boys and girls together from a young age and the girls start to associate these other qualities with dance.  They recognize it.  They know what it looks like and they are more likely to be able access it themselves giving them confidence and a wider range of expression.

When I work with men who are interested in freeing up their range of expressive movement, the first thing I start with is the knowledge that they CAN dance. My job is staying clear that dance is their birthright and providing them with the space to experience this for themselves. But I hope to be part of something that catches the male species earlier in his dilemma. What about a school named something like, “Renaissance Boys” where a fuller picture of masculinity was presented? Where the dance classes included hip-hop, martial arts, as well as ballet. What would it look like to have a dance studio where instead of boys being “fit” into a girls curriculumm, the curriculumm was geared towards boys?  Instead of choreography created for girls and changes made for the one boy in class as an afterthought, what about movement which is more well-rounded for everyone? What if instead of pink walls and pictures of tutus, there was a weight/fitness room, larger boys’ dressing rooms, and pictures of athletic male dancers on the walls added to the mix. When I started telling my son Aleister about the idea, I asked him how it would feel to go to dance class and instead of there being all girls and only two boys, there would be almost all boys and a few girls there.  I asked him how he would feel if he could imagine some of his soccer buddies there, dancing all to their favorite hip-hop music.  His eyes got wide when I mentioned the weight room and dressing room (at his current dance school – which he still does love by the way – he has to change in the bathroom – there is no boys’ changing room).  I asked him how all of this would feel.  He looked at me in awe, “Amazing, mom,” he said eyes wide, “Amazing.”

There is a an excellent article on DanceAdvantage that I found when researching boys’ dance schools:  Encouraging Boys to Dance

*I also wanted to mention that Danceversity Summer Camp , which my son and other boys have enjoyed for years, is an excellent resource for boys wanting to dance due to its many different styles of dance and often large percentage of male instructors.  For a number of years they tried having a “Boys Week” where boys were strongly encouraged to attend and at which, they would have styles of dance which boys might be more likely to enjoy.  I believe this wasn’t as well attended as they would have liked, so they discontinued it, but I still think there would be a market for this, it just might entail more time to grow the student base.

Summer Rite


One of the things that has delighted me most over the past year is people’s willingness to play with me on this project.  As you can tell from the photos, we spent a good deal of our afternoons swimming in the river.  It gets so hot in Three Rivers in the summertime that there is no other alternative really. Jalene and I had about twenty minutes this morning to create a little final dance and so we immersed ourselves in the incredibly revitalizing cold water and came up with this.   I can’t think of a better closing ritual for my time here in Three Rivers. It was the perfect punctuation for the whole magical week. 

On the Playground


Every once in awhile when I’m in a “mood” I do ponder what exactly am I doing? It is especially difficult when people ask me “what type of dance do you create?” well. . . it depends on who is asking.  If you are a modern dancer I will tell you that I am creating contemporary flamenco, and if you are a flamenco dancer I will tell you I am creating contemporary dance because most of what I do horrifies the flamenco community. I understand why and am at peace with them.  In fact, I love that they hold down the traditional stuff.  Without it, there wouldn’t be the container for expansion and play.

Then I watch the video from a studio session like this and I’m like aha! there’s a little tap in there, ah and some belly-dancing hips, the fluid lines and turns of a lyrical dancer.  I consider myself a contemporary dancer influenced by the many years of flamenco dance and my own personal physical strengths and weaknesses.  I use what is easily available, long-limbs, expressive hands, curvy body (I can’t escape being curvy if I tried – which I have), flexible body – and I’m working on my weaknesses (strengthening a narrow core that has to support all the rest of my curviness, and I really want to find some ease in dancing on/with the floor more often). In reality, I am a Holly dancer, just as each of you are in turn your own unique dancing vibrating being. 

And sometimes when I’m not in a “mood” I allow myself to be just that.  A Holly dancer in her studio playground. I play and it is good and fun.


With the Music of Bullfrogs

With the Music of Bullfrogs

There are many things I love about coming to Three Rivers every year: the warm awesome people, the refreshing Kaweah river, the proximity of the grand Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks (some of the most beautiful nature in the world!), but what makes it really special is the Cort Gallery where I hold my workshops.  The Cort Gallery, set on the main strip of Three Rivers, was built and designed by Gary Cort, an artist and architect who still lives there.  It is a magical place featuring a lily pond, a large art gallery/dance studio, a tower (you can imagine where Aleister spends his time) and many different outdoor/indoor living and sleeping spaces.  This year we actually slept there for the duration of our stay in Three Rivers and I lived in my own fantasy the whole time – a real little artist in residence.  In the mornings I would wake up and make dances on the vine covered deck (like the one featured here) with the bullfrogs as my burping chorus and spend the rest of the morning in the spacious studio with the Gary’s inspiring artwork surrounding me.  This little gem was done early in the morning before anyone was awake. One of my favorite times of day:

Bringing A Fan to A Wind Tunnel is like. . .


I really felt like dancing today. I feel like life has come into sharp focus and all possibilities are open to me.  So even though I set up to do an elegant fan dance, when the music changed this happier little dance came out instead.  I’m telling you.  These things decide themselves.  Sorry for the duplicate location from “Boxed.” It is just that the lighting is soooo good and there’s soooo much space . . . surely you understand.