I began my study of dance when I was three years old. For twelve years I
attended class in ballet, jazz, tap, acrobatics, but ethnic and interpretive
dance forms were always my first love. I spent countless hours trying to
figure out Hawaiian hula, Indian kathak, and Irish step dance from a few bits
of public television footage, and dancing improvisation in my yard at home.
In high school, I found opportunities to perform the Italian tarantella,
Medieval "Courtion De Magdalena", and lyrical interpretation to
poetry. I took my first Middle Eastern Dance with Maresha class while in
college at the University of South Alabama in
Beginning in 1998, I studied with Habeeba's
Dance of the Arts in Cincinnati, OH once a week in Azha's class.
Within a few months, I added private classes with Conchi Madson to my weekly
schedule. These classes combined highly technical instruction with
encouragement to learn to piece the movements together in my own way without
choreography. I was in heaven! For the first time I found a dance form that
was structured the way I love to dance. I am fortunate to have had two expert
teachers with such complementary styles and strengths. Their combined
influence lead me to develop a unique blend of Egyptian/ Lebanese precision
and Turkish fire in my own performance style.
In 2000, I began performing with Alhambra, Conchi's
professional dance troupe. In addition I had the opportunity to lead
supplementary classes for a group of fellow students, and give a seminar for
the Crazy Ladies bookstore titled Mending the veil: healing women's body
image through the ancient art of Belly Dance. This workshop remains one of my
favorite teaching experiences. I had been asked by a friend to prepare a
spiritually aware approach to my dance for the store's annual women's
workshop. Before I began planning, I didn't know that my dance contained an
embedded message I needed to share with other women. But by the time I had
completed the workbook for this event, my approach to teaching belly dance
had been changed forever. At the workshop women of all shapes and sizes
helped me learn to teach others to value their bodies for their strengths
instead of being ashamed of what we had learned to see as their weaknesses.
More than shimmies and hip drops, I learned to share pride and personal power
with my students. This has been part of my goals in every class since.
I moved to Bloomington, IN in 2001, to begin college again at Indiana
University and to
expose my children to the area's open and culturally diverse atmosphere after
my divorce. At that time I became part of the Blue Nile
dance troupe, and also joined Salaam on additional local and out of town
performances. I learned so much about the dance from working with this
improvisational Middle Eastern band, and I am very grateful to have had such
a rare opportunity. Dena, who is an Iraqi-American and the band's violinist,
generously shared my name with several local Middle Eastern families as well.
Because of Dena's kindness and Salaam's welcoming spirit, I got the
opportunity to perform belly dance in art, educational, and traditional
settings, for joyous audiences who understood its meaning. (Salaam just
released their fourth CD, and is currently traveling for shows through out
In late 2001, I joined with Angela Ditman and
Kristen Orlousky to form Pangaea Tribe. We offered a multi-cultural show with
live music to the educational and art communities of Bloomington, IN.
Our group repertoire was primarily American Tribal, but our solos ranged from
Raks Sharki, and Folkloric Gypsy, to Flamenco fan dance. At its height this
group had four dancers, three drummers, and an outstanding woodwinds
musician. Although it was short lived, we enjoyed incredible artistic
opportunities including an afternoon performance in association with the
Lotus World Music Festival. Through out this time I continued teaching
private lessons with both beginners and advanced students.
In 2003, I remarried and moved to
I transferred to the University of Illinois at Champaign
in the department of Psychology. As I acclimated to the Champaign-Urbana
area. I was trilled with my new family, and the opportunities available to me
in psychology department, but surprised to find that there was almost no belly
dance happening in the city. So at that time I began slowly helping to build
a dance community and new opportunities for myself and others here in Champaign.
Currently, I maintain a studio with over fifty
students, and travel to study and perform with nationally known teachers in
the regional area. Additionally, I am fortunate to direct two dance groups,
the Reflections Dance Co. with members of my advanced Egyptian Fusion class,
and Pangaea Tribe with the members of my advanced Tribal class. These groups
and I have performed at various events including Nargile, Cafe Hookah, Pizza
Garden family night, Night of 1001 stars in Chicago, Mediterranean Echoes in
Cincinnati, Culture Shock at the University
of IL, and a two hour presentation
on the history of Middle Eastern Dance in America
called Reflections of the Middle East at
In 2005, I completed my honors thesis in
attachment and emotional development and graduated with departmental
distinction. I worked in the mental health field briefly before discovering
that I have breast cancer and having to take a leave of absence. Most of this
past year for me has been spent in treatment, but it is almost over and I
have gained a great deal from the experience. Throughout this time my Pangaea
dance family has been an incredible support to me, and we have all grown in
ability as we struggled together to keep our studio growing and productive. I
have three new teachers, a strong troupe, budding new choreographers, and
many new close friends because we were able to reform our roles and expand to
accommodate each other’s needs and limitations during this difficult
time. This experience has only brought home what I learned that very first
time I began teach women this dance. When you work very hard to force this
dance into some competitive staged-drama box, it will eat you, your
friendships and self-image alive... but when you let belly dance work it's
magic... let it expand into all that it has been throughout it's history and
can become again, it is a force of strength and a story of women's power and
ability to heal eachother. Sometimes adversity
makes you stronger.
From October 2005 till May 2006, Ishara Gamal
received aggressive chemo-therapy that was followed by radiation treatments
for a few months. All the while she kept coming to the Studio (on good weeks)
and leading the practice. She did not let treatment and its harsh side
effects prevent her from performing in Bellies For Life 2006, and her greatest achievement
probably, during that time, was attending the GRE tests, applying to the
Psychology Grad school at U of I and being accepted!
Ishara had started the PhD. program
in Fall 2006, and only mere 2 months into the semester, about Thanksgiving,
she had discovered that the cancer had returned, and had advanced to stage 4.
A new battle had started for Ishara, where the statistics were not on her
side. She fought this battle with all her might, and LIVED during the good
days with the same fierceness. This time around, chemo-therapy started taking
its toll not only on the cancer's cells, but also on Ishara's healthy body as
well. But she reserved her energy for what mattered most for her:
She kept attending Grad school whenever she could and even served as a TA for
one of the classes. It seems as this activity had put some sense into her
And there was dancing... Ishara could not come to the studio for practice.
This and the commute were too much. So the studio came to Ishara's house. We
practiced in her living room on the good weeks. It was more than wonderful to
have her dancing with us, and for her it was a highlight, for that day, as
well. She was invited to perform on New Year's Eve in a restaurant, and so
she did. And for Bellies For Life 2007 she prepared 3 numbers (!): She danced
with her daughters at the beginning of the show and performed solo as well as
with the troupe.
But shortly after Bellies For Life 2007 the
routine of chemo-bad week-good week-chemo again was replaced by one hospital
stay after the other, with respect to the sever side effects chemo therapy
had. She felt she had to quit TA-ing her class, because she could never
predict when she would be outside of the hospital.
In mid April she was hospitalized for the last
time. The condition she went in for improved and she resumed chemo therapy.
But shortly after that her liver began failing and did not recover.
Mere 5 days later Ishara Gamal's soul was
freed of her suffering body. She died on Tuesday night, April 24th 2006, with
her close family and loved ones by her bed side.
Ishara Gamal had always been a source of
inspiration, and forever will be the wind beneath our wings. While we
practice in class or dance in a circle at a Hafla or performing on stage,
Ishara Gamal is dancing with us and in our souls.