The Fatimas, a vivacious plus-size belly dance troupe with its ever-changing line up of members from Los Angeles, Orange and San Bernardino counties, has been entertaining and inspiring audiences all over Southern California for more than 20 years.
Performing publicly was not part of the original plan; their attention turned to that positive expression and presentation, and then on to the details of costuming for their first limited engagement at National Association for the Advancement of Fat Acceptance conference.
It all began in 1987 when the Fatima’s founder, Ronda Wood, and her friend, JoAl Byrne, invited their first teacher, Elaine Noronha, to give private classes to six or seven women in Byrne’s home.
“We wanted to have more movement in our lives, and belly dance seemed like a fun and sexy way to improve our mobility and stamina,” Wood said.
Only a few lessons in, they found themselves taking gentle direction from Noronha such as, “Oh, when you perform, you can also use this move,” or, “When you’re doing crowd work, here’s something to do with your veil.” One comment had particular effect. “When you are on stage and you face your audience, you must be happy to be there.”
If a flurry of chiffon skirts, beads, coin bras and sequins they presented their Egyptian-themed “Night at the Kasbah.”
“I was seduced by sequins,” Wood chuckled. “Our show time was a chance to shine with glitter, bells and fun outfits created by Paula Bailey. Now the group’s main choreographer, Bailey joined the troupe after taking a class with Wood in 1998.
“Paula Bailey has the most ideas, but we all give input and collaborate on the final dance presentation,” Wood said.
Bailey also handles the group’s costumes out of her store, www.plussizequalitycostumes.com as well as carrying their latest instructional DVD, “Belly Dance For Ever Body.”
“There are about seven of us who dance regularly, but we perform according to who is available at that time or to travel,” Wood said. Seducing audiences with sequins and sultry moves to music, they promote size acceptance.
“Our body positive dance style suits all sizes, fitness levels and age groups,” Wood said. “Our performances can be in the traditional tribal, pirate, cabaret style or the currently being explored Polynesian style.”
Costuming clearly signals the styles as the women glide on the stage. The troupe may possibly debut a steamy punk dance and costume set at a convention in May.
Wood, a retired teacher who is occasionally on call to fill in, stays toned with regular visits to the gym and pool with her brother. It all adds more passion and oomph to the dance part of her life. “The wonderful thing about the dancing is that it is adaptable, to any of our mobility issues at any time, so it looks pretty authentic even as we work around people’s particular situation.
For Wood it’s the foot surgery she had. “Now, I just don’t do turns anymore so someone else will. “Paula our choreographer is so inspirational, she pushed me back into the dance spots and on stage after I took a few years off for foot surgery.”
For the Fatimas, who come in diverse ages and body sizes and abilities, it’s far more than dressing up. Some of the women are associated with the National Association for the Advancement of Fat Acceptance.
“Some of us are natural performers who love to be on stage, others need to be coaxed,” Wood said. “For all, dancing has steadily held as a great activity. It feeds so many ‘me’s’ and it shows it can be done in all sizes and ages; it is social, physical, nurturing, spiritual and fun.”
Belly dance for fun and fitness is growing across the United States.
Based in Whittier, Calif., Wood offers lessons, runs belly dance workshops and dance clinics and presentations at conferences.
“Whittier is pretty much Fatimas central,” Wood said. Classes take place in the garage Wood converted into a studio with mirror and raised wood floors. Classes, usually in eight-week segments, take place there, as do Fatimas’ twice-weekly practices. Women at the classes contribute what they feel and the money is used to maintain the floors and space. “We only charge when we travel to cover expenses.”
The Fatimas Belly Dance Troupe performs at festivals and area restaurants that have feature nights of belly dancing. One is the Bombay Bistro where the Fatimas appear at the once a month belly dance and fusion evening.
In April they’ll attend a festival that presents Polynesian, classic belly dance, Indian, flamenco and other styles all day at the Edward Dean Museum in Cherry Valley, Calif.
From June 1 to 3 different chapters of the Fatimas will participate in the Cairo Caravan a weekend festival and trade show on the Queen Mary, docked at Long Beach, Calif. The caravan weekend and the Festival of Flying Color come under the auspices of the Middle Eastern Culture and Dance Association.
“The goals are different for people when they first come to learn dance and those goals can change over time,” Wood said. “Some come thinking they just want the exercise component but find that the camaraderie is the real draw. Those who go on to join the performing group often find new aspects of their personality.”
“Often it’s for the joy of performing,” Wood said on whether the troupe is ever paid for their appearances. “Sometimes there are tips and other times we work the crowd in a way that is natural to the dancing, like wading out into the audience who dances with us, or tucks appreciative cash notes into our costumes.”
Wood is passionately adamant. “I always want dance in my life precisely because it involves the physical, emotional, social, intellectual and creative aspects of life,” Wood said. “Dancing and performing is a constant source of inspiration to me. It pushes me to always learn and my goal is to continue as long as possible.”
Find more information on the Fatimas, a bountiful belly dance troupe, visit http://www.socalsafe.org/fatimas.html.