Dancing from the Heart: An Interview with Hannah Romanowsky

originally published July 4, 2012 in fuse: a tribal and tribal fusion belly dance magazine

Dancing from the Heart: An Interview with Hannah Romanowsky

by Britta Visser Stumpp

Photo by Tanya Constantine

Britta: Hannah, tell us how you started dancing. Why did you decide to study the ethnic dances you now teach? 

Hannah: I started taking dance lessons when I was 6 at the Kreuzer Academy of the Performing Arts in my hometown. I grew up on the stage, performing in and eventually choreographing for musical theater and dance recitals.  I was a shy child, and yet when on stage, under the lights and surrounded by darkness, knowing the audience was out there, I remember feeling strangely alone, vulnerable and yet larger than life, and grounded.  I think I was more myself on stage.  I’ve always felt very comfortable, very natural, performing.

I am the daughter of an evangelical minister, a faith healer, and my home life was unusual, to say the least.  My parents took people in off the streets to minister, so I was surrounded by a lot of dysfunction and disassociation.  Dance, and specifically the communal, cooperative aspect of folk dance, was very healing for me, and helped me trust myself and others.  Visiting my grandparents, who were performing artists from Belarus and Finland, was a magical time because they would play music and put a glass of water on my head, challenging me to balance it as I danced around the room while they clapped and threw money at my feet.

I loved to dance throughout my youth, yet I never thought I wanted to be a professional dancer. Being a professional dancer in the western sense requires a high level of physicality that my body never felt quite at home in.  Dance was most of all an emotional experience for me.  I remember crying on stage when I was young.

At 19, I went to Asia for nine months.  It was exciting and liberating to experience the world beyond my limited understanding of reality!  That is when the option of exploring dance from a cultural perspective became known to me.   Part of what attracted me to dance from the Orient was the complexity of cultural practices, arts, and histories.

I was instinctually drawn to the fluidity of belly dance movements.  I wanted to bend and twist and shake.  It was my own process of expunging certain energies I did not want to carry in my body. Rhythm and movement for healing has been used throughout cultures and time. The women-centered culture of belly dance was something very new to me and took me a while to get used to.

Fear of the feminine and all that entails is deeply pervasive in our society, and in my early life it was experienced as outright paranoia.  I don’t know what would have happened to me if I hadn’t discovered belly dance.  I had a big wound that needed to be healed.

B: Where did you begin your studies and who are some of your most memorable teachers? 

H: Shortly after my trip to Asia, I began studying with Katarina Burda.  One of her students, Mira Betz, was a high school peer and I was intrigued by a dance performance she gave in our gym.  Later I went to see her perform with Aywah! at our local bookstore, and fell in love with what I saw.

At the time, I detested wearing tutus, which made me feel like a little girl, and here were these lovely, regal dancers in exotic fabrics and jewelry, smiling and dancing with such charm and self-possession!  They not only danced beautifully to a live musical ensemble, but they sang songs in foreign languages and made incredible shrilling sounds.  I knew right away I wanted to do what they were doing – whatever it was they were doing!

Katarina taught us how to sew our own costumes, dance and sing traditional repertoire from the Middle East and the Balkans.  It’s a testament to her knowledge that many of her students are now on the international scene.  I performed with Aywah! for many years. We always performed to live music and sang.  I don’t take for granted how lucky I was to have that experience!

Attending the Middle Eastern Music and Dance Camp in Mendocino, California, was nothing short of a spiritual experience. I heard classical Persian, Arabic, and Turkish music for the first time and felt a deep connection to Spirit.  Having grown up in a family where it was not safe to express emotions, the passion and expressivity of Middle Eastern music and dance struck a very powerful chord, unlocking a wellspring of feeling.

I took Persian classes with Robyn Friend.  She directed me to Sharlyn Sawyer of Ballet Afsaneh, where I have studied and performed  Persian and Central Asian dance.  In July 2011 I completed a residency in Tajikistan with Ballet Afsaneh, which was a wonderful experience.

I am grateful to consider Katarina Burda, Nanna Candelaria, and Suhaila Salimpour to be my primary influences.  I am also grateful to Elizabeth Artemis Mourat and my colleague Elizabeth Strong for their in-depth knowledge of Turkish Roman.  I’ve had many other incredible teachers, but these women, along with Sharlyn Sawyer and my beloved childhood dance teachers Gerrie and Leanne Kreuzer, have been my strongest influences.  My colleagues and sisters in dance, Miriam Peretz and Wan-Chao Chang, have also been dear sources of inspiration.

B: How do you connect these cultural dances to mainstream belly dance? 

 H: I think the dances from the Middle East and surrounding regions are cousins, some more distant than others.  Though they draw from unique histories and influences, Persian dance, Turkish Roman, Kathak, flamenco, and Raqs Sharqi are relatives, like a language, mutually intelligible to varying degrees.  It is not surprising that mainstream belly dance takes inspiration from these cultural traditions, as well as India, China, Polynesia, Africa, and America.  I’d say these culturally specific dances feed into and inspire the global phenomenon of belly dance.  

Photo by Juan Carlos Pometta

B: Can you tell us about how youbecame a founding member of Wan-Chao Dance?

H: Wan-Chao is a gifted choreographer and her work speaks to the direction dance is going – an integration and cross-cultural exploration; a blending of the contemplative, internal space and refinement of many Eastern dances with Western dynamics, stagecraft, and choreography.  What Wan-Chao does requires extensive training and refinement because it’s not about combining this or that move, but about a genuine and seamless integration of feeling.  When done well, it is a sincere and unique expression of the artist, and a natural extension of one’s personal, cultural, and creative history.  I’ve heard it said that being a translator is more difficult than being a writer, because of the responsibility of staying true to the original vision of the author while making the work accessible to a different audience.  I think it’s the same for cultural dancers.  It’s a delicate endeavor.

B: How and why did you start your multicultural youth arts education program, DanceVersity?

H: I joke sometimes that DanceVersity was my unexpected child – and it was!  I never consciously desired to run a dance program, but somehow I stumbled into this adventure and threw myself into it by the seat of my pants.  Of course, I had a mission to fulfill that came from my heart.  I learned the business skills along the way.

I know I benefit others by offering an opening that can break down barriers, divisive concepts, and lead to an expansion of worldview.  Having body connection can be as effective as traditional forms of teaching or political action, even more so because it is about changing perception from a place of feeling. Let’s face it, feeling is not given enough credit in this culture.  When the heart and body [aren’t] in communication with our mental processes, our channel of wisdom, knowledge, and discernment becomes corrupt.  It is not only heartbreaking, but dangerous to not instill in children a value for the arts and dance. Dance fosters physical, emotional, and social health, and spiritual maturity.

Of course, the kids in the DanceVersity program just come to have fun (and they sure do!), but there are underlying values and principles that inspire me to share dance. Today’s children will be running the world before we know it, and I hope it is a world where our leaders are cross-culturally competent.

B: What do you like to focus on with your students and participants in workshops? 

H: Giving people an experience of other cultures–and I am increasingly interested in fostering the connection to the body and spirit.  For many women in the West, this means getting in touch with their core.  I remember being told as a child to not move my hips – and the message received was that it was somehow inappropriate.  I thought that was weird, didn’t make sense, and felt unnatural.

We live in a culture that does not foster feeling.  We take drugs to squelch any “abnormal” behavior, dimming our emotional capacity.  I think this is another reason why Western women are so drawn to belly dance.  It gets us in touch with our bodies and validates the feminine experience.  Technique is very important, but without feeling it means nothing.  Aesthetic refinement, which comes from many years of dedication, is a perfect vehicle for the transmission of Love.  This is what I am interested in exploring within myself and fostering in others – a connection to Spirit, grace, beauty, goodness and, of course, sensuality, which roots us in our bodies and gives us the gift of aliveness, human connection, and joy.

B: You hold a BA in dance ethnology and a master’s degree in East-West psychology. Can you tell us more about this journey? 

H: I think ultimately we seek careers and areas of study that enrich our self-understanding – and we should, because that is where our passion lies.  Pursue something so long as it helps you grow, but position yourself favorably to adjust course when the time comes.  When you stop growing, you stop giving.

My approach is unique to me, and I encourage others to find their own path, because it is indeed a journey.  Your first responsibility is to stay true to who you are.  Identify what you value, and let that guide you.   I am so grateful for the opportunities I’ve had and the career I’ve led, but it is important to keep moving, creating, and redefining.  Find where you shine and nurture it.  Then find other places where you shine and start the process again.

Dance ethnology, or dance in general, is a noble and beautiful career path, but I advise anyone seeking a career in the arts to find a complementary and sustainable way of earning a living, so that the inspiration of what draws a person to dance does not become a burden.

B: What’s on the horizon for you?

H: At 35, my priorities are shifting, and though performing will always be my first love, I am more interested in teaching workshops and offering experiences for others, and would like to travel so that I can connect with more students.  My partner and I are passionately engaged in helping dancers enjoy long, prosperous careers in healthy bodies through elite nutritional technology.  This new endeavor is gratifying because it gives me a way to impact the lives and careers of my sisters and brothers in dance.

B: Do you have any plans to release instructional videos of any kind? 

H: Honestly, my feeling is that there are enough instructional videos out there!  I do have two, by the way, that were produced some years ago, though they are for the beginning belly dancer.  I am more interested in fostering personal connections, and helping dancers actualize their full potential from the inside out.  There are many other wonderful teachers out there to learn from who have produced good videos, and I defer to their knowledge and skills.  Those who want to purchase my videos, though, can contact me through my website: www.hannahdance.com.

Photo by Carl Sermon


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