By the end of your first belly dancing class with Shonkista Stephens and Heather Emory, you will be up moving your hips. Grabbing from Indian, African and forkloric dance movements, the leaders of the Little Goddess Trybe use American Travel Style dancing to teach women’s empowerment and the strength of sisterhood.
The newest session of Stephens and Emory’s belly dancing class at Sherman Parks and Rec began Tuesday. The class will continue on Wednesday nights for the next six weeks.
“Our style of bell dance gives people a different outlook on dancing and feel something that they may not have felt while dancing,” Stephens said. “We want everyone to be here and enjoy the experience. ATS is a visual performance of women working together in cooperation for one solid performance.”
Stephens and Emory began dancing together about eight years ago when Stephens took a new position at Sherman Parks and Recreation.
“Part of that position required me to be a recreation coordinator,” Stephens said. “I had no idea how to do that, but I needed to go out and get instructors for different types of activities. My boss told me to go out and find things that you enjoy doing and bring it back here.”
Stephens grabbed a friend and went to go do different things around Texoma.
“We took a belly dancing class at Dancendy,” she said. “The instructor was a traveling nurse from California. She had two students and one was Heather Emory.”
Stephens convinced the teacher of the class to come teach a class at parks and recreation.
“I had to be there to close up the building at the end of the class so instead of just sitting there, I danced with them,” she said. “Then we had an event starting up. It was our first annual kite festival with parks and recreation, and the activities supervisor over that asked the class to dance. They needed people for the formation and I was their fourth.”
Stephens and Emory started the Little Goddess Trybe about four years ago. Since then, the group has performed The Renaissance Fair in Houston with their sister troupe in Dallas, the Holistic Festival, and the Red River Wine Festival in Bonham. They will perform at the Holy Color Festival on March 3 in South Fort Ranch in Plano.
“We have danced at private organizations and non profit events in the area,” Stephens said. “We always dance at the Denison Fall Festival. That one is great because there are thousands of people. We come in the big headdresses. We have danced with swords before. This year we may dance with fire. We love dancing. We just do it as much as we can.”
Unlike other forms of dancing, American Travel Style belly dancing uses a lot of muscle isolation.
“We use our natural body’s inclination for movement,” Stephens said. “We do improvisational dance. We dance with our improv style through cues and gestures. So a natural cue is to the right because most people are right handed. That also means that most people lean to the left. When we dance, we use subtle hints and muscles. We are constantly holding our chests up at 100. We always have our elbows pointed at the back wall. We want to have that strong flamenco look.”
Stephens said that belly dancing is all about women’s empowerment and dancing with friends.
“The creator of ATS is Carolena Nericcio-Bohlman was doing it with another lady in San Francisco about 30 years ago,” Stephens said. “Then the ladies group she was in disbanded. She just wanted to dance so she started teaching other people. That is how it became a big movement. She is alternative style. We have a lot of dancers that are alternative style.”
Stephens said that means that ATS belly dancing is perfect for women who many feel out of place doing traditional belly dancing.
“The do not fit into certain things, but they fit with us,” she said. “The creator Carolena is short. She has tattoos. She has dreads back in 1987 when this form was created. She attracted people who were different as well. We do not fit into molds. We are scientists, doctors and everything else. We are strong, independent, powerful women that come together to dance.”
Now, ATS is done in countries all over the world.
“I know there are people in Portugal, Sweden, Russia, Germany and everywhere else,” Stephens said. “You would be surprised. We have a lot of workshops. We have teacher training. We also have student certification. Fat Chance Belly Dance is the name of the organization that started it all. It comes from when you have that guy who is looking at you and its like, ‘fat chance you have in getting with me.’”
ATS belly dancing is also unique because routines are not completely choreographed.
“I can go to Russia if I want to and dance with another troupe,” Stephens said. “I do not have to learn their language. I do not have to practice with them. Very rarely do we choreograph things. We just keep formation. Their are duets, trios and quartets. We can dance on any surface. We can dance on gravel, concrete and anything else. We can face different directions.”
One of the most important elements of ATS is remembering who the audience really is.
“We are not dancing for them,” Stephens said. “We are dancing for our own personal pleasure. In ATS, we do not judge of anyone’s size, shape, race, sexuality, or anything else. We incorporate everyone. We even have men. We want everyone to dance with us.”
Stephens said that she wants anyone who attends her classes to know that it is a safe place.
“Whatever happened at work, whatever happened at home, we leave that behind,” she said. “The goal of the class is to be fun. We want this to be our happy place. We want friends to dance with. We want this to be a sisterhood or a family.”
Little Goddess Trybe dance classes also teach positive language.
“I always tell my students that have their outfits on and do not want to take their shirt off or show their midriff, they do not have to,” Stephens said. “You can cover it. You can wear a scarf across. We wear long skirts or long MC Hammer style pants. We wear big North Africa or Indian necklaces and jewelry. We wear a lot of belts. But, it is all about what you are comfortable in. Also, if you want to dance with us but do not want to perform, you do not have to. You dance for you.”
The cost for six belly dancing classes through Sherman Parks and Rec is $60. For those interested in just taking one class at a time, a single class is $12. There are three class levels that include an introduction class, level two and level three and above. For more information, visit citofsherman.org or call 903-892-7344. Sherman Parks and Rec is located at 1002 N. Music Street in Sherman.