I saw The Mirage at Steamers in Fullerton, when the two women were part of a performance by the Translucent Ham Sandwich Band. At their studio in Laguna Hills, The members of The Mirage discussed falling in love with bellydancing, performing at a wedding of 1000 people, and how bellydancing helps women get fit externally and internally.
How long have you been belly dancing?
(Meliza) We’ve been bellydancing together for about four years.
I know you (Meliza) have a longer background than that.
(Meliza) I started dancing when I was her age [motions to her daughter sitting on her lap]. In tap and ballet. Then when I got into fifth grade, sixth grade, I started jazz and dropped ballet. I went for the racier, sexier thing [laughs].
(Marizol) In grade school?
(Meliza) Jazz was more interesting to me. Jazz was cooler than ballet. I didn’t want to wear the tutus anymore. I wanted to wear the black leotards. I danced all the way into college. I stopped because I felt if I’m not going to do this as a profession, I’m just going to go ahead and get a regular job. And here I am doing it as a profession again. In a different form, for women.
(Marizol) I did tap and ballet when I was about five years old. I did that for three, four years. I also got into jazz dance because ballet wasn’t my thing. The jazz was more interesting. I took a break from that and got into dance team through high school. The dancing stopped, as soon as high school was done. I ventured into different careers, doing hair and makeup. Then five years ago, I met her and we started bellydancing and started this company.
Were you already bellydancing when you met?
(Meliza) I had discovered it on my own at home through video. I got hooked. I had a little collection started. I decided I really needed to do this live and get an instructor. I found a private instructor and I booked my first class. I invited her (Marizol) at the last minute. She was not prepared. She said, “No, I don’t think that’s for me. I don’t want to do that.” It was strange. She was meant to do it. I took her home. She was locked out of her house. She’d never been locked out of her own house before. She says, “I guess I have to go with you. I have no choice.” She went with me, took off her shoes and was in her work slacks and went for it. [laughs]
(Marizol) That was my first class and I fell in love.
(Meliza) I let it be known immediately that I wanted to perform, after the first lesson. I said, “I want a costume.” I ordered a costume. She went along for the ride and we did this adventure together. We didn’t say, “One day, years from now…” We just said, “Let’s just do this for fun.” And make money. We started performing for many different occasions and discovered that we were building a nice little niche for ourselves. We were very well accepted. Although we say it was for fun, we took it seriously. It was a new fun outlet for us. A new way to be women, a new way to have fun, a new way to have camaraderie. We did it as much as we could. We studied and practiced, and couldn’t get enough.
What was it specifically about bellydancing that drew you toward it?
(Meliza) I had taken a lot more dance that what I told you. I had taken Hawaiian dancing, but it was hula. I compared it to ballet. It was very slow-moving. I always liked the drums. I like fast. I have quite a bit of energy and I like things to be fast. I always wanted to take the Tahitian/Polynesian style. I came across this video by accident, Delfina. She’s very well-known in the industry. I saw this movement she calls “bicycle hips.” It was the sexiest hip movement I had ever seen. She was doing a figure-eight with her hip on one side. I had to learn how to do that movement. I watched it, and I did it, and I got it. And that was the first movement I did. I said, “Let me do another one. Let me see what other movement I can get and learn.”
(Marizol) Of course, she passed it on to me, saying, “You have to watch this.” It was great though because as a mother, I was never able to tighten up this area at all [motions to her midsection]. I would do the crunches, I would do the running. I would do everything. For me, it was more of an exercise energy outlet. I realized how quickly my core was tightened. Bellydancing was great to tighten my core.
(Meliza) When you’re doing it frequently, you notice a change in shape. I’ve worked out my whole life and I know the difference between when you’re working out at the gym and when you’re utilizing these movements and how it carves your stomach in a different way.
(Marizol) And your hips, and your butt, and your thighs. You’re doing a lot of isolation here [motions to her midsection], but there’s a lot of movement in the legs, to get the hips to move. With a full skirt, you can’t really tell what’s going on underneath. It’s a lot of cardio and contracting muscles.
(Meliza) And looking graceful while you’re doing it. And your bottom half going faster than your top half and separating everything. It’s a mind thing. Can you keep this moving faster and this going slow? Kind of like patting the head and rubbing the stomach. It’s like a puzzle. I compare learning to bellydance to learning a new language. Western women, they move a lot with the upper body, the shoulders, a lot of side to side. Nothing is done with that pelvic region. It’s almost prohibited to move that way. It feels kinda weird, especially when women are first learning to shimmy. Oh my God! Things are moving, inside, which is a very good thing. It keeps it healthy. Bellydancing did start for labor and fertility. It’s good for the organs, the spine. When you start to shimmy, the first thing women say is, “Everything is jiggling!” and women don’t like to jiggle. But they don’t realize that when they start to move that stuff, the circulation moves in that area, you can burn a lot. It keeps everything healthy and functioning. So many women are going through early menopause right now. If you were to undulate those organs and that area, it might be healthier.
How long would you say it took you to get that separation of movement?
(Meliza) I think it has a lot to do with determination, desire, will and coordination. We did it in about three months. Probably sooner, but confidently to say we’re going to do this in front of people, about three months. We started performing before we should have, but that’s how badly we wanted to do it. We put the costumes on and we went out and started dancing. It was a lot of fun, a lot of learning. It’s still a lot of learning. There’s so much in your head while you’re performing, but at the same time wanting to let go and have fun.
(Marizol) Bellydancing goes from Indian to Persian to Egyptian. We don’t even have the whole picture, but we are constantly learning. Like she said, it is a new language. There is a lot more to bellydancing than just shaking. There’s hand gestures that are different for each culture. It’s a lot to learn. If women are looking for just a new exercise, you can pick it up in two to three months. If you’re looking to be a professional, it takes years. Not just so you can learn the rhythms, but you have to understand the different cultures. That was a surprise to us.
That’s part of the new language aspect, that you have to learn the different cultural facets of it.
(Meliza) Some people say that since we weren’t born and raised doing it, it makes us better bellydancers. We take it seriously. For instance, my first language was Spanish. Because I speak Spanish, people assume and they just want to throw me in Spanish Four in high school. I failed because I was never taught how to read it, how to write it. I just knew how to speak it because it’s what I am. Same thing with bellydancing. They (Eastern women) do it, but they don’t take workshops. They just know how to move like that. As far as being a performer, that’s a different thing. We studied the performance aspect to make it a show quality performance versus just dancing at a family party.
When you’re giving a lesson, what is the first thing you want to teach a student?
(Marizol) I would say, having them find their center. If you are doing a hip drop, you could easily fall to the side or hurt something. If they can find their center and keep their balance throughout their body, it will help them in their flexibility, their isolations of the body, and they can understand how to separate the body parts.
(Meliza) The first thing I want to teach them when learning anything is just to relax, to have fun and relax. Sometimes it can be overwhelming because there’s all these things going on at the same time. You’re trying to make the bottom half work, and all of a sudden you see the hand start to clench. The shoulders come up. Just relax. It will come. Take it one step at a time. Listen to the music, interpret it and let your body move with it. Just feel comfortable in your own skin. Get comfortable and relax. It’s not always about technique. It’s about accepting this new way that your body is going to move. Once you learn to move your body this way, it’s so beneficial across the board.
(Marizol) It’s true. Just relax. Get everything out of your head that you were doing today, stress and everything else, just focus on the one body part. Then you can move up to the chest and your hands to make them pretty.
(Meliza) We can go to peoples’ homes. Sometimes they just want us to come over and they want a lesson in their home, with some friends and a glass of wine. We have this studio for our own use. It fits about three, four people max. We keep it very, very private. We want to cater to each individual’s needs. Everyone has a different reason for starting to bellydance . If they just want to dance and forget about the day’s worries, great! We’ll dance with you. If you want to get fit, you’ve just had a baby, let’s work on the core. Let’s do these exercises. We don’t want to have classes where every week they come and it’s the same thing over and over.
That’s a good way to approach things.
(Marizol) We’re always trying to bring out that inner woman in every woman. You don’t want to intimidate them. You don’t have to be perfect. If we can just get them to loosen up a little bit and do some of the basics., that’s huge.
(Meliza) Nothing is more beautiful than a confident woman.
(Meliza) If they’re seeking bellydance, that’s the first step. They might not know they’re going to gain confidence. They might just think they are going to try something fun and new. They’re going to gain confidence, because moving like that is accepting your womanhood.
(Marizol) That transformation. We have a student, she came in very insecure. Now she is a confident woman. The way she enters a room is amazing. She’s graceful. We have seen the transformation.
What are your favorite events to perform at?
(Meliza) Our favorite clientele is Americans, because it’s usually a new experience for them. They love it. And we love to bring the new experience to them. We love to perform for Middle Eastern people, because that’s not our culture and they accept us. They love what we’re doing. They really appreciate it too, because it is them, and they love to party. We love any party, except for bachelor parties. We don’t love those.
(Marizol) We put on our website that we absolutely do not do bachelor parties. We’ve done things from baby showers to wedding receptions, to quinceañeras. Almost anything.
(Meliza) Conventions, corporate events. Wherever you have entertainment, you can have a bellydancer. Of course, you saw us at the jazz club (Steamers). That’s kind of off. Who has bellydancers at a jazz club? Wicked Garden, we’ve done that a couple times. There have been many places where it’s like, “What’s a bellydancer doing here?” We try to adapt our costuming and our music to fit. We’re very cabaret. We say we’re Las Vegas meets the Middle East. We try to keep it in a commercial way, for everyone to accept it. At the same time, we give it punch. We want to be very exotic, but be able to fit into things like kids parties. We just recently did our first Muslim wedding of a thousand people. They flew people in from three different villages. Most of them didn’t speak English. We’d never run into anything like that before.
(Marizol) It was a good experience. It was a learning experience. We do a variety of events from just being up on stage to someone’s gorgeous backyard party. It depends on the event.
(Meliza) We’ll make ourselves fit in anywhere and we have a good time everywhere we go. The biggest battle we face, not that you asked, is that people don’t realize we can fit in anywhere. I’ll mention it because I’m always out promoting, marketing. I like people to have a new idea and a new experience. Everyone thinks about having a luau, “We’ll have Polynesian dancers.” They don’t think about bringing in a bellydancer and doing an exotic theme. The biggest battle we face is that the perception of bellydancers is totally off the mark.
That was actually one of the questions I had written down but hadn’t gotten to it yet.
(Meliza) I have gotten a couple times recently, “It’s not that kind of party.” So I ask, “What kind of party do you think we do?” I overheard this lady say, “If I’m going to hire bellydancers, I might as well hire Chippendales strippers.” Hopefully, she will have an experience to change her mind, and we hope to be the ones to bring it to them. And we have gotten this many times, “I have never seen bellydancing like this before. I didn’t know bellydancing could be like this.” That’s why we like to say we’re Mexican. A lot of people have a stereotype of what Mexicans should look like, or be like, or sound like. So we’re Mexican bellydancers and we’re breaking all the rules and misconceptions.
(Marizol) Sometimes, they think bellydancers are overweight women and they don’t want to hire a bellydancer because they don’t want to see all that jiggling. These women that do bellydancing for a living and are voluptuous can really work their muscles. It’s not like they’re just eating cheeseburgers, then throwing a costume on. We’re the total package. We’re great to look at. I’m not trying to toot my own horn here, but we do work hard to stay in shape and we do keep up with the culture, and what’s going on out there. We are trying to break down the misconceptions.
(Meliza) I have this thing I like to say, “We are always polished in appearance and poised in performance.” As long as we can maintain that, we’ll keep performing. We want to keep a good name going.
If you have a prospective student or client, what’s your pitch to close the deal?
(Marizol) We cater to everyone. That’s the question for an event, “What do you want to leave your audience with?” What impression are you trying to make? Is it going to be we come out and it’s “Wow!” Or are we going to be the ambience and get the crowd into whatever they’re trying to do? We also need to ask that with a student. “What exactly are you looking for? Are you looking to lose weight? Are you looking to tighten your core?” I was looking to bellydance to tighten up my core, not necessarily to perform. She talked me into that. I love it now.
(Meliza) Your first performance.
(Marizol) I threw up. I was so nervous. That’s what we need to ask. What kind of impression do you want to leave with your audience? What do you want out of bellydancing? And then we can help them out.
(Meliza) I’d like to be honest with them. What they see is what they get. A lot of times, they haven’t had the best experience. If you look online, I can pull up a whole list of bellydancers. I guarantee about ninety-nine percent of the time, they don’t look like their pictures. I know photographers can tell you who has been retouched. Totally slimmed down by ten, fifteen, twenty pounds. And those pictures aren’t current. Aside from being talented in dance, they hire you because of the way you look. We’re competing based on pictures. That’s pretty much it. What we put up there is pretty raw. Other than maybe a color change, it’s pretty raw. We don’t do crazy alterations. Everything is current within a month or two. We’re always changing pictures, keeping it fresh and new. We always hear that the pictures (for other dancers) are ten years old. You get a bellydancer who is thirty pounds heavier and ten years older. It’s not fair.
With us, you really get what you see. Kind of sell them the show, what to expect within a thirty-minute performance. We are not the bellydancers that are going to come and work your crowd for tips. For fun, people like to tip and we accept it. We bring the show to you, whatever you would find in say a Vegas show. What you saw was freestyle, but we actually have choreographed pieces. We don’t go out and freestyle until it’s time to go out into the audience. We bring a very polished presentation so you can present it to your clients, or your family and they can feel like, “Wow! I’ve just been to a show!” We don’t just roam through the crowd asking for tips. A lot of dancers will charge a nominal amount and hope to make it up in tips. We say “This is our fee and this is what you’re going to get for that fee.”
(Marizol) It’s a level of professionalism. We strive hard for that. When we appear, we’re not just some dingy broads. This is our profession.