Pioneering Asmira marks a milestone

Bellydancer has been performing, teaching art form in Victoria for 25 years

In a basement down Odeon Alley adorned in a rainbow of silks, eight women rock their hips to classical Egyptian music. They shuffle and spin to the centre for the grand finale, landing in a V-formation and facing their reflections. Kneeling at the centre, in a red tassled costume that matches her voluminous hair, is Asmira.

"It's supposed to indicate, 'I dance for you, I dance for me, I dance for a higher cause,' " she tells her advanced students, who hold their arms at varying heights.

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This piece will be the grand finale at a special performance tonight celebrating the 25th anniversary of Asmira's School of Oriental Bellydance. It's at 7 p.m. at Dance Victoria's performance lab (2750 Quadra St.)

While tickets including a catered dinner are sold out, show-only tickets are still available for $18 at 250-381-4794.

Thousands of women have learned the art of belly-dance from Asmira since she moved to Victoria in 1987 as a single mother of four and began teaching out of her home. Past and present students will perform at tonight's event. Others will be remembered on videos and slides.

Though Asmira (born Irene McConnell) has been teaching dance for more than 30 years, it was never her intention to make a career of it. Her heart was set on becoming the next Peter Mansbridge, but family obligations interfered.

Instead, she embraced the art form when she realized it had already become her vocation.

"It sort of slapped me in the face and said, 'Well this is what you're doing,' " she said.

Her introduction to belly-dance was undramatic: It began as a way to lose baby weight in her early 30s. A group of young mothers living on Gabriola Island organized a weekly exercise trip to Nanaimo, and belly-dance was the only class that fit their schedules.

Joyce Kline, an artist who now lives in Victoria, was the teacher.

Asmira developed an affinity for it immediately.

"It was the sensuality in the music, the extremely sensual movement - but subtle and elegant," she said. "The teacher was bubbly and lovable - that helped.

And I seemed to be able to pick it up easily."

She began by helping her classmates practise the moves and soon taught independently from a home studio. From there, she absorbed it wherever she could. Asmira would go to shows in Vancouver and take notes, and took intensive classes with masters in New York while visiting friends and family.

"I was always barefoot and pregnant, so I was always with a babe in arms. But I would take notes, go home and practise," she said.

In New York, she took classes with Ibrahim Farrah and Yousry Sharif. But it was the late Serena Wilson - known for helping bring bellydance into the mainstream in the United States - who really took her under her wing. She encouraged Asmira to perform on cruise ships and invited her on tours of Egypt.

"I decided to save all my shekles and go with her," said Asmira.

Tourism-industry representatives in Egypt showed an interest in Asmira, asking what kind of influence she had in Canada. She was about to tell them that she had none, living on a Gulf Island, when Serena cut in.

"Serena interrupted me, took my hand: 'She's very influential. Top dancer in Canada,' " she said. "Later she said, 'Aren't you the top dancer on Gabriola Island?' I said I'm the only dancer! And she says, 'So you're the top dancer.' She was a very wise woman."

It led to a gig leading joint tours from Canada with Serena and at one point, a job offer to move to Egypt permanently. Dancers there live large, she said. They were paid more than doctors and lawyers and single dancers were regularly backed by 25-piece orchestras.

But she turned it down to remain with her family in Canada. After she moved to Victoria, her life shifted from performance to teaching - first in her home studio, then through the now defunct Kidco Dance Centre and finally through an independent school that has moved several times before landing in Odeon Alley.

Even if the Mansbridge gig hasn't panned out yet (there's still time), Asmira has reached a satisfying point in her career. She's watching some of the dancers she fostered early on, including Nath Keo and Laura Filipovic, grow belly-dance careers of their own.

"I'm feeling a sense of contentment," she said. "A lot of dancers who trained with me in the past, who have gone on now to be professionals in their own right, are giving me acknowledgment. They're saying they're happy to have started with me."

Retirement isn't too far off, but she's not quite ready yet. In the meantime, she's still performing with her students in pieces such as the anniversary finale, set to a classical Egyptian song called Gawrahet El Fan.

"It means 'glorious art,' " she said. "I really feel that it is a glorious art. And so what, I wasn't who I thought I'd be. I am who I am. And it kind of morphed into who I am now."

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