A Belly Dancer's Confessions: I'm a Belly Dancing Bio-Chemist
The balance between school and work, friends and family, social life and hobbies can overwhelm any student. Pile on the pressures of securing a post-graduate degree, and the stress levels sky rocket. But belly dancers aren’t one to back down from a challenge, and Nyla Crystal from Sacramento is no different. With her own method of organization, Nyla keeps belly dance in her life, no excuses.
"I call it 'extreme scheduling'," Nyla said. "If I am working late, I dance in the lab if I am alone. I shimmy in elevators or do drills when I’m in the lab darkroom processing film. When I dance at a restaurant or private party, I bring study material to read while I am waiting to perform."
As overwhelming as her daily schedule sounds, her pursuit in belly dance began as an outlet to relieve stress. Like many belly dancers, she has been dancing her entire life, in one form or another, from ballet to jazz, from cheerleading to tap dancing. When she began school at UC Davis, she instantly began looking for a dance team that would pair well with the demands of her science-heavy semesters.
"Frustrated and desperately needing to dance in some form, I saw "a sign" (literally; it was a posted flyer) to start belly dance lessons at the UC Davis 'Experimental College' and thought I'd give it a try. I fell in love with belly dance during the first lesson and haven't stopped belly dancing since!" said Nyla.
But she doesn't just dance. Almost immediately after her first class 8 years ago, Nyla began to perform in a Sacramento-based student troupe directed by Daleela Morad. A few years later, she began teaching beginner classes and now teaches intermediate/advanced classes as well as directing a student belly dance troupe at a dance studio called FDF Center. As her career advanced, so did the need for someone to help provide relief for gigs she couldn't accept. That's when Nyla met Surreyya Hada, her dance partner.
"We met online via Craigslist," Nyla said. "We've been joined at the hip ever since and have traveled the country and world together performing as Troupe Scimitar, a multi-award winning belly dance duet and live music collaboration we co-founded."
So add live music collaboration to her ever-growing list of extracurricular activities. As superhero-like as Nyla seems, she admits that at times her extreme scheduling does get tricky. When working on her project treating cancer cells with chemotherapy drugs, she must collect samples every 3 hours for 24 hours. Pair that with a teaching or performing gig, and she has to be very careful about when she begins an experiment as well as when she must leave a belly dancing gig.
"A typical night involves staying at the lab till 8pm, teaching a belly dance class, going back to the lab to collect a sample, driving to Sacramento to perform at a restaurant or private party then going back to the lab again afterwards to collect more samples. I keep makeup wipes in my car at all times!" said Nyla.
With her amazing ability to balance belly dancing and lab work seamlessly, one must think her professors are doubly impressed, seeing as how they know better than anyone the demands of Nyla’s lab and school schedule. In fact, they know nothing about her belly dancing side life. While working between undergrad and graduate school, Nyla's coworkers were supportive. But due to the competitive nature of her current lab, she must keep her belly dancing a secret.
"In grad school, I have to keep it more under wraps as grad students are supposed to be focusing 100% on school work. I also joined a competitive lab so it applies even more to me. My quality of life is very important to me so I am willing to take the risk to keep belly dancing when I should spend more time in the lab," Nyla said. "My professors do not know and I hope to keep under the radar until I graduate. Then they can know!"
Academic work may be top priority for those attending graduate school, but the lives of scientists aren't entirely characterized by lab coats and beakers. Many have hobbies that supplement or exist entirely separate of their intellectual pursuits, a lesson Nyla learned from a beekeeping high school chemistry teacher, Mrs. DeBoer.
"I thought it was really neat that a scientist could have a big passion outside science," Nyla said. "Because of her, I felt more confident that I could successfully continue dancing while earning a science degree."
The lengths Nyla goes to keep belly dance in her life regardless of the demands of her degree attainment have an interesting side effect, and it's not extreme sleep deprivation. By dancing at the lab and studying at gigs, the lines between dance and science have blurred, giving her unlikely sources of inspiration for her choreography.
"This will sound strange, but I have used cellular activities as inspiration for some belly dance combinations. The cell is quite graceful and really interesting to watch under magnification," said Nyla.
Regardless of how she weaves her personal life, career, and hobbies together, Nyla argues the key to sanity is to pride your health and personal wellness above all else. Knowing your limits is a good place to start, armed with the tool of one word: no.
"My advice is to be realistic with what you can do. Learning how to say no was a very hard lesson for me because I wanted to do it all and thought I could," Nyla said. "You only have 24 hours in each day and you have to decide how much you will allow belly dancing to impact school performance."
Of course, it helps to have an similar passion in both pursuits. While Nyla loves to dance, she is equally passionate about the work she does in laboratories. In fact, it's why she chose the competitive lab over the work she did as an undergraduate intern.
"While the work was very interesting, I didn't feel passionate about a subfactor of a yeast enzyme. I did feel passionate about reducing human suffering so I decided to join a lab that did translational cancer research. Out of 8 American women, one will be diagnosed with breast cancer* in her lifetime. That statistic was shockingly high to me and I wanted to do something about it," said Nyla.
Nyla's dedication is not unmatched in the belly dance community, as shocking as that may seem. The dance has captured hearts of people from all walks of life, careers, genders, size and age. When it comes to busy schedules, dropping belly dance simply isn’t an option.
"I wish people outside of belly dance knew how hard some belly dancers work to keep the dance in their lives. I know so many professional belly dancers who are also medical doctors, lawyers, degree holding book writers, archeologists, CEOs, etc.," Nyla said. "The belly dance community has quite an eclectic mix of intelligent, creative, and hard-working dancers."
*Howlader N, Noone AM, Krapcho M, Neyman N, Aminou R, Waldron W, Altekruse SF, Kosary CL, Ruhl J, Tatalovich Z, Cho H, Mariotto A, Eisner MP, Lewis DR, Chen HS, Feuer EJ, Cronin KA, Edwards BK (eds). SEER Cancer Statistics Review, 1975-2008, National Cancer Institute. Bethesda, MD, http://seer.cancer.gov/csr/1975_2008/, based on November 2010 SEER data submission, posted to the SEER web site, 2011.