The Belly Dancer Who Taught Ellen Degeneres - Meet Rosalba
From watching Jillina in amazement to teaching Ellen Degeneres on live television, Los Angeles belly dnacer Rosalba forged her own path in belly dance to become successful by remembering the cornerstone of a good performer: you are always a student with more to learn.
Her passion for belly dance began in 2005, when a friend invited her to watch Jillina’s weekly performance at a local restaurant. She instantly fell in love. In hopes of repeating the same feeling, she immediately sought out belly dance nearby but ran into a road block when the only classes she could find were at a gym. These classes were often very repetitive and offered no focus on proper technique or history.
“Eventually the class became predictable and boring, so I started to research other options. Something inside of me kept telling me that 'there's got to be more than this',” said Rosalba.
Opportunity struck when a classmate invited her to attend the yearly Bellydancer of the Universe Competition in Long Beach, California. Not knowing enough about the dance to select properly, Rosalba randomly chose two workshops. She ended up doing more watching than dancing, but left the festival with several class schedules of teachers she enjoyed and was ready to rededicate her journey in belly dance.
“At that time I was living in West Los Angeles so driving to Angelika Nemeth's class in Orange County would take me 2 hours. I took her classes twice a week for 1 year. At that time I was a high school teacher so I would go straight after work; it was always the highlight of my week,” said Rosalba.
Two years of Angelika’s classes gave Rosalba more than just a solid foundation in dance. She was also introduced to the entire community of belly dancers through workshops, performances and festivals. It was through these outings that she also met future teachers Zahra Zuhair, Fahteim, and Tamra Henna. She even embarked on a trip to Egypt where she was transformed by performances from the world’s leading belly dancers, Dina, Asmahan and Randa Kamal.
“I remember I started crying when I saw Randa. I had no idea who she was and why she was dancing the way she was, but it was so powerful that I began to cry because I had finally come to realize what the dance was about and how beautiful it could be. I had never seen that in Los Angeles, I remember thinking to myself... 'So, this is what it is all about',” said Rosalba.
After studying and performing under Angelika for two years, Rosalba found herself ready to take a leap into professional dancing by joining a company. Combining a full-time dance job with her full-time job as a high school teacher almost proved more than she could handle.
“I had never performed professionally so the pressures of dancing for pay turned belly dance into a more stressful experience,” Rosalba said. “On one hand I was always tired, sick and stressed out and on the other hand I couldn't believe that I was doing what I came to realize was truly my passion.”
Practicing daily until 11 p.m. and performing at 8-10 shows per week was challenging at first, but after a year Rosalba acclimated to the new schedule. As she evolved as a dancer, however, she felt the company’s rules and routines had become too confining for her. She knew she had more to learn and grow in belly dance.
“The company director had a rule that we could not take classes, workshops or train with anybody, so I was unhappy about the restrictions to grow and get out of my comfort zone,” said Rosalba.
She moved to a different company but the pattern remained. Once she had passed the initial excitements of new routines and choreographies, she always felt as if there were something missing. She made the decision to break out on her own.
“I decided that I needed to push myself and take control of my dancing,” Rosalba said. “I needed to stop expecting others to feed me. The possibilities to grow in the dance were endless, I just had to take more initiative.”
As Rosalba embarked on a new phase of her career, she began to feel overwhelmed again. She didn’t know the first thing about marketing herself, finding gigs and booking shows. By resolving to take each unknown one step at a time, she slowly developed herself as a professional belly dancer.
“I have been doing that for 3 years and not only did I survive the journey but it all went better than what I expected. I guess the universe does bring you what you deserve if you keep working at it,” said Rosalba.
And work she does. Rosalba pulls from a variety of sources to find the inspiration and guidance she needs to make a path for herself. For example, she follows the careers of other dancers in order to learn from their success. By reading their articles, watching their videos, attending their workshops, and even “stalking” their online presences, she is able to glean more than just technical advice.
“I highly admire dancers that are talented and pioneers in all aspects of the dance; they constantly challenge themselves artistically and they also learn to be business saavy,” said Rosalba.
She also looks to close friends and colleagues for inspiration and support. Her friends cheer for her accomplishments, her colleagues expand her dance experiences, and her boyfriend, unexpectedly, serves as both supporter and critic.
Beyond heroes and friends, Rosalba’s career foundation is built on hours and hours of daily practice. From classes, to workshops, to DVDs and yoga, Rosalba never forgets that she still has a lot to learn, no matter how successful she may become.
“There are so many resources available online and through instructional videos that you can have so much material to work on and grow. I make it a point to work for as much as 4 hours a day at home,” Rosalba said. “I combine a session of yoga and bellydance in my own living room/studio on a daily basis.”
Ultimately, she recognizes that her rewarding lifestyle will always come with a few draw backs. Being a professional belly dancer means balancing a budget that includes her living expenses, company funds, props, expensive costumes and continuing education costs. These struggles are often unacknowledged by the general public.
“People who want to hire belly dancers usually don't understand what all of the expenses and hard work that goes into becoming a skilled professional,” said Rosalba.
As difficult as the finances can be, they don’t compare to the stresses of managing people. Whether a difficult client or a disobedient dancer, Rosalba has to set and meet expectations in her business, which often means some unpleasant conversations. Luckily, working your dream job means the pros always outweigh the cons.
“Running a professional company brings a lot of stress and difficulties,” Rosalba said. “I have had a lot of difficult times to the point where I want to quit, but I have also had a lot of very rewarding experiences, and that's what keeps me going.”
Ultimately, most of the battle to become a professional is one dancers fight internally. Having clear goals is important, but understanding the time and sacrifice it takes to achieve those goals is key to being a respected professional in your craft. This balance isn’t often understood by professional dancers, often leading to the ever-present “undercutting” problem that degrades the entire belly dance community.
“I do think that a lot of the problems we face in bellydance are actually caused by dancers themselves. Dancers need to demand more respect for their work and the environments in which they dance,” Rosalba said. “It takes years of experience, difficulties and sacrifices to get to a professional level. Approaching your dance with an ‘instant gratification’ mentality will only keep your dance to a limited level. You create more value for your dancing by being very skilled and an exceptional dancer.”
“No matter how 'bad' the economy is, there is always a market for 'good dancers',” Rosalba added.