Meet Janelle Issis: The First Belly Dancer on So You Think You Can Dance
Every summer, tens of thousands of dancers audition for a chance to prove themselves on So You Think You Can Dance.
Of those, 200 make it to Las Vegas callbacks, and only 20 are chosen to compete for the ultimate prize: $250,000 and the title of America’s Favorite Dancer.
Janelle Issis was the first belly dancer to make it into the top 20 in SYTYCD's 9 seasons.
When we first learned about Janelle's audition, as big fans of SYTYCD, we were very excited to see belly dance represented. Now that Janelle's journey on the show has ended, she took time out of her schedule to answer questions about her background in dance, and experience on the show.
Q What brought you to belly dance?
A I am full-blooded Christian Palestinian and Arabic dancing is a part of my culture. Wedding, parties, etc. all include dancing and music, of course! As a young child (four years old), I would attend my church cultural food festivals and there was Arabic dancing debke as well as a little bit of belly dancing. Aziza, a wonderful woman at my church, immediately saw that I loved danced and wanted to teach me everything. She had trained in and was well known all over Egypt for her belly dancing. Aziza is my main teacher in this beautiful art I have acquired.
Q How long have you been dancing/performing/teaching?
A I've been dancing since the age of four, performing at my first recital at age four, performing belly dance solos by age six, performing at competitions by age 16, performing for college shows at age 19, performing professionally after college from age 22 and on. Additionally, I've been teaching at Encore Performance Company from age 19 and on.
Q Who is your biggest inspiration?
A Aziza, my belly dancing teacher, is a huge person in my life. She has inspired me to open my eyes to something different, something special and something I now hold dear to my heart. She has taught me to be strong, smart, to go after what I want, and that I am capable of anything. My mother is also someone I look up to in all aspects of life. She has made me who I am today and has given me the knowledge to do anything and everything.
Q Who is your biggest supporter?
A My family is my biggest support system. They are each amazing in their own way and push me in their own ways. My sister is also a dancer and our connection is very strong and supportive. We push each other to always be better. My mom is amazing, and always knows what’s best in every situation. My dad believes in me, and, as a Doctor, that can be hard when your daughter wants to dance. This is a very difficult industry to make a solid living. My brother and I are very close and he supports my dancing with all his heart. This goes for the rest of my extended family. They are supportive and trusting and want me to succeed in what I love to do.
Q How do you practice?
A I practice all over the place. I take classes every single day, something different always. I like to put my music on shuffle and just dance in my room. I love to create new movement and choreography for the kids I teach.
Q What was your "Ah-Ha! I'm a belly dancer moment"?
A When I stepped on stage for SYTYCD for my belly dancing audition in Atlanta and in Las Vegas, I felt powerful and strong and beautiful. I said, "Yes, this is what I was born to do, the feeling inside cannot get any better than this."
Q Any obstacles that you faced or still face as a belly dancer?
A Being a young girl and being a belly dancer in the South was a little difficult as far as what other kids said. Kids didn't know what they were talking about and I would often get called a pole dancer/stripper etc. As a child, that was hard, but I was strong and my teacher and my mom taught me to stand up for myself and not let kids bother me with their messy words. As an adult, it is much easier and obviously now being on national television and getting to express this beautiful art with others was a good, positive thing for belly dancing. I believe it has such a bad rap because of how cinema has portrayed it in the past. I am happy to have brought it some good light and placed it with other styles of dance. Hopefully it will be more respected as an art now.
Q What advice would you give to a newbie?
A Belly dancing is for everyone: all shapes and sizes, all ages and races. It feels good and it is such a beautiful art. The advice I give is to be open minded and just try :) It's also a great work out!!
Q What do you wish people outside of belly dance knew?
A Belly dancing is very much a part of my culture. It is a way for women to express themselves, to feel good and beautiful. There is a great deal of technique and repertoire of movement that must be learned just like any other dance style (ballet and modern, for example).
Q In the past, belly dance has garnered some interesting responses from male judges on televised contest shows (for example, on America's Got Talent). What was your impression of how the judges responded to you as a belly dancer?
A The whole experience was exciting and fun. I don't think they expected to really like me. Their reaction was excited; Nigel turned a little red and had to make the sexy comment. But overall they were more impressed that I could do other styles. There are many beautiful talented belly dancers our there but few who do other styles as extensively as I have trained. SYTYCD was looking for different and they believed in me. I felt their reaction to me was pretty awesome.
Q How did your background in dance help you when competing?
A I feel like belly dance help me stand out from the rest. I was different. Having a background in dance is the most important thing when going out for a competition like this.
Q Did you feel like you had to try harder because of being labeled as a belly dancer compared to other more typical dancers?
A I tried as hard as I possibly could, it was not a matter of comparison. I feel like no matter the style you walk in doing you must do it in a way that is unforgettable. I don't feel like I had an edge, but I did have to prove myself as a hip hop, contemporary, ballroom, jazz, and musical theatre dancer. Everyone's journey is different and I feel very blessed and fortunate to have been a part of season 9 top 20.
Q What do you think was the reaction from the belly dance community with regards to your performance?
A For the most part I had a great deal of support from many different individuals, groups, schools etc. I am classic Egyptian trained, but on the show I did more a fusion style because of the situation (SYTYCD - the mass public as viewers - what would America understand better, what music would they respond to etc. (these are the things I took into consideration)). I was supported by so many and was able to open the eyes of many people about belly dancing. I brought it to the table with all of the other styles of dance that are soo respected. I only sought out to do positive for the belly dance community and I feel like I made me proud.
Q Anything you want to leave us with?
A We dance because we love to feel, as humans, whatever it may be that we are wanting to feel at that moment. Belly dance is a way to express yourself. You can be sad, happy, or silly; the music can be the deciding factor of how you feel in that moment. Be open minded, be open hearted, and take in everything around you to gain all kinds of knowledge.
Watch a montage of Janelle's belly dancing on So You Think You Can Dance: