Maya Kitayama: Tell us about your training and performance experience.
Jill Parker: I have been studying belly dance in its many different incarnations – some of that is American tribal style, some more folkloric regional style, more specific folklore styles like Saudi Arabia and all those regions from the world, classic cabaret style belly dance that is the style that comes out of Egypt, and then the sort of Americanized version. There are lots of iterations of belly dance including tribal fusion, which is largely what I teach with a really healthy dose of classic folkloric style belly dance mixed in. I still consider myself a student after 27 years. I still feel like I’m reaching further and further into this well of information that is there, and I love teaching. I really love teaching, it’s definitely my calling in all of this. I’m a pretty seasoned performer after these many years, and I love to study as I said, but really where it becomes super juicy and electric for me is when I am able to help others find their really deep connection, not only to their body and feeling good, but also an ethnic dance form that has a lot of gifts to offer; artistry, musicality, all these beautiful, creative, expressive kinds of qualities that can bring a lot of joy and healing. That’s the piece that really juices me the most.
MK: What do you try to communicate to your students?
JP: I think that if you’ve got a body and you can use it, you should. Dance is such a gift, it’s such a joy and we all deserve to feel good. I’m all about encouraging people to dance for lots of different reasons, whether that be health, self-esteem, to take it to a professional-performative level, all kinds of different reasons people might be in the classroom, and mostly to just really enjoy it.
MK: What have you taken away from your experience teaching?
JP: That reciprocal relationship of the teacher and student is a constant reminder for me of the journey I went through as a student, and just how incredibly healing this was for me around finding acceptance about my body, my body type, seeing the beauty in so many different sizes, ages, ethnicities, and just realizing that whatever I had in my head that was fed to me from Hollywood ideals about what beauty means on the billboards and the magazines, it’s a load of crap. Really, what’s beautiful is confidence and ease. For me, that was a lot of really powerful information, and I had to chew on that for a long time. In some ways maybe I’m still chewing on that, and to see that get ignited for some people in my classroom keeps it really fresh. I really want to create an environment where women aren’t measuring themselves against one another but actually are interacting in a camaraderie kind of way, while feeling really good about themselves.
MK: How were you first introduced to belly dance?
JP: It was kind of a fluke. I moved out West to San Francisco from Syracuse, New York when I was 17, so I was really young, really socially-awkward, pretty used to being the different, weird one in Syracuse, and then came here because I wanted my mind to be blown artistically and it really was. I walked into this dance class just hoping to find some other women that I could socialize with. I’d always been sort of a natural mover, I thought I should try to do something with that. I’d been an athlete my whole life, but because of social awkwardness, I’d never really taken dance seriously. I walked in there and lo-and-behold there were women of all different ages, all different ethnicities, classes, and they were all kind of freakish in their own way and beautiful and amazing and I found my tribe. I didn’t have a choice at that point, I knew I needed to unravel some self-esteem stuff, and I really wanted to learn an artform where I could express myself. The form itself was incredibly beautiful and the music was intoxicating, not to mention the costumes. I was just crazy for all the jewelry and textiles, there were so many pieces that came together, it was just this strange fluke how I landed there and it became the rest of my life.
MK: How do you approach students who are entry-level dancers?
JP: It’s difficult in one way because people come in and think, “oh it’s wiggling, that should be easy” or “I want to feel sexy, I want to look sexy” but the fact is there are so many little isolations and they’re so specific, and you have no reason to learn them in any other part of your life, and unlike a lot of forms where you can come in and kind of start doing it, there is a lot of preparation you go through before doing it. My main intention in teaching is to give people some sense of that feeling in the first and second class, even if it’s ever so briefly, so there is something to hold on to, and they keep coming for the hard stuff. I think they’re surprised at the discipline sometimes.
MK: Do you have a specific moment or memory that has inspired or stuck with you?
JP: I’m constantly amazed and touched by my students, it’s hard to isolate one, or even just a couple of stories. They’re really a huge source of inspiration for me, and it gives me a real sense of purpose being a teacher. Overall, it’s just incredibly rewarding.
MK: In your opinion, what sets ODC apart from other dance schools and centers?
JP: Their facilities are really top-notch, state-of-the-art, really dialed in and buttoned up and together, so they are really running their business in a tip-top way and trying to provide an amazing experience for their student base. They really put a lot of intention forth on creating this sense of light and air and keeping it clean, which is not easy to do with so many people moving in and out, and a lot of young people too who maybe are used to having people clean up after them. I really feel that intention here, and it feels good. It feels good to be working here and to be associated with that level of quality and intention.
Jill teaches beginning tribal belly dance classes on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Saturday at 6pm, 7:45pm, and 11:30am respectively. She also teaches an intermediate/advanced tribal belly dance class on Saturdays at 1pm.