Michelle Repsher, whose stage name is Haifa, has been studying Middle Eastern Dance, commonly known as Bellydance, since 2001, and has been teaching this beautiful ancient art since 2004. You may have seen her perform at local festivals, including the Fine Arts Fiesta in Wilkes-Barre, Tunkhannock’s Founder’s Day Celebration or the annual festival at St. Joseph’s Melkite Church in Scranton, just to name a few. You may also remember her from Fantasy Arabesque, a professional dance company she formed with fellow bellydancers Helena from Binghamton, N.Y., and the late Diana Shahein, of Scranton. Clad in many layers of exquisite fabrics and jewelry, she truly enjoys the beauty of this dance, and is offering bellydance instruction at several venues in the 570. (Don’t be intimidated; Haifa tells us anyone can learn to bellydance. And the Hollywood image of bellydancers who bare it all is not an accurate portrayal of her dance. She dances fully clothed, with poise and grace). When she isn’t teaching or performing, you’ll find Repsher spending quality time with her husband, Kenneth Repsher, Jr., and their children, Lily and Lane. We recently caught up with Haifa at Jaya Yoga Studio in Clarks Summit, where she was just wrapping up a class with a group of ladies who were having so much fun, we wanted to join in and learn some dance moves ourselves! Meet Tunkhanock’s Michelle Repsher…
What does Haifa mean?
It means "willowy," and that’s how I try to dance, very willowy.
Who taught you how to bellydance?
I started out by taking a class at Marywood (University) with Angelica (her dance name) and I took a class there almost 11 years ago. And then, luckily, my friend was dating a woman from Pittsburgh, Neefa, who started a bellydance troupe called Khafif, and whenever they would come in I would learn (from dancing with them). I’ve been addicted ever since. I’ve also taken workshops whenever I can and I travel for it. Sometimes I bring dancers in to give workshops, too.
You studied tribal fusion with Neefa. What is the most important piece of advice she gave you?
You have to first learn the rules before you can break them, and practice. Always practice.
What are some of the different genres of bellydance?
There’s Egyptian, Lebanese, Turkish, and then folkloric, ATS, which is American Tribal Style, Tribal Fusion and then you get into sub-genres like Steampunk or Goth, which take the moves and – between the costuming and the music – they’re a little different. There’s a lot of sub-genres of bellydance, and there’s a lot out there.
What style of dance do you prefer?
I can do cabaret, which is mainly Egyptian, and I do Goth, but my favorite is tribal fusion. I do cabaret for Lebanese festivals, restaurants, birthday parties, weddings, that’s what they expect so that’s the style that I dance.
What’s different about tribal fusion that you enjoy so much?
It’s very grounded, and the muscle isolations are very precise, and I also like the clothing and the jewelry.
Your costume is beautiful. Where do you find your clothing and accessories?
Ebay (laughs) and when you go to bellydance events, there’s always vendors. Also, I dye silk, and there’s a vendor in Georgia that I trade goods with. She’s from India and she travels there several times a year, so she’ll bring back clothing and she’ll say, "I’ve got this, this and this, and I need so many silk veils. Will you dye them?" And we switch.
How did you get into dying silk?
(Laughs). One of my students started vending things and she had gotten in some silk scarves with fringe and I loved them, but it’s silk, and they’re very expensive. So I went online and found a place where I can get the blanks, just the hip scarves and veils, that are pure white. I thought since I went to college for two years for art, I could use what I learned to put some colors together and do this. And it’s just kind of taken off. I do it on top of my stove – you have to get the dye really hot, so I don’t do mass quantities – but it’s fun and it keeps me out of trouble for the most part (laughs).
Why do you think you were attracted to bellydance instead of other styles of dance?
I grew up taking tap, jazz and ballet for 13 years, and I’ve always wanted to take bellydance. For some strange reason I got a booklet from Marywood University, I just happened to leaf through it and I found a class. My husband said, "Consider this a birthday present," and I’ve been hooked ever since.
Can you fill us in on some of the history of bellydancing?
No one really knows when it began. It predates written record. Originally, when women got up to dance it was in the home and they just danced in whatever they had on. Because it started in (in ancient times) somewhere in the Middle East, Central Asia, and because a lot of that area is Muslim, you had a separation of the household: women, men. The men would eat, drink, play music, dance and the women would too. This dance is actually made for a woman’s body. It wasn’t meant to be seen by men, and it fits a woman’s curves – the hip movements, the rib cage movements, the arms. It’s one of the oldest dance forms out there.
Where do you teach?
I teach at Jaya Yoga Studio on Tuesday evenings from 7 to 8, and Monday I’m in Luzerne at Serenity Wellness and Dance on Main Street, and I’m in Tunkhannock on Wednesday nights at the Holistic Health Center on Tioga Street, which is still being fixed from the flooding right now, but hopefully we’ll be open soon. And I will be teaching at Step by Step Dance on Keyser Ave. in Scranton starting in November on Thursday evenings at 6 p.m.
This must be a great workout.
It is. Because of the stance, it strengthens your legs and it’s all muscle isolations, so you do strengthen and tighten core muscles. Just holding your arms up strengthens them, and if you want to add some extra bracelets, or toss a piece of silk around, that will give you a great arm workout. It’s low impact, and it’s great exercise. And a lot of tribal dancers will also take yoga to increase their flexibility.
Can anyone bellydance?
Yes, anyone can do it. There are varying degrees (of expertise) of course, but everyone can at least move their arms, shake their hips and do basic movements.
To learn more about Haifa and to find a class near you, visit her website at www.haifabellydance.com.