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People Talk: A conversation with Jill Nykkei

Jill Nykkei was searching for a ballet class when she discovered belly dance. That was 10 years ago, when the dance studio she cofounded wasn’t even a glimmer in her eyes. Nykkei was a photographer at the time. Ballet was her dance, but she knew she couldn’t plié forever.

“There’s a certain age where you’re not going to dance ballet anymore,” she said. “But you can belly dance at any age, any background and any shape. Anybody that can physically move can belly dance.”

A founding member of Fleuron Rouge dance troupe, Nykkei wears pounds of costumes when she performs. Her coin bras weigh more than 10 pounds each. Gypsy skirts are sewn using 25 yards of ruffled fabric. Her harem pants, meanwhile, require eight yards.

The Belly Dance Academy in the Tri-Main Building on Main Street offers more than dance lessons. Students practice Vinyasa yoga, play finger cymbals and learn how to hula the blues away.

Watch Fleuron Rouge in action at 8 p.m. Oct. 14 for Bohemian Belly Dance Night at the Gypsy Parlor, 376 Grant St.

People Talk: What’s shakin’?

Jill Nykkei: My shimmy drill class that will be 55 minutes straight of shimmies without a stop. I can do that, but I would not perform that.

PT: Where was belly dance born?

JN: Egypt claims it. Turkey claims it’s from Turkey. I just think we women moved our hips and started dancing. Some people say it was women teaching women about birthing rituals and how to use their hips. Belly dance can be very joyful. It also can be very stressful if you let it – like when you’re overbooked.

PT: Do you do weddings?

JN: We charge a little more for weddings. If you’re in a Middle Eastern country it is considered good luck to have a belly dancer. Years ago the belly dancer would walk in with a tray of candles, and the bride would walk in behind her. There was no electricity back then, so that’s how they would present the bride. You’re basically lighting the way for the bride. Now we usually come on after dessert.

PT: How long is the average belly dance?

JN: Performances are different. American audiences like performances short and sweet. A bellygram is 12 to 15 minutes. An average belly dance number used to be 6.5 to 9.5 minutes. Now it is eight minutes.

PT: Why do guys get into belly dancers so?

JN: Boys will be boys. Belly dancing originally was women dancing for women.

PT: Are there male belly dancers?

JN: We have one in our troupe. Unfortunately, he is finishing his master’s now and he’s on hiatus. We get requests for him to perform because there are not a lot of male belly dancers. There are more male fire dancers.

PT: What is your forté?

JN: I love building choreography, and I love finger cymbals. I can’t get enough of zills. They’re a percussion instrument, no different than a drum. Some belly dancers use them instead of music. Growing up, my father was a jazz drummer so any percussion instrument I am into.

PT: The first time you tried belly dancing, did you like it?

JN: It was all right. I wasn’t really into until I saw Belly Dance Superstars perform at UB.

PT: What motivates people to attend your academy?

JN: They want something different. It sounds exotic to them. Maybe they’re tired of the treadmill. I’ve had students who are attorneys, nurses, doctors. There was a chemist in our troupe. One of my students lost 100 pounds belly dancing.