Austin Belly Dance Association Amaya Interview
By Mila Crowell, June 2005

The first week in January 1980, I made a phone call that would quite literally change my life, lead to special lifelong friends, a lot of fun, and even a new career.  I called Amaya to sign up for belly dance classes! I had been married for only a month and had moved to Austin only the week before.  We had moved from Dallas where I had been dancing for over five years, and I was so anxious to continue dancing that I couldn't wait to unpack before I started classes.  And now 25 years later, the friendships and fun continue.  I recently asked her some personal questions and would like to share her answers with those of you who are fortunate enough to know her and to introduce her to those of you who don't.

Mila:  Give me some basic bio information on yourself:

Amaya:  I was  born in Crystal City, Texas (Spinach Capital of the world), about 40 miles from the Mexico border.  But I actually grew up in Muskegon, Michigan.  My childhood was experienced in a very strict, traditional family.  At 18, I had what I call a "jailbreak marriage"  -- the only way I could escape my strict beginnings. My one and only  daughter, Andrea, was born when I was 20 years old.   Andrea  and I left Michigan in a huge blizzard when I was around 23 and arrived in sunny, downtown Albuquerque in mid January of l974.  I was too naïve to be afraid of such a drastic move.

Mila:  How did you get started in belly dancing?

Amaya:  Sort of typical story here.  I started classes in 1975 with Dance World Studios in Albuquerque, NM.   A friend and I went to see a dancer on Route 66 (Christina from Seattle, I think) at a club called Zorba's.  The very  next week I saw an ad for belly dance classes at a studio called
"Dance World" here in Albuquerque.  It was run by Libby and Bob Prothero. I took classes from them two times a week ($2.50/class) for three years.  I was hooked from the first class.  (My girlfriend hated it from the first class -- go figure.)
Mila: Why were you attracted to this dance?
Amaya:  I was with a  man who didn't like to dance at all and I was crazy about dancing-any kind of dancing.  This dance appealed to me right away because I didn't need a partner.  Plus, I was enthralled by the music.  I made my muscles twitch under my skin!!!  Unlike many other students, I was not attracted to the costuming.  I was adamant with Libby right from the get-go.  I would never, never put on a cabaret costume.  Hah!

Mila:  Why did you come to Austin?

Amaya:  Well, this same guy, Steve, left Albuquerque to work in San Francisco.  I followed shortly after I graduated from the University of New Mexico.  Was I interested in the man or was it that San Francisco was the Mecca for belly dancers at that time???  ;-)   We'll never know for sure, although I don't think I would have followed him if he had ended up in Joplin, Missouri. 

A year later,  Steve got a job in Austin, TX.   We promised each other that we were not going to stay in Texas for more than two years.  I had a degree in Health Education and was ready to get a "real" job in Texas.  The gypsy in me said, let's go!

Mila:  Is this when you met Bert Balladine, while you were in California?

Amaya:   No, I met Bert in Albuquerque.  He was brought in by Dance World Libby to teach.  He noticed me and to this day he won't let me forget that I was wearing a green costume that looked like it was made of curtains.  It wasn't!  I had no money for serious costumes, no eye for color or design, and I was just playing around with the dance anyway.  I had no plans to be a serious dancer at the time.

By the way, I had the proper dressing down in San Francisco.  In New Mexico, I was a very big fish in a small pond.  Humbly speaking, I thought I was pretty great.  My first class was with Jamila Salimpour.  The Country Bumpkin meets Powerful Icon.  Jamila and the rest of the class was in what we would call today, tribal/hippie/Berkley Bedouin outfits.  I was in  a lime green skirt outlined in hand sewn gold sequins.  I could keep up in the dance technique department, but Jamila barely took notice of me.  She looked at me like a insect.   I realized there was a lot more to learn and see in our dance world!  

Mila: Tell me about your first studio in Austin.
Amaya:    Helena Vlahos,  of quarter-rolling fame,  had a club called Zorba's (another Zorba's!) and also a small dance studio.  She was a wonderful dancer.  I envied that she had live music in her nightclub act. One day I hoped be able to have something like this.  Someday waaay in thefuture.  One day I got a phone call from Helena.  The nightclub had burned down and she was leaving town and would I want to buy her studio for $500? Well, no one had jumped at  hiring me in a straight job. This was about 1977 -78 or so. Since I still had no job, I thought, "why not?"   So, I gave her a check and I changed the name on the door.

Mila: Is the story true about choosing to use the name Amaya because the telephone guy said it would come first in the phone book?

Amaya:  Yes, it is.  He showed up to take down ad information for the yellow pages.  I was having a dilemma deciding on a name for the studio.  My first choice had been "Dream Dancer."  But well-known dancer, DeAnn, wouldn't give me permission to use it because it was the name of her album at the time. So, I told this salesman, "Oh just call it Maria's Studio."    He then pointed out that if I used my last name, "Amaya," I would get top listing in the yellow pages and so it happened.  At first when people called me and asked for "Amaya," I was uncomfortable.  Now I like it better than Maria since it is such a cliché name here in New Mexico.  EVERYONE is "Maria" here.

Mila: How did you  go from hobby to professional?
Amaya: I guess taking over this studio was the first step to becoming professional, although I didn't realize It at the time.  Before Helena's call, I had been dancing at the Austin Hilton Inn/Senator Phoggfield Lounge. I danced there for three years solid--- Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, three shows a night.  I feel that I cut my teeth on the oriental carpet of show business here.  I was supposed to be dancing for happy hour businessmen, but my audience was primarily women!  I met many ladies there in that club that eventually became my students and long-time friends (Mila Crowell, Jeannette Cunningham, Pat Taylor, Nita Bouldin and Khedy Megateli).

Running a studio helped hone my teaching/business skills and I often wracked my brain, "How did Libby do it?"  I learned how to sponsor events, put on shows, do choreographies, have a troupe or two, put on a competition, danced in Ren Faires, and more.  At one point I had 150 students per week!

The first Austin Belly Dance Association (ABA)  meeting happened at my studio although by this time I had expanded to a much larger space on Reinli Street in early l980.  Mila, you sub-rented from me there and had the first BD retail boutique.  Those were the days!  I remember being proud of my built-in stage and studio that seated 200 people.  I would rent chairs, set them all up, take tickets at the door, emcee the act, hit the lights button on with my foot, push the cassette player with my finger and get the show going.  At intermission I would change into my costume, come back out, emcee some more, hit the lights and sound and eventually introduced myself, too.  Then I would shake everyone's hands as they left the show, take down the chairs and stack them for pick up on Monday.  I was a bit control crazy in those days.

I am proud to say that some of my prize students included Judy Belkacem, Jeanette Cunningham, Mila, Lucila, Nita Bouldin, Julianna Fernandez, Keith St. James, Bertha Manchaca, Gloria Clay, Karen, Ana, Gail, and many, many more. 

From 1978 - 1985, The studio brought in such stars as Bert Balladine, DeAnn Adams/Light Rain, The Sultan,  Erjument Kilic,  Bora Ozkok, Cheri Miller, Kathy Ferguson, Delilah of Las Vegas and, and my memory slows down....

Mila:  What was the next big step in your career?

Amaya: Just as the studio and the headaches of juggling so many projects and people and personalities were getting to me, I got a special call from Bert Balladine.  Did I want to go to Europe and work in a circus for 6 months.  Well,  yes and no!  I had a teenage daughter and husband at the time.  We discussed it and I called Bert back and negotiated to be gone for two summer months only.  This job opened up huge opportunities in Europe for me.  After this gig, I went to Germany approximately 3 times a year for 15 years, performing and teaching workshops.  It was around this time, the late 80s, that I finally started suspecting that I was never going to get a "real" job and that maybe this was my life's career.

I also had this great idea to take dancers to resort areas in Mexico.  For eight years I sponsored, "Amaya's Mexico Adventures" in Acapulco, Puerto Vallarta, Cancun, Mazatlan and Ixtapa.  Sue Cotham, aka Shireem, helped me a lot during these times since she was the travel agent expert.  Once I moved back to Albuquerque, I decided to have move this energy to my own city and started the annual "Shake & Bake Dance Festival" in l993.

Mila: Why did you leave Austin"?

Amaya:  By l988, Steve and I  had divorced. I had finished massage school, had sold my studio to Lucila's ex-husband, Ken (he was going to make a karate studio out of it, I think).  Seventeen years later (not two!), in l992, I left for New Mexico once again. By now, I was established on the seminar circuit and it didn't really matter where I lived -- as long as there was an airport nearby. I was at a crossroads in  my life and my gypsy blood was restless.  After dancing in over 19 different countries, two circuses, countless belly grams, I felt that my roots were embedded in the
dusty country roads and big skies of New Mexico.

Mila:  Tell me a few of  your favorite dance moments.
Amaya:  Sitting on top of an Egyptian Pyramid at midnight, under endless stars,  eating squab and watching famous choreographer,  Mohamed Khalil demonstrate some steps;  arriving onstage on a Harley bike and dancing in leather boots was cool; dancing at Rakkasah with about 30 musicians and friends (some faking playing their instruments) was a high energy moment.  I will never forget shows with Bert Balladine.  My hairs would stand up on my arms when the curtains would part and he and I would just hold the moment, posing with him onstage. ---That was electric.  Dancing in Heidelberg to a live orchestra lead by the famous drummer, Sayed Balaha is another favorite memory.  They were the only band to have memorized "Amayagena."  I dance the whole 17 minute piece to live music and Sayed the  drummer twould hit a cymbal every time I flipped my  hair.   I was in heaven.  I am lucky to say I have so many, many special moments.  And, I never forget a standing ovation!

Mila:  And, finally, why do you dance?

Amaya:.  This dance is such a joy.  It is not about age, costume, size, gender, politics, or borders.  It is about sharing a joy --the joy of being alive and that, at that moment in time, all is well.