SEEDing Self Esteem

Teenage Girls Study Belly Dance in Santa Fe

By Shayna Samuels In Dance Magazine June, 2006

When best friends Heather McDonald and Marissa Mathy-Zvaifler were 16, they signed up for a belly dancing workshop.  It was an introduction to SEEDs®-Self-Esteem, Expression, Empowerment, and Education through Dance-for teenage girls at Myra Krien’s Pomegranate Studios in Santa Fe, New Mexico.  The girls would try the two-week workshop, and afterward decide if they wanted to enter the full year-long SEEDs program.

Heather and Marissa fell in love with the sensual signature movements of belly dancing.  They learned to shimmy their hips and shoulders, roll their bellies, and swirl with their arms high in the air.  But before they could enroll for the year-long program, Marissa was tragically raped and murdered.  Heather and the other girls were shcocked and scared, but they decided to rally and continue with SEEDs in honor of Marissa, dedicating their dancing to their friend.

“The SEEDs program saved my life,” says Heather, who is now a freshman at Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado.  “After Marissa dies I felt like my light had been extinguished.  This class helped me face a lot of my fears, and the studio became my sanctuary.”  Throughout the school year the girls attended 90-minute sessions, three times a week.  They looked up to Krien as a role model, and soaked up her vivacious and supportive personality.

SEEDs is designed to be more than a dance class.  The goal is to help young women blossom through their confusing adolescent years when self-esteem, body image, and health are susceptible to negative societal influences.  It’s a time when they’re at risk for pregnancy, drug and alcohol abuse, and for dropping out of school.  Krien, who is also director of the Middle Eastern Mosaic Dance Company, founded SEEDs as a positive alternative.  The year that Marissa died, it was needed more than ever.

“The studio gave them community and a safe place to be,” says Krien.  “Belly dancing helped them because it is physical, with bare feet.  It’s very grounding.”

Now in its sixth year, SEEDs inspires young women ages 15 to 18 to feel good about their bodies, develop discipline and strength, and support rather than compete with each other.  There are currently 23 girls enrolled.  Krien, who has been dancing and teaching for more than 25 years, says that American Tribal Style® belly dance – a fusion of movements from India, the Middle East, North Africa, and Spain – is the prefect vehicle to teach these important lessons.  She points out that it honors femininity in all its shapes and sizes.  “No one is too thin, too heavy, too short, or too tall for this dance form,” says Krien.  “Right there the whole self-esteem issue becomes much easier.”

Tribal belly dance also nurtures positive group dynamics.  The movement is largely improvisational, and the dancers shift seamlessly between leading the group and being followers. This requires attentiveness, cooperation and respect.  “This dance form makes you aware of how you affect other people and how they affect you,” says Heather. “When we’re dancing we become almost like one organism.”

The girls also learn hand drumming, zill (finger cymbals), and moving meditation, and are introduced to the concepts of talking circles and journal writing.  Guest speakers give lessons on how to set and reach goals, financial planning, and sex education.

Eighteen-year-old Leah Woods graduated from SEEDs two years ago.  She is now enrolled in New College of California and dancing with the well-known Middle Eastern dancer Suhaila Salimpour.  “I would never have been able to move to San Francisco, where I didn’t know a single human being, and be able to pay my rent, be in school and keep dancing, without the support that SEEDs gave me,” she says.

SEEDs is purely educational, providing information and developing skills.  Krien believes that art form is an effective healer, but she herself does not try to be a therapist.  She offers a sympathetic ear, but if any of the girls need serious psychological advice she refers them to a professional.  “Dance is such a powerful medium,” she says.  “It centers the girls, clears their minds, and gives them a sense of control over their lives.”

Krien says the flirty, sensual nature of belly dancing and the provocative costumes allow the adolescents to explore their changing bodies in a positive way.  “Young women are budding sexually and they need a healthy environement in which to channel that energy,” she says.  “They become more confident in their bodies and I believe this will help them make safer choices.”

SEEDs is intentionally inexpensive, and full scholarships are available.  The girls have four performance opportunities during the year, and many of the graduates have gone on to perform in schools and for Santa Fe community events with Krien’s apprentice company, Ahatti (little sister).

In addition to being a selfless teacher, Krien is a mesmerizing dancer.  Her voluptuous frame embodies the depth and soul of this ancient dance form.  “When she dances she transcends her physical self,” says Heather.  “She is no longer Myra.  She is everything and everything is her.  It’s like her soul is dancing.”

Shayna Samuels is a writer and yoga teacher living in New Mexico.