After 11 years of international belly-dance success, Zafira Dance Company plays its last show. | Dance + Live Performance | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

After 11 years of international belly-dance success, Zafira Dance Company plays its last show. 

Zafira's run has included tours in Ireland, Spain, Austria, the Netherlands, Australia, Ukraine and Russia.

click to enlarge First they went tribal, and then they went global: Olivia Kissel and Maria Hamer, of Zafira Dance Company. - PHOTO BY HEATHER MULL
  • Photo by Heather Mull
  • First they went tribal, and then they went global: Olivia Kissel and Maria Hamer, of Zafira Dance Company.

Like a rock band breaking up over creative differences or members' solo careers, Zafira Dance Company is calling it quits after 11 years, and for many of the same reasons. The award-winning Pittsburgh-based belly-dance troupe gives its swan-song performance Oct. 4 at the Kelly-Strayhorn Theater with Club Bellydance, co-produced by internationally touring troupe Belly Dance Superstars.

Zafira was founded in late 2000 by Olivia Kissel, Tamara (Nelson) Juel and sisters Christine (Hamer) Andrews and Maria Hamer. All four had been members of Ghawazee, a Pittsburgh-based Middle Eastern dance and music troupe. 

Zafira ("victorious" in some Arabic dialects) quickly made a name for itself by helping to pioneer the tribal-fusion genre of belly-dance. The genre mixes traditional belly-dance with other styles, including Western classical forms such as jazz, ballet and flamenco.

"Tribal dance can look more authentic and earthier than other belly-dance styles, but it is actually a newer dance style," says Kissel. "It is characterized by an articulation and expressiveness of the torso and a performer dancing to multiple parts of the music simultaneously, such as dancing to the melody with one part of your body and the rhythm with another."

Zafira's popularity, says Kissel, came from pushing the boundaries of tribal fusion. For instance, the troupe added elements of vaudeville -- musical-saw-player, glasswalker, escape artist -- and choreographic elements of early American modern dance (e.g., Isadora Duncan and Ruth St. Denis).

Kissel recalls Zafira's very first show, in 2001, at Florida's Spirit of the Tribes Festival. "We were on the program with all these respected West Coast troupes and I remember nervously asking them to critique our performance. Their critique was to say, ‘You need to bring that shit to California,'" says Kissel. 

In 2005, the original quartet became a trio with the departure of Juel. Its remaining members continued to work as a collective, sharing directorial and choreographic duties. 

Zafira has performed on four continents, with tours in Ireland, Spain, Austria, the Netherlands, Australia, Ukraine and Russia. Its eclectic programs have cultivated a loyal fan following in Pittsburgh and abroad. In 2007, Zafira was named Troupe of the Year in a readers' poll by respected Middle Eastern dance trade magazine Zaghareet.

For Zafira's final performance, on Oct. 4, the troupe will dance the show's first half, with members of Belly Dance Superstars performing the second half in their own latest cabaret production, Club Bellydance. With their high production values and eyes on a mainstream audience, Belly Dance Superstars have been called belly-dance's version of Riverdance. Their Oct. 4 set will feature five dancers performing more intimate versions of dances seen in their full-scale shows, as well as some new works.

Zafira's set will feature both new works and old favorites. Included will be "Fidayda," an early work that helped put Zafira on the national stage. It will be performed by Zafira's four founding members and set to music by the band Turku, which Kissel describes as Turkish village music gone heavy metal. Kissel says "the work showcases a lot of gliding and dervish movement."

Also on the program is "Poison Drop," a new work from Kissel's HYBRID Dance Project, with music by Maduro. The piece for five dancers "is about the duality of being inspired by traditional dance forms but at the same time wanting to create something new and relevant," says Kissel.

Additionally, the Hamer sisters, Maria and Christine, will be joined by sibling Jennifer Imashev in a folkloric Tunisian village dance in which the trio will balance vases on their heads. And Kissel, Hamer and Andrews will perform the new work "Aman Minush," choreographed by Hamer. Set to music by La Mar Enfortuna, the work is a confluence of early North African and contemporary tribal styles.

While this production marks the end of Zafira as a performance troupe and perhaps the end of an era in Pittsburgh dance, it by no means represents the conclusion of Zafira member's activities here in Pittsburgh and abroad.

In addition to each of their flourishing solo careers, Kissel will continue operations at her Zafira Dance Studios, offering classes and workshops in a myriad of dance forms. She'll also further develop her HYBRID Dance Project, which cross-pollinates tribal and vintage belly-dance with international dance forms like flamenco and Afro-modern. Hamer, meanwhile, says she will be rediscovering her roots in folkloric dance along with exploring new collaborations, and Andrews says she will be doing all of the above.


Zafira Dance Company & Belly Dance Superstars present CLUB BELLYDANCE 7:30 p.m. Tue., Oct. 4. Kelly-Strayhorn Theater, 5941 Penn Ave., East Liberty. $20-25. 412-363-3000 or



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