The Aalim School of Dance Encourages Cultural Learning, Authentic Self-expression

Mirah Ammal helps her students build confidence through movement and community.

Mirah Ammal, artistic director and founder of Al-Bahira Dance Theater and the Aalim School of Dance, takes a fresh approach to teaching dance. “My degrees are history and journalism—so of course, I’m a dancer. Doesn’t that make perfect sense?” Ammal says, laughing. “But it does in a way.” Ammal has trained in different types of dance, and performed and attended various festivals. Her fascination with history combined with the intrigue of Middle Eastern culture led her to Raqs as-sharqi, also known as belly dance, a broad term of techniques and forms varying by region and person.

Not only does Ammal instruct belly dance, she integrates cultural information. “I take a somewhat more intellectual and anthropological approach to my own dancing and to my philosophy behind how I teach,” she says. Jessica Dirksen, an apprentice at the Al-Bahira Dance Theater, has a similar mindset. “There are so many cultural intricacies to Middle Eastern dance. One of the reasons I like Mirah’s teaching style is that I learn about the culture—not just the movements. The music is important to the movements and we learn about the rhythms, but we also learn where the rhythms originate,” Dirksen says.

Ammal’s student roster is a diverse mix of ages and abilities. “One of my regular dance students, who’s there every week, is in her 60s, and then I have another student who just graduated from high school,” Ammal says, also noting despite the age difference these students have found common ground through dance and their time spent together in the classes. Lack of ability is never a valid excuse at Ammal’s studio because many students start with zero experience. The dance form is based heavily on music and “a woman can do this into her 90s,” Ammal says.

Longtime student Cindy Sharpe has watched Ammal work with top instructors across Middle Eastern cultures. Sharpe appreciates the knowledge and skills Ammal brings back to share, as well as the supportive camaraderie of the classes. Plus, she notes, the sparkly costumes give her a lift.

Ammal customizes classes for all types of women. “I work with people of different shapes and sizes. I had a student request a session of classes for women she knew who had physical problems—like really bad back trouble, or other things like that—and we did a class where it was about finding that movement, finding that confidence and accepting your body,” she says.

Ammal has made good use of her history degree by combining knowledge with her passion for dance to benefit her students. “My daughter also takes lessons from Mirah,” Dirksen says. “She began when she was 14 and is now 19. She gained confidence in herself—not only as a dancer, but as a person. She has learned that it is okay to not be perfect, but to be human. That fitting in doesn’t mean changing who you are but finding those that accept differences.