main page/topics
back to interviews
Helene Skaugen is guest at
Leyla and Roland Jouvana's  24th Oriental Festival of Europe, 26./27. November 2016 in Duisburg
Infos and workshop registration:
www.leyla-jouvana.de
Photos © André Elbing, Frederick Kihle, Bellis Photoservice, Francesco Lipartiti , Robert Williamsen
Graphics/WebDesign: Konstanze Winkler
Norway is high in the North and has a small, but mighty belly dance community. One of its most prominent members is Helene Skaugen, who we may welcome for the first time at Leyla & Roland’s festival this year.

Norwegian artists do not really swarm Germany, and why this is so, Helen will tell us in the interview below. She has her own dance studio, is in business for fifteen years now, is a great entertainer (especially when talking in an interview), and so let us call out to her: Velkommen Helene!
“SO WE WILL HAVE FUN!”

Interview with Helene Skaugen

by Marcel Bieger

What did you do, before belly dance crossed your ways and why did you fall in love with it? What other dance styles have you trained (and do they influence your belly dance style)?

I have always danced, but I never thought a short, curvy girl like me could do this as a living, so I decided quite early on that I wanted to be a lawyer. Well, at first I wanted to be a kiosk owner so I could have all the sweets for free! I did go to law school, but after a few years I changed path and took a degree in graphic design instead.

As for dance experience, I always had a love for dance. I started taking ballet classes at the age of four or five, but my teacher quickly recommended I switch over to Disco jazz. I thought ballet was so boring, slow and limiting, so the change turned out to be a good choice for me. I continued with disco jazz, Swedish bugg and some latin dances. Growing up, I danced 4-6 times per week as I was in competitions from the age of 12 and part of the Swedish national team in Disco jazz. I was also picked out as a dancer for a revue show and was introduced to some other styles of dance and theatre, like boogie woogie, which I loved!

I lived in Australia for a year and took classes in tap-dance, jazz and ballet, and ironically I was teaching children's ballet too. Eventually I moved back to Norway and continued down the disco path. I was still competing and was now on the Norwegian team. I am a competitive person by nature. I love having a goal to strive against and to push my own limits, but I never competed in Bellydance. While competing I started teaching for the dance school I was studying with in Norway, and at one point I was running two of the departments in Oslo and started reading for my judges exams.

I moved to Turkey for a year in 1996-1997 and worked as a dancer for the animation team in a five star hotel. We did shows six nights a week, and once every other week a bellydancer came, and that was it – love at first sight! I loved the music, the feminine movements, the costumes and the zills!
She used to change in our backstage dressing room so I’d sneak back and ask her to show me how to dance and play the zills. She couldn’t teach, but she played her cymbals and let me try to repeat. ‘You will learn this one day’ was her feedback, I guess she was right.

When I moved back to Norway I was studying law and had three jobs. One was monitoring chat lines to make sure all conversations were legal.

I got really fed up of this job, picked up the yellow pages and rang a turkish restaurant in Oslo called Avanos. I asked if they needed a bellydancer even though I’d never even taken a class yet, but you know, my mother always said I was good, so of course I believed her! Parents are always right, aren’t they? The restaurant invited me to an audition and offered me a job three days a week. So there I was, sitting in the bar between performances reading the law books and dancing the longest sets of my life.

By that time I was also teaching bellydance at my dance school and started to feel the positive changes in my body. It didn’t hurt so much anymore. Eventually I found myself struggling balancing Disco Freestyle and Bellydance, as I felt pain just watching my students using their body in an uncontrolled manner. I won the gold medal in the Norwegian championship in 1997 and stopped competing shortly after that. I left the dance school and started teaching my own classes in rented studios. That was the end of Disco Freestyle and the beginning of a more serious approach as a bellydancer. I choose to say bellydancer instead of Middle Eastern dancer because what I did was purely commercial work, and I only gave classes in oriental, no folklore at that time. I also like the term bellydancer, I don’t think it has negative connotations.

I also discovered that I loved the law but I loved dance more, and decided on an education that was more artistic to balance with my dancing. I took a degree in graphic design, but as with any profession, if you want to be more than average in what you do, you have to commit, so I finally took a chance on full time dancing. I think all my dance background influences my own style very much, maybe more in the beginning than now. I love using humour and storylines, and I love big shows with staging.
A group of dancers formed Al Farah oriental dance association in 1996. They started making the Al Farah Magazine just scissoring out black and white photos and sharing experiences through articles and portraits. Eventually the organization started inviting a guest teacher and performer once a year. It was a magical event and really the highlight of the year.

My first workshop was with Raqia Hassan in Oslo, organized by Al Farah, a few years after the organization was founded. Mohammed Abou Shebika in Sweden contributed a lot to the growth of the Norwegian dancers as he brought teachers from Egypt to Sweden and collaborated with Al Farah to organize workshops and shows in Norway. Hilde Lund who used to travel to Cairo for longer periods to study with Raqia Hassan and other teachers opened the first Middle Eastern Dance school in Oslo, and Lee Figenschow, who had an education in dance and had worked with physical theatre and performance gave quality classes and discipline, so I think Norway was

lucky that the pioneers were so dedicated, serious and strong dancers with individuality from the beginning. We started early with a high level and dedication which I think has given many students here a good foundation to grow and develop quite fast into good dancers with respect for the art.

When i entered the scene, all the dancers here had an Egyptian background and my Turkish background was frowned upon. I had already been dancing in a restaurant and teaching for three years when I found out there actually were other bellydancers in Norway. It was all about Egyptian oriental and folklore and the only reference they had to Turkish dance was the non-professionals at hotels that can be quite vulgar and sexy.  

In 2005 Majken Wærdahl took initiative to create the troup that is now known as Divas of Bellydance. She invited five fellow dancers, myself included, to a collaboration where we created group choreographies and shows targeting the business sector. As far as I know this is the only troupe consisting of only professional dancers. No students, just soloists that are in reality competitors but together are creating something unique. We were featured on national TV, in big magazines etc. and managed to put the spotlight back on commercial bellydance.

Today the community has grown, we have more than one dance studio for bellydance, and associations across the country. I opened my dance studio, Studio Orient, in 2005 and it’s thriving. In Oslo we have two annual festivals, one competition, three or four restaurants that have dance performances in the weekends, and approximately 15 professional dancers. Very few do this full time, most have a day job and teach classes or perform at weekends or in the evenings. Across the country we have less than ten associations or hobby groups, but we have at least six organizations that organize workshops with teachers and keep the community growing. There are no shops as there is not a big enough market, but some of the dance schools sell costumes and props. Norway has a population of a little over 5 million people so that’s nothing compared to Germany’s 81 million.
Dancers are finding their own styles and the Turkish style is not frowned upon as much anymore. I like to think that my ten years of teaching Roman havasi, çiftetelli, floorwork and oriental has contributed to that. The Tribal community here has also grown to be small but strong in the last ten years. We are not that many but I know we have great dancers who work hard, so I’m very proud to be a Norwegian dancer. I think I’m in great company!

You seem to play a prominent role in the Norwegian belly dance community, would you care to tell us, how this all came about?

I think there are a few reasons. First of all I am one of the only dancers in Norway who is a fulltime dancer, and one of the few dancers who is booked internationally. I run the largest Middle Eastern Dance studio in Norway,

with more than 500 m2 and over 100 students, and I was the first available source of knowledge of Turkish dance. I also try to give other dancers a teaching opportunity, and at the moment I have three other dancers and one drummer teaching in my studio weekly.

For students that means that Studio Orient is not only a source for learning dance but also to learn about live music, culture and rhythms, and to gain new friendships that hopefully last a lifetime. Even before I opened my own studio I started with student groups, making unique choreographies with a lot of formations and playing of each other. That had never been done in Norway before, and many students came to me because they wanted to be a part of that. At one point I had three student groups simultaneously, and they did amateur performances at embassies, festivals and at Al Farah shows. For that reason Studio Orient has become quite unique as I offer three classes a night all through the week and have a very social and inviting atmosphere. I’m quite proud of that actually.

I also organize Oslo Oriental Dance Festival and Dancer Of The Year, which is the only bellydance competition in Norway. This started originally as a project to make a visible platform for Norwegian dancers. I book and advertise my own competitors for my festival as I want it to be including and not a private club for my students and partners.

I feel very strongly that isolation inhibits growth, and a community needs recruitment to grow. Some girls might not be drawn into dance by watching me, but they might fall in love with another dancer, and then we grow as a unity. The competition was meant as a motivation for amateurs. They get written feedback from the judges and all the prizes were related to learning, such as private lessons, classes, performances, costumes etc. Now it’s open for professionals and international contestants, but it started out very small.

When I started we were basically just a handful of dancers who performed, so everyone knew everyone. I also dedicated six years as a board member of Al Farah and used my education as the lay outer for the magazine.

I suppose I became more respected in the dance community after the establishment of Divas of Bellydance. We performed for the business sector, but we toured the country twice. First with the show ‘An Arabian Dream’ where we focused on showing the variety of the genres. A few years later we toured again with the show ‘Moods of Egypt’ which was more relaxed, showing genres of folklore and oriental, including turkish oriental and Roman, but letting all of us be more personal. With the Divas we all showcased the variety in our repertoire and therefore became prominent role models for students.

I was also approached by the media on several occasions and did performances and appearances on shows such as the Norwegian ‘So You think You Can Dance’, ‘Identity’, ‘Dancing With The Stars’ and so on. Last year I took a leap and actually signed up for ‘Norway’s Got Talent’. I made it all the way to the live shows which was my goal.

If we aren't completely wrong this will be your first time at a major German festival. What took you so long and what do you expect from Germany?

I guess it did take me a while to get into the international arena of bellydance, but I never chased fame and was quite happy to be able to make a living from dance in Norway.

For the last ten or 15 years, bellydance has been my only profession and when I opened Studio Orient in 2005 it was financially risky and a time-consuming project. With a big school to run it’s not an option to travel for longer periods as I had to earn enough to pay the high rent and to get established. I was also performing at three-four different restaurants per night in the weekends so I just couldn’t afford to leave without a huge salary. And I was very happy here, I still am! I traveled to Stockholm Bellydance Festival and performed annually for a number of years and I traveled to Istanbul once or twice a year to study and sometimes perform.

We also have a a phenomenon in Scandinavia called 'Janteloven', which roughly translates to 'the law of equality'. It is engraved in our culture and might be part of the reason why Norwegian dancers are not so prominent internationally. It is taboo to say you are the best, the greatest or to boast about yourself in any way. We are generally quite modest about our skills and accomplishments, and in the international community of Middle Eastern dance it seems you cannot be afraid to advertise yourself to get noticed. That is something many of us struggle with, and I have to admit I feel a bit invisible at times at international events. If I have to boast about myself or say I’d like to be considered for a job, I cringe! It’s just not in our nature! In Norway we have a mutual understanding that you show your abilities and skills by doing just that. Showing them, not talking about them. Boasting is not considered a good personality trait, and that translates to a modesty among dancers. We believe that if you have to tell people how good you are, you are probably not that great and definitely, full of yourself. That being said, our profession attracts outgoing people with a lot of personality. Dancers are probably not as modest as the average Norwegian, but while we are over average at home, we are still not that good at marketing ourself on an international level.

Knowing this you can imagine how I struggled answering the previous question!

Apart from dance I also had a burning desire to become a mother. It took us quite a few years to get there but I finally became pregnant and now I have a beautiful 7 year old boy. Struggling to get pregnant takes quite a toll, and mentally that was where my focus was for many years. Becoming a mother is also overwhelming, and the first two years I just wanted to stay at home and kiss my baby.
As a dancer it’s also a challenge when your body changes and you have to learn to find your center in a new body. It took me months to regain my shimmy, not to mention my confidence! My first public performance after I had my son was with the metal band Kamelot at their sold-out concerts, not a small event exactly.

I actually talked them into letting me send another dancer the first night, so in case they were not happy with me, they would at least have another gig with a wonderful dancer. Talk about confidence issues! Glitterspray became my new best friend!

The last five years I’ve started traveling a lot more. I accepted my first invitations, before that
I just ignored all as it didn’t fit my lifestyle, and it wasn’t what I wanted to do at that moment in my life. After performing in Singapore, Istanbul, London and other places it ignited a new fire.
I met so many wonderful and genuine people, and I love traveling to festivals now. I learn a lot more and get insight into other dance communities.

I visited Germany in 2013 as a judge and performer for the ORIENT EXPO. My first impression was "Wow, what a big community there is for Middle Eastern dance in Germany"!
You have so many shops, so many dancers and so many events, it’s amazing! I think it will be a great event with a friendly atmosphere and high quality workshops. I honestly don’t like the big festivals where everyone is there just to be seen and not to learn. The competitive attitude is something that sabotages a lot of the main idea of festivals, which should be joyful. We are meeting to share our love for the dance, to enjoy the moment and to learn.

I am really looking forward to my fist big festival in Germany. I think Germans and Norwegians have a lot in common and we understand each other culturally. I’ve had the pleasure of teaching German students in Istanbul and Crete and we had so much fun together. Also I have heard great things about Leyla Jouvana’s festival. It has a reputation for being very well organized and being of high quality, so I am above and beyond excited and humbled to be invited.
What will you show us on stage?

I will do two orientals, but they are quite different from each other. One is a classic madjensi style and the other is a bit more grounded and juicy. For my third performance I am working on a new project which I hope will be ready in time! So I guess it will be a surprise!

On Sunday I’m teaching Turkish Roman Havasi. As I started dancing Turkish oriental and travel regularly to Turkey, the Turkish style and culture had a special place in my heart. To understand Roman you have to understand a bit of the history of the Roma people, politics and lifestyle. Their history culminates in their music and style of dance, and if you understand that you will get the right expression and feeling in your dance. There is also some confusion around the terms of Roman Havasi, karşılama and 9/8. The karşılama is a 9/8 rhythm and a Turkish folk-dance, whereas the Turkish Roma have their own style of the 9/8 rhythm.

They are often confused because the fast version of the Roman is similar to the karşılama. We will not get into the karşılama, also used in Greece by the way, but we will focus on the distinct 9/8 of the Roma.

There are of course many ways of playing a 9/8 beat, in the same ways as we have many 2/4 rhythms such as malfuf and ayoub, which are very different. The distinction of the 9/8 in Roman is where the emphasis in the beat is, and what is silent. In Roman Havasi the women have a lot more gestures and the men often have more footwork. Gestures such as imitating playing instruments, greeting, ‘throwing the stomach’ and more.

I love to do the footwork and have studied some of the male dancers too and implement that in my performances. However, there are some common steps and gestures that both men and women use when dancing. We will get familiar with the slow 9/8 rhythm, which is called ‘ağir roman’ (heavy roman), and the faster version. We will practice some of the most common gestures and footwork and just have a lot of fun with it! This made me sound like a real ‘bellydance geek’, but I’m passionate about this and really love to talk about it! But in reality, the dance is all about expressing yourself freely, showing your personality and emotions and enjoying the music and dance together with each other, so we will have fun! Believe me, if you know the music and some steps you’ll really be ably to enjoy the authentic Istanbul in a way that is quite unique for a dance lover.
WORKSHOPS with HELENE SKAUGEN

Sat., 26.11., 11:15 – 13:15 h
Enter like a Queen
The dynamics of the entrance & stage presence. We will focus on various combinations of travelsteps, like the chassé, stork, arabesque, turns to make the entrance less predictable. Capture the attention of the audience as soon as you enter the stage. After this workshop you will have the tools necessary to keep all eyes on YOU!
Level: Intermediate and up

Sun., 27.11., 09:15 - 11:15 h
Turkish Roman Gypsy - Karshliamar
Introduction to Roman Oyun Havasi. This is the dance of the turkish Roma and is known by its characteristic 9/8 rhythm, intricate footwork and gestures. Rhythm and basic steps and put them together to create fun and passionate combinations!
Open level

Homepage: www.helene.no
Helene on facebook ...
Photo (l.t.r.): The Divas of Bellydance: Michelle Galdo, Lee Figenschow, Helene Skaugen, Majken Wærdahl, Hilde Lund
one of Helene's first performances
Would you enlighten us about the Norwegian belly dance situation about which we know only very little?

The Norwegian dance community is growing. It started out very small about 25 years ago with weekend workshops offered by foreign dancers. Ulrika Hellquist from Sweden was one of the first influences here and some of the dancers took initiative to continue learning. At that time I didn’t live in Norway, so I wasn’t part of that journey. Some of the great Norwegian dancers started their own journey by either traveling to Egypt for longer periods or using VHS-tapes to study and eventually travel to Sweden which was way ahead of us, and later sharing their knowledge through teaching here.
What will we learn in your workshops (please tell us something more specific, as the informations in the flyer are quite short)?

I will teach two workshops. In the first ‘Enter Like a Queen’ we are going to work quite intensely on making a fantastic entrance!

For me, the entrance is such an important moment of the performance because it sets the mood, it’s also the first impression the audience gets of the dancer and we all know the importance of first impressions. It’s so important to keep the audience attention on you, and not loose them, and the key to that is the energy, the connection and sometimes the element of surprise in steps and breaks. I feel that a lot of dancers underestimate the power of the entrance, thinking it’s just a way to get onto the stage before really starting to dance, but it’s really the first hello. Imagine having a conversation with someone who doesn’t look you in the eye, or has a handshake like a fish (I really don’t like that!), that’s the same thing! When we perform we communicate with our expression, energy and movements and if you are not interested in communicating, the audience will lose interest as well.

A very important subject.