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An Advocate for the Shimmy
A belly dancer with two law degrees comes to the defense of an ancient art form

By Christina Ianzito
Sunday, March 22, 2009

The belly dancer known as Saphira sweeps onto the dance floor, a pink scarf flowing behind her upraised arms. She's wearing false eyelashes and heavy eyeliner, a pumpkin-orange bra top with gold and pink beads and sequins, and long swirling layers of a pink-and-orange skirt. Tall and big-boned, she has a soft belly that is bared and shaking along with her hips as she improvises to the live band -- a drummer and keyboardist -- at Casablanca, a Moroccan restaurant in Alexandria.

Saphira doesn't really look like someone who once worked as a full-time Washington lawyer named Rachael Galoob Ortega. But she has two law degrees, including one from Georgetown, and used to spend her days laboring over regulatory analysis for communications companies. Now this 38-year-old self-proclaimed "Jewish girl from Oklahoma" shimmies for a living, running a Clarendon belly-dancing school, Saffron Dance, in addition to giving occasional performances. She also has become, in true Washington fashion, a public advocate for belly dance, which, she says, "allows for the discovery of your body and your spirit in a way that I've never seen anything else do."

Even when she was still working as an attorney, she taught belly dancing for years, disregarding how its sensuality might be perceived in a strait-laced profession. She knows there were people who disapproved "because it cuts against how they think somebody's life should be or not be -- [they think] people who are belly dancers are not lawyers," she says. "But the reality of it is that in D.C. there are a lot of belly-dancing lawyers."

And many of them are her students, including a handful in the clapping audience of about 75 at Casablanca, who have come on this Friday night to see their teacher perform. They've all tied the spangly hip scarves they wear in class over their street clothes, and they start belly dancing themselves once Saphira leaves the stage. She heads to a back room to change out of her costume into a dress, then comes back into the dining area and pulls five of her protegees into a group hug. They're attorneys for the Patent and Trademark Office, an inspector general's office, the Environmental Protection Agency and private firms. "We're all lawyers!" Saphira exclaims happily.

***

On the first day of an introductory belly-dancing class, 12 women descend on a colorful pile of glittery hip scarves on the floor of Saphira's studio, which has silver-and-copper-painted walls, white ceiling fans and smooth spring-wood floors. "Wow, look at that one!" exclaims a heavyset woman with short brown hair who is holding up a hot-pink sequined wrap that is hand-crocheted with heavy coins. She giggles.

This is Saffron's special class for women over 45 -- which Saphira calls alternately her "Fabulous 45+" or "Wise Women" class. At 5-foot-9, Saphira wears plum-colored stretchy pants that sit below the navel, and a tight cropped black top that leaves the belly bare. She asks the students to tie their scarves over their workout clothes around their rear ends. Then they all sit with bare feet in a half-circle as Saphira describes belly dance as "a gift that has been carried around the world by women, for women."

She also asks them to each answer the questions, "Why belly dance, and why now?" A woman in a sports bra and shorts, who has taken the beginners' class at Saffron once before, goes first: "I had bilateral breast cancer and multiple surgeries ... and I had not moved in many years," she says, gesturing toward her torso. "And now I am." Another says, "I just turned 50 in July, so I decided I was going to do new things." And another: "I want to do something beautiful and get a little coordination. And as for why now: Why not?!"

Saphira begins teaching them the basics of classical Egyptian belly dance, showing them how to keep their outstretched hands and shoulders still while their hips go left and right. "Right. Left. Right-left-right. Very good!" she says, and the room fills with the sound of coins and spangles jangling like jingle bells, what Saphira calls "the musical rhythm of the shimmy."

Her goal, she says later, is to teach the dance to women (and currently one man -- a lawyer, incidentally) who are "coming from a completely different paradigm in their life how to do this movement and put it on their body in a way that is elegant and complimentary and makes them feel comfortable and empowered." (Yes, belly dancers with law degrees use long sentences with words such as "paradigm.") Her mantra, repeated in class after class: "We are never going to have the bodies that we want, so let's feel differently about the bodies that we have. I mean, for God's sake, life is short! Feel better about yourself."

By all accounts, this style of dance is not as easy as it looks; the movements are subtle, and quality shimmying, which Saphira describes as "muscle-driven reverberation" through the pelvis, takes some practice. As one student says after the class: "You look at it like, how hard could it be to, like, wiggle? But it is!"

The students take a stab at it nonetheless, put at ease by Saphira's disarming teaching style. She injects into her instructions warm laughter and self-deprecating comments about her own "muffin top" bulging over her waistband. This substance, however, is never, ever to be called "fat" in her presence. She prefers the term, "residual," which she thinks lacks the other word's pejorative connotations. Residual, she insists, is actually a good and necessary thing in the belly dance context because "you need your residual to show the shimmy."

By mid-class, the women are shimmying with great concentration while Arab music pulses from the stereo. "Close the car door! Close the car door!" Saphira calls out when she wants the students to bend their knees and push their hips firmly to one side.

"Does anyone feel jiggle back there?" she asks, referring to their rear ends. They all nod, mid-shimmy. "Good," she says. "That means you're doing it right."

***

Almost from the time she could walk, Saphira danced. That's how she spent her time growing up in the small southern Oklahoma town of Ardmore, where Jewish families such as hers were rare. She threw herself into ballet, jazz, gymnastics, cheerleading. Her Oklahoma-bred parents cheered her drive, independence and tendency toward the unconventional.

"Rachael never did what everyone else was doing," says her mother, Lynda Galoob, who manages her husband's medical practice, "nor did she want to." Her father, Harry Galoob, a cosmetic surgeon, says with a laugh, "I'm hardly ever shocked by anything my daughter does." He adds that he loves to describe her to people in town as "my daughter, the belly-dancing lawyer. It's always interesting to folks to hear that."

Saphira knew she'd never be a ballerina: "I was a big girl. It was always, always very clear to me I would never excel in it, and that I didn't have the body type to be accepted in it." But she had talent and tenacity, and she became a skilled modern dancer.

She went to Boston College, where she studied French and philosophy -- the latter because "I appreciated the authenticity of the discussion" -- and ran the student-managed Boston College Dance Ensemble. She worked on choreography, costuming and all other aspects of its productions. And, of course, she danced.

"Rachael was never the best dancer or the best-looking or any of that kind of nonsense that people think about when they think about a dance performance," remembers friend and fellow performer Susan Turner Ravin. "But she always just shined."

Then, in 1991, during her junior year, Saphira was devastated when her younger sister, Sara, died in a car crash on the eve of her 15th birthday. It was a terrible loss, though Saphira says it has given her a sense of perspective when life's smaller problems crop up ("Well, nobody's sick and nobody's dying," she'll often say). But it threw her off course for a while. She graduated a semester late, then spent nine months in Paris working for a telecommunications company and taking hip-hop and jazz classes -- until, she says, her parents told her, "You need to figure out what to do. Even if it's wrong, just do something."

Saphira came back home and enrolled at Oklahoma City University School of Law, which she attended "a bit reluctantly" after prodding from her parents and academic advisers.

"I don't know if I ever really wanted to practice law, truthfully," she says. But it was while she was in law school in 1994 that she met her future husband, Giovani Ortega, then working as a biomechanical engineer in Oklahoma City. And law school also was where Saphira first discovered belly dance. One day, a fellow student who had spent time in Egypt put on some Arabic music and showed her some moves. "It was the first time I heard the music," Saphira remembers. "She danced around the room for me, and she was just absolutely darling." Saphira was enchanted enough to seek out what little belly-dance education she could find around campus: a woman in her 70s "who was really into it" and had turned her garage into a makeshift dance school.

She learned the basics, but her real belly-dance education didn't occur until she finished law school in 1997. She moved to Miami, where a friend was living, and began studying for the Florida bar exam. (Ortega remained in Oklahoma, and, for a while, they conducted a long-distance courtship.) Saphira got an apartment in Miami Beach a few blocks from the Middle Eastern Dance Exchange, a now-defunct serious dance studio where she took intensive belly-dance classes at night.

She found that she had a natural talent for it, and, physically, belly dance fit her perfectly. Saphira says, "It was okay not to have that [lean, leggy body]. And at least in front of Arab crowds, my body type was preferable."

After passing the bar on her first try, she started practicing at a Sarasota law firm representing building contractors. She also joined a belly-dance troupe that performed at high-end soirees. Her two worlds comically collided one night, after she'd spent part of the day discussing the motion docket with a county judge. At a party that evening, she was in the midst of a solo dance, dressed in full belly-dance garb and a long wig, when she shimmied up to a table and recognized the judge. "He said: 'Oh my God. That's Rachael Galoob -- she was in my courtroom today!' " Saphira recalls. "And of course, the room erupted in laughter."

She winked at the table and moved on.

***

A few years later, after she and Ortega had married and moved to Washington together and she was a working as an attorney, Saphira remembers one of the partners at her firm referring to her as an exotic dancer. She was insulted: "I said, 'I'm not an exotic dancer. I'm a belly dancer.' I was really mad that he made that association."

It can be hard for some people to consider a dancer with a bare belly and shaking hips as respectable as, say, a prima ballerina. When Saphira runs her hands through her long dark hair while gyrating at Casablanca, she isn't too far from looking like a beautifully costumed stripper. She does acknowledge that there's a sexuality to the dance, and that it can look like a form of seduction -- and that this may not be accidental, considering the dance's roots. One theory of belly dance's origins is that it began in the days of sultans and harems as a way for women to stand out from the crowd and become favored. Another is that it was used to ease the pain of childbirth, a kind of ancient Lamaze.

Saphira has wrestled intellectually with the inherent sexuality of belly dance. There will always be people, she says, who will not be able to see beyond the eroticism and understand the real point of her passion: empowerment, artistic expression, emotional fulfillment, appreciation for belly dancing's rich cultural history.

But she also retains a sense of humor about her infatuation with such a sensuous art form. At one point in her legal career, she did "pole law," which focuses on the myriad legal issues surrounding telephone poles -- rights of access and such. "So I was a pole lawyer," she says, with a laugh. "My mother joked, 'I always thought you'd become a pole dancer, not a pole lawyer.' "

For the most part, Saphira found great encouragement from her legal colleagues; in fact, she says, she often felt "that people are thinking, 'Good for you!' " And many were. During her first job in Washington, as a junior attorney for Cole, Raywid & Braverman (now Davis Wright Tremaine), she worked on technology and privacy law with a mentor who has become a friend, Paul Glist. He says that it was well known back then that "she was a lawyer by day, a dancer by night," and in general, "everyone was supportive."

One night, Glist and a group of other lawyers from the firm had dinner and saw her dance at a now-closed Middle Eastern restaurant on K Street called Le Tarbouche, where she would often perform on weekends. He says, "I think for some people it was a little bit of a shock ... What she was doing was certainly not the traditional way that an associate would work through the ranks to make partner. That's sort of not how it's done. But she did the right thing -- she was true to herself ... and that's terrific."

Though she didn't hide her belly-dance persona at work, she also didn't flaunt it. Taking on the name Saphira, which means "female ambassador" in Arabic, was in part a pragmatic decision. "I really lived two very separate lives," she explains, "and I thought it was better if my identities were distinguished." She decided to use the name during a 1996 trip with a friend through Greece and Turkey, where one night she was dancing at an Istanbul nightspot and caught the attention of an Arab-speaking onlooker. "If you are a Jewish girl from Oklahoma who is so passionate and well-versed in this dance and committed to sharing it," she remembers him telling her, "you are really 'saphira' of this dance."

Now she's Rachael to her husband, family and old friends, but Saphira -- no last name -- to everyone else.

***

"Some people cannot believe that I would leave the practice of law to become a belly dancer," she tells her beginning belly-dance students. "Like, that's just absolutely absurd. But [I did this] because I think that there's something there about this art." As she goes on about the significance of the dance, her 2-year-old son, Luca, who has dropped by the studio with his father, pokes his head in. "Don't worry about that little guy," Saphira smiles. "It's Luca." She calls him "the babe," or sometimes, "the boss."

It was Luca who helped push Saphira toward her decision to leave law. Even after earning a second law degree -- an LLM in international and comparative law from Georgetown University -- in 1999, she acknowledges that she was never all that ambitious about her law career. She was, she says, never on the partner track -- "not from their perspective or from mine."

She averaged around $160,000 a year, but says she was unwilling to give up her dancing to make even more. "Every time I started a job, I was straightforward about the evening obligations that I had," she says. "I was always a lawyer with a life."

When she gave birth to Luca, "I knew I didn't want to be away from him every day, and I needed to be doing something else."

She wanted to open her own dance studio. Her husband, a 45-year-old program manager for prosthetics research at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, backed Saphira's plans without hesitation. "I think she was always a performer first and foremost, and just being an attorney," says Ortega, who's far more reserved than his wife. "It just took her some time for that part to come out and dominate over what she went to school for."

Two summers ago, they signed a lease on a 1940s building in Clarendon. The couple gutted it from cement to ceiling, reconstructing much of the interior themselves to create four dance studios on two levels. They added a tiny boutique in the foyer, where Saphira sells costumes, scarves and belly-dance CDs. All of this was done with Luca in tow, and amid an unforeseen crisis: Ortega was diagnosed with kidney cancer three weeks before the studio was scheduled to open and had to undergo surgery to remove his kidney (he has made a complete recovery). Launching this business, Saphira stresses, "was way harder than practicing law ever was."

At Saffron, Saphira has hired and trained nine instructors, some with demanding day jobs. Jennifer Johnson, 39, who teaches an advanced belly-dance class on Wednesday nights, is a partner with Covington & Burling. "There are a lot of high-powered career women who belly dance," she says. "It makes you feel beautiful and feminine." Her sister, Andrea Razzaghi, 48, teaches three classes at Saffron, too. She's an aerospace engineer for NASA.

The 300-plus students who come to Saffron every week range in age from 4 to 75; Saphira teaches a class for little girls, whom she calls "my habibis," an Arabic term of endearment. The adults tend to be well-educated professionals, including an economic adviser to Sen. John Kerry, CIA analysts, doctors and at least one former White House staffer.

Lynn Borton, 47, the chief operating officer for the National Alliance on Mental Illness, calls her weekly Fabulous 45+ class with Saphira "sacrosanct." She came to Saffron about a year ago wanting to overcome a stiffness from shoulder surgery. "It feels good, and so what if I'm really bad at it?" she asks. "I don't usually give myself permission to be bad at something. It's kind of a relief." Her two teenage sons were at first "mildly scandalized" by their mother's new hobby, "which was part of the appeal," she jokes. "It was like, 'Oh, cool, I've horrified my teenage sons!'"

Jackie Schillig is a 58-year-old Realtor who often shows up at class late and harried; one day she rushes in with her little dog in a carrying case, then starts shimmying with her Realtor name tag still pinned to her dress. She says that the dance helps her "feel like a woman," and lowers her soaring stress levels by taking her mind off all but her body and movements. "I'm so beside myself," she confides, "I'd jump off a building if I didn't have it."

Saphira, who sometimes calls herself "a recovering lawyer," still does a little law on the side. It's mostly immigration and visa work for international artists seeking to perform in the United States, including some of the belly dancers and musicians hired by Miles Copeland, former manager of the band The Police. (Copeland, brother to Police drummer Stewart Copeland, has put together a traveling belly-dance troupe, called the Bellydance Superstars, meant to be to Arabic music and dance what Riverdance is to Irish music and movement.)

She does the legal work in a small office in her house, a rental on a leafy street in Arlington, a five-minute drive from the studio. The office is furnished with a twin bed, a desk with a computer, and a closet neatly filled with 15 belly-dance costumes. Handmade in Egypt, each cost from $500 to $1,000. She pulls out a purple one, and points to the hand-sewn beading on the bra-like top and the rich, heavy cloth of the skirt. An authentic costume like this one, Saphira explains, is crucial for a serious belly dancer. And that's what she considers herself.

She knows her belly dancing isn't likely to ever generate the income or the prestige that accompanied her law career. "But you know what? I get to go home in the evening, and I think, 'Ah! Now that was a day well spent.' "

Christina Ianzito is a frequent contributor to the Magazine. She can be reached at cianzito@gmail.com.

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