By Diane Urbani de la Paz
Peninsula Daily News
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THE SHULA AZHAR dance troupe performs at 7:30 p.m. each first Friday of the month, including April 5, at Wine on the Waterfront, upstairs in The Landing mall at 115 E. Railroad Ave. There is no cover charge, and more details about the troupe await at www.ShulaAzharBellydance.com.
■ Udjat Beads, the art, crafts and costuming shop at 129 E. First St., is open Monday through Saturday typically from 11 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., and can be reached at 360-417-5489.
Peninsula Daily News
As it made its way from East to West, this form of dancing has been portrayed as a lot of things, including sexist, subjugating and objectifying of women.
Jeffries-Johnson was to learn otherwise. Having grown up in Scottsdale, Ariz., she knew relatively little about this art form from the other side of the world.
And she wanted to dance, loved to dance. But in the beginning she was scared to death. Seeing the elaborate costumes bellydancers wore, she thought, “I could never pull that off.”
Jeffries-Johnson stepped forward anyway, into Egypt, Algeria, Turkey, Morocco and Tunisia. She gained an education about the dances from those regions and how they fit into culture, and she learned to interpret those dances — through much effort and suffering.
In the beginning, Jeffries-Johnson didn't think much of herself. Dyslexia made learning choreography difficult, and she had to practice at least twice as much as the other students.
“I stayed in the back corner,” she recalls. “If I had to do a drill, I'd burst into tears.”
By this time, Jeffries-Johnson was moving into her 40s, and she knew she had found her art.
She also knew it is not about women submitting to others' expectations.
“To be a dancer in these [Middle Eastern] cultures, you have to be very strong,” Jeffries-Johnson says.
For example: families want to hire bellydancers for their offspring's weddings, but they would never want their daughters to become bellydancers. Those women, with their veils and bling, were thought of as trash, she says.
But she knows something else about dancers. They practice their art as self-expression, and not just to please whomever is watching.
So Jeffries-Johnson wished to express herself through dance. And as she progressed, she found teachers who inspired her: Laura Samperi, formerly of Sequim, and Cassandra Shore, who is known simply as Cassandra, of the Jawaahir Dance Company of Minneapolis.
Jeffries-Johnson studied with these teachers, traveling to workshops around the Northwest and, whenever possible, to other states.
Yet Jeffries-Johnson can still remember her fright before some of her first performances, and the time when her heart was pounding so loud she could not hear the music she was about to dance to.
A solo, she recalls, was “a horrifying experience.”
Little by little, though, Jeffries-Johnson gained confidence. She became part of a dance troupe and performed at The Upstage in Port Townsend, at the Juan de Fuca Festival of the Arts in Port Angeles and at other venues. Some of them were less than ideal for dancing, but Jeffries-Johnson and her compatriots got out there anyway.
It is astonishing, she says, what you can do when people are counting on you.
The audience was waiting. So, even if she was quaking in fear, she went out there.
Jeffries-Johnson calls herself fortunate for many reasons. One is that she had teachers and friends who pushed her forward, urged her to keep developing her art. She put herself into that position, with such dancers, so that she would keep growing.
For years, Jeffries-Johnson has attended the Oasis Dance Camp, held on Vashon Island, as well as other intensives in Oregon and California.
Then, about a decade ago, the dance troupe she belonged to “reincarnated,” she says. Jeffries-Johnson cofounded Shula Azhar: bright flame in Arabic.
The troupe has performed at the Northwest Folklife Festival at Seattle Center, among many other events, while enjoying a standing engagement on the first Friday night of the month at Wine on the Waterfront in Port Angeles.
The dancers find this venue ideal, with its cabaret-style lounge open to all ages.
To see the Shula Azhar dancers today is to behold the picture of grace and confidence. The women hold their heads high, sometimes balancing swords on those heads. They float across the stage as if lifted by their music. And they wear costumes — swirling skirts, bejeweled tops, scarves and fans — that Jeffries-Johnson has a lot to do with.
She is marking her 10th anniversary this year as owner of Udjat Beads, a lair on First Street in the middle of Port Angeles. The place is filled with beads, shells, coins and scarves; there's Alexandrite glass from the Czech Republic, incense from India and tubular clay beads from Egypt. On one wall is a big tapestry from Goodwill. Behind the counter, Jeffries-Johnson has a shimmering two-piece costume in progress.
“She is an artist, through and through,” says Jovi Deede, a member of Shula Azhar who has studied and danced alongside Jeffries-Johnson for a good 16 years.
Whether she's running her shop, making a costume or dancing in it, Jeffries-Johnson does it with her whole heart — and “she just sparkles,” Deede says.
“She is so willing to share all of it. She'll say, 'You need this necklace I made.'” When Deede insists on paying her for it, Jeffries-Johnson will name a ridiculously low price.
As for Shula Azhar, the troupe's sisterly cohesion is Jeffries-Johnson's making.
“We would not be where we are if it weren't for her,” Deede adds.
Yet it isn't harmony all of the time for these dancers: Deede, Jeffries-Johnson, Denise Williamson, Crystal Bledsoe and Lisa Cornelson. The women disagree over various things. But they have managed to work things out for more than 10 years now.
It's interesting, Jeffries-Johnson says, that Shula Azhar has continued to thrive as a troupe, while in places like Seattle, dancers often don't stay together.
“In this little town, we all found each other . . . We don't always get along,” she says. But they don't allow disagreements to trip them up.
“If you let personalities get in the way, you don't move forward.”
Shula Azhar was hired to dance at the Rhododendron Festival Royalty Coronation on March 16 at Chimacum High School — but Jeffries-Johnson wasn't able to perform. She had injured her shoulder and ribs in a fall from a ladder back in February and wanted to rest until the April 5 performance at Wine on the Waterfront.
She did, however, drive the troupe to Chimacum.
“I'm their sidekick,” she quipped, adding that watching the dancers is still a delight for her.
“It's part of the learning process,” she says.
Jeffries-Johnson has a studio in her Port Angeles home, where she rehearses and teaches. It is where she and Shula Azhar work on their moves thousands of times. To make a dance your own, she says, that is what is required.
“It took us years to learn how to shimmy,” she quips.
Jeffries-Johnson shares her home with Steve Johnson, her husband of 21 years They have a grown son, Aubry.
Running a business, being a wife and mother and practicing her art can make for a bumpy ride. Like her friends who dance, Jeffries-Johnson has had to reach an understanding with her husband: dancing is as important as breathing.
Keeping Udjat Beads open has been challenging, too. The economy has made life difficult for downtown Port Angeles.
“I try to keep a positive outlook,” Jeffries-Johnson says.
She also has her own business practices. Instead of offering crafting classes and trying to sell customers on those, she helps people one on one, then and there.
“My forte,” she says, “ is getting people started. I'm adept at teaching people how to do a new project. I just pull up a chair and walk them through it.”
Small cards around the store take things further. “For large projects, please let me order the amount you need,” one reads. “No additional cost. Happy Embellishing!!!”
Jeffries-Johnson opens her shop usually six days a week, and then dances at night and Sundays. She's looking forward to Shula Azhar's performances at the Juan de Fuca Festival of the Arts — this time on one of the main stages — and during Sequim's Lavender Weekend.
The troupe will debut new choreography in the traditional and contemporary styles — and Jeffries-Johnson, as she has done for years now, will offer her own improvisatory solos.
“I'm trying to give people something I've created for them,” she says. “You have to be in the moment, to be a conduit for the music and the emotion.”
Her art has brought Jeffries-Johnson to a place where, she says, she is “finally happy with me.” In this place, there's a wellspring of creative energy, flowing strong as ever.
“Who would have thought,” she asks, “that something as 'frivolous' as bellydance would cause me to go on a new journey?”