Born 2 Dance redefines what a suburban school can be
By Jennifer Kaplan
When Azin Mahoozi Shalan was growing up, dance classes were forbidden to her. Yet today, as director of her own dance company and a dance studio owner, Shalan has overcome cultural and religious impediments to reshape her life while opening up a world of dance—literally—to her students in Vienna, Virginia, a suburb of Washington, DC.
A onetime specialist in information systems at eTrade who holds a BS from James Madison University, Shalan uses the jargon of her former profession when she says she re-engineered her career, moving from a high-stress job in finance to one she loves: teaching, choreographing, and running a growing dance studio.
“Culturally I come from a conservative background,” 31-year-old Shalan says. “I’m Persian and lived in [Shiraz], Iran, with my family until I was 8.” There was no such thing as a public dance class for women and girls, who, following the toppling of the shah in 1979 and the Islamic Revolution, were required to cover themselves with scarves and robes whenever they appeared in public.
And yet, Shalan couldn’t help herself. Dance called to her. Whenever music played at a family or religious celebration, she couldn’t keep still. “I would always start moving, to the point where my grandfather would say to my mother, ‘Please, stop this girl.’ I always loved dancing, but I could never do anything about it.”
After her family’s move to Springfield, Virginia, Shalan spent the rest of her childhood in a typical, traffic-clogged American suburb where shopping malls were the town squares and high school weekends included football games and homecoming dances. There she found an outlet for her love of dance and a way to identify with her Persian culture. She created the first Persian dance club in her Northern Virginia high school and later did the same at James Madison University. For both groups, she created dances and rehearsed other members for performances, which were typically offered at international nights and other school events. But dance remained a hobby for Shalan.
After graduation, her job in the corporate world didn’t take. “During two years I learned that corporate life was definitely not for me,” she says. “To relieve some stress I went to Gold’s Gym to work out. The director was an alumnus of JMU and she saw me dance at international nights.”
Soon Shalan was asked to teach her unique style of Persian belly dance. She became a certified fitness instructor and taught a single class at Gold’s Gym. Within a few months she was teaching 10 classes a week, in addition to working 40-plus hours at eTrade. (The DC region can’t seem to get its fill of belly dance classes, which are offered in dance studios, fitness centers, spas, and community centers.)
After two years and a three-month belly dance study trip to Egypt, Shalan left the day job behind. She taught classes throughout the region in spas, gyms, and other venues. She also began a Persian dance company, Born 2 Dance, with a few of her most dedicated students. With invitations to perform with some of the best-known Persian touring artists who stop in Washington, DC, for shows, Shalan’s company has danced at prestigious venues like the Kennedy Center, Warner Theatre, and DAR Constitution Hall.
In 2007 she took the plunge and opened her own studio, also called Born 2 Dance—the name, of course, was inspired by Shalan’s own inborn love of bodies in motion. But she took an unusual approach by not offering the staples: ballet, tap, and jazz. Her focus, international dance, is well suited to the cosmopolitan DC metropolitan region, with its eclectic mix of embassies, international nonprofits, and universities that attracts an educated, well-traveled clientele. At Born 2 Dance Studio they can partake of classes in 14 styles or genres from African to Zumba, salsa to samba, belly dance, Bollywood, break dance, capoeira, exotic dance, flamenco, hip-hop, hula hoop, Polynesian hula, and Persian dance.
“I would always start moving [as a child in Iran], to the point where my grandfather would say to my mother, ‘Please, stop this girl.’ I always loved dancing, but I could never do anything about it.” —Azin Mahoozi Shalan
Shalan insists on hiring only highly experienced instructors; most of her 33 teachers are professional dancers who also enjoy teaching and choreographing and exhibit expertise in their genres. That means, for example, that flamenco teacher Estela Velez directs one of the region’s locally renowned flamenco companies, Furia Flamenca; while Bollywood teacher Kajal Mehta founded the area’s premier South Asian Bollywood dance company, Dhoonya Dance Performance Company. Nikki Gambhir, a hip-hop instructor, previously danced with Cirque du Soleil and currently performs with DCypher Dance and other area troupes, and salsa teacher Abdul Al-Ali, with more than a decade of experience, danced with Salsa Fuego before founding his own Conga Beat Dance Company.
Born 2 Dance differs from most suburban studios in another way: its primary clientele is adults. In fact, only 10 percent of the studio’s students are children, though Shalan predicts that number will increase in coming years as her adult students begin to put their children in world dance classes for the same reasons they take them.
Shalan began with 60 students three years ago; since she opened her doors in August 2007, more than 600 students have taken at least a workshop or an 8- to 12-week session. She describes her typical student: “A lot of them come in because they want to learn something new. They’re tired of the traditional treadmill workout at the gym. They want a community. They want something exciting, something fun to go to. They want to release the stress from their daytime jobs and their worries. They’re all ages, but most of our students are young professionals.”
To attract that young, professional crowd, Shalan keeps course registrations simple and the sessions short. Each class typically meets in 10-week sessions and most dance styles are offered in both technique and fitness formats. The fitness classes are simpler and geared toward a workout, while technique, of course, concentrates on mastery of a specific range of motion, set of steps, and style. Some classes are available on a drop-in basis, but others require registration for the full 8 to 12 weeks.
“We also do a lot of fusion dance styles,” Shalan says. In fusing two styles, she will put two instructors together; for example, a belly dance teacher and Bollywood teacher. They work out choreography and offer a workshop called, in this case, “Belly Bolly.” They’ve also offered belly (hip) hop and tried a few other fusion forms, and many students enjoy the additional challenge of assimilating a new style.
All of Born 2 Dance’s technique classes offer a performance opportunity at no additional charge, the semi-annual “Awaken the Dancer Within” concert. Shalan rents an auditorium for the full-evening performances. She doesn’t charge an extra performance fee, and rehearsals take place in addition to the class time, so students who choose to perform actually dance more by attending separate rehearsals. The studio also provides a take-home DVD that contains the steps and choreography to help with off-hours practice.
For the past three years, the audiences have grown so much that Shalan has had to find bigger auditoriums. The performances benefit not only the students but also the studio by attracting new students (often friends of the performers who are ready to take the dance plunge) as well as enticing current students to try a new genre. A salsa dancer, she explains, might decide to add a session of belly dance after watching what she describes as the “internal muscular and rhythmic permutations” that emanate from the dancers’ cores.
Shalan runs the studio with her husband, who has a background in finance. In her first year she taught up to 27 classes a week, but now she spends more of her time choreographing and directing the performing company; she’s down to teaching about 10 Persian and belly dance classes. In the next three to five years, she hopes to open two more locations in Northern Virginia while also developing her unique Persian-influenced belly dance method to the point where she can release a video on her teaching technique.
As for her parents and their long-ago objections to dancing in public? They’ve come around. “I never thought this would be the case,” Shalan says, “but they’re very proud. They’ve been to every single one of my performances. My mom always said, ‘If you’re going to do this, do it in a respectful way.’ Belly dance is not about the [revealing] costume; it’s a style of dance that is very internal, focusing on the isolations of the belly becoming the dominating part of the body.
“Belly dance doesn’t have to be too provocative or too exotic, to the point where you’re revealing too much,” Shalan adds. “My mom always insisted on that and I have followed her advice. I’m glad I did.”