As she pursued a five-year higher degree in Mathematics, Olga Zhenina opted to take belly-dancing classes to fulfill the sports requirement at her university. She participated in competitions and festivals in her home city of Perm, Russia and then started performing internationally, including in Egypt, Morocco, Jordan and Oman.
Now Ms Zhenina entertains and trains hotel guests at Villa Rosa Kempinski in Kenya. She tweaks her performances to accommodate guests from different regions.
Unlike for people from the Middle East and North Africa who enjoy the songs even in the absence of a dancer, she usually has to make performances lively for Kenyans.
“I just put some songs that are easy to listen to, something fast, fun, cheerful and not too long,” says Ms Zhenina, who adds that she includes more flamboyant routines by such as styles inspired by birds.
In two hours, Ms Zhenina performs four 15-minute sets compared to the straight 45 minute performances she does for people more familiar with belly dancing.
“Many people like it. They’re also very happy to come and dance with me. Sometimes I ask them to try a little bit,” she says laughing.
Apart from Russian and English, she speaks basic German and Arabic and is trying to pick up Kiswahili.
“When I dance especially in front of Arabs I try to translate songs to understand the meaning and the audience really likes when I can show them that I understand what’s going on in this song and what it is about,” she says, adding that when dancing she tells stories through her movements and her. Learning to dance is like learning a language, everyone has their own journey. You don’t expect to speak it fluently after the first lesson.
“It is like everything you start. When you stretch, you don’t expect to do a split after one hour,” says Ms Zhenina.
She warns that belly dancing looks easy but is not because unlike many sports one must win control over very slight movements of their muscles and combine the movements from one to another.
People who start her classes are usually scared they could never dance like she does.
“But I was one of those people. Nobody could ever expect me to be something like a professional. It just needs time and patience. For most people the dream is alive in their future but practice is scary,” says Ms Zhenina.
Teaching belly dancing is different from teaching the Mathematics she trained for, but it is just as rewarding.
Ms Zhenina’s favourite achievement is watching her student’s self-confidence evolve during her classes. In the past, she has particularly loved working with teenage high school girls.
“I didn’t like seeing how they lacked confidence in themselves. They would say ‘Oh I’m not so beautiful’ or ‘I’m not so popular’ or ‘I’m not good enough to be the star of the party,” she says.
“When you work with people of this age, you really can influence them you know, they see you like an example of successful woman,” she adds.
“This is what I like about dance. If people come they start to change their lives also. They start to try something new. They started to try other hobbies because you know when you come every lesson you see how better you become ,” says Ms Zhenina.
The classes she will be teaching cost between Sh1,500 and Sh5,000 per session for a group session and private tutoring respectively. She expects the group sessions to have between five and seven people. She expects to teach people the basic moves and then work up to different combinations of them. Usually she gets a feel of the class size and other dynamics after about three months.
At the end of the year, Ms. Zhenina hopes to have a small concert where her students can perform for relatives and friends.
She has fond memories of her experiences around the globe. When working for an evening buffet at a Four Season hotel in Egypt, the live band played a song by the famous Egyptian musician Abdel Halim Hafez called “Sawah” and a group of Egyptian women and children who were passing by stopped to listen and watch.
“They started to sing this song and went on for about six minutes. It was like a chorus.,” she recalls.
Her audience usually includes men, women, families and couples.It shows in her face, her belly, her hair, her costumes.
Some belly dancing routines have sections for men which focus on the movement of the legs rather than the hips. Some men also dress in drag to perform.
Eventually, Ms. Zhenina would like to start her own school. “School is something you can run even if you’re 35 or 40, but work abroad is something I should do when I’m young so I decided maybe I need to try this. But in future I really want to have my dance school. That is my dream,” says Zhenina.