Shimmying to North Idaho

World-class bellydancers to headline festival at The Pearl

By Katie Botkin
Reader Contributor

For years, I traveled to Portland, Ore., to take fusion bellydance classes at Rachel Brice’s Datura studio, then the center of the universe for tribal fusion — a fluid, muscular style that takes inspiration from anything and everything, and melds it with the shimmies of more traditional belly dance. 

Traveling to Portland seemed a relatively short distance, since I met women there who had flown from South America and Europe for classes. Later, after almost dying in childbirth and taking a forced break from dancing, I discovered that Datura teacher Ashley Lopez had moved from Portland to Sandpoint, and was teaching a class half a block from my house. 

Lopez specializes in contortion, flexibility and, amazingly enough for my postpartum body, rehab. I had no real way of explaining how fortuitous this seemed, since the whole thing was so niche — a lightning strike invisible to most of the world.

Lopez performs both regionally and internationally, and has toured 26 countries performing solo and with well-known bands such as Beats Antique, an electronic festival-scene ensemble best known for featuring dancer-musician Zoe Jakes.

Lopez is now heading up the North Idaho Bellydance Fest on Saturday, Sept. 9, with fellow teacher Nafabit, the winner of last year’s national Bellydancer USA competition. I’m performing at the 7 p.m. show featuring various professional dancers, in the building where I used to attend church as a homeschooled teenager.

And this is the thing about North Idaho: It’s a land of contrasts. I’ve taken skills learned for home-making, and made jingly silk costumes to promenade across the stage where I once listened to a pastor sermonize against the evils of women looking too enticing. 

Lopez moved here precisely because Sandpoint offers such contrasts. Or as she puts it, “a combination of country living, kind people, a thriving arts community, incredible nature and all four seasons.”

Lopez got her start in bellydance decades ago while she was studying to be an opera singer. She fell into tribal fusion by accident and quickly became obsessed. 

“I went to every class, every festival, every workshop, every performance opportunity, then I took every teaching opportunity,” Lopez said. “The community was so supportive. I got hooked up with my two main dance teachers, Zoe Jakes and Rachel Brice. Both offered me incredible support, took me on tour and had me teach at their studios, where I got great exposure.” 

Since moving to North Idaho, Lopez has been equally as generous with her support. A few months after I met her — with my abdominal muscles re-stabilized and hips realigned from her classes — she invited me to perform at her home studio in Selle Valley. 

While the snow fell on the farm outside, I talked with Nafabit, a Spokane-based bellydancer who specializes in more traditional forms and competes internationally in them. When I met her in 2021, she had just won the Bellydancer of the Universe’s gold medal. 

I also met Charles Bommarito, an accomplished drummer whom I immediately asked to accompany me on live drums sometime. He said yes, and now is joining me onstage at the Pearl. 

“Bellydance traditionally can be done with just a drum, so it seems like a natural pairing,” he said. “Drumming and dancing.”

The people Lopez has met here play a large role in how she performs and teaches. 

“Against all odds, moving to Sandpoint was yet another great career move,” she said. “I’ve been offered just as much opportunity for artistic growth and business as I did when I moved to the Bay Area and then to Portland. Sandpoint is a special place, and the Pearl Theater in Bonners has also offered generous support. I am grateful to be here.”

Katie Botkin is an international writer and regional dancer based in Sandpoint.

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