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Senior Spotlight: Belly dancer twirls onto center stage

Nicole Santos

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Vanessa Ricketson, a senior business administration major, gave it all she’s got at a belly dancing show in March at Lulu’s Eating and Drinking Establishment in Redding. Photo courtesy of Chuck Spotts.

Just like ballet, belly dancing has its own language, and Vanessa Ricketson has been studying this language for 22 years.

“My mom taught me belly rolls for fun when I was 5 years old,” she said. “She wasn’t a belly dancer — she just knew how.”

Ricketson, a senior business administration major, officially started belly dancing when she was 21.

“I was dropping off a friend at her dance class, and she said I could come in and watch if I wanted to,” she said. “I was hooked instantly and started the very following class.”

Ricketson’s belly dancing teacher, Suli, taught her to dance, play the Arabic drum (the dumbeck), play zills (finger cymbals) and how to sew.

“We made our own costumes and went on camping trips where we played music at night around a campfire and pretended to be gypsies,” Ricketson said. “I started learning in my teacher’s living room. We moved into the recreation room at my apartment complex because it was a free space with mirrors.”

Eventually Suli started a studio and held public classes, Ricketson said. They danced with many women over the years, but Suli eventually quit teaching and closed her studio down.

“After my teacher quit, I began teaching some of the students she left behind,” Ricketson said. “I taught in another friend’s living room until we pooled our money and were able to rent some time in a studio.”

Ricketson and her new dance partner taught anywhere from 10 to 30 dancers.

“Once I taught them everything I knew, I had to go out of town to San Francisco and take workshops from famous dancers in order to have new material to continue teaching,” she said. “I had to stay a step ahead.”

Over the years she has performed all over Chico including at:

  • Sultan’s Bistro
  • Thursday Night Markets
  • The North Valley Belly Dance Competition
  • Christmas Preview
  • Taste of Chico

Ricketson tries to perform as often as she can, and she and her daughter just completed a season.

“By season, I mean that we picked music, made new costumes, choreographed the dances and then performed them in various venues,” she said. “Our debut of our first song was at Tribal de Chico, a local show held at the Women’s Club every October, hosted by Allegory Belly Dance.”

Since then, they’ve performed two songs at Lulu’s, a show hosted by Modern Gypsy in Redding, and at Rakkasah in Richmond.

“Rakkasah is one of the biggest belly dance festivals in the U.S.,” Ricketson said. “I love to perform there because it has a huge stage with dressing rooms and curtains and announcers and everything. You get to be a superstar for a day.”

Being on stage over spring break with her daughter, Devin, at Rakkasah is a memory that will remain with her forever.

“There is nothing like smiling with your dance partner on stage when you know you both just nailed it,” she said.

Over the years the two have performed off and on together. Ricketson goes by the name Sakina Haneem and Devin by Kaira Haneem.

“We started dancing together when she could walk, somewhere around 8 months old,” she said. “When dance is just part of your life, you kind of don’t have a choice about learning it or not.”

Ricketson has learned so much from belly dancing, including confidence, creativity and tenacity.

“Belly dance has also taught me appreciation of all types of people from all over the world,” she said.

Nonetheless, expressing her emotions through music is her favorite part.

“That is what I am doing every time I step up on the stage,” she said. “I dance to a piece of music because it moves me. It can be sad, joyous, erotic or just have a bass beat that I can’t get out of my head.”

Nicole Santos can be reached at [email protected] or @Iam_NicoleS on Twitter.

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Senior Spotlight: Belly dancer twirls onto center stage