Twila Jane has an insatiable drive to create, to connect, and to build bridges for Richmonders to explore cultures that are not their own. Formerly known as Khalima, Twila is a dancer, musician, author, director, instructor, and owner of Electric Nomad, RVA’s only studio dedicated to bellydance. In the next installment of the #HERStory series for Grid, Luke Witt explores Twila’s work and all that she has done to inspire the Richmond community.
How did you get into belly dancing and eventually start the Electric Nomad Studio? What other types of dancing are you passionate about and what else is taught?
Twila: I started dancing at a pretty low time in my life. I was struggling personally and creatively, and was unsure that I would ever find my purpose or happiness for that fact. I started taking classes after someone who was close to me brought me the card of the dancer who would become my teacher, and the rest is history, so they say! I had never danced before, and to be honest, was quite terrified at the prospect. After the first class I attended (in the basement of a local Middle Eastern restaurant and nightclub), I knew that bellydance was something that would become a big part of my life, but I didn’t know at the time how much. I became immersed in classes, learning everything that I could about this cultural art form, and came home to myself for the first time in my life. I was able to connect my body and heart in one place, and learned (and continue to learn) about the rich cultures from which the dance comes. Dancing actually saved my life and helped me become a much better person. That time in my life, and the positivity that came out of that dark time underscores my present desires as a teacher.
Over the years I have studied Egyptian Orientale and Folkloric styles, American Cabaret, Fusion, North African, Turkish, and American bellydance fusions such as Improvisational Tribal Style (specifically Unmata ITS). I’ve taken workshops in a variety of dance forms, and these days have been super inspired by Flamenco and Modern dance. As part of my own personal cultural explorations, I have started studying Balkan line dances when I am able, and have been studying and learning the music from Eastern Europe for some time now. Tangentially, I have a new interest in bodybuilding and have started off down that path as well! I consider myself a forever student, and have completed numerous teacher trainings and intensives because I want to learn as much as I can. I consider myself a Fusion dancer, and have created my own theatrical style that diverges wildly, at times, from what would be considered traditional bellydance, while still maintaining that specific skillset.
Electric Nomad Dance (formerly Illumination Dance Studio) is the place where all of this comes together. I opened my studio in 2010 as a way to create a community space around dance and learning to dance. I had been teaching all over the city and wanted to create a community space where I could anchor myself, teach, and make art out of movement. I absolutely love our studio, and Dogtown Dance Theatre, the dance home that we are part of. Although we are an independent organization within Dogtown, we are like family, and support each other creatively and otherwise. My recent studio renaming (and my taking the name Twila Jane to replace Khalima) has a lot to do with having a clearer vision of where I want us to go moving forward, and reflects the evolving nature of what I create and teach as well as the collaborative, moving, and transformative aspects of our work.
I not only teach my signature style of dance several times a week and run two dance companies, but also open my space to other teachers. We offer Capoeira classes on Saturday mornings, and have new Belly-Dancehall and a Yoga Fusion classes on the schedule, taught by Mahalakshmi (Traci Bhagat), and are the anchor studio for Ajna Tribal, an ATS© dance company here in Richmond. I bring in several dancers from all over the world over the course of our dance year to teach, and have hosted scores of events. I think it is important to support other artists, and even more so, bring native Arab dancers to teach whenever it is possible. It is necessary to remember and learn about the roots and cultures of the art we are immersed in, even as we move forward and create our own unique expressions.
Performance and show production are big aspects of my work at Electric Nomad as well. After a couple of years off of producing larger-scale shows and events around town while I spent time touring, I am back to constructing unique theatrical dance shows that are patently collaborative across several genres of dance, that focus on community and bringing social issues to light in unorthodox and positive ways. Of course, my students and dance companies are a huge part of this, and our school year is based around this! Our next production, Eternal Forest, is happening September 8th and 9th at Dogtown Dance Theatre (http://www.electricnomad.net/eternal-forest). We are bringing the forest to life on stage, garnering inspiration from the symbiotic truth of that biome, and exploring conservation and togetherness in that process. The show is rooted in the ideas of community (there are no full solo acts in Eternal Forest), and we are collaborating with a beautiful and diverse cast of creative folks including Rin Ajna’s Myriad Project (dance and original music), Dawn Flores’ Forest Project (original art, sets, inspiration); Patrick Gregory Films will be creating uniquely gorgeous video backdrops for us, and Adam Birce (owner of Four Strings) has created an original musical score that reflects the diversity of the forest, and ties together all of the different genres of dance with music based on a string quartet treated with an Appalachian feel with a few surprises. Our cast includes an inspirational crew of women of all backgrounds and dance styles, who will present aerial arts, modern dance, and contortion in addition to bellydance. We will be recycling as much as we can into costuming and sets. I am known for my intricate and unique costumes and designs, and am excited to be building some truly fantastic pieces for the show alongside my dedicated and creative crew!
Outside of the studio, what are your passions?
Twila: I have so many interests, and they all seem to intersect with my work as a dancer and musical lady. When I am not dancing or performing, I am usually in the garden and with my family. I am also a singer and musician, so that takes up another big corner of my life. I am also passionate about growing your own food, small village mentality, human compassion, and creating alternative economies. I am also a little bit of a science nerd and love learning about anything about our natural world and the weather. I am a feminist who believes that it is vital to the future of our planet and humanity to work together to reduce man-made destruction… there are so many ways we can move away from factory farming, the use of chemicals, our reliance on oil, war, and so many other norms of the modern world that are so negative. Parallel to that are equally toxic ideologies that need to be replaced by compassion for one another, and actively listening to the experiences of those oppressed by institutions and social norms that are based in fear, hatred, and capitalism. These realities fuel me on a daily basis, and make me work harder to be a better, more compassionate person.
A few years ago, I reached a point where I did not want to separate my “non-artistic” passions from my work, especially as I have an opportunity to share a positive message with people who may intersect with me at some point as a dancer, musician, or a sometimes public person. As a studio owner/community space organizer, I have the opportunity to hand the floor to others who may not have their voices heard or be seen, and create a safe space for people to be accepted as they are. As a performer, I get to be 100% me, and have the honor of exploring characters that are relatable, even as wacky as they can be at times. If you’d like to see a little bit of what I mean about putting all of the parts of my life and passion together, I would suggest coming over to the Breakfast Cabaret at Crossroads Coffee which happens from 9-10:30am every Friday, where a zany bunch of musicians anchored by Barry Bless and I, sing, dance, play, cry, laugh, and create what has become a perfectly unique scene (fourth wall, be gone!) that shows that people of all walks of life can be together and share each other’s honest company. It doesn’t cost a thing, but will brighten up your day! My wish of seeing people come alive and truly be themselves while being together with so many different kinds of people is realized on a weekly basis because of this. I believe we all have the power to do this exact thing in our lives, and that we will all be better off for it.
I decided to live my activism and every day by creating a corner of the world that reflects my values of inclusiveness, equality, and care for one another and our planet, and inviting anyone who wants to participate to join in. To me, this is a simple idea, something we are all capable of. It seems tangential to dance, but it’s not really. We get to practice all of these ideas on the dance floor, on stage, and out in our communities. One of the more concrete ways I express this is in how I run Electric Nomad. While I have always opened my space to those who need financial assistance, it became clear to me that there were people who were ashamed to ask for help if they couldn’t afford classes. It was then that I decided that I would go to a completely sliding scale economy with my business, and I would try to crush the stigma around not having enough cash. My students are people, not dollar signs. It is my stalwart belief that when we decide to come together as humans, that there is plenty of everything to go around; this has been proven to me time and again since going fully sliding scale. Those who have more pay more, those who don’t have it do what they can. Every single person who walks through our door has to evaluate this for themselves, as we also operate on an honor system. No questions asked, instead, we ask, “How much will you be paying today?” Most importantly, this has created an environment where we can openly communicate our needs, joys, and hardships, and we are able to see each other more clearly. We can openly give our all, and we do. We can talk about needs versus wants, and how to move away from the stress of a world where we are bombarded by “things” and other distractions. Not only can my students ask for help, but I can too, because I’m a person just like them who is going to need some help sometimes. We can be invested in one another and our space. I am passionate about being together with people honestly, really being present, and cutting out the things that distract us from being our best selves. This is the cornerstone of my personal life, and the cornerstone of what I put out there as an artist, be it a large production, at Breakfast Cabaret, or in in the classroom.
How do you feel your art has contributed to the growth of Richmond’s cultural scene?
Twila: It’s hard to make that judgement about oneself, but I can say what I hope to have contributed so far. I think I have contributed authenticity, feminine power, open-mindedness, a unique take on life and our world, and compassion through my performances and teaching. I hope that I have created a bridge for folks to explore cultures that are not their own, and to get to know people who come from different backgrounds and life experiences. I think my acceptance of people, as they are, has inspired others to do the same, and that being 100% me has shown people that they too can overcome hardships and make a wonderful, creative life for themselves and each other. I know I’ve helped build some stronger bodies and hearts along the way. I think that I’m really just one piece of a big beautiful Richmond pie!
What is your vision for you and the city for the next 5 years?
Twila: I plan to continue creating and sharing dances and music, and have some very specific yet unannounced goals that integrate all of my passions and work in one place. I definitely want to continue collaborating with other artists and activists, and work with students of all ages to build confidence, strength, empowerment, and compassion. I am continuing to develop my dance format, and wish to inspire women to rise up and unapologetically be themselves, be seen, and make wonderful and thought provoking things. And of course, I’m going keep practicing my accordion and growing big gardens! I am excited to see Richmond continue to grow artistically and rise to the challenges we face socially. I am excited for the adventures to come in Richmond and beyond! Folks can keep up with us at electricnomad.net.