By Anthony DellaFlora
There were probably plenty of reasons for belly dancer Leyla Najma and her husband, Dan Latrimurti, not to launch an online business devoted to her art form.
Small business start-ups are risky. Belly dance instruction is a niche field. Throw in the challenge of a married couple trying to simultaneously manage a personal and business relationship, and you’ve got a recipe for disaster.
But for Leyla and Dan, the gamble appears to have paid off. Their new offspring, a website titled Belly Dance Village, appears to be a perfect marriage of soul and technology. Leyla supplies the educational expertise accumulated from 25 years of dancing and nearly as many teaching students, while Dan brings a wealth of technology, marketing and business savvy developed from 30 years in the corporate world.
The combination has attracted students fromSouth Africa,Spain,Canada,Germany,Australia,Korea,Czechoslovakia and across theUnited States.
“Dan brings in that male energy, and most of the time in belly dancing you don’t see a lot of male energy. Of course, you’ll see the husbands and the boyfriends and everybody in the audience, but I have to share my career with Dan,” Leyla said. “I’ve had to open up and learn to share something that’s very personal to me, with male energy, and what’s happened is that there’s a synergy happening that balances out what I was lacking. Because I think that after a while, women tend to become too emotional in this dance field and the male energy brings in a more rational side, especially if you’re going to make it a business. So I have more of business sense to me because of Dan and that’s the family dynamics that I think makes us stand out,” she added.
The inspiration for Belly Dance Village came in 2006 when Dan was laid off from his corporate job. “It was at that point we started talking about becoming a full-time husband and wife belly dance team,” Dan recalled, although he admits that all he knew about belly dancing was what he’d seen in old movies. “When you look at it from the outside looking in, you just see a dance,” Dan said. “You don’t really see everything that goes into becoming expert, or proficient, which is extensive.”
Leyla admits she wasn’t too sure at first about teaching online. “Then I got to thinking about it and I realized that when I first started out…there was no one to go to, there was no way for me to keep up my game, keep up my dancing, and I didn’t want anybody to feel that way,” she said. “I wanted people to know that there was somebody out there that understands if there’s not anybody around you, because a lot of our students worldwide, various dancers, don’t have someone around them.
They have to travel an hour or two hours to the studio or they have to wait for someone to come around, or they don’t have anybody and they have to figure out how to do it by videos that they buy. And it just made sense to go ahead and start an online business so that these women had access on the internet at any time day or night. So once I thought about it, I thought, yes, this is a great idea.”
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During his last few years in corporate America, Dan traveled the globe as a software trainer helping customer in far off places like Korea, Taiwan, Japan, France and Germany helping customers learn and use very expensive enterprise level manufacturing software, so naturally he wanted to try to apply what he learned as a professional trainer to belly dancing.
“What I brought to the party was a perspective about the value of organizing content. Organized content is much more valuable to customer than content that is not! It’s more accessible, relevant and ultimately of greater benefit to the customer and for me that’s what it’s all about”
Dan said another turning point came after he and Leyla had a heated discussion about whether to spend $5,000 or more on producing her second instructional video.
Dan argued that they would be better off spending that money on their own video camera and studio so they could self-produce their own instructional videos., because the quality of the instruction is more important then fancy production effects “The result was that Leyla sat on it for a day, thought about it and came to the realization that it really was the right thing to do and now says; “Had we not done that, we’d be nowhere even close to having a membership site because we wouldn’t have any content.”
BellyDanceVillage content by the way consists of approximately 2,000 minutes of instructional video, available via streaming video or DVD with a new full length video available to members each month.
Leyla said the secret to her teaching methods is simple. “Looking at dance through student’s eyes. Looking at the dance through a beginner’s mind,” she said. “For those women who haven’t taken dance in their life and come into my studio or my classes or my private online classes, I try to make it easy to connect the dots.” It was a change from teaching in the studio, however. “I changed my curriculum to fit the camera, and I asked students what was missing, and with that all combined, I came up with an online curriculum that I think works. When I’m in front of the camera, I imagine it a person, and in my mind, I’m thinking, what questions will these students have if they were live in class with me? So I try to answer every question I can possibly think of — not just as a teacher, but as a student when I’m in front of the camera, then I make sure that I describe and explain the best way I can,” Leyla said.
Leyla said she’s always available to chat by email or phone. But if a member or customer purchases an instructional DVD fromBellyDanceVillagethat she doesn’t like, Leyla has a standing offer to create a personal video for her, at no cost, although no one’s yet taken her up on the offer. “I can get across the instruction in a good way and I haven’t had any complaints so far.”
Dan believes Belly Dance Village offers students much that other sites don’t.
Members can view the more than 1,800 minutes of instruction online via a streaming service. However, the streaming video is divided into chapters just like a DVD, so students can resume at whatever point they stopped, without having to watch the entire video again.
Leyla presents instruction for every level of expertise, from beginner to professional. “The videos never expire, and the entire catalogue is available 24 hours, seven days a week and with a new video added each month, the cost per-minute of instruction actually goes down since the membership fee stays the same”, Dan said.
At the end of every month, members get their pick of any DVD for just the cost of shipping. Since all the videos are online, students can be sure they’re getting what they want and need. No one ever gets a DVD sight unseen.
He also notes that Leyla blogs regularly to stay in touch, and is open to ideas from her students for future lessons. At some point, they will also resume doing live classes on the internet, a program that proved to be popular but simply too time consuming as they launched the business. Everything is designed with a personal touch, Dan said.
“I think it’s just the way we come across. As soon as anybody buys anything, they get a phone call from me. It’s in the way we present the information. We are a husband and wife team.”
Leyla, who specializes in Egyptian cabaret, is also committed to helping dancers develop their own styles.
“My approach is that every woman who’s going to be coming to my classes, whether she’s in it for just health reasons, all the way up to professional, that they ultimately have to do the work. I can say I’m famous and I’m doing all this stuff, but when a woman eventually gets this dance down, and she’s incorporated tons of hours to make and create her own style, she’s not going to care about me. She’s not going to care about anyone else who’s famous,” Leyla explained.
“So I offer a curriculum that helps women gain self confidence and a curriculum that helps them understand how to move in their body their way. Not my way,” she added ” I don’t say my way is the only way. I offer them a way to learn and what they do with that is up to them.” In the end, they both realize that for all the technological know-how and personal attention they offer, their business is built on the timeless allure of belly dancing.
“What I see is a woman trying to bridge, through dance, the gap between the universes, which is the gap between the earthly need to feel more like a woman and to be more sensual, with the more unearthly desire to take a step beyond who they are,” Dan said. “They’re looking for a way to recreate themselves through dance.”
“It’s a spiritual shock,” added Leyla. “It’s this awakening that happens when you see the dance movements, to see another woman dancing. It’s the music, it’s the ability to create a stir with your body, not because of a sexual reason, but because of the very fact that it’s so freeing. When you’re on stage, when you see women on stage, you see women that are so happy, and you see them in these amazing costumes, and you see them moving in beautiful ways to music that takes you back in time.
“I think it’s really more of an ancient primordial feeling that as women we understand without really being able to say it in words. It’s part of our soul, it’s part of our spirit, it’s a part of who we are.”