ShimmyFest brings belly dancing, music and more to Ojai

by Michael Aushenker

Get ready to shake, rattle and roll — the dancers and musicians of Ojai ShimmyFest belly up to the stage on Saturday, April 23.

“This is not your grandmother’s belly dance,” organizer Kristina Knapic said with a knowing laugh, quickly dispensing the notion that her program will involve waving veils around, playing the zills and other belly dancing cliches. “It’s a lot more modern dance.”

ShimmyFest promises a merging of live music, henna tattoos, vendors and belly dancers with a day show, a night show and after party, all held at Ojai Youth Entertainers Studio (OYES). The program is half of a two-tiered benefit that began with the first annual Ojai Wine Walk on April 16.

Proceeds from both the wine walk and ShimmyFest will support OYES, a non-profit organization dedicated to educating and entertaining Ojai Valley children through theatre, music and dance. Unfortunately, after a decade, OYES has to vacate their address in June because the landlord is selling the building. Knapic said her goal is to raise $10,000 to cover OYES moving expenses and help the organization continue its programming as one of the few area cultural institutions targeting middle school kids.

ShimmyFest will bring a wide range of belly dancing styles to the Ojai Valley: Tribal, Tribal Fusion, Bollywood and Cabaret Belly. “People think it’s going to be all Middle Eastern but it’s more than just that,” Knapic said. “We have dancers who have performed in Prague, China, South America.”

Emceed by Knapic (a belly dancer herself, although she will not perform), ShimmyFest offers a day show featuring student belly dancers while the night show unites professionals such as the Bakersfield-based belly dancing veteran Marjhani, who has perfected pops, locks and drops (this show is rumored to possibly be her last as Marjhani plans to retire soon), and longtime Ojai-based dancers/teachers/sisters Joanne Terry (Negma, Vanessa Bellenco dance company and Luxora) and Paulina Terry (UCSB Middle East Ensemble). As the artistic director of fusion theater dance troupe Cirque De Ojai, Paulina will deliver cabaret style.

Founded in 2012 by co-directors Laurel Thomas and Kris Oster — and featuring the talents of Suzi Wiley, Jo Williams, Ann Luan, Mujiba Cabugos and Tricia Saroya — the Santa Barbara-based Sirens of the Sapphire Moon fuse Latin, Arabic, West African, Brazilian and various Middle Eastern dance and music styles. “There’s a blending of the music, too,” says Knapic, noting that some dancers perform to medleys of hip hop, heavy metal and dub step.

Isha Ferraz will bring a touch of Bollywood flavor to the festival, while the mysterious Jessica of Ojai (nom de danse of Jessica Martinez) performs tribal fusion. Longtime belly dancer Natasya Katsikaris offers up her folkloric style. “She’s an instrumental part and she started doing these festivals,” Knapic says of former mentor Katsikaris, who showed her the ropes when Knapic started a decade ago. ShimmyFest is actually a deviation of the more traditional Ojai Belly Dance Fest, which Knapic and Katsikaris staged for years at Ojai Valley Woman’s Club.

Knapic dispelled a few of the clichés of belly dancing. Not only is the form not exclusively Middle Eastern, it’s not pre-arranged either. While every group has a leader setting the course for the eight-count moves, the other dancers jump in and follow the leader’s cues. “The audience does not know that,” Knapic said. “They think it’s choreographed. It’s not, it’s improvised.”

She has found that belly dancing helps solve female self-esteem problems, as women with any body type (even overweight ladies) can master this dance. In fact, she continued, “it’s almost better to have a little something to shimmy.” The hardest part of performing this traditional dance, Knapic says, is “coming up with a creative concept that hasn’t been done before and creating a wow factor.”

With expert dancers such as Katsikaris, Ferraz and the Terry sisters, expect lots of wow factor when ShimmyFest shakes its way into town.

Shimmyfest takes place Saturday, April 23rd at OYES Theatre, 316 E. Matilija Street, Ojai. For more information and tickets, visit