She's already risen quickly to the top of her art, but look deeper.  There's definitely more to her than just a pretty face and belly dancing.
You may have seen her around at Pyramids, the Honolulu Advertiser's Fashion Section, or most recently Zazou's Mediterranean Cafe on 3046 Monsarrat Avenue near Teddy's Bigger Burger.  Besides entertaining Hawaii via her belly dancing venues, Willow Chang also teaches her art at the KCC Outreach Program, the Pacific Martial Arts Taekwondo Center, and thru private lessons.  She sings, dances, and is founder of her own production company, Passport Productions... Whew... Maybe we should just list what this girl CAN'T do... Well, Willow and her significant other, Chris, were kind enough to sit down with Hawaii411 and talk story over some ono breakfast at Big City Diner in Kaimuki.

Hawaii411: Who has Hawaii's best belly?
Willow: I haven't seen enough to survey, but if you're going for something muscular, I would cast a vote for Malia Jones... she probably has a pretty hard stomach... but that depends if you like toned bodies. If you like soft, then that's a whole different look. (At this point, Hawaii411 starts to nod and agree) I think there's beauty in all different shapes and sizes. There's something delightfully feminine about a soft part of one's tummy. It's comforting and maternal, no?

Hawaii411: Do you have any story behind the name Willow?
Willow: Yes, it's my birth name. The story - it's not a romantic one. My mom knew someone who had a daughter named 'Willow', and she wanted to remember that name if she had a daughter. When I came around there were three names considered - Amber, Jasmine,and Willow.  Jasmine is a pretty name, but I prefer the Arabic version, Yasmina. I think Willow is a beautiful name, and it's weird because the name clearly is an English word yet people always say 'it's such a Chinese sounding name.' I know the willow tree is very prominent in Chinese art and legend, so maybe this is why my dad preferred it.

Hawaii411: How did you get into the Arab culture?
Willow: Eight years ago, I went to Egypt and Syria for six months and danced hula in a Hawaiian show. I was able to live there as long as I could, meet people, and have a kind of cultural osmosis - to absorb and attempt to understand the culture. It was definitely life changing. When I returned to Hawaii, I started studying belly dancing and delving deeper into Arab studies and culture. The thing that's really interesting is that there are so many facets you can dive into.... it's a never-ending source of inspiration and surprise for me. I even studied Arabic (language) at UH, the first time they offered it, and let me tell you, that takes the cake for being the hardest language to learn. I put it up there with Chinese - since I studied both. These languages are very beautiful, very old, and very difficult to master in my opinion.

Hawaii411: Did you start belly dancing in Egypt or in Hawaii?
Willow: I learned a few moves in Egypt, but I would say my studying and the most knowledge that I accrued was in Hawaii. I've also studied with different teachers both internationally and nationally recognized. I go to dance conferences and festivals on the mainland as well. I bring in teachers and sponsor their workshops, here in Hawai'i. I have a small company called Passport Productions. In the past two years, I've sponsored four teachers workshops and performances: Ansuya Rathor from L.A., Katia from New Mexico, Shakira from Ohio and Jamilla al Wahid from Sacremento. In September, I'm planning to have Amaya from New Mexico. It's great to sponsor these talented artists and bring teachers to Hawaii because we don't have a large influx of teachers visiting because we're so geographically isolated. We simply don't have the same learning opportunities that exist on the continental U.S. 

Hawaii411: Does belly dancing tell a story like the hula?
Willow: It's not an easy answer, but I will say that all dance to some degree tells a story and communicates something. The biggest difference is hula (is usually) is a narrative art form - through the movements you are translating/representing a mele, song or chant. If you're doing a dance about Pele or about King Kalakaua, each gesture is a representative of an idea or concept.

Belly dancing is more freeform in the sense that you're not necessarily expressing the content of the story but you're expressing the music. So you're visually interpreting the music and using your body as the medium. That's how a lot of people( familiar with the belly dance genre) would gauge a really good dancer. In the end, it's not about your costuming or how good of a technician you are, but it's how well she understands, relates to and expresses the music. That's where advancing one's artistic growth is challengng and even difficult.
There are special, specific kind of dances that have certain kind of movements or are reflective of a certain group, we're getting into the nitty-gritty here.... you might have a ritual dance like a zar that's like a spiritual exorcism, or the dance of the shamdan (candleabra) is done for the wedding procession called a zeffa, but it's not the same as hula where you have a hand formed in the shape of a teardrop and it represents a flower, so it's different in that sense.

Willow's Summer Picks

Movie to see: I have a habit of avoiding blockbusters, but would like to see Spiderman, just for the sake of having seen it. I wanted to see Unfaithful, but it's already gone. I'll probably see Goldmember, the Austin Powers film. We've (Chris and I ) seen a lot of films at the Academy of Arts, like Wendigo and other French fare, so we support the obscure, independent films

Favorite Place to eat: Cheap and Easy - Zippy's, Chinese food - Hee Hing, Mediterrean-Olive Tree and Zazou, for Thai- Pae Thai, and Ba-Le for Vietnamese, Bakery Kapiolani's chocolate eclairs, La Pizza Rina for pizza, what else? India Cafe for indian cuisine, Teddy's Bigger Burgers! Yum!

What CD is in your car right now? One is classical Indian Flute music ,Solid Gold Soul 1973... Kickin it Old School, Wireless by Thomas Dolby, the last cd from Fastball and the new nude album by Miguel Migs- all cool, down beat house music...
Favorite Beach in Hawaii: I'm kind of a sucker for Kuhio Beach ... for snorkeling, but kayaking to the Mokes (Mokulua Island) is breath taking!
Hawaii411: People relate Belly dancing with the 'Dance of a 1000 veils' and think Belly dancing has a sexual intonation.  Is that a big misconception?
Willow:  I would say yes and no. Often, where's someone's dance is perceived as sexual, it's a 2 part equation. One half will have a lot to do with the dancer and how they present, represent and perform their dance. However the other half is who is the audience and how do they relate or  process the dance they are watching? What 'filter' are they processing the information through?

People often think belly dance is only sexual, and this limits the dance. It can convey a whole array of emotions and feelings, from the private and internal, introspective, playful, anger and jealousy.  For the sake of titillation, belly dancing has been maligned. This can happen when a dance is borrowed or done somewhere other than originally intended. It changes when it's taken out of context. But, art should also change and evolve, unless the emphasis is on tradition. Innovation and tradition are each others natural 'enemies'. 

If a dance is done for spiritual reasons and now it's on T.V. or is performed for tourists, of course it changes. Hula, classical Indian dance, belly dance- each has encountered stigmas against the art as well as the practitioners. Each has been misunderstood- maybe due to the movements of the dance (use of hips, torso or pelvis) or the costuming may not have seemed modest or appropriate by other outside (i.e. western) cultures.

Humans are designed for the capacity to be intrigued and interested. We are sensual beings, wired to respond to touch, smell, sight, sound and taste. (not that you will used these when watching Belly dance!) However there's a really big difference between sensual and sexual. In today's sexualized society, everything just gets lumped into one category (sexual) and unfortunately belly dancing gets stuck into that. There's something very sensual about a woman doing a smooth figure eight movement with the hips, which is fluid, and flowing and feminine, but it doesn't have to be sexual.  It's not the same as a bump and grind or a hoochie hoochie kind of a thing.

As for the veil thing - there are ancient references (of course, the Bible) in various mediums about the veil... It's been a continual source of inspiration for authors (like Oscar Wilde), opera, art, paintings and dancers...Some people regard veil dancing as an American/modern invention, but in the 1940's Egyptian film star Samia Gamal danced with a veil. The legend is that a Russian ballet teacher encouraged her to carry the fabric to showcase and improve her arm movement. Usually, Egyptian dancers will not use a veil wrapped around their body and take it off because ( in their minds) it looks like stripping.
American Dancers in the 60's and 70's would be seen wearing the veil and taking it off to dance with it. Obviously, there are a lot of cultural differences in this dance. Does that answer the question (laughing)?

Hawaii 411: With the Middle Eastern background of belly dancing and the backlash from 9/11, do you see any negativity carry over to your art form?
Willow: Well, there was a convention me and my dancers were booked for, it was for September 13th... so of course they pulled the plug on that one. I can understand that the timing wasn't appropriate and there were no flights after 9/11. What was unfortunate were the comments made, that this type of ethnic dance was not appropriate. I didn't further inquire, but I knew what the implication was, and it was disappointing, because I know that in some peoples' minds that if you are doing something that is from Arab cultures, there's a misconception that the art is affiliated with their own misconceptions about Arab culture - That now the dance is oppressive, inappropriate, not valid, etc... People who liked and practiced Arabic arts suddenly felt that they had to defend their interests and even their patriotism.  There were clubs and venues closing, threats, loss of employment etc.. However, women still came to class and wanted to dance.

In the case of the Taliban regime, music and dance were forbidden. A 'patriotic' act of defiance (here in the U.S.) would be to pursue the arts and continue to enjoy music and dance. For people to say that we can't have belly dancing because it's culturally insensitive is just polite ignorance... people don't know any better. It's really a great opportunity to educate people and let them know that dance is a universal means of expressing life. 

Hawaii411: Does Belly Dancing have a formal name?
Willow: Okay, this is something that's debated deeply in the community. Belly Dancing, in some regards, is a misnomer because it doesn't only involve the belly. The name roughly came about in 1893 at the Chicago World Fair. They had an Oriental village where a dancer named Little Egypt performed. When the French journalist saw her dance, they called it danse du ventre, which loosely translated, means dance of the belly. Belly Dance just kind of stuck, but there are so many other parts of the body that move. In Arabic you may call it Raks Sharki which means "dance of the east' or Raks Baladi which means 'dance of the country. Some people call it Middle Eastern Dance, Oriental Dance, American Style, American Tribal Style, Modern Egyptian, Turkish Belly Dance, etc, and people just can't seem to agree on one universal term. This makes sense since the dance is born from so many countries and cultures, standardization is admirable, but not necessarily realistic. So, I just call it Belly Dance.

Hawaii411: Can men Belly Dance?
Willow: They can and they do. It's not as common and they don't necessarily dance the way women would, but men definitely dance in Arab cultures. In Turkey, there is the practice of young men who dance professionally, the cengis. In Lebanon, there is the Debke, the national dance. It resembles a cross of line dance and military formations and it's quite exciting. It is not belly dancing.

Most professional male belly dancers are 'western'; American, German etc. Egyptian dancers that are male and professional are more likely to be dance choreographers, coaches and directors. They are less inclined to wear clothing that could look feminine, whereas in the States it's a little more liberal in costuming.

I think in America people feel like they need to take a class to learn how to dance, where as people around the world just dance as a part of every-day event.

Hawaii411: So do you teach Chris to Belly Dance?
Willow: I've tried, but he's politely declined.

Hawaii411: How about a couple of big belly's like ours?
Willow: Hey, the more you have, the more you have to move. It's equal opportunity.

Hawaii411: You have great abs. Do people Belly Dance for general fitness too?
Willow: Yes!. There's many reasons why people dance, and I encourage my students to assess why they want to belly dance. The reason they start is not always the reason they stay (with the dance). Sometimes their interest is cultural, or it fulfills a fantasy. They need exercise, or they like the camaraderie, want to dance professionally, like the costumes, the music.... It's really an ideal way of exercising the body because it's low impact and uses all parts of the body. You get the heart rate up. It's aerobic and isolates specific muscle groups while gaining strength, flexibility and balance.

Hawaii411: Maybe you can start "Belly-Robics"?
Willow: You never know... look out Tae-Bo!

Hawaii411: Other than Belly Dancing, how do you stay in shape?
Willow: This is going to sound very cliché... I enjoy Yoga. I like to do the astanga style. I like to snorkel, hike, and of course dance - it doesn't have to be limited to belly dancing. I've done Hula, Tahitian, Flamenco, Kuchipudi -classical Indian, Balinese, Ballet, samba , modern, tap-you name it! I also enjoy kayaking, but don't do it enough. And, I walk a lot! The key for me is, it has to be fun. You gotta love doing it; otherwise it's just a pain in the okole!

Hawaii411: What are the venues in Hawai'i for Belly Dancers?
Willow: Well, Hawai'i's newest venue is Zazou Cafe, where I dance 3 nights a week. On Monday there's Northen African style dances-Tunisian and Morrocan, on Thursday, it's Modern Egyptian Belly Dance. And, on Friday, it's La Noche Gitana- Night of the Gypsy,that combines Gypsy, Indian and Flamenco inspirations!

There's Pyramids restaurant, where I worked for seven years.

The reality with Belly Dancing in Hawai'i is that there are not many venues.... we don't have as many venues as the larger, mainland cities, but I'm certainly grateful for the ones we do have. I actually do a lot of work outside of restaurants. I do a lot of Belly-grams, performances for birthdays, retirement parties, weddings, etc... I do educational lectures at schools, and present the history of belly dance, costuming and the musical components.

Call Willow for Belly Dancing Lessons, Bellygrams, or to perform at your Party!!

Willow Chang
808 292 0820
  • Passport Productions-founder
  • Daughters of the Nile Dance Theater artistic director
  • Belly Dancer
  • Performer, Instructor and Choreographer
  • Group classes, private and semi-private classes available by appointment
  • Coaching and Costume Design
  • Vendor of Isis Boutique
Kapiolani Community College
Maile Dance Building

Intro class Tues. 5:45-6:45 p.m.
Continuing 5:45-6:45 p.m.

Pacific Taekwando Martial Arts Center
Puck's Alley 2nd Floor, King & University

Saturday 9-10 a.m. Intro class and basic technique
10-11 a.m. Continuing class 

all group classes are $10 a class

Hawaii411: When you do a Belly-gram or a private party, do people ever get the wrong idea and think, 'Whoa, they got a stripper'?
Willow: Thankfully, no. I think out of all the Belly-Gram I've done, I've had one instance where the guy was nervous. One was for a gentleman who was a born-again Christian who was exceptionally nervous. To put him at ease, I told him, 'Don't worry I'm not taking anything off.'
My most memorable belly gram was at Slim's Power tools in Kalihi! They were so cool and appreciative, and it was nice to shake things up!
Usually they like to have someone come and do something festive, memorable, energetic... and fun. It's a nice alternative, and they think it's different and know that things aren't going to be risqué. I think people realize you can still have excitement and keep you clothes on!

Hawaii411: Where do you want to see Belly Dancing go in Hawaii?
Willow:  I personally would like to see the creation of more performance opportunities and the influx of more visiting teachers and the possibility for Middle Eastern Dance to be incorporated in the Islamic Art Museum that will be opening in the near future at the Honolulu Academy of Arts.

Hawaii 411: Along with Belly Dancing, you've also done some modeling right?
Willow:  Guilty. I'm part of Paula Rath's fashion forum for the Honolulu Advertiser. 
Hawaii411: Can you name of your better-known shoots?
Willow: Oh Lordy, this is ancient history. I'm the Dole Pineapple girl, feel free to laugh.
Hawaii411: You don't look like a pineapple though.
Willow:  Thank God... I was also a face for Follie Follie, I worked for Cannon camera, CocaCola, Kao Cosmetics, The Wedding Emporium, Tanaka of Tokyo, Waikele Outlets and Guam too. But my moment of glory, was being chosen for the international magazine for Emporio Armani. That was really cool- and my folks got a kick out of that.  But in reality I'm considered too short for modeling.
Hawaii411: What the hell is wrong with short?

Hawaii411: You do some singing as well?
Willow:  Yes. I sang at Michel's at the Colony Surf for 2 years and continue to work with guitarist Jeff Peterson. I was also a singer with Swing Wood Review and the lead singer for Plush Nugget, a funk band, which is now disbanded. 
Hawaii411: De-funked?
Willow:  Yeah, you know I met some guys who knew me from Plush Nugget and told them we were 'defunct' and they said, you mean you guys are in a band called D-Funk? Where are you guys playing?'

Hawaii411: With everything you do, where do your professional goals lie?
Willow: Well, I have no interest in pursuing modeling as a career! That's not to say that if someone wants to hire me I won't be more than happy to smile for the camera. Realistically, I'd like to oversee the formation and further development of my dance group, Daughters of the Nile Dance Theater. I'd like to go back to school and further my education. I have some book ideas. I'd like to continue to promote dancing in Hawaii and continue teaching definitely. I'm starting to lay the foundation to do some Belly Dance videos. I'd also like to do a CD. I've made a point of not choosing. When you have two children, you can't choose just one favorite.
Hawaii411: Why can't you? 
Willow:  (laughing) You can't choose between your kids - or your passions!

Hawaii411: Personal Goals?
Willow: I really believe in the importance of making a contribution to society. I know it sounds big and lofty, but you can do it in so many small ways. Whether it's small acts of kindness like opening doors for people, shopping for and elderly family member, teaching somebody/being a mentor, or giving money to organizations that help others - I really believe that there's an importance in making the world a better place. It sounds really cliché, but I think that's really important. For me... I'd like to get married and have some babies. I'd like to have some little Belly Dancers. I'd like to do it while my parents are around!

Hawaii411: Big hint there Chris... and thank you Willow for a great interview.
Willow: Thank you!

Hawaii411 Conclusion: Well what else can we say... AMAZING!  This article has got to be the most comprehensive study of Belly Dancing ever to be published.  I never knew there was so much going on behind the scenes.  It's no surprise that Willow knows her history.  Like the Michael Jordan of Middle Eastern Dance, she is well practiced and versed regarding her art.  It was so refreshing talking to someone so energetic, positive and downright spunky.  Throw in intelligent talk, pancakes, and some loco mocos and you've got one thoroughly enjoyable breakfast conversation.  Head on over to Zazou on Monsarrat Ave on Mondays, Thursdays, and Fridays to catch Willow's regular performances and a great dinner.  It's a great change of pace. A word of warning - Willow's smile has been proven to be contagious.  Mahalo Willow!

If you'd like to contact Willow for Belly Dancing Lessons, Bellygrams, or Party performances please call her at 292-0820.  Tell her you saw her on!