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Once a physicist: Amira Sa'id

Amira Sa'id is a professional belly-dancer.

Amira Sa'id

Why did you choose to study physics?
I did it mainly because I was intensely interested in the fundamentals of how the universe works. Also, I am more into theory and philosophy than practice, which is why engineering did not appeal to me. It was difficult at times, but overall I enjoyed it – especially modern physics and quantum mechanics.

How did you become interested in dance?
I have been a dancer ever since I was a child. I did tap, ballet, jazz and Irish step dancing until I was a teenager. Then I stopped dancing while I was an undergraduate (first at Florida Atlantic University and then at Florida University), but after I graduated in 2000 I decided to explore a belly-dance class. I was instantly drawn in.

What drew you to Middle Eastern dance in particular?
The music was entrancing, and I loved the way my body felt when I did the different isolation movements – this is the term for dance moves where you isolate the different muscles of your body and move one part while holding another part still. An example would be shimmying your hips while keeping everything above your waist stationary, or moving your shoulders back and forth rapidly in a shoulder shimmy while nothing below the waist moves. Isolation movement is the fundamental principle of belly-dance. I also found that it was a way I could express my emotions. This was especially important for me because normally it is difficult for me to do so, since I am autistic – I have Asperger's syndrome.

What is your favourite routine at the moment?
I am expanding into Indian Bollywood-style dances now, which use a lot of the same movements as belly-dance but are more expressive, especially with the hand movements. I lip-synch in Hindi when I perform Bollywood. The routine I am working on now is called "Mujhe Rang De" and it comes from the movie Thak Shak. I am also working on a belly-dance routine that incorporates three swords. When I do my current double-sword routine, I balance one sword on my hip and the other on my head, or I balance both swords on my head while rotating around my centre of mass. My idea for a triple-sword routine will be to attempt to balance one sword on my head, one on my hip and one on my shoulder while pivoting around my centre of mass. I have never seen this done before in a belly-dance performance so I am challenging myself to attempt it.

How does your physics training help?
I always break down and analyse a dance as if I were analysing a physics problem. I understand the mechanics of movement better when I do this. Also, understanding centre-of-gravity principles helps me with my balancing acts of swords, canes and – in one of my routines – an axe from Jabba the Hutt's palace in Star Wars. Once I fully understand the physical mechanics of the dance with my left brain, I switch to my right-brain mode and layer on the artistry and emotional expression.

Do you still keep up to date with any physics?
I try to read online articles about the latest advancements whenever I can. I am also an active member of MENSA and enjoy talking with other physicists or physics-interested people at social functions when I have the time.

This article originally appeared in the March 2010 issue of Physics World

Image credit: Kourosh Rouhi

last edited: September 11, 2018

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Once a physicist

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