Abigail Keyes is a dance performer, educator, researcher, and writer based in the San Francisco Bay Area. With a background in Near Eastern studies and Middle Eastern dance, she also has experience in modern dance, the Merce Cunningham and Martha Graham techniques, Classical Persian, Flamenco, ballet, jazz, and ballroom. She spent seven years as a writer and analyst for the US Federal Government in Washington, DC.
Born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area, Abigail Keyes first discovered movement as a form of expression through competitive figure skating and ice dancing.
Her childhood fascination with anything remotely Middle Eastern—the 1,001 Arabian Nights, her parents’ collection of Oriental carpets, and the “Arabian Coffee” dance in The Nutcracker Ballet, to name a few— led her to deepen her study of the region and major in Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University.
During her Sophomore year, when she accepted that figure skating was no longer physically and emotionally fulfilling for her, she attended a belly dance class at the gym at Princeton. She thought belly dance would be a physical way to discover and understand the region that had always fascinated her. Her instructor, Kim Leary, taught methodical and structured classes and with a focus on technique (inspired by the Suhaila Salimpour Format as well as jazz, tap, and ballet) and cultural context: all concepts that Abigail values highly in her own performance and teaching today. Abigail quickly became a soloist with Raks Odalisque, Princeton’s Middle Eastern dance company, and helped choreograph for and produce two of the company’s annual full-length concerts.
In college, she integrated her exploration of movement traditions from the Middle East into her academic studies. Her second Junior Paper, a 40-page study on the zar dance and music ritual in Egypt and Sudan, won the Near Eastern Studies Department’s F.O. Kelsey Award in 2001. She also took modern dance and studied sacred dance traditions through Princeton University’s Dance Department.
With her primary academic focus on US-Arab relations, she worked as a political analyst on Middle East issues at the US Government in Washington, DC, for seven years, where she wrote for the Executive Branch and other policy makers. However, shift work and unusual hours couldn’t keep Abigail from dancing. While in the Washington, DC, area, she studied with Elizabeth “Artemis” Mourat, from whom Abigail learned Turkish Oriental and Romany (Gypsy) style dance, as well as professional performance skills. Abigail performed in restaurants and nightclubs in the region, produced several workshops and concert shows featuring local and national belly dance talent, and taught regular classes at two of Washington, DC’s, top dance studios: Joy of Motion Dance center and Saffron Dance. In 2008, her accolades as a fresh and dedicated figure in contemporary American belly dance earned her the opportunity to produce an instructional DVD, Modern Tribal Belly Dance, released by World Dance New York in 2008. It is still considered one of the best instructional DVDs on the market for belly dance of all styles and levels.
While living in Washington, DC, she began pursuing certification in the Suhaila Salimpour Format, the first and most rigorous multi-level educational program in belly dance in the world. To do so, she frequently traveled to the Salimpour School in Berkeley, California, to attend workshops and take certification exams.
In 2009, she resigned from working for the US Government, and ended her marriage of five years. With her newfound freedom, she focused exclusively on performing and teaching, and secured teaching and performance opportunities in Europe, Japan, and Argentina.
In 2011, she moved back to California, and spent that summer furthering her study of the Arabic language at the Monterey Institute of International Studies’ Summer Intensive Language Program. That autumn, she moved to Berkeley, and pursued further advancement at the Salimpour School, while continuing to teach belly dance around the world. She also renewed her study of modern dance.
Her dedication to the Salimpour School method, attending classes 4-5 days a week and attending several weeklong workshops, earned her a teaching apprenticeship under the guidance of Suhaila Salimpour. She quickly became a staff instructor at the school, where she currently teaches both the Suhaila Salimpour Format and the older, yet newly refined, Jamila Salimpour Format. She has since earned the Level 5 teaching certification in both formats.
In 2016, she earned her Master of Arts degree at Mills College in Oakland, California, with a focus on history and pedagogy. She is also working towards earning a Stott Pilates teaching certification in Mat Technique (expected 2017). You can find her at the Salimpour School taking classes or teaching dancers of all levels, or at home with her partner and their two Siamese-mix cats.