Meet Johanna Zenobia

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Johanna Zenobia Krynytzky: Full Interview

In honor of her birthday this month, meet Johanna ‘Zenobia’ Krynytzky, Director of Hip Expressions and one of its original founders. Johanna was a beginner once, too, timid about her belly. As a first-generation Ukrainian American who grew up with an appreciation for the arts, she soon found the beauty, movement and music of belly dance gratified her soul. She brings her talent, grace and international spirit to her belly dance and to Hip Expressions, welcoming and inspiring dancers from all over the globe. Johanna is working to ensure the community spirit, acceptance and inspiration that permeates Hip Expressions today becomes its legacy.

Q. How did your dance journey begin?

A. I was introduced to belly dance on a trip to Turkey. In the tourist nightclub shows of Istanbul, I saw my first dancers - and they were so inspiring! They had beautiful curves, and were proud of them! I was there with my grandma, and we thoroughly enjoyed the show. They were celebrating all the parts of them that were feminine - their shoulders, chest, and hips moved independently as if they had a life of their own!

I also saw the dancing in the nightclubs in Turkey, where everyone - men, women, children, grandparents - all were 'belly dancing' though that's not what they would have said they were doing. They were merely dancing the dance of their people, enjoying moving their bodies in the tradition that permeates the Middle East. I didn't know what they had, but I wanted it!

I came back to college, at the University of Chicago, and immediately found a flyer for a Middle Eastern Dance Club forming, and signed right up with my roommate. We were soon performing in dance showcases with the college’s Dance Department. I knew I wanted more, so I started studying with other dancers around town - primarily with Terri Souri, an Egyptian woman who never performed - a woman of her status would never perform for strangers for money - but was an expert on the dance form. We started frequenting the Arabic nightclubs of Chicago, and soon another dancer took me under her wing. Jamila showed me the ropes of being a belly dance entertainer, and I started subbing for her when she could not make her gigs, and doing other gigs with her as well. I also started immediately working with a local percussionist, loving the interaction with music and dance. All the nightclubs had full bands and singers, which was SO much fun to perform to! Belly dance is music in motion! ... my 10 years of piano study came in handy, I could more easily understand and start to listen to the unique beats and pitches of the music to more fully embody what I heard.

Q. What are some highlights of your dance career?

A. I am so blessed to have started as a baby belly dancer performing in the Middle Eastern nightclubs and restaurants of Chicago. Learning while dancing with musicians was very powerful! Dancing with live music has continued to always be a highlight for me - and I love collaborating with my amazing musician friends from all over the U.S. from dance camp stages in New York with Carmine Guida and his musicians, to theatres such as the Palladium and Ruth Eckerd Hall with Kafkasso. It's the collaborations I've enjoyed the most - co-creating the Treasure Island Drum Circle, dancing on stage with Unmata opening for Beats Antique in San Francisco, creating the dancer portion of Loud Zoo - our tribal tradition that continues to today, sharing creative energy on stage with Mira Betz, Amy Sigil, at the Royalty Theatre with the Bellydance Superstars... Ohhh and my favorite place to perform, in the 10 deck atrium of cruise ships with Carmine & friends all over the Caribbean, surrounded by friends from all over the U.S. and beyond! Ohhh and the fire dancing on the beach with the Sunset Hookah Lounge Band... so many incredible experiences. It's the ones where I feel the most free - improvising, creating movement as musicians create music - that really resonate with my heart and soul!

I'm still amazed that I went from 'there's no way I can make my living as a belly dancer' to co-creating the incredible, vibrant community of dance that is Hip Expressions! And it's not over yet - I'm interested in creating a legacy which embodies our mission - community, acceptance, and inspiration - so that we can continue to transform the world.

Q. How does your Ukrainian heritage affect your dance?

A. Growing up Ukrainian was a very international experience - constantly surrounded by a culture other than the 'normal' American way of life had a huge impact. The arts were very much prioritized, not always as a primary source of income but as a way of life. I always felt most at home with people from other cultures - even from being Vice President of the International Club in high school. I think when I moved to Chicago for school, and found belly dance, it filled that space in me that loved art and beauty and music and movement. I've loved surrounding myself with different world cultures; from working at the Field Museum of Natural History and working on their cultural programming, to performing at parties, weddings, restaurants, events, and gatherings for people from all over the world. I mean, the variety of music, the love for dance, and really, the food... all inspirational, and delicious!

I would often be approached by the international people I would perform for, and they would ask how an American girl knows their culture and dance so well - I would reveal I was Ukrainian 1st generation and they would nod their heads in understanding. This initially confused me, but then I realized that Ukraine is not that far from the Middle East! They informed me that there is a long history of Eastern Europeans coming down into Turkey (just across the Black Sea!) and even further south, and dancing and performing. So I guess it makes sense, I am still embodying the traditions of my ancestors, even from halfway across the world.

Q. How was Hip Expressions formed?

A. When I moved to St. Pete in 2000, I immediately looked up all the belly dancers in the area so I could network and continue dancing. Karen's class was one of the first ones I took, and I immediately fell in love with her friendliness, encouragement, and inclusive teaching style. We started working together immediately, on professional gigs, in an Egyptian restaurant, and dancing with some musicians too. We loved our synergy, and plotted to open our own dance studio, and expand our classes. I still remember the afternoon sitting on her couch, brainstorming names for the business... we knew we wanted more than belly dance - since she had been dancing Polynesian since she could walk as well - so we didn't want to limit it. Hip Expressions seemed to fit!

Q. Where did you get the idea to welcome all bodies to dance and make it part of the Hip Expressions mission statement?

A. I was so inspired by the fact that when I was in Turkey, the women dancing were not the size, shape, or age of the models and dancers that were shown on MTV. And men even were dancing, too! I was in college at the time of my trip to Turkey and exposure to belly dance, and upon returning, I immediately searched for a class. My first teacher welcomed everybody, and she herself was very curvy, with short brown hair, and she sparkled with beauty when she danced from the inside out! I remember going home from that first class and looking at myself in the mirror, raising up my shirt and looking at my tummy and thinking, I could never be a professional belly dancer, but I am having so much fun with this I'm going to continue, just for myself! The variety of women and men in our classes, who showed up to be authentically inspirationally themselves, showed me that it was what was on the inside that counts.

Being in college, and taking Humanities and Art History courses that deconstructed media, social norms, and expectations, I could immediately see that the messages we are given in society were designed to make us feel inadequate. Advertisements tell us we aren't pretty enough, thin enough, don't wear the right clothes or make up, drive the right car, eat the right things, etc. I knew how that dragged at my personal self-confidence as a budding adult, and I wanted to counter that message so that everyone was encouraged to be themselves, more fully, honestly, and proudly. I am also lucky my parents raised me that way, to follow my own dreams, to be weird if I needed to, that it was okay not to fit in. Not all were raised that way. I knew I just wanted to spread love as much as I could in my little part of the world, and I carry that view to this day. I certainly can't control what's out there in society, but I can control what I do, where I focus my energy, what message I spread. And I've taken that very seriously as Hip Expressions has grown, too!

Q. It’s been almost a year since Hip Expressions was forced from its own studio of 10 years. How has the past year gone for Hip Expressions and what do you envision for the future?

A. Wow, these past two years sure have been a whirlwind! I've had my hands full shifting non-stop - from in-person to virtual and hybrid, and then out of our home studio. It's been a challenge, and we are continuing to evolve as situations warrant. The most inspiring result is that we've gotten into some amazing partnerships in the community as we offer our classes in different locations. It's just wonderful to connect with other people passionate about what they do, in mutually beneficial relationships. And it's been powerful how the Hip Expressions community has been able to stay connected through all of this, finding how to integrate dance into their lives in all these new formats and places!

Well, if there's anything I've learned is that we can't predict the future! I can say that now, we are enjoying strengthening and exploring existing partnerships, while knowing we will continue to build momentum and hone our services so that when our next home finds us, we are ready!