Fire in the Belly: The Power of Dance

There’s hip, and then there’s Hip Expressions near Crescent Lake, a belly dance studio founded by St. Pete local, Johanna “Zenobia” Krynytzky. With bright blonde hair and a flowing wardrobe, Johanna is many things: a dancer, teacher, cancer survivor, and entrepreneur. She is also a common sight around the ‘Burg as she works to share her unique form of expression.

Johanna’s parents and grandparents moved to the United States during World War II, and she says her love for dancing comes, in part, from her heritage as a first-generation Ukrainian-American.

“Growing up, Ukrainian was my first language, and I was surrounded by Ukrainian community, music, culture, and beliefs,” she explains. “Art and music were always part of life, and my parents always encouraged development of self-expression along with intellect and study.”

Johanna’s childhood was filled with a flurry of activity. She played piano for 10 years, giving her a solid understanding of music and music theory. She was also on a gymnastics team and, in high school, on the swim team. “This creative, physical, and intellectual harmony has stayed with me to this day,” she says.

Life is too short not to follow my passion, says Johanna.

Johanna’s love of the arts took her to the University of Chicago where she graduated with degrees in anthropology and art history. That led her to an eight-year career in museum education. During this time, her grandmother took her on a trip to Turkey.

“That’s where I saw my fist belly dancer,” she recalls. “I loved it! The freedom with which she moved her body – expressing pure joy through the music – was feminine power brought to life! I also visited the nightclubs, where everyone was dancing that way: kids, adults, mothers, grandmothers, children… everyone looked so happy in their bodies. It was pure bliss! I didn’t know what it was that they had, but I knew that I wanted it.”

When Johanna came back to college, she found and joined a new Middle Eastern Dance Club. “We performed at campus events, and soon I expanded my studies to around Chicago. At the time, I didn’t think I could ever take this as a serious career. As a young woman I was not in love with my body. I had been diagnosed with scoliosis in my spine, which created asymmetries which I thought were ugly. But I danced anyway, because when I danced, I felt happy in my body.”

Johanna’s enthusiasm attracted the attention of an Egyptian dance teacher, who enhanced her dance knowledge and encouraged her. “Soon I was performing in front of audiences with live bands. It was shortly after this that I realized that, while I enjoyed my museum studies jobs, I was not completely happy. I saw people around me who were in love with what they did… and I thought, ‘Life is too short not to follow my passion.’”

There is no one ‘belly dancing body,’ says Johanna. ‘If you have a body, you can belly dance!’

This new revelation combined with her visits to an aunt and grandparents in Florida set Johanna on a whole new path. “I loved that they didn’t have to wear socks in wintertime, so I gave up my job and moved to Florida!”

Still looking for a more “practical” career option, Johanna decided to go to the Humanities (Cortiva) School of Massage, planning to do her belly dancing on the side.

“I never got to work full time as a therapist because the belly dancing took off right away!” she says. “I was performing five to 10 times a week, at various restaurants, nightclubs, private parties, festivals, weddings, events. I was one of the original dancers in nearly every restaurant now in Tampa Bay that has belly dancing.”  

Meeting Karen Sun Ray, a fellow belly dancer, helped Johanna stoke her interest in this unique form of expression. “Karen and I started teaching together, creating curriculum, events, troupes, festivals, and performances,” she says. “We officially founded Hip Expressions in 2004. We are so thrilled to be celebrating its 20th anniversary this year.”

Johanna founded Hip Expressions with fellow dancer Karen Sun Ray in 2004.

Of course, the road to fulfilling her dreams hasn’t always been easy one. Johanna has had to overcome times of profound adversity, but she explains it was her art that pulled her through.  

“In 2005, I lost my fiancé in a boat crash. In 2007, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. As an artist with no health insurance, I have to say the belly dance community is what saved me. They created fundraisers, events, performances, from here to DC, Chicago, New Orleans, and California. In fact, it was a belly-dancing surgeon in Sarasota, Dr. Marguerite Barnett, who did my mastectomy and reconstruction for no charge. I was shocked by the amount of support I received. The power of the belly dance community really held me together.”

In 2008, Karen and Johanna opened the first Hip Expressions Belly Dance Studio to give the community a center to connect with themselves and their bodies, and to meet others who are supportive. Here, they offer a few different styles of belly dancing, from various traditions in the Middle East, as well as Flamenco, and Nia, a dance integration of tai chi, modern dance, yoga, and martial arts. They also host twice-yearly fundraisers at and for Sacred Lands in St. Petersburg, showcases, monthly drum circles, and even an annual cruise.

Johanna says that the support from the belly-dancing community got her through some of her toughest times.

For those who might be unsure of their place in the community Johanna offers this advice: 

“There is no one ‘belly dancing body’… if you have a body, you can belly dance! I’ve even seen a performance from a wheelchair. It’s really about accepting yourself as you are, trying on different moves, and seeing how they move energy in your body. In that way, you realize that you are valuable, and you have something to say and share.”