She’s been called the maven of Middle Eastern dance in Wichita. He wants to turn Kansas’ largest city into the tango Mecca of the Midwest.
With expressive, expanding steps on the dance floor and off, WSU alums Mary ’00 and Tim ’77/87 Seitz have taken their loves of dancing and other cultures and turned them into a business. “You’re experiencing other cultures in a different way, through motion,” says Tim, who by day is an engineer at Cessna Aircraft. Mary, who’s known professionally as Safira Zeki, adds, “If you can move like someone else, think like they think, feel like they feel, it’s almost like being there.”
So throughout the week, students at their studio, Safira’s Center for World Dance, go globetrotting to Argentina, Spain, Latin America, the Middle East, the Hawaiian Islands and elsewhere.
Mary’s own trip started three decades ago, when as a 17-year-old she heard a radio ad for belly dance classes at the Wichita YWCA. “It sounded glamorous,” she recalls. The naivete of her youth sent her on the path of teaching. “I had about three months of lessons and my teacher at the YWCA was moving, and I wasn’t going to have another teacher at the time so I figured, ‘Well, what else is there to learn? I’ll just start teaching.’”
She rented a hotel meeting room, placed an ad in The Wichita Eagle and taught her first class to the four older women who showed up. “I eventually realized there’s a whole lot more to learn,” says Mary, who attends several workshops a year, studying with some of belly dancing’s foremost instructors. For a few nights each week, she’s a student in her own studio, continuing her ballet studies and developing a love for flamenco dance under Juan Batani, a professional dance company founder from Mexico who joined her studio’s faculty last year.
“She’s always searching for more information on dance and its history,” says Lorrie Kessler ’99, who has studied dance with Mary since 2000. “I had a history class with her once. She was always digging for more information.”
Mary is often asked to share her extensive knowledge about Middle Eastern dance forms in classrooms and presentations. “She’s an institution in Wichita because through perseverance she has educated the community about the Middle East and especially Middle Eastern women,” says associate professor of women’s studies Debbie Gordon, who has invited Mary to speak in her classes.
Many people tend to think Tim’s passion for ballroom dance and Argentine tango has been lifelong. Actually, for most of the Seitzes’ 27-year marriage — they dated and married while students at WSU — he’s played a supporting role in Mary’s dance interest. He tried jazz dance for a couple of semesters at WSU while working on his master’s degree in aerospace engineering in the 1980s, but felt it wasn’t the right dance form for him. Before he took up dance, he learned Middle Eastern drumming — the complexity of Middle Eastern rhythms appealed to his analytical mind — and now accompanies Mary when she performs monthly at Wichita’s Café Istanbul.
With a wife who’s a professional belly dancer, Tim reports, “There are things in our house that I take totally for granted that you won’t find in other houses, like piles of swords.” Or a mini-studio in the basement and a walk-in closet dedicated to Mary’s nearly 40 costumes, including some exquisitely beaded and sequined Egyptian- and Turkish-made outfits.
About five years ago, Tim discovered ballroom dancing, and in the past two years has embraced Argentine tango. After taking classes in New York City, he decided to spread the interest here in Wichita. “I’d love to make tango a much bigger part of our local culture because it’s taken off strong in a lot of major cities around the country, and for that matter, around the world,” Tim says. “Tango is a bit of warmth and intimacy in a cold world.”
In Wichita, tango is starting to warm up, thanks to the Seitzes and their studio. “We have about 150 folks interested in tango,” Tim says. A New Year’s Eve party sponsored by the studio at the 20th Century Club Center drew more than 75 people.
The studio, which opened in 2000 as the Classical Middle Eastern Dance Studio in the downtown Landmark Square building, has steadily grown. Its annual concert has drawn nearly sell-out audiences, prompting a move from Newman University’s DeMattias Hall to the larger Mary Jane Teall Theater in Century II. Last year, the pair purchased and renovated the former Cero’s chocolate store on East Kellogg, which allowed them to more than double their studio space. They renamed the studio to reflect its expanding multiculturalism.
Their studio mission is promoting greater friendship among people of different cultures through the study of movement. Certainly, Safira’s Center for World Dance has become a place of friendship and personal growth for many of its students. Marriages have been celebrated, and comfort in family crises has been offered.
When Marisa Lewis, a library assistant in WSU’s special collections, earned her master’s degree in 2005, she held a graduation “hafla,” the Arabic term for a party, and invited fellow dancers. Learning Middle Eastern dance renewed Teresa Click’s interest in education, leading her to enroll in anthropology and women’s studies courses at WSU this semester. And Kessler, who commutes an hour to her dance lessons, says belly dancing, which she calls her “balancer in life,” helps her work toward being healthy. In the five years she’s been dancing, she’s lost 65 pounds.
While the Seitzes enrich the lives of others by sharing their knowledge and love of dance, they have found it equally enriching for them. “Dance has allowed us to meet a lot of interesting people, not only in a rich variety of students, but in professionals, too,” Tim says, name-dropping some of the belly-dance world’s most famous instructors, including Mahmoud Reda, the founder of Egypt’s well-known folkloric company, the Reda Troupe.
“Dance is something we’ve lost in our culture,” Tim says, “but it’s being refound.”