As a teenager, Ava Fleming went with her family to a Greek restaurant for the first time. They were eating at their table when the music suddenly changed, and a woman walked out.
“She was elegant and confident and beautiful, and just watching her move around the room, I had found my first female role model,” she says. “Somebody that I wanted to be. I didn’t want to be the dancer, or… I didn’t want to do what she did per say. I wanted to be her… she was the first woman that I saw that exuded the energy that I wanted to embody.”
Fleming joked that when she saw the money the woman collected afterward, she also thought, “Oh, I could put myself through college doing that.”
Ava Fleming, belly dancing professor at ASU, originally wanted to be a scientist. She loved marine biology and wanted to save the oceans, but encountered a few problems in her classes.
“I didn’t want to memorize the periodic chart,” she says.
After seeing the dancer at the Greek restaurant, Fleming signed up for a class in Egyptian style belly dancing. There are a variety of belly dance styles, Fleming noted, with hers being a unique fusion of cabaret oriental style and ballroom dancing.
“This dance form has consistently chosen me,” she says.
When she moved from southern California to Arizona in 1999, her dance style was different from the others around her, and people wanted to learn from her. Fleming said she was at the time considering giving up dance and becoming a CEO for an unspecificed company. Only when she went to Japan with a former dance teacher and helped with her classes did Fleming realize she couldn’t live without dance. When she got back to Arizona, Fleming said she rented space at a yoga gym and began to teach dance classes.
Fleming described her coming to work at ASU as “serendipitous.” The admin for the dance department was taking her class at an outside studio and approached her about teaching at the university, which Fleming agreed would be fun.
The acting dean was resistant to thought of hiring her, Fleming says. Her background in belly dancing was different than the local style. But after Fleming danced at one of the graduate shows, she says, everyone took notice.
“And just through them seeing me dance, they realized I wasn’t a hookah bar style dancer,” she says. “I was a theater style dancer.”
Dance students tend to start off at haflas (student party nights), before taking jobs at fairs, then at hookah bars, and soon followed by working at restaurants and night clubs. Fleming explained the pinnacle of their career is dancing on the theater stage. As they rise in their careers, their interaction with their audience changes, from dancing at a table to incorporating stage dynamics.
“You are dancing a culture, not just dancing movements,” she says. “That’s different from the theater style, because in theater style your audience is normally larger.”
Fleming noted her career went in the opposite direction. She started at community college in California, and her professor did shows once or twice a year in a large theater. Her first performances were for large audiences of about 700 people. Then she moved to a different dance company that did not only theaters, but weddings. When she moved to Phoenix, she performed in hookah bars as well.
“So my progression was backwards,” she explains. “And one of my nicknames when I first moved here was ‘The Ice Queen,’ because when I was dancing in hookah bars I was dancing like a theater dancer.”
When she returned to California for the Belly Dancer of the Universe competition in 2004, Fleming said she had evolved in a way different from other dancers. From there she was invited to have her DVD series and traveled the professional circuit, where she was sponsored to teach and perform across the world.
“I live my dream,” she says. “Everybody can do it, you just have to have patience. And also accept that if you’re going to live your dream, being fulfilled and satisfied with your life is far more important than making a lot of money.”
Before she performs, Fleming says she always gives thanks to the universe for blessing her with the life she has. She thanks everyone she’s come into contact with who’s changed her as a person, and the audiences who watch her performances.
“When I’m in my zone, there’s no wall between my heart and my emotions and my audience… Sometimes I get in my head when I perform, and when I get offstage I’m like, “Ugh, that was a 60 percent.’ Or a 70 percent, or an 80 percent,” she says. “Sometimes I reach 90 percent, 95. I never get 100, because if I get 100, I have no where to go from there.”
When she teaches, Fleming says she mixes education with entertainment.
“Can I feel the energy flow in the room?” she asks. “Do I need to bring the energy up, because their energy is down because it’s been a long week or they’re in the middle of midterms?”
Despite her fame as a 2004 winner of the Belly Dancer of the Universe competition and her own line of DVDs, Fleming is always jarred when someone treats her as a celebrity. She said she views herself as an educator.
“I’m very down to earth, and it always shocks me when somebody gets… star-glazed in their eyes,” she said. “I’m just me, and I’m here to teach you… my job is to educate you, and make myself irrelevant in your life at some point in time… I don’t like people to put me on that star pedestal.”
An upside to her job is that it allows her the freedom and ability to travel and find people to connect with, she notes.
“So, I’m never alone, if I don’t want to be,” she says.
Shawn Tehrani, majority owner of Tehrani Wealth Management, described Fleming in three words as, “honest, hardworking, beautiful.”
Tehrani has known Fleming for about 12 years, having met her at a private function in someone’s home. He added he’s spent much more time with her over the last couple of years, and has been present at many of her performances.
“If it was one specific, public event that I would want to recall, is one of her performances at a bar mitzvah,” he said. “Her troop performed, and… it was an intimate gathering… for more than 200 people there. The thing that really impressed me… is the number of kids who were affected by her and how many of them felt comfortable going up to her.”
Tehrani said he’s always wondered how athletes accomplish complex feats, and he’s found his answer in Fleming’s private life.
“She… does an amazing job of combining her art and her personal life, not only in the way she lives but also… in the way she takes care of herself,” he says.
Jason Silva says he has known Fleming for three years. He met her at a performance at the Phoenix Art Museum, and approached her afterward to ask her to teach his kids dance.
“Her dancing style is very unique,” he says, noting she does much of her own choreography. When it comes to teaching dance, Silva sees Fleming as kind, organized and creative.
Silva also admires Fleming’s professionalism as a businesswoman, noting she’s become more of one over the years.
“Traveling the world, doing conferences and starting her own business… taking something she loved to do and making it her business,” he adds.
Silva mentioned he visits Fleming often at her studio, a building in Phoenix with old wooden floors and walls decorated with murals and mirrors. One personal memory he recollected was Fleming’s invitation to see her perform at the Tempe Center for the Arts.
“She organized the event,” he said. “Afterwards, she invited everybody to go out to dinner, and she wanted everybody to be part of the show and… make it a big family.”
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