Oreet Jehassi Schwartz of Philadelphia was bouncing from gym to gym back in 1998, teaching all the trendy aerobics styles. As a professional contemporary dancer, aerobics was a way to supplement her income, but she was getting burnt out.
“You can’t keep that up, and I really missed the dance. But dance didn’t bring me money,” she says. Yet working at gyms, “I was competing against tall beautiful men.” As a petite woman of color, “it was very hard for me to shine,” she says.
Then one day, during an instructor meeting at Gold’s Gym, the director asked for ideas to boost attendance and retain clients. And Schwartz’s “aha” moment arrived.
“I said: ‘I can teach belly dance for fitness.’ And he said: ‘Great! Start next week.’”
Schwartz, whose parents are from Israel and grandparents from Yemen, had grown up with Middle Eastern music and dance as a fixture at family weddings and bar mitzvahs. So, with belly dance natural to her and fitness her gig, Schwartz knew she was just the person to bridge the two worlds.
“I was tired of being a starving artist,” she says. Her thought was: “I can make more money, and it’s still dance.”
A Passion for Dance
The fact that Latin aerobics was a craze at the time (this was just before the arrival of Zumba) suggested to her that the idea could work.
She went to a few traditional belly dance classes as research. The typical approach, she says, was “follow the bouncing butt” of the teacher, who didn’t break movements down or pay much attention to whether students were doing them correctly. And there was no workout. “They didn’t know how to teach for the fitness enthusiast,” Schwartz says.
So she designed a fast-paced class that isolated movements to maximize fitness and added non-stop, up-tempo Arabic music for a fun and sexy cardio workout. As in most typical fitness classes, she took the role of the “boot camp drill sergeant” who keeps people motivated and moving.
[Related: See the full list of the women entrepreneurs on The Passionate & Purposeful list]
“What I created worked,” she says. “Fitness enthusiasts were actually understanding how to pick up the movements, and they were getting results… emotionally, spiritually, aesthetically and physically.”
With both gyms and students embracing her classes, in 2000 Schwartz launched SharQui to brand her belly-dance-meets-fitness concept and begin building a business.
A Body-Positivity Purpose
“My workout is about no judgement,” she says, and is for people of all body types, sizes and colors. Her typical students are moms in their late 30s or early 40s, for whom “it’s about feeling like a woman again.”
Since most of her students are simply looking to get fit and have fun, they don’t tend to get ask about the traditional Middle Eastern dance until they hit the 6 or 8-month mark, she says. That’s when she explains its history as “an art form for women by women,” she says. “It was a celebratory dance for women, specifically when they became newly engaged at a young age.”
Contrary to popular notions that belly dancing is a physical display for men, historians widely believe it was developed by women as preparation for childbirth. Its movements may have significance for pregnancy — the shimmy is like a baby kicking, undulations strengthen the core, the figure 8 evokes widening hips — Schwartz says. “This is almost the story of how you become a woman.”
“I think it’s very beautiful and sensual, but not sexual,” Schwartz says. “Our movement is to inspire women to see the true, beautiful beings they are — not what society tells us is beautiful” — and to “focus on how their beautiful bodies serve them.”
Creating a Passion Business
When Schwartz started SharQui, she also made an important business decision: starting what would turn out to be a nearly two-year process getting SharQui recognized as an accredited fitness format.
Accreditation, she believed, would be “a fast way to show dance can be fitness” and help her shop her classes to more gyms. It did that and much more. Having an accredited format enabled her to speak at conferences and conventions and showcase SharQui to other fitness professionals. Soon instructors began asking to become certified to teach.
At first, she offered a 3-day live training program. But today she runs 4-week online group courses using pre-recorded modules, charging $299 per participant. For certified teachers, she offers a by-subscription online platform for $20 a month or $200 a year, where she provides continuing education, pre-choreographed classes, low-cost Arabic music and apparel discounts as well as marketing materials and business advice.
Teaching teachers — now nearly 100 of them in the U.S., Australia, Germany, England, India and Trinidad — has become her main revenue source, though Schwartz also sells DVDs direct to students and continues to teach her own classes in Philadelphia and New York. She declined to disclose SharQui’s current revenue, but said it supports her and one employee.
She has accomplished her goal: making a lasting business from a passion for dance and a mission to help women feel good about themselves, just the way they are. “I’m not looking at somebody’s body when they dance. I’m looking at their essence,” Schwartz says. “They are more beautiful than they think.”
Why should we include you in The Passionate & Purposeful?
I feel that as a dance and fitness educator, my responsibility is to lead. I don’t feel that I only teach movement. I feel that I also teach compassion, tolerance, acceptance and inclusivity — and that everyone has potential regardless of their gender, age, sexual orientation, race or religion. All are welcome in my class, and all are welcome to reach the SharQui format. To be able to help people and say this message through my classes is super cool. It’s a great responsibility. Actually, I consider it a gift.