Passionate about all things Eastern, Sharon Cully from Dollingstown has been lighting up social media with footage of her exotic belly dance performances under the Egyptian moniker Sharon Shakeelah.
And friends and family have been fortunate to enjoy some Middle Eastern magic with Sharon’s themed belly dance nights performed in a vibrant Arabian tent in her back garden.
Sharon, who works for a firm in Lurgan which makes hospital folders, fell in love with Middle Eastern culture 30 years ago when she worked as a holiday rep in Turkey in her 20s.
On a subsequent visit to Egypt, she was mesmerised by the beautiful, embellished costumes belly dancers wore and couldn’t resist buying one.
After seeing belly dancers in her local pub, a short time afterwards she decided to take lessons and learn the art.
Since then, she has become a regular visitor to the Middle East where on her last trip she was invited to dance at an engagement party on a cruise boat on the Nile.
An opportunity to then dance at the Egyptian couple’s wedding last year sadly was missed because of Covid restrictions.
Sharon, who describes herself as “naturally shy”, says that by simply putting on one of her many ornate dance costumes, she is transformed into a more confident person.
She reveals the background to her passion: “When I went to Turkey in my 20s, I was fascinated by the local culture and the whole Arabian thing and went on to visit Egypt, Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Morocco.
“I just love the desert and saw so much there, that I wanted to create my own Arabian tent and I bought everything for it and over the years have continued to add to it.
“I decided to take belly dancing lessons in 2010 after I saw dancers in my local pub and was really inspired by them.
“The year before I had bought this beautiful blue costume in Egypt, and I knew then I wanted to learn how to dance.”
Belly dancing involves perfecting very specific body movements and can be difficult to learn. It takes constant practice to progress.
After learning the basics from a professional, Sharon practises most days using YouTube tutorials and creates her own dance movements.
She explains: “People think it looks easy and they would say, ‘I could do that’ but when they try, they realise they can’t. The trick is to make it look easy and natural.
“There is always room to improve, and I never stop learning. You have to be able to control every part of your body from your head to your toes. It takes practice to perfect, and I am not super professional by any means but just do it because I love it.”
Before Covid, Sharon was fulfilling engagements dancing in bars and restaurants in Belfast.
While she now dances purely for the joy of it, she isn’t ruling out returning to professional performances again.
She says: “My very first public dance was in the Welders Club in Belfast, and I was so nervous my whole body shook.
“I went in and danced with my head down because I was so shy.
“It is really important when you are dancing that you make eye contact with people and that is something I now do naturally.
“I then danced in The Allotment Bar with a group of girls.
“Afterwards, the manager Alex Robinson told me that he really liked the way I interacted with people.
“Alex gave me the confidence and inspired me to dance in public and I got more bookings after that.
“After Covid it all stopped but I have kept dancing for friends and family in my garden. For me it is not always about being the best dancer, but I am in it to have fun and as long as people like it, I will enjoy doing it.
“Now dancing is allowed again but I am happy to keep dancing at home, if I never get to dance in public again, I would be happy enough.”
Sharon’s passion for the culture has seeped into every room in her neat, detached home in Dollingstown which she shares with her long-term partner Victor Heron.
Brightly coloured elephants, life-sized Pharaoh lamps, embellished camels and a collection of over 40 elaborately made Shisha water pipes adorn her rooms.
Her collection of colourful hand-woven eastern rugs, drapes, cushions and water pipes has taken years to amass and have cost her thousands of pounds.
Her sunroom is completely given over to brightly coloured Eastern paraphernalia and she has now amassed a collection of more than 50 belly dance costumes, some costing upwards of £500 each.
For Sharon the ultimate stamp of approval was her invitation during her last visit to Egypt in 2019 to dance at a local engagement party.
Adorned in one of her favourite tribal costumes, she posed for pictures on a camel outside her hotel which caught the attention of the newlyweds-to-be.
She recalls: “They approached me and said it would be really nice to have a Northern Irish person dancing at their party which was on a boat on the Nile. I was really honoured to be asked and I really loved it.
“People got up and danced with me and everyone seemed to enjoy it. Afterwards they asked if I would dance at their wedding in 2020 and was chuffed to bits but sadly couldn’t make it because of the pandemic.”
Sharon uses Shakeelah, a Muslim girls name meaning well-shaped or beautiful, when she dances.
For her it is like having an alter-ego and she sees Shakeelah as a different person from the everyday Sharon most people know.
She adds: “I was asked to come up with a stage name and found Shakeelah. Now when I put on my costumes, Sharon becomes Shakeelah. It is like two people, one who is naturally shy and one who is confident.
“I’ve always been self-conscious and had a million complexes about myself when I was younger.
“Dancing has really helped me with that. I am now hitting 50 but I feel 20 and that’s purely down to the dancing.
“When I get my costume on and go out and dance and I can see people enjoying it and joining in, it makes me feel on top of the world.”