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(The Royalty of Raks Sharqi and her view on Middle Eastern dance in a brave new world)
The world of Middle Eastern dance in America owes much of its knowledge and status to its pioneer divas, the first women who came, gained knowledge and passed it along to create the vibrant, varied, bevy of beautiful stage dances today.
Exceptionally noted among these first Rasas is New York’s own Morocco, with whom I had the pleasure of recently talking.
This diva Rasa has spent over four decades researching and reenacting the many dances of the Middle East. A superb and magnetic dancer, Morocco has also made a name for herself as a Middle Eastern dance historian. Her first-hand research has been invaluable in enlightening others, and preserving the folkloric and traditional artforms that, increasingly, are vanishing.
Perhaps it is serendipity that lead Morocco down the strange and interesting dance path. Born a full-blooded Rom (Gypsy), Carolina Varga Dinicu eventually fell in love with dance, first exploring Flamenco with the Ballet Espanol Ximenez-Vargas company, and eventually “stumbling” into Oriental Dance when she was recommended to a local restaurant. As the story goes, she showed up, ready to audition in traditional Flamenco dress, but was told by the amused owner that they did Middle Eastern dance at the establishment.
From there, Morocco fell in love with the music, dance styles, and costumes, and prevailed among her contemporaries, mostly because of a never ending curiosity—not surprising, for a member of MENSA. She honed her skills in the once famous section of New York called “Greek Town,” where various Greek and Middle Eastern restaurants stood side by side. As there was no instruction for those early dancers, she observed, asked questions, and analyzed both the dancers, and the particular musical rhythms that so influenced the dance. She was given the name Morocco because she “looked Moroccan,” but it was her never-ending thirst for knowledge that eventually led her to investigate various ethnic dances in the actual countries from which they originated. She traveled through Morocco to see Berbers, to Egypt for the Ghawazee and nightclubs, Lebanon for the Debke, and so on, cataloguing as she went along. She also made her way Off- and on Broadway and at the Roundtable in New York, where the “genius woman who did WHAT as a profession” attracted the curiosity seekers. In the meantime, Morocco continued to work with many of the top Mideastern musicians and dancers, building her repertoire and reputation. She taught privately throughout the 60’s and began teaching in a more public forum in 1970, eventually teaching a 3 credit master class in Mideastern Dance & Culture for the State University of New York/Purchase in the mid 70’s.
When budget cuts brought that venue to an end, Morocco opened a modest studio in her home; then moved to a larger loft space in New York. Thanks to Dr. Paul Monty, who started Mideastern dance seminars and hired her (and others), she began teaching master seminars, and was invited to do so all over the world.
Along the way she’s won several accolades, written for several Middle Eastern dance, medical, and feminist publications, and has been highlighted on several shows, the most notable (and possibly infamous) being the Ed Sullivan Show, where censors forced her to wear a robe under her costume.
The result of these decades’ worth of work finds Morocco still going strong, continuing her seminars worldwide, and teaching at her new, spacious studio on West 20th Street in Manhattan. There her colleague, Tarik Abd el Malik, assists in the warm-up and movement drill. Affectionately deemed “The Boy Wonder” by Morocco, Tarik proves he is just that: his infectious energy, coupled with firm, positive reinforcement, is a testimony to his teaching talent. Though strict technique is enforced, there is an atmosphere of gaiety at each session.
Morocco is slightly more relaxed. She comes out forty-five minutes after her younger protégé, and conducts choreography using those movements, infusing them with smiles and winks at her students, and a quick joke or two between beats.
When I sit down to interview her, I find her personality to be a mirror of her dance style: a bold, mischievous, mile-a-minute, take me as I am whirlwind. Morocco is both highly animated and forthright. Her commentary is peppered with colorful phrases and a slight New Yawka accent, to boot. But make no mistake, she is highly articulate and intelligent; I found myself learning not only about Middle Eastern dance, but other dance forms, their relationship to each other, and cultural influences, as well.
The sassy, classy, Divine Ms. M spoke about the past, the future, and the state of Middle Eastern dance in relation to the sudden shift in the status quo.
Zan: What specifically about the dance has kept you in it for all these years?
Morocco: The Music, the varieties in the rhythms and the soul of the music and the leeway it allows you to express your own soul. Because, within the movement vocabulary, you can have many interpretations. You can get a thousand different valid interpretations to that music. There is just something in that music that touched my soul in a way no music has. I love Flamenco, but as much as I love it, this reached even deeper, and subsequent research shows me that a lot of what Flamenco was about is influenced by the Moors who ruled southern Spain…so in a way, I went back to the roots, without even knowing it.
Z: Do you find that attitudes regarding Middle Eastern Dance have changed over the years?
M: In the major metropolitan areas, where people have seen Middle Eastern dance, yes. In a lot of other places, no. What I find very interesting, since I teach internationally, is that anytime the dance gets to a new area, it goes through the same stages of colonial-racist-sexist-fantasy-Hollywood misinterpretation, and then people see that, finally, there’s more to this than meets the fantasy or the eye. Because when you see a really good dancer, you see that it’s more than just the fantasy aspect. But there are always going to be those who do cater to the fantasy, or cater to the lowest denominator, because it’s the easy way out, they think they can make a fast buck. That makes it really hard for the legit people.
On the other hand, if it weren’t for that misinterpreting, there wouldn’t be as much curiosity generated. So, in a way, it gets them to the dance. The importance is to not continue to misrepresent it, not to use the misnomer such as “bellydance.” In fact it is Oriental dance – the correct translation of “Raks Sharqi” in Arabic and “Oryantal Tansi” in Turkish, a folk dance form where the whole body is used, not just the stomach.
Z: Do you find that your students have very different reasons for starting the dance?
M: Yes. They decide to come to it, and stay with it, for many varied, individual reasons and combinations of reasons. It is fascinating to me the reasons people come to the dance, and to me and decide to stay with me. I have a very specific way of teaching, and it’s interesting to note that we (the American Middle Eastern dance community) haven’t been forced into any concrete type molds or particular style of teaching. There is more room for individual style and approach to teaching.
This is very good because, most of all, this is a folk dance and has, in some of its usage, evolved into a performance art.
Z: And so it’s not necessarily about staying with tradition?
M: Well, folk, and tradition aren’t always the same. There are some aspects of folk that lend themselves very well to the stage. Flamenco was of folk origins that evolved very well towards the stage. There are all types of dance that have lent themselves well to performance. Ballet was originally a Spanish, Basque men’s dance that became a popular dance in the courts of Italy and when Catherine De Medici married the king of France, she brought the dance over to France. And it evolved bit by bit. If you look at films of ballet from the Forties and you look at what it has become now, the difference in the body type and technical achievement is evident and we’re talking about a dance that is much younger than Raks Sharqi.
Z: So, your historian roots are apparent. That makes you a specific personality in the world of Oriental dance. Do you feel that people are interested in the historical aspect of the dance?
M: In the beginning, people didn’t really care. I did, because I was curious, and at that time, there were no such things as schools. You learned on the jobs, or within the families, and I made friends with all the grandmas and aunties and learned, but I found that Turkish families said and did one thing, Egyptians another, Syrians another, and so forth. The Moroccans would do one thing, the Saudis another. So which was right? Well, they all were, and I wanted to know it all and I was having such a good time watching these whole families come in and do these things that you usually don’t see in America. You didn’t see a whole group of people get together to do line and circle dancing, where the music, and what the people were doing fascinated me.
And they liked that I was interested and wanted to know, because their own children and grandchildren were trying so hard to “be American” and didn’t want to know all these dances. They would take me home and show me all this great fun stuff.
Z: But do you think all of that is being lost now?
M: Oh, yes. Except, in some ways, its evolved into Al Jeel…or Raks Shaabi, Mideastern “pop” dancing, with singers like Hakim or Amr Diab. It’s not really done just for performance, it’s done when people want to boogie. So real folk dancing evolves and changes, but you need to know where it came from to get a handle on where it’s going.
It wasn’t that I set out to be a historian, but to satisfy my own curiosity. When I found all these different answers to the same questions the only way to find out the truth, or so I thought, was to actually go to these places (countries) and see for myself. I found out they were ALL telling me the truth, as they saw it.
Even within the same country, you could have different interpretations within the different ethnic group or village. You go to any village in Lebanon, and maybe each family has their own version of the Debke. So that there is so much out there, but its all going down the tube as the older people die off and the younger ones don’t want to do it, or they are too busy doing other things. That’s a great pity.
Z: Do you find that the Westerners are interested in learning these dances?
M: I’m finding that more and more people are interested in learning these dances, the history and culture that goes with it. I mean, you can teach a robot to do movement, but it’s what’s in the movement, the attitude you do it with, the way it’s supposed to be presented, that takes it from mechanics to the dance. But then you have these factions, or categories, of some people who want to learn the dance, or some people who just want to learn a style…this style or that style which I find amusing because the style, usually involves what kind of music you’re dancing to, more than anything. The movement vocabulary is the movement vocabulary. Then there are people who want the fantasy. The “I’m so sexy” harem fantasy, not realizing that it’s an Orientalist colonialist male fantasy. There were no places where there were masses of women running around in see-through shalwar. For instance, in Turkey, most of the women in the Grand Harem of the Sultan were slaves, and the way they “competed” was in the richness and elaborateness of their many-layered dress. They were never naked, the way Western painting would have you believe. Those painters, they could never get away with painting naked white women, in their day, so they pretended to depict “The Harem of the Lascivious Turk” or “The Carnal Moor.”
Unfortunately, people bought into that fantasy. But Harem means forbidden or safe/ sanctuary in Arabic. This was the inner sanctuary where your wives, your mother and your aunt, your female cousins, and their female servants were.
Z: So is that your pet peeve?
M: Yes, it is. If you are so insecure with yourself that you are dancing this dance as some kind of sexual turn on. I mean, when I am dancing, sometimes 90 miles an hour, working that music and sweating, what’s so sexy about that? Besides, I don’t need a whole dance to inform people whether I’m sexy or not….look, this dance in Lebanese, is called Raks Farrah, or “Happiness Dance.” In Egyptian, “farrah” means wedding, and there’s usually a dancer at weddings, even in these conservative times in Egypt. When I was there two Januaries ago, at all the wedding processions, they didn’t have professional women doing them, but all men. But when the band started to play, everyone got up and did Raks Sharqi, but socially, in their party clothes. However they weren’t paying a woman to put on a costume that you wouldn’t see any woman wear on the street.
Z: On that note, how do you feel about the new conservative notions in Egypt? Or the not so conservative attitudes about some of the dancers in Egypt? For example, what about Dina (a dancer well known for exceptional technique as well as skin revealing outfits)?
M: Well, Dina is being Dina. She thinks she’s making a big statement. She is a beautiful woman, extremely intelligent but, in a lot of ways, she’s a product of her own culture. One that says that if you put on bedlah (costume) and dance in a public place in front of males that aren’t part of your own family, you’re already pushing that border of what is acceptable. So you think, “ok, I’ve already crossed that line, so here are a couple more lines to draw in the sand.” My feeling is that, if you have something on that’s so short that you can practically do a DNA test while you’re in it, that detracts from the dance. But if she thinks that this wakes people up, then that’s her choice. But my choice is that, if you want them to watch you dancing, you wear something that highlights the dance.
Within the context of what’s going on in the dance, Mahmoud Reda (Of the famed Reda Troupe in Egypt) was inspired by the folk dances and dances of the time and region. He made them into tableaux, to show the flavors of the dance. To me, he was doing something far more complex and artistic than simply a matter of costuming. But today, the nightclub business is down the tubes because tourism is way down. So there is no nightclub scene in Cairo anymore, it started going way down in the latter half of 1993.
Z: And why was that?
M: Economics. The market shifted. The prices in the nightclubs are such in Cairo that your average Egyptian can’t afford to go there. It was the wealthy, the businessmen, and the tourists who went. The expatriate Lebanese would go, the tourists from the Gulf would go. But then a lot of things changed. The civil war is over in Lebanon, so the expatriates all went back and took their business with them. Some of the older Gulf tourists, if the extremists saw them in Gulf dress or heard a Gulf accent, would follow them and say “you lock up your own women and don’t drink in your country, but you come to our country for both. Go back to where you came from.” They’re not going to spend their money in places where they are being harassed. The younger Gulf tourists that come to Cairo, they don’t want to sit and watch dancers. They want to dance themselves, so they go to the discos and dance and listen to the modern Jeel and Shaabi singers. Plus, there was the Gulf War and so the Saudis and Kuwaitis that used to go to Cairo are busy rebuilding their countries and businesses. The market changed in that direction.
Z: Speaking of wars, how do you feel about the incidents perpetrated here recently?
M: On some level, I’m still walking around in shock. On the dance level, it hasn’t affected my seminars, but some of the nightclub performances have been canceled. Classes are still going strong. We did a performance at Sacred Heart University (in Connecticut) a week, to the day, after and I was a little worried about what the reaction would be, but I called for a moment of silence and explained that this was a folk dance that people do for joy and that these insane, suicidal wackos not only have nothing to do with Islam, but they have nothing to do with the principles of Christianity, or Judaism and one of the first thing they would do is to lock us up at home, under sheets and prevent any kind of dancing in public. So someone said, and I picked up on it: ‘ by continuing to dance, we can be the stone in the shoe of every terrorist out there.’ And they were a wonderful audience, they loved it, and it was a fabulous reception. And we’ll see what happens as far as the nightclub performances are concerned.
What I am worried about is that, if things escalate, people in their cultural ignorance will target things that have nothing to do with these extremist murderers.
Z: Because of that, do you feel that Oriental Dance in the long run will suffer?
M: I don’t know. The jury is still out on that. When the Gulf War happened, my student body went down by a third. In some ways, this is more serious on the other hand the good news is that people, including Bush, are making announcements not to take things out on the Arabs or other Muslims. I hope they listen to him.
Z: So then what do you see for yourself in the future?
M: I still see myself dancing. I want to keep doing what I doing until six weeks after I’m dead. I don’t really know what’s going to happen in the future, but I say what I always say. From here, it’s onward and upward.
Drums have always called to me on both a primal and creative level. However, as I have taught over the years, I’ve learned that not everybody feels the same calling to drums and drum solos as I do, so I broke down my approach to drum solos that I hope will help others.
Just for fun, I used an acronym: SHIMMY FEST. These letters stand for the following tips:
SHARP: You must be able to move your body percussively, so you’ll need to develop the basic dance techniques to do so. Work on Locks, Pops, Drops, and Stops. For example, practice your hip shimmies in the soft, relaxed style, working only through the knees. Then tighten your glutes, your quadriceps, even your abs when you move from side to side. This will give you crisp, punctuating hip movements. You should see the difference in your hip wrap: coins or beads will vibrate when doing soft shimmies, but should flip up when doing sharps. Both the pelvis and chest allow for pops and drops that are perfect for hitting accents.
Besides the usual sharp movements, however, try breaking down a normally smooth movement. For example, I like to take a chest undulation and articulate it into four crisp points (front, arch, roll down position 1, roll down position 2). I’ll also begin a chest undulation, but when I reach the pinnacle of the circle (arch), I’ll finish with a decisive chest drop. You can also articulate your snake arms, making them appear almost robotic in their movement. Start with one shoulder and lift it sharply. The shoulder will drop as you bring the elbow up and then drop it, dropping the hand straight down at the same time. Now flick the hand back up. Reverse the action on the other arm.
HIPS: For me, hips are the foundation of a good drum solo performance. Practice big and little hip movements, fast and slow variations. Work on breaking big movements down into small, sharp ones (like we broke down the chest undulation and snake arms—try it for figure eights, hip circles). Master your lightning-fast shimmies and then slide them side to side, transferring your weight from foot to foot. Add a shimmy to virtually any other movement like a forward pelvic roll or a figure eight. This is particularly effective when done to a drum roll or when the drum is so fast, you couldn’t possibly hit each beat. Try putting your weight on your upstage leg, freeing your downstage hip to hit ups, steps down, circles, vertical figure eights. This will focus the audience’s attention on one specific point and allow you a brief respite from all those shimmies! Another technique involves beginning a smooth hip movement on your right hip (like a Maia) but then switching to a sharp movement (like sharp drops) when you move to your left hip. Very effective when the drum has a soft roll followed by one or two sharp pops.
ISOLATIONS: Isn’t this dance all about controlling your body and isolating the different areas of your body? Really work on keeping your upper body still while your hips and legs move (and vice versa). Also, polish your slow movements. Contrary to what a drum solo initially tells you, it does not need to be all sharps and stops. A slinky undulation or rolling maias lay nicely over a soft drum roll. To better isolate the parts of your body, make sure you are well stretched—particularly the muscles along the sides of your torso. If I could only do one stretch before a performance, it would be the side lean with my arm over my head. This stretches from the ribs to the hips and really loosens your entire torso up. When these muscles are tight, it is nearly impossible to isolate your upper body from your lower. However, when these muscles are nice and long, your chest can float effortlessly over choo choo shimmies and your hips can be a rock beneath your oscillating chest. Another technique to employ is the posture lift: take a really deep breath, filling your lungs completely and feeling your chest lift naturally. Now exhale, but keep your ribcage lifted. You have now increased the distance between the ribcage and the pelvis by up to two inches. Instead of your ribs essentially sitting on your pelvis, you now have a long buffer (your waist) between the two working parts.
MOVEMENT: While I usually stay in place for a drum solo—the nature of the song just calls for that kind of attention—you can travel a bit. Practice travelling steps that you can accomplish quickly like three-step-turns and short running steps. A good time to travel or turn is during pauses in the music or on drum rolls. Try also just moving to a different position—with your back to the audience, side to the audience, or on the diagonal.
MIND/BODY: Your mind must be actively involved not just in knowing your dance vocabulary, but in knowing the music inside and out. I know many dancers who will perform to a piece of music they’ve only heard a few times, but with a drum solo, you simply can’t “fake it.” Also, try to hear it as more than simply drums. Try to sing the drum solo on your own (“badump-ba-dump-dump, dum da-dump-dump,” raising and lowering your voice) and hear the melody in the drums. Hear all the pauses and the level of the drums (soft or loud). Feel the mood of the piece. While most drum solos are high energy, some are playful, others fiery, others passionate, some all three.
YOWZA FACTOR: If you choose not to choreograph your drum solo—and to be honest, while I usually choreograph my other dances, I really enjoy the spontaneity of improvising to drums—try planning out a couple of dynamic combinations for particularly noticeable parts of the drum solo. For example, if the song has a long fast roll followed by several sharp doom-doom-dooms, try a twisting shimmy and then hit the accents with a pelvic tuck, stomach tuck, chest pop (so the sharp moves travel right up your body). If you have a couple of killer combos, it can really add punch to an improvisational piece and will relieve you of having to come up with something new every time.
FUN: If you don’t have it, your audience certainly won’t. Need I say more? Ok, I will. Even if you’re nervous, you should enjoy your music, enjoy your dance. Otherwise, what are you doing on stage? Practice your smile just like you practice your shimmies. You do not, however, always have to smile. Do an eyebrow shrug to a drum pop, look surprised at your own chest pops—the audience loves that one because they won’t feel guilty about looking at your cleavage if you make them laugh.
ENERGY: See FUN. Work on putting your heart and soul into your moves. Does the drum solo say raw power? Let the audience see it in your face and the strength of your hip movements. A hypnotic, trance-like drum solo should be approached with a completely different attitude and energy, but attitude and energy need to be there regardless of the mood of the piece. Your facial expressions will make all the difference in the world as to how your audience responds to your dance. I cannot tell you how many times I have worked my shimmy off in a drum solo only to have an audience member has said they loved my facial expressions! I used to think I was doing something wrong until I realized that many in our audience don’t really know enough to appreciate all the hard work and technique that goes into a performance, but they do recognize and identify with a laugh, a wink, a pout. Your more experienced audience members will appreciate your hard work AND your facial expressions.
STAMINA: You must be physically prepared to do a drum solo or your exhaustion will show and your moves will become sloppiest just when they need to be sharpest. This is true for any piece of music you wish to perform, but especially for the intensity of drum solos. You can’t rely on performance adrenaline to carry you through, either. That stage-presence rush may keep the energy in your heart and the smile on your face, but if you aren’t fit enough to finish the piece, your muscles simply won’t be serving you like they should. I usually dance a 5 minute drum solo a minimum of 4 times in a row at each practice session. I know if I can have as much detail in the last run through as I did on the first, I’ll be able to give my best in performance. I know that many instructors advise their students to take up another form of aerobic exercise to build stamina. In my experience, I’ve found that a loop tape of 20 minutes of drum solos will have me sweating sufficiently and is a whole lot more fun than a step class! One final tip on stamina—try daily deep breathing exercises. Inhale slowly and deeply, feeling your ribs stretch with the breath. Hold it for a few seconds and then slowly, slowly exhale. Repeat at least two more times and do this at least three times a day. You will be amazed at how this conditions your lungs for high-intensity work outs like drum solos.
TIME: While this is largely subjective, I really think that a drum solo over 5-6 minutes is just too long for you to dance to and for the audience to listen too. While I love drums, the richness and complexity that all the other instruments provide is just as valuable and your drum solo will stand out even more if you haven’t drummed it to death!
I hope these tips help you enjoy and perfect your next drum solo!
Michelle Morrison teaches in Albuquerque, New Mexico, is the founder of dance troupe, Farfesha, and has just released her first instructional video, Joyous Laughter Volume I: Belly Dance Basics with Michelle, Technique and Practice. Visit her at www.farfesha.com.
Anahid Sofian was my teacher in the 70’s in NYC, and I was honored to conduct this interview and touch base with the woman who did more to influence my dancing and love of Oriental Dance than any other person. Anahid and I shared several conversations this past week wherein we explored many issues. The result of the interview is presented in narrative form, but was in response to many questions including: How do you view the dance scene today? What would you like to see more of in dancers? What advice can you give dancers? What is your view on dancer associations? How do you reconcile interpretive and innovative dance with extremely technical and choreographed dance? What spurred you on to establish your own dance company?
I am very happy to see a tremendous interest… the dance did die out in the 80’s and 90’s, but there is a viable scene today. What I’m not happy to see is a less individualistic and creative approach to the dance. The modern Egyptian style that is in vogue and popular now (referred to as Raqs Sharki) is very beautiful and exciting, but it is limited. It does not fully express and utilize the marvelous range in the dance. When I was learning the dance in the Sixties from the Turkish and Arabic dancers in New York City, I learned Oriental Dance as a suite of dances, with numerous rhythms and mood changes. And ultimately, very individualistic, which is one of its great beauties.
I miss the musicianship of the dancer through the use of her zills, the lyrical beauty and mystery of the veil, and the power and drama of floorwork. The modern Egyptian style (and I am delineating from the “Arabic” style) uses only Egyptian rhythms. Oriental Dance can also draw from other Arabic, Turkish, Persian, Greek and Armenian music – a much wider range. There are some practitioners in the modern Egyptian style who say it is the only “authentic” one. I appreciate the purism of the modern Egyptian style, and believe in preserving traditional forms, but Oriental Dance is certainly authentic! The dance exists throughout the Near and Middle East on so many different levels, from the street to the concert stage, from Morocco to Turkey. It is authentic to use finger cymbals, it is authentic to use many different rhythms. Regarding the “authenticity” of the veil, I can’t imagine anything being more authentically middle eastern than a veil!
Another beauty of Oriental Dance is its improvisational nature. It is not strictly structured or choreographed, although the dancer certainly needs to know the music and have good technique. When choreographed, the dance loses something in spontaneity and spirit. Frankly, I get bored after a while watching a routine that I can count out and predict, although I do appreciate good technique and skill.
Choreography is good and necessary in the classroom or if setting a group piece, but you can use moments of improvisation even within choreography. Improvisation, though, does not mean doing whatever you want. You can’t go out there being interpretive without a technical base. Technique gives you freedom. It gives you control. Jazz musicians continue to play Bach and Mozart. A jazz musician’s saying is: “You have to know the rules before you can break them.”
Technical skill is important, and musicality is extremely important. You must know your music. We used to call it “having an oriental head,” which meant understanding the phrasing and feeling of the music. This is something that’s hard to impart to a student. It comes from listening to music constantly, all music: Folk, Sufi, Persian, Armenian, Turkish, etc. A dancer should also go to all kinds of events, not just to see dancers. One gets knowledge and inspiration from many sources.
As an aspiring artist, a student must explore and develop her spiritual authenticity. She must have a direct connection of doing everything with complete heart and soul. Dancers who affect me the most have a total involvement and commitment ¾ they give each movement and each moment its due. Nothing is thrown away. They are also completely honest and completely themselves. I don’t want to watch a wind-up doll, no matter how technically proficient or how prettily she smiles. I want to watch a dancer with this spiritual authenticity. Developing this takes a very very long time.
I think that, overall, the standard of performance today is lower than in the 60’s. A lot of dancers are out there too soon. They get a costume and learn a routine and then out they go. In New York City in the 60’s there were a dozen flourishing nightclubs. In any one nightclub you could see three different dancers with live music. The standards had to be high to get and keep a job. Today there are no venues or standard setters. There are no clubs or places open offering live music and dancing on a full time basis. It makes it difficult for new dancers to get experience or to see the stars so they know what they are striving for.
I think an association is an excellent idea – a workshop I did recently in Baton Rouge was sponsored by a dancers’ association. The field is highly competitive because there just aren’t enough outlets for dancers. But cooperatives and associations can work well. Dancers need to create their own venues. Today there is a tremendous interest in study but a lack of performance opportunities. In my case, I didn’t want to be at the mercy of the clubs – I was determined to create my own situations. I also wanted to take this dance out of the nightclub and into the mainstream. I pursued museums, rented halls, booked my own bands, and was even willing to go into debt. With an association or cooperative, dancers can develop these venues more effectively as a group. They might also be able to get funding as a sponsor organization.
Regarding my interest in a dance company, I had this inclination early on. In my youth I studied ballet and modern dance. At 13 years old, after four months of ballet, I choreographed a dance for four of my friends. Our mothers made us crepe paper costumes … it was rather a rip off of Swan Lake. As I developed as a dancer, I wanted to share and see my ideas beyond a solo. I needed more bodies moving in space. After my trip to Morocco to film the folkloric festival in Marrakesh, I came home inspired, picked my best students, and we had the debut of the Anahid Sofian Dance Company in 1979. Performance is my first love, but teaching and developing choreography for a group is an outgrowth of this love and expands my creativity.
What is the one thing you know for sure?
I have to dance. I’ve always had to dance. I know that one way or another I have to have dance in my life.
[Editor’s note: This article first appeared in the March/April 2002 issue of the Middle-Eastern Dance in New England Newsletter]
Most people are familiar with Yin and Yang — the two basic, complementary principles to which Chinese philosophy assigns all things. The Yin principle corresponds to the feminine, passivity, darkness, and the earth, while the Yang speaks of the masculine, action, brightness, and the sky. They are represented by the Tai Chi, a circular symbol composed of a dark half (Yin), and a light half (Yang) — with the center of each containing a point of the opposite colour. This shows the perfect equilibrium of Yin and Yang, and signifies the interdependence of the two opposites. Now, without a doubt, bellydance comes in on the Yin side of things — very much so, with its essence-of-femaleness base and origins as a fertility ritual and Goddess dance. And I’ve begun to see that the further I delve into bellydance, the more of my time and myself I devote to this art, the more I seem to crave ways of balancing this feminine, or Yin, orientation.
The impulse to seek out the masculine is especially strong as it relates to the physical sphere — exercise and/or body stuff. So what is my work-out of choice? Aquafit or jazzercize classes? Think again! For a while I was very into kick-boxing, but lately I’ve gone sort of crazy for weights. The girly 5 lb. Dumbbells my mom uses didn’t satisfy me for long. I progressed rather quickly from 15 to 20 to 25 … and now 30 lbs. in each hand. That goes along with working out on a whole range of equipment including Pec Deck and the 4-in-1 Grizzly Gym. And not for me to train at some chi-chi, upscale fitness operation — I prefer Alfie’s Gym, a down-and-dirty hole in the wall where the appearance of the place counts for zilch, where big guys go to sweat and grunt and get strong.
But that’s not the end of it. I’ve also become very interested in wrestling! Not only as a spectator (though I feel competent discussing the style and idiosyncrasies of The Rock, Stone Cold Steve Austin, and Trish Stratus, among others), but as a potential participant. The appealing combination of muscle and bluster has led me to investigate the professional wrestling school here in Toronto, and I can often be found poring over videos and books with titles like “Massive At Last” and “IronMan Magazine”. All this much to the consternation of family and friends, I might add. Who knows where it will lead, but for right now it seems like the perfect counter-balance to the essential ‘femaleness’ of my bellydance involvement.
And I’m not alone! Many of my bellydance colleagues have found themselves being drawn to what are traditionally viewed as ‘masculine’ pursuits and activities. Co-incidence? I think not.
Several of my bellydance friends were devoted a while back to training in the strenuous martial art of capoeira, for example. This deadly form of combat and self defense, born in the “senzalas” of Brazil where African slaves were kept, was disguised as a form of folk dance so its true purpose as a way of honing the natural warrior and forming a resistance against their captors would not be apparent. The fast, tricky, acrobatic movements of capoeira became the key element of the jungle war that was fought; it became the weapon and symbol of freedom for thousands of enslaved Africans. Due to its fierce and political origins, historically of course, the capoeristas were men. Today a small number of women have taken up this art … again, what an ideal balance to the yin of bellydance.
Then there’s the dancer who scarfs down red meat first thing in the morning — big slabs of beef, steaks and burgers, delivering a walloping protein cement blocks all day than to someone who’s about to don chiffon and beads for a spate of ballet shimmies. Or what about another colleague who worked briefly as a dominatrix in a dungeon? Consider the strength-and-submission reversal here — it’s the ultimate assertiveness role-playing. Emotional, yes, but also physical when you think about the wielding of power implicit in the whips-and-chains scene.
What about you … have you recognized some mysterious attraction to an essentially ‘masculine’ or male activity or area of endeavour? Then take a closer look at dance friends and troupe members — you may learn something intriguing! Yin and yang: it’s all about the balance that fuels the world’s spiritual energy. Night and day. Work and play. Sweet and savoury. Male and female. Bellydance and ???
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