In the Belly of Nuit
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February 2014

January 2014

The Truth: Bitter & Sweet

For several years back in the early 1980s, I was performing 2 shows a night,  6 nights a week with 5-6 musicians  at a night club called Cleopatra as well as many weddings, baptisms and other special occasions. I was living and working in a dance cocoon, dancing only for the Arab community, mentored by the Arab community and watching hours and hours of Sohair Zaki, Nagua Fouad and Fifi Abdo. I had not yet become aware of the international non-Arab Bellydance community, not even the huge one just to south of the Canadian border.

Elena-LentiniOne day, I was informed by the the club owner that there was a Middle Eastern Dance Association (MEDAH) that was hosting a dance artist from NYC. Her name was Elena Lentini and she would be a guest dancer performing the 2nd show in Cleopatra for one evening. She rehearsed with the musicians who told me they knew she was a pro because of her understanding of the music. I was in awe and excited to meet this dance artist and see her perform. Also, I was lonely, eager to be friends with another Bellydancer, eager to learn.

Her performance was amazing. I was a fan right away and gushed. She was so interesting and her creative interpretation was based in understanding the music.  She danced with an Arab soul but infused with very unique expression and movement I had never seen before. Afterwards, I went to the dressing room to express my admiration. I did not realize her approval of my performance would mean anything to me, let alone something I carried with me for 30 years until June of 2013.

She was sweet, gracious and complimented me. She said "you look very beautiful up there on stage". She did not mention my dance ability.  Her words cut me to my core and broke my heart. I was such a popular dancer with more work than I could take on. Somewhere along the line, I must have assumed that meant I was a good dancer. Of course it is all relative but in Elena's world, my dance ability was negligible so she was kind enough to find something to compliment me about - my appearance.  I cried when I went home that night. My bubble was burst and I was hurt, but remained a hardcore fan and admirer, hoping to see her perform again someday. More importantly, I realized I had a lot of work to do. No way, I was going to coast on my appearance.

Yasmina gold capeLast Summer I had the opportunity to teach and perform at the Theatrical Bellydance Conference in NYC. One of the reasons I wanted to be there was to see and take workshops from Elena Lentini who was also on the roster. Unfortunately her workshops and mine were always at the same time so I could not learn from her but I saw her company perform - brilliant choreography. The next night I was not performing so I snuck in the dark to the back row of the audience. When the lights came on at intermission, I could swear the person sitting beside me WAS Elena Lentini. She got up to leave so I tapped her and asked if indeed she was was Elena. She turned around and proceeded to exclaim "Oh Yasmina, it is wonderful to see you. Your performance at the International Conference on Middle Eastern Dance in California in 2000 was amazing. I tell all my students they have to watch your videos. Your work is wonderful."

Needless to say, I was speechless. 

Because of my insecurity, being so new to the scene in 1983 and deep down not believing I deserved to be on the same stage as a seasoned artist like herself, I heard her words that night in Cleopatra in a negative light. The fact of the matter was my insecurities were correct and based on reality. Of course I got many jobs based more on my looks than my talent in the early days. How on earth could I expect to have any discernable skill level after only a couple years expereince compared to Elena's longer career. Fortunately I had the tenacity and work ethic that saved me from the fate of the fleetingly popular dancer. Relentlessly, I put in the many years of sacrifice and hard work needed to be a seasoned dancer with some chops. She gave me an honest compliment  in 1983. At least she didn't lie and feed me a b***s*** line in order to appease my ego. If she had, then the words she said to me in 2013 would have had no meaning. Of course, I admire her even more for the gift of truth she gave me and consider her one of my important teachers.


Bias Confession

This blog post is in praise of learning from different teachers and to never let negative gossip and biased opinions shade your heart and mind from being open to new ideas.

I had the profound good fortune in the 1980s and 90s to study Egyptian dance with the late great Mohamed Khalil (director of National Folklore Troupe of Egypt, Nagua Fouad's choreographer and all around dedicated advocate of Egyptian dance) in the Balloon Theatre in Cairo and again when I hosted him to teach workshops in Toronto.  He, Aida Nour and Robert Desrosiers are the biggest influences on the dance artist I became. At the time, I was surrounded by people of Mohamed Khalil's camp who tended to sing the praises of the National Folklore Troupe of Egypt over that of the Reda Troupe. Even though I would often hear of the virtues of Mahmoud Reda and Farida Fahme, unfortunately, my view of the Reda Troupe was already coloured by the views of my first mentors who were part of a large rivalry between the two dance companies. Even a Toronto teacher Habeeba Hobeika had hosted Mahmoud Reda to teach in Toronto and I did not bother to attend the workshop (how dumb is that?).

Then I found myself many years later, in 2009, eating dinner one beautiful evening on a balcony in Madrid. I was headlining as a teacher at Raks Madrid. The woman sitting across from me was Farida Fahme and to my immediate left was Mahmoud Reda. Every precious moment of that meal is etched into my memory as one of the greatest highlights of my life. First and foremost I talked choreography for the first time with someone who spoke my language and not only that,  with one of the greatest choreographers ever, inside or outside of Egypt. His sensitivity and imagination was limitless. I realized throughout the evening that I have felt so alone in my choreography journey all these years. Why couldn't I have met Mahmoud 20 years earlier? Why did I not study with him? Then Farida shared stories of the hardships in the early days of getting the Reda Troupe off the ground. Any self pity I had previously about my trials and tribulations with Arabesque quickly evaporated in the face of what she and Mahmoud had been through and still face.

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Needless to say, I fell in love with Mahmoud Reda that evening and was in awe of Farida Fahme. I was humbled, inspired and elated overall. Subsequently I met with Mahmoud in Egypt several times to arrange to bring him to Canada to impart to Bellydancers from around the world at the International Bellydance Conference of Canada the same stories he told me in Madrid. Throughout the rest of the week at the Madrid dance festival, I of course attended Mahmoud's and Farida's classes whenever I was not teaching myself. Then I finally got to see first hand his genius and the profound influence he has had on molding the Egyptian dance we know today. At all other meals, I tried to sit near them again if only to bask in their aura. When we finally got Mahmoud to the conference in Canada in 2012, I ate every meal with him  for five days and revelled in his wicked sense of humour and again limitless creative imagination.

I am forever grateful that my first folklore training was with the indominable spirit of Mohamed Khalil and his authentic and passionate interpretation of Egyptian dance. It has contributed to my style which I would never want to change but I do wish I had come to also learn from the creative genius and the pure sweet heart that is Mahmoud Reda earlier in my career. Ironically, my other influential teacher, Aida Nour, was part of the Reda Troupe even when I first met her in 1982 but I only knew her then as a Bellydancer. There is a definitive difference between the two choreographers, which is all the more reason to study from both. On this wider path of my learning journey, I am now offered so many more options to choose from that can contribute to my personal and unique style.

Moral of the story is not to believe other's biases until you have tried for yourself. You may miss out on what could become great learning and inspirational opportunities. By trying everything for yourself, you might find there is plenty of variety to learn from in a wide range of teachers, which in return , will help to mold you into your own true, unique artist.

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Note: Will eventually publish pics with Mohamed Khalil but they have yet to be put in digitalized form.

New Year Resolutions For 2014

ADC at Winter gala 2013
Dance alone in the studio more.

No more smoking except for the occssional shisha.

Meditate more. 

Remind myself everyday how lucky I am.

Savour every interaction with all those I cross paths with.

Keep seeking truth and love.

Stop censoring myself in an effort not to offend others.

Be fearless about my vision of Bellydance or whatever this art form is called.

Pull out all the stops - this is the year we liberate Bellydance from the cage of sequins and the like.