In the Belly of Nuit
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April 2014

Plugging In To The Power Source

Giving in to the source, whether it be the pelvis or the floor or Arab music or Arab culture is the moment one becomes a Bellydancer.

Sohair Zaki, Samia Gamal, Naqua Fouad, Dina, Tahia Carioca, Fifi Abdou, Naima Akef, Mona Said and all the greats of the art form we call Bellydance are vastly different artists with vastly different movement and emotional expression. However, they have two things in common.

When it comes to movement, all is connected to their pelvis and the ground through their feet. Because of this, they communicate a sense of effortlessness despite how complex and intricate their movements are. No matter how energetic they may become, the audience never senses a tense muscle in their body. All of the movements were created as an emotional reaction to the music.

When it comes to emotionality, again these dancers are vastly different, but they are all connected to the same source. I like to use the analogy of the power bar into which you can plug in your stereo and the TV, the radio, your blow dryer and the vacuum cleaner. No matter what type of outlet and plug may be used in different countries, they all connect to the same electrical source. That power source is the emotionality of classical Arab music which arises from Arab culture. Arab pop music does not count as it has no depth and emotional range with its mono rhythm and mono scale.  The creativity that can be unleashed when connected to the power source of Arab music and culture is infinite. 

Thus there are infinite styles, including that of Randa Kamel who many would argue is very Westernized in her interpretation. Indeed she has some balletic and jazzy type steps but she is always using the ground as her power source, never defying gravity and expresses the source of Arab music in her new world way. Randa Kamel is often more popular with foreigners than with Egyptians. Often non-Middle Eastern dancers can relate to her Western style movement and thus they copy her. Unfortunately, performing the same steps without the effortless submission to the ground and to the source of Arab music, just ends up looking like diluted jazz and ballet with a few hip accents and shimmies thrown in. 

I always tell my students that in order for a non-Arab to become a good Bellydancer, they have to listen to Oum Kalthoum 24 hours a day for at least two years and visit Egypt at least once. In other words, they need to immerse themselves in the culture and music in order to become connected with the source. Of course, many years of studying good technique is a given, but letting go and giving in to the source, whether it be the pelvis or the floor or Arab music or Arab culture is the moment one becomes a Bellydancer.

(Really having problems lately with the term "Bellydance" and what it has come to represent...a future blog post, I guess. In the thoughts above I am referring to the art form probably better named Raqs Sharqi as obviously the points above do not pertain to Tribal or other fusion forms.)

Samia Gamal

Aspirations of Today's Bellydancer

It seems that until recently, generally a professional Bellydancer's highest goal (outside of Folklore troupes in M.E.) was to be a soloist in an Arab night club in the West or Middle East. Much to the dismay of our young Bellydance sisters of today, they have to hear about the glory days of acoustic musicians, singers, and audiences made up of families of recent Arab immigrants still in touch with their culture  while knowing full well that the reality of today's Bellydancer does not resemble this.

Lobby pro courseWhen I began teaching the Arabesque two-week intensive Pro Course 14 years ago, much of the course was geared towards a career in these kinds of venues. Increasingly over the years, I began to hear about the dismal situation of the Arab night club both in the Middle East and in the West. Six to 40 acoustic musicians have now become a CD or one guy on a keyboard with a drum machine. Audiences are often men with mistresses or even prostitutes. Performances that were once 45 minutes long and included folklore are now 20 minutes and no sign of folklore. Even more emphasis than ever is being placed on appearance and in particular explicit sexual attributes over talent and artistry. One night a week instead of three to six and on that one night, MAYBE one Bellydance performance. Another Arab night club closes every year with lack of clientele. Revenue per show is getting less and less as there are more and more Bellydance students eager to get on a stage without a care for income. How this phenomena happened is a whole other blog post. No matter what the causes, performing in an Arab night club may be a good practice arena but hardly an inspiring goal to work towards anymore. Now students taking the Pro Course are concerned with a different future and they relish the experience working with the Arabesque musicians only as a way to touch base with the roots of their art form.

There are hundreds of Bellydancers all over the world becoming pro everyday. What is the future for these hard working and passionate dancers?

Arabesque Immersion FinalRecently, Arabesque began an experiment in a city 5 hours drive away, in Montreal, Canada insitgated by one of their local dance artists Angelica Jordan. Over 5 months, training was offered specifically in the Arabesque technique, choreography and philosophy with the end goal of preparing some of the Montreal area dancers to join in Arabesque Dance Company & Orchestra's newest production called SAWAH. The experiment was well received and it has opened my eyes to the idea that the future for pro Bellydancers will be in companies like BDSS, Jillina's Bellydance Evolution, Bellyqueen, Amir Thaleb's company, Arabesque and many more.

And then it hit me, this is the future that aligns with my 30 year wish to establish Bellydance as a mainstream respected art form. Maybe I was not so crazy with my vision for  Arabesque Dance Company in 1992. Maybe we are at a crossroads in the history of Bellydance. I am often sorry that my students can not experience the glory days of the Arab night club and it seems they are not coming back anytime soon. Maybe it is a blessing in disguise because it is forcing us to express our art in different paths. Maybe the future holds for us an Alvin Ailey type company or a Martha Graham Dance Company of Bellydance including the years of serious training that entails. This has always been my dream, but, for the first time, I realize it may be coming true.

Coffee Shop frpm upstage wing


1/ Pro Course students of 2005 hanging out on break - 90% have gone on to successful careers as soloists, directors of dance companies and schools.

2/ Poster for the first 4 day workshop of the Arabesque Immersion series in Montreal Sept. 21-24, 2013 - just finished the forth part of the series which included more workshops and auditions - Feb. 1/2, 2014

3/ Arabesque Dance Company & Orchestra at Fleck Dance Theatre in the Coffee Shop choreography (from the wings)

True to Thyself - Post Sawah Production Thoughts

SAWAH INSIDE INFO # 10 (out of 10) - True to Thyself

What did I learn in the making of SAWAH? More than ever I have learned that I must listen to and trust my instincts about music choice, costumes, lighting and of course movement.

In INSIDE INFO # 1 (out of 10), I mentioned that I had been asking Arabesque Orchestra for 5 pieces of music over the years which they refused for a variety of reasons but for some reason, in SAWAH, there was less resistance and I got all 5 of my music wishes to come true.

I always tell my students to choose music to dance to that they are passionate about and moves them, no matter what style. I finally took my own advice in a complete way with SAWAH.

Often the ADCO dancers oppose some costume choices over the years that are new and have not been done before. I usually try not to listen and it always works out. One of the choreographies in Sawah had an initial costume idea which there was a lot of opposition to so I tried to dilute the idea which ended up in a shipment of costumes that are now for sale and never used. The last minute make-shift costume that resulted worked well but I am kicking myself for not sticking to my guns because a few days ago I saw another dance company use the same original idea and it was very effective. 

As usual, there was no time to create choreography for my solo, so I had a foundation of ideas to get me started and then improvised each performance. On Friday night, my parents were in the audience. The music I had chosen was Wahashtiini which I used to dance to with Nour Mehanna in Damascus. My family and friends thought I was crazy to be spending so much time in Syria in those days and were hoping my "Bellydance phase" would soon be over. That night in SAWAH, I tried to explain to them through my movement why I was in Syria all those years, to let them have a glimpse of the joy I felt every night on stage dancing to musical pieces like Wahashtiini with such exquisite musicians. I am so glad I was finally able to consciously communicate that sentiment to them.

Everyone around me in the 80s and 90s including fellow Bellydancers thought I was crazy to go and stay in Syria so often and for such long periods of time. But now I know that if I hadn't, SAWAH would have never happened.

Here is to being true to oneself where ever possible. I have learned to listen to that voice and instinct and trust it more, no matter how many people think I am crazy. Often what is labelled crazy at the time is later named brilliance.

Shine on...

pic below is me as an awkward 12 year old - ya, I play classical guitar and used to write my own songs.


SAWAH - INSIDE INFO #2 (out of 10)

Arabesque has almost doubled in size to over 43 dancers and musicians for SAWAH. On top of that, everyone is getting in everyone's business. 

Bassam makes it known where he thinks hand movements should be added or when dancers should face up or down stage. Watching him demonstrate a Bellydance move when trying to explain a point of view is precious. And Yasmina often has input musically about how she needs a piece to begin or end but now she has much more input to the musical arrangement all around, let alone finally convincing Bassam and Suleiman to play five pieces in SAWAH that they previously refused to. Last few Drum Solos Suleiman has composed have come complete with choreography notes for certain parts. Yup, Bassam and Suleiman are now choreographers and Yasmina is a musical arranger.

SAWAH is all about collaboration between East and West, music and dance, Ontario and Quebec.

Info & tix:

Musicians in Arabesque studio - SAWAH