In the Belly of Nuit
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December 2015

Only One New Year Resolution For 2016

In January of 2014, I published my nine New Year resolutions in this blog but I only accomplished them in 2015 as follows:

1/ Dance alone in the studio more.

2/ No more smoking except for the occasional shisha.

3/ Meditate more. 

4/ Remind myself everyday how lucky I am.

5/ Savour every interaction with all those I cross paths with.

6/ Keep seeking truth and love.

7/ Stop censoring myself in an effort not to offend others.

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

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

I have only one 2016 New year resolution and it is to quit being so busy and stop to smell the roses...and jasmin...and lilacs.



Bellydance as Sexualized Spectacle

If you believe that sex is a sacred and holy expression of the miracle of the universe and/or an expression of infinite love, then Bellydance is the perfect vehicle for this message.

Many women who study Bellydance find it empowering because the archetypal movement and nuance they are tapping into ends up rewiring their view of  their body, their own sense of womanhood, sexuality/sensuality and its importance. People who may be more in tune with the last 2000 years of sexual denial will experience Bellydance as a negative thing.

By the same token, Bellydance is fast becoming globally popular, because it is a way of overcoming this inner oppression.

When a denial is overcome or freedom is given to a previously oppressed expression or a truth is released from the closet, then often overcompensation is the first response. It is a way of balancing.

When I see Bellydancers who emphasize aggressive sexuality lacking finesse or subtle artistry, it often makes me think they are in the process of overcoming their own inner oppression. These instances of course then add to the discourse that Bellydance is sexualized spectacle.

Bellydance can be both a feminist act of empowerment and sexualized spectacle and sometimes, at the same time. The message is in the hands of the Bellydance artist. The sooner Bellydancers and people in general balance out their former inner sexual oppression, the sooner this art form can be more of an expression of love and the miracle of the universe.

I really look forward to this day and hope I see it in my lifetime. Then perhaps, confusion over what Bellydance is and whether it is worthy of respect will be cleared up.

From interview in dance magazine (The Dance Current) many years ago.

Little Egypt

Little Egypt - dancer at Chicago World's Fair 1893

The Significance of Dancing to the Music of Oum Kalthoum

These are thoughts about the significance of Oum Kalthoun for Bellydancers taken from articles I wrote as part of the Ask Yasmina Column for Gilded Serpent. Although written and published in 2009 and 2010, I feel they are still relevant for students today.

Understanding the importance of Oum Kalthoum and her music offers profound insight into Arab culture, poetry, art, nuance, and most importantly, the music that Bellydancers dance to. Almost every Bellydance CD on the market includes at least one or two instrumental renditions of her songs. You have heard the melodies so often.

Below is some information distilled from Wikipedia that sums up her importance musically.

“ Imagine a singer with the virtuosity of Joan Sutherland or Ella Fitzgerald, the public persona of Eleanor Roosevelt and the audience of Elvis and you have Oum Kalthoum, the most accomplished singer of her century in the Arab world. ” 
— Virginia Danielson, Harvard Magazine

When the Egyptian singer Oum Kalthoum died in 1975, millions flooded the streets of Cairo in mourning. Her songs deal mostly with the universal themes of love, longing and loss. They are nothing short of epic in scale, with durations measured in hours rather than minutes.

 Jah Wobble, Bob Dylan,  Jean-Paul Sartre, Marie Laforêt, Salvador Dalí, Nico, Bono, Farin Urlaub, and Led Zeppelin are just some admirers of Kalthoum’s music. She was referred to as "The Lady" by Charles de Gaulle, and is regarded as "The Incomparable Voice" by Maria Callas. Oum Kalthoum is remembered in Egypt, the Middle East, and the Arab world as one of the greatest singers and musicians to have ever lived. She is also notably popular in Israel among Jews and Arabs alike, and her records continue to sell about a million copies a year. Even today, she has retained a near-mythical status among young Egyptians.

The movements that Bellydancers express are passed down through dancers like Tahia Carioca, Samia Gamal, Sohair Zaki and Dina etc. Whether they are new, old or revamped, all of the movements were created as an emotional reaction to Arab music. The music and poetry of the songs of Oum Kalthoum is the pinnacle of Middle Eastern music. Until one makes the profound connection to her music and finds oneself blissfully lost in one of her hour long songs, one has not really felt or experienced the meaning of the movement.

Since her songs speak of unrelenting love, one should also read the story of Majnun and Leila* to understand which is the love she is singing about and the love expressed in our dance.

*Majnun and Leila is the original love story told by word of mouth for generations by Arab Bedouins long before Romeo & Juliette or Tristan & Isolde. It was eventually written down by an Azerbaijani poet in Farsi. So much of Asia, North Africa and the Middle East claim this story their own. Every generation of young lovers relate to this story. It is an intimate part of all of these cultures.

Oum KalthoumI believe that mastering the art of dancing to taqsim is a prerequisite to dancing to the music of Oum Kalthoum. I also ask my students to listen to original recordings of her concerts 24 hours a days for 2 years or until one finds the magic in her songs and becomes addicted. When this happens the movement quality and nuance are transformed when dancing to all Arab music. Note that original recording of one to two songs on a CD since the songs are generally too long to fit anymore.

To study and listen endlessly to the original recordings of Oum Kalthoum's concerts will open movement pathways for a Bellydancer that will transform her/his physical expression. To eventually be able to express her music in one's dance is a sign that one is becoming a Raqs Sharqi dance artist. Dancing to the music of Oum Kalthoum is seen as significant and not to be taken lightly especially in the eyes of some audiences. 

 An Arab audience will have a more discerning eye for the artistic interpretation of this music and a much stronger emotional investment. All of her songs are of equal importance - some are more famous and popular and many have been adapted for Bellydancers. It is said that only a Maalema can dance to the music of Oum Kalthoum.

The following are some important factors to take into account on this subject. The music of Oum Kalthoum is often quite difficult with rhythm changes and thus a beginner dancer will find it difficult to apply short cut elements like combos that can easily be used with pop music. The music is generally slow and emotional, often in a sad maqaam so emotional expression is an important factor. Leave the dynamic hitting accents for the most part when dancing for drum solos, not when dancing to the music of Oum Kalthoum.

Dancing to an original recording of Oum Kalthoum singing live may seem disrespectful to some who revere her, it is best to use a recording by another singer or a musical arrangement. Many of her songs are 1-2 hours long so often the musical arrangements that are popular are only a small part of the song, often the beginning or just the musical parts which do not include the melody of where her voice would be. 

Non-Arab dancers should note that when an Arab audience is listening to the musical arrangement of Oum Kalthoum music, they hear in their head the memory of the original version with her live voice and the profound lyrics, just like you hear Robert Plant's voice when a cover band plays Stairway to Heaven. Thus it is important to listen to the original before dancing to the musical arrangement so the dance artist can portray the same emotion and musical nuance the audience is experiencing, otherwise the audience may feel the dance artist does not understand the music. 

Once you have danced to a good arrangement and recording of the music of Oum Kalthoum with the integrity of the original recording in your consciousness, there is no turning back. Pop music will never give you such a rich emotional experience.

For a wonderful documentary about Oum Kalthoum, see the film "A Voice Like Egypt".


An Earthshaker Emotional Moment

Arabesque Earthshakers recently had their 5 year anniversary this past Spring. It is has been a very exciting and enlightening journey. I created this ensemble idea as an angry reaction to the ridiculous constant point being made in the media about BMI and that it was unhealthy to be over a certain number.

I have taught dancers of all sizes for about 30 years and I saw no indicator that this was true.and could argue for the contrary. In fact the only unhealthy issue was the constant messaging that skinny was good and not skinny was bad...still makes me angry. Thank goodness, articles are now being written about being so-called "overweight" is the healthier way to be.

Earthshakers was created to change the conversation.

Earthshakers have beautiful, joyful and healthy weight. Apparently many in the BD community had negative things to say about my intention and that the name and idea was insulting to the women I was exploiting, etc. By saying such things, it only proved my point even more that the view needed to change.

In 5 years Earthshakers have received several standing ovations from major audiences. I still run up against brick walls trying to get them on stages but when it happens, audiences are thrilled.

Recently, the Earthshakers decided to take it to the next level with a kick-ass choreography and new top-of-the-line costumes from Egypt. Sad news comes with their debut of this piece as it will be the last performance with Telicia Allen. We will lose her as she moves south of the border and it will feel like a limb lost.

There are so many glorious photos of ES mostly featuring their joy and exuberance, but this simple shot by Peter Lear has got to be my favourite.

ES looking at belly PL

Rediscovering Teaching

(Written December 6, 2015)

Waking up this morning feeling a familiar kind of fulfilment I have not felt for many, many years.

I starting officially teaching Middle Eastern dance in 1983. Opened Arabesque Academy in 1987. Back then I knew every student intimately and shared in their struggles and triumphs.

I never realized how lucky I was to experience this privilege.

Our art form was obscure and on the fringes until all of a sudden our two studios were jam packed and a line-up down the hall having to turn some students away. At one point we counted 400 students went through Arabesque in a given week. Where I was once the only teacher, now Arabesque had 10. I was also now teaching all around the world in a different city each weekend.

Students faces and hips had become a blurr. I had long since given up remembering their names.

Eventually there was a Bellydance teacher in every community centre and schools opening up regularly. Now we had something called competition and I was forced to face a reality that I actually owned a business that was responsible for many people's incomes. Something I had not signed up for and even rebelled against. Nonetheless, I found myself sitting for years at a desk in a back office working hard and promoting to keep the office staff and teachers employed. There was no time for myself to teach regular classes anymore. Many attending my school did not know who I was. My time was spent promoting other teachers under the umbrella of Arabesque.

When a parent dies, one reflects on ones priorities. Now I have one small studio with little overhead. I still travel to teach but never more than once a month. I am teaching nine classes a week and coaching 4 ensembles in my own studio at home in Toronto.

I know my students names, am aware of and deeply invested in their individual progress. Teaching Beginner again, I get to contribute to lighting those initial fires of inspiration.

Never more than last night at the gala did I realize that I am home again and feeling fulfilled as I really love teaching and never want to be a business woman ever again.

This pic is backstage with Beginner students. Their names are Susheela, Sophia, Loretta, Nasreen, Paniz, Lisa, Mahsa and Christine. When they came off the stage of their first performance last night they were ecstatic and I was there to share with them. I am in heaven.

Gala - beginner Winter 2015