In the Belly of Nuit

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

SAWAH Production - Inside Info #1

There are 5 pieces of music I have been dying to choreograph and have been begging Bassam, Suleiman and the Arabesque Orchestra to play for an Arabesque production every since 2005 but they have refused for one reason or another. We took a year off last year and something must have changed because in SAWAH, they will play ALL FIVE.

What are they you ask?
Sawah, Habaytak Bisayf, Lelah Lelah, Wahashtini, and an adaptation of the melody from TV sitcom "I Dream of Jeanie".

Wisdom Words From Elena

For this week's Blog Post, I thought I would share the wisdom of Elena Lentini. Eleven days ago on January 27th, I wrote a Blog Post called The Truth; Bitter & Sweet. It spoke of a lesson I learned that involved Elena Lentini, dancer/choreographer extraordinaire form NYC. I notified her by email that I had mentioned her with the link to the post. The following is the email she wrote back to me. I was touched by the email and I loved her words of wisdom so I asked if I could share to which she agreed. The dot,dot,dots and italics are all hers. I did not delete anything. This is exactly as she wrote it. I bolded the words of wisdom part. (If you have not read the Jan. 27  blog post, you might want to do so first to put this one in context -

Dear Yasmina, thank you for getting in touch, through com/blog... I`m surprised and really feel terrible about this.
..........."you look very beautiful up there on the stage".......  I`m sure you were very beautiful, in more ways then one"
I`m so sorry for not saying more.....please accept my apology so many years later. we`re so sensitive, include me.....,
especially immediately after a performance, I`ve suffered also with similar comments or lack of...we need to wear blinders
and earplugs and run away quickly, before a word is said good or bad or lack of.... takes a lifetime in the arts to realize we can`t or shouldn't  let critics, the public or "other performers" .
critiques take a moment of valuable time away from our search to fulfill our art  spirit......
with deep respect and hope to meet again, elena 
Thank you Elena <3

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.

In Praise of the Deep End

Call to Bellydancers:

After you have enjoyed loosening up your midriff, putting some steps together, received some positive feedback from being on stage and felt beautiful in a gorgeous sparkly outfit, I urge you to look deeper into Bellydance. If not, you are so missing out on the best stuff. What you have experienced so far are only the outer trappings of a profound, ancient and rich heritage. What you have experienced so far is like the air pumped ice cream in the discount supermarket. Once you have tried Haagen Das, you can appreciate what ice-cream can really offer.

Discover the experience of Tarab and melt when listening to classical Arab music or a taqsim or mawaal. Discover how every woman has within her the fascinating character of the noble Upper Egyptian girl, the exuberance behind the veiled Saudi woman, the strong and powerful maalema, the youthful proud Hagallah or the Alexandrian flirt. With deep meaning based in socio-political history and real emotion based on a rich musical tradition embedded in your every move, you will experience a joy that spills over throughout all of your life and washes over others around you.

Don't miss out by staying in the shallow end of the pool.

Creating Choreography Part #1

I have never had the opportunity of dancing in an ensemble interpreting another choreographer's work, nor have I studied choreography. Only in the last few years have I been blessed to have the input and advice of Robert Desrosiers. I consider him one of my most important mentors. It is his choreographic genius that inspires me to want to create choreography.

However, in my ignorant bliss, I began creating choreography at the age of eight by rounding up the girls who lived on my block and staging performances. This was even before taking a dance class. Inspired by TV shows, I remember staging a Country and Western number and a Go Go (1960s) number. My biggest production at age nine was staging my own version of Hair. Witnessing the production of Hair is probably the single most important influence that compelled me to be a choreographer.

I have always enjoyed working with large numbers of dancers because it gives me the opportunity to convey my message in the steps of each dancer and the added dimension of shapes and movement in a large space. I feel that the ensemble of dancers is a whole other body with limitless limbs to move about and work with.

The single most important lesson I have learned is that in order to create a choregraphy with impact, all facets must be in sync with the same message from begining to end; each dancer's movement and emotion, the ensemble's dynamic and movment or lack of, the music, the costumes, the lighting, the intent - all need to be delivering the same clear message at all times. It is alot of work but truly magic when it all aligns.

The mystery is where do the mesaages come from that are worth delivering with such intent. They can come from almost anywhere and anytime. The secret is recognizing their value when they appear. Will write more about recognizing inspiration in a future blog.

Posture, Community and Happiness

Funny how life reflects dance class.

So many times I find myself teaching a concept or approach in movement to students who need change in their fundamental view of the dance. Then sure enough, I start seeing the same dynamic play out in so many other facets of life. 

Lately, I have found myself explaining on a number of ocassions the key to authentic stage presence and good posture and how the two are connected. I feel that a dance artist is mistaken if they think a powerful presence is projected by sticking their chest out or even trying to stand out at all. I believe that the whole diva persona that some people promote delivers a sublimal message to an audience; that the performer is insecure by trying to call attention to themselves.

I propose that instead of pushing one's presence on others with chin high and chest out, one could try opening ones back and ribs and take the audience into their heart with a warm embrace. The other day, I was demonstrating the difference physically to a student when she began to cry as she realized what was happening in the second dynamic compared to the first - the profound beauty and wonder in the simplicity and effortlessness.

Lately, there has been more than the usual amount of talk in our local dance community about community dynamics - negative and positive. No point to go into details. I have taught in enough cities around the world to know the same dynamics play out everywhere, pretty much identically. But it did make me ponder the question; why some people feel the need to be confrontative while others are happy revelling in the community spirit.

And then the answer came to me in the stage presence posture lesson!

My fav Bhuddist quote: How do you stop a drop of water from drying up? (think about the answer first) Answer: By throwing it into the ocean. 

Hey Dance Community, I hope you find the answer to any possible "community" strife in this quote or perhaps by trying a different posture. Bellydance belongs to everyone. Being a "star" or diva is lonely. Try melting into the community or into your audience and thereby become something much larger.