Get in line! 

by Amy Smith
Line dancing at the AverofIt’s church festival season - Lebanese mahajarans, Greek festivals, and Armenian picnics. These events almost always feature excellent live music and the opportunity to line dance. There is nothing quite like a lively Greek hasapiko to spark an appetite for the chicken souvlaki the church ladies have been slaving over for weeks.

Even if you don’t know an Armenian shuffle from a Michigan Hop, get up and dance. It's fun! These events are ideal for learning - everyone from little kids to the church ladies are happy to teach you. They will appreciate that you appreciate their music and dance. And, as a belly dancer, you will round out your skills. It used to be that, after their nightclub shows, belly dancers were expected to lead the audience in line dancing. Those days are gone, but wouldn't it be nice to be able to hop onto the dance floor at the Sahara or Athenian Corner, and debke with the crowd?

There is some basic line dancing etiquette of which you should be aware. You won’t set off any international diplomatic incidents if you don’t follow it, but these guidelines will help you learn the dance, have a good time, and blend in. 

  • First, watch the dancers and see if you can parse the steps. My first teacher, Naharin, told me that she would observe and see if she could reproduce the steps, using her first and middle fingers, on the table. This seemed to help imprint the steps in her mind. Observing won’t teach you everything, and you won’t quite catch the subtleties of the rhythm as if you were dancing, but you can probably figure out the basics this way.
  • Join the line at the end - never at the beginning. I’ve seen many newbies do this, and while the line leader is always gracious about this, it’s a big faux pas. The leader of the line is setting the pace and often, doing their rock star thing - leaps, turns, and other embellishments. A newbie taking the lead slows the line and puts a damper on the leader’s improvisations. Plus, now the leader has to show the newbie the steps. 
  • Watch the second person in line to see how they dance. They are a) performing the dance sans embellishments and b) probably know the dance very well. This is how you can pick up the steps. 
  • Hold hands like the experts are doing. If they are linking pinkies, do that. If they are holding fingertips, do likewise. Have a light touch and avoid a death grip. 
  • Move! Don’t be a drag on the line. If you can’t figure out all the steps, fake it til you make it. 
  • If you are the last person in line, it’s a nice touch to fold your free arm behind your back. You will look like a natural.
If you are hesitant about jumping in, there are many teachers in the area who can give you some lessons before you venture out to the next kef: Shadia, Riena, Phaedra, Melina, Katia, and Kanina to name a few. A private lesson or two might be just what you need to feel a bit more confident about what you are doing.

Hope to see you on the dance floor!

Amanda Rose: A Modern Classic

Amanda Rose, Belly Dancer of the Universe - Egyptian Category 2008, makes her first Northeast appearance in Syracuse (NY) May 24-25. She is sponsored by the 3 Early Girls. Register online at Ionah Raqs or see the Facebook event. Amanda graciously answered a few questions for BDNE. 

Mo Geddawi said that you reminded him of Taheya Carioca. You've also been described as having a unique blend of classical and modern style. Do you take a lot of inspiration from the "Golden Age" of Egyptian belly dance? Who are your greatest influences? 

I definitely take inspiration from the “Golden Age”, though I wouldn’t say it's seen overwhelmingly in my style as you might notice in some other dancers. Egyptian dance has developed so much in the last 100 years, I really like to reflect on the development and the change, the energy and the feeling that was demonstrated throughout different periods of the dance and the approach that was taken to achieve those effects. I have a lot of influences, which makes it hard to pinpoint other artists that I specifically reflect in my dance style. I like this because it allows me to be inspired and influenced by so many great artists but still develop my style and myself differently. I would say some of my greatest influences are Randa Kamal, Munique Neith, Tito Seif, Jillina, Sahra Saeeda, Mira Betz, Orit Maftsir, Fifi Abdo, Mercedes Neito, Sharon Kihara, Khaled Mahmoud, Dina and the list can just keep going. ;-)    

Let's talk a minute about that blend of classical and modern style. What characterizes each style? Why might a dancer today want to incorporate "classical" style into her repertoire?

Dancers like Dina, Randa Kamel, and Tito Seif - who stylized their dance quite differently than one another - have really forged modern Egyptian style. The style in some ways has moved from the previous lyrical focus to a percussive focus. Now there are shimmies layered on top of everything, and you’re hitting a lot of accents. It’s a much more aggressive approach to the music. There is also an exploration of modern classical dance aspects found in Western dances that have been added into the style. Before there was a representation of some ballet, but that was really the limit of Western dance seen in Egyptian styling. Now there’s more modern dance and jazz found in the style seen in body folds, extensions, and leg work.

Classical Egyptian styling has a lot of beledy aspects, but is very lyrical and much softer than the modern style. There is a lot of light balletic traveling, and the hip work while strong, is not nearly as complicated as in the styles put forth today. What I love about classical styling is that it’s subtle, and perfect. It doesn’t need a whole lot of noise, bells and whistles - it stands alone and rings true.

I really like to blend the more aggressive, dynamic and complicated hip work, with the subtle and soft old school style, transitioning from modern dance and jazz movements into a folkloric and beledy approach. It gives me freedom to move and express myself within the realm of belly dance, but blend pieces to my own delight. 

You were a member of Ava Fleming's Black Opal Dance Company and since then have worked with Jillina on two different Bellydance Evolutions shows and Munque Neith’s International Ballet as well as having your own project ‘Team Latina’ with Mexican dancer Ashmina Karem and Spanish dancer Cristina Gadea. What do you like about being in a dance company?

I absolutely love collaborating and working with other dancers in the industry from near and far. These groups have really given me the opportunity to work with some of the most talented dancers in the world, from Europe, Asia, Latin America as well as some of the worlds most acclaimed superstar stars like Jillina, Sharon Kihara, Munique Neith, Kaeshi Chai, be under their direction and really grow from watching them work and perform behind the scenes. I’ve taken so much away from these experiences to my own company Raqs Sharki Movement Collective, and these opportunities have really made me such a better teacher, dancer, collaborator, and director. 

You choreograph both Oriental and folkloric dances for your own group, Raqs Sharki Movement Collective. Why do you think folkloric dance is important for modern belly dancers to know and perform?

Folklore is the roots and base of everything Raqs Sharki stems from. When you strip everything away, the western influences, the ballet, the jazz, the traveling and stage concepts, you’re left with beledy, and folklore. If you understand those, then you can truly represent Raqs Sharki at its fullest.


Amani Jabril: The Mind Behind the Makeup

Photo by by Robert McCurly

Best known for her fluid and deeply sensual style of dance, Amani Jabril has built her reputation on delivering stellar dance technique combined with the heart and soul of the Middle East. Trained from an early age in dance and drama, Amani has studied and performed extensively throughout Europe, the Middle East and North America. She was named Best Newcomer by Nafoura International Belly Dance Magazine.

Rosa Noreen hosts Amani at Bright Star World Dance on April 26-27.

Which came first, Middle-Eastern dance or the day job as an anthropologist?

Dance came first. I've been a dancer my whole life. I moved to Atlanta in 1998. I really enjoyed the city and had been offered a great gig dancing five to six nights out of the week. It had always been my plan to pursue an advanced degree. About two years after moving to Atlanta I was accepted to the graduate program in anthropology at Georgia State. So I was budding anthropologist by day and dancer by night. Since that time, the two have very much blended themselves into each other. I am looking forward to starting my PhD program in the fall. 

How has the day job contributed to your dance career? How has it affected your approach to learning and performing Middle-Eastern dance?

So, back to grad school... My interest in the Middle East started...oh so many years ago I'm not even sure now how or when it all got started. The thing about anthropology is that it is a discipline that expects you to conduct field work. In short, you have to "go here and do that" to fully understand the people you are working with in their own context. Well, working as a dancer, I was not only in clubs owned by Middle-Easterners, but also getting invited to parties and events where I would have otherwise not been included had I not been the dancer. I really do think that so many of our clients focus on the shiny, beautiful fun that is the belly dancer and forget that there are minds behind the makeup. In that down time between sets, some of us are watching and listening to everything! Well, that was me! My masters thesis was born out of those scenarios and the questions I had about how the Arab-American community was constructing the idea of "Arab" identity.

My dance life and academic life inform and influence each other. Being a dancer gave me an entrance into the communities I was curious about. Anthropology has given me insight into the fluid constructions of identity that humans engage in. This in turn creates different expressions of this identity, like music or dance. So when you understand how fluid and flexible the expression is, you understand that same thing about the art form. This knowledge, I think, allows the artist their fullest creative potential but also gives them the greatest access to their most authentic artistic voice, because they have been able to place their own selves within the context of the art form's culture and ideology.

Photo by Meriwan AbdullahFolkloric dance seems to be making a comeback. What is your advice to dancers who would like to include folkloric dance in their performance?

Good Lord! I do hope so!!

Sure, our dance goes through changes in style and fashion like anything else. Having said that, folklore is always there under the surface. The folklore, or the culture, is where all of the artistic expression is rooted, of course. When dancers dig deeper into the folklore they give themselves the opportunity to expand their range as dancers, but also to add depth and dimension to their art overall.

If someone wants to study... I say go for it!!! But be prepared for a journey with no destination. You will always be seeking knowledge, new sources, and inspiration. There are many ways to do this and some very good teachers out there. If you can travel...this is the best way to really get to see 'it' first hand. As for choosing teachers, my only advice... if they tell you theirs is the "authentic" way and the only way...run away! I am always a bit suspicious of a teacher who can't prove it on the dance floor or if a teacher can't handle hard questions from their students.

Who or what are your primary influences in dance?

What I find is that I continue to return to the people for my inspirations. In this case the people may be a cultural group or it may be that spontaneous energy coming off of an audience. But if you open your senses a bit, you'll find that inspiration is everywhere.

A lot my stuff rests squarely on my theatre, jazz, and ballet backgrounds. I am influenced by my travels and the people I encounter there.

Photo by MaharetTell us about your upcoming dance intensive.

The raison d'être of the Dancers' Intensive is to give dancers an opportunity to focus less on their product, more on their process, and to work intensely on the craft that is dance performance.

Dancecraft is a term I use when referring to the technical aspects of theatrical dance and its production. From your first choice of music, it includes, but is not limited to, conditioning your body, constructing choreography, designing and staging your performance. It also includes those supporting functions, that without them, no artist could even conceive of presenting their art.

More technical than artistic, Dancecraft is the practical implementation of an artistic vision and that's what we will focus on ....Crafting the Art of Dance!

Over this weekend-long event, we will explore our artistic connections with our bodies, the rhythms of the Dance and our interconnected and interdependent expressions of art through a series of intermediate/advanced level workshops, forums and shows designed to help Middle Eastern dance-artists refine their craft in a unique and conscientious way.

At the 2014 Intensive, we have made the move to having all live music in classes and in performance. Like last year' s event, we will again be working with Jonatan Gomes Derbaq from Mazaag. Jonatan and I worked together on the Mazaag debut album that released last year and we are looking forward to working together on shows and workshops in 2014 & 2015.


Interview with Dr. Laurel Victoria Gray

Za-beth hosts Dr. Laurel Victoria Gray in a workshop and showcase on April 26th in Arlington, MA. Dr. Gray will teach two workshops: "Azerbajani "Nalbeki" Choreography" and "Introduction to Uzbek Dance from Bukhara". See Za-beth's event page on Facebook for more information.

What first attracted you to Uzbek and other Central Asian dances?

From childhood, I felt an affinity for all things Eastern, or at least the things I could find in my hometown of Spokane, Washington. My favorite composers were the Russian Orientalists like Borodin and Ippolitov-Ivanov. I searched for books and recordings in our main library for everything I could find about these mysterious cultures.

In 1979, while enrolled in a Russian translation class in grad school at the University of Washington, I learned there was a group coming to Seattle from Uzbekistan. Of course, everyone in the class wanted to talk to Russian speakers. I volunteered to provide transportation for them and discovered that Seattle was a sister-city of Tashkent; in fact, it was the first of the American-Soviet sister-city relationships. When I drove to the motel where the Uzbeks were staying to pick them up, there was a young woman standing in this little garden area behind the hotel. She was the first Uzbek person I had met and she was none other than the People’s Artist of Uzbekistan, Kizlarkhon Dustmuhamedova. And if that wasn’t kismet I don’t know what was! Neither of us had any idea of what was to come and that we would forge a lifelong bond.

When the Uzbek dancers performed that night at Seattle University, Kizlarkhon’s dance absolutely riveted me. I knew I had to learn this dance. Thus began a lifetime pursuit that is much too lengthy for this interview but documented elsewhere. (Editors note: Read more about Dr. Gray in Habibi magazine here.) 

While we're at it, what exactly is the Silk Road and why is it important, historically?

The “Silk Road” may sound like an exotic fantasy, but in reality it describes a network of caravan routes that extended from China to the Mediterranean. The term "Seidenstraße” (Silk Road) was coined in 1877 by German geographer Ferdinand von Richthofen, but the trade routes themselves are quite ancient and go back to the 2nd century BC.

From a geographic perspective, the heart of the Silk Road is Central Asia, so it includes places like Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Iran, Azerbaijan, and so on. This is why it is so strange that recently the belly dance community has appropriated the term “Silk Road” for their troupes or concerts when their dance styles have little or no relation to these traditional cultures. There seems to be no awareness that Silk Road territories are inhabited by real people who have real dance traditions.

In a broader sense, the Silk Road represents cross-cultural exchange. More than just trade goods traveled along those trade routes;  music, dance, fashion, religions, languages, innovations, ideas, and philosophies moved along the Silk Road as well. This is a positive reminder of how humanity can benefit from peaceful interactions..

Your troupe, the Silk Road Dance Company, has been together for almost 20 years. What's your secret? 

As any Artistic Director can tell you, it can be challenging leading a dance company. When I lived in Seattle, I participated in several groups, co-founding one, and then establishing my own Tanavar Dance Ensemble in 1982. These experiences helped me in the formation of Silk Road Dance Company (SRDC). The ensemble has evolved throughout the years, aided by our Company Handbook that was originally created by Keylan Qazzaz, who was our Assistant Director for ten years. The handbook serves as a guide to expectations, procedures, and the benefits of participating in SRDC.

We have high professional standards that require a tremendous amount of work and dedication from our dancers. For this reason we have a six-month apprentice period to make sure that new dancers understand the demands and expectations required by participation in SRDC. Frankly, not everyone makes it through this probationary period, but it does prevent disappointment down the line.

Most important is our communal commitment to creating “Cultural Understanding through Beauty and Delight.” Everything we do must serve this mission.

There's been some online debate about whether Western (read American) dancers should be performing dances of other cultures. In your opinion as a scholar, performer, and choreographer of folkloric dance, what preparations and considerations should Western dancers undertake if we want to perform such dances? 

 Respect for, and knowledge of, the Cultures of Origin should guide our presentations. This is, after all, the Information Age, so all kinds of resources are now at our fingertips, things that were almost impossible to find in the past.

In addition to doing the homework of studying a particular culture, it is also imperative to work with a teacher and not rely exclusively on YouTube! Videos can provide wonderful inspiration, but a video cannot correct your dance mistakes or curb an “American accent.” And even the most beautiful videos can be misidentified or can contain misinformation. Use discernment and try to verify information from different sources.

Dance can open the door to understanding between cultures. It helps dispel the stereotypes. When audiences watch a performance from another culture, it gives a sense of the soul of that culture. It humanizes “the Other” and helps people see them as human beings with the same kind of joys and yearnings and sorrows as any other human being. All of a sudden they’re not the enemy anymore.

But this is a huge responsibility. In places like Iran and Afghanistan, there are no professional women’s dance ensembles giving public performances. These dance traditions survive privately and informally, in the home. These forms are being preserved abroad, often by women who are not Iranian or Afghan. The positive aspect of this is that the dances are surviving and may eventually make it back to their homeland. The downside is that any errors in transmission create a false impression of the dance tradition.

For example, Afghani dance has nuances, gestures, and subtleties that go beyond simply spinning around in one of those beautiful dresses, but this is often all one sees in American stage performances. Likewise, some genres of  Iranian dance presented in the US have been diluted with belly dance movements and costuming elements. Yes, innovation is natural with dance, but we must all take care that the original traditions are not lost and discarded along the way.

Dance is the most ephemeral of the arts. It resides not in books or on canvas, or even in musical scores, but in the human body itself. Like a genetic heritage, it must be passed on from teacher to student, from one generation to the next. And if that fragile lineage is broken, the dance is in jeopardy of being lost.

Is it possible to study Uzbek dance in its home country?

For decades now, dancers who hear about my travels have asked when I would create a tour to Uzbekistan. Not everyone is an intrepid traveler, so in the past, conditions were not right. Under the Soviets, visas were very hard to get and contact with the locals was discouraged. Even the officially invited delegations that I led faced many challenges. 

Happily, the infrastructure for tourism has blossomed in independent Uzbekistan. Thanks to a wonderful partnership with Silk Road Treasure Tours, we have created the very first dance study tour to Uzbekistan that will take place in August 2014. Participants will be able to learn first-hand from native dancers while experiencing the culture. The regional differences in styles make perfect sense when one realizes the distinctions among these places. And watching people as they go about their day-to-day tasks reveals much about the quality of moment and provides a genuine context for the dance.

For more information on Dr. Gray and her dance company, see the following sites:

Laurel Victoria Gray

Silk Road Dance Company



Interview with Aszmara of NYC

by Amy Smith

 Photo by Alice Gerbura, courtesy of Aszmara

Aszmara brings her high-energy grace and style to two workshops at Moody Street Circus this weekend. She graciously answered a few questions for BDNE.

Your motto is "Dance is emotion in motion". It sounds like this means that dancers need to draw on inner feelings and emotions to inform their movement and technique. I think that is how many of us of a certain generation were trained, especially for improvisation. How can newer dancers who may have learned dance primarily through choreography begin to incorporate their emotional landscapes into their practice and performance?

Amy, you are exactly on target with your description of "Emotion in Motion." Dancers drawing on their inner feelings to fulfill movements while connecting to music is what makes a performance true. Audiences 
respond to your being in the moment and experience what you are expressing - it is the same as when you see a actor on stage and respond to their emotions. Dancing is acting.

Achieving that true expression comes from different techniques: working your movements in different ways so as to expand your vocabulary; getting inside music so you can feel it intuitively as well as intellectually; freedom to play without expecting outcome; choreographing to music so you know it inside out and front to back 
while discovering all of it's nuances - then allowing the choreography to change as you feel the music differently each time you dance; and finally watch and study other dancers for new influences and work, work, work.

I will be using some of the techniques mentioned above in the workshop this weekend at Moody Street Circus.

You'll be teaching some challenging Turkish rhythms in the January workshop - 7/8 and 9/8. Many dancers are intimidated by syncopated rhythms. Can you talk a little about your teaching approach for these rhythms? Also, for those who like to prepare, can you provide the names of some songs that use 7/8?

These odd time signatures, 7/8 and 9/8 are so interesting! There is a feeling of suspending in space before the one of each measure that, for me, creates a connection between heaven and earth - reach for the sky and stomp the ground!

In teaching these rhythms, I start with the musician's way of counting and morph into dancer's counting. We explore the rhythm throughout the body with movements and floor patterns as well as attitudes. 
Short choreographic phrases help us to connect the rhythm with our brain and body.

For music being used in this class, see below.

What other dance forms do you study, in addition to Oriental/belly dance?

Over the years, I have studied ballet, flamenco, West African, Afro-Cuban, Afro-Haitian, with modern dance being my strongest influence for keeping the dance body healthy and expressive. I also still study Oriental with Anthropological Master Teachers Sahra Saeeda for Egyptian, Lee Ali for North African trance dances, and Aretmis Mourat for Turkish.

Photo by Hilde Eberhardt, courtesy of AszmaraWhat's playing on your iPod this week?

Of course this week's iPod work out is all about the workshops at Moody Street Circus this weekend!

"Eve Dönüs" - Burhan Öçal & Istanbul Oriental Ensemble, Sultan's Secret Door
"Hicaz Mandira" - Barbaro Erkose Ensemble, Lingo Lingo
"Laz" - Omar Faruk Tekbilek, Mystical Garden
"Pantzar" - Saffet Gundeger, Turkish Belly Dance
"Gürcü Kizi" - Osman Yudal Tokcan, BendeCan

"Segah Roman Havasi" - Ahmet Kusgoz Ve Arkandaslari, Gypsies Of Turkey
"Mastika" - Mustafa Kandirali & Ensemble, Caz Roman

Zap! Pow! Pop! Wow!
"Mashaal (Hani)" - Cairo Orchestra, Belly Dance Classics with Fifi Abdo

That's enough to get everyone started! Enjoy the music and I look forward to dancing with you at The Moody Street Circus event this weekend! Thanks for the interview, Amy!