Celebrating 25 years of dance with the Desert Moon Dancers

Su'ad founded the Desert Moon Dancers in 1991. Since then, Su'ad, Hijara, Rayya, Astrea, Elena, Aziza, Khalisa, Noor, and Nadia have delighted audiences with their rich choreographic repertoire and on- and off-stage camaraderie. They celebrate their 25th anniversary as a troupe with a show on December 10th at Connecticut College. 

You founded the Desert Moon Dancers in 1991, a few years after you moved to Connecticut from Wisconsin. You had co-founded a troupe, Hazet Helwa, in Wisconsin. Did you form DMD because of your positive experience with Hazet Helwa? Were the original members of DMD your students, other dancers you met, or a combination?

I moved to CT in August 1987, because my ex-husband came to CT for his post-doctoral work. I danced in some local events and also went to some dance seminars. I knew Boston-area folks from attending Bobby Farrah week-long seminars. I also did belly grams as the back-up person (nights and weekends) before I got pregnant with my son Matthew. I really got to know CT from driving all over! 

In February 1990, I received a call from a dancer who had a small group of students she had been teaching, but she had only taken a year of dance herself so was looking for a teacher. I had started teaching in Madison,  first teaching beginner classes under Mona N'Wal's guidance, then teaching more advanced classes. I started teaching the group in February 1990, meeting in a firehall in Barkhamsted. All of the students in the class belonged to the SCA (the what? I said). Tony was part of that original class, and so was his wife (who stopped dancing and went on to be a fighter in the SCA).

Desert Moon Dancers began with the folks who stayed in the class. In 1991, students who were part of the then Prince and Princess's royal household, came to me because they wanted to prep a dance show for the royals (who were supportive of Middle-Eastern dance -- not always the case in the East Kingdom of the SCA at that time). I told them it wouldn't be fair to the others to not invite them to perform, so in October and November 1991 we prepped a 30-minute show to perform for the Prince and Princess at a December 1991 East Kingdom University in NY State. We themed it around a feast. For the majority of the attendees, it was the first time they had seen a Middle-Eastern dance troupe (those responses prompted me to join the SCA). Everyone had a great time, so we started performing more after that. We named ourselves the next year when we applied in July 1992 to perform at First Night Hartford, which required that we have a troupe name. It was great to have students who wanted to be in a troupe, because I really loved being part of Hazet Helwa.

Did DMD start out as a folkloric troupe? How much of your repertoire is folkloric vs. Oriental?

We've always been a folkloric and Oriental dance troupe. Once we started dancing in the SCA, I started doing research to see how to make the dance fit into the SCA anachronism structure (pre-1600 AD) using both music and costuming. That involved a lot of library work (this was before the Internet). It was a good fit because Hazet Helwa had done both folkloric and Oriental. Much of our SCA performing was folkloric-style and a lot of our dancing was in the SCA as we worked to introduce and help define Middle-Eastern dance in an SCA context. Some of those same dances we brought to other stages, such as regular dance seminars. However, we always kept Oriental dances in our repertoire. Over the 25 years, we have performed folkloric-styled dances of many types - Egyptian, Turkish, Romani, Persian, Khaleegy -- as well as Oriental (cabaret, balady), Oriental fusion, and fusion. Some of our dances can be performed either in folkloric costume or Oriental/balady. So maybe 40% folkloric.

DMD is one of the few (if not only) New England dance troupes that includes a male dancer. When Hijara joined, did this change how you thought of staging choreographies, or what dances you performed?

I think we are on of the few Middle-Eastern troupes anywhere with a male dancer! Since Hijara was with us from the start, we've always included male dance roles in certain troupe choreographies. I like to think we have some great stick/cane dance chops because we worked with Yousri Sharif on the stick dance as a troupe,  especially the man's dance. One of our first major pieces was a stick dance that featured a male role. Having Hijara in the troupe has also allowed us to do more theatrical pieces with male roles. Hijara also performs with us as "just one of the troupe". Of course, some dances are female-themed only. 

Does your repertoire consist primarily of original choreographies? 

Yes. I love choreographing and staging! We have used some choreographies we've learned at seminars, and I have some of Bobby's choreographies that I've been performing that I've taught to the troupe. There are a few choreographies that troupe folks have made, and we have some that we've all worked on together. Staging is nearly 100% mine. I also do solo choreographies for some troupe members. We had to have a lot of original work because I was actively teaching 2-3 times a year at the CT Spring Fling, NJ DanceFest, and Long Island haflas (and adult ed classes for a long while). 

You and Astrea are members of the SCA, which is known for its emphasis on knowledge of factual historical information, such as costuming. In fact, you (Su'ad) have been given the SCA's highest award for your historical costuming research. Does DMD get to benefit from all that knowledge much? 

Actually, Astrea, Hijara, Rayya, and I are all members of the SCA. At one point Helen was also. Hijara is the most active in the SCA; Rayya and I are both parts of SCA households although we participate much less, and Astrea and Helen do not participate at all at this point. 

I actually have received all of my SCA awards (local barony, kingdom, SCA) for Middle-Eastern dance and teaching. Historical costume research (as much as we can do for that early of a time frame) was part of this to present in the SCA context. Astrea has her awards for callligraphy and illumination (SCA), dance (SCA, kingdom), and service (barony). Hijara has an SCA-level award for service, and a kingdom award for dance, and baronial awards as well. The three of us have received a specific kingdom arts award for dancing. All five of us have received our award of arms (AoA). 

And yes, DMD has benefited not only from all of my research knowledge, but the teachers I've helped sponsor, the seminars I've gone to with the troupe, and the other learning I've done outside of the troupe. And we share our knowledge with each other!

InterviewsAmy SmithComment