Middle Eastern belly dance is the world’s oldest dance. It pre-dates all other forms of dance and is the mother of them all. Yet, how many Middle Eastern dance classes are part of the dance department in America’s universities and colleges? Maybe a handful.
Belly dance is relegated to recreation centers and physical education departments. It is considered a group exercise, equivalent to Zumba, aerobics, step and the like. As such, belly dance instructors are to be certified as Group X and more instructors. They must deal with the jock mentality where it is viewed as an exercise and not an artistic pursuit.
Yes, belly dance has cardio, aerobic, isometric benefits and more. It can be considered a form of exercise. So can ballet, modern, tap, Flamenco, ballroom and the like. These dance forms, however are found in dance departments and not in the gym.
Are dance instructors told to make their dance classes aerobically intense, require tennis shoes and create an atmosphere of constant motion? Are they supposed to lose all artistic pursuit in the name of jump and sweat?
Belly dance is an art form. It is a graceful art form with classic arms, slow isolations, footwork, floor work and props. Yes, it has shimmies and such but an important part of our dance is slow and sensuous. Jocks don’t get it. They also like classes that are jam- packed. I was told that one has to have forty or more students to be considered a successful Group X instructor!
My point? I want to see dance accepted in the dance departments of community colleges, colleges, universities and other educational venues. I want to see it out of recreation centers and gyms. I want to see dance studios accept belly dance as part of their curriculum as well.
Just because a belly dancer does not hold a BA, MA or PhD in dance does not make her inept. Belly dance is a folk dance that has been handed down generationally. Dancers have taught dancers for centuries. The academic world must accept this. A belly dancer need not be a ballerina or modern dancer to be a talented performer and instructor.
What will it take for belly dance and belly dance instructors to be accepted as a legitimate dance form taught in legitimate venues?
I have been trying to do my part by instructing only under the heading of Dance and by writing about our dance.
What part can you play?
Teachers should never stop learning. Getting out of your comfort zone, experiencing new methodologies, sharing dance with like-minded people and going out of state are life-enhancing experiences.
I had the honor of attending the amazing Bellydance Masters conference sponsored by Stellar Advantage from July 30 – August 2 in Orlando, Florida. This event was held at the Doubletree by Hilton at Sea World, a tropical oasis with lagoons, palm trees and an exotic atmosphere.
The Bellydance Masters conference is oriented toward the intermediate dancer and those who take dance very seriously. From the 8 a.m. warm-up with Feldenkrais method facilitator, Debka (Debbie Ashton) to three intense two-hour dance workshops a day, I experienced over twenty hours of dance and dance-related instruction from Friday through Sunday.
Instructors this year were incredible: Silvia Salamanca, Arish Lam, Karen Barbee, Mia Sha’uri, Kata Maya, Shoshannah Estell, Arielle Tyson, Lacey Sanchez and the phenomenal guest artist Donna Mejia. The focus was on Fusion, though all styles of dance were incorporated. Honing technique, proper body alignment and drills were emphasized with choreography thrown in. I came home with homework to up my dance game.
Each evening featured a spectacular show.
The shows were a spectacle of dance, glamour, variety, high energy and diverse talent. Many dance styles, cultures, ages and artistry were represented. There was classical Middle Eastern-style belly dance as well as fusion and performance art. The stage set was an Arabic oasis theme backdrop with “firepots” flanking each side.
Thursday evening was the opening show and the Stellar Pro Challenge. The beautiful Shadiyah of Maryland emceed all of the shows with elegance and grace. Interspersed were a variety of unique spotlight dance performances: Raluca of Florida, the Rakettes of Florida, Linda Allegro of Florida, Lisa of Florida, Fabiola and Amarylis of Puerto Rico, and Karla of Florida. As far as the Pro Challenge, how one could judge such a talented array of dancers was beyond me. The first category was Rising Stars. This category is for dancers of less than three years experience who are emerging professional artists. There was Jesse with her flowing silk fan veils, Inger with an incredible and flirty cabaret and drum solo, Carina with her fusion routine and remarkable back bend, Melanie with her spirited veil work, the dramatic Amanda with floorwork, Samia with her snake-like grace and splits, and Yvonna with her high energy fan work and floorwork. Inger Oyoko of Kenya won with fellow dance troupe member, Samia as runner-up.
Next was the Pro Fusion category. Spotlight dancers included Shadiyah of Maryland, Madri’nah of Florida, and Shoshannah Estell of Georgia. The contestants were impressive. Heather performed a very athletic piece with power and control. Melanie Tawar danced like a hip-hop influenced snake with sha’abi attitude. Aaliyah Jenny, dancing to Katy Perry added a dramatic flair with her unique style and audience interaction. There was the mesmerizing Stephanie with her 1920’s flapper-burlesque style costume and music. Aaliyah Jenny won the contest with Melanie as runner-up.
Last but not least was the Pro Solo event. With only two competitors, it was interesting because both dancers were talented, energetic and beautiful in their cabaret routines. Ashley performed a classical cabaret routine with zills, veil and superb floorwork. Anais performed a spirited classical zill routine, engaging the audience with her every move. Anais won over the judges as well.
Friday night’s show, the Bellies for Babies Spectacular Showcase offered a variety of dance styles by professionals. Opening the show was Florida troupe, Amajo Dance Company who did it all: zills, canes, candle balancing veils and even engaged the audience. Amira Ariz of New York City was next with her classic cabaret veil routine with shimmies galore. Olga from Tennessee danced a spirited Gypsy routine in flowing floral skirt and fringed shawl. From Florida, the Anile dance Collective performed fusion. Karla, the 2014 Rising Star Soloist danced in black lace with a Spanish fusion influence. Delores Christina of Florida amazed with her controlled layering and powerful shimmies dancing a drum solo. Yana came out with a flamenco-influenced dance. Rising Star Soloist Samia danced a fan veil routine with floorwork. Debka and Olga performed a spirited Gypsy routine with tambourines. The River City Rakasas danced a fun cane dance. The Sahara Silk Fusion Dancers of Florida brought down the house with their western-inspired cowboy tribal routine. With calico prairie dresses, white ruffled bloomers, suspenders and boots, they added ho-down to fusion. Incredible! Next was the inspiring Mia Sha’uri performing a hip-hop fusion piece … no props. Arish Lam’s Little Temple Dancers and Miracula were next. If a belly dance troupe should be on Broadway, this troupe from Puerto Rico is it. Mesmerizing is all that I can say. With a troupe of talented young dancers, children and teens, adults and Arish himself, the theatrical drama on stage was an honor to witness. The creative costuming, staging and the dancing were beyond what one could ever expect to see. I was rendered speechless. Terry had to follow this act with a lovely fusion dance. The lovely Shoshannah Estell from Georgia followed with her amazing flexibility and non-stop shimmies. Lacey Sanchez, the dynamo Florida fusion dancer was next with her snakey movements. She is truly tribal fusion at its best. Silvia Salamanca ended the show. What an ending. She came out with one sword, added a second sword, dropped to the floor, did Berber walks, body rolls in a sparkling harem outfit fusion style. If that wasn’t enough, she added a third sword, between her toes no less. She spun like a Whirling Dervish. Always in control yet maintaining her trademark sense of humor. Her performance was jaw-dropping. No kidding!
Saturday night was the Bellies for Babies Gala Showcase. After Friday night, I truly did not know what to expect.
Always expect the unexpected. Mia Sha’uri opened the show with a fierce hip-hop fusion piece. After, she was “roasted” because she was getting married on Saturday, August 8. A sparkle cap was placed on her head and shimming Isis wings adorning her shoulders as she sat front and center before the stage. What transpired was hysterical fun. Dancers came out emulating her. One danced with every prop she could handle playing on Mia’s title of “queen of props.” Another pranced around with Mia’s signature tambourine. Yet another imitated Mia’s flirting with her long hair. Arish Lam stole the show dressed as a female belly dancer with long black wig and when his bra padding fell out, everyone was about to roll in the aisles. Last, Karen Barbee came out dancing to the song, “There’s No Business Like Show Business.” Mia will never forget this moment, I’m sure.
Pro Solo winner Anais came out dancing with her zills and veil and followed-up with a spirited drum solo. Aaliyah Jenny, Pro Fusion winner performed a touching, heart-felt fusion piece dedicated to the belly dance community and to her family who helped her beat cancer. Kata Maya, winner of the 2014 Pro Solo and Pro Fusion categories danced the fusion routine she taught in her workshop to “Shatter Me.” Guest Artist Donna Mejia was a vision in blue as she performed a haunting world fusion piece, showcasing her amazing talent and love for dance. Donna from Colorado was next with a unique international fusion dance. Next came the dynamic duo of Silvia Salamanca and Mia Sha’uri dancing Bollywood as only they can. Najmah Noor of Florida came out in a sleek black dress performing a dark, haunting romantic piece. Arielle of Florida added drama to the already dramatic. She began dancing inside of a life-size gilded birdcage. Adorned in showgirl sequins and feather plumage, she was the trapped bird emerging from the cage, fluttering her feather fan wings with burlesque fusion at its most theatrical. Karen Barbee showcased her mastery of the zills as she pranced and danced in a blue baladi dress with energy galore. Yana came on stage adorned in feathers as more of an angry jungle bird with shimmies galore and attitude. Donna Mejia came out with fusion attitude, pops and locks, backbends and shimmies. Shoshannah Estell of Georgia danced in true fusion form with mechanical precision, gliding shimmies across the floor, splits, hip-hop and even some twerking thrown in. Lacey Sanchez epitomized Tribal Fusion with her snakey, very sinuous style. Silvia Salamanca was the gypsy fusion artist in purple velvet: flowing skirtwork, frenetic, dramatic, emotional. In Campo style, she interpreted a song about a husband who kicked her out and her emotional reaction to this deed. Arish Lam and his incredible troupes, the Little Temple Dancers and Miracula closed out the show with another Broadway-worthy production. This time, his troupe traveled to the bottom of the sea with a tale of good overcoming evil with King Neptune saving the day. Quite a lavish spectacle.
A highlight of the long weekend was special guest, Donna Mejia. Donna is an assistant professor at Colorado University, Boulder Theater and Dance. She is a renowned scholar, choreographer, director and performer “specializing in contemporary dance, traditions of Africa and Arab Diaspora and emerging fusion traditions in Transnational Electronica – a genre that provides a rich arena for the study of cultural imperialism, gender representation and electronic/digital globalization. Her dance knowledge, study, certifications, honors and experience are vast. Her knowledge was impressive, her lectures and workshops impressive. I will cover them in a future article.
Throughout the event, there was a silent auction of an array of dance and related items from conference packages, Disney park passes, Persian prints, gift certificates and donations from vendors. All proceeds of the auction benefited the non-profit charity, Formula One Life. Their mission is to collect and distribute baby formula to orphans in Ethiopia, Guatemala and Haiti.
An array of vendors sold quality items. Represented were BJ’s Bazaar, Dahlal International, Pharaoh’s Treasure, It Works! Kasab Jewelry, The Eyes Have it, Diva Dreads, Stellar Advantage, The Henna Studio and more.
The resort hotel was a tropical paradise with lush foliage, lagoons, multiple swimming pools and activities, elegant suites, a variety of food options and shops. It was also a short freeway ride from Orlando International Airport.
There was never a dull moment at this conference. It was all dance, all the time. The atmosphere, instructors and attendees were friendly, helpful, professional and non-competitive. So much was covered that it will take awhile for things to sink in and settle.
Save the date, August 4-August 7, 2016 and plan on attending the next Bellydance Masters featuring Karin Jensen & Mandala Dance Works of California. Be ready to master the dance!
For the eight consecutive year, I have been selected to instruct Middle Eastern Dance: Beginning Fundamentals at the esteemed Chautauqua Institution in New York State. Being selected from the thousands of applications that are sent, is like being accepted to Harvard.
For nine weeks during the summer, this sleepy Victorian village awakens like the mythical Brigadoon to fuel the mind, body and spirit. The famous from politics and academia lecture, renowned ministers preach and entertainers perform. The Institution has its own symphony and youth orchestras, ballet, opera and theater companies. Located on scenic Chautauqua Lake, numerous recreational activities abound for adults and children from sailing, kayaking, canoeing, swimming and more. There is even a steamboat, the Chautauqua Belle that picks up passengers from the Institution for a scenic lake tour. The Institution hearkens back to America's past with a patriotic, old-fashioned, wholesome, friendly and safe environment.
Founded as a summer Methodist retreat for ministers and Sunday school teachers, the Institution maintains its religious roots by honoring the Abrahamic faiths: Christian, Jewish and Muslim. There are quaint inns, condominiums and houses for rent and the elegant and historic Athenaeum Hotel.
I am honored and privileged to be a Special Studies instructor. I also have fond memories of dancing before the prestigious Dance Circle, being featured in the local newspaper, on WJTN Radio and being part of the Institution's advertising campaign. Instructing dance to students from around the world, from ages to teen to eighties, beginners to advanced has been a joy. My hope is that these students continue their study of this ancient art form when they return home.
I am off again to CHQ, as the Institution is affectionately known, for another week of instructing dance.
You’ve finally decided to sign up for a Middle Eastern belly dance class. Now what? The first step is to select a class and an instructor. There are several things to consider.
As in the real estate profession, location, location, location is important. If the class is closer to your residence, the more likely you are to attend the class. This is especially true during the region’s long winter months.
What day suits you best? Do you prefer a weekday or a weekend? Does it interfere with you choir practice, your children’s sport commitments? What day or evening do you have a babysitter?
Another consideration is the start and end time of the class. Is it taking place right after work or after dinner? Are you a morning person or a late-night person? When do you have the most energy and are most likely to attend a dance class? Most classes run an hour or so.
Cost is, of course, a factor. It is generally less expensive to sign up for a complete session (and one is more likely to attend if in a long-term commitment). Most dance sessions run from 4 to 8 weeks with one class per week. Depending upon location, classes can be included in your gym membership, be a minimal $5., the average being around $10 per class in this area. Group classes are less expensive that private lessons. In places like Philadelphia and New York City, classes are much more.
What is your goal? Is it purely for fitness? Fun? To learn a new skill? To expand your dance horizons? To become a professional? This will determine the type of class environment you would thrive in. A “Beginners” class would suit most who are unfamiliar with this unique dance form. Also, one must understand that progress depends upon past experience and natural ability. Beginner classes focus on newbie’s.
The instructor can determine whether or not the class is for you. Realistically, a dance student should study with as many different instructors as possible to experience different teaching and dance styles. Some instructors teach step-by-step technique, others “follow-the-leader” and others using only choreography. Only you can determine what style of learning suits you. The best way to discover this is to take a trial class. Most instructors allow a prospective student to sit in or try one class as an introduction before committing.
Instructors vary in experience. Being a good dancer doesn’t always denote being a good instructor and vice versa. Of course, length of study, workshops attended, famous names, length of dance experience count. Just remember that every dancer, no matter how many years they have studied and danced, doesn’t know everything and isn’t always right. Dancing is a lifelong learning experience. Lately, there is a trend in the belly dance world toward earning credentials. Several famous dancers offer workshops culminating in a certificate of completion, a credential. Though the dance knowledge gleaned is beneficial, in my opinion, credentials mean nothing as to overall ability. The other trend is toward standardization of belly dance to give it the “legitimacy” of ballet. I personally beg to differ since belly dance is an ancient dance form that has evolved and will continue to evolve through the ages. To me, educating the public as to what it is versus what it is not is far more important. It is a dance of self-expression. Turning the dance into a
Sorry to disappoint but a hookah does not stand on street corners soliciting people, though it does cause a hypnotic state of relaxation.
In Turkey it is known as a nargile or a hubble-bubble. It is also known as a waterpipe, shisha, sheesha, goza, arhile, borry or hookah. It is a vessel, usually made of glass, with either single or multiple stems that is used for smoking flavored tobacco vapor, tobacco smoke that is drawn through a pipe of water and cooled before being inhaled and exhaled through a hose.
Though the hookah is mostly affiliated with Middle Eastern cultures, its origin dates back centuries to India and Pakistan. Its popularity spread through Afghanistan, Northern Africa and parts of Asia. In Turkey, smoking a hookah became fashionable and a status symbol that both men and women enjoyed. Special places to smoke were established, hookah bars. The trend moved on to Syria, Lebanon, Iran, Egypt, Morocco, Saudi Arabia and eventually made its way to the United States as these cultures immigrated.
The vessel itself resembles and ornate vase. Its operation is quite simple.
Tobacco, a special sticky type with molasses or honey added, is placed in a bowl, covered with perforated foil and topped with a hot coal. The tobacco is heated. A removable tray located under the bowl catches any loose ashes. A hose transports the flavored smoke through the glass base filled with water. This filters the tobacco into a vapor. A customized smoking hose is connected to the shaft. The amount of vapor desired is released through a valve. A mouthpiece is attached to the smoking hose and what one uses to inhale the flavored vapor. Each person partaking should use his/her own mouthpiece for sanitation reasons.
There are some “rules” when smoking a hookah. A hookah should remain on the floor as placing it on another surface may cause it to tip. Only flavored tobacco should be used and it should always be filtered through the water bowl before being inhaled. Smoke should never be blown in another’s face. After use, the smoking hose should be wrapped around the shaft.
A number of web sites market hookahs for home use. Most Middle Eastern bars offer the use of hookahs for a fee. Some anti-smoking laws have banned hookahs from public use.
There is debate, however, on whether inhaling the filtered and flavored tobacco from a hookah actually constitutes smoking.
The hookah is an integral part of Middle Eastern culture. Many establishments that offer hookah also promote belly dancing and belly dancers as part of the overall entertainment.
Both are cultural entertainments bringing the Middle East to the United States.
My Egyptian journey continued with a short flight on Egypt Air to Luxor. Luxor grew out of the ancient city of Thebes, once the capital of Egypt’s New Kingdom. Located on the Nile, Luxor is a hotbed of Egyptian archeology. Most of Egypt’s famous sites are located on the east and west banks of the Nile. The East bank of the Nile is for the living, where the cities and population are located. The West bank of the Nile is where the dead are revered, the necropolis.
Quite a contrast.
Luxor is quite a contrast to crowded, chaotic and noisy Cairo. Lush and green with flowers, upscale shops, horse-drawn carriages ... Luxor is a quiet tropical paradise.
The first day we toured the East bank.
First on the touring list was the massive Karnak Temple with its towering pillars, looming obelisks and statuary. Considering the rudimentary tools at their disposal, the ancient Egyptians were master of architecture and engineering. In the evening we experienced the famous and eerie sound and light show.
Second on our list was Luxor Temple with its imposing pillars, statuary and rows of Sphinx. Another engineering wonder that survived the ravages of time.
After sightseeing in he blistering heat, we boarded a felucca sailboat for a peaceful Nile River cruise. We disembarked at a tropical island with banana groves and lush landscape.
The next day, we toured the West bank.
We visited the remote Valley of the Kings, burial ground of the New Kingdom Pharoahs. Burial chambers of the greatest leaders, including King “Tut,” can be entered and perused. The dank, humid tombs retain the beauty of painted walls and sarcophogus, beauty that was originally limited to the deceased and the afterlife. I couldn’t help but think of the famous mummies at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo who once rested within the arid, remote hills. This is where they belonged, not in glass display cases. At peace.
After, we visited the Mortuary Temple of Hartshepsut, with its vast, multi-tiered colonnades, a temple rising before limestone cliffs. Breathtakingly beautiful and a fine tribute to Egypt’s female Pharoah. She was the ultimate empowered woman, an equal among men and ahead of her time.
That evening we were to embark on the next and last phase of our Egyptian journey ...
We embarked on the last part of our three-week Egypt adventure at the port of Luxor when we boarded the luxurious Solaris II Nile River cruise ship. No trip to Egypt would be complete without a cruise along the scenic Nile.
The Nile River cruise took us from Luxor to Aswan, the scenery in-between breathtakingly beautiful and much as it was hundreds of years ago. Change occurs slowly in Egypt. Many people live as their ancestors lived with donkey carts and in open sand cement huts on small farms. Yet, they seem happy.
The ship was impeccably clean with five-star accommodations. Each room had its own private balcony, the staff were attentive and the food fabulous. Most of the passengers were tourists from Germany, adding an international flare.
We did stop at several ports of call to see more ancient temples: Edfu, Kom-Ombo and Philae. More beautiful ruins. More history.
My birthday was celebrated with Arabic drumming and song and songs in German and English with an incredible cake. Nailah is ageless and timeless but would never turn down a birthday party ...especially when that birthday was celebrated in Egypt!
Another celebration was an Arabic-themed party night.
The ship’s staff knew that there were belly dancers on board and, of course, we were expected to dance. We did, though I found myself solo in the spotlight, dancing for a bunch of attentive and enthusiastic German tourists. Dancing aboard a cruise ship on the Nile was a memorable experience.
The trip to Egypt was an amazing experience that will be etched in my memory forever. The opportunity to experience the country where the dance I love was born ... the “mother land” was exciting.
The beautiful people, the fascinating history, the beauty of desert and tropical oasis will not be forgotten. I feel privileged to have had such an opportunity.
The lesson here is to follow your dreams ... you never know where they may lead. They may lead YOU to an enchanted ancient land.
Okay, I’m going to make an admission. Camping to me is a motel. I require a private bathroom with running water. I made concessions while in Egypt.
Traversing sand dunes in an SUV (what the monster vehicles are created for), admiring the wind-driven ripples of sand and the monolithic sculptures created by the harsh conditions led to a desert campsite. The White Desert is a popular area to camp out under the stars.
Our journey began in the desert oasis village of Bawiti where we stocked up on supplies. After, we traveled deep into the remote desert like Bedouins. The harsh landscape and terrain were beautiful. From the Crystal Mountain created of quartzite to the Black Desert with its suet-like sand, we traversed the White Desert. Sand resembles snow, the hills like glaciers and the sand sculptures eerie.
Three SUV’s were parked like a wagon train, in a protective “L” formation. The Bedouin drivers and guides unloaded tenting fabric, woven carpets and cushions from roof racks.
They unfurled the fabric around the SUV’s, creating a wind-proof, protective barrier. After, they lay down rugs and cushions. A campfire was started. The Bedouins proceeded to hook-up a propane stove and foodstuffs. Soon, they were cooking, the aroma of spice permeating the light desert breeze.
As dusk set in, we gathered around a low wood table to dine on lentil soup, barbecued chicken and an assortment of goodies ... the Bedouins are amazing cooks. The adorable desert foxes, with their cute floppy ears, had to agree, as they paid a visit for table scraps.
After dark, the campfire blazed. The Bedouins brought out drums and played. Best Middle Eastern drumming, and the most authentic, one could ever hear. They chanted out what sounded like “drinking songs” (for the most part, the Egyptian population doesn’t imbibe, mostly due to the predominant Muslim faith). Japanese from another campsite strolled over to join in the dancing around the fire. An amazing site.
The campfire died down and everyone settled in for the night. Everyone found a cushion. The guides and Achmed, our cute undercover security guard, formed a protective circle around we tourists. One guide did a bedtime check with a flashlight.
The sky was striking. Like a planetarium but this was the real deal. The constellations were recognizable as stars twinkled overhead. More stars than one can imagine over the complete black velvet sky and horizon. A sight to behold!
Dawn broke with a silent beauty. The giant monoliths loomed around us. In one way they looked like pillars of salt, in another they resembled ice sculptures. The rising sun struck, setting off angles and planes. Breathtaking.
Did I change my mind about camping? No. I still have a thing about bathrooms and running water. Heck, with the number of campsites in the area, it was difficult to find a private rock. ;-)) A Port-o-let wouldn’t have been reaching in such a popular camping spot. With a huge desert, I suppose it was felt that there is safety in numbers.
This was a once-in-a-lifetime experience I would not have passed up. I’d highly recommend it.
PS: The next night was spent in a local motel with a private bath!
Ahlan Wa Sahlan! Welcome to my world of Middle Eastern belly dance! it is a mystical place where the ordinary becomes the extraordinary. Magic happens. Like the exotic tales of Scheherazade, Nailah has her won insights and adventures to share.