Saturday, August 28, 2010
The history and use of balanced props in Oriental Dance is as subject to speculation as the dance form itself, but it seems that for decades- if not centuries- belly dance performers have often used balanced props to display their grace and skill. Though this is by no means at all a complete history on the use of balanced props, perhaps it will help you, dear reader, to understand why we-belly dancers-use some of these gorgeous "dance partners" on stage.
The origins of sword dancing are unclear; and many people believe it came from American Cabaret belly dance, and was never traditional in Middle Eastern folkloric dances performed by females, let alone as a part of raqs sharqi. Used as a display of weaponry or prowess, swords, scimitars and daggers have been used often in dances or displays ( by men) in the Gulf regions, as well as in The Levant.
However, the roots of sword or scimitar dancing as performed by women do seem to come from North Africa or Turkey. There are many 19th century Orientalist paintings and lithographs depicting scenes with musicians playing as jewel-bedecked women dance with curved scimitars atop their heads, and there are also numerous written references to dancers performing with sabres stemming from the same time period. It is difficult to tell if this was merely an Orientalist fantasy, or a recording of actual events as seen by Western travellers.
Exotic and glamorously dangerous, sword dancing is extremely popular today in cabaret and fusion style performances. The curved scimitars are balanced on the head, chest, shoulders, wrists- as well as many other locations-on the body of the dancer, and many dancers use more than one sword.
The contemporary version of sword dancing ( dating from the late 1960's into the '70's) has been attributed both to noted dancers Leona Wood (who used a custom made carved wooden sword) as her prop, and to Jamila Salimpour, whose troupe Bal Anat was a precursor to the American Tribal style of belly dance.
Raks shamadan, performed by a dancer crowned with large, flaming candelabra, is an Egyptian wedding tradition, dating from the turn of the last century, in the time before electricity. Shamadan-bearing dancers lead the zeffah al-arousa or bridal procession through the darkened streets, illuminating the newly married couple, a tradition that is still continued today. Because of its spectacular effect, the dance was also performed theatrically, as part of both cabaret and folkloric Oriental performances.
Some believe that in the 1920’s, Badia Masabni brought the dance to the stage of her Cairo nightclub, The Casino Opera, where legendary Golden Age dancers like Tahia Carioca and Samia Gamal began their careers. But a more likely version of the origin is credited to a pair of Egyptian dancers from the Mohammad Ali Street district of Cairo, at the turn of the last century. It is believed that Egyptian dancer Zouba El Klobatiyya was the first performer to dance with a lantern-or klob- balanced on her head- hence, her name. If she wasn’t actually the first dancer to perform with a lantern balanced atop her head, she did at least become the first to gain recognition for it. She was followed in quick succession by a Coptic Christian dancer, Shafiya El Koptyyia (Shafiya The Copt) who also performed this skill.
Much more recently, Egyptian dancer Nadia Hamdi, who is known the world over for her shamadan skills and floor work including splits, is noted for her skills with shamadan, having been trained by the original dancers, and is still in action today, preserving the tradition.
Other folkloric dances from Egypt that sometimes incorporate balancing skills include balass (water jug) dance, where the vessel is held on the shoulder and sometimes balanced on the head of the dancer, and raks assaya, where the performer manipulates a cane, twirls it, and if skilled, balances the cane on various parts of the body. Tunisian and Moroccan folkloric dancers balance clay pots (or stacks of them!) on the head, as well as doing head balances with large brass trays, sometimes laden teapots, glasses. Both male and female performers perform tray dancing, and the illustrious John Compton is one of the masters of this dance.
Please be aware that working with any type of balanced prop can take years to perfect. It requires absolute stability of the head and neck, and increased flexibility and power (especially in the upper thighs, abdomen and arms) for floor work. The heightened isolation skills, mental concentration and slower movements necessary for balance will have a very positive affect on your overall dancing. You will need to practice- a lot. You also must be sure that in addition to your regular warm-up, to really thoroughly warm up your neck, shoulders, upper arms and thighs before attempting to balance anything…even if you are already comfortable with performing floor work, and the extra weight on your head.
Above all, please remember when balancing any sort of props, whether used with or without fire: SAFETY FIRST!
Monday, August 16, 2010
Hello, Dear Readers!
It’s been such a long time since I’ve written, I fear you may have abandoned me…but here I am again!
This entire year has been full of amazing things, but it’s also been so hectic I’ve barely had a chance to catch my breath. This summer was no different. In fact, I’ve taken to referring to my summer travels as “The E Ticket Tour”, because I spent most of the summer in England and Egypt…. and yes, it really was a E-Ticket ride!
In June and early July, my Eternal Egypt co-tour leader Zahra Zuhair, and I took a group of seventeen belly dancers to Egypt. I’ve always wanted to bring a tour group to Egypt, and so I finally realized a longtime goal. In truth, I couldn’t have done it without Zahra- it was a lot of work- I doubt either of us slept for more than four hours a night, if that!
But in spite of the insane jet lag, a wonderful time was had by all- it was an awesome group of really fun people. I know I sound like I’m bragging, but the tour itself was truly fantastic, and there was certainly a lot of bonding going on. In fact, I’d say that it was rare that ten minutes would go by without someone bursting into laughter. Our group included amateur and professional belly dancers from all over America, including two sets of mothers and daughters. Most of the group had never been to Egypt before, and they were speechless with awe over everything: The Ahlan Wa Sahlan dance festival, The Sphinx and pyramids, the incredible music and belly dancing that is literally everywhere, the crazy traffic in Cairo, and the antiquities- not to mention the relentless heat- of Upper Egypt.
So- before reading on, I just must tell you that it was such a terrific experience; Zahra and I are definitely doing it again in 2011!
Of course, the highlights for us were seeing all the belly dancers, and boy, did we get saturated with belly dancing! We saw Randa Kamel on the Nile Maxim our first night in Cairo. Her band set up and she literally ran onto the stage in an insane lime green costume, it’s bra covered with huge, spiky rhinestone flowers that resembled Christmas decorations. We were seated close enough to notice her purple and silver airbrushed nails! Randa is magnificent and powerful, mixing her trademark dynamic, sweeping kicks with a flurry of subtle shimmies and internal muscular technique. Her emotions were written all over her face, and her unbelievable energy never flagged. Devilla, an LA-based professional dancer and make-up artist (and my roomie the entire tour!) commented
“Randa is like a racehorse- sleek and stunning!”
The shows at Ahlan WA Sahlan were equally over-the-top. The Opening Gala featured Cairo-based Russian Dancer Katia Sherbakova, Cairo-based Brazilian dancer Sorraya Zayed, and, have course Dina. Each one a full, night-club length show, complete with their own singers and twenty-plus piece orchestras…and Dina’s band this year included a full Western-style horn section, complete with trombones… which I’m very thankful were absent during her classic Oriental numbers. Kati was spectacular as always, with her swift, athletic style, powerful vibrations and mind-boggling deep backbends. During their sets, Dina and Sorraya both danced to “Enta Omri”, and it was pretty incredible to see the stylistic differences in each dancers interpretation of the same song: Sorraya’s was technique-driven, quick and almost minimalist, while Dina’s was full of emotion and juicy shimmies. This year, Dina looked tiny… and extremely buff! I found out later from Katia that Dina has been “religiously” doing yoga and Pilates! Of course, Dina’s costumes always have everyone all agog. She wore an acid yellow number with the same type of chunky “Christmas” bling as Randa’s costume from the previous night, and she also had on a stunning Sahar Okasha number, a skin-tight zebra- printed dress festooned with coral beads.
The Gala was equally as great, and we were treated to new talent, including Aziza from Egypt (not to be confused with American Aziza) who did an energetic set and displayed technique that was just full on ridiculously amazing. She also had a blind singer with her, whose voice gave me immediate goosebumps the moment she began her song… I wish I’d caught her name! At one point during her closing song, Aziza literally whirled her head around non stop- as though she had no bones in her neck and spine- to the beat of a drum, for like, over two minutes. Sitting next to me, Zahra was as shell-shocked as I was, and commented:
“I don’t know how ANYBODY will be able to follow that!”
The other “new face” on the scene was a gorgeous dancer named Jouanna, whom I believe is also Egyptian- her announcement said she’d been working in Dubai and Sharm El Sheikh. She slid onto the stage in a Fedora, doing a really Fosse/ jazz type opening that somehow managed to be oriental at the same time, and then proceeded into a high-energy set which included standard Arabic songs, a really cute Saidi number, where she danced through the crowd.
During Ahlan Wa Sahlan, I spent as much time as I could catching up with old friends, like Hallah Moustafa, LA dancer Aleya (now living and working in Cairo, Diana Esposito (another American living and working in Cairo) and the wonderful Karim Nagy. I also spent a lot of time at Hannan’s atelier inside The Mena House …and yeah, I admit it, I bought a shitload of costumes! At Hannan’s, I also always seemed to bump into Chicago-based dancer Raksanna, who is delightful. Shaabi music was always blasting, Hannan’s little daughters danced on top of chairs while other kids run through pulling each other along on a skateboard using a gold assaya cane as a handle and older kids delivered Turkish coffee. Hannan herself bustled around with a mouth full of safety pins, overseeing everything from fittings to purchases. Seven months pregnant at the time, Hannan was radiant; her gorgeous, finely boned face made up with brilliant turquoise eye shadow, which matched her headscarf exactly.
Speaking of costumes, I also spent a lot of “quality time” with Yaz Taleb, who is the brains behind King Of The Nile Belly Dance Costumes. Yaz, a true gentleman, helped my tour group immensely, in every way possible, from making our group custom ordered costumes in ridiculously small amounts of time, to taking the gals on shoe-shopping expeditions, to translating for us at Khan Al Khalili, to bringing us tons of delectable take-out Koshary whenever we got hungry.
Yaz and I also embarked upon a super-secret joint project that is already in the works… but for right now, mum is the word- all I can say is that it’s very exciting and hopefully, when it comes to fruition, you will be as excited about it as I already am!
Upper Egypt was serene and beautiful- we spent our time on a Nile Cruise between Luxor and Aswan, on a charming boat called The Cheops, after the Pharaoh of the same name. The temples, ruins and antiquities were wonderful, but even more so was our guide Bishoy, who not only spoke perfect English, but gladly took to the name our group bestowed upon him, “Big Daddy Pharaoh”.
After two weeks in Egypt, the group went home with Zahra, but I went on to do two weeks worth of workshops and performances in the UK. As with all my previous trips to the UK (and I’ve been there so much, I think I’ve actually lost count of how many times it’s been) every sponsor was delightful! My first weekend was spent with Charlotte Desorgher from Hipsinc, which is one of the largest belly dance schools in the country, based in the greater London area. Charlotte has sponsored me many times, but on this trip I actually had a bit of downtime with her and got to relax at her lovely country house in Kent, and pet her next-door neighbors- two adorable donkies! They threw a really wonderful hafla at a great venue with a nice large stage, and my pal Ozgen, a wonderful male belly dancer, from Turkey, came out to the show, so we had a blast hanging out backstage. I also got the chance to watch-and meet- many of the Hipsinc instructors, who are all incredible women- not to mention amazing performers. Just as I left, the Hipsinc crew was preparing to film some instructional DVD’s…. and my advice to anyone would be- BUY THEM AS SOON AS THEY’RE ON THE MARKET! These women totally RAQ!
From there I went on to Yorkshire, to the city Leeds, which is full of fantastic, well-preserved Victorian buildings. My sponsor, Beverly Smith and her crew of women were also super-sweet, crazy in that awesome-belly-dancer way, and just loads of fun. Beverly herself is a tiny dynamo, with crisp, beautiful Egyptian technique, and all the other dancers I met blew my socks off as well. My workshops were held in a drama school, during one of the most intense thunderstorms I’ve ever experienced. I thought it might be “normal” weather for Northern England, but when all the workshop attendees showed up looking like drowned rats, I knew we were having an Extreme Weather Experience! The show the next evening was put on at a beautiful black box theater, and from what I saw standing in the wings, it was just superlative.
I also must give a shout out to the wonderful people at The Cosmopolitan Hotel in Leeds. Since I travel so often, it really makes a difference when the staff at wherever I’m staying is gracious and helpful, but in this case, I actually bonded with two hotel employees: Marc Philpott and a wonderful girl named Freddy. They not only made my stay worthwhile, but I gained two friends! We stayed up after my gigs laughing and talking like old friends.
My last UK gig was a Gothla UK 2010 in Leicester. Again- what a lovely experience! These women sure know how to run a festival! Bridie, Heike, Rosie and everyone else had it all down to a science. And the sheer amount of creativity involved in all the shows was stunning. Most of the dancers on both of the Gothla shows made their own costumes, and truly brought drama and passion to their performances. Gothla may be the only place where one could witness a belly dance performance entitled “Teatime At The Asylum”, and involved performers looking like a bunch of hot, spooky Victorian nurses! I had a ball teaching 1920’s style stage make-up and combinations, and also hanging out with some old dance friends, like Lynne “Fulya” Chapman, her sister Julie, and my wonderful pal, fusion dancer Tree Russell.
There seemed to be a lot of “Eastern Bloc” women at Gothla this year- including many Polish dancers who were all beautiful and unique. Who knew Eastern Europe was so “dark”?!
My co-headlining Gothla instructors were both from America: Ariellah, whom I’ve had the pleasure of doing many shows with previously, and the super-amazing Sera Solstice, whom I got to know better. Sera brought along her charming three-year-old daughter Sequoia, who quickly became the backstage favorite!
I’ve been home almost a month, and am still reeling from my “E Ticket Tour”…. But, of course, I’m on the road again, this time off to Texas for belly dancing at Yaa Halla Y’All this weekend… ya think I should bring my cowboy boots?
*Photos: Pool sign at The Oasis Hotel, Giza; Gothla UK Babydolls