“An Afternoon Delight”: Class with Morocco!

On Sunday April 26, 1998 I attended an afternoon workshop given by Morocco of NYC at the Mahea Uchiyama Center for International Dance in Berkeley, California.

One of the first things someone notices upon arrival to MUCID is the stunning mural on one wall. It is a bay scene that could be the San Francisco Bay itself in a more halcyon time; or perhaps somewhere in the Mediterranean …… all flowers and green, growing things;  blue water and delicate flowers hanging in vines and tedrils……. other visually pleasing aspects of this beautiful studio include an altar, skylights and spotlighted wall cutouts that each hold an East Indian God or Goddess as well as other sacred art that lends an atmosphere immediately of another reality – one in which dance and music play the most important part, and that serves to transport one upon entering from the world outside into a special, sacred space designed to open one’s mind and heart to the creative possiblities to be found therein.

The practical aspects of the studio include a location with easy access to public and private transportation, sprung wood floors and a wall of mirrors.

The studio was established in 1994 and offers classes in traditional Middle Eastern dance, Tribal bellydance, yoga, Bharata Natyam, Hawaiian Hula, Tahitian Ori, and Brazilian dance.

Mahealani Uchiyama, the studio owner and visionary, attended the University of Hawaii where she earned a B.A. in dance ethnography and an M.A. in Pacific Island Studies. Her interest in Middle Eastern dance stemmed from watching Bay Area artists such as Najia el-Mouzayen and Horacio Cifuentes, who later became her teachers.

Besides teaching several classes at her studio, Mahea also teaches Hula, Tahitian Ori (in the SF Bay area since 1983), bellydance and Hawaiian language at Chabot College in Hayward.

Her troupe “Ka Ua Tuahine” has been the recipient of numerous awards in Polynesian dance. Mahea has performed as a soloist at the acclaimed San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival, and somehow still finds time to be a member of the Suhaila Dance Company!

Participants of this workshop were treated to four precious hours with the one and only Morocco (aka “Aunt Rocky”) in which we learned an Oriental choreography to “Zey al Hawa” (“Like the Wind”) and some Tunisian Shaabi technique.

Rocky assured us that it’s not neccessary to make oneself into a stressed-out mess trying to “get” everything in any given dance class. We were reminded that too often we can tend to try so hard we miss the point of the dance – which is, of course, to have fun!

Even though we were told we didn’t have to push ourselves to the point of becoming little puddles of sweat on the floor, by the time Morocco was finished with us, we were! (And somehow this powerhouse of a woman was not! Rocky has stamina in spades!) And the best part about it was that we enjoyed the process so much we didn’t even notice how hard we had worked until the end of class.

This, to me, is one of the skills that sets apart instructors like Rocky: this ability to make you relax while learning so that before you know it, you’ve learned a lot in a short period of time and have worked out hard without thinking about it – while actually enjoying every second. With Morocco learning and working are a pleasure, not a chore.

Rocky always begins a class with one of her wonderful signature warm ups. I really appreciate the time spent warming up as Morocco has structured this portion of class very efficiently. The warm-up is thorough and “dancy” yet grounding and centering.

Some movements used in the dances later are included in the warm up so that we begin learning even before we know it conciously. They are added carefully at precise intervals to build upon one another during the warm up for maximum physical benefit without danger of overworking cold muscles.

We were taught that many movements in oriental dance feel smaller than they look. We learned that if a movement hurts, we’re doing it wrong.

During part of our choreography we learned that by simply turning with one’s shimmies you not only give many interesting angles for the audience to look at with one move but also one can turn so “they can see what you’re doing.” That part of the concept is so simple yet so important. Let the audience see you!

In the words of fellow participant Donna Lapre, “the choreography was interesting in that there was a good balance of hip work, shoulder work and travelling. Too much or too little of these leads to the dance looking strained and uninteresting.” Donna also noted that “the choreography was so body friendly that I felt as if I had been meditating and came away relaxed, mentally refreshed and three pounds lighter.”

We explored different shimmies; from the free leg and the standing leg as well as “earthquake” shimmies/vibrations on both legs equally. We tried two types of “camels”- playfully named the “dromedary and bactrian” (for the two or one-humped varieties)…. other movements explored included figure eights and some variations with them while moving (I call those the “pretzel.”)

After drilling the choreography to our satisfaction, we took a break and then began our Tunisian technique portion of the day. We learned that the movements we’d be studying were shaabi, or traditional folkloric. We found out that this is not always the case nowadays, what with the National Folkloric Ballet and the fusion of occidental styles with the original oriental material that seems popular in the Middle East today.

We enjoyed a much-too-short (I personally could listen for hours) talk given by Rocky about the history of the Maghreb (yes, in Morocco, but also this term refers to a consortium of Algeria and Tunisia as well as Morocco) to the Ottoman Empire and the Dey of Algiers. We learned that the term “Barbary Pirates” is actually a European mispronunciation of “Berber,” of which there are over 200 different tribes.

Morocco talked about the Ouled Nail from Algeria, and about the Algerian counterpart of the Moroccan  Schikatt – the Medahatt.

It was fascinating to find out that only the married women wear the famous Tunisian ankle bracelets called“khul-khal” as they are thought to ward off snakes by their rattling noise. Unmarried women (virgins) are thought to have inherent protection from snake bites already, so they don’t need the khul-khal. We learned also that the jewelry worn by the Moroccan and Tunisian women, especially on the chain between the fibulas and the fibulas themselves, is regional or localized, so one can tell where someone is from by examining their jewelry.

Further costuming discussion led us to the hazam, which means “belt,” in reference to any belt but also to the famous woolen yarn belts associated with Tunisian dance. These are usually natural colour (pale beige) but sometimes are dyed for theatrical presentations. The tunic (called a melia or haik, depending on the region of the Mahgreb) is often a maroon colour or other dark shade, perhaps with yellow contrasting colours, and just as often this will be in a plaid or narrow striped pattern. The under blouse and pantaloons are often white or white with light blue stripes.

Morocco taught us the “Tunisian Basic” first. It’s a movement that consists of a level horizontal hip twist that goes forward and back. The arms are held with the active hip side arm out to the side and the other up. They switched with the hips in the combinations we learned that day, but both can be held out if the hips are alternating quickly (double time, like a continuous twisting motion) so that the effect is not too “busy.”

The music sounded a bit fast and frantic to the uninitiated ear, and it was great to find out that we didn’t have to follow that pace while dancing. I have observed dancers attempting to do that during Tunisian presentations in the past and it has always worn me out just to watch them! What a relief to slow down and hit the accents instead. Much more effective. The song we used was called “Shufu el Arbiyya,” or “Look at the Fourth Girl.”

A variation on the Tunisian Basic is to bring the hip forward-back-forward.

We learned a particlularly fun portion of the dance was to mime a make-up application, including “drawing” eyebrows, “licking and applying the kohl stick” to the eyes, “applying” blush and finally the lipstick, all while “holding” a hand mirror but actually looking out to the audience more than at the “mirror.”

We had fun picking up the hem of our dresses to expose our khul-khal (if we had them) or not (if we didn’t, and therefore were umarried.) This movement is done with tiny, birdlike shoulder shimmies and teensy steps moving forward and back. We found out that often, when you go forward with a move in Tunisian Shaabi, you will go back with it as well. Perhaps then you can remain more demure to the audience.

Other movements included small, self-contained hip circles similar to the “amis” of  Polynesian dance, except that they are flat to the back and sort of “up and down” to the front. These are done both facing towards and with one’s back to the audience. Then there is the “Hip Hip Hooray”- if you could see it, you would understand why Rocky named it such! It’s a fun little move that involves a step step and a point point with one’s finger across oneself pointing to the opposite hip, and then a “hit hit hit” with arms ending up. Oh!

Much more fun to do than explain on paper!

We found that in one movement tradition dictates that we only allow the foot to come up while travelling to the left, but it stays down while travelling to the right. We learned that even though Morocco tried and tried to get an explanation for this peculiarity in Tunisia the best reason she could find was from an elderly woman who told her “if you already showed one ankle has the khul-khal, (or not) it is not neccessary to show the other, as they are the same!” Makes sense to me….. The only other reason Rocky was able to get was “I don’t know.” I respect Rocky for telling us that part, too!

In Tunisian dance one can balance things such as a pot (or a stack of them!) on one’s head while dancing. This is one of the only props we learned about that are used in shaabi.

Another step is named after Annette in the old Beach Blanket movies called the “Funicello.” We found it’s one of the only “regular” type shimmies in Tunisian styling in which the whole body shimmies, but it’s accompanied by a rather amusing arm pattern that goes: both arms up, hands to the shoulder and down, all while doing this shimmy. Definitely hard not to smile while doing this move!

Morocco brought recordings we could buy of the music for both the Oriental and Tunisian portions of class which also contained other great music as a bonus. I really appreciate having the workshop music available when I take classes, as it all “sinks in” best when we have the music to practice with at home.

Another participant that day, Amanda Berry, said she “never had so much fun at a workshop,” and I’d have to say that’s a pretty strong endorsement! Carolyn Uno (Tigris) says that “Rocky does amazing hipwork and finger cymbals, has a great sense of humour as well as an encyclopedic knowledge of all forms of Middle Eastern dance. As I have said, she is one of The Greats. A shot of her technique will be great for yours. She is a wonderful teacher who can answer any question you throw at her about the dance, and her stories alone are worth the price of admission!”

Following the workshop was an evening show. I was unable to stay for it, but thanks to Amanda Berry I can supply you with this following information:

Performers that evening included Morocco sharing Guedra, Helene with an Egyptian dance, members of Ka Ua Tuahine performing two hulas, Tigris sharing an interpretive dance based on the Triple Goddess, Amanda in an Egyptian beledi number, and finally

Morocco once again in an Oriental routine that included the “Zey al Hawa” choreography she taught earlier that day.

One concert goer described Rocky’s finger cymbal playing as “phenomenal, phenomenal,” and another says “she plays zils like a house on fire!” What a delighful afternoon and evening!