Lots of Sights, Sounds, Dance, Sweat & Sore Feet

Along with the New Year comes that most time-honoured tradition: making resolutions.  Since the overall vote-getters usually involve self-improvement and weight loss, I started 1998 off on the right foot by attending a week-long intensive Middle Eastern dance workshop led by none other than the incomparable Morocco (“Call me Rocky”) with daily warmups in Rocky’s technique by Tarik Sultan.

Having participated in the 1996 Summer Week-long, I was anxious to experience The Big Apple in wintertime.  Well readers, my luck is something else.  When I should have been sweltering in record-breaking heat in August 1996, the climate was quite temperate.  This time, a forecasted blizzard was not to be and my cohort in dance, Kate  Summerbell, and I got to walk all over Manhattan in open coats, no hats, scarves or mitts on January 3rd!  Not a speck of snow and record-breaking mild temperatures… Compared to our notorious Canadian winter, this was a heat wave!!!

We arrived at our hotel in NYC around 11:30 p.m., tired and hungry. We checked in, set off to find some food, then returned and went to bed.

Day 2 had us walk all the way down Broadway, through Times Square, and beyond.  We reached Columbus Circle, which is directly across from THE Central Park.  We decided to take a stroll and met some really nice New Yorkers (Don’t have a heart attack!).  Making our way back, tired feet and all, we got ready for the Pre-Workshop Gala featuring Morocco (hereafter called “Rocky”), Tarik, her Troupe, the Casbah Dance Experience, and invited artists, Nesrin and Gamila el Masri.  What an introduction!  From previous experience, I knew that most of the numbers presented would constitute that week’s work in the studio so I paid close attention.

The show opened with the troupe performing the Guedra, a trance dance which is clearly one of Rocky’s personal favourites.  The audience was mesmerised and I (stupid!) forgot to take a picture.  Each performer had their own special stamp on their performance. I especially appreciated the flirtatious Milaya Leff and Rocky’s Sulu Kule numbers.  Tarik had improved tremendously since I’d last seen him perform (and he was great then!) so a good time was had by all.

Next morning, all us innocent “lambs” were led through Morocco’s thorough warm-up by Tarik, who puts special emphasis on moving to the beat of the music. His words were, “Moving to music without respecting the music is not dancing.  It’s just movement.”  Patiently (and stubbornly – smile!), he led us through our paces until Rocky entered the studio bellowing “Torture Time!” with great relish.  For the faint of heart, now’s the time to take cover.  Over the next few days, with her usual aplomb, good humour and skill, Rocky meticulously led us through the history, meaning and steps of her Schikhatt, Basboussa and Saudi routines.  We also touched upon the Guedra and the Sulu Kule.  She did relinquish the podium on two occasions:  to Tarik, who taught us his routine, “Hatli Elbek”, a fast-paced, high-spirited number full of quick, successive steps, lots of shimmies and energy, and to Gamila el Masri, who introduced us to the “Milaya Leff” – an Egyptian modesty wrap (not a veil!), used by working-class women when out in public.  What fun!

Wednesday, some of us decided to catch the show at Cafe Mogador, in the East Village, where Shamira was performing.  The Mogador Band, of which she is a member, accompanied her.  The restaurant itself was rather crowded and small, but that didn’t stop us from having a blast.  I was even asked to get up and dance with Shamira.  Imagine her surprise when, upon recognising the music, I started to dance and she, the professional she is, recognized that I knew what I was doing.  What followed was an impromptu duet with me taking the lead, then she taking the lead – a sort of duelling banjos number, except we used our bodies.  We spoke at length after the show and she’s as nice as she appeared.  A few patrons were astounded that the “ringer” was a Canadian!  Chalk one up for the Maple Leaf!

Thursday evening was the much-anticipated Workshop Participants’ Dance Party hosted at the Lafayette Bar & Grill, situated at the junction of Soho, Little Italy and the Financial District.

One by one, in glittering costumes and props (zills, veils), the girls showed us their stuff, much to the crowd’s pleasure.  I particularly enjoyed fellow Canadian, Kate’s, performance, a number choreographed by her instructor Joan Savage, as well as Robin Williams’ (that is her real name, I swear it), a beautiful dancer showing lots of potential.  And to think she wasn’t going to participate due to nerves!  Another surprise was Johanna, a beautiful blonde Swedish teenager (turned Sweet 16 the day before the show) whose simple grace of movement was an absolute delight.

Vivian and Jane also surprised me… it’s sometimes hard to guess how someone will do when you’re in a studio all day trying to execute someone else’s work!  As well as watching the show, Kate and I became the show’s unofficial photographers – clicking furiously here and there, catching a few memories on celluloid for all time.

As for my own show, I think my colleague summed it up best:  “They did not expect you to be that good!”  I guess the fact that I’m Canadian and a size 18 kind of threw them off kilter – one well-meaning fan suggested that I not “eat too many sweets”. I told him that on my schedule I’m lucky to eat, much less eat sweets. I noticed that the atmosphere got more charged as my number progressed, and was gratified to get a quiet “Thumbs up” from Tarik and Rocky. (They’re not ones for handing out false compliments.) One woman requested a hug at the end of my show, which I willingly gave (but boy was I sweaty!).

Intermissions were filled with the sounds and songs of “Fabulous Freddy Chama” – a talented singer and musician who regaled us with well-loved favourite ME songs.  Despite having performed in costume, many dancers were compelled to take to the floor “in civies” and simply revel in the joy of sharing such wonderful music.

Getting back to my table after changing back into my regular clothes also proved to be a problem since I had quite a few people vying for my attention.  Many were wanting to congratulate me, while others expressed concerns about my and Kate’s family.  We were then informed about Ice Storm ’98 (Montreal is at a stand-still!  Over 70 people dead! Etc. etc. etc….)  and promptly found a pay phone to call our respective families. I’m happy to say they escaped the worst of it fairly unscathed.

Back to the show, the finale featured who else??? Tarik and Morocco, in solos and in duet. It was obvious the crowd had been waiting all night to see them and they did not disappoint. In glittering gold and green costumes, they worked the room like the pros they are, each taking command of their own numbers, each sharing the spotlight with each other, complimenting each other’s movements. One unexpected surprise took place as Rocky, followed by Tarik, decided to take a stroll through the tables.  If you’d caught their show in the past, this is an unusual exception.  Lots of applause, zaghareeting and worry-bead twirling accompanied this unexpected treat. What a way to end a fabulous show!

We got back onto Canadian soil late Saturday evening… believe me, it’s a long story and I won’t bore you with the gory details… and back to our normal lives.  Boy was I glad to see my cats and my bed!

If you want to learn as much as you can about Oriental/Middle East dance in as short a time as possible, in an intensive seminar-like atmosphere, then Morocco’s week-long seminar series is for you.  The choreographies are intricate, the information is invaluable, the location (New York City) is anything but boring and the teachers are simply divine.  Despite the beating we took on the Canadian dollar (they don’t call me “Exchange Rate Bordage” for nothing!), it was money well spent. I’ve been to Rocky’s seminars twice now, and look forward to returning again in the near future or… sponsoring a workshop here in Ottawa.  How about it Rocky?  Think you can handle the Great White North?  Better yet, can the Great White North handle YOU??!!