I love southern California, and was able to get there for what could have been a weeks worth of activities packed into just three days! From February 6-9, I had the pleasure of sampling a bit of the Los Angeles dance scene and studying witih one of this country’s leading proponents of Raks al Sharki, the amazing Morocco of New York. Please allow me to share my experiences there with you now.
Upon arrival Thursday, I was able to see Pleasant Gehman/Farhana dance at the Los Angeles restaurant, the Moon of Tunis. She was simply divine, as was the food (love that sweet rosewater carrot salad!) I look forward to my next visit so I may enjoy more of the southern California dance scene. I find the stylistic differences fascinating between the north and south sections of the state. It seems Egyptian cabaret style is done almost exclusively in southern California restaurants. That can’t be said as often up north, maybe its our legacy of experimentation seemingly inherent in San Francisco (once affectionately called “Baghdad by the Bay!”)
Next stop was the Anaheim Plaza Hotel, my home for the next three days. This was the site chosen for Morocco’s first SoCal engagement in 15 years. Kahena of Banaat al Qamar was the sponsor of this wonderful event. Look for more in the future!
Saturday, February 8
Shopping and registration began at 8:45 am! By the turn-out at that early hour, it was apparent bellydancers never find it too early to SHOP! Vendors during the weekend were Turquoise International, Jorjana’s Glitter World, Heavenly Bodies, The Oasis and George Moawad from Happy Times International. Morocco had planned on vending as well, but unfortunately, all FIVE of her boxes were not delivered by UPS in time for the weekend.
A thorough and enjoyable warm-up was a great way to start the day. Morocco chose a Light Rain tune entitled “Beautiful Friend” in a slow 4/4 meter for our warm up both days. I enjoyed the way she had us do each movement very slowly, to a count of eight first, then gradually a bit faster to a count of four, then to a two count and finally to a one count. Then we’d repeat the move on the other side, or other direction.
Morocco also took a few minutes to explain how Raks Sharki is torso-driven as opposed to Western/American dance styles (such as Jazz dance) that are feet, leg, and arm driven. She demonstrated how movements look performed both ways. This was a very effective comparison. She also talked about breathing, and the fact that “if you care about what you’re doing, the stage fright never leaves you, the butterflies just learn to fly in formation!”
The warm up was a gentle way to get us going, in preparation for the first class of the day. This was an Egyptain women’s cane choreography that Morocco taught to the classic tune, “Al Ain Moulayetein” by unknown artists. This dance was fresh and lively. One of the workshop participants, Eris Weaver, remarked that she “never knew cane dancing could be so much fun!” The class sizes were perfect — not too large, and there were no inadvertant injuries produced by the many swinging canes, although a few unplanned “duels” did occur.
Morocco explained that in this choreography, there was no excessive use of the hand gesture she calls “Lebanese headaches” allowed (no excessive pressing of the palms or backs of the hand to the head) because in Egypt, this means, “all moving parts for sale or rent!” I like the way Morocco explains the origins of the dances she teaches before launching into the choreography. She playfully allows her character of “Sister Mary Ignatius” to explain the details. Its always nice to have the background information and the opportunity for asking questions. Morocco is a gracious teacher, and no question was left unanswered.
She has a magnificent sense of humor that shines clearly like a light through all she does. She told me that she “makes jokes so that folks won’t realize how hard I’m really working them!” And it works! This quality makes her accessible to her students, and makes her seem like “just one of the gals”, even though the veritable encyclopedia of knowledge she keeps in her head reminds us she is so much more. One thing I respect about Morocco is her willingness to share her knowledge, and to make it clear that she harbours no “secrets”, and that things are most often less complicated than we as dancers can try to make them! She frequently tells us to “relax” and that’s always a relief to hear.
After lunch, which was, of course, not on time and took much longer than planned, we had a basic finger cymbal technique class while our meals digested. A very important point concerned the fact that dancers “over there that can play, DO!” There is a misconception going around that in Egypt, dancers don’t play sagat. Morocco named several that do indeed play. She also told us that some stars prefer to hire their sagat players to show that they can afford to, but that cymbals are a “viable and valuable part of the dance” and they’re a great accompaniment to any show when played correctly.
Morocco demonstrated several patterns and variations for 4/4. She reiterated the importance of variation in patterns while playling, as opposed to incessant RLRs or 121s. The misnomer of that pattern as “longa” was also discussed, and the real longa was explained. This is actually a rhythm considered not for dancing, that starts out slowly and can speed up, and it’s from Turkey.
Morocco prefers to use the numbers instead of “rights and lefts” so that left-handed people don’t have to transpose the patterns, and for simple speed while explaining verbally. The number one refers to the dominant hand, whichever that is for you. This really makes sense! As she says, “there’s always a method to her madness”. We all played along with her as she led us through some dance sequences.
Taking nothing for granted, she also took the time to explain the proper way to fasten the elastics to our cymbals and why (elastics fixed on the outside of the cymbal, not inside where they act as dampers, muting the sound.) She explained her preference for the two slotted cymbals as opposed to the one-holed variety (for greater control) and for her use of tiny safety pins as opposed to sewing (because they stretch, and if someone is watching your safety pins you ain’t doin’ somethin’ right, or they have a finger fetish and that’s another story!”
Next class of the day was a Tunisian Shaaba (folk dance) choreography to a 6/8. This was also prefaced with a discussion regarding culture and costuming (thank you Sister Mary Ignatius.) When explaining Tunisian technique, Morocco made certain we understood the importance of keeping the chest lifted up and out of the waist, and breathing slowly and deeply to prevent side aches. She stressed the importance of keeping our hips level while executing the twisting motions. She explained that it should feel as though the hips are moving down slightly in order to maintain the level twist.
One of my favorite parts of this dance was the miming makeup application, while pulsing the body to the music. Another was a movement she calls the “Funicello” (sorry Annette!) that hearkens back to the old beach movies of days gone by. Incidentally, Morocco had cassettes of all of the workshop class music available for purchase so we could take them home and practice what we’d learned, very thoughtful, and handy while practicing what one has learned later at home.
At last we were done dancing and ready for our video presentation. Today’s video was Moroccos “Real Folk” video she recorded from 1974-78 while in Egypt. This included footage of dervishes, shamadan dances with no headbands and a very high center of gravity and Sudanese dancers wearing grass skirts and tall Tahitian-like headdresses. These Sudanese dancers also limboed under flaming poles (albeit not in their grass skirts) as Morocco explained that the limbo did not originate in the West Indies but in the Sudan.
The video also featured Nubian dancing, Tahtyib, and lots’n’lots of the famous Ghawazee sisters, the Banaat Mazin of Luxor. This footage was of the youngest two. It was quite extensive and included a cane dance duet as well as the sisters singing, and even dancing with one of their rebaba players! The last portion of the video showed the Reda troupe in many different theatricalized versions of balletic influenced folkdances as well as their own choreographies, such as the famous “Mermaid” choreography. This dance was explained by the lovely and gracious Sahra, who lived and performed in Cairo for five years and was familiar with the Reda troupe, as being originally comissioned by the government, in order to sway public opinion regarding the building of the Aswan Dam to a more favourable light. Sahra was there to study with Morocco on Saturday.
Occasionally I’d look over to Kahena, our sponsor, busily beading finishing touches onto her costume for that evening’s show from her vantage point at her table. She made it in time too!
The Saturday evening dinner show extravaganza was held in the hotel ballroom. We all had time to freshen up and relax between the long day of classes and the evenings entertainment, which was scheduled for 8 pm. Seating began at 7:15 and our caterers began bringing our dinners shortly thereafter (which were delicious by all accounts!) There was a no-host bar for beverages and we enjoyed our meals and waited in excited anticipation for the show to begin.
The first presentation of the evening was Morocco, doing her famous version of the Tuareg blessing dance, the Guedra. She came from the back of the auditorium, veiled in black as is traditional, and went to several tables. As she passed people at these tables, she would take the hands of some, and press the back to her forehead through the veil, then to the person’s forehead, and this was done three times with each person. This is a traditional Tuareg greeting, considered an optional part of the Guedra, that Morocco chose to use. To me, it signified the beginning of the bestowal of blessings. It was a very dramatic entrance, too.
Once on the stage, Morocco continued the blessing dance, called T’bal for this part, as she was standing. The T’bal section began with her hands still under the veil, signifying the darkness and mystery, and lack of knowledge. As it progressed, she included very emphatic turns to each of the four directions with strong hand gestures to each. Morocco also included the hand gestures for the elements and the passage of time. Her gestures were very strong, not at all tentative, and conveyed such power it nearly made me weep! But instead I zaghareeted my heart out and others followed suit.
When she dropped to her knees for the Guedra portion of this ancient ritual, there was scarcely a murmur in the crowd as all watched with growing awe. The zaghareets continued, sometimes blending with those on the tape, so that we were transported out of the hotel to another dimension, at least for a moment. I felt this dance was a totally appropriate way to begin the show. It left me stunned — but in a good way! I have long been enthralled by the Guedra, and to finally see the Master perform it was enchanting, enlightening and so satisfying. It was VERY intense.
The second dance was an entrance set to folkloric music with Kahena’s troupe, Banaat al Qamar, of which she is the director, and a guest troupe called Roman Morga. When Roman Morga left the stage, Banaat al Qamar performed a very fun dance later joined by two percussionists from the Roman Morga troupe. Two of the dancers from Banaat al Qamar also played sistrums during a portion of this dance. Kahena described the style of this piece as “techno ethnic” which really applies, as the music used was “traditional but pumped up a bit.” Fun stuff!
Next, we were treated to a set by the Roman Morga troupe. I had the opportunity to meet a few of their members in the lobby earlier, and asked what their name meant. They replied “Gypsy Cat or Gypsy Squirrell.” (In Romany, one word can mean more than one thing.) They are a self-described blend of Gypsy styles, with “Eastern European influence and Middle Eastern rhythms.” They are a colorful collection of musicians and dancers doing their thing in a delightful fantasy manner. They had five musicians and five dancers. Even the little baby was dressed up in costume. Their costumes reminded me of a mixture of Renaissance Faire and Ghawazee coats with lots of embroidery, mirrors, I-ching coins, bells, beads, tassels and East Indian jewelry. One even wore striped leggings that showed when she twirled. After an intro in 6/8, their first number was titled “the Fortune Teller” and used a beledi (maksoum) rhythm with ribboned sticks that each dancer used as percussion while dancing. This was followed by a trio of dancers doing a tambourine dance, also to a beladi rhythm.
Next, was a song with vocals sung in English entitled “Rose of the Nile.” The accompanying dance was a somewhat somber, but entrancing sword duet. Last was a finale in ayoub rhythm and featuring strips of cloth in each dancers hands.They used these as one might use scarves while dancing.
This was followed by an open floor section to recorded music with live vocals (rather like karaoke) sung by the Master of Ceremonies himself, Mr George Moawad of Happy Times International. Mr Moawad is the fellow who has put out the “Golden Translator” series of booklets that translate popular Arabic song lyrics into English. He also has put out accompanying cassettes. These are desgned to help dancers not only know the gist of the songs they choose to dance to, but also to help them begin learning some Arabic. The evening wouldn’t have been as much fun without George, who proved to be quite the party motivator! He really got the crowd involved and kept the energy level high.
Banaat al Qamar then presented their version of a Tunisian folkloric style dance. Their costumes were brightened for the stage in earthy hues of cool or warm colors with matching Tunisian style yarn belts. The dance included a delightful floor section where they mimed the applicaiton of makeup and a pot section with pretty pots theyd made themselves out of papier mache and painted with a stoneware glaze that added just the right amount of sparkle. I wouldn’t have known it, if I hadnt talked to Kahena about it afterwards, but their music was started late apparently, and they just “went with it”. I couldn’t tell anything was amiss! Smooth job, ladies!
Next was our instructor Morocco, performing Raks al Assaya in a stunning red beaded beledi dress. Her sense of the comic comes through even when shes dancing! Morocco put us at ease while mouthing words to the song playfully. She almost had us forget the tremendous skill required for the complicated moves she was doing, especially during a very long drum solo segment in which she balanced the cane on her head for what seemed like days! WOW! This dance left me so HAPPY. In fact, I dont remember feeling this ecstatic while watching a performance ever. Thanks, Morocco, for that. This was definitely one of my favorite dances, the memory of which I’ll treasure forever – (along with the Guedra.)
During the intermission that followed, George led us through his version of the Macarena “with an Arabic flair!” This was a gas and very similar to the Macarena we know and love, with the substitution of the hand to ear move for the “Lebanese headache” move, along with a shoulder shimmy segment and an arm waving section that Mr Moawad happily led us through. This led into another open dance floor for the remainder of the intermission, accompanied by more songs sung earnestly in Arabic by the MC himself.
The first dancer in the second half of the show was our sponsor herself, Kahena. She wore the beautiful coppery-bronze ensemble she was working on earlier. Kahena chose to vary her set with an old-style entrance in which she played zils, followed by an interpretive veil dance to an alternative music selection. She definitely had some unusually quick and eye-catching veil moves! This was followed by a takseem to another alternative song, this one with her own poetry in English read over Middle Eastern rhythms. Unusual and memorable. This was followed by a traditional, complicated and energetic drum solo and a traditionally styled finale.
Next we had the pleasure of watching another southern California dancer, Aziza Said. Aziza caught our attention immediately with her rendition of the classic Turkish song “Rompi Rompi”, while playing zils in accompaniment. Her demeanor was appropriately sassy and playful. She wore definite facial tattoos and a colourful costume blending various styles. Her next number consisted of the interpretive variety in both music selection and choice of movements. I especially loved her lightning quick spins and East Indian flavored mudras. Her facial expressions were particularly intense and captivating. She chose John Bilezikjian’s achingly beautiful version of the suggestive Turkish love song “Sallasana Mendillini” (Wave Your Handkerchief) for some veil work and more use of well-timed theatricalized gestures that, done without Aziza’s skill, could have fallen flat, but executed as she did were mesmerizing. She garnered rich applause as she left the stage and her performance was easily a favorite with the crowd that evening.
The last dancer of the night was once again the incomparable Morocco! Before she began, once again the jokester, she feigned last minute costume adjustments from just -far- enough -behind -the- wings so that we could see, getting us all ready mentally for the enjoyment of watching her dance. This was a classically styled Raks Sharki set done in a stunning custom-made Madame Abla costume of brilliant green and gold, with tiny rhinestones throughout that continually caught and reflected the light in a dazzling rainbow spectrum.
Morocco danced a full seven-part routine and played her sagat throughout the entire set! Their use always complemented the music, never once detracted. She proved what she had taught earlier in class, that proper use of finger cymbals is a great enhancement and her technical prowess was a joy to behold. She demonstrated her impeccable sense of timing both of what and when to play, and equally important, when not to play. I am so inspired! Still playful, Morocco effortlessly executed seemingly endless shimmy overlays during a bouzouki takseem and in other partions of the dance, once again playing along easily and naturally. One of the HOTTEST drum and sagat solos I’ve ever had the pleasure of witnessing followed, still with her ever-present sense of humour shining through when she executed a bust, hip and lip shimmy — priceless! When done, she asked from the stage “Any Questions?” before the crowd broke into thunderous applause.
What a wonderful way to end the day!
Sunday morning, February 9
Came a bit earlier, or so it seemed, than Saturday morning had been! Thankfully, Kahena had arranged for coffee in the workshop room today along with the plentiful water. It was nice to see more “who’s who” from the SoCal dance community today, as well, when Robyn Friend and Fahtiem both arrived for class in Sulu Kule (Inner-city Turkish Gypsy.)
The first class after the warm-up was a Moroccan Schikhatt choreography. First, “Sister Mary Ignatius” explained a bit about the culture and costuming for this dance. We learned that “Schikhatt” is plural for “Sheika” and that it is thought of as “an instructional dance for brides!” The words “sheik” and “sheika” mean “those possessing knowledge” and in Morocco, the definition is expanded to include carnal knowledge as well. In Egypt we learned that the definition can include those with medicinal knowledge.
Unlike the Tunisian dance of yesterday that is done by both married and single women, this dance is performed only by married women (of course, they are the only acceptable women in society that could possess carnal knowledge.) This choreography was to a popular song called “Mach Mach” which means “come, come” as in “come here”. This was sung by the late Moroccan drummer and Oud-ist, Ali Hafid, in the Maghrebi dialect of Moroccan Arabic. Morocco described it as “the usual sort of love song”. We used either one long scarf passed across our shoulders and neck in back that could reach with the ends just long enough to flip or with two smaller scarves. Either version is culturally correct, we were assured. The more sheer the fabric the better, as the lighter fabrics flow in a more pleasing manner.
Morocco describes the demeanor for this dance as having a bit of attitude, not overpowering, but there. The carriage is proud and lifted. Because of the slippers worn there, its necessary to almost affect a shuffling step in order to keep them on. We kept this in mind while dancing to remind us to keep our steps small and close to the ground. The dance movements were fairly simple, but we learned it’s the attitude, the purpose, and how the steps are strung together that makes this dance so fun.
During this class we had taken a little-bit-too-long break (it was all those vendors faults!) which made our lunch hour way past schedule so that the afternoon classes did not start on time. Because several of us had to leave in order to catch planes, we asked Morocco to teach the Sulu Kule first instead of the scheduled finger cymbal class, and she obliged. (Thanks again, Morocco!)
I absolutely love this Gypsy stuff and had a great time in this class. It was the easy “I’ll dance when the spirit moves me” kind of feel set to a slow karsilama that Morocco explained was a fairly recent (this century) development from the Gypsy ghetto of Istanbul, the Sulu Kule. We learned that the word karsilama means literally “face to face”. This refers to the line dances that were done exclusively until an Oriental dancer from Turkey name Semra, who missed her familiar rhythms, requested that it rhythm played for her as a soloist. This started the solo Oriental Karsilama dancing we see and do today.
Being Rom herself, Morocco could easily convey the attitude and spirit necessary to pull this dance style off. We all had fun following her as she moved casually in the centre of a circle. She chose not to teach a choreography this time, which was actually more realistic, as this style of dance is never choreographed when done in its authentic context. She told us that this kind of dance is usually performed in small spaces, such as living rooms, and is not necessarily very energetic, unlike the fast jumpy karsilamas we are generally more familiar with. She taught us how to count this one that is accented on syncopated beats. She explained that it’s assumed that the 9/8s are ingrained into the souls and hearts of the people and that it’s not counted “over there”, even by the musicians. It’s a natural rhythm that has an infections, lazy feel. I love it! I think most of the students felt the same way.
Morocco explained that the gestures used mean either nothing much at all, or that they can have meanings only conveyed by obvious intent. An example was the flat palm with the other hand in a fist, grinding the flat palm. Morocco explained that usually means grinding coffee, or in some regions, corn or other grains. However, the same gesture could mean something — um less mundane, she we say, when done in a deliberately naughty manner! She told us to have fun with the dance and the gestures and not to worry so much about them.
During the cultural discussion we learned that the actual Roma who perform this dance accompanied by male members of the family as musicians absolutely do not allow prostitution among themselves, despite the gadjes (non-Gypsy) fantasies to the contrary. Instead, the Gypsies allow gadje women and girls who’ve been virtually rented to the Gypsies by their families for money to perform the immoral acts with tourists or other foreigners. Although somewhat shocking to our American sensibilities, this fact was only part of the enlightening discussions about the Turkish Gypsy culture.
It also helped when performing this dance to know that fact, as then we could assume the attitude of the Gypsy dancer, who teases but denies. Such power in that sort of thinking! The attitude to keep in mind is “You want it? You like it? Here it is but you CAN’T HAVE IT! HA! Eat your heart out!”
Today’s finger cymbal class focused on arm and hand flexibility while playing.
The video Morocco brought to show this afternoon was her recording of the “Marrakesh Folk Festival and More: Berber Tribal Dance Under the Stars”. This video is a rare glimpse into many different tribes as they perform authentic folkloric dances from various regions of Morocco. It was filmed spanning several years during the late 1970s and early 80s. We saw T’bal, Guedra, Gnoua, acrobats, Kelaa des M’Gouna, Haha, Ghiatta, Tissint, Oujda and many more, including “Carrying of the Bride.”
As if the Marrakesh Folk Festival footage werent enough, the video also includes Lahsen (male Schikhatt) as performed at Mamounia Palace Restaurant in the Tangiers medina (1978), a tray dance, more Schikhatt (this time with Morocco being invited to join in (1978), city Schikhatt (Fassi) from Fez (1979), country Schikhatt (a rehearsal at the Wichita Night Club in the Ain Diab suburb of Casablanca) and finally our Morocco herself, dancing at the Hotel Rif in Tangiers (1978). She left me breathless with her cymbal playing in that set, and I think pleasantly surprised the drummer as well! She certainly earned the standing ovation received from the packed nightclub when she finished her dance that night. Performances like that make me proud to be an American!
This weekend was not only informative but tons of fun. In fact, one happy workshop goer was overheard to exclaim: “Disneyland may have been right across the street, but we didnt notice, because all the fun and excitement we needed was right here!” I think she said it for all of us.