Raks Sharki, Serendipity & Morocco

Serendipity means an accidental encounter of a fortunate or happy nature, and I have been both happy and fortunate to have made the acquaintance of Morocco. In early November of ‘’85 I was walking in the rain on the upper East Side, in order to listen to WFUV’s “Middle East Melodies” on my Walkman. That music touched a special place, deep in my soul, like nothing else could. For the previous three years I went to great lengths to catch the program, wherever I was. That particular evening, I raced up from midtown Manhattan to avoid the static interference.

It was difficult to hear the program, but through the interference, I could faintly hear Richard Mazloom endorse a series of concerts at Riverside Dance Festival to be given by Morocco and the Casbah Dance Experience. The static was so bad, it was a miracle I was able to get the correct number for info and reservations.

I decided I’’d better not wait for the last minute and called as soon as I got home. Before I knew it, I was in a deep conversation with Morocco about dance, culture and music. The concert proved to be everything I expected and more. The costumes, variety and talent were far beyond anything I’d seen. This was the only company I’’d seen which presented real folkloric dances. I had to see it again. I had to be a part of it.

I knew it would no longer be enough to just listen to the music. I had to learn to dance. I called and asked Morocco if it were possible for men to do these dances. “Well, sure you can, silly, didn’’t you see Sergio?” I really wanted to know if it were possible for ME to dance. “Well, do YOU teach men?” I asked. “Right now there are only women in my class, but if you’’re serious I have no problem.”

Thus began my career in dance. I made my debut in 1986 with Casbah. We were the FIRST dance company ever hired by the U.N. to perform in its Dag Hammerskjold Theater. Serendipity had lead me to Morocco and changed my life. In my attempt to learn and grow, I watched other dancers and tried other teachers, but for me only Morocco’’s authenticity and athletic stamina challenged me. No one else could compare.

Over the past nine years I’’ve benefited from Morocco’s quick wit, sense of fun, warmth and total dedication to her Art. She has shared her knowledge and time with me without reserve, in a way that no one else was willing to and because of this, I have come to know her in a way that most people do not.

Who is Morocco? How did she get started? What is behind the passion on stage? The following has been gleaned from years of observation, constant Q&A. Weeks of poring over her voluminous scrapbooks and photos (behind her back) and stealthy eavsdropping.

In 1958, shortly before she got a B.A. in Modern Languages and Education, Morocco started studying Flamenco and continued (as a break from the books) while pursuing an M.A. She turned professional in 1960, performing with such Flamenco greats as Curro and Olga Amaya, Pepita Ortega and Goyo Reyes. She joined Ballet Espanol Ximenez-Vargas for a ten-week tour. It meant leaving her job as a commercial translator for a Wall Street firm and a total break with her distraught and horrified family, but she knew she had to follow her soul — or lose it forever.

It was a successful but grueling “dues-paying” tour: on a bus all day, iron costumes, make-up, onstage. Different hotel each night, greasy spoon meals on the run: real “show-biz glamour”. No rehearsal pay. The rehearsal studios were owned by Father Spiro Avlonitis, a Greek Orthodox priest, friend and mentor to many struggling young artists. He noticed her losing weight. Not enough money for good food? We’

’ll see about that!

He had a Greek-Lebanese woman friend, Marianthe Stevens, who was ready to open a new club with Arabic decor and music in the heart of New York’s “Greek Town” at 8th ave and 29th street. She’d hired the best musicians available, needed dancers and paid better than the Ballet Espanol. He said go there, use his name. If she got the job, she’’d work at night, sleep, rehearse afternoons with Ximenez-Vargas, EAT! Assuming they wanted a Flamenco dancer, she went.

To make a hysterically funny tale (the way Rocky tells it) shorter, there were so few Oriental dancers and relatively so many jobs then that, if Godzilla had a costume, she could have gotten the job. Godzilla didn’’t show, so Carolina got the gig: a two week contract, with option. Marianthe Stevens said she looked Moroccan and named her “Morocco”. At first, Carolina hated the name but flipped over the music: it got to her even deeper than Flamenco. She was “home”. She had to know more.

The sixties were a special time in New York’’s Greektown. There were eight clubs on 8th Avenue, from 27th to 29th Streets, each with three dancers six nights a week, and a fourth on the three days the others were off. From 9:30 pm to 4:30 am six nights a week, they sat onstage with the musicians, playing drum, finger cymbals and tambourine for each other and drinking countless cups of Turkish coffee. The musicians were from all the countries of the Near and Middle East, North Africa, and the Mediterranean. They played together and learned each others songs and rhythms. It was a wonderful time of sharing, where knowledge and friendship were freely given.

Whole families from those countries came, from grandparents to babies, to listen to their music, eat their food and dance. Morocco sponged it up. When a movement caught her eye, she waited till the (usually older) women went to the ladies’ room, followed, and convinced them to teach it to her then and there. The elderly musicians, seeing that Morocco was a “family girl”, extended their protection, advice, and instruction. This environment enabled her to learn Greek from the songs.

Twice a night, six nights a week, Morocco improvised to live music for half an hour or more, using all she’’d seen, learned and felt inspired to try. Her Flamenco training had given her a love for and skill in executing complicated rhythms, countertempo, improvisation and soul. What she lacked in technique then, she made up for with warmth, charm and enthusiasm, which endeared her to her audiences.

On her night off, Morocco went to other clubs to see the other dancers, hear more music and dance for her own enjoyment. Realizing that the grandmothers had the cultural knowledge she sought, she made friends with a few of them and was invited to their homes and family celebrations: learning the culture from the inside. Morocco’’s obvious love and respect for the music, dance and people, plus her dark Mideastern looks made her a welcome guest and gave entree to the women’s culture, something no male, even from the culture had. However, since she wasn’t really “bint al balad”, most sex – based restrictions didn’’t apply.

She’’d heard varying tales as to the origins and meaning of Raks Sharki, Anatoliko Horo, Chifte Telli. One thing was certain, no one from the cultures called it by the misnomer “belly” dance. Most, especially North Africans and Saudis, mentioned a link to childbirth. (See “Bellydancing and Childbirth”, Habibi:Vol 3 #2, 1976, Sexology, April, 1965 & many other publications since …)

In July, 1963, after working in the top ethnic clubs of New York, Washington, D.C. and Montreal, Morocco was hired (two week contract with option!) at the Roundtable, the NY club that would reign for five years as the best place for Oriental dance in the U.S. The music was great! Every Oriental dancer in America dreamed of dancing at the Roundtable. She headlined there, except when in Off-Broadway and Broadway shows (earning rave reviews), on research trips or doing galas and weekend club dates, from July 3, 1963 till March 2, 1968.

By 1962, she’’d already been featured in two movies and done a couple of TV interviews. Critics began to recognize the art of her dance and the first of many rave revues to come was printed shortly after she opened at the Roundtable, titled: “Morocco’s Belly Dance is High Art” (Daily Mirror, July 7, 1963, Jack Thompson)

In mid 1963, Morocco heard there’’d be a Moroccan Pavillion at the 1964 World’’s Fair in New York. Dozens of phone calls later (research!), she reached the men in charge. As she tells it, having more nerve than brains, she jumped right in with both feet: “Hi. You don’t know me yet, but my name is Morocco. I’’m a well known Oriental dancer in New York. Wouldn’’t it be great publicity for you if you had a dancer at the Moroccan Pavillion named Morocco?”

Rocky said they laughed so hard they dropped the phone. She was invited to see the REAL Moroccan dancers rehearse before their opening: Schikhatt, Ahouache, Gnaoua, Danse du Plateau, Houara. All wonderful , but the special magic and mystery of the Guedra was overwhelming. She had to have more. . .

Having started her researching from within cultural enclaves in the U.S., Rocky took the next step: on-site. Borrowing planefare from her mother, with advice, addresses and letters of introduction from her new Moroccan friends, and telling no one (in case of failure), she flew to Morocco during one of her vacations from the Roundtable.

Emboldened by her first Guedra experience in Goulimine, Morocco took off for Egypt (1964), earning the money with several gala shows in Morocco and Paris, arranged by the Pavilllion directors. A real thirst for knowledge brought her back to both countries repeatedly and to Tunisia, Algeria, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Iran, Iraq, Turkey and Greece for research and performances.

Marriage to a Russian (“most interesting mistake of my life”) gave her access to the Caucasian, Central Asian and Islamic republics of the former Soviet Union (1976-79), where she was thrilled to find Raks Sharki in some homes, but saddened that it was done only by grandmothers and actively discouraged by the Soviet government’’s racism and victorian attitudes towards the body.

Morocco opened many new doors to Mideastern dance with her joyful, tasteful performances. The first Oriental dancer invited to perform in a New York museum, she was also the major subject of a segment of the documentary “Only One New York”, featured in the Broadway musical “I Had a Ball” (to rave reviews), and did many TV shows, including Ed Sullivan (censors made her wear a robe under her costume!).

In addition to restaurant and night club performances all over the U.S., Canada, Germany, Sweden, the U.S.S.R., Morocco and Egypt, Morocco’’s amazing career includes: commercials, a record (she sings too!), voiceovers, acting, more movies and TV shows, specialty dances in operas, the first grant to a Mideastern dancer — to teach it to children, a second for choreography (only two-time winner!), TWO arts exposure grants to present Mideastern and North African dance in NYC public schools, frequent lecture/performances at universities and museums, a one hour TV special in Germany (Koln, WDR#1), performances at Lincoln Center (several times), Statue of Liberty Centennial, thousands of shows for N.Y.C. department of Cultural affairs, Delacourt Dance Festival, Riverside Dance Festival (five times), wrote and appeared in “Belly Dancing: Midriff Myth” — a half hour video produced by the University of Wisconsin/Madison.

To date, Morocco ‘s released six full length videos (now on DVD): five in 1984, taken from her on-site film documentation and one in 1986 of her dance company’s award – winning concert at the Riverside Dance Festival. Her dance company, Casbah Dance Experience, gained tax-exempt status in 1978 as an educational organization.

When the Moroccan Tourist Office needs Moroccan dance in NY, they hire her and Casbah; as does the Museum of Natural History, who regularly sponsors her lecture series.

Rocky taught privately in the sixties, training many dancers. In 1970, Rosetta LeNoire, a friend from “I Had a Ball” made a proposal she couldn’’t refuse: “Teach a weekly class at my school or I’’ll never speak to you again!” OK. For seven years, she did. She started teaching master classes for other schools in 1972, taught a 3-credit course in Mideastern dance and culture at the State Univrsity of New York at Purchase (1975-76), and opened her own school in 1976.

Credit goes to Dr Paul Monty for creating her favorite teaching arena (in 1974) and opportunity to share her hard won knowledge on a wider scale all over the U.S. and Canada: seminars. In 1986, she taught master classes in Casablanca, Morocco and began doing seminars and concerts in 1988 in Germany (now teaching in German), England, Sweden, Switzerland, Finland, Italy and Isreal. She’’s one of their favorite teachers, and is brought back twice a year by popular demand.

From personal experience, I can attest that Morocco’s regular classes are a goldmine of information, both verbal and physical. We work on routines, where steps are broken down and explained and also “follow the moving parts”, when Rocky does several different interpretations of the same music and/or shows how the same movements fit different pieces, to get us to forget our self-conciousness, relax, and “be the music”.

She guides us to be ourselves, within the vocabulary of the Sharki movements and eschews what she calls the “cookie-cutter” approach. After all, Soheir Zaki never danced like Negwa Fouad, Nahed Sabry, Aza Sharif, Shushu Amin, Samia Gamal, Nadia Gamal, Nadia Hamdi, Tahia Carioca, etc.

Bits of cultural and anecdotal information are given throughout, leaving no time for boredom or competition. Correction is gentle, never hostile or embarassing: if she’’s on any kind of ego trip, it isn’’t in the classroom. She believes the difficult can be made attainable by keeping a light touch (to make it unthreatening), and has no patience for teachers who, having limited knowledge, dole it out in miniscule bits with heavy doses of ballet or posing, justifying themselves by saying “less is more.” Often, less is simply not enough. Boring.

However, Morocco is thrilled with the progress Raks Sharki and Shabiyya have made in the West over the last 35 years. She feels that the level of ability and seriousness of the “average” student and performer are far higher than they were when she started (or she’’d never have gotten that first job!) and ninety percent of her performances are in venues where no Oriental dancer would have been accepted back then.

For seminars, Morocco developed a special format that makes it easy to remember the dance routines and can even explain her unbelievable cymbal playing so that it seems possible and logical. She has a gift for making hard work seem like fun, because that’s what it is for her. Rocky always includes related historical and cultural information with the movements. Some don’’t realize how much they’’re getting, till they go elsewhere.

She began writing on the dance for international medical and feminist magazines in 1965, for Ballet Dancer in 1974-75, and for Habibi and other Mideastern dance publications in 1976. Continuing harassment at her former home/studio and the upheaval of finding a space, constructing new studios and moving left no time for writing from 1986-92. The good news is that she’’s back and at it again, writing for Habibi, Tanz Oriental, and others, even threatening to get started on the Opus Magnus everybody’s expecting her to write (“How to Evade an Expectorating Camel”©. . .)

It was Morocco who started organizing dance tours to prove that the real dancing was far better and more varied than the fantasy: first to Morocco — for genuine tribal dance (1976-90, when King Hassan II changed the Marrakesh Folk Festival from May/June to September and then dropped it altogether) and then Egypt for real “Egyptian style” Oriental and Ghawazi (1978-93); stopping temporarily due to terrorism’’s current effect on the dance scene. She set the highest standards of quality and quantity in dance events on her trips and does not settle for less.

With her personal library of over 2,800 related books and documents growing daily (willed to the Lincoln Center Dance Collection), she’s a one-woman encyclopedia and has seen enough to know if what she’s reading is accurate or filtered through personal fantasy and prejudice, just as she knows when she’’s seeing real folk or Moscow / Hollywood -on- the – Nile.

With this kind of “clout”, you’’d expect a lot more “attitude”, but Morocco says: “I’’m not the Ethnic Police. If a dance isn’’t (perhaps inadvertently) culturally offensive, if it’’s presented as ‘theater’, ‘personal interpretation’, ‘inspired by’ and done with taste and talent, I can accept and enjoy it as such. But if it’s presented as ‘real’/ ‘authentic’ and is just b.s. well”

Morocco is worried: so much real “stuff” has already disappeared down the oasis forever and more goes daily. She feels obligated to preserve and pass on what she’s learned, and, judging from the packet of rave reviews for her seminars and the fact that her August weeklong sold out by mid-May, with dancers coming from all over the world, she just may get her wish. How long does she intend to continue? To put it in her words: ‘Till six weeks after I’’m dead!