Jan. 2006 Weeklong: Neon/ the Hip Circle

Morocco’s Weeklong Winter Seminar held in mid-January this year attracted 27 participants, a few of them Morocco’s NYC students and members of her Casbah Dance Experience company. Out-of-town participants came from across the US, as well as from Canada, Italy, Japan and the UK. (Her Summer Weeklong, in early August, usually has several more, but her studio is more than big enough to accommodate them comfortably.)

The workshop usually opens on a Saturday with a concert featuring various performing arts acts – folk dancing and singing, ballroom dance, Middle Eastern dance, spoken word, etc. It is always interesting to see Middle Eastern dance side-by-side with other dance arts. You get to notice how the diversity of cultures expressed through celebratory motion reveals the profound unity of humanity across the continents. In addition to Middle Eastern dance numbers, this year’s concert presented Uzbek dances by Robyn Friend, Hawaiian dance and song by Hui Na Pua A Ka Makani (NYC), and poetry recitation and dance improv by the American Creative Dance group (NYC). One of the Middle Eastern dance performances, by Tahya and Grant Smith (PA), was actually a poetry recitation, dance and live percussion improvisation. Coming to Morocco’s concerts over the years I have gotten used to bringing a notebook with me for writing down observations prompted by the unusual aesthetic angles that emerge through positioning these diverse dance arts side-by-side – everything, from dance combinations to conjectures about the evolution of popular trends and tastes.

The concert also always features the numbers that will be taught in the workshop, demostrated by the workshop instructors. We were shown a double-veil improvisation by Saqra (Seattle), 3 Raks Sharqi choreographies by Morocco and 1 by Karima Nadira; Robyn Friend and Tahya were also workshop teachers, their numbers too demonstrated material to be taught in the workshop. Tarik Sultan did not teach this year, but danced in the concert.

The workshop itself began on Sunday with classes by guest teachers: Robyn Friend taught Uzbek dance, and Saqra taught double veil technique. From Monday through Thursday Morocco always teaches one choreography per day. This year it was a drum solo, a Raks Sharqi number and a modern upbeat Shikhat dance. One day is given to Morocco’s company teacher – usually Tarik Sultan, but this year it was a choreography by Karima Nadira set to a Hakim song.

In choosing materials to teach at each workshop Morocco says she is guided not by what is popular or in demand, but rather “by what I think will be good for people to learn.”

Morocco: “Lots of real Oriental vs. ‘pose-pose-step-step-oooh!-look at me!’, real folklore and other areas of this dance that are valid theater. It doesn’t have to be 110% authentic-authentic,” she says, “if something is good theater, if it works well with dance, if I think someone really has something that will help the students, I’ll put it in the seminar. This time we had real Uzbek, and we had…real double veil – which is real American! We have Delsarte technique [taught by Joe Williams – ed.] which is very important for underlying acting ability, for being able to express different emotions within the same movement. That’s not dance technique per se, but a performance technique. We have meditation technique [presented by Tahya – ed.] so that you can use some of the principles of this dance to totally relax and get within yourself and then better express yourself. It’s whatever I think will help a performer to develop as a performer.

My next seminar, the Summer Weeklong (see the Intensives page for upcoming  events) I am having Medea Mahdavi from Iran teach Persian dance from a slightly different take than Robyn Friend did a couple years ago, and Ayshe do her wonderful wings. This whole ‘wings’ thing is American, but Ayshe is just fabulous with it (I think she is fabulous at everything she does, she’s got to be one of the best fusion dancers I’ve ever seen!). This is not authentic-shmauthentic, but it’s good dance and good theater.”

Morocco’s amazing stamina has been praised in many a review, and is worth being praised again! Morocco doesn’t stop for a moment, she dances together with her class for hours daily. First a new combination is demonstrated and explained, then the choreography is repeated 3 times through the newly-added combination. Needless to say, you will be able to repeat these choreographies in your sleep and perform them for your great-grandchildren (insha’allah!). Going through the weeklong workshop, day-by-day, is hard work, but you often don’t notice it because of Morocco’s humorous, light-hearted approach and her many entertaining stories, facts, and observations sprinkled along the way.

“In the beginning, way back” says Morocco, “I was also getting a mix of people who thought that seminars are events where you socialize, or where you ‘get in touch with yourself and your spirit’ (which I expect you to do anyway!) but when they saw that it’s hard work, that we are continually moving except for the breaks, the people who keep coming are the ones who are willing to work hard and really want to learn. I find that the level of workshop participants is improving, and, even though from time to time you notice a particular style dominating in this or that area, a lot of the earlier problems with one-hip favoring or with leaning back when performing Middle Eastern dance movements – there is a lot less of this. I noticed that there are fewer faults that I have to correct with my constituency here.

And also: I kept the sweetie-pies! There is no time to do any back-stabbing in my seminars, so the people who come are the ones who want to learn, and to find out what the real stuff is as opposed to fantasy. I am so blessed with the people who want to study with me.”

Not advertised as part of Morocco’s workshop promotion but a very apparent and prominent benefit is the way they can help performing dancers get into good shape, and the significant weight loss and toning results they can have for anyone. I am strongly interested in this physical self-maintenance and self-improvement potential of dance classes, and strongly recommend Morocco’s weeklongs as a solid step in working toward muscle-toning and weight loss. The only caveat is that you need to be an advanced intermediate level dancer or, perhaps, at least a very advanced beginner with a background in other dance forms to be able to follow the program and reap the physical benefits.

The same level is required to benefit from the instruction in technique and choreography given within the workshop: According to Morocco, the workshops are designed for intermediate and advanced-level dancers. You need to be at a certain level, says Morocco, to grasp the subtleties of technique instruction, but she adds that “I gear my seminars so that everybody gets a lot out of them. The way they are structured helps ensure that everybody who is in the seminar will benefit. If I think someone won’t be able to keep up, I’ll tell them. If they are too basic a beginner, they may feel frustrated.”

Each day of the workshop begins with an hour-long warmup and technique review. This time, warmups were led by Karima Nadira. This hour-long program is an extremely effective way to quickly get in good working shape. Stumbling into the studio half-asleep (at the ungodly hour of 9:30 a.m.), an ocean of coffee might not wake you up, but a well-designed Morocco’s signature warmup will! Some workshop regulars told me if they had only one hour a day, they would take the workshop for the daily warmup alone. In fact, Morocco’s warmup is a great version of the much-discussed “belly bar” (like “ballet bar”) which, most instructors agree, must be developed and practiced.

“The warmup is very carefully structured kinesiologically,” explains Morocco, “to go from the larger more external muscles to the smaller more internal muscles. We are working the muscles in a very logical sequence that is a most natural way to ‘get to them.’ You are kind of sneaking up on them gently (not running up behind them and yelling ‘boo!’), working first the top and moving down, using the Oriental dance movement vocabulary – to put it in your muscular memory in such a way that doing it correctly becomes the default setting. It is strengthening the technique. You do the bar in ballet to strengthen the muscles you need, to strengthen your plie, so that your plie becomes instinctive, so that you never land on an un-flexed leg. We start doing it very slowly, and every element on the road becomes ingrained.”

The warmup is, indeed, gentle and moves seemingly slowly, but soon I was shedding layers of exercise clothes without feeling any strain at all (and I am an extreme case of slow warming with a heart rate of 47 bpm).

I asked Morocco about the culture of “drilling” which is virtually absent in East Coast studios, but is being developed in the West, especially as part of Tribal style teaching. Morocco feels that although simple “drilling” may be productive with some students, “there is a larger constituency that will vote with their feet, because they will find it too boring.” There are different types of drilling, she says, and suggests the use of movements within a few different phrases. The movement will show up again and again, but in different dance contexts, to different pieces of music. Plus, movements should not be drilled to the degree of exaggeration where they may become injurious.

“This is a real folk dance,” says Morocco, “and last time I looked, folks come in different shapes and sizes. This dance is what most people should be able to do if they are not handicapped. If you are breathing and there is something between your neck and the floor, you can do enough of this dance to have fun with it. Standards of beauty for public performances or for particular venues – that is out of my control. However, because this dance is based on an anatomically correct standing position and using the muscles in the natural direction of their striations, almost anybody can learn to do it. You don’t have to start before you are 6 years old, and you don’t have to contort your body into a position it wouldn’t take naturally. The problem here is that this whole culture is based on “bigger, harder, stronger.” And it’s also the Protestant work ethic: We think if you are not sweating like an animal, you are not working. Somebody coined “no pain, no gain,” and this is totally incorrect. If something is really hurting, you are doing it wrong. The stiffness that comes from working a new muscle is one thing, feeling actual pain is something else.

Too many American dancers end up looking like cheerleaders on serious methamphetamines, because they are beating the music to death. I used to beat the music to death! Man, I killed those poor pieces of music like an Eveready bunny on quadruple batteries. I was overdancing the music. On the other hand, Oriental dance is also not just hip-hip-pose: Less IS less, but beating the music bum-bum-bum – is not the dance either.

Because these movements go so totally with the natural directions of the muscles, the movements feel much smaller than they look, and that’s where we go wrong. Because we want to get it there so badly, that we pull and push, ‘pop’, ‘lock’ and hit it there, instead of simply ‘putting it’ there. You also want to have the full range of motion, you don’t want it to be so small that you need a magnifying glass to see it, but instead of going ‘drop-drop-drop,’ we go ‘kaboom-kaboom-kaboom’! And you don’t even have to lift it to drop it.” Oh, Morocco! You are so quotable!!

Another everyday staple of the workshop is the opportunity for conversation with Morocco – questions are asked and answers are given. Morocco is very generous in sharing and divulges tons of incredibly diverse and valuable information – academic, personal, historical. There are always things worth writing down and pondering over at home. We all await that momentous day when Morocco’s long-awaited book, “Ask Aunt Rocky” finally arrives. Access to Morocco’s knowledge should be part of her workshops marketing. Collect your dance-related questions and bring them all to Morocco’s workshops:

She will probably be able to answer 99% of them with brilliant accuracy, entire historical timelines, entertaining anecdotes and wicked humor.

“What thrills me,” says Morocco, ” is that the general level of technique and skill in this field, in this country and in the world in general (outside of the countries where it belongs) seems to be increasing and improving at a wonderful rate. I am in awe and honored to be a part of something that is becomng better and better, and more and more. Sometimes when a trend becomes popular, it can get watered down as people dumb it down to what they think is acceptable, but here we have something that not only doesn’t have to be dumbed down, it can actually be smartened up on an increasing level, and I love that.”