In the Belly of Nuit

Farida Fahmy Inspired an Arabesque Curriculum Revolution

I finally had time to listen to Farida Fahmy's seminar on Teaching yesterday. It was such an exhilirating experience. I had registered to attend the seminar in person in Cairo December 2017 but ended up not making it back to Egypt until January. Luckily I was given the audio from the seminar but free time did not lend itself to me to listen until now in August 2018.

To find that I have been teaching her technique and philosophy all along, these many years, was very reaffirming. That yes, the arms move from the wrists, not the elbows, that the legs need to be straight and not bent, that the posture be relaxed, that everything is centered in the pelvis, surrendering to gravity, pushing from the heel, and most importantly, that Raqs Sharqi can not be regimented like other forms of dance can. 

As well, Farida said that ultimately there is no correct or incorrect steps or expression of the dance if the basic principals are intact. That the soul of Raqs Sharqi has some unique characteristics that separate it from all other forms of dance. Within this soul of the art, each Raqs Sharqi artist creates their own steps and expression.

I feel like I have been liberated and am breathing a sigh of relief that I was in line all this time with Farida Fahmy. Happy camper here.

Often my Beginner Technique classes are half attended by those just starting and half by seasoned pros. It has never been a problem having both in the same class for me. Actually on some level I felt it was beneficial for both groups to learn from each other. This situation appeals to those who understand that art is a journey with no ending. But this situation is often not understood in our modern race/work through life (with shortcuts where possible) mentality. I believe that a dancer can become stunted if she/he believes there are real levels to achieve. 

In the West, we love attaining goals and knowing we have accomplished something. It is especially appealing if there is an award or certificate at the end. This method is appropriate for many things in life but I believe not so much when it comes to art, and even less so for the Raqs Sharqi artform whose very nature is organic and boundless. You know when you have reached a stage in which you are creating art that is authentic. A certificate can not measure up to this realization. The ovation, smiles and tears from your audiences as your reward makes a crown pale in comparison.

I find myself more and more telling new students, seasoned or not, that they are welcome to attend all levels. Now that Arabesque Academy is on a smaller scale with only me teaching 11 out of the 13 classes a week it is not necessary to stick to a standardized curriculum. For quite a while I have been teaching in a responsive manner to whoever is in attendance and their needs. 

After listening to Farida Fahmy, I have decided to revolutionize the Arabesque Academy Curriculum and not to have have official named levels. Now I will have categories instead of levels and all are important at different times or all the time in one's learning journey

What differentiates Raqs Sharqi from other dance forms is its cultural and emotional nuance which is reflected in its mysterious and effortless technique. The infinite tapestry of riches in this ancient artform are woven into your BODY, HEART and SOUL throughout the dance journey. 

 

Yasmina B&W backbend

 

 


Arrested in Damascus

Between the years of 1989 and 1994, I worked on and off  in the nightclub of the Vendome Hotel in downtown Damascus. Not the swankiest hotel, however, it was respected as the best nightclub for presenting high quality musicians and singers. This was because the manager of the hotel was a great supporter and patron of the arts. He was also best friends with the general of the Syrian army and Hafez Al Assad's right hand men. 

Many a night after my show I would play Tawle with these guys but never knew who they were until years later. Some in trench coats and all with large cigars, they had a soft spot for me and made sure I was well protected and taken care of. The wife of the General always presented me with a rose from her front row seat in the nightclub. I never went through immigration or customs upon entering or leaving Syria. I had carte blanche by presenting a short note where ever I went. There were many examples of this special treatment but maybe to be written about another time.

I used to love spending my days strolling through Souq Al Hamidya which was always crowded and bustling with people. One day, after enjoy tea and chatting in a shop I came out to find the main street empty and silent. As I looked down the end of the souq, I could see a crowd of people so of course I had to see what was up. As I approached the crowd, I could not help noticing that it was all men, more soldiers than usual and everyone was silent. We were in front of a very famous and old mosque. There was a banner on the mosque that was later translated for me and said something to the effect of "welcome to the compassionate and beloved Hafez El Assad" and much more along those lines. 

Very soon, a limousine pulled up carrying the man himself. The fear in the air was palpable. I knew some of the men and they did not look happy. They did not tell me to leave but did tell me not to talk. I arched my neck to try and get a good look at the man who could clear the souq and instill such fear but too many soldiers blocked the view. The day was a special holiday and President Assad was going to pray in the mosque. This was the beginning of my non love affair with Hafez Al Assad. The next part of my story I kept secret until after the Syrian revolution started.

One year, it was a milestone anniversary for the president which meant everyone needed to express their love and admiration for the "benevolent" leader.  On a certain day it was all the taxi drivers, another day it was all the doctors, etc. This meant that on my way back to the hotel from the souq I had to make my way through large crowds of chanting men with signs. And indeed all the artists in Syria would perform for the president at a large celebration. When asked I refused. The manager of the Vendome was not sure I actually could refuse but said he would look into it and see what he could do.

On my way home one day, the crowds were particularly thick. It took me forever to get home and I felt unsafe. Although the chants and signs were filled with words of love, the general vibe did not seem happy. I decided I hated Hafez Al Assad and was going to let everyone know about it. It baffled me how anyone liked this guy. I loved King Hussein in Jordan and loved watching him address the nation each evening on TV but this Syrian president was not my cup of tea. 

So I waltzed into the lobby of the Vendome and in a loud voice let everyone know what I really thought of Hafez Al Assad and that these daily marches were a big pain in the butt. No one seemed to empathize with me so I took my frustrations upstairs to my buddies in the restaurants. Still no one wanted to engage in conversation with me so I went to my room pissed off and proceeded to get ready for work.

Next day, I was called downstairs and introduced to two soldiers with several large weapons who had come to arrest me. My reaction was oblivious having no idea why. Then the catering manager, my good friend, took me aside with the two soldiers a couple of feet away and showed me a pin inside his lapel. He informed me that he worked for the secret police.

He said "Yasmin, we all love you very much and we do not want to see harm come to you. You need to understand that Syria is not like Canada. Here, you can not speak badly about anyone political, let alone in public places and let alone concerning the president." The rest of what he said I have blocked from my memory. In fact, the entire event was neatly tucked away in the deep recesses of my mind until in Canada in 2012, when I told the story for the first time at a talk I was giving about my Mid East dance adventures.

Then I realized I had been afraid to tell even my own family this story for fear of someone finding out and that I would be caught and punished or killed even in Canada. As well, I feared for the people to whom I would tell the story. I know it sounds crazy but an impression had been made on me. The soldiers did not take me away because apparently I was lucky and had friends in high powered positions. I was also relieved of my duties to perform for the president. Perhaps the soldiers were staged to drive the point home. Either way, I got the message.

Even now, I am riddled with fear writing this blog post ... but I have many stories to tell and I need to start committing them to print or a blog post. Logically I know probably nothing can happen to me now. Syria has changed and not many care what I say now. However, the fear is still entrenched in my every fiber. I often wonder if a Canadian brought up on democracy and free speech could have been kept silent without her even consciously knowing it, how about so many others whose reality is this for their entire lifetime.

This is only one of my Syrian adventures. I truly love Syria with all my heart. In general I was free to roam with less restrictions by the moral police than in Jordan. Syria is rich with art everywhere and the people were always kind to me. I just did not like their president. By the way, my Tawle playing buddies had no problem with my irreverence towards power. I actually think they found it amusing. 

Photo: Souq Al Hamidya

Hamidya


Sequined Silence

In the Fall of 1983 I was invited to perform in Amman, Jordan. It was my first Mid East gig. The original contract was for one month but they kept doubling my salary several times to keep me there. At the three month mark, I was ready to leave despite being offered another salary hike. I was quite the anomaly at the time. Being a Raqs Sharqi artist in Jordan meant following a strict protocol. There was no talking to men unless it was an employee of the hotel where I worked and no talking to women unless they were approved of by management and were of a good social status. I was naive at first and learned these two lessons after being strongly reprimanded.

Basically, it meant I rarely spoke for three months. One of the few interactions I had was a musician who decided he was in love, so he would somehow get little notes slipped into my bag in the dressing room. We never spoke in person. In fact, in rehearsal, I could only speak to the manager who then gave instructions to the musicians. If I wanted to venture out of the hotel, I had to get permission, be chaperoned and followed where my every move recorded. This happened only a couple of times in three months.

At showtime every night, a very tall body guard would come to pick me up at my room and make sure no one else got in the elevator with me pre and post show. After every performance, a line-up would form of people who wanted an official 8X10 photograph of me autographed. I stood behind a table with the body guard and then someone else was in charge of bringing the photo to me from a fan across the room at least 20 feet away. I would sign and the photograph was delivered back. They first had to purchase the photograph. It occurred to me later, I probably should have demanded a cut from those profits.

The reason for all this social security was that I represented the good honour and name of the hotel where I worked. My photograph and name were featured in the hotel advertising in the newspaper everyday. Since a Raqasa is always suspect to be doubling as a prostitute, these precautions were taken. Jordan was a very conservative country. I did not mind because to me, the joy of performing every night with a full band of great musicians and an audience who understood the art form, it was worth the isolation. Every night after the show, I would wind down to a Farid Al Attrache movie that the front desk was able to send to my TV.

Another kind of silence happened and that was the first night I performed. The audience did not smile and were completely silent. It was kind of uncomfortable. I was used to the joyous and boisterous audiences in Arab nightclubs in Canada. At first I thought this was the norm. Perhaps on that first night, they did not know what to make of me. or they were reflecting back the fear I felt. Fortunately, the audience eventually warmed up and each night there after, the appreciative response got louder and louder. 

I love chocolate cake ... a lot. The hotel only had Middle Eastern deserts. So after dropping my bags back at my apartment upon returning home, I went directly to Just Deserts Restaurant with my bother. I think my brother expected an earful of listening to my adventures in Amman over our chocolate cake. Instead I sat in silence. After a while, he asked if I had forgotten how to talk. Indeed I had. It took a week or two to get back to my usual talkative self. I had not even realized how normal it had become not to speak.

I went back to work in Amman several times in later years. Protocol was still the same but I made sure to make more friends that the hotel management approved of. In later years I was allowed to go for walks alone as well. There was no body guard anymore but I was allowed to get in to an elevator that had only women. Elevators with women from the Gulf were fun. Maybe that is another blog. In later years the hotel had chocolate cake as well.

Yasmina 1983 Amman

 

 


"What more could I ask for?" Mahmoud Reda

Continuation of Blog called There is Always Hope" Mahmoud Reda (September 2015)

Rosa took me to the balcony of their apartment and described how empty the street was when they moved in 52 years earlier and how much has changed with the area built up now. Remembering the balcony, I realize now that this visit was evening time but somehow back in the presence of Mahmoud, it was daytime again. His spirit of light is so bright. 

Mahmoud & FaridaIn my first meeting in 2009 with Mahmoud in Spain, he and Farida told me of when the Egyptian Ministry of Culture forced him to retire. Two years after founding the troupe in 1959, the Reda Troupe was sponsored by the Ministry of Culture and incorporated in to the Egyptian government. It was easier this way business wise. After Mahmoud’s reluctant resignation in 1990, the government continued to tour his company presenting his repertoire of old choreography in a pale form, a shadow of what it once was. He said it broke his heart because they took his baby away from him. He no longer could create with his company that he created and became very depressed. 

Eventually he started to tour on his own as a teacher. Touring with the Reda Troupe, he lost count of how many countries they performed in, but he says he taught by himself in over 60 countries. After the International Conference on Middle Eastern Dance in California in 2000, Amir Thaleb invited Mahmoud to teach in Argentina. Amir announced to him that there were 200 students registered but when the day came to teach, 620 dancers showed up. Both him and Amir did not realize until that day how Mahmoud's legacy had touched so many.

According to Farida, the last trip he made to teach overseas was in Canada in 2012 when I brought him for the last International Bellydance Conference of Canada. Several years before I had asked him to give a talk when he came to Canada which was supposed to be in 2010 (volcano in Iceland made it impossible at that time). He told me he was not good at public speaking and did not know what to talk about. I urged him to just tell the same stories of struggles and triumphs he told me in Madrid. Before his scheduled trip in 2010, he happily announced that he had a full lecture prepared with Power Point presentation. I was not expecting that but of course was thrilled and made arrangements for his lecture to be properly presented.

Mahmoud Reda me and GeorgeWhen the day finally arrived, the 200 seat room was filled to capacity and then overflowed with all the conference attendees. He was shy so he had Sahra Saeeda sit with him to help out. Every ear in the room was fixed on Mahmoud's words. The only other sounds were a few gasps and giggles at his funny stories. It was almost 2 hours in length. He could have continued for days with so many stories to tell. Each photo on the Power Point inspired many stories. He never made it to the end of the Power Point presentation so he stopped when he began to get tired.

Everyone immediately took to their feet with loud applause and vocal praises. He nodded his head and thanked everyone several times but they would not stop clapping and cheering. He did not know what to do or where to go. He turned red and began to look confused so I escorted him out of the room and upstairs. When I turned to look at him, he was shaking and crying. I asked him what was wrong and he answered "I didn't know, I didn't know, I didn't know". I asked what is it that he didn't know. He answered "I did not know anyone cared". At which point, of course, I cried, hugged him and told him "listen to them, they are STILL clapping, they love you, you have given so much and they love you”! We had left the lecture room, walked a flight of stairs, talked, cried, even Dr. George Sawa had joined us by now and they were still clapping downstairs.

I did not tell many people at the time about him crying because he was embarrassed and by the time people came to join us in the hall, he was full of smiles for the camera. The next morning I told Sahra and of course, she cried. I am hoping now he will forgive me that I write about it.

Every minute I have spent eating meals or en route with Mahmoud, I have learned so many gems of wisdom. He is constantly teaching. He is a master at telling jokes and even in joking, he is teaching a lesson. He told me once I can not be a good choreographer if I can not deliver a joke well. He said delivering a joke is like creating choreography with timing and sequence playing a large role in how the audience will respond.

He gave me advice on how to direct a company and how to coordinate the different personalities involved, how to be a good diplomat when dealing with people in power and how to accept defeat for the better good. He told me I need to change the artistic method according to the artist as was the case when he choreographed for Samia Gamal. She could not learn choreography so he allowed her to improvise and then created choreography for the back up dancers that would match Samia's nuances. I could go on and on about the riches that Mahmoud has given me beyond his inspired and brilliant choreography. But in that moment, holding Mahmoud in my arms while he had a revelation that his life work was indeed profoundly important changed me on such a deep level that I can not articulate. I am shaking now just thinking about it.

It seems that the beginning of his career, and even throughout, was fraught with media criticism for breaking cultural rules like putting men and women to dance together, let alone on a stage. At the end of his career, the Ministry of Culture made him feel worthless and that his body of work was insignificant. As Farida says, the photos, international newspaper reviews and film footage owned by the Egyptian government of the Reda Troupe had been destroyed or lost. All that is left are the two feature films which are broadcast several times a year.

Mahmoud on stage with folklore dancers alexandria libraryHowever, on this beautiful August evening in his living room in Cairo, he says he is very happy these days. Excited, he told me about the three presentations of his choreography at the Library of Alexandria (2007, 2008, 2009). Forty of his choreographies were presented by dancers from different countries. For the 50th anniversary of forming the Reda Troupe, all the choreographies were presented by Nesma of Spain. The foreign dancers were mostly female so they used Egyptians for the male dancers.  He had sent video footage to the foreign dancers to practice with. The day before the performance they brought the male and female dancers together where they rehearsed all night long. He said the presentations were very successful. 

When I ask Mahmoud if he fulfilled his dreams, he says more than he could have imagined. He tells of how just a few days earlier, nine very emotional and enthusiastic dancers from South America visited him. The Library of Alexandria has dedicated a corner with a permanent exhibit for him where he will store his trophies and awards. The current Minister of Culture promises him that after he passes, they will rename the Balloon Theatre to be the “Mahmoud Reda Theatre”.

He says "I have had a wonderful life as a dancer, teacher and choreographer (300 choreographies), presented all over the world including Siberia, what more could I ask for".

 

I arrived at Mahmoud’s home with the intention in August 2015 to videotape an interview but he preferred not to be videotaped or audio recorded. He was having trouble pronouncing some letters so I took notes which are the basis for this blog post and the one called “There is Always Hope” Mahmoud Reda from September 2015.

More thoughts on Mahmoud Reda read the blog post called Bias Confession from January 2014.

The photo below is my first meeting with Mahmoud in Madrid in 2009 at Raks Madrid where I got to talk about choreographic process with the master. I was giddy.

Mahmoud Reda w me in Spain

 


Only One New Year Resolution For 2016

In January of 2014, I published my nine New Year resolutions in this blog but I only accomplished them in 2015 as follows:

1/ Dance alone in the studio more.

2/ No more smoking except for the occasional shisha.

3/ Meditate more. 

4/ Remind myself everyday how lucky I am.

5/ Savour every interaction with all those I cross paths with.

6/ Keep seeking truth and love.

7/ Stop censoring myself in an effort not to offend others.

8/ Be fearless about my vision of Bellydance or whatever this art form is called.

9/ Pull out all the stops - this is the year we liberate Bellydance from the cage of sequins and the like.

I have only one 2016 New year resolution and it is to quit being so busy and stop to smell the roses...and jasmin...and lilacs.

Lilacs

 


Bellydance as Sexualized Spectacle

If you believe that sex is a sacred and holy expression of the miracle of the universe and/or an expression of infinite love, then Bellydance is the perfect vehicle for this message.

Many women who study Bellydance find it empowering because the archetypal movement and nuance they are tapping into ends up rewiring their view of  their body, their own sense of womanhood, sexuality/sensuality and its importance. People who may be more in tune with the last 2000 years of sexual denial will experience Bellydance as a negative thing.

By the same token, Bellydance is fast becoming globally popular, because it is a way of overcoming this inner oppression.

When a denial is overcome or freedom is given to a previously oppressed expression or a truth is released from the closet, then often overcompensation is the first response. It is a way of balancing.

When I see Bellydancers who emphasize aggressive sexuality lacking finesse or subtle artistry, it often makes me think they are in the process of overcoming their own inner oppression. These instances of course then add to the discourse that Bellydance is sexualized spectacle.

Bellydance can be both a feminist act of empowerment and sexualized spectacle and sometimes, at the same time. The message is in the hands of the Bellydance artist. The sooner Bellydancers and people in general balance out their former inner sexual oppression, the sooner this art form can be more of an expression of love and the miracle of the universe.

I really look forward to this day and hope I see it in my lifetime. Then perhaps, confusion over what Bellydance is and whether it is worthy of respect will be cleared up.

From interview in dance magazine (The Dance Current) many years ago.

Little Egypt

Little Egypt - dancer at Chicago World's Fair 1893


The Significance of Dancing to the Music of Oum Kalthoum

These are thoughts about the significance of Oum Kalthoun for Bellydancers taken from articles I wrote as part of the Ask Yasmina Column for Gilded Serpent. Although written and published in 2009 and 2010, I feel they are still relevant for students today.

Understanding the importance of Oum Kalthoum and her music offers profound insight into Arab culture, poetry, art, nuance, and most importantly, the music that Bellydancers dance to. Almost every Bellydance CD on the market includes at least one or two instrumental renditions of her songs. You have heard the melodies so often.

Below is some information distilled from Wikipedia that sums up her importance musically.

“ Imagine a singer with the virtuosity of Joan Sutherland or Ella Fitzgerald, the public persona of Eleanor Roosevelt and the audience of Elvis and you have Oum Kalthoum, the most accomplished singer of her century in the Arab world. ” 
— Virginia Danielson, Harvard Magazine

When the Egyptian singer Oum Kalthoum died in 1975, millions flooded the streets of Cairo in mourning. Her songs deal mostly with the universal themes of love, longing and loss. They are nothing short of epic in scale, with durations measured in hours rather than minutes.

 Jah Wobble, Bob Dylan,  Jean-Paul Sartre, Marie Laforêt, Salvador Dalí, Nico, Bono, Farin Urlaub, and Led Zeppelin are just some admirers of Kalthoum’s music. She was referred to as "The Lady" by Charles de Gaulle, and is regarded as "The Incomparable Voice" by Maria Callas. Oum Kalthoum is remembered in Egypt, the Middle East, and the Arab world as one of the greatest singers and musicians to have ever lived. She is also notably popular in Israel among Jews and Arabs alike, and her records continue to sell about a million copies a year. Even today, she has retained a near-mythical status among young Egyptians.

The movements that Bellydancers express are passed down through dancers like Tahia Carioca, Samia Gamal, Sohair Zaki and Dina etc. Whether they are new, old or revamped, all of the movements were created as an emotional reaction to Arab music. The music and poetry of the songs of Oum Kalthoum is the pinnacle of Middle Eastern music. Until one makes the profound connection to her music and finds oneself blissfully lost in one of her hour long songs, one has not really felt or experienced the meaning of the movement.

Since her songs speak of unrelenting love, one should also read the story of Majnun and Leila* to understand which is the love she is singing about and the love expressed in our dance.

*Majnun and Leila is the original love story told by word of mouth for generations by Arab Bedouins long before Romeo & Juliette or Tristan & Isolde. It was eventually written down by an Azerbaijani poet in Farsi. So much of Asia, North Africa and the Middle East claim this story their own. Every generation of young lovers relate to this story. It is an intimate part of all of these cultures.

Oum KalthoumI believe that mastering the art of dancing to taqsim is a prerequisite to dancing to the music of Oum Kalthoum. I also ask my students to listen to original recordings of her concerts 24 hours a days for 2 years or until one finds the magic in her songs and becomes addicted. When this happens the movement quality and nuance are transformed when dancing to all Arab music. Note that original recording of one to two songs on a CD since the songs are generally too long to fit anymore.

To study and listen endlessly to the original recordings of Oum Kalthoum's concerts will open movement pathways for a Bellydancer that will transform her/his physical expression. To eventually be able to express her music in one's dance is a sign that one is becoming a Raqs Sharqi dance artist. Dancing to the music of Oum Kalthoum is seen as significant and not to be taken lightly especially in the eyes of some audiences. 

 An Arab audience will have a more discerning eye for the artistic interpretation of this music and a much stronger emotional investment. All of her songs are of equal importance - some are more famous and popular and many have been adapted for Bellydancers. It is said that only a Maalema can dance to the music of Oum Kalthoum.

The following are some important factors to take into account on this subject. The music of Oum Kalthoum is often quite difficult with rhythm changes and thus a beginner dancer will find it difficult to apply short cut elements like combos that can easily be used with pop music. The music is generally slow and emotional, often in a sad maqaam so emotional expression is an important factor. Leave the dynamic hitting accents for the most part when dancing for drum solos, not when dancing to the music of Oum Kalthoum.

Dancing to an original recording of Oum Kalthoum singing live may seem disrespectful to some who revere her, it is best to use a recording by another singer or a musical arrangement. Many of her songs are 1-2 hours long so often the musical arrangements that are popular are only a small part of the song, often the beginning or just the musical parts which do not include the melody of where her voice would be. 

Non-Arab dancers should note that when an Arab audience is listening to the musical arrangement of Oum Kalthoum music, they hear in their head the memory of the original version with her live voice and the profound lyrics, just like you hear Robert Plant's voice when a cover band plays Stairway to Heaven. Thus it is important to listen to the original before dancing to the musical arrangement so the dance artist can portray the same emotion and musical nuance the audience is experiencing, otherwise the audience may feel the dance artist does not understand the music. 

Once you have danced to a good arrangement and recording of the music of Oum Kalthoum with the integrity of the original recording in your consciousness, there is no turning back. Pop music will never give you such a rich emotional experience.

For a wonderful documentary about Oum Kalthoum, see the film "A Voice Like Egypt".

OumKalthoum


An Earthshaker Emotional Moment

Arabesque Earthshakers recently had their 5 year anniversary this past Spring. It is has been a very exciting and enlightening journey. I created this ensemble idea as an angry reaction to the ridiculous constant point being made in the media about BMI and that it was unhealthy to be over a certain number.

I have taught dancers of all sizes for about 30 years and I saw no indicator that this was true.and could argue for the contrary. In fact the only unhealthy issue was the constant messaging that skinny was good and not skinny was bad...still makes me angry. Thank goodness, articles are now being written about being so-called "overweight" is the healthier way to be.

Earthshakers was created to change the conversation.

Earthshakers have beautiful, joyful and healthy weight. Apparently many in the BD community had negative things to say about my intention and that the name and idea was insulting to the women I was exploiting, etc. By saying such things, it only proved my point even more that the view needed to change.

In 5 years Earthshakers have received several standing ovations from major audiences. I still run up against brick walls trying to get them on stages but when it happens, audiences are thrilled.

Recently, the Earthshakers decided to take it to the next level with a kick-ass choreography and new top-of-the-line costumes from Egypt. Sad news comes with their debut of this piece as it will be the last performance with Telicia Allen. We will lose her as she moves south of the border and it will feel like a limb lost.

There are so many glorious photos of ES mostly featuring their joy and exuberance, but this simple shot by Peter Lear has got to be my favourite.

ES looking at belly PL


Rediscovering Teaching

(Written December 6, 2015)

Waking up this morning feeling a familiar kind of fulfilment I have not felt for many, many years.

I starting officially teaching Middle Eastern dance in 1983. Opened Arabesque Academy in 1987. Back then I knew every student intimately and shared in their struggles and triumphs.

I never realized how lucky I was to experience this privilege.

Our art form was obscure and on the fringes until all of a sudden our two studios were jam packed and a line-up down the hall having to turn some students away. At one point we counted 400 students went through Arabesque in a given week. Where I was once the only teacher, now Arabesque had 10. I was also now teaching all around the world in a different city each weekend.

Students faces and hips had become a blurr. I had long since given up remembering their names.

Eventually there was a Bellydance teacher in every community centre and schools opening up regularly. Now we had something called competition and I was forced to face a reality that I actually owned a business that was responsible for many people's incomes. Something I had not signed up for and even rebelled against. Nonetheless, I found myself sitting for years at a desk in a back office working hard and promoting to keep the office staff and teachers employed. There was no time for myself to teach regular classes anymore. Many attending my school did not know who I was. My time was spent promoting other teachers under the umbrella of Arabesque.

When a parent dies, one reflects on ones priorities. Now I have one small studio with little overhead. I still travel to teach but never more than once a month. I am teaching nine classes a week and coaching 4 ensembles in my own studio at home in Toronto.

I know my students names, am aware of and deeply invested in their individual progress. Teaching Beginner again, I get to contribute to lighting those initial fires of inspiration.

Never more than last night at the gala did I realize that I am home again and feeling fulfilled as I really love teaching and never want to be a business woman ever again.

This pic is backstage with Beginner students. Their names are Susheela, Sophia, Loretta, Nasreen, Paniz, Lisa, Mahsa and Christine. When they came off the stage of their first performance last night they were ecstatic and I was there to share with them. I am in heaven.

Gala - beginner Winter 2015


"There is Always Hope" Mahmoud Reda

Every time I want to write about my most recent visit with Mahmoud Reda in Cairo this past Summer, I get paralyzed. Where to begin? It feels like a book needs to explode out of me, there is too much to say. "Where to begin" is an understatement. In order to allow myself to get started, I have decided to keep this short and simple. I will simply relay a few things he said that evening...or was it daytime?

It felt like a timeless place.

First, his lovely effervescent wife of 52 years, Rosa, greeted us at the door bubbling and super gracious. Mahmoud's health did not allow him to get up from the couch where he sat bright eyed and beaming rays of light. I will spare you all the tears and emotion I felt when I saw him and have ever since. Not ready for the book version yet, but suffice to say, I am holding back tears now.

One of the things I love about Mahmoud is the lack of small talk so I dove right in as usual asking about his artistic vision, his legacy, his creative process, etc. This time was a little different. There was no talk of the future. His thoughts were reflective and profound. When I asked how and where do his ideas come from? He answers with

Mahmoud_Reda_large"I have thought about this question for so many years. Sometimes, I see my work on video and I ask how did I create that - where did it come from?"

I reminded him of the time he saw several pairs of feet running back and forth under the curtain on the stage at IBCC and later that evening he described a choreography telling a whole story that could be created from this idea of just watching feet. It was late at night after a long day of teaching and attending performances. He was 80 years old and Mahmoud was all lit up with this new creative idea, eager to try it out on some dancers and share with the world.

 

My own thoughts...that is the thing about art and the creative process; the artist never feels ownership of a creative idea but rather feels as if they have discovered something that has always existed and can not wait to share and bring it into the light for all to experience.

He then reminded me about another magical moment at the conference when he was talking about the Hagallah dance and Lynette (Gilded Serpent) was trying to be discreet with her camera by crawling like a snake on the ground. Mahmoud spotted her and made a funny comment and immediately connected it with part of the Hagallah tradition. He then said 

"You see how everything is connected?"

His wife insisted he drink water. He wanted tea but she said he had drunk enough tea for today. He gave me a joking look implying he was being held captive against his will. The smile told of his frustration with aging but how lucky he was to have Rosa caring for him.  He then asked me if I had seen a movie he loved.

It was about an elder man who had lost much of his health including the ability to walk. A young woman had befriended him and helped him from time to time. One day she was sorting through his mail and found a very important invitation to an awards dinner event with over 1000 people that was to honour and celebrate this man's life. She insisted he must go. He refused. He did not want to be seen in public in his bad health.

Mahmoud & Farida

Eventually she convinces him to go with her. When they arrive at the building, there are stairs to climb. Instead of allowing himself to be carried, he pushes out of the wheelchair and very slowly and difficultly manages to climb five stairs. One thousand people congratulate him on all of his life's amazing accomplishments. When asked how he felt about all he had accomplished, he replied that he is more happy about the five stairs he just climbed.

Then Mahmoud leans over to me, looks me straight in the eye and says... 

" You see, there is always hope".

Which leads me to his thoughts reflecting upon his life and why he believes his vision and dream came true and then some. He is happy, content and after all the examples he lists which I will relay in the next blog post, he says 

"What more could I ask for?"

Mahmoud reda 3

Note: I went with intention to videotape or audio record an interview. However, Mahmoud's health had caused him not to be able to articulate very well as he had lost the ability to say certain letters. I had to listen very carefully and write down what I could.