In the Belly of Nuit

Widening Your Horizons

Anyone of us could have been born in another place or time with a vastly different set of life circumstances. Perhaps we get trapped and rigid in who we think we are and the role we play everyday having no idea that we are really much more vast and interesting.

When I get to experience the joy of witnessing a dance artist that touches and moves me, almost always I find that she/he has delved into the study of at least one folkloric style of dance. It is a idea that I have always known but has really been circling my thoughts lately after recent travels and witnessing dance artists in Egypt, Delaware, Vancouver, Minneapolis and this past weekend in Ottawa.  I have come to notice a discernible difference in a quality that is either evident or not in a dance artist. The common denominator is time spent exploring the lessor traveled roads where sequins and bare midriffs are not the feature. Maybe it is Tunisian, or Dabki, Baladi or the Zaar. Each one of course offers a unique set of riches and I think offers the Raqs Shaqi artist or Bellydancer depth; something more to leave the audience feeling nourished.

Learning to fill in a template with a costume style, music and steps is not what I mean by learning a folklore style of dance. Much more important to me is answering the "Why" to these characteristics and why the dance style exits in the first place and who is performing  it and/or its originators. Some sense of history leads us there but ultimately, we need to channel or get in to the originator's head and heart. Every time we do this, we discover a part of ourselves we did not know was there. 

Ouled Nil

Anyone of us could have been born in another place or time with a vastly different set of life circumstances. Perhaps we get trapped and rigid in who we think we are and the role we play everyday having no idea that we are really much more vast and interesting. In watching a dance artist perform, this is often revealed. By stepping into someone else's sandals for a while, not just physically but emotionally, can help us to become bigger and more interesting.

I have been around long enough to see so many students blossom and evolve into great professional performing artists. I have also witnessed the trap many get sucked into (myself included) of learning a new flashy step, getting a fancier costume and the newest music but it is still the same dance artist, nothing really new that holds my attention. However, when she/he grows as a human being with a new awareness of the world and who she/he is in it, that is when the dance artist make s a leap and evolves. That is when my heart brims over if I had the privilege of witnessing this growth. That is when the dance artist becomes fascinating.

I have seen much folklore in the Middle East and of course replicated around the world by many an ensemble and soloist. Just when I think folklore has little more to inspire me with, I witness a dance from some region I have not yet explored. The steps, costuming and music are very similar to a region I have already studied. Then somehow I am thrilled and inspired all over again because it is a completely new dance. Why? Because of the spirit and character are  from a different story and persona.

So I urge all of you aspiring Raqs Sharqi artists and/or Bellydancers, widen your horizons, learn some folklore. Go beyond the Westernized version of Middle Eastern dance. Go beyond what is familiar and easy to access because it is so close to the world you already know. Explore new hoizons and uncover more dimensions of yourself in order to realize your potential. 




Part Two - Am I Still a Bellydancer?


Last week's blog post called "Am I Still a Bellydancer?" was an eye opener. It has been read over 4500 times so far and received more comments directly on the post than all of my other previous posts put together. The re-posting on other group and personal Facebook walls with their long list of comments is something I can not keep up with. People I had not heard from in years came out of the woodwork with their comments and encouragement. Ioana Timariu wrote..."in zeitgeist spirit...". She may be right.

I thought the post would be provocative and polarizing. I had been contemplating the idea for an awfully long time and eventually had to overcome the fear and commit to the itch in my heart. There were very few FB likes but many more people took the time to re-post on their own FB wall asking for feedback or wrote powerful words of encouragement in the comments, on the blog and privately through messaging and emails. I feel honoured and comforted that so many world respected artists whom I admire commented that they had either done the same or were contemplating the same position. Jalilah Zamora aligning with Aunt Rocky and noting the work of Arabesque wondered why I had not done so earlier.

Fearless Luna of Cairo took my thoughts one step further on the Facebook page called "Bellydance Matters" that helped to clarify where I was coming from. Some fav comments were "standing ovation" from DaVid of Scandinavia and one that I forgot its origin that said something to the effect of "I have so much to say but am not ready yet" or another that stated "like so many others before her" or Michael Menegon's "ah, the true artist emerges".

Many people wrote about what is and is not Bellydance or Belly Dance in their opinion. The endless list of variables I offered in the blog is the tip of the iceberg and as I said in the post, this long list only proves that "Bellydance inspires a fountain of creativity and that is why I love it ". I would like to add  that I will always love it and have always loved it. I am not sure anyone has the authority to determine what Bellydance is or is not if indeed its lifespan is so long. I prefer to look at Bellydance as a spirit that reveals itself in Sohair Zaki to Khairiyya Mazin to April Rose. I like to think that this same spirit inspired Isadora Duncan and Ruth St.Denis. Pelvic centered movement is certainly one of its trademarks but many dances the world over are pelvic centered. I believe it is the emotionalism, spirit and motive that creates the often sensual movement that makes Bellydance special.

If due respect was given to this ancient art form often named Bellydance, then I may not want to venture from the label. When the spirit is allowed to thrive and breath through artists whose motives come from respect of the art form above and beyond their bank account or ego gratification, or sexual insecurities, then Bellydance is alive and well. I have never let the general public's view of the term "Bellydance" be a deterrent for me. It is the respect, or lack of, given to the art form from the very people who call themselves Bellydancers that worries me. What are the motives is the question for me? I look around me when I travel physically and online and I see more concern placed on the biz of Bellydance than respecting the art and onself as an artist. 

The Arab community of fans and musicians around me who have been my mentors from the beginning say that my work with Arabesque is not Bellydance, as they understand it, yet they say it is true to the Arab artistic essence and soul. Arts councils that make Arabesque productions possible will not fund a dance form that has competition as part of its presentation format or takes money in their bra strap while dancing on a table. This combined with a biz emphasis in the Bellydance community that I do not feel connected to or even know how to navigate has led me to realize that maybe it is time to call myself something else.

"Arabesque dance art" is deeply rooted in Bellydance, Arab dance, Raqs Sharqi, Orental dance. Beledhi, etc, and this wonderful art form has given me legs to walk my own path into the future. No doubt this is scary, actually, very scary, but honestly, since I wrote the first post six days ago, I have felt lighter, more free, more inspired and getting very excited about the future.

I still love Bellydancing and of course Bellydancers and my heart is still a Bellydancer. I have fought and worked very hard for 34 years to help all I can in the effort towards Bellydance taking its place as a legit and respected art form in the mainstream dance wiorld. However, I am not willing to fight on behalf of a commercial business industry. Hopefully by re-labelling my work, it will still further the reach of the Bellydance spirit as art.

Sawah - Afrita Nomad




Am I still a Bellydancer?

After 34 years, I have decided not to be a Bellydancer anymore.

Actually, I am probably more of a Bellydancer than I am a Canadian or that I have blue eyes. I can never deny everything that has made me who I am since the age of 20 considering it has been my full time passion and career 24/7 for 34 years. However, I am not sure if I feel I belong in the prominent scene we call Bellydance (Belly Dance) as I see it in Egypt and around the world today.

What is Bellydance anyway? Where can I find myself  in it? Is it a social expression in a living room, a festive event at a banquet hall, dance studio or community centre, is it a flashy expression at a corporate event or wedding, is it a mother goddess or natal celebration, is it an expression of classical Egyptian music or disco beat driven or any non-Arab music, is it snakes, feathers, veils, double veils, circular veils, fan veils, square veils, is it coins, sea shells or beads, is it an engaging theatrical experience, is it joyful or morbid, is it for fleshy or skinny people, is it empowering or demeaning, is it athletic or emotional, is it burlesque or folklore, is it competitive or art, is it pelvic centered, pointed toes, leg kicks, shimmies, posing, twerking, back bends, hair flips, a belly roll, a camel? I could go on and on, but I am sure you get the picture.

The one thing I am sure of is that it inspires a fountain of creativity and that is why I love Bellydance.

However, I find myself not being able to relate anymore to the onslaught of yet another application I do not see myself or my 34 years reflected in. I thought it might be my age. Perhaps I am getting narrow-minded. But that can't be when my last Arabesque production was very innovative and anything but "traditional" or similar to what my predecessors produced. What I am planning for the future production is really off the wall. There are many Bellydance artists the world over that I enjoy, love and admire, "traditional" and "non-traditional". I feel like that pool is getting smaller in the Middle East and globally and the bulk of activities in the name of Bellydance is not where I want to be aligned. I am finding everyday, more and more, I am not alone with these sentiments, from the seasoned veterans to the young and fresh.

Back in the days when Bellydance was aligned with stripping or amateur fantasy fulfillment, I did what I could to inspire a deeper awareness of a rich culture and tradition considered respectful art. I no longer worry about these misconceptions anymore and no longer need to explain that I am not a stripper. So I am not complaining. There is some cool stuff going on in the name of Bellydance these days but in general, I feel it is losing substance and meaning that is rendering it non effective as an inspirational tool.

I have decided not to call myself a "Bellydancer "anymore.  My company and school no longer perform or teach "Bellydance". The last Arabesque production "Sawah" this past April never used the word in any promotional material and media releases. The Arabesque website is slowly being adjusted to reflect this new positioning. The agency sells zaffeh, some folklore and definitely Bellydance, so another entertainment company is taking the reins of promotion and bookings to run the agency.

What on earth do I call what I express and teach?

For now, I will call it "Arabesque dance art" since it is "Arab-like" dance and is certainly rooted in Arab dance. I have a new studio with white bare walls where the seeds of Arabesque dance will blossom. Our new tagline is "the future of the world's oldest dance". Should be interesting.  :)

Sawah sawah - Peter

Dance Artists Trying to Raise Funds

Someone form Croatia contacted me wanting me to answer a lot of questions about my experience with Kickstarter as they are thinking of getting it in Croatia. I did not have time to answer all the questions so I gave her a synopsis. I thought some of the points may be helpful for others as well so I am sharing my email to her below:

Hi Sonja,

I spent one month researching all past campaigns of Kickstarter in dance and other areas as well. I looked for the commonalities of the successful ones and the unsuccessful ones. It is important to find the goal amount that matches the strength of your existing fanbase and the quality of your past work based on experience and recognition. Asking for what you need is not a good enough basis for establishing your goal amount. 

In the video and the text, it is important not just to describe your artistic vision but to explain in the language of your audience and fanbase. Dancers more than many other the artists have a tendency to be a little self absorbed. Best advice I ever received from an artistic director of a major dance company was "what feels good doesn't necessarily appear good to your audience".

I think some people make the mistake that the general public and Kickstarter subscribers will become backers but I found that when it comes to the arts, 99% of the backers are existing fans, family and friends who are familiar with your work. I found 50% of the backers not wanting anything in exchange and 50% backed based on what they would receive in exchange. Even the 50% that backed without wanting anything in return were family, friends who already supported by offering donations, volunteer hours and attendance at all productions.

The video needs to be compelling in the first minute or interest is gone - do not save the best for the end. Keep text to the minimum essential important points. Visuals are better for arts campaigns. Kickstarter website had great advice for running a good campaign. I read their instructions on every aspect several times and implemented all of their advice.

The campaign was a full time job for a month for one person and some help promoting from other members involved in the project and now there is more work to be done to get the backers their rewards. Two months in total if you include research time and video shoot and setting up campaign. The time was worth the good amount we received (asked for $12,000, received over $15,000). However, it should made clear that the work to receive such an amount began 20 years ago with producing valued work and inspiring audiences at home around the world.

Hope this helps,

Yasmina in cahir

Literal or Non-Literal Dance?

Should a full length dance production be a series of experiences or should it tell a literal story or even a third choice; should the series of experiences be linked into a story? 

Should artistic ideas and messages be spelled out literally?

Just as there are many art forms and within each, there many different artist's interpretations, thus there are many audiences that respond to the different artistic visions.

If I only had a dime for every time someone suggests to me that the Arabesque productions should tell a story that the audience can relate to and follow, or the program notes need to be lengthier and more in depth or there needs to be an MC explaining each choreography. I usually smile and acknowledge it is an interesting idea but I know in my heart, it is not my artistic vision and even when I have told "stories", they were so abstract, you could hardly call them stories.

Arabesque is not a traditional ballet company, nor does it aspire to create commercial work. It asks its audience to engage their own active imagination. Each choreography I create is a world or an experience that I hope causes a subtle yet real shift in the way one sees themselves and their relationship with the universe. I hope audience members travel a unique journey in each choreography; a journey that forges new paths into areas of ones mind and emotions they have not yet discovered. Each choreography is meant to be effective, leaving plenty of space for every audience member to make it their own and breathe their own life story into it.

I love it when everyone has a different answer as to which was their favourite choreography in the production. I love it when they each have a different interpretation of what the choreography meant and revealed to them.

Personally, I get bored and feel cheated when I am an audience member and I am being dictated to. Just let me sit back and enjoy the feast of artistry. Give me food for my imagination to create its own story. Aside from Choreographer's Notes, I often don't read the programme on purpose so that I watch with no preconceptions. I like to let the work speak to me unfiltered. I feel that without the explanation, the artist's vision is connecting with me directly through their work.

I have come to realize my inspiration may be Middle Eastern dance, music and culture but perhaps I express myself as a contemporary artist. I love dance companies like Momix or Joffrey Ballet and the work of choreographers like Jiri Kylian and Robert Desrosiers who are not known for telling literal stories. All of my choreography comes to me in a vision inspired by music, an abstract concept or an emotion. Literal stories do not come to me as a rule. Using someone else's already used story does not inspire me unless it has special personal meaning or is the perfect vehicle for offering a more abstract idea on many levels like Majnun and Leila.

Explicit story telling and explicit explanations are great vehicles for some as creative artists and their audiences. Then there are artists like me who want to offer up a a three dimensional Rorschach test and I believe there are audiences for those artists as well.

Although I tire of the literal storytelling suggestion being made to me. I am grateful that after seeing one of my works, the audience discussion is often about meaning and not about how good the dancers are or which costume is prettier. The fact that the audience asks for more explanation just makes me happy that their curiosity has been aroused. I like to leave them hungry and perhaps inspired to search on their own to answer the questions, thus making my work part of their own story.

Sawah = Banadi - Nomad

Amateur to Pro

There are so many ways one can define the difference between an amateur artist and a professional like skill level, experience, fees charged, recognition, etc. I believe the number one defining factor is an attitude and relationship with the art form.

Amateur dancer seeks and enjoys approval.

Professional dancer seeks and enjoys critique.

The professional craves feedback that offers further challenges and forces ever deeper learning journeys into their beloved art form. Approval feels good at first and informs a student they are on the right path but eventually it wears thin and does not lead anywhere new.

I just came off of directing Arabesque's latest production Sawah. It has received almost unanimous rave reviews. Even our biggest dance critic Michael Crabb (Toronto Star) who has had very little good things to say about our previous productions seems to really like Sawah as well. I am still receiving emails two weeks later with people exclaiming they are continually moved by it. Funny though, while I am thrilled and in some ways ecstatic, I feel more empty than after any other production and very little desire to continue to create.

In 1992, Arabesque presented for the first time in a main stream dance festival and were bascially booed off the stage. It hurt and was extremely embarrassing. However, I loved my dance form so much, it made me more than ever determined to find a way to translate and offer this art form in a manner the main stream dance world could appreciate. Consequently I set about on a difficult learning and discovery path that has been invigorating and obviously led to the creation of this latest production Sawah.

I remember the advice of a famous actress once who said an artist is finished if they start to believe their own publicity. Kinda think this quote is along the same lines. A thriving professional needs to be forever seeking learning opportunities.

ADC at CNE 2012


Plugging In To The Power Source

Giving in to the source, whether it be the pelvis or the floor or Arab music or Arab culture is the moment one becomes a Bellydancer.

Sohair Zaki, Samia Gamal, Naqua Fouad, Dina, Tahia Carioca, Fifi Abdou, Naima Akef, Mona Said and all the greats of the art form we call Bellydance are vastly different artists with vastly different movement and emotional expression. However, they have two things in common.

When it comes to movement, all is connected to their pelvis and the ground through their feet. Because of this, they communicate a sense of effortlessness despite how complex and intricate their movements are. No matter how energetic they may become, the audience never senses a tense muscle in their body. All of the movements were created as an emotional reaction to the music.

When it comes to emotionality, again these dancers are vastly different, but they are all connected to the same source. I like to use the analogy of the power bar into which you can plug in your stereo and the TV, the radio, your blow dryer and the vacuum cleaner. No matter what type of outlet and plug may be used in different countries, they all connect to the same electrical source. That power source is the emotionality of classical Arab music which arises from Arab culture. Arab pop music does not count as it has no depth and emotional range with its mono rhythm and mono scale.  The creativity that can be unleashed when connected to the power source of Arab music and culture is infinite. 

Thus there are infinite styles, including that of Randa Kamel who many would argue is very Westernized in her interpretation. Indeed she has some balletic and jazzy type steps but she is always using the ground as her power source, never defying gravity and expresses the source of Arab music in her new world way. Randa Kamel is often more popular with foreigners than with Egyptians. Often non-Middle Eastern dancers can relate to her Western style movement and thus they copy her. Unfortunately, performing the same steps without the effortless submission to the ground and to the source of Arab music, just ends up looking like diluted jazz and ballet with a few hip accents and shimmies thrown in. 

I always tell my students that in order for a non-Arab to become a good Bellydancer, they have to listen to Oum Kalthoum 24 hours a day for at least two years and visit Egypt at least once. In other words, they need to immerse themselves in the culture and music in order to become connected with the source. Of course, many years of studying good technique is a given, but letting go and giving in to the source, whether it be the pelvis or the floor or Arab music or Arab culture is the moment one becomes a Bellydancer.

(Really having problems lately with the term "Bellydance" and what it has come to represent...a future blog post, I guess. In the thoughts above I am referring to the art form probably better named Raqs Sharqi as obviously the points above do not pertain to Tribal or other fusion forms.)

Samia Gamal

Aspirations of Today's Bellydancer

It seems that until recently, generally a professional Bellydancer's highest goal (outside of Folklore troupes in M.E.) was to be a soloist in an Arab night club in the West or Middle East. Much to the dismay of our young Bellydance sisters of today, they have to hear about the glory days of acoustic musicians, singers, and audiences made up of families of recent Arab immigrants still in touch with their culture  while knowing full well that the reality of today's Bellydancer does not resemble this.

Lobby pro courseWhen I began teaching the Arabesque two-week intensive Pro Course 14 years ago, much of the course was geared towards a career in these kinds of venues. Increasingly over the years, I began to hear about the dismal situation of the Arab night club both in the Middle East and in the West. Six to 40 acoustic musicians have now become a CD or one guy on a keyboard with a drum machine. Audiences are often men with mistresses or even prostitutes. Performances that were once 45 minutes long and included folklore are now 20 minutes and no sign of folklore. Even more emphasis than ever is being placed on appearance and in particular explicit sexual attributes over talent and artistry. One night a week instead of three to six and on that one night, MAYBE one Bellydance performance. Another Arab night club closes every year with lack of clientele. Revenue per show is getting less and less as there are more and more Bellydance students eager to get on a stage without a care for income. How this phenomena happened is a whole other blog post. No matter what the causes, performing in an Arab night club may be a good practice arena but hardly an inspiring goal to work towards anymore. Now students taking the Pro Course are concerned with a different future and they relish the experience working with the Arabesque musicians only as a way to touch base with the roots of their art form.

There are hundreds of Bellydancers all over the world becoming pro everyday. What is the future for these hard working and passionate dancers?

Arabesque Immersion FinalRecently, Arabesque began an experiment in a city 5 hours drive away, in Montreal, Canada insitgated by one of their local dance artists Angelica Jordan. Over 5 months, training was offered specifically in the Arabesque technique, choreography and philosophy with the end goal of preparing some of the Montreal area dancers to join in Arabesque Dance Company & Orchestra's newest production called SAWAH. The experiment was well received and it has opened my eyes to the idea that the future for pro Bellydancers will be in companies like BDSS, Jillina's Bellydance Evolution, Bellyqueen, Amir Thaleb's company, Arabesque and many more.

And then it hit me, this is the future that aligns with my 30 year wish to establish Bellydance as a mainstream respected art form. Maybe I was not so crazy with my vision for  Arabesque Dance Company in 1992. Maybe we are at a crossroads in the history of Bellydance. I am often sorry that my students can not experience the glory days of the Arab night club and it seems they are not coming back anytime soon. Maybe it is a blessing in disguise because it is forcing us to express our art in different paths. Maybe the future holds for us an Alvin Ailey type company or a Martha Graham Dance Company of Bellydance including the years of serious training that entails. This has always been my dream, but, for the first time, I realize it may be coming true.

Coffee Shop frpm upstage wing


1/ Pro Course students of 2005 hanging out on break - 90% have gone on to successful careers as soloists, directors of dance companies and schools.

2/ Poster for the first 4 day workshop of the Arabesque Immersion series in Montreal Sept. 21-24, 2013 - just finished the forth part of the series which included more workshops and auditions - Feb. 1/2, 2014

3/ Arabesque Dance Company & Orchestra at Fleck Dance Theatre in the Coffee Shop choreography (from the wings)

True to Thyself - Post Sawah Production Thoughts

SAWAH INSIDE INFO # 10 (out of 10) - True to Thyself

What did I learn in the making of SAWAH? More than ever I have learned that I must listen to and trust my instincts about music choice, costumes, lighting and of course movement.

In INSIDE INFO # 1 (out of 10), I mentioned that I had been asking Arabesque Orchestra for 5 pieces of music over the years which they refused for a variety of reasons but for some reason, in SAWAH, there was less resistance and I got all 5 of my music wishes to come true.

I always tell my students to choose music to dance to that they are passionate about and moves them, no matter what style. I finally took my own advice in a complete way with SAWAH.

Often the ADCO dancers oppose some costume choices over the years that are new and have not been done before. I usually try not to listen and it always works out. One of the choreographies in Sawah had an initial costume idea which there was a lot of opposition to so I tried to dilute the idea which ended up in a shipment of costumes that are now for sale and never used. The last minute make-shift costume that resulted worked well but I am kicking myself for not sticking to my guns because a few days ago I saw another dance company use the same original idea and it was very effective. 

As usual, there was no time to create choreography for my solo, so I had a foundation of ideas to get me started and then improvised each performance. On Friday night, my parents were in the audience. The music I had chosen was Wahashtiini which I used to dance to with Nour Mehanna in Damascus. My family and friends thought I was crazy to be spending so much time in Syria in those days and were hoping my "Bellydance phase" would soon be over. That night in SAWAH, I tried to explain to them through my movement why I was in Syria all those years, to let them have a glimpse of the joy I felt every night on stage dancing to musical pieces like Wahashtiini with such exquisite musicians. I am so glad I was finally able to consciously communicate that sentiment to them.

Everyone around me in the 80s and 90s including fellow Bellydancers thought I was crazy to go and stay in Syria so often and for such long periods of time. But now I know that if I hadn't, SAWAH would have never happened.

Here is to being true to oneself where ever possible. I have learned to listen to that voice and instinct and trust it more, no matter how many people think I am crazy. Often what is labelled crazy at the time is later named brilliance.

Shine on...

pic below is me as an awkward 12 year old - ya, I play classical guitar and used to write my own songs.


SAWAH - INSIDE INFO #2 (out of 10)

Arabesque has almost doubled in size to over 43 dancers and musicians for SAWAH. On top of that, everyone is getting in everyone's business. 

Bassam makes it known where he thinks hand movements should be added or when dancers should face up or down stage. Watching him demonstrate a Bellydance move when trying to explain a point of view is precious. And Yasmina often has input musically about how she needs a piece to begin or end but now she has much more input to the musical arrangement all around, let alone finally convincing Bassam and Suleiman to play five pieces in SAWAH that they previously refused to. Last few Drum Solos Suleiman has composed have come complete with choreography notes for certain parts. Yup, Bassam and Suleiman are now choreographers and Yasmina is a musical arranger.

SAWAH is all about collaboration between East and West, music and dance, Ontario and Quebec.

Info & tix:

Musicians in Arabesque studio - SAWAH