Saturday, April 5, 2014

Workshops & An Unintentional Air of Tribal

I finally had the opportunity to take a workshop with Amala Gameela of the Lehigh Valley, PA on December 15th. As far as I'm aware, she's one of the few teachers in the area who specifically teaches Egyptian style (most others I know of teach either American Cabaret or some form of Improvisational Tribal, hence my own dance background). Although I've tried my best to expose myself to the quintessential raks sharqi aesthetic, a live teacher is always preferable to video instruction.

This particular workshop was focused on the music of Egyptian singer extraordinaire Oum Kalthoum (alternatively spelled Umm Kulthum, Oum Kalsoum, etc.) and featured two musicians who would be providing live musical accompaniment. How could I pass that up? I already had exposure to the wonderful legacy of Ms. Kalthoum, so although I didn't leave with a lot of new academic knowledge about her life and work, the kinetic and experiential knowledge more than lived up to my expectations. I did learn that may of the classic, longer pieces that I had heard and assumed were written for bellydancers to have deliberate changes in tempo and mood to keep the dance lively and interesting were in fact originally Oum Kalthoum songs. Although it is generally considered disrespectful to dance to her vocal performances, the introductions, which are typically several minutes long in and of themselves, are considered cabaret bellydance standards. Songs that fall into this category include “Lailet Hob (Love Night),” “Enta Omri (You are My Life)," “Alf Layla Wa Layla (1001 Nights),” "Ana Fi Intizarak (I'm Waiting for You)," and “Lessa Fakir (Do You Still Remember?).”. You can hear these songs at 20 Songs Every Bellydancer Should Know.

The workshop started off with a brief biography and a more in depth discussion of the cultural influence of her music throughout the Arab world. We were provided with a handout listing a rough outline of topics and were encouraged to take notes during the discussion. I appreciated that the informational cultural aspect of the workshop took up about as much time as the dancing. Joseph Mamari, keyboardist, and Teo Alhaddad, drummer, who are both of Syrian descent, related their own experiences of her music and what it has meant to their families both here and in the Middle East. They described how she and her orchestra practiced so often they almost engaged in a type of group mind, each time they performed a piece it was different and still raw and emotive, and all without the aid of sheet music. It was really wonderful to see their faces light up as they described instances of their relatives enjoying her music. As a result they touched on the Arabic concept of tarab, which is a trance-like state caused by total immersion in the music, and how listening to her works often evokes this for Middle Eastern people.

It's been unfortunately rare that I've had the opportunity to learn about this dance and its music directly from Arabic people, especially in person, so this was a special treat for me. I cannot recall which specific Egyptian dancer and teacher (Souhair Zaki possibly?) bemoaned the fact that all of her foreign students were disappointed when she took time to elaborate on the cultural 'why's of the dance and instead begged to learn new steps and combinations, but I do not wish to be one of those types of students.

The second part of the class was, of course, dancing. We warmed up to "Alf Layla Wa Layla" and it was so wonderful to hear the strains of that song being played by a live presence in the room rather than a recorded track. I am lucky enough to know this song very well, and I think perhaps in this class I got a small sense of tarab myself. Amala introduced a few basic travel steps and built impromptu combinations with them to certain loops of the song. The moves were fairly basic so most of it was instruction of the "follow the bouncing butt" variety, but I found that a few traveling steps that had eluded me before when technically breaking them down and practicing them came much more easily when trying not to analyze them too much and just following along. After learning a few steps and combinations for both slower and faster tempos, Amala encouraged us to improvise with the music. We also experimented with "Enta Omri." The end of the workshop we had a drum circle where Teo improvised on his tabla and we took turns soloing. It was the most fun I've had in a long time, and after my own solo, Amala told me with a wry smile, "you have groove, girl!" (I'm assuming that is good!) I felt like I did better at improvising than I have in class before. I didn't do what Nadira Jamal describes as "scribbling" and was much more content to slow myself down and simplify.

All in all, it was probably the most enjoyable workshop I've ever had the pleasure of experiencing. When Amala offered a drum solo workshop with Teo Alhaddad on February 23rd, I was quick to sign up.

The workshop description made it seem like the topic would be about how to dance to a drum solo segment, however in reality it was more about which rhythms were typically used in different sections of the traditional Egyptian-style bellydance set and some appropriate moves to accompany them. This class was also highly enjoyable and followed a similar format as the first one. We received handouts with the names of a few common rhythms which we covered. We discussed the more technical aspects of them including the their time signatures but also touched on the cultural/geographical aspects. For instance, khaleegi is more common in the Gulf regions and isn't typically used in Egyptian or Turkish music, saidi is a rhythm from upper Egypt and is the one typically used for raks al assaya (cane/stick performances), fallahi is named after the farming class in Egypt where the drumming pattern originated. The conversation side-tracked a little bit and Amala discussed that depending upon where she danced in Pennsylvania, she tailored her shows to the ethnic communities in that locale. Apparently Bethlehem has a concentration of Syrians, Lebanese, etc. while in Philadelphia one tends to find more Persians and Arabs from the Gulf region. She also mentioned that in Islamic culture, it is rude to show people the soles of your feet (especially if they are in any way, shape, or form dirty) so one should always dance in some kind of shoe if performing for ethnic audiences. Apparently this custom is related to the fact that Muslims carefully wash their hands and feet before prayer. Although I knew some about the regional associations of the rhythms, the information about the differing concentrations of Middle Eastern people in my home state and information about appropriate customs while dancing was all brand new to me and was quite fascinating. There were a lot of interesting things brought up that one doesn't usually get in a typical class setting.

Again the second portion of the class we worked on a few (generally) basic steps and short combinations. We started with a basic chassé step circling the room. Amala commented that my carriage was so Tribal it was funny and I replied that it was completely unintentional. I had taken a saidi cane choreography class a few weeks before with Bridgitte so in that portion the footwork was a bit familiar, however it went rather fast and my grip on the Saidi Step is not wonderful. The khaleegi section featured a more folkloric Persian combination, which was rather challenging. We even did a little floorwork to the chiftitelli. We ended again with a drum solo.

My boyfriend was waiting to pick me up in the parking lot, so sadly I wasn't able to stay a bit longer to more fully express my appreciation (I hope this blog entry will do). I waited with another woman, who also had a Tribal background, to say thank you and goodbye for the evening. This time Amala stated that she really appreciated how soft and fluid my moves were (in contrast to how some Tribal and fusion dancers can be very hard and harsh in their movements) and that it reminded her of how Egyptian dancers move. That was incredibly flattering as I really try to study and appreciate all types of bellydance. She also said we would be welcome to perform at her shows and haflas and that she welcomes various styles. If I can ever work up the nerve, perhaps I might take her up on that!

The entire experience got me thinking though how when I describe my background to Cabaret-style teachers, they seem to immediately focus on the Tribal portion of my education, even though in reality my own training has had at least an equal representation of Cabaret and my first classes with a live teacher were in Cabaret style. I become pegged as the "Tribal girl" in class and I'm not quite sure how I feel about this, especially as my gears have shifted to really focus on more traditional Middle Eastern styles. To clarify, it has happened with several teachers, not just Amala Gameela, and I'm certainly not blaming or chastising them for this trend - I'm merely contemplating its implications for me and my dance.

My hip scarves and belts do tend to have a more Tribal flare (i.e. they're not the typical jingly coin/beaded belts or spangled, netted ones) and my carriage and dance personality is less cheeky and flirty than most other students in those classes, but I wonder if that is really a reflection of the Tribal classes and workshops I've also taken or just a more general reflection of my overall character. I am of a quieter, darker bent in general and my social anxieties make it very difficult to be extremely sassy in class or performance opportunities (which is primarily why I have yet to do a solo after all these years). I'm also perhaps not the same type of person who typically is attracted to Cabaret style dance. Usually people with my tendencies do lean towards Tribal, at least if the resources are available to them to choose which genre in which to learn.

I don't have that bubbly, cutesy angle going on which so many Cabaret dancers possess, but neither am I the stiff-lipped, oh-so-serious Tribal fusion dancer I see so often on YouTube. In the comfort of my own home I have a sly sort of sensuality which lies somewhere in between the two extremes. I look like I enjoy myself, I smile, but I'm not winking or blowing kisses or looking over my shoulder with a surprised, open-mouthed expression like a vintage pin-up (not that there's anything wrong with that). I'm not a hair-tosser or prone to much hopping and prancing, yet I also don't lunge, do deep plié, nor exaggerated full-body waves, etc. I'm not sure where I fit exactly.

I admire dancers like Mira Betz who is her own sort of fusion, if you can call really it that. She said in an interview with Color Me Kelli regarding categorizing her dance that the Cabaret dancers don't think she's Cabaret and the ATS and Tribal fusion dancers don't find her to be Tribal, and yet:
"Everything else that is not those two things goes into 'Tribal fusion', for lack of having any other thing to call it. [Describing her many past interests and phases] This is who I am outside, as a teenager and growing up, but then this is what I do as a hobby and I love it. And then I realized, 'oh these don't have to be separate [i.e. her other interests and bellydance], I can be me in this dance.' So that was that fusion that happened and I went 'oh, who am I as a young, American artist, and how can I express that though this language of dance that I have?'"
My own dancing isn't a deliberate fusion of bellydance and some other form of dance like hip-hop or bhangra, or even a melange of multiple dance styles as I've only deeply studied bellydance (although I may have subconsciously adopted a hand gesture or something from watching other fusions). I'm not necessarily sure it technically is a strict fusion of Cabaret and Tribal. It inherits my own quirks and idiosyncrasies. Of course, pigeon-holing is not healthy, but it would be helpful to know how to best describe myself for when I do perform. What do I put in the program?

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