The art of Raqs Sharqi won my heart in the early 1970’s. It has led me on many amazing journeys around the world and has allowed me to live out my vision as a dance artist, choreographer, teacher and mentor. After 4 decades I am still in awe and humbled by the beauty and magic of this timeless dance, the deliciously hypnotic music, and the transformational journey it has taken me on. I feel it is my calling as a teacher to pass along my knowledge to my students. It is my duty to educate, mentor and guide the dancers who walk through my door. It is my passion to help them find themselves within the dance. My mission is not to create fantasy and feelings of false accomplishment, but to wipe the glitter from the eyes of the student and help them truly grow as creative beings.
In an age where “branding” is important in self promotion, I keep seeing the term, “master teacher” used a lot. It’s made me wonder about that term and why it’s used so much in bellydance advertising.
A celebrity dance star, is not necessarily a master teacher, whether a local star, or touring workshop star. They may have developed amazing dance skills and good teaching skills, but that doesn’t mean they are a master at teaching dance. Perhaps they are a master of marketing and not such a great dancer or teacher? Many dance stars love developing a following of admirers. If that’s ok with you and you like being part of a fan club and are just having fun, then great! But, if you want to take your dance to new heights, make sure the dancer you are following really cares about advancing their students.
Many students and dancers are drawn in by the glamour, glitter and fame that some dancers acquire. They may feel that somehow by being in that dancer’s presence, that their “magic” will somehow rub off on them, if they attend their workshops or classes. Not that the information isn’t valuable and dance worthy, but one has to ask their self, “what am I getting out of this in the long run?”
Do I just want to say I studied with this person because they are famous? Am I deluding myself by thinking I will get famous somehow by copying, or attaching myself to this dancer? How is this moving me forward in MY dancing?
Master teachers have the highest expectations of themselves for being exemplary teachers. They are experts in their field. They motivate students to set and strive for the highest expectations of themselves. Their purpose for teaching is not to have a fan club, or to make clones of their self. Master teachers exemplify ethical standards, have a passion for teaching, and believe all students can learn. They have respectful classrooms, and foster and maintain the respect of their students.
Maybe a master teacher isn’t for you. If you just want to have fun and find a community to dance with, there’s someone out there for you. Find a teacher that is supportive and nurturing, and who cares about their students. Good teachers create a positive learning environment.
When choosing a teacher, think about your dance goals and what you want to achieve. It’s a journey, have fun searching! Attend workshops, local dance classes and performances, AND PRACTICE! Building your dance skills is definitely a process. It’s not going to happen overnight. Nope, there’s no magic pill.
Can’t find a good teacher? Many teachers such as myself, teach on Skype or have other online classes. Just watching videos of dancers isn’t enough. Don’t fall into the YouTube syndrome. Don’t get me wrong, YouTube is wonderful! You can see dancers all over the world! It can be very inspiring and has value, but it’s not the way to learn dance. Dancers need the guidance of a skilled teacher. Nothing can replace that.
With so many genres under the vast umbrella of “bellydance”, we have to identify what it is the person is doing these days, I guess. I don’t mean regional folk styles of Middle Eastern dance, or fusion dancing, I mean the style of bellydance. What ever happened to being just a good old bellydancer?
I am, and will always be an Oriental Dancer. I worked for decades in Arabic, Greek, Turkish, Armenian, and Persian restaurants and nightclubs – AS A BELLYDANCER. I didn’t suddenly become a Greek bellydancer because I was dancing in a Greek restaurant with Greek musicians, and so on. A good dancer has to be versatile and understand the audience she is performing for, and the style of music she is dancing to. The music determines how a dancer feels. The music guides your movements, your emotions. The music is what is driving the style in which the dancer is dancing.
For instance, if we compare famous Egyptian dancer’s styles, such as Samia Gamal, Naima Akef, Fifi Abdo, Aza Sharif, Dina, Camelia, Dandash and many others through time, they all have very different dance styles, but they are all Egyptian dancers. It’s their feeling for the music, and their background in dance, for instance some have, ballet, and folkloric training, etc. Their style is their own personal style.
Trends come and go also. The popularity of a dancer can influence up and coming dancers to imitate them, causing more dancers to follow the trend, in not only movements, but costuming, mannerisms, and so on. Dina and Rhanda Kamal’s styles are both a prime examples of this type of copy cat trend by foreign dancers. Westerners are especially compelled to copy famous dancers, even down to their postural quirks, thinking they are being “Egyptian” (or Turkish, or whatever). It’s embarrassing, people!
Regional folk dance styles as well as traditional folk music also influence the bellydance styles in different countries, for instance Lebanon’s folk dance is Debke. Debke is very rhythm driven, with stomping, and jumping type steps, and many Lebanese dancers have a very fast, rhythm driven, jumpy style. However, not all Lebanese bellydance styles fit that M.O. Here again, we have the box with the label on it. Check out the famous Lebanese dancer, Dina Jamal on youtube, her style is what I would call Classic Oriental. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gDl4isGxQEE
By the same token, Turkish dancers are known for having a “wild, fast and crazy” bellydance style, but check out the lovely Turkish Oriental Dancer, Nesrin Topkapi, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6vFGh83m4r0
Again, regional folk styles can affect a dancer’s personal style, depending on their background, for instance, many Turkish bellydancers also have Romany background.
One last thing…what the heck is American Cabaret? I understand it refers to an older style of oriental bellydance show that was more popular in the 1970’s, but, the word “cabaret” in the Middle East refers to a low class place. You would never call yourself a “cabaret dancer”. You would be telling people you are a very low class dancer and work in low class places. They might think you are a prostitute.
I understand we are in America, and we use different terms, but I am a dancer from the 1970’s and I never heard that term till recent years. “American Cabaret” is just an older style of bellydance show, it’s not an American innovation.
Educating oneself is very important in personal growth. Continue to train, developing good oriental technique, and personal style. Let’s stop the copy cat syndrome, and lose the labels.
I’ve been staring at my dog, Indigo (“GoGo”), for the last 10 minutes. She’s sleeping on the couch by the Christmas tree and there’s a tiny sprinkle of gold glitter stuck to her sweet, jet black, Labrador face.
It’s not unusual for glitter, sequins, and various other kinds of bling to be stuck to my dog, my husband, or anywhere else in my house. It’s normal, I hardly notice anymore, but tonight as I look at GoGo’s peaceful face, shimmering in the glow of the twinkle lights, I couldn’t help but feel so grateful. Grateful for all the obvious blessings in my life, my husband, wonderful family, good health, a roof over my head, and all the things we take for granted in our everyday, busy lives. I am grateful for all my students past and present, teachers, mentors, dancer friends, and my workshop sponsors over the years. I am so grateful for a life of glitter.
Maybe that sounds funny, dance is a lot more than putting on a costume and applying glitter. It’s years of hard work and dedication. I guess that goes without saying…or does it? Oriental dance is not a fantasy world of playing dress up, it is a cultural art, the dance of a people. It is a beautiful dance form that can be enjoyed by anyone of any ethnicity, whether for exercise or just for fun. Middle Eastern music is rich and deliciously intoxicating, truly transformational. No wonder so many women and men from all walks of life, from all over the world are drawn to it!
These days with such mass global appeal, and so many uneducated teachers, desperate attention seekers, and the need for instant self gratification, it’s easy to get swept away by the masses, and lose sight of the true art. If you want to learn an art form from another culture other than your own, respect the art and the culture it comes from! There’s nothing wrong with having fun, we all love fun, just don’t let the glitter blind you.
I am grateful I have had the strength to stay true to my art. Through blood, sweat and tears, I’ve forged ahead. It can be a lonely road sometimes, but I don’t mind. This Holiday Season as I venture into the New Year, as always, I will will vow to stay true to oriental dance. I will wear my glitter like a badge of honor, because I earned it.
Stay strong my friends. What are you standing up for in 2015?
I don’t consider myself a writer, I think I do “ok” when I have something to say, but in general I’ve never been very good with words…that’s why I dance. My dance voice is loud and clear to me in my mind and body, which is very gratifying to me. But it got me thinking of how I can help other dancers find their artistic “voice”.
The key to finding your voice comes from within. It is vital to your expression as an artist. A dancer must learn to create from the core – from a well deep within. It comes from detaching yourself from your ego, separating yourself from your “story”, knowing who you really are. Connect with your spirit!
It’s not easy, you have to dig deep and be willing to go there. Only when we look beneath the veil and wipe the glitter from our eyes can we start to see the truth. Dance is hard work physically, but it is also about letting go of fear and self doubt. Fear of not being good enough, fear of what others think of us, fear of not fitting in, fear of failure…fear, fear, fear. Get rid of the fear! It often involves freeing yourself from the fear of the outcome and just being in the moment! Face your fear and self doubt with love and understanding, turn it into artful expression. Listen quietly, little by little your dancer voice will begin to emerge!
I will end my blog today with some of my favorite dance quotes.
Come Fairies, take me out of this dull world, for I would ride with you upon the wind and dance upon the mountains like a flame! ~William Butler Yeats
To dance is to be out of yourself. Larger, more beautiful, more powerful. This is power, it is glory on earth and it is yours for the taking. ~Agnes de Mille
When you dance, your purpose is not to get to a certain place on the floor. It’s to enjoy each step along the way. ~Wayne Dyer
We’re fools whether we dance or not, so we might as well dance. ~Japanese Proverb
There is a bit of insanity in dancing that does everybody a great deal of good. ~Edwin Denby
It takes an athlete to dance, but an artist to be a dancer. ~Shanna LaFleur
I don’t want people who want to dance, I want people who have to dance. ~George Balanchine
Dancing with the feet is one thing, but dancing with the heart is another. ~Author Unknown
Dance till the stars come down from the rafters
Dance, Dance, Dance till you drop.
Dancing is like dreaming with your feet! ~Constanze
The truest expression of a people is in its dance and in its music. Bodies never lie. ~Agnes de Mille
Dancing faces you towards Heaven, whichever direction you turn. ~Terri Guillemets
Dancers are the messengers of the gods. ~Martha Graham
It’s Valentines Day! The day of love! The day we celebrate the people and things we love in our life. I am lucky to have so much love in my life. I love my husband, Michael, and my dog, Indigo, and all my family, friends, students and of course I love my dancing.
To me, my dancing is love. Dance is not only the way I express myself, it is the way I send love into the world. In some naive part of my mind, I imagine all that loving dance energy flowing out into the universe, turning into pure love for all eternity. I know it may seem silly, but I imagine it and hope it makes a difference somehow.
The love of dance has to be shared freely, without condition. Every breath, every step, every movement must be a giving, joyful experience. Life is a dance! Dance is life!
True love is not, petty, jealous, possessive, needy, draining, and fearful. It’s giving, joyful, passionate, nurturing, and compassionate. I view dance very much as I do love. It is a relationship that needs to be nurtured and nourished. It is a relationship between ourselves and our art, it is a relationship with our dance community, and it is a relationship we have with our audience.
When a dancer asks me how they can take their dancing to a higher level, besides obviously improving technique and performance skills, my question to them is: What is your relationship with dance?
Is your relationship a rocky road filled with drama? Ah yes, the dance world is filled with drama! Let’s face it we have to deal with some dance drama from time to time… and drama in our lives in general, but how much of it are you getting sucked into? Do you find yourself drained and exhausted by it? How much time is it eating up when you obviously have more important things to do (like practicing!)? How often is it happening?
Do you have a lonely relationship with dance? Do you feel dance isn’t loving you back? One sided relationships aren’t good at all. Maybe you’ve had some bad experiences and you’ve convinced yourself no one likes your dancing so you avoid looking for another restaurant gig, or it’s causing you to avoid dance community events, making you feel like your stranded on a desert island. Whatever scenario it may be, we all have bad experiences. One bad apple (or a few) can spoil the whole bunch, that’s for sure.
Self love is the key. When you value your own self worth, you teach people how you expect to be treated. Surround yourself with supportive, like-minded people who value and respect you. By doing this you will see a big difference in the people you attract into your dance world and into your life in general. There are many people out there who think YOU are the perfect dancer for their event, or who think YOU are the most fabulous teacher in the world, or the PERFECT new member of their dance troupe.
There are a lot of wonderful people in our dance community. The world is a much smaller place these days. You can reach out to a number of great dancers and teachers around the globe for mentoring and support, no matter how isolated you may think you are.
A harmonious relationship is hard to come by, in the “real world”, and in the dance world. We have to work hard at it. You get out it what you put into it. We get a little bruised sometimes, but we just have to pick ourselves up, brush off our sequins and apply more glitter!! Don’t let bad experiences diminish your love for your dancing.
As dancers, we want so much love and attention, but what are we giving? In order to get love, we have to give love. We have to open our hearts and share our passion, release our dancer soul! Share the love and watch the magic unfold!
I was recently thinking about an experience I had in a ballet class when I was young, that had a huge impact on me. An “older woman” (or so I thought at the time, she was probably in her 30’s) was consulting with the teacher before the class began as to whether or not the class was right for her, explaining she used to be a dancer. The teacher stopped her abruptly and said, What do you mean you used to be a dancer? Once you’re a dancer, you’re always a dancer!!
Over the past 4 decades (yes, 4 decades!) I seemed to have managed the ever changing business of Bellydance pretty well, I think. I’ve even been fortunate enough to remain in great health and with no major injuries (knock on wood). I remember thinking as a young dancer, I’ll never stop dancing! I’ll dance till I fall over into my grave! But with age, comes wisdom and many times over the years I’ve looked back and thought that that was naive and unrealistic to think I could dance forever. Then I hear the voice in my head…Once you’re a dancer, you’re always a dancer.
Of course over the years, I’ve changed the course of my career from nightclub dancer, to touring workshop instructor/performer and producer and studio owner. It’s a natural progression that comes with time and experience.
Dance, especially oriental dance, has been my life’s blood, my soul, my savior. Witty conversation, the art of writing and clever use of words has never been my strong suit. I’m basically a shy person. Well not really shy…quiet. I have a friend that calls it Zahra’s quiet gravitas. Haha! That really makes me laugh, but I guess that’s why I chose dance to express myself. I’m not one for a lot of words.
So many dancers these days are amazing at marketing and self promotion. I marvel at them all. Aside from style and specific focus, how can you come up with so many different ways to say you’re teaching a bellydance class? Apparently there are thousands! I’ve been trying to be better with words, but then I figured, why? Maybe there are still people out there that aren’t fooled by a lot of words. Maybe they love dance as much as I do.
I have to say, now that I’m in my fifties, it’s true, I’m never going to stop dancing. The passion I have for dance goes way beyond the physical beauty and agility of youth. Dance is in my heart and soul. I’ll stick with my quiet gravitas and keep dancing.
Finding Your Creative Genius
As artists, we all suffer creative blocks and burn out from time to time, this can be very frustrating. There are times we may feel we’re on fire with inspiration and ideas, then all of a sudden…zilch, nothing. Many artists won’t admit to this, but it happens to everyone.
Through the years a lot of dancers have consulted with me on this subject and I have always given the best advice I can based on my own experiences. The truth of the matter is, being creative is hard work. Like any job, some days are really good, some days are not so good.
I find that a lot of inspiration comes from knowledge. The more you study your art form and keep growing, the more inspired you become to create new material, no matter how many years you’ve been at it. We live in an age where there is so much information at our fingertips, it’s a wonder anyone could every get bored, feel stagnant or uninspired…but it happens.
Maybe we can be over stimulated and bombarded with too many DVD’s, youtube performances of the latest competition winners or the newest Egyptian star, etc, etc. It just becomes all too confusing and overwhelming. Too many people become addicted to watching the latest “hot dancers”, trying to emulate every move, wondering, If only I could be that fabulous!
Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s very important to study with as many teachers as possible and watch a lot of performances, believe me, I’ve been doing it for 40 years, but it’s more important to be inspired by other dancers and not imitate other dancer. I feel in this age of video bombardment, people are starting to look alike. Who are YOU when you dance? What makes YOU fabulous? Where is YOUR creativity? Of course, new students start out by emulating their teachers, that’s different, it’s part of the learning process, but there’s a time to move past that and a time for teachers to encourage students to move past that.
A pet peeve of mine are the dancers that study the latest Egyptian (or whoever) stars, working hard to imitate everything down to their facial expressions and gestures, thinking they’ve finally captured the true essence of Egyptian dance! Uhhh…that’s called impersonating someone. I think some people have trouble differentiating between imitating the personality quirks and postural idiosyncrasies of an Egyptian star, rather than studying the dance movements, musicality, culture and essence of that regional style of dance…AND still remain oneself when dancing!
All that being said, how do we break free from feeling we have to fit a certain mold? How do we as teachers and performers keep fresh and continue to create new material? How do we uncork the bottle and let the genie fly out in a glittery rage, raining down creative genius on us? Good question. What is a genius, anyway? In ancient Roman religion, the genius was a separate divine being of nature that was present in every individual person, place, or thing. For instance, an artist wasn’t a genius himself, but rather he/she possessed a genius that played a big role in creating their work. Even inanimate objects had this magical genii attached to them. If something went wrong or wasn’t working, that object or that person’s genii was really “out to lunch” that day. It wasn’t until the renaissance period that the ego of the artist took over and the artist began to be thought of as a genius, rather than possessing a genius.
Maybe that’s where we go wrong sometimes. We put too much pressure on ourselves to be the sole vessel of our creativity. Believing that creative inspiration comes from the inside out is really too much pressure. It would be easier to just imitate someone else’s work, or just not do it at all and let the feelings of inadequacy and burn-out overwhelm us. Maybe if we imagine nature’s creative forces assigning us our own genius that whispers inspiration to us, allowing creativity to flow through us from the outside in, rather than the inside out, it would be a lot less pressure and add a new dimension and creative flair to our usual work.
Kids are naturally creative. It isn’t unusual for a small child to have an imaginary friend that they create exciting new adventures with. It really is genius if you think about it. The freedom to be so imaginative and create any magical, beautiful thing in our mind is brilliant. Of course, as adults if we went around talking to imaginary friends, they’d send us to the looney bin. Maybe we don’t have to go that far, just letting go of the ego and looking outward in a wide eyed view of nature and the creative world around us, can open up the mind and stimulate the spirit.
I love to hike in the hills near my house, sometimes alone, mostly with my husband, Michael and my dog, Indigo (Go-Go). It’s very serene and quiet. When I’m with Michael, we almost never talk on these hikes, we both pretty much have a mutual ‘zone out” time, enjoying our funny dog and nature. It’s an important creative process for both of us. Getting out of my own head is great therapy, I can let everything go and allow my mind to open up to wonderful new ideas that are floating around out there.
There’s lots of ways to “let go”. Exercise you mind, do something new! Step out of your comfort zone from time to time. Go to an art exhibit, drag a friend with you to a dance class in a dance form you’ve never studied before, take a rock climbing class, or an art class, learn to knit, write poetry, laugh at yourself and be silly, get out of your own head and stop believing your own publicity. Be bold and let the genii out of the bottle! Your genius will start talking to you, you just have to listen.
I had a dream recently about my first bellydance teacher, Scheherazade. It’s been 35 years since she passed away and it’s been nearly that long since I remember having any dreams about her.
As I woke, I desperately tried to remember what the dream was about, but most of the images faded faster than I could grab the pad and pencil on the night stand by the bed.
I spent the morning going through boxes of memorabilia –looking for a photo of her. Finally locating the perfect one, I felt a little ashamed the beautiful photo was buried with old flyers, pressed, crumbling roses from past shows and yellowed newspaper clippings. Finding the vintage photo of her draped in coins and pearls was like uncovering buried treasure.
I stared at the photo for along time trying to remember the dream. The contrasts, shadows and depth of the black and white image made her look so alive, maybe I thought she would speak to me.
I realized the right thing to do was to immediately scan the precious photo, I couldn’t believe I hadn’t done it till now. I even shared the gem on Facebook for all my friends to see, maybe a little bit out of guilt for burying it for so long. I was proud of my cyber accomplishment, but then the photo started haunting me again. What was she trying to say?
The last 35 years has taken me on an amazing journey. I’ve traveled, studied and worked with legendary dance artists from all over the world. I’ve worked very hard, forging ahead, nose to the grindstone, constantly striving to take my art to new heights, always learning and sharing with my students.
Scheherazade would never believe the global phenomenon oriental dance has become today, all the amazing resources at our fingertips would blow her mind. The internet didn’t even exist when she was alive, but there she is, or her image rather, floating in cyber space for the world to see.
After contemplating on the photo for quite awhile, I realized the dream of Scheherazade represents the root of my lifetime of work, coming back to the basic foundation of my art. I was in awe of my first teacher, she was a Goddess! She represents the wonder, joy and passion of a young girl entering the magical, mystical world of oriental dance, the unknown adventures ahead.
My friends who are more metaphysically inclined than myself, say the dream was a “visit”. I’d sure like to think the spirit of Scheherazade came to see me. One can only keep the heart and mind open, hoping to catch a glimpse into the divine mysteries of the universe.
Ghostly or not, the message became clear. My life’s work has come full circle, bringing me back to the pure and simple thing I’m grateful for, what I love.