The Gilded Serpent presents...
Bàraka (BA - r' ka): aura of the spirit; blessings; blessed. Raks Sharki, Danse Orientale, Middle Eastern Dance, Belly Dance - by any name, this dance has been a blessing in my life. Its joys have been profound and far-reaching; it has allowed me to travel, write, teach and learn, not only dance, but life. I have been blessed with friends the world over. The dance has also been a spiritual journey of discovery. Over the quarter century that I have studied, performed and taught this dance, it has opened doors of wisdom and perception through which I have been guided by my sisters in dance.
Who am I, you ask? That's a good question - one I've spent the last 50 years pondering. I'll get back to you if I ever come up with an answer. But don't hold your breath; the adventure is so much more exciting than the results, so much of the time!
What I do is a lot easier - pinning down the concrete reality instead of the murky depths of consciousness. You've probably figured out that Middle Eastern or Oriental dance (actually, the correct term is Raks Sharki - so please remember that the next time someone's says "belly dance") is a large part of my existence. To say that I live and breathe it might be an understatement; I am constantly dancing, sometimes in the most inappropriate places and to the oddest music. Understanding how dance happens has been the primary occupation of my too-organized mind for the past 25 years, ever since I first began teaching.
Who do I blame for this compulsion? A lot of the credit goes to the incomparable Jamila Salimpour, who was my first serious teacher back in the early 70s. Her organization of basic movement types into families was critical to giving dancers a framework from which to create rather than copy. Of course, I also was fortunate to have good training in the fine arts from childhood on - piano, flute, guitar and percussion instruments, theatre, voice lessons, dance lessons from the age of 3. I was part of the modern dance club in high school (Class of '65, Burlingame High) and did plenty of Gilbert & Sullivan in those years.
Post high-school years in the San Francisco area in the mid-60s offered a lot of interesting things to explore, and I did. Sang for a little while with Hot Air, a precursor to a Grateful Dead offshoot band called "New Riders of the Purple Sage", turned down a gig with Dan Hicks because he had dreams of putting us in mini-skirts and taking us to LA, while I was into country living and hitchhiking.
The Toolkit itself is truly a timeless resource, since it approaches Middle Eastern dance from a broader perspective than most instructional videos. It begins with material on body awareness, how to see dance, the dancer’s consciousness, and my dance philosophy. A complete warm-up, with explanations of why these particular movements are essential for Middle Eastern dance, is followed by a 24-step compendium that breaks down each movement from the bottom up, skeletally and muscularly, and then explains how to add variation and emotional quality to it. Following this is a multi-leveled choreography to the opening section of Leylat Hob, both in rehearsal and in modified costumes.
I wanted to make a video that would work for everyone regardless of their level of accomplishment, and that wouldn’t be tied to a single style of dance – American cabaret, Egyptian, Tribal, Turkish, or anything else. This is truly a tool that every dancer can benefit from. One of the important differences in the Toolkit is that there is always someone whose body type you can relate to demonstrating. Three of my students, Tahiya, Heather and Tara (who sadly passed away 8 years ago from brain cancer) are on camera constantly – so if you are long- or short-torsoed, slender or curvy, tall or short, you can see how each movement should appear on your body.
The Toolkit won Best Instructional Video awards from both GAMAL and IAMED the year it was released, and has been praised and purchased across the US and around the world. To have finally updated it – and its 20-page PDF workbook as well – and have it again available to dancers of all styles and genres and ages, is the best legacy I can leave to the form I loved and supported and labored in for decades.
Came the 70s and I had a son - Noah Oz Appleton - but marriage is not my cup of tea and I raised him as a single mom. This is when Raks Sharki came into my life, because after pregnancy I weighed nearly 170 lbs. and my run-run-leap had become run-run-thud! This was a dance that didn't leave the ground, but used every muscle nonetheless. And the music was intriguing (remember all that music training in my misspent youth?) and the costumes were amazing and I could make them, and the clubs were fun to go to, and in general I fell in love with it.
I first studied at a local recreation department, but after three eight-week sessions I was already looking for more. After several years of exploring, I discovered Jamila's classes, and stuck with it for about 7- 8 years. When I first went to her class, I would struggle along in the beginner's class; after a year or so, I was taking three classes in a row on Saturdays and another dance class and one music class a week. Jamila also brought in dancers like Lala Hakim from Egypt and Hassan Wakrim from Morocco, Aisha Ali shortly after her first trips collecting Ghawazee lore, Morocco (the "Auntie Rocky" of the MED-dance list); in short, we were exposed to a huge variety of dance styles from a traditional, "been there, done that" viewpoint. And this was the mid-70s.
Jamila was my teaching mentor, first using me as a class 'demo" person, then easing me into teaching the beginning class, then sending me out to teach away from her base in San Francisco. I did classes in Berkeley and on the peninsula south of the city under her aegis for several years. Eventually, I moved out on my own (at least in the dance world) and started teaching independently. And from about two years into my training, I was working in supper clubs and restaurants, night clubs and private parties. Because I was a single mom, I couldn't do the extensive traveling some of my friends did - and it seemed so romantic to think of dancing in Lebanon or Paris or Egypt like my friend Rebaba. But I worked steadily throughout the late 70s, the 80s and most of the 90s, right here at home.
Fortunately, "home" was San Francisco, where there is a significant dance community (about 2000 people at last count in a radius of 250 miles or less) and a multitude of seminars with top instructors from all over the world. There's also the annual festivals, Rakkasah and Desert Dance Festival, with vendors and classes and dance opportunities and musicians and friends to see and (get the picture?)... In short, a place where I could explore a wide variety of dance styles, teachers, clubs, live music - rich, exciting, and sunny most of the time!
Another feature of dance life on the west coast is belly dance contests. After a number of students kept telling me I should enter one, I finally screwed up my courage and entered the "Miss America of the Belly Dance" contest - and to my surprise, came in second! "Hmmm - this isn't so bad", I thought, and proceeded to enter several more. I never failed to place at the top - 1st or 2nd (and one 3rd) - which got me to thinking about how this happens - how do you become GOOD at this - good enough for a wide variety of judges to critique you positively? And when you are, what do you do about it?
Had I been 20 years younger, I might have thought it was time to queen it over everyone; thank goddess maturity has some positive aspects! I decided I wanted to put my efforts into improving this dance form's stature in a significant way - by teaching new dancers how to reach for the best they can achieve. And I'm proud to say that it's been a successful endeavor! You should see Tahiya (she's on the Toolkit with me), who's won a number of awards including "Most Promising New Talent" from the GAMAL Dance Academy Awards.
In 2000, I suffered a fairly serious head trauma that left me with permanent damage (see “Baraka and the Bus”) and was forced to accept that my dance career was at an end. I retired early on disability from my day job, and since 2007 have been a caregiver for a wonderful young girl whose single mother is a traveling musician. In 2011 I began my Reiki studies, and in the summer of 2013 completed a year-long Reiki Master program. I am hoping to qualify as a Certified Massage Practitioner this year, with the intent of supplementing my retirement income as a healer and health worker.
Dance has been in my life since the age of 3, and I still love it though it is no longer a career for me. I am grateful for all the wonderful experiences it brought me, for all the friends who enhanced my life, for the students who pushed me to be better, for the musicians who shared their talents, and for the memories that will never leave me. My life is richer for having been a dancer and for that, I am more grateful than I can express.
Web site: www.barakasdancerstoolkit.com
Publicist Phone: 650-723-5981
Music Department Fax: 650-725-2686
Braun Music Center #101
Stanford CA 94305-3076
Articles on Gilded Serpent by or about Baraka
Carella in San Francisco
Baraka & the Bus or What happened
By now, having lost my home, my studio, my library, my recordings, and my database, you would think I would start to get the hint that it might be time to move away from dance. Having been a dancer literally all of my life, I simply couldn't give it up!
Encore: Verb – To add to or repeat a performance, an extra or repeated performance. I was privileged to have the opportunity of an encore, a reprise that provided a look back at how very much I loved to dance – I still do! - and to teach and share my knowledge after nearly 15 years away from the art I spent most of my adult life practicing.