A Cultural Odyssey
Every year a crowd gathers in the basement of
a colorfully decorated home in the hills of San Francisco to witness
history being made, re-made, or more accurately declared. Now
entering its tenth year, the Giza Awards were created by
Burke as an extension of the Giza Club, which
is an educational and research organization founded by Amina.
Only one of many events sponsored by the Giza
Club, this event took place from 7:30 to midnight, and included
awards with clips similar to the Academy Awards. Following the
awards was first-peek premiere of a brand-new documentary.
for these awards is an arduous process. This year Amina and
Gregory received over 40 submissions, including documentary
films, instructional videos, and performance compilations.
The judges viewed each submission at least three
times in total – no skipping ahead, no running to the loo during
the boring bits. Each submission averages at least 30 minutes
in length. Sometimes the actual entry consists of one 5-minute
clip of a particular dancer; at other times there might be several
submissions on the same video. Still, this is potentially up to
120 hours of critical viewing, not counting the many in-person
meetings for discussion. As Amina and Gregory state in their behind-the-scenes
description of the awards process,"The
judges may have no thread of personal connection to the material";
any connection will disqualify the judge from judging that particular
submission. The judges don't have to even like the particular
style much in order to acknowledge excellence or accomplishment
The evening began with a short historical prelude,
including remarks on media perishability and obsolescence. Anyone
who's worked with computers for more than 5 years knows all about
priceless footage and audio recordings from 10 years ago have
to be transferred, and re-transferred, or they disappear.
We saw some of the latest from Lebanese satellite
TV, quite interesting not because the dancing was that great (it
wasn't) but because that's what was going on there, until recent
events shifted the focus of the TV stations from dance to war
coverage. Now, it seems, you can't pick up Lebanese dance broadcasts
in the U.S., because either they are blocked for transmission
to the West, or because the content of the shows has changed -
we don't really know. However, you can still find recorded shows
from vendors like Saut Wa Soora in LA. Amina has 2 satellite
dishes and is looking for a third, so she can continue to view
these broadcasts. Preservation of Lebanese dance was a recurring
theme that evening.
After the original show, in researching this
article I was given the opportunity to view at greater length
some of the winning items, as well as some of the finalists' clips.
Awards this year went to:
Live Theatrical Performance
Oriental Fantasy #12 "Egyptian Love Affair" by
Horacio and Beata Cifuentes
When I saw
a short clip from this at the Awards, I thought the video was
kind of stagey, reminding me of the IAMED awards videos from
a few years back. The dancers had very good choreography and
execution but were a little swallowed by the large and well-lit
space they were in. This award was not for the quality of the
video, however; it was for their accomplishments in the video.
Amina says, "They were two of the first dancers to take
Oriental dance from the nightclub to a theatrical level."
and Beata Cifuentes are well-loved in Berlin,
their home base, and a second viewing backed up the reasons
why. They did several acts in this full-length two-person show,
and showed exquisite technique, as well as versatility in both
style and musicality.
"The Belly Dancers of Cairo" by Natasha Senkovich
movie was premiered in full after the awards portion, with the
filmmaker present to answer questions. As an introduction to
the issues surrounding the genre today it was very good. The
central question was how can dancers be so admired and simultaneously
so rejected in their home culture. The schizophrenic cultural
attitudes displayed by many Egyptians ("Well bellydancing
is beautiful but I wouldn't want my wife or girlfriend to dance
in public, only for me") were eerily echoed by the filmmaker's
own brother, an American police cadet. The important news is
that all is not lost; there is a group of forceful, powerful
dancers willing to take on the powers that would stifle them.
part of the movie for me was the interviews with famous Egyptian
dancers of the past and present: Lucy, Dina,
Katya, Nagwa Fouad, Nagwa
Sultan, Samasem. They spoke candidly of their own
lives and their tribulations, with an indomitable spirit that
made me see for the first time how much inner strength they
had just for continuing to dance when their lives, and sometimes
the lives of their families, were quite literally at risk from
fundamentalist violence. Some of their stories were heartbreaking,
such as the Ghawazee dancer Khayreya
Mazin, whose husband was supportive of her dance
but who had to abort three pregnancies out of fear that for
her family's safety.
During a subsequent interview, Gregory said, "This is the
most important documentary that we have seen in a decade. It
describes the state of dance in Egypt and contains multiple
themes. It fits the classic documentary model in that there
are no false conclusions, instead it contains real pictures,
real interviews that speak for themselves. It is well-written,
well-conceived, and comes to real conclusions."
The fact that these women faced obstacles to their art is also
not unique to countries with fundamentalists in power. Filmmaker
Natasha Senkovich shared a personal anecdote,
describing how her Egyptian boyfriend gradually became more
and more controlling and disapproving of her dancing. It's all
too easy to nod and pity those benighted Arabs, as if none of
us have ever been yelled at by our partners for not spending
more time at home waiting for them! And to be honest, there
are plenty of women out there who are jealous of their husband's
careers and interests as well (unless they make enough money
to keep their wives in nicer houses than any of their girlfriends').
Art requires sacrifice and sometimes hard choices. A
truly dedicated artist with a supportive spouse may be the exception
rather than the rule anywhere.
Documentary of a Troupe "Tribal
Travels: a Collage" by Paulette Rees Denis and Gypsy Caravan
Amina's remarks on this one really made me regret
that there wasn't time to see the whole thing. This documentary
spans two years in the life of the troupe, from 2002-2004, containing
numerous vignettes. Paulette is a prominent Tribal dancer from
Portland and the Gypsy Caravan audio CDs are probably on every
bellydancer's shelf for their accessibility and overall dance
appeal. One critique I have heard of American Tribal Style (ATS)
dancing is that the dancers dance *at* the music, not to it;
most of the stuff I've seen looks mechanical and somewhat expressionless,
despite being physically demanding and technically gorgeous.
The short clip I saw here showed a more lively stage presence,
more like Hahbi'Ru than like Fat Chance. A second viewing reinforced
this impression. Amina mentions the "family-like quality"
of the troupe. I was impressed with Paulette's understanding
in her remarks to the camera; she's compassionate, intelligent,
down-to-earth, and articulate. Gregory noted that "she
seeks to explain her process of creation and performance, and
also [shares] technical notes of how they work together for
maximum effect." They also have a core of dedicated and
skilled musicians, so they don't have to rely on canned music
or club DJs like many other Tribal dancers. That also gives
it an entirely different feel.
Troupe/Live Performance "Hahbi'Ru Tradition
Legend and Folklore"
John Compton and Hahbi'Ru
The excerpt was Hahbi'ru doing a lively kick
dance. I had finally caught Hahbi'Ru last summer at the Renaissance
Faire in Novato, CA, and thought they were terrific: great showmanship,
great dancing, great choreography, great entertainment. Some
clips from the video were of John
Compton (Hahbi'Ru founder) talking about how he
collected original dances and costumes. The DVD submission listed
13 dances, all appropriately labeled with titles such as "Egyptian
Mourning", meaning they wanted to be faithful to the genres
they presented. The spice that they add - character work and
overall entertainment value - in no way detracts from their
Instructional Oriental Fantasy - Veil" by
A second win by the same person made me wonder
whether it was a paucity of submissions or is she really hot
stuff? After viewing more clips from both the first win and
this tape, I'd say definitely the latter. If you want to learn
fancy veil tricks, this may be the one. The teaching is methodical
with a lot of repetition and what looked like a huge variety
of moves. At the end Beata shows a choreography with simple
and complex veil combinations. This video is recommended for
anyone who wants to learn veil, but watch out for those European
"Raqs Sharqi Lubnani"
With the recent changes in broadcast policies
of Lebanese TV, it seems that broadcasts of Lebanese dance are
no longer available. This video will help in the preservation
of Lebanese dance styles. Amina's notes say, "This video
is concise, precise, thorough, complex, simple, methodically
chaptered, can be printed out as a PDF file, is Swiss and is
in 7 languages. Besides all of the above it is clearly demonstrated
in the regulation Lebanese heels... and yes, with heels and
big hair you too can look 'Lebanese'!" Gregory added, "It's
a great gift to have a teaching video just as the source is
"Dancers Arms" by Aruna
Hands and arms are often a serious problem area
even for experienced dancers. A good instructional video that
focuses on this area can be invaluable as a training aid. I
spent a lot of time in my second viewing going through the different
chapters and reading up on Aruna's background, which includes
Chinese martial arts, bodybuilding, yoga, Pilates, as well as
being a certified personal trainer. All that conditioning and
bodybuilding has given Aruna a very strong and smooth carriage,
and she appears to have mastered several very different dance
genres. Her DVD has chapters for Middle Eastern Arms, Hindu
Arms, Adagio Arms, a dancer's weight workout with what looked
like some very promising exercises, and a fusion dance performance.
She wore a different costume for each chapter, and the videography
was exceptional for its optimal camera placement and visual
clarity. She also has a very pleasant speaking voice.
Influential Person in the Middle Eastern Dance World Raqia
Raqia Hassan's sponsorship of Oriental dance gives it legitimacy
at a time when religious forces are harassing the best Egyptian
dancers and driving them out of business. "Raqia is a strong
woman who created a scene", as did Badia Masabni in an
earlier era. Amina notes that "Madame Raqia is showcasing,
introducing and enabling the young musicians and dancers of
Egypt today and giving them to the rest of the world... Raquia
Hassan is defiantly supporting the dancers who probably would
not be able to make it on their own in this, the decade of the
veil." Gregory expanded on this, saying "There is
an attitude or stamp that Raqia Hassan puts on the dancers she
works with. Something within her turns loose their creativity:
Mona Said, Samasem, Dina, Randa, Katya [all worked with her],
and yet Raquia's real talent is her force of personality...
her dancers tend to be almost fearless... [she's] re-inventing
Egyptian dance in the face of suspicion and oppression, giving
it a strength it didn't have [even] five years ago."
of the Year - The SuperStar - Dina
"Either you love her or you hate her," said
Amina, as she announced Dina as the winner of this category.
I had never paid particular attention to her career myself,
an omission I'll clearly have to correct. She has, according
to Gregory, now attained a cult-like status: "Nobody else
can command the money, the respect, the awe, or the admiration
that she can." This status came only after overcoming serious
obstacles, including a humiliating video posted by a vindictive
ex. "People have tried to ruin her", says Amina, and
it's true. She is loved by men and women in the Middle East,
and yet she was not taken seriously by American dancers, who
felt that she didn't do anything onstage and wore overly suggestive
outfits. I was also interested to learn a bit of her background:
she's educated and quite articulate, even in her gravel-voiced
broken English, apparently abandoning a professional career
for the dance. Amina and Gregory agree, "Attitudes are
changing quickly about her. There has been much written about
her dance skills and ability to interpret the song. She has
a mixture of emotion, movement, and a unique style that invites
the audience to experience her personal performance area, an
intimate area between performer and audience unique to Dina."
Interestingly, there were no awards this year
for "best live solo performance on video". Note that
the Giza Awards can only judge videos that are actually submitted,
remarks were provocative and revealing:
it be that the West has been so involved in learning technique
and choreography that the very soul of the dance has been
left to those in the Middle East who are desperately struggling
to keep their art alive. Maybe we, too, need to express
or feel conflict, hardship, deprivation, and suffering to
make our art memorable end exceptional."
At first I was inclined to quibble with this.
Were there really no American (or European, or Far Asian) dancers
who really Had It as a soloist? Then Amina and Gregory showed
me a few clips from their "finalist" category - those
who almost, but didn't quite win - and I saw exactly what she
meant. I had had similar reactions to other "virtuoso"
performances but had assumed that it was just sour grapes on my
part since I'm not anywhere near that accomplished. It is hard
to resist the compulsion to hit every single beat and note in
the music, but that can make the dance look busy, overly regimented,
with a drill-team feel rather than a lyrical one.
event had a real down-home feel, very different from having a
stuffy awards banquet at a hotel or impersonal meeting hall. Amina's
home is filled with art collected from all over the Middle East,
Mexico, and Asia, including divans, Oriental rugs, sculptures,
books, and a variety of knickknacks that must have been what the
Taoist sages were talking about when they mention "the ten
thousand things". Plenty of snacks, sodas, and drinks kept
us running back to the kitchen. The audience was mostly women
except for Gregory, who held up well under the estrogen haze.
I don't know how to categorize the "who's
who" in the Giza Club. The San Francisco Bay Area has several
overlapping bellydance communities, including the South Bay chapter
of MECDA (Middle Eastern Culture and Dance Association), "old
style" folkloric (John Compton's Hahbi'ru), folk dancers
whose primary interest is ethnographic, free agents who work with
many teachers, as well as an extensive ATS (American Tribal Style)
community. Some teachers have big followings and constitute their
own self-contained communities. I'm not sure if they were represented
here, although maybe people came and didn't make a big deal of
In fact, the fact that no one made a big deal
out of their affiliations was a nice and refreshing change from
many bellydance award events where there is a clear separation
between those up on stage and those in the audience.
Despite the flame wars that periodically erupt
between proponents of cultural accuracy and ATS or other fusion
artists, the Giza Awards is pretty non-sectarian. It's a safe
space for anyone to come and be welcomed. There are several women
who've been dancing for decades, many of whom worked in clubs
that no longer exist. Today, they still dance and they still go
to Egypt every year. In fact, it's the members of the Giza Club
that make it so special partly because they have so many years
among them. Yes, they're opinionated. But that's what makes events
like this so entertaining for the rest of us. And this event was
very low-key in that no one's personality dominated the discussion;
at some events, everyone hangs breathlessly on the remarks of
the one "important" figure while ignoring or downplaying
everyone who doesn't rank in the pecking order.
also think the caliber of the audience is what makes this event
different from the self-conscious mutual admiration society that
can result when there are more good intentions than actual background,
or where everyone relies on one or two experts for authentication.
There's nothing wrong with new enthusiasts getting together to
trade basic information, but sooner or later they'll need to grow
beyond that. It's nice to hang out with people who have 40 years
of field experience. They don't necessarily have a shelf full
of awards from the Bellydancer of the Universe, or a
trademarked Web site to prove their expertise. Some of them, like
Amina, instead have huge archives and notebooks full of articles
and painstakingly translated lyrics.
The ATS/fusion community was not well represented
in the audience, but they were honored in the awards themselves
(Paulette and Aruna). For those
of us who, like myself, are only peripherally involved in the
Tribal scene, it's easy to think of ATS as a static phenomenon.
What is probably closer to the truth is that dancers in that genre
are differentiating in the same way that generations of dancers
in Egypt have evolved over the decades.
I am personally interested in tracing the roots
of ATS in other dance genres, partly because if ATS is so fascinating
after - what - 10 years? 20 years?, just think how many more undiscovered
treasures could be waiting for us in art forms that have been
around for a thousand years, passed down in not just one school
or family or village but in hundreds of them.
One thing about the bellydance purist approach
is it tends to be very uncritical. If it's Egyptian (or Lebanese,
or from "over there") it's good, it's authentic, and
is sometimes slavishly copied. The same Mahmoud
Reda choreographies that people learn in mass workshops
get trotted out at every open stage, and while this is a good
learning exercise, it's hard to remember that Reda's presentations
are in their own way very artificial and removed from their origins
in the same way that "West Side Story" echoes a highly
sanitized version of Latin culture for a theater-going audience.
The open-ended approach of the Giza Awards lets us evaluate for
ourselves what it is that we really want to pursue in our own
a comment? Send us a
Check the "Letters to the Editor"
for other possible viewpoints!
1-4-06 What You Can't
Get From Instructional Videos by Rebecca Firestone
Being able to withstand honest
opinions is crucial. If one never communicates directly with one's
peers AS PEERS, that is, not as sycophantic students, one can
develop an insular and self-referential mindset without ever realizing
Show! Photos by Catherine Barros, Slideshow coding by Tammy
Event sponsored by Little Egypt
on May 28-30, 2005 at the Crowne Plaze in Miami, Florida
Articulating the Collective
Dream: The Giza Awards, and why the legacy-making process is important
to you. by Amina Goodyear and Gregory Burke. "We
embrace change however roughly it appears. With video we feel
secure in the knowledge that the legacy of the past will never
Traveling with the Touareg
by Linda Grondahl
This was my 5th trip to Algeria since
2000 and I have been amazed at the rapid economic development.
The government is working very hard to make Algeria a very popular
tourist destination once again.
Raqia's Response by Dee
I visited her in the Masr el Dawly Hospital,
near where Raqia lives in el Dokki, the next week. Raqia was unable
to travel to Sweden while sick!
Ahlan Wa Sahlan 2005,
Cairo a review and diary by Leyla Lanty
On Monday night, the opening gala was
a great success in all senses of the word! It was one of the best
large scale events I've attended.