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Gilded Serpent presents...
Amani's Oriental Festival 2006:
Delving into Oriental Culture, Dance
and Surviving Israeli Military Attack

June 20-25, 2006
by Beverley Joffe

I feel marooned in paradise!

Bombs dropped in South Lebanon, and I am still here, staying the extra time; I wish I could have stayed a month after Amaniís Oriental Festival last year. In my time here, I have learned so much in terms of dance, culture and language that I want to share with dancers around the world.

I am safe, but sad for Lebanon. It is such a beautiful country, with people with a love of life, warmth, and generosity. They have welcomed me with open arms, and have taken exceptional care whilst I have been here.

Now that Israel is attacking, I have begun to understand how the Lebanese have lived for 30 years of war. Social values and family meals keep the thread woven, feeding a deep sense of belonging and nurture.

The Christian areas North of Beirut are safe ground and we watch the TV solemnly as Beirut burns.

Being here a second time has led me to understand more deeply Amaniís position and goals in dance and in the Middle East and my respect for this accomplished living Oriental dancer deepens as I sympathize with her for the difficulties she faces.

Lebanon is a country open to the arts. Half of its population is Christian, so women do not need to ďcoverĒ if they do not wish, and indeed, popular fashion implores high-heeled shoes and looking fabulous. However, deep Middle-Eastern culture has its roots set firmly. Lebanese music is rich, the food opulent and Belly dance draws frowns.

Not one of the dancers I saw in restaurants worked any deeper to their art than a field worker picking tomatoes! Yet, there is Amani:

a woman so respected by the Arab nation that she stands alone as a solo female dance artist of the highest standard.† The Lebanese regard her as a theatrical figurehead and ambassador of Lebanon. In the Middle-Eastern paradox, it is the approach she uses that has drawn dancers from 20 different countries to study with her as well as the internationally acclaimed choreographers and theatre directors she has chosen to teach at her festival.

These masters never teach regular classes. They are Lebanonís most acclaimed artists. They have travelled the world with their work, and have a singular trait in common: the effective theatrical portrayal of Oriental dance art.


Click for larger view
Amani proudly lifted a trophy signifying the winner of her "Sultana de la Danse Competition," with Russian dancer Sophia Sarkissian. Samira Carmen Oxturl of Australia became the second place winner, costumed in lavendar, while Heidi Malinen of Sweden danced in red and won third place. Other than trophies and publicity, it is unclear whether the winners received any other prizes or awards at Amani's competition. The competition night entry charge for contestants was included in the cost of the 5 day event. Audience members were charged $50 which included a full service meal. The event was held in the Ceasar's palace which was turned into a Lebanese style restaurant.
The guidelines for the competition were simple enough:

  • Oriental music only may be used.
  • No fusion may be incorprated in dance or music.
  • Solos are allowed 3.5 minutes and troupes 5.
  • Preliminaries are held the first night and the final competition takes place on the last night of the festival.

New faces and old friends from last yearís festival reunited during June 20-25 for the 2006 festival. Finally, it was my great pleasure to take class with Madame Georgette Gebara, founder of Ecole Libanis díBallet, whom I missed last year. Her style of hand movements and conceptual work inspired me. Her choreographies take Oriental custom and tradition into full-scored ballets, worked around central themes. She explained her work through discussion and video projection; then, after a warm-up, she taught a piece expressing womenís reactions to tragedy. The simplicity of movements, extracted with such caring finesse from their source, opened vast directions for my own theatrical work. How to express a ululation with the arms and hands only; how and why the women celebrate their lost sons, the spirit of community, the use of veil: all this, she depicted in beautiful, clean lines. Those participants with other dance training felt inspired to call on their work, while straight Oriental dancers had the opportunity of exploring ballet expression within Oriental routines.

Amani is clearly gearing the festival towards touching the subtleties of Oriental technique.

Participants explored emotional expression in one of three workshops she taught, featuring basic movement layered and altered through archetypal shifting. Amani opened the festival in her trademark style with a modern choreography workshop incorporating classic moves with dynamic arms and feet. Her unique style, grounded and light simultaneously, calls both contemporary theatre and Oriental history to the forefront of peopleís imaginations. Learning her combinations is exciting and always fresh with inspiration.

There may be 60 people following Amani yet she already knows almost all dancersí names and she bounces energetically between everyone, making certain that they see and understand the movements. Her attentive care is also her trademark.

The final workshop she taught was (Persian) Bandari: a Bedouin dance of wild abandon inviting freedom in the hips and spine, featuring (hand-numbing) ecstatic clapping. It is a hard choice, but this was my favourite of all the workshops.

Many of the workshops at the festival cover traditional community dancing, where the Oriental style has its roots. Franscois Rahme, certainly one of my favourite instructors (though it is difficult to choose only one) is an exceptionally talented dancer and choreographer, working many years with the legendary Caracalla group.

He taught a Bedouin sword choreography as well as Andalusian harem dance with veil.


Amani and dancers
Back Row l-r: Chica Hilma, Katharina Moroz, Svitlana Dekhtyar, hidden face. Olena Sinelnikova, hidden profile, Dalila El Qamar, 2 hidden faces, Besma, Hayet Bedroose, Linda Nealon, Heidi Prescott, Silvana Mardini, Ann Larsonn, Heidi Malinen, Suran Negishi, Safira, Mary d'Angelo, Suzanna, Vaike Kermas.
Front Row:
Suraya Farah, Amirah, Denise, Nicole Najjar, Amani, Christine Najjar, Lily Tsai, Nannette du Toit , Vivienne, Yvonne

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Amani and Sam Khoury with participants on excursion to the beach
Back Row l-r: Lily Tsai, Karine Aghnatios, Bervely Joffe, Samira Ozturk, Dersa, Suran, smile bent over, Angelo, black haltertop, black behind, Amani, half hidden face, Sa-ra, Hayet, Dalila, Blanca, Adreana, Chica, Victoria, Irena Smirnova, Heidi Mallinen, Suzanna, aqua hands on thighs, Martin Castillo, Maya Gaorry, brown outfit,
Front Row: peach top, Nuria Diez, Julia Went, Stephanie Sullivan, Denise, Sandra Perez, ladysmiles behind, Sami Khoury, Christine, Safira, Nannette, Nicole, white muscle top

Click for larger view


Amani with participants and winners
holding their certificates

Back Row l-r: half of face, eyes behind, Allegra, Sa-ra, Chica, hidden profile, black dress, Safira, Adreana, Nannette, cross neck, Anne Knowles, Silvia, Ann Larson, Suzanna, Vaike, Vivienne.
Front Row: Hayet, Dalila, Stephanie, Sandra, Amani, Samira Ozturk, Sofia Sarkissian, Heidi Mallinen, Mahitsu

Click for larger view

He is one of the finest dancers I have ever seenóacross all genres of danceóand his work in modern Oriental theatre is breathtaking. He has ideally preserved the folk roots and cultural mannerisms in his dynamic choreographies that call on a high level of application. He assumes that you have warmed up properly and are ready to hit the stage running, but he is generous with his time in answering all questions and confirming the steps.

Beyond the master teachers, many more of whom I have not included here due to space constraints, the festival this year also offered classes by international guest teachers in American Tribal Style Belly dance taught by Julia Zafira of Holland, Samalady (Samba Oriental) taught by Maya Gaorry of Italy/ Brazil, and I taught Rotational Yoga for Oriental Dancers! I presented a new system I have developed to help Oriental Dancers achieve the necessary strength and flexibility for safe and enhanced stage performance (and then, we do the Dabke).

The best treat came on excursion day! After travelling to some beautiful, historical sites, we lunched at a beach resort and the Dabke kicked off with Mounir Malebís performance group leaping through the air with magnificent steps and clashing sticks, getting us all in the mood for what came next.† Next, we learned Lebanonís renowned folk dance with the passionate, effervescent Sami Khoury. The beach was the perfect setting, and Samiís contagious energy came through each and everyone dancing. Sami is a real livewire, and sadly, I missed his session on Oriental expression.

Excursion day broke three full days of back-to-back workshops from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m., hosted at the Regency Palace Hotel in Adma, which is a beautiful artists district overlooking Jounieh Bay about 20km North of Beirut. (Relaxing in the Regency Palace 5 star complex feels like time-out at a spa.) The soft, clean mountain air breezes through the valleys and the pool staff will bring you anything from the Nargillah (water pipe) to ice cream. There are a number of restaurants indoors and out; so, there was little need to leave the hotel complex during festival.

To get the most out of your trip to Lebanon, I recommend arriving a few days before the 5-day programme to settle in, and leaving a week after. Give yourself some time to enjoy downtown Beirut with the friends youíve made and organise short trips to some areas worth seeing in this beautiful little country. People visit the nomadic tribes in the mountains, thereís a spoiling for choice as theatre-producing dancers seek backdrop shots in the ancient buildings, sprawling vistas and crumbling Middle-Eastern ruins, and Amaniís team is happy to connect you with tour operators or taxiís offering guidance while touring.

  • Lebanon can be expensive, but you should know some basic facts that will help. Agree taxi prices beforehand: taxis from Adma (or Jounieh) to Beirut should cost $15 (daytime) and double at night. A bus, though, will cost you 50c, or 750 LL. It will also take a few days getting used to the dual currency of Dollar to Lebanese Lira (1:1500).
  • Restaurants and clubs offer mezze covers, fruit covers and full meal covers. Some places have great entertainment, and they differ from family restaurants (great atmosphere 12 a.m. to 3 a.m.) to clubs (open later and good from 3 a.m. to 6 a.m.). Some of the best places for Arabic music are in Jounieh (5 minutes drive from Adma) and downtown youíll find hip-hop and house clubs. A full night out should cost around $60 without alcohol tabs.
  • Never give your passport to anyone except hotel staff or the Amani team for safekeeping. The Lebanese are very trustworthy and adore tourists, but the foreigners may try their luck with you.
  • All gestures of goodwill from Lebanese are mostly sincere; they want tourists in their country, and they will go out of their way to ensure you are safe and happy. They are happy to make friends and take you out, but as a rule of thumb, itís safer to be with family people and have a woman in your group. This keeps Lebanese men on their best behaviour.
  • Lebanese cuisine is outstanding and a real treat for Vegetarians with so much fresh mezze and fruit. Beyond the restaurants, if you can get yourself invited to a home-cooked Lebanese family meal, you will be eating a gorgeous selection of dishes from a rich traditional heritage. With just a few herbs, sun-ripened vegetables, bean combinations and accompanying carbohydrates you will find the meals balanced and beautiful. (I will never fit back into my Oriental dance costume!)

Visiting Jbeil:
Alena, Vitoria, Betty, Julia, Beverly, Maya, Nannette and Hayet

It has been an absolute pleasure visiting Lebanon for Amaniís 2006 Oriental Dance Festival. Iím happy that all other attendees left Lebanon in the weeks before the trouble with Israel, making that 69 less visitors to worry about (because Amani and her team are wildly protective over their visiting dancers). The Lebanese have experienced many years of war, and they have me stowed away safely.

I wish for Lebanon an end to the current conflict, and I wish for a successful 2007 festival for Amani.† Such a treasure of Oriental experience should be open to all!

For more information on Amani's Festival see: http://www.amaniorientalfestival.com

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Check the "Letters to the Editor" for other possible viewpoints!

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