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Gilded Serpent presents...
I Dance; You Follow
by Leila

I recently returned from teaching at the Joy Festival in England and a few weeks later, I received emailed feedback from the workshops about my teaching.

Anonymous criticisms can be a scary thing, and since I have been concentrating on performance for the last four years, and not teaching, I am very open to anything, no matter how pride-wounding, that will help me improve my teaching skills.

However one criticism of a class I titled “Shaabi” (the un-choreographed, spontaneous street dance of Egypt) that particularly stuck me, (and always has when I have heard it applied negatively to Egyptian teachers) was, “She was an ‘I-dance; you-follow teacher.’” As a student, I felt that I never really started to grasp Raqs Sharki until I came to Egypt and began studying from teachers who commonly used this method of instruction. As a teacher, therefore, I was trying to pass on what I learned in the exact way that I learned it. I have to wonder if it is always beneficial to expect to apply Western teaching standards to Oriental dance.

Western dance, such as ballet and modern, is systematic and methodical in it's instruction so it makes sense that a Westerner who is used to these dance forms would prefer to learn Raqs Sharki in a way with which they are accustomed. However, if you look at the way in which Middle Easterners both learn and teach Raqs Sharki themselves, it is drastically different from Western instructional methods.

Traditionally, Raqs Sharki is taught almost entirely by the “I-dance; you-follow” method and it is only recently that Egyptian teachers have begun to rely heavily on choreography and movement breakdown to please the foreign students who pay to study with them. I mentioned this to an Egyptian friend of mine who is a professional modern dancer with the Egyptian Opera Dance Company. (He is also a very talented oriental dancer.) He said, “One doesn’t learn Oriental dance in the same way as ballet. When we were kids, and a Belly dancer appeared on TV, we always jumped up to imitate her. Also, our mother often danced at family parties and we stood behind her and tried to copy her. Dancers learn steps from copying other dancers, and then, they adapt them to their own style. Oriental dance is not ballet. If you learn Oriental dance by counting “1,2,3,4,” you will dance it like 1,2,3,4. (Maybe that is why so many non-Egyptians look so stiff when they dance

As Westerners interested in an Eastern dance form, we might want to ask ourselves if we are missing certain critical aspects of Raqs Sharki because we are not open to Eastern teaching methods.

Any Egyptian teacher, who has been primarily an Oriental dancer (as opposed to a Folkloric dancer), will generally teach in an “I-dance; you-follow” method. Many Raqs Sharki teachers who have had extensive folkloric backgrounds will teach with a more systematic approach, applying folkloric teaching methods to Raqs Sharki instruction based on a ballet style training system.

Many times, instructors listen to music with students and just start moving. They expect students to follow along. Generally, a teacher will correct major problems in technique but not correct minor differences between her movements and those of her students. In this way, the student learns, not only by a breakdown of movement, but by repetition, giving her body room to interpret movements to suit her own body type and personality. The student also learns how her teacher makes instant transitions from one move to another.

Contrarily, a lesson following a pre-set choreography does not give any insight into the creative process of building those steps. When the teacher is improvising or creating a choreography on the spot the student begins to understand the creative process within the teacher in choosing those steps to interpret the music.

An Oriental dancer who has spent many years on stage will make up new moves and movement patterns in front of an audience. As a teacher, she will also do this in front of the student, giving a sense of the organic qualities of the dance form. By following the teacher, a student can start to understand the subtleties and nuances of the dance as well as it"s technical elements. The result might be that of a dancer who is free from a reliance on choreography and methodology and is better able to interpret the music.

This imbedded video of Soheir Zaki is originally posted on youtube by "Bellybunny."
Click on graphic above to start video clip.

I have seen quite a few incredibly talented Egyptian dancers labled “bad teachers” because they practice the “I-dance; you-follow” way of teaching. After arriving in Egypt, one of the first workshops I attended was with Sohair Zaki in the Ahlan w Sahlan Festival. It was a huge class, and Sohair Zaki got up on stage and just danced to the music for three hours!

I remember that the girl next to me went and sat by the wall after 45 minutes saying, “She’s not teaching anything…” In fact, many people left the class and demanded their money back!

Sohair Zaki was teaching something, although it was not complicated step patterns, layered combinations, or choreography. Sohair Zaki was teaching stage presence, timing, musical interpretation, style, and she was teaching technique the way she had learned it. Many students will leave a workshop or session feeling disappointed if they have not successfully learned new choreography or perfected 10 new steps. This is a shame because the steps will be meaningless if you do not know how to incorporate them into your dance or use them to interpret the music. Also, choreography is not what is important to an audience.

There are many instructors all over the world who teach oriental dance using programs, methods, and formats that offer students steps and choreographies broken down to their most minute elements but by studying in this way exclusively, a student may run the risk of her dance looking programmed, methodical, or formatted.

Next time you are studying in Egypt or anywhere with an Egyptian or Egyptian trained teacher, open your mind to the traditional way of learning Raqs Sharki! You may discover that this overtly relaxed method of instruction can covertly work its magic on the freedom, creativity, and individuality of your dance.

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

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