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Salma, Rahma, Rabab, and Lynette Harper

Gilded Serpent presents...
Dance is in their blood
by Kevin Potvin
previously posted in The Republic of East Vancouver, April 2004

A reluctant visitor to a multicultural arts show comes away with a new appreciation for how art entwines with ordinary life for ordinary people

A secret: I'm not very multicultural-tolerant. I enjoy learning the customs and values of people not like me, but usually only so long as dinner lasts. It's a nasty little secret and I don't like it.

I usually keep these sentiments to myself and instead attempt to outwardly project an open-minded and tolerant attitude, partly because I know it's the right thing to do. Nonetheless, I remain naturally disinclined to seek out on my own artful performances, for example, that showcase so-called "other" cultures.

None of this is due to a lack of exposure to the outside world. On the contrary, in a different decade, I traveled extensively around the world for extended periods of time. But I did not eat at better restaurants, stay in good hotels, or take in high art presentations. I typically wandered around working class districts of big ugly cities in poorer nations during their seasons of inclement weather. (I'd blame the travel agent, but I never used one, it probably goes without saying.) I learned when workers woke up and tagged along to where they went before work, and as much as possible, even jumped on the bus after morning coffee to follow right along to the factory gates.

Consequently, I am under no illusions that people from other countries are automatically exotic, deep, or cuddly in any way. They and their cultures are as likely to be just as boring, plain, and stupid as my own can be. Having said that, however, there is something in the humdrum routine of everyday life in different cold and gray places around the world that fascinates me.

It isn't the wild costumes, crazy dances, or bizarre myths that capture my interest in other cultures, but that's what usually comprises the content of staged multicultural events, which is why I shun them.

I therefore would normally have given wide berth to the Scotiabank Dance Centre's "Noon Dance Series" offering last March 26, featuring Raks Araby - Arab Women, Arab Dance. This hour-long show promised "insightful narratives with masterful performances of Middle Eastern and North African dances by Salma Ferchichi, Rahma Haddad, Lynette Harper, and Rabab Ward." I only went because my sister-in-law, Lynette Harper, was one of the performers, and she has been bellydancing and teaching bellydancing for a great many years now, and I had yet to have an opportunity to see what it was she liked so much about it.

That was the snotty little attitude I went in with. I came out fairly bowled over, much edified, and measurably a changed person. I learned something in that too-short hour that I had never previously considered, and I had the utter pleasure of having that instruction reinforced right in front of me in a most beautiful and dramatic way. It was this:

Arabic dancing served as a way for women to share emotional experiences with each other. It is a part of everyday life for ordinary folks, and so worthy of attention by me, even, the pretend-to-be working class snob.

If I had simply been told this in a lecture (or an article, like this one!), I would have tuned it out. But just after Rabab Ward told the audience of over 100 this snippet, she proceeded into a belly dance, and blow me down if I didn't then and there receive a direct transmission of her expression of emotional experience. When not bellydancing, Ward, originally from Syria, is a professor of electrical engineering at the University of British Columbia, by the way.

Prior to her dance, Salma Ferchichi, originally from Tunisia, recalled how as a child she would go once a day with other girls to "the source," the only time they were away from strict authoritarian rule in every aspect of their lives. "The source" was where daily water in that dry place was fetched by the girls of the families.

Like all gaggles of girls the world over, they talked, looked at boys, gossiped, and laughed, but then they would also start dancing for each other, apparently. The explanation for this behaviour was simply that dancing is deeply embedded in the blood of Arab women.

Then Ferchichi danced, and the utter joy bursting out of her body and exuding from her face not only put me immediately at the well in some small Tunisian village, but made me know something of what it is like not only to feel that one has dance in one's blood, but to know that everyone around you feels it too.

Something like what I felt must have raced through the minds of the teenaged boys from farms located outside Edmonton, Alberta, when Rahma Haddad danced for them when she was a child. Like me, "they didn't know what was going on in front of their eyes." Haddad learned Arab dancing, and specifically bellydancing, from the other women in her family in Alberta, where again dancing was more than what I know it to be.

That doesn't mean I don't understand dance at all--as a form of art done by artists, or as an activity people do at clubs. Haddad presented a different thing I had previously been unaware of, and it bridged the two forms-art and popular pastime--to form a third distinct thing: popular art, or folk art, in dance form. This was no contrived presentation of foreign exoticism to satisfy some state-granting agency looking to spice up multicultural awareness week. This was a moving and utterly personal expression given in so highly evolved a form, it appeared to be fully grounded in the Earth.

It was Lynette Harper's talk and performance that, though it came first, served to wrap up the whole of the noon hour's entertainment--which was fitting since she organized this show. Harper spoke in general terms of how belly dancers share their dances with each other, and how they get caught up in each other's pleasure of dancing. "At any gathering," she emphasized, "there was always dance; it was loved and honoured."

She then proceeded through a series of alternating sorrowful and joyful movements focused at first low to the floor before rising up through her body and then arms to an upheld apple, ultimately culminating in her taking a satisfyingly heavy crunch of a bite from it. There was the unmistakable air of sheer defiance in that bite, and if the audience didn't get it the first time, she repeated the bold gesture, staring us down with an audacious grin. Life has been mostly miserable throughout much of the Arab world lately. This dance, adapted from a Tajik song, put the grab on life as though we owned it or something.

My sincere thanks for a genuinely altering experience go to Lynette Harper for organizing the show, to the performers who delivered it, to the Scotiabank Dance Centre who hosted it, and the Westender newspaper and CBC TV who sponsored it.

Note from Lynette Harper- Although Kevin Potvin wrote this article to describe a 2004 event, Rahma Haddad and myself have organized a second, similar "Arab Women, Arab Dance"
event at Vancouver's Dance Centre more recently, and plan to continue presenting and exploring this theme.

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