Birth of a Dance Scene
The History of Oriental Dance in Switzerland
As in many
other countries, Oriental dance is getting increasingly popular
in Switzerland. Most probably, the majority of newer dancers
rarely think about to whom they owe it to that such a large
number of classes, shows and workshops are now available. After
all, it has been only about 25 years since the first pioneers,
with a lot of enthusiasm and initiative, introduced this "new" dance
form in Switzerland! Please allow me to introduce some of these
groundbreakers so that you will appreciate what it was like
to be an Oriental dancer in Switzerland in the early 1980s.
Oriental dance would not be the same in Switzerland today if
dance scenes in Germany, France and the USA had not been
established previously. If a student wanted to learn Oriental
dance in the early ‘80s, she would, of necessity, travel
constantly, --mostly to Frankfurt, Paris, Istanbul, and Cairo.
In each of those places, the first dancers found, in addition
to classes: costumes, music, and accessories. Important teachers
for this period who were often mentioned included: Leila
Haddad, Nesrin Topkapi, Hassan Afifi and Dietlinde
Oriental dancers in Switzerland were definitely regarded as
exotics! The dancers whom I interviewed told me that the reactions
of the people around them ranged between “curiosity” and “friendly
support” to “disgust.”
about all the prejudices regarding this dance form; back then,
negative prejudice used to be much stronger because hardly
anybody had ever seen an authentic Oriental dancer and Oriental
dance was considered, fundamentally, a form of Strip-tease.
it is no wonder that there were students who kept their hobby
a secret and did not tell even their husbands what kind of
classes they were going to every week... Therefore, the teachers
and dancers tried, from the very beginning, to establish Oriental
dance as an art form and often felt they had to refuse to dance
in restaurants for this reason. Fortunately, it was possible
to convince the audiences through professional presentations.
Depending on the background of each teacher, the first dance
classes were very different from those that are presented today.
Native Middle Eastern dancers preferred to organize cozy evenings
where they taught a few movements in between two cups of tea.
On the other hand, Swiss teachers (who often already had experienced
other dance styles) taught "real" classes in formal
dance schools. Class sizes varied between 4 to 15 students.
of the first dancers also sponsored workshops featuring foreign
teachers - often purely out of love for the dance because there
wasn't much money to be made.
It is also
remarkable that many of the initial teachers began to teach
very soon after they had started oriental dance. Today, we
frown upon dancers who start teaching after only 1 or 2 years
of dance experience, but back in the day, there was no alternative.
(By the way, it is great to see that with only few exceptions,
most of the first dancers are still active, mainly as teachers.)
other hand, it was much less common for students to perform
too early--mainly, because performance venues were much more
rare than they are today. Some of those gigs were for weddings
and birthdays in the first Turkish and Arabic restaurants.
Audiences reacted with skepticism but were curious also. Some
did not exactly understand what it was that they were watching;
however, they liked it.
produced staged shows that were surprisingly popular; in fact,
some of the shows that were held in Basel and Berne attracted
up to 300 spectators!
from author: 500 CHF are now about $410 (with the current
2007 exchange rate - 20 years ago the dollar was more expensive,
so it would only have been about $200, I think)
on whom you ask, prices for dance gigs varied. Some dancers
claim to have earned much more money in the early days, while
others were paid less. Nonetheless, receiving CHF 500 for
a show at a big event was already possible in the 1980s.
demonstrated an interest in Oriental dance from very early
in its inception and published articles about dancers, shows
and classes—some of those efforts were effective, while some,
were rather useless.
less, contact and collaborations between dancers were useful
and relationships were satisfactory. The Middle Easterners
often had a different point of view than the Swiss about both
dancing and teaching, and therefore, the Middle Eastern dancers
preferred to “do their own thing.” On the other hand, the Swiss
dancers collaborated often, and they formed good and long lasting
relationships. (They went to workshops together and stayed
at friends’ homes.)
growing number of dancers, there were all kinds of relationships—from
concurrence to collaboration; some dancers went so far as to
In the 1980s,
many Swiss dancers traveled extensively to other countries
to take lessons; so, they came into frequent contact with fellow
International dancers. This phenomenon happened less often
when more possibilities to study the dance began locally and
rose again only when the Internet became popular.
of the time were mostly homemade, partly for budgetary reasons.
However, some dancers also bought professional costumes from Madame
Abla in Cairo or Bella in Istanbul—or
even managed to obtain a second-hand costume from Nesrin
wasn't much choice for Middle Eastern music in Swiss record
shops. Remember—it was a time before the CD became a preferred
format. Consequently, music for dancing was sold either on
cassettes (sometimes in very poor quality) or on vinyl recordings.
One of the most popular sources was Paris where a large Arab
community had already formed. Also, some dancers were able
to locate music in Germany or Egypt.
of the early dancers mention that, back then, dancers often
showed more curiosity for the various Middle Eastern cultures,
and therefore, they researched more. (Perhaps, one generally
needed much more enthusiasm and engagement to learn Oriental
dance under the circumstances.) Many dance students already
had adequate cultural knowledge when they started their dance
classes; whereas today, Oriental dance appears to have become
one more consumer good, and many students don't seem to be
quite so interested in cultural information. Aspects such as
fitness and fashion trends (like that of Shakira)
are more important, apparently nowadays.
like today, the ways in which people got into Oriental dance
were as different as the dancers themselves! Here are some examples:
She traveled to Istanbul in 1981 out of an interest for
Dervish dances. On one evening, she went to a place where a gypsy
band played. Julie was quite astonished that despite all her
years of training in Jazz dance, Flamenco, and Ballet, she was
not able to dance along well. So, the next time she went to Istanbul,
she found the dance studio Atesh where she took lessons daily
and even earned her diploma. As soon as she went back home, people
already asked her to pass on her newly gained knowledge.
She met Marrakchia (from
Zurich) and both of them went to Istanbul together where they
first took lessons from the American dancer Nancy.
However, after seeing a very impressing performance by Nesrin
Topkapi, they asked her to teach them. So they became
Nesrin's first students and for the next 2 years, they traveled
back to Istanbul each Spring and Autumn. They lived in simple
hotels because flying was much more expensive by then.
Julie also went to Germany and France to learn the Egyptian
style, and she also has fond memories of Bert
Balladine who taught throughout Europe repeatedly
for many years. Julie taught Oriental dance at her own, well
established, dance school in Basel. Mainly, her students were
young and learned very quickly. So, she created stage shows
with them and secured private gigs for them. From 1986 to 1992,
Julie lived in Istanbul, where she taught dance classes. After
her return to Switzerland, the local dance scene had changed
so much she did not feel like starting another school there.
a trip to Egypt, Beatrice was determined to learn Oriental dance.
Around 1982, she had the opportunity to learn when the German
dancer Nahema came to Basel for a show and workshops.
Beatrice was hooked immediately and followed Nahema to every
possible workshop and took lessons with her in Germany also. In
1984, she opened the dance school Semiramis in Basel, which still
exists. She has been making her living from dance since then. In
the early times, she had a lot of well-paid gigs, sometimes with
live musicians. She also appreciated the contact with other dance
styles such as: Modern, Contemporary, etc.
Took her first dance lessons 1981, in California, with Bert
Balladine and Jamila
Salimpour. Back in Europe she continued to learn,
for example, from Dietlinde Bedauia Karkutli (the "mother
of German Belly dance") and also started teaching. In Istanbul
she met Nesrin Topkapi who became one of her
most important teachers. However, she also traveled to Morocco
and Egypt to take lessons with famous dancers.
been teaching classes in Zurich since 1983 and attracted a
lot of students from the start. Many of her former students
have become dancers and have their own schools for Oriental
dance today. Marrakchia is one of the founders of the "Orientalisches
TanzForum", an association of teachers in and around Zurich.
She still teaches and creates her own stage shows from time
Badiaa is Moroccan and used to live in St-Louis (France)
close to the Swiss boarder in the early 1980s. In 1982, she started
to teach at a school in Switzerland and after substituting for
Julie Gürtler in 1984 for a few months, she started her own classes
in Basel. She was, and still is, very active on stage and in
the classroom and opened her own studio in 2002 in Muttenz close
Born in Bagdad (Swiss-Iraqi) she came to Switzerland
when she was 4 years old. She wanted to be a dancer since the
age of 14, and when she went to Iraq for 3 months at age 20,
she learned to dance with her family. Afterward, she taught herself
with videos from an Egyptian shop.
she started teaching her first classes the Oriental way—so
there wasn't only dance but also food! After this, she taught
in an "alternative" cultural center where hardcore
feminists made fun of her dance. Through her brother, the famous
film director, Samir, she soon got into the
media, but she was dancing for fun and never wanted to be a
full time professional with all the consequences. Meyadeh
continues to teach in Zurich.
is from Lebanon and started teaching in 1982. She was then a
student in Berne, and people would often ask her to teach them
her dance moves. In her classes there was food as well. (An ex-student
of hers told me that Maha even continued to teach until late
in her pregnancy!)
herself, Maha took classes in Egypt and Lebanon. In her teaching
she emphasized cultural understanding as well as having fun
while dancing. She is very proud that many of her former students
are teachers today and still teaches her own classes in Berne.
grew up in Southern California where she saw her first belly dancer
at the age of 10 in a Greek restaurant in her home neighborhood.
From then on, she wanted to learn this dance herself but had to
wait until she finally took her first classes at Santa Barbara
to Switzerland in 1977 where she started teaching in a dance
studio in 1984. For her own dance education, she went to Istanbul
(Nesrin Topkapi), Cairo (Hassan Afifi)
and Marrakesh (Leila Haddad). Cyndy also met
her husband in Marrakesh. Cyndy
continues to teach and perform in the Zurich area.
it was very interesting to talk to our pioneer dancers and
see how the dance scene has built up. I had also taken classes
with some of them in the 1990ies and will be forever grateful
for their persistence and work to introduce Oriental dance
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