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Julie Gürtler, Basel

Meyadeh Jamal-Aldin

Anisa- Cyndy Essahbi-Peak

Marrakchia (Silvia Hunziker)
Gilded Serpent presents...
The Birth of a Dance Scene
The History of Oriental Dance in Switzerland
by Meissoun

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.

Surroundings
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 Karkuttli.

The first 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.”

We know 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.

Consequently, 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.

Many 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.)

On the 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.

Some teachers 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!

Note 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)

Depending 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.

The media 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.

More or 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.)

Among a growing number of dancers, there were all kinds of relationships—from concurrence to collaboration; some dancers went so far as to found associations.

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.

The costumes 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 Topkapi!

There 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.

Most 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.

The Pioneers
Just like today, the ways in which people got into Oriental dance were as different as the dancers themselves! Here are some examples:

Julie Gürtler, Basel
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.

Bert teaching in GermanyLater on, 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.

Beatrice Holm
After 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.

Marrakchia (Silvia Hunziker)
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.

She has 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 to time.

Badiaa Lemniai
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 to Basel.

Meyadeh Jamal-Aldin
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.

In 1982/83 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.

Maha Weber
Maha 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!)

To educate 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.

Anisa- Cyndy Essahbi-Peak
Cyndy 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 University.

Cyndy came 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.

For me, 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 to Switzerland.

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