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Sahra addressing the class

Class watching performance footage

Sahra demonsrates a Cairo-style headwrap on Roxanne

Students relax on Saturday night

Taking notes in class

A selection from Sahra's extensive costume collection

Sahra leads the class in the movements of Nubian dance

Gilded Serpent presents...
The Dance Zones of Egypt:
Sahra Kent's Journey Through Egypt Basic 1 Workshop
Report and photos by Debbie Smith

From the moment I received Sahra’s announcement about her pilot Journey Through Egypt (Basic 1) intensive workshop, I knew I had to be there. For so many years Sahra has been a role model for me, and in so many ways- as a performer and choreographer, a teacher, and a dance ethnologist. She is one of the few in our field who really does do it all. I also wanted to be at the first, maiden effort of such a series of workshops, because I felt instinctively that that I would want to follow the development of this groundbreaking idea. For me, as a dancer firmly entrenched in the study of Egyptian dance within the context of its culture, and as a scholar interested in the long-term development of research and knowledge-building in our field, it was absolutely not to be missed.

The first Journey Through Egypt was held in the Los Angeles area, on the weekend of January 25-27. Roxanne Shelaby generously made the clubhouse of her condo complex available, and the large, sunny room with lots of tables, windows and floor space made a perfect setting for the weekend.  There were 15 students, many from Southern California but some from as far afield as Utah and Washington, DC. Students represented a wide range of  ages, backgrounds, and levels of knowledge and experience of Egyptian dance.

The workshop is structured as a twenty-hour intensive over the course of a weekend, Friday evening and all day Saturday and Sunday. The goal is to present an overview of the “dance zones”of Egypt- the cultural/geographic zones which are characterized by a particular type or group of related dance/movement styles, musical traditions, type of dress, and material culture. These include Nubia, the Suez Canal region, the Nile Delta region, the Bedouin tribes of the Eastern and Western Desert regions, the Sai’d, the Siwa Oasis region, the Ghawazee, and of course Cairo. She also covers a range of “Pan-Egyptian” movement practices found throughout Egypt (and other parts of the Arab world) which are not all considered dance per se, including the Zar ritual, Moulids, Sufi zikr, and more.  All of these were considered in light of local-level practice, local dance groups, representation in the state-sponsored folkloric troupes (like the Reda and Qomeyya), and also in how regional dances are represented, if at all, on the Oriental stage.

Sahra used a combination of lecture, dvd/videotape viewing of fieldwork and performance, and movement to convey a lot of information in a relatively short time. Although not strictly speaking a “dance” workshop, for each zone we got up to learn some characteristic steps and posture, and gestures associated with each dance zone/style, a good way to blend the theoretical with the experiential. She provided each student a binder containing study sheets with an outline for each dance zone that we could take notes on, and also a copy of her “Journey Through Egypt” dvd, containing footage from her fieldwork along with performance samples. In addition, she brought her very extensive collection of clothing, accessories, and costume pieces from the different regions of Egypt, and also reference books from her library.

In addition to the lecture presentations, the day was broken up by not only the movement sections but by other, more participatory activities, such as enacting a Zeffa (wedding procession), demonstration of head-wrapping techniques and trying on the many different styles of galabeyyas in Sahra’s collection. On Saturday after the workshop, we all walked over to Roxanne’s apartment (conveniently on site!) where Sahra led us in the experience of a Zar ritual after showing us some videotape of an actual Zar recorded in Egypt. Afterwards, there was a party with wonderful Arabic food prepared by Roxanne, conversation, and relaxation.

If this sounds like a lot to cover in 20 hours, it is- but Sahra is uniquely positioned to be able to do so. With degrees in Cultural Anthrolopogy and Dance Ethnology, 6 years of residence in Egypt as a performer and student, and many trips there to do fieldwork and research, she is teaching material and concepts that she is deeply familiar with. In fact, one of the best thing about being in class with her is the “interstitial” information in the form of anecdotal information and storytelling that she naturally shares, and that can only spring from many years of experience with Egyptian culture.  These details provide a beautiful counterpoint to more formally presented “lecture” material. In a short interview I conducted with her after the workshop ended Sunday night, she explained her desire to present a complete and balanced overview of the dance zones in the Basic 1 workshop, rather than offering dancers the opportunities to take only selected parts. Some dance zones (the Sa’id, Nubia, Cairo) have been more researched and are more accessible, whereas some (the Siwa Oasis, the Eastern and Western deserts) have historically been more difficult to access and research. To Sahra’s credit she relies on not only her own research, but also on the work of others before her and who are active now, to round out the areas where she is less knowledgeable.  Her generosity of knowledge, resources and intention come across so clearly and are an inspiration.

She is working from a high level of integrity and she stressed repeatedly that the goal is that all of us, as dancers, add to the “body of knowledge” in our field whether as ethnologists, movement analysts, filmmakers, or performers, and that  Journey Through Egypt was intended in part as a departure point for each of us to pursue our own path or research. I was personally very inspired by this focus on the big picture.

She told me “At first, I was thinking it would be so exciting if there was a structure that supported people going out and learning for themselves. But then I realized that if everybody is just learning for themselves, the state of our knowledge in our field is going to stay exactly the same. So then I realized that the most important next step is really for people to add to the body of knowledge of the dance. That’s what we need to do to pay back, and make our art bigger, and our knowledge bigger.”

When this first workshop was announced over the Christmas holidays last year, it sold out within a matter of days. Sahra expressed her surprise to me that the response was so quick and enthusiastic, but I was not surprised at all. It speaks not only of Sahra’s sterling reputation in our field but also of the hunger in the dance community for the kind of  information grounded in cultural context, fieldwork, and deep understanding that Sahra offers.  From my perspective, a workshop like this seems like the natural outgrowth of her work up to this point. I asked her what led her to develop the idea now, whether it was because she was seeking a new direction or because she felt the time was right in our field. She replied “I don’t know about the field itself….I’ve always been bad about figuring out the ‘market’ in our field. I’ve always gone my own way, and certain things that interest me have luckily corresponded with the ‘market’ while other things don’t.  I’ve always funded my own research- I don’t get any grants. I go and teach dance, I make some money, and then I spend it by going and researching.  But I can’t not do it!” 

For me, I came into the workshop with a fairly thorough understanding of Egypt’s geography and modern political and cultural history, as well as trends and developments both Oriental and folkloric dance, so I was able to apply the information given and fill in the gaps in my own knowledge. Given the scope of the weekend, I wondered how the experience was for the students who were more new to the dance or to the study of Egyptian culture. I am sure that as she continues to teach the Basic 1 workshop, Sahra will continue to refine and develop the curriculum and how she conveys the information.

I look forward to taking other workshops in the series and seeing how Sahra builds on the idea she has begun to develop.

Sahra's next class this weekend at Amina's in San Francisco is sold out. You can still catch the party on Sunday Night (May 11, 08) at- Pena Pachamama in North Beach San Francsico, CA. See Sahra's Website for future sites and dates for this class.

click for larger photo
1-Carolynn in green, 2-red behind, 3- in black is Anastasia, 4- down front- Jenna Mitchell?, 5- in green, 6 peeking around, 7- pink, 8 in white, 9- Sahra, 10- behind in purple,Tahira?, 11-Roxxane, 12- brunette in white- Tamra-henna?, 13- diamonds-Rachel Kay Brookmire, 14- Titanya, 15- Dondi, 16 -in maroon, 17- Debbie Smith- author
Thanks for help with names!- Carolynn, Kiyaana

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Ready for more?
2-18-08 A Night at Wahib's Roxxanne Shelaby's "Pure Sharqi" video and photos by Lynette
On January 19, Gilded Serpent was in Los Angeles for Pure Sharqi, a special evening of live music and dance, hosted by Roxxanne Shelaby (Hypzotica Productions), at Wahib’s in Alhambra. The evening featured the house band, led by Mouhamad Salem, along with invited dancers Aubre, Alexandra, the Lumina Dance Company, Debbie Smith, Sahra Saida, and Roxxanne herself, in addition to the regular house dance company the Sahlala Dancers.

5-5--8 Dances along the Nile, Part 2: Raks Al Balas by Gamila El Masri, Reprinted with permission, from Bennu, Issue Vol.6 #3
Ah, the poor balas (water jug). This is one of the most underestimated and ignored of the dances along the Nile.

4-3-08 Dances along the Nile, Part 1: Raks Al Asaya by Gamila El Masri, Reprinted with permission, from Bennu, Issue Vol.6 #3
There is strength in the cane twirl but not aggression, extreme rapid twirling should be held as an additional sensational feat, less is more. Have your body of twirling be moderate so that you can vary from slow to climatic; always reflecting the music, it's mood and tempo. Get down without getting crazy.

5-3-08 Improving Breathing for Better Dance Performance by Taaj
We also hold our breath when we concentrate or get nervous. This brings tension into our bodies. The more tension we have, the more shallow we breathe. It can become a vicious circle!

5-2-08 Live a DanceDivas’Life! Interview with Jane Yee Shan Chung by Lisa Chen
Then I saw the Suhaila technique workshop announced on her website and I just signed up without knowing exactly what her format is. I am the only person who did not learn Suhaila format before at that workshop. I was so naïve, I simply wanted to give it a try.

4-23-08 to ? From Toronto, Ontario, Canada The International Bellydance Conference of Canada Video reports by Gilded Serpent Staff
including Masouma Rose, Shira, Lynette Harris and many others. Reports are presented in video format inbedded all on the same page. Wednesday Evening show- "Remix 2007", Daytime activities on Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Main Stage Shows from Thursday and Friday Night. Yet to come-- Saturday Night Gala performance at the Ryerson Theatre, Sunday Daytime acitivities and Sunday Night at the Nightclub "Myth"

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