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The Gilded Serpent presents...

A Metamorphosis Before My Eyes

My Experiences at Oasis Dance Camp West

by Sharon/Mahirimah
posted 12-12-2000

I was wary of camp. I almost talked myself out of going, in fact. Being an American Tribal Style dancer, I was concerned about the heavy emphasis on cabaret style dancing. Whatever you call it - Oriental dance, raqs sharki, American nightclub - it wasn't for me. In recent months, however, I had been experiencing an increasingly voracious appetite for dance.

Mere weeks prior to the start of camp, I attended a fantastic workshop taught by the lovely Paulette Rees-Denis of Gypsy Caravan. It encouraged me to carefully examine my demands when it came to dancing and learning.

I found that my strict definitions of who would and would not make an ideal instructor was holding me back from being the dancer I wanted to become. 

I find it ironic that it was the most inspiring American Tribal experience of my short dance life which in fact encouraged me to consider instruction in the cabaret community. My revelation, which may seem simple or obvious to some, was that any professional dance instruction would help me grow and improve. Just moving my body, involving my heart and soul in Mid-Eastern dance, and meeting passionate dancers to inspire me, would better prepare me for any style on which I chose to concentrate my energies. Think about it: the best American Tribal Style dancers, whom I admire and emulate, once studied cabaret - not to mention classical ballet, jazz, and other dance forms. So I finally admitted to myself that I could find growth in more places than I previously believed. Quite a lesson to take into my heart from that one workshop!

It served to stoke the fire within me to a record burn, driving my desire to learn and dance to a fevered pitch.

On Monday, I eagerly signed up for Oasis West Dance Camp.There were over 50 campers and staff this year - a record turnout. The days were chock full and this year we had the honor of studying with Amel Tafsout - a spiritual woman, storyteller, and life-teacher from Algeria. The best way I can think to describe Amel is to compare her to one of the dances she taught us. As we learned the Ouled Nail, she kept reminding us to take very small steps, and carry our bodies erect and proud, chins up - "like royalty," she said. That is how Amel seemed to me as a person. Her presence is tangible; with her dark, beautiful face and exotic eyes, all framed by her tousled black ringlet curls. She was all at once imposing, yet utterly approachable. Her dazzling smile, freely given hugs and kisses on the cheek make one feel like a friend or possibly a long lost relative. She is patient and gentle, with an energy that seems to come from deep within her center. Her teaching style is distinctly non-Western - a very, "See what I do? Now you do it," with less structure than most of the classes I was accustomed to. This made the overall student experience fascinating, but also foreign and difficult.

Every day we attended a demanding technique class with endless drills to live drumming, all orchestrated by the talented taskmistress Cassandra. The organizers of the camp freely admit that their reason for starting Oasis was an excuse to study with Cassandra, and now I understand why. She is a focused and challenging instructor, with seemingly boundless endurance. She exudes a low-key attitude, yet maintains a commanding presence; and her smile and enthusiasm makes you proud to be a part of whatever she has to share. And share she does, layering increasingly complicated moves on top of one another, until it is clear the class can't keep up. Then she drops back to a simpler and more easily rewarding move without a hiccup. She effectively taught repetitive muscle-memory combinations without it ever losing our attention. I myself would return to Oasis every year myself just to study with Cassandra.

Each day I would dash up to "Luxor" (nickname for the main hall) to study drumming. What inspiration! Our drumming instructor was the beautiful and infinitely skilled Nicole. How I wish I had had more time (and energy!) to devote to studying with her. Friendly and upbeat (no pun intended), she was an incredible drummer. She told us in her camp introduction that she and a friend were so passionate about drumming that for about a year they lived out of a van, driving all over the US, chasing the best drummers to study with them.

The one day I thought I might take a nap, I couldn't let myself lie down and miss the opportunity to sit and visit with my roommates. Everyone's enthusiasm for the dance was infectious, and hung in the air throughout camp. In my meager down time, I fed off each woman's stories and experiences and advice. I know I never could have danced and studied eight hours a day for 4 days straight without the energy and passion for the dance which surrounded me each day.

It would be extremely long-winded to tell about all the experiences packed into those few days, nor would I be able to do them justice. So I will skip ahead, past the arduous yet rewarding hours of dancing, the late nights spent sitting up, watching my cabin-mates practice routines in their pajamas, and afterwards talking in the dark about life and dance, the Friday night fashion show where I wore my first cabaret costume for kicks, the following khaleegy and henna party where we danced in colorful thobes until we couldn't stand it any more, and then sat and chatted while hennaing our palms. I wish I could relate how it all felt when put together. The closest I can come to describing the impact Oasis truly had on me is to tell you about the last night: The Oasis Hafla.

At that moment, I saw the woman and the dancer unite, and become the dance. 

To be honest, I have never been one to get excited at attending performances. I have always preferred "doing" over "seeing". But tonight, I was fortunate to bear witness to something quite new and intensely fascinating. A small open circle amidst the chairs and cushions, bathed in a soft light, served as the stage, lending a very up-close-and-personal feel to the whole affair. It was in this space I saw the dance AND the dancer for the first time. I had had the rare pleasure of getting to personally know and admire each of these women over the course of a few days. At the climax of the event I saw each woman utterly transformed by the dance. At the risk of sounding cliché I saw the chrysalis truly became the colorful butterfly.

Take, for example, Faith LaFavre. Faith is a friendly, frank, bookish woman from Canada. A bespeckled, self-professed computer geek, she turned an afternoon discussion we were having on faith and spirituality into a debate on quantum physics - her favorite topic. She confessed to me that she has never been big on creative ventures, that dance was really her only creative interest to speak of. Had you been in attendance at the hafla, not privy to what I knew, you never would have guessed it. When Faith took the stage, she revealed a delicate beauty . She danced with grace and extreme confidence, transformed into a princess in her deep green cabaret costume, with her long hair flowing free. At that moment, I saw the woman and the dancer unite, and become the dance.

She was one of many that night who has been seemingly altered by their appearance on stage. Performance after performance, I was stunned again and again by the unabashed beauties that poured endlessly from behind the dressing room curtain. Every level of skill and effort on that stage was met with resounding support and applause from the audience. Were these the women in sweatpants and tee shirts I had been taking classes with all week? Wasn't she wearing glasses? I didn't know her hair was so long. Wow! She seemed so shy and quiet! And now look at her.

Now look at all of them!

Never before had I had an experience quite like that night. I realize now that before the hafla, I had only ever seen "the dance". I had only seen random strangers take the stage, marveled at the shimmies, the skillful zilling, the unique costumes. Now I could recognize the woman behind each soulful sway and twisting hip. I was an honored witness to the metamorphosis of each performer from mother, or wife, or "computer geek", to a stunning goddess bathed in stage light and the admiration of the crowd. Words cannot express how I felt as the last round of thundering applause marked the end of the long evening. I had been audience to the dancing for almost five hours. Looking back on it, I recognize what a unique opportunity this experience this was for me---to be able to have my eyes opened and see beyond that which I had known before. I watched as the Woman joined the Dance, and became The Dancer. Few will ever see the metamorphosis occur. I saw an entire night full of Dancers, and without exaggeration I can say that I will never look at Middle Eastern dance the same way again.

...Without exaggeration I can say that I will never look at Middle Eastern dance the same way again.

The next day was the last day. We gathered our belongings and packed up to leave. I was discussing the weekend with one of my cabin-mates, and I shared with her how important this weekend had been for my growth as a dancer. I shared with her my new-found philosophy: that I could learn so much from any good dance instruction, and that I was only more open now that I had such inspiration from the camp. I struggled to tell her the ideas I had in my head about where I wanted to take my dancing, including Tribal, folkloric, and a fusion of so many beautiful forms. She looked at me and simply replied,

"If you never put yourself in a box, you never have to figure out how to get out of one."

I was aghast at the concise way she had summed up the results of my recent experiences. I don't have to define myself. I can undertake a lifetime process of exploring the dance, and I may never decide that one label is right for me. That is the beauty of artistic expression--it is an extension of You in a unique way, one that need not be explained. These women had shown me an extension of their inner selves at the hafla that night. Though I know that American Tribal will always be my true love and the roots of my personal style, I, too, can make my dance an extension of Me - whatever I want that to be. This is what I took away from Oasis Dance Camp West. American Tribal, cabaret, folkloric - it doesn't matter. This is what I hope for all dancers.

Ready for more?

2-3-00 "Where's The Hook When We Need It?" Desert Dance 2000

Review by Bobbie Giarratana, Photos and Layout by Susie Poulelis

How about this article: 12-12-00 Producing a Middle Eastern Dance Festival by Ellen Cruz

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