Aziza, in Febuary 2003, performing at
the Belly Dancer of the Universe Contest in Long Beach,
In 2002, she won the contest.
a Performance Critique of Aziza
I am an old curmudgeon.
I like to ponder and consider the things that make life wonderful, and the
differences between diversion and art. I don’t mind being diverted. It can
be amusing and quite pleasant, like an occasional Hindi video, a trip to
the mall, or a belly dance student recital. Even some professional shows
are diverting for a while, but by the end of the evening, I am usually Egyptian-ed
out, having seen too much lycra and beads popping and locking to too many
overblown orchestrated extravaganzas ala Hollywood (or Bollywood!). Or conversely,
too much weirdness in the name of Tribal expressionism, too many turbans,
too many cheap Turkomen and Afghani cholis and pieces of jewelry, too many
fake flowers and bindis, too many Indian poses on Persian arms with faux-neo-fused
woo-woo melodies. It is all very diverting, but not much substance: a lot
But once in
a while these old tired eyes and jaded sensibilities are wrenched right
out of their stupor by the unparalleled brilliance of a dancer who
Each of us has different
ideas about what “it” is, but sometimes someone comes along with all the
right parts in all the right places and makes some tired old cliché look
like it’s the first time. Brilliance is brilliance no matter what the style.
There are several dancers on the scene that I admire and enjoy watching again
and again, but I just saw one that made me stop in my tracks, sit right down
on the floor, and pay attention.
I hate to single people
out in this profession. It’s almost like the kiss of death, but I have to
say how impressed I was, on every level, with the workshop and performance
of Aziza of Portland (soon to be Montreal, more's the pity for the West Coast!).
I live in an isolated little corner of the northwest and would sooner travel
halfway around the world to Asia than 100 miles to Seattle where Aziza occasionally
dances at Aladdin’s. When we were deciding on a teacher for our next Hafla,
several of my students suggested her and having never seen her, I contacted
her about coming up. Because she has won an assortment of contests and was
very busy, I had my doubts that she would consent to travel all the way up
here, but she agreed to come, do a two-hour class and headline the evening
Aziza, in March 2003, at the Rakkasah Festival
in Richmond, California
Aziza is a woman with a
thoroughly engaging smile that lights her pretty face from within. My first
impression was of a woman fully “present.” She arrived for the workshop promptly
and started on time. No star histrionics or ego battles or pretensions. For
two hours she worked a packed room of attentive dancers until their legs
had turned to jelly. She did a half-hour warm up that brought gales of laughter
as well as groans of effort. She treated the dance with respect and the participants
with respect and managed to do all of this with humor and joy. She held that
room in the palm of her hand for the entire two hours. At the end of the
workshop she handed out well-prepared, precise materials, answered questions,
and then extracted herself in time to grab a bite and center herself for
At the end of a long, long
evening, Aziza danced. From the moment she took the stage to the moment she
left, we were enthralled.
just her technical expertise, which is prodigious, but it was that
indefinable something more that made me sit on the floor looking up,
just like a child, not only fascinated by the lovely creature before
me, but totally involved by her inclusion of me in the mystery of her
I have heard several times
from Tribal dancers how they don’t care for the flirting and teasing of the
“cabaret” style of dance, they don’t like the sexual implications or the
perceived exhibitionism and intimate audience contact, but I think they miss
the point. Perhaps they have not seen someone who handles the essence of
raqs sharqi as well Aziza. There was nothing vulgar or suggestive about her
dance - rather, it was a joyous celebration of the essence of woman - woman
in all her beauty, elegance, power, and, yes, her sexuality, which is the
secret of our power.
Like the traveling
storytellers of old; she laughingly included us in the Great Cosmic
Joke, transcending herself and becoming that “other” that lifts vain
posturing to the level of art. Aziza has that rare combination of technical
talent and precise understanding of her role as performer.
Three things stand out
in my mind as I reflect on her dance. First off, she is not bone thin in
an anorexic approximation of Western beauty, but has a luscious and well-toned
curvaceousness. There is none of the angular hardness of over-conditioning
that I frequently see in modern Egyptian dancers in the US. She is obviously
in excellent physical condition and still maintains a woman’s body that lends
itself perfectly to Oriental dance. Secondly, she played sagat. She didn’t
just carry them around the floor, but played them easily and well and at
the appropriate times. She used them naturally and proficiently as an enhancement
of her musicality. Third, she didn’t choreograph. She knew her music. If
she did choreograph, I couldn’t see it, or it was in those large “approximations”
that leave lots of room for change depending on the mood of the audience,
her own mood and, if the case applied, the vagaries of the band. Aziza obviously
knows her music so well that she hears what it tells her to do and she has
enough technique to allow her to instantly choose from a repertoire of appropriate
movement. I was delighted by these qualities that embody what I look for
in a good or great dancer. Aziza made me feel the music; she truly was another
instrument in the band. She was not overblown, not over-rehearsed; didn’t
“phone it in,” she was, quite simply, real. Aziza may have done those movements
a thousand times, but they came across fresh and genuine, as if it was the
first time. She was superb.
Sometimes I come away from
a performance a little depressed, thinking that I am old and in the way, and
why should I bother to keep teaching. But after my initial reaction (I don’t
want to DANCE like her, I want to BE her!) I found myself uplifted, excited and
enthused because I had emotionally reconnected with what it is I love about this
dance. It is this emotional response that is so elusive in the precise, polished
dances of our raqs sharqi stars or the aloofness of our Tribal priestesses. So
many dancers fail to move out of the way of their egos and allow the dance to
come through. I was completely drawn in and entertained. Here was this quintessential
professional dancer, dancing in an out-of-the-way, minor venue, putting her heart
and soul into every move as if she was dancing at the most important show of
her life. And the more she gave, the more the audience loved and supported her.
I had a singing teacher who used to tell us to imagine our heads connected to
the audience by rubber bands and that no matter what we were doing, to never
forget who we were doing it for, that our attention should be focused out front.
Dance at this level is about that kind of attention: attention to detail, to
the music, to the movement and to the mood of the audience. It is a gift.
Aziza, winning in May, 2002, at the Belly Dancer
of the Year Contest in Contra Costa County, Caifornia.
circle of inclusion involves the audience not as spectators or judges
or observers, but as vital participants in the process of art. The
art of dance is unique. It must constantly be re-created every time
it is performed. It is never the same twice and it does not exist in
a vacuum. The audience is as much a part of its performance as is the
music, the steps and the dancer. To find someone who both understands
this intellectually and can work with it, or understands it instinctively
and just does it, is rare and fine.
I apologize for gushing…I
seldom do it, but I believe in giving praise where it is truly due. Aziza
has a long career in front of her and her hard work, dedication and love
of this dance is obvious in every performance. If you get a chance to see
her dance, you will see a real artist and hopefully come away understanding
just how magical this dance can be
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Ready for More?
Revisited by Yasmela/ Shelley Muzzy
response to the improvisational passages in Middle Eastern music
illustrate the depth of our understanding of the rich texture and
nuance of the culture
Emperor’s New Clothes by Yasmela/ Shelley Muzzy
Until we see ourselves in the context of a larger society, no one outside of
our community will accord us the respect we desire.
Critic; Real Critics Don’t Mince Words by Najia El-Mouzayen
Either we are a sisterhood of ego therapists and our instructors are politically
correct in all they say and do—or we are tough artists in search of ways
to improve our art form by ruthlessly weeding out the lame from our herd.
the “Agony & The Ecstasy” by Nisima
an unnerving experience to be “critiqued”by your peers, but my
personal opinion then and now is that when you perform in public, critiquing
just goes with the territory of performing.