The Gilded Serpent  

Aziza, in Febuary 2003, performing at the Belly Dancer of the Universe Contest in Long Beach, California.
In 2002, she won the contest.
The Gilded Serpent presents..
Reconnecting with the Dance:
a Performance Critique of Aziza

by Shelley Muzzy/Yasmela

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 of fluff.

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 has “it”.

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 performance.

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 the evening.

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.

It wasn’t 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 dance.

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.

Aziza, winning in May, 2002, at the Belly Dancer of the Year Contest in Contra Costa County, Caifornia.
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.

This magical 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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