photo by Annette Baker

Fatma's class was taught outside one of the Yurt's
The Middle Eastern Music and Dance Camp
Menocino Woodlands,
organized by Joshkun Tamer
August 17-24, 2003

report and review by Yasmela

Photos by GS Staff except where indicated

For several years now I have been sending students to the Middle Eastern Music and Dance Camp in Mendocino, California.  Since I focus heavily on the ethnic origins of the dance, this seemed like the best way for my students to be exposed to a variety of options. They could study dance, music and singing for an uninterrupted week with some of the finest musicians and dancers in the world.

There is nothing like immersing yourself in study and in the strange and unique culture of the Middle Eastern music and dance “scene”.  With the decline of clubs where you can hear live music on a daily or weekly basis, it is nearly impossible to become as familiar with the music and the way dance fits into it as one should be if one is going to dance. 

And this doesn’t even address the roots and soul of the music.  There is so much more than meets the eye or the ear.

The first year I sent them down, my small group of students came home with rich tales of music and dance and parties. Dance Camp profoundly changed their attitudes about dance, music and the cultures of the Middle East. The second year, the expanded group of camp attendees included the musicians who were working with the troupe that had formed from my classes.  That year Banat Sahar performed a Persian piece in one of the evening cabarets.  Where my limited knowledge of Persian dance left off, Robin Friend’s prodigious knowledge and instruction took over, and with her tutelage, Banat Sahar delighted the audience as well as the Persian contingency at camp.  The superb Persian singer Momak Khadem even joined them to play and sing.

Back from their third year, my students declared that I MUST go next time.  It was sort of amazing that I had sent them year after year and never went myself, so this year I packed up my trusty air mattress, several bags of trail mix, my pocket camp stove and special coffee, a can or two of sweetened condensed milk and off I went.  Before heading down the twisty rutted road to the Mendocino Woodlands Campsite, we stopped for supplies and a bottle of my favorite B&B (Benedictine aand Brandy).  I then put myself in the hands of my much more experienced students, pitched a musty old tent with my traveling partner and dance friend and spent a week in the Mendocino National Forest.

From the outset it was a magical journey.  We were blessed with great weather - not always the case on the California coast near Mendocino.  We pitched our camp in the meadow, across the landing space for the emergency helicopter from the UCSB’s yurt contingent.  I immediately decided I needed a yurt.  They even had electricity!  And how elegant they were lounging around in front of the yurt in real chairs, even hosting the afternoon Turkish singing class with Fatma Goze. Unfortunately, from the meadow every single place I needed to go was uphill.  The bathroom (with one working hot shower) that serviced the meadow was, of course, in the opposite direction from all the classes, concerts and food. 

Fatma teaches

The FInger Cymbal Class taught by Karim

standing room only looking in the window at the concert hall

The Dervish on Turkish night



Boys in the woods with their sticks!
Michel Harris (Lynette's son), Avi Sinai (Dror's son) , & Britt Beach (Michael 's son)

Upon reading my schedule, I realized it would be impossible to take every class, so I settled for the two classes I considered essential and I stuck to them, almost every day.  My first class was Georgian dance with Helene Eriksen at the ungodly hour of 9:30 am.  Despite the early hour, it was wonderful to slip on my rusty character shoes, grab a spot on the floor and feel like a total klutz, JUST LIKE A STUDENT! It was both heady and invigorating after years of being the teacher. It was also brutal and demeaning, but I did it and I even felt like I understood it, a little, after the third day.

I tried a finger cymbals class, zagat, with Karim, who is a master percussionist, cute as hell and simply fascinating to watch. I did one humiliating day with him and decided that I knew enough about finger cymbals already since I had been playing them, AND in a band, no less, for over 30 years! Still, he certainly taught me a thing or two or three or four….

Amel Tafsout’s class made me feel so good that I decided I couldn’t do without her charming smile, her great energy and that wonderful dance. I added her class to my daily “must do” list.  Amel is a magick woman and a great spirit. Her classes were packed every day.  After wolfing down a high carb lunch, hardly noticing what it was because I was so hungry and had stood in line for so long, I did the Khaleeji class with Helene.  I loved this class!  Khaleeji is accessible, a woman’s dance, and it’s just plain fun.  It was an added treat to actually dance to the wonderful live Gulf music with Naser Musa and Souhail Kaspar later in the week.  Helene is a tall, unbelievably graceful and impressive teacher and dancer, a taskmistress, yet ultimately approachable, as is everyone at camp. 

And that is a huge part of what makes camp charming.  The fact that everyone is in the same place, everyone is cold and damp or hot and sweaty.  Everyone has to stand in line to eat and everyone needs his or her coffee in the morning.  There is plenty of ego, plenty of posturing, plenty of “scene”, but there are also Turkish grandmas in shapeless black dresses with sweet little scarves draped over their shoulders herding small children, while musician Papas and dancing Mamas teach and dance and talk and smoke.  It feels like a real family reunion for some of these people, expatriates in a sometimes hostile country. Everyone is approachable.  There is fierce rivalry for seats in the concert hall and cabaret.  There is passionate music and dance everywhere, spontaneous singing and clapping, impromptu lessons in that crazy Persian finger snap that everyone does a different way, and there is the absolute delight of watching someone dance to live music, really incredible live music, for the very first time. Watching the face of a dancer who has never had this opportunity and seeing her face light up with the realization that it isn’t about choreography at all, it really is about the music, is wonderful.  To see the joy and love on the faces of Faruk Tekbilek and his charming wife as she dances and he plays for her makes you realize that the soul of the dance comes from its simplicity and someone’s heartfelt response to the music.  It is magick.

I liked Camp.  I probably won’t go back again, but I liked it and I will continue to recommend it to students and dancers who have not been there. I liked hearing Arabic and Farsi and Turkish and Kurdish and Armenian spoken all around me.  But most of all I loved the music. The evening concerts alone were worth the price of admission.  Though I loved the music in the cabaret, I found a lot of the dancing tiresome. 

It is embarrassing to watch dancers ruin perfectly wonderful Turkish music because they think Egyptian modern style dance applies to any style of music. Obviously no one has bothered to teach them the difference and it is a shame.

Suzan & Faruk

The dancers at camp are much like dancers everywhere. Some of them were especially delightful and charming.  Actually, most of them were, when you separated them from their need to be recognized and acknowledged.  The ones who dragged their silly personae and insecure baggage around with them were boring and annoying, but I have little tolerance anymore for that sort of nonsense. I am constantly confounded by the reasons some people decide to become dancers.  If we all realized how unattractive it is to dress up in our belly dance suits and parade our neuroses in front of the world, there would be fewer but better dancers abroad.  But…there it is.  Camp is like life. In among the stones there are many many gems.

And here is what I loved…

Amel Tafsout.  I have known Amel for a couple of years, but each time I see her I feel as if I have known her forever.  Her dancing is as subtle and wise as her sense of humor. 

She has an amazing way of taking the most mundane and ordinary piece of fabric, jewel or flower and adorning herself like a queen.  She is a Queen.


Taking a class from Amel is so much more than learning steps and gestures.  It is the indescribable essence of pure spirit pouring into your soul.  If you want to experience REAL tribal dance, dance with Amel.

Helene Eriksen. I remember seeing the Moiseyev Dancers as a child back in the 1950’s, and the Georgian dancers who glided around the floor on ball bearings captured my imagination.  Helene actually made the grueling process of drills designed to teach the difficult technique of looking like you are walking on rollers enjoyable.  Her Khaleeji class was like fresh air, sweet and subtle, like breathing.  Just her presence is inspiring.

Robin Friend.  Aside from the fact that she is a consummate scholar, her dancing is always a surprise. She comes alive in class and even more so on the dance floor.  I enjoy watching her because she conveys such profound emotional response to the music.  Robin is the only teacher who returns to Camp every year.  This year she taught Persian technique and Bandari.  Deceptively simple, Bandari has a rich and fascinating evolution in the Persian Gulf and Robin’s stories about it, like all of her stories, add contextual meaning to the dance for me. 

This is such an important element of dance education.  Without it we are all only doing a monkey’s imitation of what we think these dances should be.

I sat in on at least one of all the other dance classes. Ansuya is a second-generation dancer, full of energy, model-beautiful, and very young. She is a lovely dancer who has a fusion style, reminiscent of belly dance from the 60’s and 70’s, with plenty of hip hop and fusion mixed into the brew.  I look for a dancer to say something and I think Ansuya is just too young to have very much to say right now; however, she will no doubt mature into a delightful dancer.

I would love to see Shareen Al Safy just teach and not feel she has to legitimate every movement by telling us where it came from, who did it, when it was done and under what circumstances.  This is interesting stuff, but I got the feeling she felt uncomfortable just saying, “do it this way because that’s how I do it.”  I applaud the courtesy of giving credit to dancers for originating a movement, but is it really necessary to know that every move you do is not original?  I mean, isn’t that a given to some extent?

Sahra took over Shareen’s class on Wednesday and did a magnificent

job. I loved her little shoes, her big hair, and her ease.  Sahra demystified Egyptian for me. Too much technical information can suck the life right out of a dance, you know.  Some of it is like religion…you have to take it on faith, and Sahra put a very human face on the Egyptian style movements that really made them click for me.  I tried to make all of her classes.

I made every one of the evening concerts, but missed some of the real highlights in the later evening cabarets.  One of these was the Shikhatt with Helene and Amel, and Helene’s amazing tray dance, but I have some good photos that my girls took, and they told me all about it.  One of the problems I had with Camp is how late you really do need to stay up in order to see everything, and even then you don’t get to see it all - and you are just bushed the next morning.  Breakfast and coffee and a 9:30 class in character shoes comes really early, especially if you have to do a couple of uphill climbs first.  Ah, the advantages of youth!  I did get to see Suzie Tekbilek (who taught Turkish style dance) both in the cabaret and in concert.  She was indescribably delightful!  Her dance was full of the coy flirtatiousness that American dancers seem to have such difficulty capturing.  Her style is pure Turkish, a little rougher and more raw than the highly stylized Egyptian, but I like that. Suzie is so at ease in her dancing, and her infectious smile drove the audience wild. 

I haven’t even touched on the wonderful instrumental and singing classes offered.  Camp is a regular buffet of opportunities for dancers to branch out, for musicians to study with top rate instructors, and just a great place to wander around listening to wonderful music all day and night, soaking up the heady atmosphere of a Middle Eastern Shangri-La. The concerts were astounding.  From the first beat of Georges Lammam’s Ensemble the first night in the Cabaret to the student concerts the last night in the main hall, Camp is a rich feast. Turkish night, Armenian night, Arabic night, the Sufi music with the Sufi spinner, the fashion shows, Khaleeji night in the cabaret, Persian dance of all kinds, Momak giving voice lessons at a table near the dance hall,

Fatma’s Turkish voice class wafting across the meadow, the zurnas playing "Smoke on the Water" or "Tequila" to call Faruk for afternoon class, always at my nap time. 

Every morning I woke to a family of fat partridges touring the campground single file looking for breakfast.  Sassy scrub jays bounced and slid across the top of my tent looking for holes in the bags of cookies and chips we stored around the edges of the tent we used as our salon.  At any time of the day or night the sounds of the oud, violin, dumbek and daff echoed off the sides of the deep ravine, and orphan phrases of songs drifted down the gully in the afternoon breeze. So for me, along with the discomfort and the annoyances, there were these great pearls of pleasure, usually in unexpected places.  Mendocino is a long way to go from where I live and I can see how some people make it a yearly pilgrimage, but I prefer to leave it as a fine memory and a fond dream… however, as I say to my students, you should go, you should go….And maybe I will publish the Non-Camper’s Guide to Middle Eastern Dance and Music Camp next year.

More photos of camp coming!

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