photo by Carl Sermon (Ma*Shuqa's husband)
The Gilded Serpent presents...
An American Belly Dancer:
The Significance of Jillina

Review by Arabia
Photos by Carl Sermon
workshop sponsored by Amina Goodyear
Dance Mission, San Francisco, California,
January 25, 2004

The introduction was simple and straightforward. A lengthy announcement wasn't necessary. Jillina's vibrant energy commanded the room the minute she walked through the crowded dance space.

With her hair up in a bun, minimal makeup on and in a simple, elegant custom skirt/top outfit, she was the understated professional ready for work;

there was no self-conscious indication that Amina's stellar sponsorship was quite the rare first opportunity in our area. Since it is the instructor who sets the tone of the class, this was the first sign that my fears about the possibility of an unpleasant day may have been the result of my guarded overcompensation for experiences with other "famous" dancers. After a drive from Sacramento and a late arrival which placed me at the back of the class and with no time for my own stretching, my frazzled nerves and insecurities did not last long. The warmth and mutual respect which seemed to immediately fill the room of 60+ dancers, confirmed that many of the qualities which I had come to appreciate in Jillina, the performer, were every bit a part of Jillina, the teacher. It would be difficult to say whether it was the result of Jillina's ever-positive neutrality or if she (and Amina) simply attract mature, professional students to their workshops, but the potential for an intimidating, competitive climate made way for getting down to the (more productive) business of dancing.

Jillina's class was structured in very much the same vernacular approach as her instructional videos. We began with a very brief warm-up, which was a mix of standard stretching and Oriental-inspired movements. Aware of this brevity, Jillina encouraged us to stretch more on the side of the room, if we needed it, providing a nice balance with her economical use of time and energy.

As was case with all of her teaching, Jillina's advance explanations of her methods and continuing concern for the quality of the class at a personal level, made it possible to self pace (and thus for me in this instance, avoid beginning the class sweaty and overtired) and to accommodate a wider range of skill levels.

We then moved onto "technique," where Jillina had us form a large circle while she discussed basic postures specific to Oriental Dance. We did some walking steps and hip drops, avoiding the chaos of bigger traveling circle combinations, and then practised her infamously mastered "Egyptian shimmy" -- an arguably revolutionized version much easier to describe than to execute (with Jillina's control and consistency) -- for those of us who initially learned what she called the "Turkish-American shimmy". Technique merged seamlessly into "combinations" (later incorporated into the choreography.) In this portion, we moved back into staggered line formations, which for the remainder of the class were routinely rotated both from back to front and from the interior outward since there was limited mirror space and imposing sunlight and noise from the side windows.

Jillina focused here on the more challenging and iconic Egyptian combinations, always highlighting the elements that characterized the movement as Oriental, as well as the openings/opportunities for it to be personalized. She emphasized the value of folkloric style as the foundation for modern Egyptian, sharing examples of her experiences learning from such masters as Mahmoud Reda and Raqia Hassan  She noted specific distinctions between steps which were more earthy and folkloric, and those imported from Egyptian greats such as Nagwa Fouad within the context of "cabaret" style. By the time we moved onto the choreography, it was only a matter of connecting the steps we had already learned. Here, Jillina urged the importance of smooth, flowing transitions, and of making the moves our 'own.' With the remainder of the afternoon, we learned 2 complete useable choreographies -- an Egyptian pop song and a short drum solo.

And, to the concern of whether we might appropriate them in our own performances, her emphatic response was "Heck, yeah. You paid for 'em!"

Jillina observed each student with a keen eye, yet it is significant to me that not only did she not single out students to publicly praise or "correct", but she only divided us into dual groups for one "performance" only. Although grouping obviously allows for more space, and can be said to be an accurate testing ground with peers as audience members, it is usually the case that grouping creates anxiety in students which actually inhibits learning. A class is not, after all, an audition, and most students do not fully absorb the choreography until they've taken it  into the safe confines of home. Jillina appears most interested in promoting correct technique and ultimate execution than in short-term showcased approximation (only to benefit the politics of humiliation and power.) I view this style of teaching as "constructive" (as opposed to the "destructive" style usually used by teachers with ulterior motives.) Engaging and approachable, she was the kind of teacher you felt you could ask any question, except that asking would be an unnecessary interruption given that she so clearly broke down the movements, that you might confidently practise to perfection in private.

There is something about Jillina that instills a certain confidence. I feel at ease when I watch her perform because she nails it every time. The same was true for her class. Although I overheard that she was up til 2 am the previous night and had taken an early morning flight, she was fresh, focused, in the moment and instinctive. She makes the complex seem simple, and as such, you get the feeling that you are in good hands.

After the class, Jillina rounded everyone to watch her perform the entire pop song we had learned in order to demonstrate how choreography can be used as a liberating framework, by modifying the steps at various points to fit her own unique style as well as her mood at that moment.

Her magnetic stage charisma was as present in this setting as in any nightclub and even without the glamorous costuming.

In self proclamation to 'keep it Real,' Jillina completed the class with an open discussion forum, where she candidly answered questions ranging from her trajectory in dance, to her feelings about the incorporation of belly dance into popular culture, while intimating the responsibility we all face as ambassadors of an often misused art form ("Four classes and I'm a teacher...weeee"). Jillina's desire to share her knowledge and her sincere regard for her students were evident in other less overt ways. We were left with clear choreography handouts (which she suggested we read while doing the dance so that they made most sense), a class survey that solicited suggestions and companion CDs were for sale on-site for an affordable $15 each. Notably there was no real mention of her new exceptional 3-dance instructional DVD series, which is also better priced than most belly dance VHS tapes of lesser production and content quality.

With hugs and smiles, she left us wanting more and with the feeling that the day had been about us, not her.

I am aware of the fact that a review commands a certain legitimacy if "balanced" with some negative observations. I can honestly, say, however, that I believe Jillina has incorporated the best of her Western dance training and the essences of Egyptian style and that her teaching was immaculate. Personal preference aside, there are certain givens which enhance the quality and experience of learning, and I make no apologies for the fact that I feel strongly about her value as an educator as well as the contributions she is making to the field of Oriental Dance. Jillina's gift is the unique use of her Western training applied to her exhaustive and respectful exploration of a dance form outside of her own cultural confines.

She utilizes the best parts of her formal dance training negotiated within the all subtleties and charm of Oriental, and exhibits a profound appreciation of the difference. Her precision is not a compromise for intuition, feeling or musical expression through movement.

As the consummate, contemporary "American Belly Dancer" however, she is the easy target of the ongoing debate about the limitations of formal Western training to Oriental Dance. Although there is evident credibility to the debate, any resonance that American dancers lack Egyptian essence due to a preoccupation with technical chops is usually lost in fashionable misappropriation. The observation is used less as a critique and more in a self serving end to signal a "Good Eye." American dancers make the claim as a kind of authorizing principle (they must be "good" 'belly dancers' because they "get it"); non-dancer critics use it to legitimate their inactive positions as voyeurs (they know "good dance"); and Egyptian dancers use it (understandably) out of protective territoriality. This is all done often without much genuine independent thinking. It is impossible to say what original raqs sharqui intended to do, but it has been my contention that Egyptian essence has at least two consistent themes: it is a social dance designed to be celebratory (and thus by default less available for critical comment); and part of that celebratory nature has to do with individual interpretation (and therefore less competitive and emulated). In other words, isn't it, then, to speak of Egyptian essence in belly dance as not really a discourse on opposing dualities -- on spontaneity versus choreography, emotion versus technique -- but rather of the Personal? And isn't there something limiting in the obvious comparisons of cultural difference given that there isn't much to be done about the fact that some of us are "American" and that we all share different experiences based upon our own histories?

It seems quite evident that it wasn't Jillina's motivation to become the Superstar title which now precedes her -- that she is, in fact, just doing what she loves, being who she truly is, working hard at it -- and the rest sort of fell into her hands. Luckily for us, she takes that responsibility with seriousness and humility. To quote an adage used by a dancer colleague of mine: It's nice to be important, but it is more important to be nice. There is as much outside of the dance class to be learned from Jillina.

Jillina and the Bellydance Superstars will be at the San Rafael Border's bookstore performing at 4pm on Saturday April 17, 2004 and again at 7pm at the DNA Lounge in SanFrancisco.

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