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photo by Tim Fuller

Kathryn Ferguson
of Tucson, Arizona

Interviewed by Lynette Harris
May 23, 2000

Lynette: Before we start the interview, have you made any new videos that I should let people know about?
Kathryn: There may be a new video in the works. I don't want to say what my idea is at this time!

Kathryn, who lives in Tucson, Arizona, met with me at what is, at times, the unequalled center of the belly dancer's universe: Bert Balladine's dining table.
She began. "The first time I ever saw belly dancing was in Casablanca, Morocco!"

She was quick to tell me that she never uses the words "belly dance" currently, but that was the term she and others knew then. Kathryn feels that the term is too limiting for the dance form. "Now," she chuckles, "I always call it Oriental or Middle Eastern dance because, in Arizona, if you say Oriental, they think you mean Chinese.

What really intrigued me while I was in Casablanca was the music. There were five musicians, three of whom were drummers. After I saw that first show in Morocco, my life was changed forever! I didn't realize it at the time. The music changed me, not the dancer. At that time I was a real snob about dance. I had studied ballet, modern dance, and Flamenco dance. I didn't think that what the dancer presented was very compelling. She was dressed in lace to her wrists and neck. She entered, walked forward a few steps, and then placed her hip out to the side. Then she repeated the same movement at the other side of the room. Next, she walked over to a table, picked up a scrap of bread and began gnawing on it while she checked out the audience.

When she finished perusing her audience, she started doing what I later learned was called a shimmy, while still chewing the bread. She completed a few more uninteresting things and then she put a huge tea service tray on her head, and got down on the floor. She laid nearly prone and did this: (Kathryn demonstrates for me in a push-up position -pelvis pumping up and down against the floor. ) "Imagine!" Kathryn laughs, "This was my first introduction to the Oriental dance form. Isn't that amazing?"

Kathryn continues: "I thought the dancing wasn't so great, but I was very excited by the music. This was, probably, 1969. After I returned to America, a woman who had been a dancer at the Fez Restaurant in Los Angeles, came to Arizona. Mostly because of my positive memory of the music, I thought I'd like to get involved with the dance. At a nightclub in Los Angeles, I happened to be at a birthday party of a dancer named Antoinette Khoury. There I was in this nightclub! I was just beginning to learn about this dance.

The musicians asked this lady (Antoinette Khoury) to dance. She complied, and she was just beautiful, especially the way she used her hands and arms. I asked her if she would teach me about hands and arms. I went to her house the next day and took a dance lesson from her. This was probably in 1970. All these year later I know that she has become Suhaila Salimpour's mother-in-law. In the meantime, whenever I saw anybody do anything that I liked, I'd stop them and plead, "teach me!"

In Tucson there was a young Syrian man who played the oud whose name was Nazir Elias, who taught me about the music. I'd go everywhere to learn more. For example, when I was sightseeing on Broadway, San Francisco, I saw a dancer performing in a nightclub. The dancer was Aida Al Addowi. I asked, "Can I learn something from you?" She said, "Oh, no," while wiggling the tip of her little finger, "I am this much of my teacher, Jamila! You must come to my teacher, Jamila."
So I started making treks back and forth from Tucson to study with Jamila.

Next I met the late Lebanese-American dancer, Ibrahim "Bobbie" Farrah. He had all these dancers in gossamer veils, shoes, and enough sequins to light up a stadium!

Each one of these teachers' disciples would pull me aside separately and say, "Our way to dance is the only way".

The teachers, themselves, never really said that to me. There were two big "camps" of style in this dance. "West Coast" was tattoos and turbans, while "East Coast" was high heels and sequins. What is currently called "American Tribal" seems to me to be just a pasteurized version of what Jamila Salimpour taught.

A short while later, I met this breath of fresh air--Bert Balladine! He was, and still is, another heavy-weight on the dance scene. I bought Bert a drink at a Las Vegas bar during Marliza Pons' show. I subsequently took a class with him in Phoenix.

I remember leaving Bert's class feeling like a beautiful woman.

I've come to appreciate his candid world view of this dance scene and his view of entertainment in general. Bert has become a lifelong friend.

I started teaching classes and dancing in Tucson, in a Moroccan club and restaurant called El Jebala. I worked there four nights per week for nine years.

The last eleven years, I've been dancing all over the world and most of the fifty states. For eight of those years I'd go twice per year to Europe--Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands, performing and teaching workshops. I also went to Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, Istanbul, and Mexico. In Istanbul, I taught mostly European students. Additionally, during 1985, I studied dance five weeks in Cairo, with Shoki and Faten Naim. They ran a folkloric company. Their family would permit her (Fatem) to perform Folkloric dancing but not Oriental. I went to a street wedding there of a famous drummer, Khamis Henkish invited by his brother. It was very interesting because, foolish me, I thought a musician would want to have a wonderful dancer at his wedding, and instead, the dancer just tugged at the dress that was too small for her while she danced. I wondered if she was a relative? Perhaps the least important part of the show is the dancer. Maybe she fills some traditional role, though.

Xanadu Dancers
I had a dance company called the Xanadu Dancers for a while. The name, Xanadu, comes form a poem written by Coleridge about a place called Xanadu where people danced and sang. Coleridge was a British poet. I guess I would say that I don't really enjoy having a dance company but I like composing choreography and working with a group of dancers. Having a dance company was a tremendous amount of work for little monetary return, and there are always personal conflicts. I like working with a group of dancers but not necessarily always the same dancers.

I've made three videos now. I can tell you that making the instructional video "Middle Eastern Dance, Introduction to Bellydance" was a horrible experience for me! It dragged on for two years, but I think the final product is good.

Second, we made "Dances from the Casbah." It was a group effort and it was also slightly experimental. Some of the pieces have non-traditional movements, and the construction of the choreography pertains to dance in general, not just Middle Eastern dance. This video really made my reputation as a choreographer. The group consisted of my students who also became friends. "Dances from the Casbah" was all choreography. It contained performances by the entire group and some of my solos.

"Kathryn Dances" is my third video. It is a compilation of whole pieces and excerpts of live performances in different states and countries.

I also made a documentary called "The Unholy Tarahumara" It is one hour long, and is about Indians in Mexico called the "Tarahumara". I lived with them off and on for the last five years. I started out being interested in their dance and music and then became interested in other aspects of their culture. I directed the documentary. It traveled the film festival circuit for a year in the U.S. and five other countries, winning awards. That was a major feat in my life, because I learned a lot about the world, and went through many changes which were both personal and professional.

Spending intense time in a third world culture changes you."

Kathryn sighed and said, "The main reason I don't like doing interviews is, I end up saying , 'I, I, I.' Its more interesting to say, 'Dance! Dance! Dance!' "

Kathryn comments on the dance scene: "I still like learning from a lot of people. This is what I'm finding: the current rage is first, 'Let's learn from an Egyptian dancer,' then it is 'let's learn from a Lebanese dancer.'

But over the years what I have found is that every single style comes and goes, repeating itself. I think the biggest change to dance is the availability of videos. Because of the existence of video, the Arabs watch us and we watch them. We all steal from each other.

For instance, one of the influences you can see now is the Latin influence in both Arabic and American-Arabic dance.

I hate rules! Every time somebody says "rule", I go the other way! My opinion about standardizing the dance and its terminology is, I think, standardization is 100% garbage!

I would say there is definitely form and technique to this dance style that must be learned but just who is going to determine which way is the only way? All these questions about style, seminars, standardizing, are the same old questions and discussions for twenty-five years, since the first day I got involved.

Likewise, in the discussion of 'artist vs. entertainer', one has to be both. There can't be one without the other. The reason I don't participate on the Middle Eastern Dance List on the Internet is because it's a lot of adamant, un-bending opinions. Nothing, least of all 'dance', is so black and white!

What are my plans for future? I want to get a
real job! (I've been saying that for thirty years.) Let me end the interview with a favorite story about when I was real young and first started dancing in a restaurant.

A woman came to my dressing room and said to me, "I'd like to make a surprise for my husband! His Shriner's name is 'Babu'. When you come near him while you are dancing, please say, 'Hello Babu'!" So, when I saw them sitting there, I danced to the table and said "Hello, Babu!" The woman first looked at him, and then she looked at me, and she screamed at him, "How does she know your name?" She slugged him, knocking him halfway off his chair, and then left the restaurant.

It just makes you wonder, "What does this have to do with dancing?"

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Check the "Letters to the Editor" for other possible viewpoints!

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