Makes a Stop in Tennessee
by Sonja Oswalt
Article posted September 16, 2009
Workshop held in June 6 and 7, 2009
Yousry Sharif drew dancers to Knoxville from as far away as Chicago, Miami, Atlanta, North Carolina, and South Carolina to experience his unique combination of traditional Raqs Sharki and Jazz-influenced choreography when Oriental dance artist Alexia Smith hosted a workshop and theatrical show dedicated to the renowned instructor and choreographer.
A live television interview on a local news station began the weekend with the internationally recognized dancer, Virginia,who is Mr. Sharif’s long-time student and protégé. Virginia and Alexia shared their reasons for pursuing Middle Eastern dance as an art form that is a “very empowering dance for women,” and members of Alexia’s Alexandria Dancers ensemble performed live a choreography featuring sagat for television viewers. I was part of the performance as a member of the Alexandria Dancers, which was a new and bizarre experience for me.
Dancing for television is neither as easy nor as fun as dancing for a live audience, I discovered. The sterility of television cameras is startling; there is no give-and-take between an inanimate object and a performer! Surprisingly, the end result turned out to be satisfactory, and as a result, we received several calls and emails about Middle Eastern dance.
Yousry taught a 2-day workshop covering Saturday and Sunday. We weren’t quite certain what to expect, since we had been told that he could be quite harsh with his classes. (Some of us students may have a tendency to goof off a little in dance class.) He turned out to be a likable person, in addition to being an amusing teacher. You could have heard a pin drop when he first came into the class on Saturday. I think those of us who had never enrolled in his class before were either a little intimidated or fearful that we might be thrown out before the class even started—if we spoke up. He didn’t waste any time getting down to business; I think he had barely entered the room before he began our warm-up exercises. I thought this was refreshing, as I’ve spent a lot of time standing around in other workshops and classes while the students waste time chatting, which I find personally frustrating.
The room was packed, a condition that was both a blessing and a curse. Yousry teaches by jumping right into the first combination in the choreography he intends to teach.
He often composes choreographies on the spot, but this particular choreography was one he had taught before. That turned out to be a good thing! Since he had taught the choreography before, Virginia knew it already and was able to position herself midway between the front and back of the room—so that those in back could follow her to avoid “getting lost”.
Yousry’s teaching style is advanced, as is his choreography. Both days, I noticed that several people gave up, choosing to sit out or take notes rather than try to learn the steps. I wouldn’t recommend that beginners try his workshops as their first attempt at learning in a workshop! However, for intermediate and advanced students, his material is refreshing and challenging. His combinations are heavily influenced by jazz and ballet, and they cover a lot of floor space—something to which I am accustomed, and that I like.
Over 200 guests attended the Saturday night theatrical showing of “Egyptian Nights 2009: a Tribute to Yousry Sharif.” The opening scene was designed to mimic the inner sanctum of a Pharaoh. Servants fanned Pharaoh on his golden throne to the thrum of an ancient rhythm stroking the air. As the scene progressed, dancing girls paraded gifts to him amidst flickering candelabra and glittering wings. The smoldering scene ended as Pharaoh passed his golden staff to Alexia, in her role as an Egyptian goddess.
Additional scenes in the show included a breathtaking guest performance of folkloric Saidi and classical Oriental by American Academy of Middle Eastern Dance Hall of Fame inductee and off-Broadway producer and choreographer, Samara.
There was a stunning appearance in exquisite costumes by guest artist Virginia, and a playfully exciting, authentic Maleya Luff performed by guest artist Erika from Chicago. Guest dancers from Atlanta, Knoxville, and Chattanooga contributed performances in classical Oriental, Folkloric, and even Hungarian “Gypsy” dance. Alexia and her Alexandria Dancers rounded out the show with group performances of sagat, Saidi, and a redux of Adam Basma’s Debke choreography.
Yousry sat on the front row during the performance, and is rumored to have remarked “that is me dancing up there!” when Virginia made her appearance.
As a performer, I expected to be intimidated by Yousry’s presence in the audience. In reality, though, when I stepped out on stage and spotted him in the audience, he became “just another smiling face”. At the beginning of his workshop on Sunday, he complimented all of the performers on the quality of our show—a compliment that sincerely touched our hearts.
Yousry is Cairo-born and began his career in Egypt, but continued dazzling audiences after his move to New York in 1981. He has commanded a large following throughout his career in Oriental Dance, and has taught workshops and lessons throughout the world. Knoxville was his first visit to Tennessee, and was made possible through his long-standing relationship with Alexia Smith, who has studied with him since his introduction to the U.S. in the early 1980s. When asked to comment, Alexia remarked, “Yousry is an inspiration and a talented artist who keeps me grounded in the Egyptian style of dance!”
Click image for enlargement
Front row: Debbie Dill, Masha Kamishkova, Debbie Ashton, Mary Butcher, Sonja Oswalt, Rachel Wright, Rachel Smith, Unknown, Unknown
Second Row beginning with Virginia in blue (and dipping in front of Yousry): Virginia, Cindy, Holly Prince, Gina, Yousry, Alexis Smith, unknown, Anne, Kimberly Palatinus, Kristy Becker
Back Row left to right: Jennifer Vogel, unknown, Jessica Bachman, unknown, unknown, Laura Bradley, Dee Aslandis, unknown, Linda, unknwon, unknown, Nancy, Samara, Erika, Tiffany
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