Astryd de Michele
A Workshop in Modern Egyptian Style
held August 30 – San Francisco, CA
Workshop review by Rebecca Firestone
posted October 25, 2009
"Here we go again… this time I’m going to stay out on the floor the entire time if it kills me," I thought to myself.
I gritted my teeth and forced myself to rest the day before Astryd de Michele‘s annual Egyptian dance seminar at Dance Mission Theater. This workshop, sponsored by Amina Goodyear, a local dance teacher, is now in its sixth year, bringing the latest Egyptian moves from Cairo to our humble doorstep.
This workshop went from 12:30 pm until 5pm and had two parts: the first part was mostly technique, steps, and short combinations; and the second part was choreography featuring what was taught in the former. I actually preferred the technique portion because I am a bit impatient with workshop choreographies these days. They are usually five times longer than I can remember, leaving me feeling vaguely inadequate afterwards.
If I compare Astryd to a Barbie doll that will sound like a put-down, so I will just say that she is very pretty; huge doe-like eyes, girlish features, smooth toned figure, a soft and gentle voice and a friendly, calm demeanor.
There is something highly unsullied about her, despite having spent 11 years in a country that is not always kind to women, to foreign women, or to belly dancers. She was more focused on the class than on herself, and she didn’t assume that the rest of the class was inferior to her in skill or experience.
What Makes Astryd Worthwhile?
There are other American teachers with perhaps an equal grasp of Egyptian dance and equally nuanced technique, but the pressures of the American business climate forces them to spend a lot more time on self-promotion and merchandising just to create a name for themselves. Astryd lives in Egypt half the year and spends her time primarily researching, and showing small tour groups the inside of the Cairo dance scene.
She had some rather sad news about the state of the dance scene in Cairo. Many of the old venues have closed down and there’s not much performance work. So on one hand you have people like Raqia Hassan sponsoring dance festivals like Ahlan wa Sahlan. On the other hand, there are the sharia (Islamic law) police.
Of course, Bay Area dancers can elect to study with the native Egyptian teachers who come to town, if they can find a small and intimate class size. I have been to those giant classes with Mahmoud Reda et al, and they’re great. However, they are more expensive, more choreography-based, and less personalized. Sometimes the language barrier can be a problem. For those with lots of experience with Egyptian-style dance, maybe this seminar would have been too basic. I guess I don’t have enough experience yet!
Who Would Have Liked This Class?
Who should go to Astryd’s classes? If you like Jim Boz, or even Amir Thaleb– both of whom have exquisite but strong technique and nuanced musicality, you might like Astryd too. She is a student of Raqia Hassan, so if you’ve tried Raqia or any of the other Egyptian ladies (or Sahra Sa’eeda who is practically Egyptian), it is nice to see Raqia’s technique on a different body.
If you are into heavy Goth and Dark Fusion Bellydance, you might find Astryd too sweet, too "cabaret" and not extreme enough. There’s nothing dark about Astryd, although Egyptian urban sensibility can be very earthy and crass. In a way, it is a shame that there’s not more overlap among the bellydance communities, because I would like to see how Astryd’s technique would work on a really good Tribal Fusion dancer.
In comparing with other teachers I have worked with, or whose studios I have attended, here are a few of my notes on Astryd:
She is nuanced, surprising and indecisive like Mahmoud Reda; she has powerful hips like Soheir Zaki; she usesa few jazz movements but not many; and places less emphasis on fitness and conditioning during the class itself. Astryd’s background as a fitness instructor was helpful, though.
Comparison to Tribal Techinque
If you are used to Tribal formats, Astryd’s movement shapes seem less limited to a single horizontal or vertical plane, and the movements themselves were looser, less isolated, and with more obvious weight shifts. Egyptian chest pops can be more like chest heaves, like the sea, and there is a watery rather than a snake-like quality to the movements. There is a lot less conscious effort in the arms than in Tribal, but a lot of effort goes into making those arms exquisitely casual as in "What framing? What arms? Oh… THESE arms? … Why, they just happened to be here by pure coincidence!"
It is possible that Tribal puts more emphasis on shaping the arms because the dancers’ heads and arms are often the only thing you can see at a club. Astryd’s Egyptian choreography is best appreciated as whole-body movements.
Astryd’s technique is, in its own way, very elusive and as equally demanding as the Tribal Fusion serpentine arms, pops and locks, and luscious layering. There is less emphasis on absolute isolations and the choreography that she taught was more lyrical and much less regimented ,almost too much so. I would say American bellydance in general is more about staying on the beat and less about having a conversation than Egyptian bellydance (she did show one layering that absolutely NO ONE in the room could do).
Astryd studies with Raqia Hassan, one of the grande dames of contemporary Egyptian dance. If you have ever taken a class with Raqia, you will know how she drives her forward pelvic tilts by straightening the back knee and coming straight up from the floor. Most other teachers will tell you to “NEVER do that!" and all I can say is, it felt like getting kicked by a mule, but my back felt pretty good the next day. There is some precedent for getting power from the floor – most sports and martial arts applications teach "floor power" in one form or another.
The movements themselves, while seemingly similar to the same old figure 8’s you can find at every Bellydance 101 class worldwide, seemed more complex to me than your average "draw a figure 8 on the wall in front of you." For example, the "Cairo 8" is a combination of a vertical hip 8, a hip twist, and a horizontal hip 8. There’s probably some Latin-sounding geometry term for it.
Stance, Arms, and Posture
The "home" stance was also different from the shoulder-width, parallel stance that is emphasized in some other bellydance methods like Tribal Fusion and the Suhaila Salimpour technique. Astryd seems to favor the diagonal or side three-quarter bellydance stance, weighted back foot slightly turned out, ball of front foot touching floor in line with arch of back foot. This causes even ordinary movements to develop a slight asymmetry, and that makes them more interesting.
Arms and hands are another area of great challenge, especially for the aspiring Egyptian dancer. There are a lot of arguments about where arms should be, and every style has its distortions, including cabaret bellydance. All I remember from Astryd’s seminar last year was something I dubbed the "Astryd Foam Pinch" because it looked exactly like she was pinching a piece of foam in her hands. It was so artificial that it looked like a Barbie doll, but at the same time it was so beautifully placed that you would never notice the invisible foam unless you were looking for it.
She works a lot on demi-pointe, and the movements are more delicate when you are on the balls of your feet. The same movement flat-footed was very earthy, particularly those floor-driven pelvic tilts.
Translating Egyptian Songs
She is very familiar with Egyptian music and culture. Not so much perhaps as someone from there, and yet much better at explaining it to Americans by finding ways that we could relate to. She talked about the difficulties in translating songs meaningfully, and in fact I have never been that satisfied with the "translations" handed out in these workshops, because the awkward wording of the literal English translations. It sounds like someone ran it through a Korean version of Babelfish. There’s no gestalt, no overall sense of WHY someone would sing that song, or why I would want to dance to it.
To get an idea of the importance of gestalt, imagine a translation of the Rolling Stones’ classic rock ‘n’ roll anthem "I Can’t Get No Satisfaction" as "I Am Not Able To Achieve Fulfillment".
Suddenly the angst of a frustrated musician becomes a customer complaint at some government bureaucracy, and people wonder why those crazy Americans liked that song so much. Or try translating the Lynyrd Skynyrd song title "Tied To the Whipping Post" as "Securely Fastened To The Location of Punishment".
I wish the translations could preserve more of the rhythm and lyricism instead of taking each word literally and separately-"Night after sleepless night I pine for you/I’m burning with fever and I can’t get free" -we’ve all been there.
The Workshop Choreography
The part I did not like as much was the choreography itself. This year’s choreography was to an Amir Diab popular tune called "Kulu Illa Habibi", roughly translated meaning "Everything Except My Sweetheart" or maybe "My Life Is So Empty Without Him". I like a lot of Egyptian pop for its liveliness, but this song was a bit too monotonously disco-like, and it was fast. The choreography, however, was too busy, too clever, and too changeable to follow or remember easily. I would have preferred a choreography that used more repetitive movements that morphed gradually into other variants, and then punctuated by stops or accents. That conversational quality is actually – for me at any rate – a major characteristic of Egyptian improvisational bellydance.
And can we please ask all workshop instructors to show their feet? Maybe even knees?
It is so important to know how someone’s feet are placed and with bell bottoms on, not a chance. And show your belly button too, because that is such an important clue to pelvic movements. What I would like to see Astryd do next is teach for a week at Middle East Camp in Mendocino, and produce a few DVDs of her own. I think she has a lot to offer.
Click photo for larger view
Back rowsL-R: Christie, 2, Alnisa, Terry
Del Giorno, Betsey Flood,
6, Mary Anne, Zelina, Kim, 10, 11, 12, Lulu, Jhermanie
Standing Front row:Marrianne, Rebecca, 3, Maria, 5, Hana, Mera, Latifa, Astryd,
Yolanda, 11, Dannhae , Adriana, Farah, 15
Low front row: Heather, Shabnam, Zulya, Andrea
Ahava dances at the after party
Angela on violin, Hasain on oud, Amina on duf, and Feisal on dumbek
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