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Behind the IBCC

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A Talk with the Founder, Yasmina Ramzy

by Laura
posted January 2010
Interview conducted in June 2008

The 3rd International Bellydance Conference of Canada is coming up again this April 21-25, 2010. The interest in the conference has gone from modest to enormous as dancers from all over the world submit auditions and requests to teach. This dance is so personal to all of us and we all see it through our own filters. I find there are rumors and speculation about how the conference is run.   There are also questions from the local Canadian belly dance scene. Who should be teaching, who do we want to see perform, who is worthy to be orchestrating all of this?  As an Arabesque Dance Company member I wanted to help answer these questions and clear the air. I interviewed Yasmina Ramzy at Arabesque Academy after the second conference in 2008 to get her side of the story.

Laura Selenzi: What inspired you to create the IBCC?
Yasmina Ramzy:  I attended the 2nd International Conference on Middle Eastern Dance in Orange County, California in 2001 and I loved the experience. I loved the heated debates, the issues finally being brought out into the open. I felt Canada needed something like this. Also Ali Hamidzedah (of Turquiose International) had been pushing me to do it for years, but every year there was no time. One year I decided that yes, I’ll do it not really thinking I would actually follow through. But the ball started rolling and before I knew it, it was happening!

I wanted it to be more scholarly, no competitions and not a festival. I felt it was important that all viewpoints were shared. I received so much negativity before the event happened particularly from Canadians, I almost wanted to back out.

As the scholars and artists started to arrive on Wednesday, an incredible rumble of excitement began to infect me. By Thursday morning when I peaked my head into one of the lectures on body image and eating disorders, I saw a room full of people with tears streaming down their faces. It was then I knew – this is how important this conference was. I realized the impact this would have on Canadian bellydance, and in fact Bellydance in general. All these amazing people coming together, and it was happening in CANADA!

L: What have your favorite moments been so far?
Y: Oh, there’s so many! Sahra Saeeda. She had a big influence on my career. And I hadn’t really met her until the conference. Just the fact that she existed meant a lot to me at a time when I was going to give up Bellydancing. I was taught primarly by Egyptians and Syrians in the Middle East and was feeling like I never really fit in in North America until I saw a video clip of Sahra. She was the first North American I had ever seen who danced like an Egyptian. After that, I did not feel so alone. Of course, I have discovered many others since then but she was the first.

Those moments upstairs in the seminar room were a major highlight. Every time I checked in, there was either boisterous laughter, a fired up impassioned debate with people talking over each other, powerful tear filled emotional release and silent moments when you knew everyone was having an epiphany.

I thought, wow, stuff is really happening here: the debates, meeting Barbara Sellers-Young and Lynette Harris, the incredible line-up of of virtuoso talent in the Gala performances…actually, even more, I loved the inspiring mix of creativity on the Main Stage, acts like Nath Keo and Ferda Bayazit. There were some amazing surprises! It was so wonderful that the two great highlights everyone requested back the following year were both Canadian. That cemented it for me, we have so much talent in Canada and it just needs to be recognized. Oh and the mix of people eating together in the lunchroom was beautiful. People of all styles from all over the world coming together in small discussion groups. And of course Randa Kamel and Amir Thaleb dancing together at the closing party, and Tito and Aida the next year…I loved it all!

L: How did you decide who to invite, as far as presenters and performers?
Y: Well the Main Stage performers were chosen by a panel of jurors who went over all the applications. I choose the teachers, with input and requests from students, Arabesque Dance Company members and many other people. I listened for names I heard repeatedly. Valizan is our tribal connection, and I try to have a nice balance of styles. Finding great combinations is a factor, like Tito and Aida. I want to have people who inspire me, who have really done something exceptional for the art form or are pioneers in some way.  I look for exceptional performers, researchers, innovators, and teachers.

ADC with TitoL: What disappointed you about the conference, if anything?
Y: Everything during the conference was so beautiful. The disappointment was the time period leading up to the conference the first year, where people would call and say nasty things and write mean letters, which is why I was so discouraged.  Mostly people were upset about whom they thought I hadn’t invited, but everyone they asked for, I had! I can’t help it if the artist didn’t accept what I could offer. They didn’t understand what I was trying to do. Often much of the Bellydance community has little knowledge of common proceeding in a regular conference and what happens in the main stream dance world. There were a lot of assumptions and complaints.

L: Was there any diva behavior?
Y: Really none. Although I will say that Randa did pull a couple of tantrums, she really didn’t like me at first. Then she saw Arabesque Dance Company perform Inte Omri and she came to me with tears in her eyes, really crying and not believing this little blonde had created such a thing. She said she had to take the DVD back to Egypt because it proves Bellydance is art. Since that moment, we were best buddies. The fact that it was art that gained her respect and not that I was her employer made me love her more and let me know she was the right choice to headline the first conference.

There were maybe one or two people who were quite pushy with self promotion, trying to squeeze every drop out of us and taking advantage of the situation.

Some just don’t realize that the conference is for everybody, it can’t just be about one person. But mostly, no diva behavior.

L: So how did the business side work out? Money seems to be a big issue here, how did you deal with that?
Y: In the first year, we offered very little. We didn’t know how it would work out. Many of the teachers basically volunteered, they were very sweet.

But once we broke even I ended up paying them double. Any extra money I had, I gave to them.

So in the second year, we offered much closer to what they were worth. Jennifer and I are both artists, and we can’t stand to undercut another artist. I’m not a businessperson; I’m an artist first. However each artist we invited is a different story. 

L: What about people who say there should be more Canadian content?
Y: I would ideally like it to be all Canadian content, we have so many great artists in Canada but very few with the pull that we need -myself included- to attract this many people from all over the world, and make it an international conference. So the big international stars bring the people in, and the Canadian stars get great exposure.

I approached every major name in Canada, six teachers. For the most part the reaction seemed defensive.

Some wanted more money, some had stipulations if there were other teachers teaching. They didn’t seem to get the idea of the conference in the first place. I tried! Since the conference has taken place twice now, many teachers around the world have asked me to bring them, and in exchange they will bring me to teach in their city. I’m flattered that they’d ask me, but I would never do that. I invite artists based on their talent and knowledge, not because they invited me to their event. This apparently made some people angry as well.

L: How did you decide on your and Arabesque’s appropriate level of involvement?
Y: Well I didn’t have any intention of teaching the first year. I taught because so many people came because they knew me. It was expected. Plus the live music and folklore workshop wasn’t being offered by anyone else. All the teachers perform in that Gala so I did too. Arabesque did a longer show because we consider the musicians a separate act unto themselves. Plus we’re putting on the whole thing, giving up everything and so many of our students, friends and visiting dancers came because they want to see us!

L: Why did you decide not to do a conference in 2009?
Y; Well the first conference was sort of a fluke, we fell into it. Such a buzz was happening though, we thought we should ride the wave and do a second year. We’re still recouping from that! We realized that we need more time to do it well. Also I would love for it to be in a different city every year, that would be great for Canada. Financially we’re not ready yet, but that is the goal. Plus I needed to get back to Arabesque Dance Company, we hadn’t put on a show in two years. Maybe we need to alternate years between ADCO productions and the conference.

L: What do you hope to improve upon, or change?
Y: I was thrilled about everything, I love the combination of huge big names, and not so big names, the very eclectic mix of styles and points of view and how they feed off each other. The food could be better. The location could be better, we’re looking into other locations but maybe part of the magic was the warm, close atmosphere of the Hungarian Center.  It would be nice if it was closer to some hotels. We kept trying for Harbourfront, but they’ve been booked up. Every year we’ve been just breaking even so we can’t take any big chances.

L: But aren’t you paying yourself fairly well, like the other artists?
Y: No. Everyone at Arabesque does it out of love, I can’t even pay Jennifer what she is worth. But I’m working on that, the business aspect. (laughs)

L: What about people who say they hate to choose between all that’s going on? Can that be resolved somehow?
Y: Then we have a choice: half the activities, or it goes on for 10 days and no one can afford it. And then you have all this down time. In any mainstream conference you always have to choose between a variety of activities. Anyone who has been to other conferences wouldn’t say that. But I know, I wish I could do it all too. Not everybody is like that, some people ONLY want the tribal workshops, or the discussions, or Egyptian teachers, etc. We tried to only overlap things that were in very different themes.

L: Who would you like to invite in the future?
Y: So many people, Mahmoud Reda, Nagwa Fouad, Fifi Abdou, Souhair Zaki, Dina, Yousry Sharif, Jillina, Farida Fahmy, Ferda again, Hadia, Sahra again, Morocco, Miles Copeland on a panel discussion, I’d love to have Denise Enan but she’s always so busy. In the end, I listen to what the conference attendees ask for. We always give them a questionnaire. I love this group called Desert Sin…I would love to have a theatre style show, 3 big companies: Desert Sin, Bellydance Superstars, and Arabesque. A full scale production where people could see three very different approaches to bellydance and the potential on so many different levels. Also, we choose people because they’re sweet, positive and generous.

We don’t want negativity or competition at the conference. It is a place to share and explore.

L: Any advice you can offer after the experience?
Y: Business advice, I can’t offer! I would say this though…and this goes for the company, for choreography, for teaching, for being a soloist, for everything. Listen to your heart and don’t copy anyone. I did what I felt the Canadian community needed and it was a wonderful experience. People attacked me, tried to tell me how to do things, and made a million suggestions, but I just went with my gut and it was spectacular. That’s what I learned.

Every time I follow my heart, it’s successful. Every time I try to please other people, it’s a disaster.

 

Amir teaches at IBCC

 

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   |       |    5 Comments

  1. No Gravatar
    Beth Syrnyk

    Jan 27, 2010 - 10:01:41

    Thank you Yasmina for hosting the conference!  Both years were amazing and I am looking forward to the next one!  What I cherish the most  was the atmosphere of sharing and friendship.  The presenters, instructors and performers were so willling to share their knowledge and wisdom with everyone.  I met a lot of great people and learned so much.  Thank you!

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