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Megacity Megafest

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1001 Brazilian Flavors at Mercado Persa 2009 and Beyond

by Paola Blanton
posted July 2, 2010

When I first laid eyes on Sao Paulo, it was from the window seat at about 6:30 AM, in February of 1996.. The sun was stretching its tendrils over hills, valleys, and rivers, unfolding a blanket of light in order to reveal…..

A sea of skyscrapers as far as the eye could see – on either side of the plane… I dropped my plastic fork, chin, and soon…..all preconceived notions about Brazil.

Southern giant – gigantic in scope, space, depth, and heart, with a kaleidoscopic hearbeat, percussive and rhythmic. Its people, its land, its culture and history were to reach so profoundly into my being that I would, as years passed, become a permanent resident and eventually make my home in the Atlantic Rainforest of Sao Paulo state.

So, it was with these butterflies in my belly that I bounced home last December after almost two years teaching and performing on the road. Sao Paulo, population 20,000,000+, is the iconic “megalopolis” of the futurists when they predicted the “rise of the third world”. And Brazil is making huge strides – in government, economy, and broadening international appeal. My adopted country – I was going back to set up housekeeping after gypsying around the globe for an eternity, and I was more than ready for a dose of my sprawling, energetic, chaotic, mesmerizing home.

Shalimar MattarWe took a vacation on the beach for Christmas and New Year’s Eve, then I returned to the megalopolis to begin Samba School in preparation for Carnaval. (But THAT is most assuredly its OWN story….) Soon after Carnaval I dove headlong back into the Middle Eastern Dance world of Brazil.

My sponsors in Sao Paulo had both reminded me of Mercado Persa when we planned out my workshop weekends. It is by far the biggest festival in Brazil, or South America for that matter, being a lynchpin for the yearly activities and goals of so many dance schools around the region, kind of like a grand Carnaval of Oriental Dance. And even though my workshops went well in the orbit of Mercado Persa, I was still a little nervous when I emailed Shalimar Mattar, its celebrated organizer, about the possibility of an interview.

Only because I could imagine how stressful it could be to manage a festival of over 6,000 attendees. Having managed festivals (nowhere NEAR that size) before, I wondered if she’d have the time or energy for an interview a month before the megacity megafest. But I really had no cause for wonder, because the gracious Shalimar greeted me with typical Brazilian warmth in her beautiful studio complex, where we drank cafezinhos and chatted for several hours about the history and development of Oriental Dance in Brazil.

A History of Oriental Dance in Brazil

History, whether we want to admit it or not, is subjective, because it takes people to tell the story, and people have their points of view. But as Shalimar told her story, I began to realize that the development of Oriental Dance in Brazil followed a similar pattern to the development of many industries and institutions in Brazil – through the various waves of immigration to the Southern Giant.

So, just like the Portuguese were associated with the sugar boom, the Italians the coffee boom, the Germans the ranching boom, and the Japanese the citrus boom, the wave of Lebanese immigration brought Lebanese music and culture to Brazil in the 40’s and 50’s. The Syrians joined the Lebanese immigration to Brazil, and soon the first shimmy broke upon the Land of the Amazon, a growing rumble that would eventually produce a megaboom through the alignment of historical moment with the efforts of people like Shalimar.

She pins it back to a Lebanese dancer named Leika Pinho, who began dancing in Sao Paulo in 1954 with live Lebanese musicians. Although she was trained in ballet, like many Middle Eastern people, she bellydanced from cultural memory. And like many immigrants, probably performed as a way of nostalgic homage to her homeland. Leika’s time came and went, but the wave of immigration only picked up momentum.

SamiraThen in the 70’s, an Arab restaurant named “Virmata” open in Sao Paulo and began to feature Lebanese and Syrian musicians. The music inspired Brazilian dancers, who began to watch Samia Gamal, Naima Akef, and Taheya Carioca in the classic black and white films of Egypt. They would then perform their interpretations of what they had seen in the films at the restaurant, mixed with what they learned among Lebanese/Syrian musicians and people in the community, with a dash of Brazilian musicality. One of these dancers was Samira, Shalimar’s mother and the founder of the Mercado Persa festival.

Samira breezed in right in the middle of our conversation, overflowing with expansive energy – affectionate, light-hearted, flitting about from topic to topic. Fully decked out in uber-gypsy style on a Tuesday afternoon, she gave the impression of a bohemian heart, wizened in her years but still glowing with a light that comes through those lucky enough to have danced their way straight into their golden years. And she joined in telling the story.

Completely autodidactic at the time, Samira loved the Egyptian classical films, drawing deep inspiration from them to not only dance, but to learn more about Egypt’s history and culture. In time, she would start a troupe of about 8-10 dancers which she trained on a mixture of the films, the music, and her own growing love of Oriental dance. And thusly was planted one of the original seeds of MED – through Samira, one of Brazil’s original teachers.

Her first formal Middle Eastern Dance class ever was with Tamalyn Dallal, 15 years later, when Tamalyn came to Brazil. From the seed thus fertilized then took root a small community of MED dancers in Sao Paulo. Samira organized classes, shows, events, and finally, Mercado Persa – now in its 15th year. I attended a Mercado Persa circa 2001 with my teacher Semiramis, and was impressed by its size and variety – I would have estimated about 600 people at the time – performers, vendors, and public, a mere gesture to the sprawling institution it is today.

From this fertile, firm root system, a stem called Shalimar began to reach upwards, fortified by an increasing inflow of skills and knowledge from foreign teachers, especially Americans. Both Shalimar and Samira affectionately acknowledge the superb pedagogic and choreographic skills of U.S. MED teachers and the contributions they have made to the growth of the art form in Brazil. Shalimar was inspired to organize course curriculums for MED dance through her outside studies, and her school now boasts several levels of professional certification, along with a unique techniques course in sword dance.

Shalimar’s ongoing efforts to professionalize MED in Brazil and her partnerships with other great Sao Paula teachers such as Michelle Nahid, Lulu Sabongi, and Hayat el Helwa began to spread the force of the festival during the years I lived outside Brazil (2003-2008) and when I returned, I saw that Mercado Persa had not only grown, it has towered and flowered and released its tendrils deep into the whole of Brazilian culture, bringing in dancers from all corners of the country and continent. I could not help but remember the festival I had attended “back in the day”.

But even back in the day, I could see it coming. I started taking classes with Semiramis around ’98, who became my favorite teacher, mentor and lifelong friend. We lived and breathed the dance together, exchanging music, going to the Khan El Khalili teahouse to watch Soraya Zaied and LuLu Sabongi, going to Mercado Persa, performing for weddings and bar mitzvahs, and just generally enjoying the dance in Sao Paulo. It was already a big MED community; we just didn’t know that a bomb was about to explode.

O Clone

”O Clone” came on the air around 2001 and the impact rocked the Brazilian MED world. The soap opera told the story of a girl named “Jade” (pronounced “Zha-Jee” here..) who moves back to Morocco after the death of her mother to experience all the hyperbolic triteness of the soap opera storyline….but the deal with Jade was….that she bellydanced. When I brought this up to Shalimar, she laughed. “Oh, yes….! A FEVER spread through Brazil”, she affirmed. “Overnight, everyone caught bellydance fever.”

Overnight, classes sprung up everywhere – gyms, yoga studios, old and new studios everywhere began to hang signs about “Danca do Ventre” – A Danca Milenar….(the ancient dance) and the buzzwords started to buzz through the media like a swarm of cicadas…..”Essencia Feminina” “Poder Feminino”, “Encanto”, and the frenzy continued to heat up.

TarkanShalimar was swept away by the ramifications of such an explosion of interest in the Dance as caused by “O Clone”. Things that happen overnight sometimes bring lots of other “overnight” things with them. Like people wanting to be bellydancers overnight, and people jumping into the dance because it was the megafad, and because its sensuality could easily be tapped by an already highly sensual public. Dollar stores began to sell coin belts, the local hits stations began to play Tarkan, and even a scantily-clad kitsch tabloid celebrity named “A Feiticeira” (The Genie) began to gyrate on the network evening variety shows.

No one does “over-the-top” quite like Brazil, and the pot had definitely boiled over thanks to “O Clone”.

The smoke began to clear when the soap went off the air a year or so later. Shalimar says that attendance dropped as the fad leveled out, but this was a good thing because the dancers who remained stayed for the art. I asked her what she feels draws Brazilians to MED, and she holds no doubt that the innate musicality of Brazilian culture, rooted in the African spirit of Samba, makes the crossover easy and natural. Certainly, the strongest drum solos I’ve ever seen have been performed by Brazilian dancers.

They have percussion in their blood, in their cells and racial memory. There is no denying it, Brazilian girls move the Earth with their shimmies.

The Future of Middle Eastern Dance in Brazil

I asked her what characteristics she would most like to see Brazilian dancers develop. “Expression. Interpretation. Feeling. Brazilian dancers are still a bit too fond of technique and choreography”, she said, “I would like to see them reach farther into their expressive selves, I’d like to see them dance more to live music, use more gesture and feeling in their approach.” Well, I have to say that the technique is still great – she invited me to judge a few of the competition events at Mercado Persa last month and I could see the strong shimmies and ultra-sharp hipwork executed by sculpted, lithe beauties onstage.

But my personal opinion is that expression and interpretation are the New Frontier of MED not only in Brazil, but the world over. Everywhere I travel, I seem to have the same conversations with dancers. How do we improve the artistic element of our dance? How do we unlock the secrets of expression and draw out a nobler, more artistic rendering of Oriental? What is the difference between “Art” and “Entertainment”?

EsmeraldaI had the chance to converse with the Brazilian MED star Esmeralda about this at Mercado Persa. Recently returned from dancing eight years in Dhubai, this sprightly redhead was a co-judge at the Professional Semifinals, and we struck up a conversation which we continued over coffee after the event.

Esmeralda is part of a growing wave of Brazilian dancers with prolonged performance stints in the Middle East – like Soraya Zaied and Hayat el Helwa. She told of how dancing and living in the Middle East transformed her attitudes toward the dance.

“Dancing with a live orchestra is a must for any dancer wishing to experience this art form to its fullest,” she says, “There is a much larger energy to a performance with live music, but there is also much more responsibility on ALL the performers. The dancer and musicians must be fully attuned to each other in order to engage the audience.”

A great live show comes from an artful dialogue between the dancer and the musicians. Planning goes into it, but it must allow for spontaneity and for seizing the moment, whether it be a touch of comedy during the beledi section or a touch of melancholy during the taxim, and every shade of the spectrum a possibility.

Esmeralda would like to see Brazilian dancers become more energized by the rich texture that the music and dance of the Middle East provide, and she encourages Brazilian dancers to nudge more against their comfort zones and begin to experiment with expression. We agreed that there is a time and place for every manifestation of our dance form but that it’s also time for a more conscientious application of related art forms to the art of MED. Not only contemporary dance techniques, but the theater arts have a lot to offer Oriental dance via avenues that help dancers access and develop personally authentic expressive responses to the music. Expression can be trained; we just have to put in place the practical scaffolding for it via gesture, breathing, and the internal dialogue with the music, the inner story we tell through ourselves to our audiences.

So we’re both excited for what the future holds for Oriental Dance in Brazil. Dancers are already discovering the value of cross-pollination between the Dance and other Performing Arts. There is lots of room to introduce new topics and approaches to an audience which is such a great representative slice of the Brazilian public – curious, friendly, and eager to learn.

The Festival

We continued to watch the events of Mercado Persa unfold in the gigantic Sirio-Libanese Expo center. There were childrens’ events, seniors’ events, and even a perfprmance event for special-needs kids. There were several levels of performance venues – the smaller more intimate theater downstairs and the mezzanine showroom upstairs which sat thousands of spectators. Those who could not find a seat crammed every aisle and available space.

Workshops were scheduled every hour and a half. I took workshops in Nubian dance with Tarik and Khaleegee with Warda Maravilha (Warda the Marvelous). I had no time for more workshops as I was judging the competitions, performing and chatting with participants from all walks of life who had gathered in the megalopolis for the megafest.

Shalimar and Samira presided over the festival with calm grace and a generous sense of humor. Their team was marvelous – well-prepared to handle their tasks but generously flexible with all the thousands of little disasters that go along with any big event that brings in many people. Everything about Mercado Persa was huge – the setting, the attendance, the performances, the shopping…. and the big personalities, expansive spirits, and generous hearts that banded together to make it a rocking success. Mercado Persa’s motto is “Voce nunca viu nada igual” – “You’ve never seen anything like it”.

And they’re right. A MegaCity MegaFest – set in the Big Apple of South America, and I invite you all to come here and see it for yourself. From the minute you look out your window seat, to the long minutes you will spend in traffic, to the hours you will breathe the beach/jungle air, you will fall in love. You will fall in love with the immense rhythms that animate this marvelous country, and your dancing soul will plug into a fertile source, rich in history, mystery, and marvel. Brazil is a very fertile ground for the seeds of Oriental dance and the lushness of its current flowering is a testimony to the expansiveness of this country built on immigration, rhythm, and tropical heat. I guarantee you’ve NEVER seen anything like it!

Photos from Mercado Persa 2009 by Paola and others

Mahmoud Reda‘s "Hagalla"  Choreography

Bell Bottoms

Jazz and /Oriental Fusion

Big Troupe

A lively, well-choreographed troupe work

Blue Troupe

Beautiful, classical lines and gestures.  This troupe captivated me as a Duncan Dancer because of all their gorgeous, picturesque, lifted lines.

Cat Suits

Jade el Jabel‘s modern fusion..strong, skilled dancers in a dynamic choreography

The men made a big splash this year, rocking Debke with spirited style that raised a ruckus from the capacity crowd!

Dabke and Paola


Dudes and Gals Troupe

A lively and festive co-ed Debke.  These dancers brought the house down!


Shop till you drop!  This is only one angle of the market scene, which featured every imaginable prop, music, accessories, and costuming with Brazilian sensibility in the construction: well-wired, highly decorated bedlas with unusual flare alongside the Cairoesque staples.  The handpainted silk veils and unusual silk butterfly wings were a big hit this year.

Fan Troupe
Techno-Saiidi-Feather Fan-Polynesian Fusion.  Nuff said.

Fashion Show

Atelie Tony and Robby Fashion Show.  Unbelievably gorgeous designs by the Tony and Robby design team in a well-crafted, glitzy show. 
It was a highlight that paid homage to all the star dancers.

Green Troupe

Green troupe

The Al-Karak Dance Troupe from Manaus, Amazonia.
Their costuming reminded me of Conan the Barbarian movies.


13- "Gypsy" was a big theme, or maybe just the label coupled with big skirts.

Houka Guy

Nope, he’s Brazilian of Syrian descent! Did he have you fooled for a second?


(same photo as top of page) Belly Dance Jungle from Manaus, the capital of Amazonas


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