Gilded Serpent presents...

To Berlin and Back

Author with Zadiel

Bridging Cultures Through Belly Dance

by Jasmine June
posted September 16, 2010

The decision to move to Berlin with my fiance came after much hesitation. I had just broken new ground with the belly dance scene in San Francisco and was reluctant to leave it behind. I had produced my first show- a "rock and roll" belly dance performance at Benders Bar, with bands, lots of dancers, and a sold out crowd. Also, auditions for Jill Parker’s new company, Miel, were coming up and she had asked me to audition.

One of the things that tipped the scales for me was an invitation to join Zadiel Sasmaz‘s company, Zadiraks. While a completely different style than what I had been trained in, the challenge of learning something new and growing as an artist was enticing. Plus, I admired Zadiel’s passionate performances and was excited to study with him.

While born and raised in Berlin, Zadiel came from a Turkish heritage. In addition to being trained in a variety of belly dance styles, including Egyptian, Turkish, and Tribal Fusion, Zadiel also studied Turkish Roma and Turkish Folklore. Zadiel is innovative in that he combines all of his dance training to create dynamic choreography that holds his audience spellbound. Not to mention that he defies boundaries by being a male Turkish belly dancer and that any adversion he has faced has only made him stronger and more determined to succeed. Zadiel, originally named Mehmet Sasmaz, is a charismatic and captivating solo performer. He is also the director of two companies: Velvet Snake and Zadiraks Dancers.

Joining Zadiraks was a life saver. Living in Berlin was a lot more challenging than I had expected. For one, the belly dance scene was much more competitive than the tight-knit tribal community I came from in San Francisco. Not many dancers wanted to help out a foreigner, even though I had a recommendation from Jill Parker.

The only tribal teacher in Berlin was Sharon Kihara, but she would be away on tour for the entire duration of my stay. Talk about poor timing!
There was the cultural factor, too. Berlin is full of dichotomies; old and new, German and English, East and West. It was a lot to wrap my mind around. I often felt like an outsider, with my lack of German language skills and unfamiliarity with the city. Even the way in which the city viewed belly dance was foreign to me. In San Francisco, the tribal scene had made belly dance avante garde and non-traditional.

In Berlin, belly dance was a business and didn’t often veer too far from its Middle Eastern origins. The stigma of being seen as a "slut" or "stripper" was also prevalent, as many of the clubs in which to perform were owned and frequented by clientele who came from countries in which a woman was considered naked if even her arms were showing.

Whale DanceHowever, Zadiel showed me that these difficulties could be overcome. He himself had been an outcast in many situations. Being male, gay, and a belly dancer isn’t something that is welcomed warmly in the Turkish culture. Zadiel was fortunate in that his parents were always very supportive, but it was also his drive and determination to perfect his craft and embrace who he was that made him successful. He challenged the "pretty, voluptuous woman" sterotype of the belly dancer, and proved that belly dance was so much more than costumes and looking sexy. His rigorous training and instruction resulted in perfect technique. When Zadiel performs, the skill involved with belly dancing becomes apparent.

In this way, he demonstrated that belly dance isn’t something that is defined by culture. Rather, it is an art form that can be perfected by anyone who puts their mind to it, and it’s an art form that can be used to bridge cultures rather than divide them.

This isn’t to say that being in the company wasn’t challenging for me. For example, in tribal fusion, there is a lot of emphasis on bending your knees when you shimmy, but in Zadiraks, I had to stand a bit straighter and adjust the style of my shimmies. Then there was the language barrier. You can imagine my alarm one day when Zadiel told me I needed to buy a whale. "A whale? Are you sure?" I asked.

"Oh, yes," Zadiel said. "A white whale. We will be dancing with whales soon."

That was when I realized that he meant to say veil. "Zadiel! You mean a veil!"

"Yes," Zadiel replied. "That’s what I said. A whale."

Zadiel never did get the pronunciation right, and to this day he says "whale’ when he means "veil", and I just can’t help but picture a belly dancer waving a whale above her head!


Just when I was really starting to adapt to the Turkish cabaret style, and get a hang of Berlin, it was time to go back to San Francisco. As sad as I was to leave Berlin, I had missed my friends and fellow dancers in San Francisco and was looking forward to going home. Also, parting was not so filled with sorrow, because I knew I would be seeing Zadiel again within a few months. Zadiel Sasmaz was coming to California for his first tour in the United States- and I was planning it.

Now it was Zadiel’s turn to be submersed in a different style, as most of my connections were with tribal fusion and not the oriental style he was used to.

Our first show was in San Diego, at the Patagonia Restaurant. The Shimmy Sisters– a tribal fusion belly dance duo- hosted the show for us with their band, Danyavaad. Myself, Julie Foat from LA, and Dilek from San Diego, also performed. The night showcased our different styles, including a flamboyant drum solo from Zadiel that earned him a standing ovation. The crowd was also dazzled by belly dance and hula hoop fusion, and tribal fusion fire swords. Zadiel was surprised that so many different things were crammed into one show, but I told him it was normal for California.

Unfortunately, it was in San Diego that I learned my first major lesson in booking shows- have a contract!

We were scheduled to perform at Cafe India the next night, but they cancelled on us with very little notice. They also cancelled the workshop Zadiel had been booked to teach there. If I felt dissapointed, I couldn’t imagine how Zadiel must have felt after traveling from the other side of the world.Zadiel

AminaHowever, our host for the weekend- the Turkish dancer, Dilek- ensured that we still had a good time in San Diego. Not only did she open up her home to us, but she also took us on a tour of San Diego, made us a delicious Turkish breakfast, and hosted a workshop for Zadiel at her studio, free of charge.

I think both she and Zadiel were delighted to share their Turkish heritage with each other, and they definitely forged a close friendship.

Having Zadiel at my home in San Francisco was exciting, but I had so much work cut out for me. I had to work a full-time day job, produce a show, organize the workshops, and host my guest! But it was more than worth the effort. We performed at a "Balkan Fusion Party" at the venue, Triple Crown. We had belly dancers from several different backgrounds, including the lovely Rose Harden, Alodiah Lunar, and the funky, flirty antics of My Red Heart and Leopard Print Tank Top. Even the Egyptian belly dancer, Amina Goodyear, made a rare performance appearance. "Zoyres" was our band for the evening, fusing balkan music with experimental jazz. After the show, Zadiel confessed to me that he had never truly enjoyed tribal fusion belly dance, but that my show had changed his mind completely. His newfound appreciation of tribal fusion even spurned a small obsession with "tribal" and balkan music; for the next few days he sifted through the music on my computer and began choreographing what he called a "Turkish Gypsy Belly dance".

Amina Goodyear also hosted workshops for us, in her charming studio below her house in Noe Valley. Amina’s studio is somewhat magical, with it’s colorful scarves and various sizes of drums lining the walls. While tiny, the space somehow comfortably holds at least ten dancers; which makes for an intimate class.

Amina herself is like a fairy godmother; her kindness and insight is both heartwarming and inspirational.

We had a blast doing Zadiel’s drum solo and Turkish Roma workshops at her studio. In such a tight space, you have no choice but to be friendly and courteous to your fellow dancers. Plus, Zadiel’s workshops are always entertaining, due to Zadiel’s flamboyance, skillfull instruction, musicality, and humor. After all, this is a gay male belly dancer we are talking about- a little pizazz is to be expected!

Also, learning from a man is a little different than learning from a woman; the moves look slightly different on a masculine body (especially anything involving the chest), which automatically forces the student to adapt the technique to her own body and style.

I was sad to see Zadiel go, but I am sure our paths will cross again in the future. The tour provided both of us with new friendships, skills, and experiences that can only be gained by daring to take a risk. After he returned home to Berlin, one of the organizers from the Long Beach festival, "Cairo Caravan", emailed Zadiel offering him a teaching position at next year’s event. So, who knows? Maybe we’ll be seeing more of Zadiel in California in the not too distant future. He is certainly visible internationally already, and I’ve got a feeling that his dancing career is only going to get bigger.

Zadiel’s Website

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  1. Safran

    Sep 17, 2010 - 01:09:57

    Lovely article! And the idea of dancing with white whales made me chuckle!

  2. Zadiraks Dancers

    Sep 20, 2010 - 02:09:29

    Thank you Jasmine. Great Article.

  3. Larry Greenwald

    Sep 22, 2010 - 12:09:57

    Minor correction. For the show that was in San Diego, the name of the place is NOT Patagonia, it’s Portugalia. I know, I was there.

  4. Jalilah

    Sep 29, 2010 - 05:09:16

    Several statements in Jasmine June’s article “To Berlin and Back” were offensive to me. None of them had to do with, Zadiel, the dancer the article is about. I do not know him, but am sure that he is a wonderful dancer!
    The first statement “ In San Francisco, the tribal scene had made belly dance avante garde and non-traditional.” is more annoying than offensive. I often hear that tribal dancers consider themselves to be more creative and artistic than the more traditional dancers, but in my experience this is not true. Many of the western dancers I know who have made the  authentic or traditional style dance their passion have lead very unconventional, artistic lives that are way out of the mainstream. 
    What really offended me was Jasmine June’s statement ”In Berlin, belly dance was a business and didn’t often veer too far from its Middle Eastern origins. The stigma of being seen as a “slut” or “stripper” was also prevalent, as many of the clubs in which to perform were owned and frequented by clientele who came from countries in which a woman was considered naked if even her arms were showing.”
      Berlin was my home from 1981 to 1995. Going there initially to study, I discovered Middle Eastern dance around 1983 and have been in love with it ever since. I earned my living by performing in these Turkish, Arab and Persian restaurants that Jasmine describes so condescendingly, as well as weddings and other celebrations. While I have no illusions about the status of professional dancers in the Middle East, (see my article Oriental dance: Myth and Reality, my experiences were invaluable. I would not trade them for anything in this world! It was performing in these venues that I learned about the music; how to differentiate between all the different types of music and know what goes with what, as well as learning all the classic songs that  every dancer should know. Of course dancing several times a week with live music is a lesson in itself that cannot be taught in any dance class! I am convinced that I would not have had the knowledge to later on perform in Egypt and Morocco, as well as be able to record music in Egypt and Lebanon had I not  spent years performing  in all these ethnic venues first. In addition, I was for the most part treated very well by the people of these countries and have overwhelmingly positive memories of  working with them.
    I wish some of these tribal dancers who consider themselves so “avante garde” would finally realize what they are missing when they write off the richness the traditional dance world.
    Oh and by the way, the late master instructor Bert Balladine was already giving workshops in Berlin in the early 80s  made the “whale” jokes back then. 
    Jalilah (producer of the “Jalilah’s Raks Sharki” CD series)

  5. Jasmine

    Sep 29, 2010 - 09:09:00

    First of all, my experience in Berlin happened 15 years after yours, so you should definitely keep the time gap in mind. Berlin is very different now, and so is the belly dance scene there.
    The belly dance scene in Berlin today IS competitive. I know dancers who were kicked out of companies because they took a class from another teacher. I know many teachers who are not on speaking terms because they view each other as competition. I know dancers who have had to quit dancing jobs because the middle eastern clientele was spreading rumors that they were sluts and whores. I had never experienced any of that in San Francisco’s tribal community, and was completely thrown off because of it. Sorry if that offends you- it’s not my opinion I was stating, but the actual reality many dancers in Berlin have faced.
    Yet I talk about how there are dancers, teachers, and companies in Berlin that make the belly dance experience amazing and memorable. Did you read that part of the article? I, too, loved my time in Berlin and will be going back!
    Second, please do not put words into my mouth. I did not say that tribal dancers are more creative or artistic- I said they were non-traditional. That’s a fact. I don’t see how saying that is offensive, but it sounds like you already had a chip on your shoulder based on your own experiences, so it didn’t take much to offend you. I am sorry that you have had negative experiences with tribal belly dancers- the ones I am close to have studied both tribal and traditional forms of belly dance and are very humble and accepting women.
    And as for the whale thing, it wasn’t a joke- Zadiel couldn’t pronounce the word ‘veil’. I just wanted to illustrate the language barrier. Kind of petty to pick that apart.
    You missed the point of the article- it was about how belly dance bridges cultures, not divides them.

  6. Jasmine

    Sep 29, 2010 - 09:09:46

    @ Larry
    Sorry about the mistake with the restaurant name. Glad you were at the show!

  7. Amina Goodyear

    Sep 30, 2010 - 06:09:30

    As much as I love and admire all that Jalilah does and has done, I respectfully would like to defend the two sentences that Jasmine wrote as being correct.

    Regarding sentence # 1
    “In San Francisco, the tribal scene had made belly dance avante garde and non-traditional.”
    I live, eat, breathe, dance and teach in San Francisco and agree that here in San Francisco the tribal scene is indeed considered avante garde and non-traditional.
    I like to consider myself a defender of traditional Middle Eastern dance, however the tribal dancers here have made a big impression on our dance community. Some I truly like, and some I question, but nevertheless it is here and will be here and it is considered avante garde and non-traditional.
    Regarding sentence #2
    “In Berlin, belly dance was a business and didn’t often veer too far from its Middle Eastern origins. The stigma of being seen as a “slut” or “stripper” was also prevalent, as many of the clubs in which to perform were owned and frequented by clientele who came from countries in which a woman was considered naked if even her arms were showing.”
    I’ve never been to Berlin, but I have been to other cities here and abroad and when the clientele consists of Middle Easterners, yes there seems to be that stigma. We may think we are good, moral,  upstanding citizens, but quite often our “friends” don’t really think so. Would they want to bring us home to their family, or heaven forbid, marry us? Yes, there are exceptions, but, believe me, even in very liberal open-minded city like San Francisco many of our so-called westernized Middle Eastern friends secretly feel this way. I know, they’ve told me. Plus, there seems to be a new surge of seriously and  increasingly religious conservatism. If it has hit San Francisco, I surely believe it is prevalent in countries closer to the Middle East with more new immigrants than San Francisco sees.

  8. Linda Grondahl

    Sep 30, 2010 - 09:09:15

    My first belly dance teacher in 1972 was Lucina Tison from Austria and she too had us to whale work and taught us not to be wulgar!!!

  9. Amina Goodyear

    Sep 30, 2010 - 11:09:10

    The Turkish musician I worked with would announce my act as
    Amina and The Seven Whales

  10. Vane

    Sep 2, 2012 - 12:09:50

    God forbid bellydancing should remain close to its Middle Eastern origins! This sort of point of view, this attitude of non-respect for other cultures, is exactly what keeps me away from learning Tribal/fusion styles – the arrogance is appalling.

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