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.
However, 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.
However, 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.
Ready for more?
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- 10-17-06 Judging in Germany, The Summer Festival and the International Raks Sharqi Contest 2006
photos by Klaus Rabien, Berlin, Germany. "It is also an easy out for judges who need to find a reason to drop a dancer’s score…especially if the competition is tough."
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Upon first hearing this CD, I liked, no, I loved, the way it sounded like a live show. Exciting! Nevertheless, I question why some tracks sounded like they were recorded in a sterile studio.
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- 9-7-10 Cult or Bellydance Class? Cartoon
"Pity those who do not study on our path, for they know not what they do not know!"