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Ask Yasmina #14

Tito talks

Pro Dancer vs Religion, Importance of Training, Khaleegy Music

by Yasmina Ramzy
posted October 1, 2010

Question #1: I am a Muslim girl. My family is from Egypt. I love to dance and have dreamed all my life of being a Bellydancer. My family will not allow me to become a professional Bellydancer. My desire is so strong and yet I am torn because my family and community will not accept me. I cannot decide. Please help me. What should I do?

Answer: I have received this sort of request a number of times over the years; some tearful, some over the phone by anonymous girls who knew me, but I did not know them; some by young girls whom I had witnessed grow up and knew well. I often told the girl to look into her heart because she was the only one who could answer this question. I told them to ask themselves honestly which was more important to them and their sense of well-being — Bellydance or their religion. If they chose one over the other, would there be no regrets?

Then, I would speak to them about being authentic. If Bellydance was chosen with conviction, love and integrity, then their relationship with God would remain real and honest and maybe one day they might win back the respect of her family.  It was still a huge risk, but at least, they could have comfort in living an authentic life.

On this particular day, I received the request from a young Arab caller whom I did not know personally. It was on my cell phone while Tito Seif was teaching his first workshop here in Toronto in 2006. I was talking to the girl while I waited for Tito to get ready to go to the airport. On the way to the airport I told Tito about the girl and her predicament and asked how he would have answered her. He swiftly and emphatically said "Tell her no; do not Bellydance!" I love Tito’s kind and honest heart even more than I love his phenomenal dancing, but at that moment, I was angry at him. I thought, “How hypocritical!”

Earlier that day, I had found him waiting for me in the lobby of the hotel reading the Koran. "Was it okay for him because he was a man?" I wondered. So I asked him "Why? Why was it okay for him and not okay for this girl?" He again quickly said an emphatic "no" without explanation. I gave him a concerned / bewildered / freaked-out stare of complete miscomprehension and he finally said: “because she asked.”

Then it hit me! If she needed to ask, her desire to be a Bellydancer was not great enough to overcome the obstacles and pain this choice would create in her life.

Her view of the dance was not as a pure art which was in harmony with God or religious belief. This advice coming from the first man to break the male Bellydancer taboo in Egypt (even at the risk of his life) was true wisdom. It spoke reams of the struggles he must have gone through and how much infinite and unconditional love he has for the art of Bellydance and his idol, Samia Gamal.

Snake Question

Question #2: I live and teach Bellydance in a remote area of Canada and am frustrated with my progress as a dancer. I want to learn more but do not have teachers near me who can help. I have already spent too much money on instructional DVDs. I took your Pro Course last year and many workshops in other cities but this is costing too much money. How important is training and how can I get it where I live?

Yasmina and AidaAnswer: I personally had very little in the way of formal training but this was not by my choice. Thirty years ago, my opportunities were extremely limited compared to today’s Bellydance student. However, I searched and dug deep for the little tidbits I could get my hands on. Seven days a week for 15 years, I was either in an Arab night club asking questions and studying dancers, or I was performing and receiving constant critical feedback after every performance. I cornered every Arab female (whether pro-dancer or not) and begged her to show me steps — usually without English explanation. Whenever I was in front of a TV in my home, hotel room or an Arab family home, I was watching a video of Sohair Zaki or Nagua Fouad. Instructional videos did not exist then and if they did, I was not aware of them. My Bellydance career was nourished by the Arab community, and they were not aware of a Bellydance community outside of Egypt.

I could have learned much faster had I had a formal teacher. I often tell my students today that it took me 10 years to learn what I can teach them in less than one year.

It is only a very small handful of people who may actually make more money performing or teaching their art form than they invest in it. Most artists love their art so much that they work and make their income by any means possible that can afford them the finances and time to study more. Almost all professional dancers, musicians and actors need to supplement their income with the wonderful job of waiter or waitress that allows them schedule flexibility.

If you are at a certain level where the teachers in your area cannot help you improve, then you have no choice but to travel to study intensively with a master teacher at least once or twice a year or move to another city. Many Bellydancers all over the world move to the nearest large city centre that has a master teacher or two. Sometimes they return to their home town after a year or two to teach to that community and some stay permanently in the large city.

A weekend workshop that caters to all levels of students may offer new inspiration, but at a certain point, you need critical feedback–one-on-one.

Because I could not find a Bellydance teacher in my home city who could further my skill, I got a Debke choreographer who was visiting from Lebanon to critique me. He cleaned up my arm technique (or lack of). An Egyptian drummer showed me how to twirl the Assaya. Aida Nour taught me to shimmy, among other things, in a Toronto hotel room (in 1982 while on a tour sponsored by the Egyptian Ministry of Tourism). Sometimes, when I am unable to travel to the Middle East regularly, I take other forms of dance class. Still, I always ask for critique after every performance from those whose opinions I value.

A professional dance artist in all forms of dance takes regular class, often everyday. Every musician takes class for his or her instrument every day or at minimum once or twice a week. It is part of being a professional artist.

Even the highly paid movie stars have an acting coach. Art is a glorious journey that never ends and thus the training never ends…ever. If you think you have finished training, you are finished as an artist.

Note: Some well-known teachers offer instruction by video, DVD or skype.

Snake Question

KhaldounQuestion #3: Can you please tell me the origins of this Khaleegy song, Rawih Wi Rooh? Which country; Kuwait, Dubai, Bahrain etc.?

Answer: While I know the singer Asalah is Syrian (and yes, the song is Khaleegy and the concert is definitely in the Gulf), I cannot say which country is the song’s origin so I have asked my dear friend and former dance artist of Arabesque Dance Company & Orchestra, Khaldoun and his wife Nada. Khaldoun was born and raised in a small village in the middle of Saudi Arabia. We met when he was studying biology in Toronto a number of years ago. You can see Khaldoun dancing Egyptian Hagallah, Port Said and Tahtiib on the Asala DVDs. The following is his answer:

“The performance was a concert in Dubai. The audience is mostly UAE citizens but I could spot a few Saudies and Bahreenys. Asalah Nasri is the singer’s name. She is Syrian, born in Damascus and sings Khaleegy often. The song was written by a UAE sheikh, Hamdan Al Maktoom, and came out in a 2004 album named “Awgat”. It was written in a UAE dialect. It is very popular in weddings and family unions of the tribes of Najd, and Eastern Province.  Also, I would imagine that it would be popular in such occasions in UAE, Bahreen, Qatar and Kuwait as well. The song has a bitter meaning as it explains the lover’s determination to forget his/her previous love. So, the song is not a happy one; at least, it is not happy like the beautiful Mashkelni song in Asala.”

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  1. Lucie

    Oct 15, 2010 - 11:10:26

    What an insightful answer from Tito.  Thank you for sharing that conversation in your concise and suspenseful way.

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