Gilded Serpent presents...

Karim Nagi

Karem plays for dancer at Mendocino MED camp

Interview with an Egyptian Dance Master

by Nicole
Photos by GS Staff, taken at the Mendocino Music & Dance Camp 2008
posted September 30, 2010

This last summer of 2010, I had the chance to meet up and have a casual dance lesson with the wonderful and talented musician and dancer, Karim Nagi, while he was in Cairo to teach and perform at Ahlan Wa Sahlan.  We ended up talking for a very long time about the dance industry and global community as well as in Egypt. Karim and I both have slightly unusual identities within Egyptian and American dance cultures, him being a native Egyptian gone global and me being an American (at the time) reaching the tail end of a life-changing year spent living and studying in Cairo.  We found ourselves with an overflow of things to chat about, and I wanted to share some shadow of our conversations in writing for Gilded Serpent through an interview because I was struck by Karim’s great insight into our community from his extensive travels, and his unique perspective as well as his eloquence.

What qualities do you think make for excellent Belly dancing? What do you look for when watching dancers?
I believe that musicality is the quintessential goal for any dancer. I want to see the dancers interpret music with their body, and with their affectation. I know that any person can master movements, and develop bodily dexterity, but musicality takes intelligence and the ability to emote. It’s the soul, inside the moving flesh. It is like buying a car: anyone can learn to drive, but not everyone knows how to go on an adventure.

What kind of music do you enjoy Belly Dance performed to, and why?
If by “Belly dance” we mean traditional Raqs Sharqi, then my favorite is when they dance to Arabic vocal music. I like to see a dancer become intoxicated with the lyrics, and the tarab (enchantment) of the song. If it is a fusion dancer, then I like the song to still have Arabic themes and melodies, even if it is a hybrid with a different style like House or Hip Hop. Whether Sharqi or fusion dance, the music I least like to hear is that which has no association nor combination with Arabic or Eastern music, such as when girls dance to Michael Jackson (his original songs, not remixes). I don’t see much point in Belly dancing to music that is utterly out-of-category. (There should at least be a tabla in the mix.)

What makes a dancer or musician a true “artist” in your opinion?
A dancer or a musician is a true artist when they have something to say. They need a message, or an emotive statement. For drumming, many people judge drummers based on speed, volume, hand tricks, and things related to “impressiveness”. This to me is like claiming that a Belly dancer who can flip in the air, is the “best” dancer; thus, the dancer who can flip the most, would be the most talented! However, I believe that acrobatics and artistry are different categories. We certainly must master our technique, but a performance cannot be the demonstration of said technique. It must be a message or story that the technique allows you to deliver.

When teaching Belly dancers as a musician and dancer, upon what do you try to focus with your students?
In my workshops, I focus on the alignment and symmetry between sound and movement. My biggest challenge is be vigilant about communication with the students. Although this symmetry feels obvious to me, I must remember that this is foreign to the student. Not everyone in the class has the exposure to music, or the settings of traditional dance. So I love to create comprehensible parallels between music and dance. This can be seen in the way I align body parts with the notes in the Maqam scale, in the way I have them spin the Assaya to the Mizmar melody, perhaps the way we get 8 sounds from the finger cymbals, or in the way they learn to signal the drummer with their body during a drum solo. I want to leave them with a system that de-mystifies the magic of sound/body expression.

You’ve traveled all over the world, and seen many forms of Belly dance, so how do find yourself reacting to what you’ve seen as an Egyptian and also as a global artist?
I think at this point, I have seen almost every approach and version of this art form possible, but as I become more experienced, I find that I am less judgmental, as long as the student is sincere about learning. When I have Tribal, Cabaret, Folkloric, and Fusion dancers in my classes all at the same time, then I know that they all see some primordial strand within the art form. So therefore I am pleased. I am more interested in the student’s intention to learn, than their current incarnation. As long as they respect my Arab culture, and the primordial strand that precedes the categories, then, I am pleased with their effort.

How was your experience and how did you feel coming to Egypt this summer and dancing at Ahlan Wa Sahlan?
My personal experience at Ahlan wa Sahlan is not replicable. I am Egyptian, so I hear all the opinions of the native Egyptian teachers, vendors and organizers. I know and understand what pleases them, but I am also western enough to have full familiarity with the non-Arab way of teaching and the non-Egyptians’ expectations. There is a very interesting dynamic that I observe: The non-Egyptians want to prove to the natives that they care about the tradition, and that they do things “the right way”. The Egyptians, despite basing the entire teaching effort on attracting students to the “primary source” material, are also hungry to see innovation, imagination, and unique approach to that tradition. As a result, I teach traditional “primary source material” in my class. However when I perform there, I do my Turbo Tabla innovative drum dance. Thus, I earn the respect from both the Egyptians and the foreign students. I feel that by being bi-cultural, I was able to decipher the duality in expectation, and arrive at this balance.

Around the world there are different ways of approaching what is being called Egyptian-style Belly dance, but how important do you consider Egyptian culture to be in the modern, global dance community? Is there real relationship, or is understanding Egyptian culture becoming an optional part of being a Belly dancer?
I think that Egyptian and Arabic culture as a whole entity should never be extracted from this dance. I do not believe in de-ethnicizing it, and I do not believe the culture is optional! Nobody ever allowed Latino culture to become an optional part of Salsa or Samba. Additionally, Indian culture is inextricable from Bharatnatyam and Bhangra. I believe that Raqs Sharqi, a.k.a. “Belly dance” is available to anyone from any culture. I am not xenophobic, nor an exclusivist. I am thrilled to see people all over the world enjoy and promote this art form. However, I will argue for the importance of the Arab connection until the day I die.

Do you see Egyptian culture evolving, being transformed, changed, and so on, through the context of Belly dance?
No. I feel that this is an ingrained part of the culture. We dance, and Raqs Sharqi and Raqs Beledi are endemic, primal, and default activities. I feel that the culture, and its expressions of dance and music, are utterly intertwined. I do believe that the international popularity of the dance may affect the Egyptian economy, as well as its cultural proliferation. I am quite happy when dancers come to Egypt, but also take time to go sightseeing and shopping, and not just take the dance and leave. I know many cases where the dance is like a “gateway drug” that inspires people to become infatuated with other things about us, such as language or religion. I also feel that when other countries invite or import teachers from Egypt to their communities, it is a great opportunity for that teacher to share many things beyond the art. I always try and include cultural information, spiritual perspectives, and the Arab style of humor and fun wherever I go. I hope they appreciate it.

What are you working on right now?
2010 has already been very productive. Amidst international and American touring, I still managed to release Turbo Tabla “Unregulated”, my finest TT CD to date! I also finished a DVD on Musicality (with Suhaila International) and a DVD on Arab Folk Dance (with Hollywood Music Center), both to be released later this year. Up next, I want to record a CD–all of drum solos and melodic Taqasim. I also hope to keep working on the Turbo Theater, a type of musical dance theater that I have been developing for about 15 years.

Just for fun, where have you traveled so far in 2010, and which destination was your
Whether it is the thrilling savory metropolis of Hong Kong with Klub Raks, or the quiet natural composted habitat Nova Scotia with Velvet Burnout, I have loved them all. I am always so grateful that a school or sponsor will bring me to their city (or village) and share me with their community. What a perfect job Allah has given me!

Karem and others play for dancer
Rachid-violin, Scott Marcus-nay, Miles-bass, Faisal-tamborine, Karim-dumbek

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  1. Grace "Lennie" Clark

    Oct 19, 2010 - 08:10:30

    I loved Nicole’s interview with Karim Nagi.  Great job, Nicole.  Don’t know if you remember me, I met you when I was Leyla Lanty’s guest in Cairo in 09.

  2. Barbara Grant

    Oct 28, 2010 - 05:10:19

    I agree with Karim’s statement that “Egyptian and Arabic culture as a whole entity should never be extracted from this dance.” I believe this cultural connection should always be our focus as teachers, however imperfect we may be.

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