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Our Changing Dance World

Author dancing at Scheharezade Restaurant in South San Francisco

Response to Leila’s “Dance for Dancers

by Terry Del Giorno
posted April 7, 2011

I enjoyed this article and all the comments very much. It was eloquently put to this ongoing dilemma that many performers and instructors face, particularly those who were professional dancers before they started teaching or, as Leila put perfectly, “ Acquired their fundamentals outside of the dance community”.

 By professional, I don’t mean a regular competitor in the many available contests, a "regular Hafla" producer of events, or a restaurant dancer who regularly scours or solicits new  restaurants and hookah bars as a venue for her talents (all lofty accomplishments). I am speaking of dancers who perform for Arabs in Arab venues, for their celebrations and family events like weddings and engagements as opening acts for their singers, and who are a part of their community.

When I first started teaching I had spent years in night clubs that catered to Arab clientele and their events, working with Arab musicians (not Americans playing Arab music) that were well known for hosting top Arab singers and  where the belly dance show was an intrinsic part of the entertainment.

I had lofty aspirations to train dancers to perform in this kind of format: 30-40 minute shows, to learn the music, to learn the culture, etcetra.

However, what was happening in the "belly dance world"  around me was a different story from how it is now.  A big source of pleasure for me was to dig my teeth into a nice long choreography (7-9 minutes) and present that for class study. Now I know better, I better keep it short! I had to keep in mind where the dancers of today are going to use the choreography. Of course, we learn musicality and so forth,  but where dance classes in some places are an hour long, teaching long choreography is not sustainable to an instructor.

It better be short, upbeat and adaptable to the festival or hafla environment. If you are a working dancer, performing it at a cafe or nargeely bar works, too…NOT a majenci, taxim, cocktail, balady, drum solo, finale.

The shorter, action packed dances appeal to the masses of dancers coming to class, many of them with no interest at all in performing, but who have come to love the benefits of our  dance and the community it brings. This style also appeals to the general Western public.

Petra Restaurant
Author dancing at Petra, top and bottom photo are at the Scheherazde

So, we have a large amount of talented dancers who have no experience in  performing in this format or seeing this, except in travel. In the San Francisco Bay area, there are no more (real) places like this to work or be a patron of.

We (Westerners) have created this incredible commerce that could never support a “traditional dance show"(meaning solo show), live music, enough time to organically transport yourself, and to take the audience to a different place (taraab).

A commerce that wants to “elevate” the dance by bringing it to the proscenium stage distances the dancer from an integral part of the experience: the audience. I know, I know…I’ll take heat on this one! But I agree, it does take the “Arabness” out of it. I believe some of my best dance teachers were my audiences! Placing the dance in a theater makes it more palatable to a Westerner. Personally, give me a smoky nightclub any night of the week!

Our current community economic enviroment has created events and festivals as an opportunity for women to perform ALL kinds of belly dance and ALL of its hybrids with time slots that are minimal, 5-10 minutes. Compare this to how some Egyptian dancers wouldn’t have even entered the dance floor until 2-4 minutes into their music!

We have an industry that prides itself on other standards. For example, I just watched the first session of Project Belly Dance and found it to be a beautifully produced video! We (Westerners) have created a industry that even Arabs are mimicking (Ahlan wa Sahlan Festival, Nile Group, etc.).

They may not be presenting what they perform, but they are catering to us and I hope reaping some financial success for their hard work with these opportunities- just as our version of their dance has afforded many Western women & men lucrative rewards. 

MusiciansI think we are and have been in a “new era of dance” for awhile. 15-20 years ago, tribal and urban dance was a twinkle in someone’s eyes. 15-20 years ago, Dina made us Westerners raise an eyebrow with her Dala3. Certifications were unheard of. For that matter, so was getting a Masters in Dance Ethnology.


What do Arabs think of our dance? I wish you all could have been a fly on my shoulder at a Rakkasah Festival many years ago when a very famous Egyptian lady saw “our” dance for the first time! Let’s say “majnoon” was mentioned several times throughout the day. An Arab band leader of mine stated after witnessing an American belly dance show, “Only in America”!

Whether we dance for Arabs or for the general public, we are all a part of the same family tree. Some are first cousins, some are very distant cousins who have married outside of their tribe (and moved to a different country!). Others married into it. Some of those family members will be disowned, some gossiped about, some will die, some will flourish, and the core members (Arab Dance) will be the glue that holds the family together and keep the blood lines going.

I like that I am on good terms with all of my relatives!

Musicians in photo above left: Mohamed Ameen, def & tambourine, Nabeel Safi oud and
Singer, moi, Elias Khoury and Nizar Khwaja keyboard
Muiscians in above photo are Mohanned Elwir, Mohammed Ameen and Elias Khoury
… Plus the lilac colored costumes was one of Mish Mish‘s creations!

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  1. TerriAnne Gutierrez

    Apr 7, 2011 - 12:04:18

    Thank you for this great article Terry. I’m with you, give me a smoky night club full of Arabs and a live Arabic band, I love dancing 40 minute sets. Will we ever see it’s return?

  2. Leyla Lanty

    Apr 10, 2011 - 11:04:30

    Great article, Terry!  I’m with you too, give me a smoky Arab nightclub with an Arab band and audience any time!  I remember doing 30-40 minute sets with an Arab band for an Arab audience and having the time of my life.  The only way I can see that format returning is if the Arab restaurant/nightclub scene becomes active and strong again and who knows when or if that will happen?  After reading this article, the reader should then go to Najia’s article “Sound-Byte Bellydance” in which she describes how this “fast, short and furious” mentality developed in today’s aspiring dancers.

  3. Terry

    Apr 11, 2011 - 11:04:38

    Thanks for the comments ladies, TerriAnne….not sure if it will happen in our career, but I’ll settle for a nice place to watch a show like that, listen to great music, enjoy the food and hospitality in my retirement!! Leyla, i agree, it won’t happen until the establishments reemerge….don’t think that’s likely in this economy….the patrons who enjoy that setting aren’t going out anymore!! It’s the younger  Arab audiences who our out spending $ and their tastes are probably closer to a Westeners’…. Yes, Najia’s articles always served me in my teaching, and (even  now as I reread them) continue to stimulate good trains of thought….
    This article really wasn’t meant to marginalize…but putting my personal preferences aside, to show that “our commerce” has created a platform for everyone to dance, festival, student hafli etc, skinny, plump, blonde, tribal, new age….and that this commerce has also contributed to a platform for the Arabs to share, sell their dance, whether  they are presenting what they perform or not.  Either way….I like it!!!!

  4. Nonya Cox

    Apr 19, 2011 - 06:04:59

    Terry thanks so much for that great article. I am an older dancer started teaching back in the mid 70’s. Do we as westerners really
    understand the purity of the Cabaret, hmmm I doubt it. Yes, our
    roots are definitely from the smoke filled night clubs. Remember Badia? What a legend. Our predecessors sang and danced in night clubs back in the  40’s and 50’s. That’s how they became night club owners and famous dancers. As a teacher I try to impart the history of our dance.   God Bless to all, keep on dancing!    Nonya

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