Gilded Serpent presents...

A True Arabic Experience


November 2010 Arab Dance Seminar in New York City

Workshop Review by Aubre
Photos by Ameera David
posted April 29, 2011

I came into Bellydance without any knowledge of Arabic culture. I was unfamiliar with the music and, in fact, the sound of the mizmars blaring through the speakers in our little dance studio made me not only want to cover my ears but reminded me of dying cats, howling in misery! Maybe it was my youth in the teen years that didn’t allow me to see the beauty in that agony, or maybe my ears were just not open enough to understand the complexity of Arabic music. Either way, I had no idea what a journey I had begun and how vast the experience would be.

Thirteen years later, I found myself in a dance studio in the middle of Manhattan. I had heard about the Arab Dance Seminar a few years prior when I met Karim Nagi. I was impressed with his ability to articulate about culture, music, and dance, and the deep understanding of both American and Arabic culture that allows him to communicate in such a profound way. After hearing him give a lecture on Arabic music, structure and composition, I knew I had to attend the seminar at some point. There was so much information I couldn’t get anywhere else in simply an hour of lecture with this man.

I couldn’t imagine a whole weekend with a faculty of similar artists and academics and what epiphanies would result.

The Arab Dance Seminar was created by Karim Nagi in 2005 and has become an annual event. It fits with his mission to help educate people about the depth and beauty of Arabic culture beyond its exposure in the news. His seminar emphasizes the cultural roots and context of this dance form; it is a form that is experiencing a disconnect as more dancers are entering the community through fusion and often not developing an understanding of its historical origins. Each seminar is themed to focus on a variety of elements within the culture, dance, and music of the Arab world. I was fortunate that this year’s seminar was focused on lyrics and poetry of Arab music and how they relate to and influence dance: The Language of Movement, the Movement of Language. Having recently started learning Arabic, this theme included a variety of elements upon which I was already focusing.

The first day of the seminar laid the foundational ideas for the weekend, including some background and personal viewpoints from our teachers. Nourhan represented Egypt, specifically Raqs Sharqi and Raqs Assaya/Saidi. Amel Tafsout was our North African teacher, focusing mainly on Algeria. Kay Hardy Campbell became our resource for the Gulf, including Khaligi & Bedouin dance. Dr. Taouriq Ben Amor was an Arabic language specialist as well as poet and musician. Karim Nagi represented the Eastern Arab world with Debke while also maintaining the overall flow and organization of the weekend.

Extremely knowledgeable and dedicated to their topics, each teacher brought a level of enthusiasm and passion that was contagious. As dancers from all over the world came together, we sat quietly during this first evening taking all this information in and the level of excitement only grew as the lecture turned to the poetics of Arabic and the aural tradition in which songs and stories have been passed on for centuries, “…populating an empty desert with words,” as Dr. Taouriq Ben Amor so eloquently put it. Having this background was essential for the theme of our seminar and stressed the importance of language within Arab culture.

If someone wasn’t moved by the beauty of Arabic before, they were definitely taking a second look after this lecture. Kaeshi Chai, a friend and fellow dancer sitting next to me, stated several times how she never realized how beautiful Arabic was. Having fallen in love with it years prior, it tickled me to hear this as I thought:

“Ah, yes. Some consider French the most romantic language, but they obviously haven’t heard the poetics of Arabic yet.”

We moved onto the topic of music, breaking down each rhythm and song we would dance to over the weekend. Thankfully, we were given a thorough packet with all the lyrics in transliterated Arabic as well as their English translations. The last hour, as torturous as it may have been for some, was an invaluable lesson of internalizing the music with which we would work . We sang every song in Arabic with pronunciation help from Taouriq and tonal and rhythm help from Karim as he played his bizuq and sang along with us. Anyone who has asked a group of dancers to sing will know how uncomfortable most are with doing so, and more so when attempting this in a foreign language! We all did it, and I have to say that I  have developed a deeper appreciation and understanding of these songs that I wouldn’t have had otherwise. After five hours of lecture, we were all ready for a full night of sleep although there was a buzz in the room, hinting that our excitement might not allow it.

Saturday was the biggest and longest day of the seminar: 8 hours of dance classes, a teacher panel lecture, and the live music and dance performance. It proved to be an epic day. We started promptly at 10 am, warming up with Karim since Nourhan was running late. This was a great foreshadow, as Karim painstakingly kept us on schedule throughout the weekend–a job that was not always easy, but one I appreciated. Because of his diligence, we got through all the material  planned. Thankfully, he included time each day to check in with the teachers and students, filling in information missed during classes, and for asking questions. This recap time was essential for the rigorous schedule and large amount of material covered.

Nourhan is a force to be reckoned with, and when she arrived it was in her full diva style. However, she backs all of her personal opinions with reasons and her attitude with solid dance technique and finesse. She commands respect, and I love her for it.

She caused the classmates to sweat in no time with stretches, shimmies, and drills across the floor, then  guided us through a significant amount of choreography to “Qari’ at al-finjan” (The Fortune Teller) by Abdel Halim Hafez. In accordance with the theme, she used a variety of gestures to go along with the lyrics as well as some of her signature combinations and styling; as the weekend unfolded, I found this was a common interpretation. Mostly we worked with literal usage (gesture, etc.) as it is the easiest way to articulate these ideas. It’s almost unfortunate that the seminar’s theme changes each time because I think a revisit to this topic would prove quite interesting. There is more to be investigated with this idea, but starting the dialog is inspiring and immensely valuable.

CaneNext was our debke class with Karim, who taught us an entire choreography including some pretty intricate footwork to “’Al-‘ah Al-Dar”. It was aerobic, to say the least, as we stomped and jumped our way through the song.

The way Karim used the lyrics reminded me of the similar manner in which lyrics are used in hip-hop. They’re not just gestural or emotive, but they are the dance.

We learned each combination to the lyrics in a way that flowed with ease. Let’s dance from “Wa al-Faris Qabil Faris”, and each of us lifted his or her left leg, moving in unison. I’m not sure if it’s just my love of debke or Karim’s charismatic nature, but this class flew by and before I knew it, lunchtime had arrived. Sitting and eating started me wondering how we would all get through the rest of the day at this lively a pace. Thankfully, the afternoon classes were calmer and less rigorous.        

Amel is a native Algerian and dancer trained by doing, and this is how she teaches. Her class on North African dance was organic and fun. She put some music on (which to our delight turned into Karim drumming live for us as well) and started to move, explaining the low-weighted stance, the wider feet, the sense of ease, and just getting us into the groove of the music. She isn’t one to break things down, although, (for the careful observer) she doesn’t need to break things down as she speaks volumes in her dancing. Half the time, you find yourself just in awe of Amel and her teaching, watching as she moves with ease and tremendous joy.

This seminar was my first time studying with her, and truly, I cannot wait to take another one of her workshops. First of all, there are so few resources for North African dance. Years ago, I became obsessed with Shikhat, and in my research, I came across numerous moments of frustration with the lack of reliable sources.

The North African region has a wealth of dance and music of which few have true knowledge; Amel is one of these rare ar


After we perfected a few moves, Amel turned our attention to “Ya al-Rayah” –one of the two songs on which she had chosen to work. Most of us have heard this song because it was popularized by pop star Rachid Taha, but Amel explained how the song evolved from the immigrant story to the light pop song. This gave a colorful history rich in cultural nuance and set us up for a group improvisation where, in groups of 4-5, we created a small combination to assigned lines of the song. Yet , mainly, our ideas became literal within translation, but I have a much deeper understanding of this song now than I ever had before; I also gained the emotional context for this immigrant story. Later this same day, Amel demonstrated her interpretation as she performed to this  song for the evening concert.

The constant revisiting of topics throughout the weekend was extremely helpful and fostered deeper connections to the cultural ideas. (Listening to this song will never be quite the same for me.)

 Since our last class for the day was with Kay, covering Gulf, Khaligi, and Bedouin dances, we switched gears. Kay is what is known as a “teacher’s teacher”; she’s extremely organized and articulate (even providing choreography notes). She is also a quintessential anthropologist: she is observant, non-judgmental, and astutely aware of context.

I valued her reminders throughout the weekend that culture is constantly evolving; so the quest to find “authenticity” becomes about when, where and within what specific context.

Talking to a group of non-Arabs (mostly), I think this is invaluable as our quest for learning and cultural sensitivity often creates hard lines and definitions that distort the meaning of the dance. We learned two songs with Kay, one a Khaligi piece with full group staging and thobe costuming to “Ya Rakib al-Cadillac” and the other–a bridal celebration song, “Hannu al-`’Arusa Hannuha” –to demonstrate how the dance differs in a social context. She also covered a typical Bedouin setting where women might dance. This worked perfectly for a group improvisation, reviewing the moves we had learned. It was a lot of material, but Kay kept things clear and concise. With our minds and bodies fried from such a full day, she had just the kind of personality to keep us going as well as make sure we finished on time to get to the evening concert in a timely fashion.  

The concert was magical! It was  a treat to have a full Arab band (Sami Shumays, Rachid Halihal, Taourfiq Ben Amor, and Karim Nagi) play an array of Arabic classics, folk songs, and dance favorites. Selected artists performed with the band, including myself, and performing “Salamat Ya Om Hassan” with such an incredibly talented band and for such a warm and appreciative audience was an absolute delight. Amel graced us with a beautiful suite of songs.

Nourhan danced a fabulous Shaabi piece as well as a beautiful Raqs Sharqi set. Kay invited all of the dancers up to join her and the band in the bride-song we had learned earlier that day. I think the highlight of the evening was listening to live Saidi music while Karim tossed and spun his assaya. It’s such a rarity to hear live Saidi music, and the earthiness of this style was alive that night. The band continued to play after the show as everyone danced, chairs pushed aside to make more room. Taking the train home, I was exhausted but felt so inspired by the beauty of the evening.

Sunday was a great review of the material covered the prior day as well as working into further details. Reiteration is a valuable learning tool–especially with such complex concepts. We also got a chance to learn some Raqs Assaya with Nourhan, who taught an adorable choreography. During lunchtime, Taourfiq and Karim played an intimate concert for us. This weekend of live music was endlessly inspiring. Our final class together was on the trance-dances of the Arab world (zar, zikr and hadara). This was incredibly profound!

I had participated in trance-dances before but not with the expert lead of someone such as Amel. She became our mother-figure and created a safe environment to release truly into the experience.

Taourfiq and Karim provided the music, ebbing and flowing with the group as we moved further into our trance experience. For those who have not experienced this before, it can be a difficult thing to explain, but as I lay crumpled into a weeping ball upon the floor, I felt truly grateful to have been a part of this whole weekend as an artist, student, teacher, and woman. Ending with such an emotional exercise was profound and difficult. We hugged each other with our watery eyes and felt a sense of community built over just a weekend.

As I sat on the airplane on my way back to Los Angeles, I found myself exhausted but more inspired than I have been in years. I sat, reviewing my notes, listening to music with new ears, and marked my calendar for the next seminar. Rich with information and experience, I can recommend nothing more for those interested in dance from the Arab world.

Class photo
Class photo linked to enlargement

back row: 1, 2, 3, 4-Aubre (author), 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27
front: 1, 2, 3, 4- Kaeshi, 5-Karim, 6-Kay, 7-Amel, 8-Nourhan, 9- Tempest, 10, 11
please contact editor if you can help with names- Thanks!

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