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Drawing Together: Discussions, Discoveries, Diversity

IBCC: International Bellydance Conference of Canada 2012

Main stage at the Lithuanian Hall

by Yasmela (Shelley Muzzy)
posted June 18, 2012

Yasmina
Yasmina looking a little stressed!

I seldom attend MENA (Middle Eastern North America Dance) events anymore. I no longer teach, but however hard I try, I can’t escape my fascination with “the dance scene”. Perhaps 40-plus years in the Middle Eastern dance community has something to do with it. When Lynette Harris, editor of The Gilded Serpent, called to ask me if I would go with her to the IBCC (International Bellydance Conference of Canada) in Toronto, May 2-6, 2012, uncharacteristically, I accepted. After all, my dance card wasn’t full–or even printed up! The Fourth International Bellydance Conference of Canada piqued my interest. I admit, the opportunity to see Khairiyya Mazen, last of the famous Mazen sisters who, through the mighty lure of Aisha Ali’s videos in the mid-1970s, inspired me to delve deeply into the roots of our dance. The prospect of meeting her and seeing her dance was thrilling and seemed like a once in a lifetime opportunity to cap my career.

After accepting the challenge, I looked at the outline of the conference. Wow! This conference, modeled on the first two International Conferences on Middle Eastern Dance held in 1997 and 2001 in Orange County, was a packed five day event. 2012 marked the fourth conference in Canada sponsored by Yasmina Ramzy. According to Yasmina, it would be the last. Extended conferences like these, with both lectures and dance workshops are expensive and tremendously time and energy-consuming to organize. It is unlikely that the organizer even recoups their money, let along makes a profit. Renting a hall, arranging for top name teachers and scholars to travel, lodge and be remunerated, hiring live musicians, plus all the incidental expense like printing, snacks and water, is an herculean task. For taking this project on alone, Yasmina is to be lauded. Like an amazing three ring circus of events, it looked impossible for one person to attend all of the classes and lectures scheduled. Additionally, there were the concerts: full-out shows four nights in a row! How could I resist?

Conference Start:

Arriving in Toronto, I met up with Lynette at the airport. After circling the airport several times, we got underway and found our hotel, with just enough time to make the Wednesday evening Opening Night Gala Performance. As we rushed into the Lithuanian Hall, Yasmina was on stage announcing the disappointing news that Khairiyya Mazen and Tito Seif would not be attending the conference. Their visas had not been approved by the Egyptian government, despite all efforts to make sure everything was in order.

Yasmina was in tears, embarrassed and sad; yet, she still held out hopes they would be allowed to travel before the end of the conference on Sunday night. In spite of this disappointment, the audience rallied and showed Yasmina its support with a rousing round of applause.

Wednesday:

Wednesday evening’s show commenced with a charming folkloric number by Banat El Sharq, followed by several excellent performances including an Isis winged duet by two gold painted dancers. The first half of the show concluded with a tribute to Mahmoud Reda, a recreation of Semai Bayati el Eran by the Ranya Renee Dance Company. Dr. George Sawa opened the second set while one of Yasmina’s student groups, Arabesque Allspice, concluded the show.

Dr George Sawa
George Sawa
Gold Duet
Cabaret Serpentine
DahabRoula
Dahab and Roula Said
Habeeba Hobeika
Habeeba Hobeika Egyptian Dance Co.

Thursday:

Up early the next morning, we headed back to the Lithuanian Hall for a full day of workshops and lectures. Since I no longer dance, I concentrated on the academic aspects of the conference and attended the lectures, occasionally looking in on a class or two. I was particularly impressed by Alia Thabit, Midnight at the Crossroads: Has Bellydance Lost Its Soul? Her presentation was moving as well as solidly documented and addressed some of the issues which interest me such as the lack of emotional connection between modern dancers and the music, and the changes in direction the dance is embracing. There was a panel discussion on competitions, pros and cons. The eminent scholar, Andrea Deagon, did a fascinating presentation on the history of Oriental dance in France and the path to Raqs Sharqi. Shira’s presentation, “Before Tahia”, was complimentary to Andrea’s. George Sawa spoke on “The Power of Women Artists: Evidence from Medieval Arabic Sources.” The day concluded with a film by Paola Blanton, “Raq’n the Roots with Malesh Roma”, Balkan music and dance of the Maleshevo region of Eastern Macedonia. Simultaneous with the lectures, workshops in dance took place in other parts of the hall.

After a dinner break, we attended and videoed Thursday night’s performance. For me, the highlight was DaVid of Scandinavia. I had heard of him but had never seen him dance. I thought he was an excellent performer, charming, precise with great presence. It was another night of quality performances, an easy mix of styles and excellent staging by the ensemble groups.


Iana Komarnytska of the Ukraine(?) dancing with 3 or 4 sets of wings
Leila Gamal
Leila Gamal
PaolaSiham
Paola Blanton and Siham Chowdhury
Tatiana
Tatiana Kaptchinskaia of Russia does Tribal.
MiryamDavid
Miryam Nunez of Peru and DaVid of Scandinavia
Isabelle
Dr Isabelle Ganon

Friday:

By Friday we were old hands, grabbing our extra large coffees with a scone “to-go” in the morning, rushing back to the conference. Friday’s lecture offerings included Isabelle Gagnon on body language in the dance, a panel discussion on foreign influences, "Anatomy for the Belly dancer" and Tamalyn Dallal, who presented her film, “Zanzibar Dance, Trance and Devotion.”

Panel on Foreign influences
Panel on global Influences from and to our dance.
Inset photo is the audience with Mahmoud Reda in the front row. Also visible are Kathleen Fraser, Saqra, and Jasmin Zine.
Panelist are Andrea Deagon, Sahra Kent, Willow Chang, Iana Kamanytska, Tamalyn, Shira and Ranya

The Friday evening performances offered more of the high quality entertainment we had come to expect. Bahaia, Valizan, Amara, the sweet and charming delicacy of Willow Chang, a dramatic performance by Alia Thabit, a steampunk-pirate tableau complete with a cleverly staged ship. There was a Bollywood group piece, a Raqs Sharqi duet, and the show closed with more fabulous group choreography.

Pirates Steampunk
Airship Pirate Project

Saturday:

Saturday began with a fascinating lecture by Kathleen Fraser on “Scheherazade: At Large, Then, Now and Forever”. The panel discussion on the commercialization and sexualization of the dance was quite lively. Andrea Deagon presented the second half of her lecture on Oriental dance, this time tracing its roots in North America. The afternoon was devoted to a photo presentation by Mahmoud Reda. Mr. Reda spoke to a packed hall about the history of his famous Egyptian Folkloric Troupe: how it was created, how he found the dances and his process for adapting them for the stage. At the end of his lecture, the audience had a chance to ask questions. He told jokes, graciously answered every question and was a delight in every way. It was such an honor to spend so much time with the iconic Mahmoud Reda, who’s sly, diplomatic wit permeated his explanations and answers.

Panel on Sexuality and Commercialization
Yasmina disagrees with Stavros?Tamalyn not sure?
Tamalyn, Stavros, April, Roula, and Yasmina

Mahmoud Reda in front rowSaturday evening was the Gala Performance. Expectations ran high because each proceeding show had been increasingly better. I wondered how this night could top the rest. The show was to have closed with performances by Khairiyya and Tito (who never did obtain permission to leave Egypt). By this time, the attendees and performers had developed an easy familiarity and there was an atmosphere of genuine good will and excitement. The hall was packed, even fuller than the previous nights, with standing room only at the rear. As was the case every night, Mahmoud Reda had a place of honor in the front row.

The show opened with the Arabesque Earthshakers, another one of Yasmina Ramzy’s ensembles, and indeed, they got the crowd roaring. Yasmina is a truly gifted choreographer, moving bodies around the stage with expertise, using some daring movements for large groups and making it all work beautifully. She could have benefited with a larger stage, but did a truly admirable job. Tamalyn Dallal’s exquisite dance to an original version of Rimsky-Korsakof’s “Scheherzade” was a highlight for me.

Show Commentary:

From the beginning of the conference, I had noted the minimal Tribal Fusion presence. Each night there was one tribal or fusion performer, but there had been little or no general discussions about the rise of alternative forms within the Middle Eastern North African (MENA) community. When April Rose took the stage, she epitomized the new generation of dancers who began their studies in traditional Middle Eastern Bellydance or Raqs Sharqi, and have moved into other genres, fusing and incorporating other styles of dance to create a new aesthetic. Most of what I’ve seen in the tribal fusion genre is repetitive and formulaic, or awkward, sometimes defiant, or just plain lacking in technical expertise, and the result is not engaging. However, April was a revelation. Totally non-traditional in a highly glitz and glitter Raqs Sharqi crowd, April wowed the audience with a gifted performance to modern, non-eastern music in a pair of saucy low slung trousers, a classic white shirt and an abbreviated vest. Her stage presence was assured, at times defiant, but never out of character. The audience not only loved it, but I think they got it. I found it refreshing and revealing.

Bringing the show back to classic Bellydance, the incomparable Zahra Zuhair gave a stunning performance, glowing in red. The first half of the night ended with a long Arabesque extravaganza that included a Turkish Rom tableau, an ensemble dabke, a lively solo dabke by Kranti, and a lovely Raqs Sharqi solo by Yasmina, all to live music. While Yasmina’s staging for the group pieces was skilled, I felt a little impatient that the Rom piece was full of characteristic clichés; there is more to Rom than pounding on your hips and chucking your chin! This sort of sampling of ethnic dances reduces them to hackneyed stereotypes. This long tableau of ethnic style dances was not quite on par with what I saw from Yasmina’s groups on previous nights.

The second half of the show had more tributes to Mahmoud Reda with derivative choreographies of his classic work. Sahra Saeeda was the featured soloist in the place of honor. It is always a pleasure to see Sahra dance. Her performance was classic, accomplished and fully present. She is a true master of the dance (or should that be mistress?) and as with the best of the best, time is suspended while she takes the stage. She held me enthralled.
At the conclusion of the show, Yasmina called up the people who helped her put on the conference for a public, on-stage thank you. Satisfied, we were off to bed and up early for the Sunday schedule of lectures and classes.

[ed note-The poor quality of the below photos are because these are just screen shots from the video taken.
Hopefully the wonderful photographers that were present at this event will send us their photos soon!]
Arabesque Earth Shakers
Arabesque Earthshakers
Zahra ZuhairApril RoseSashar
Zahra Zuhair, April Rose, Sashar Zarif
Arabesque
Arabesque Dance Company

Arabesque does Turkish

Arabesque Dance Company

Arabesque does Debke

Arabesque Dance Company

Kranti

Kranti with sword and shield

Yasmina dances in the gala show Saturday Night

Yasmina Ramzy

Habeeba Hobeika

Habeeba Hobeika Egyptian Dance Company
Tamallyn DalalSahra Saeeda
Tamalyn Dallal and Sahra Saeeda

Sweet oud songs to end the evening.

Sunday:

Sunday lectures included Stavros Stavrou’ presentation on “Private Ritual, Public Embodiment”. Stavros is a sweet well-spoken scholar who added an air of humor and conciliation to the sometimes contentious discussions during the conference. Thania Meneses-Flores presented her fascinating thesis paper on Salome. Amara’s lecture on “Dancing in the Fringe: The Development of the Experimental Middle Eastern Dance Genre”, helped consolidate some of the feelings that were growing in me about alternative dance directions in our community.

Stavros talks

Stavros sums it all up!

In Conclusion:

Critiques aside, and admitting that I wasn’t totally enamored of all the performers at IBCC, I didn’t see one “bad” dancer. All the performers were top notch in their genres. It was an eye-opening experience for me, so far from home, so far from my own beginnings on the West Coast.

I made some unexpected discoveries about our dance and my place in it. I was aware of how far the dance has come since I started out in 1972, how much it has changed and how much it is changing still. I finally put the whole tribal/fusion dilemma into a place in which I feel comfortable. So much of what holds me back from accepting change is fear, fear that what I know will change and will no longer be acceptable.

That is exactly what happened to many of the dancers from the ‘60s and 70s with the advent of “Egyptian style”. I felt marginalized because I was informed that my dance wasn’t real, when in reality, it just wasn’t Egyptian, and it was no longer in style. Times change; things move on. I know now that there will always be a place for Middle Eastern dance done to Middle Eastern music. What I do is different from what fusion dancers do, not less, but different. I am finally able to celebrate a performer like April Rose because I realize that she isn’t trying to make me dance her dance, or to make my dance go away. Fusion dancers are simply trying to dance what they feel, and it is different than what I feel. I’m okay with that.

No one is going to do away with the beautiful dance we know, but everyone dances it differently, every single one of us.

As far as my thoughts on the IBCC? It was great! We need more conferences that combine dance workshops and dance performances with lectures exploring our history, both long past and more immediate past, including discussions on the direction the dance is taking.

Maybe we can do more abbreviated versions of the IBCC. However, the length of this conference certainly allowed the participants to get to know one another and to have really in-depth conversations and dialogs about where the dance has been and where it’s going. I missed seeing Khariyya Mazen, but when I did look in on the one class I was interested in, Ghawazee, I was gratified to realize that Sahra was teaching the dance I knew. I wasn’t looking at revisionist history, and I felt like I still had a place in this community. I also realized that I was probably the oldest dancer at this conference, not necessarily in years, but in dance years. That was strange.

What would I change? I would add programs for the performances. Some of the dances would have benefited from an explanation. It’s a small thing, but important. Sashar Zarif’s dance on Saturday night was Central Asian and it was telling a story, but for those in the audience unfamiliar with this genre of dance, it was somewhat of an enigma. I would also like to see the lecture papers published somewhere. I believe Lynette is working on this. This was important information and, judging by the attendance at the lectures, there are lots of people in our community who are interested. I didn’t review the workshops. I didn’t attend them; however, I assume from the satisfied faces I saw that conference attendees were happy. Classes and workshops we can get …maybe not as many great teachers in one place, but the interaction, the dual quality of dance and lecture is rare. I was grateful to have so many scholars and academics in our field in one place. It was heady, to say the least. Now I wish I had been able to attend the first two conferences in Orange County. Yasmina Ramzy deserves kudos in abundance for her willingness to take on this gargantuan task. It was very well done. Bravo!

The Hall

International Bellydance Conference of Canada 2012 Website

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   |       |    2 Comments

  1. No Gravatar
    Maura Enright

    Oct 21, 2012 - 06:10:16

    The article was comprehensive and well-written.  It also described the author’s internal changes as she assimilated the external events -without being sappy –  which is the type of article I like the best!

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