Gilded Serpent presents...

Sashar Zarif

An Azerbaijani Gem at IBCC 2012


by DaVid of Scandinavia
posted August 12, 2012

At this year’s IBCC I had the pleasure of attending two workshops with Sashar Zarif, who teaches and dances different styles of the Near Eastern and Central Asian regions. Some background on Sashar Zarif: He is the founder and artistic director of Sashar Zarif Dance Theater and Joshgoon Dance Academy in Canada.  He received his formal academic training in Azerbaijani Classical Dance in Baku, the capital city of the Republic of Azerbaijan, and continued his Fine Arts studies at York University in Toronto.  His fluency in traditional Uzbek, Tajik, and Persian drumming, singing and dance granted him the title of “Artist for People of Azerbaijan” in 1994.  His dance studies range from Bharata Natyam, Uzbek, Tajik, Persian, Georgian, Chechen, Afghan, Mongolian, Middle Eastern, Turkish, Flamenco, and Lezginka dance forms. Sashar has had collaborations with reknowned artists such as Alim Quasimov  (also a soloist of Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble) and Rizwan- Muazzam Qawwali. He is passionate in preserving and promoting the cultural heritage of the Near Eastern and Central Asian regions.

My experience of Sashar was nothing less than exceptional.  He offered two workshops at this year’s IBCC, the first workshop being themed – Gossip: Cultural Body Language.  This workshop gave an educational, entertaining, and well conceptualized insight to cultural body language as used in dance.  Obviously a broad subject to cover in the allotted 1 hour!  Sashar’s unique approach including storytelling, singing (in multiple languages) and personal anecdotes made a subject that otherwise could prove rather complicated to convey to a class easily digestible.  Sashar brought importance to the manner and intention with which gestures can be done.

Through subtle physical changes in alignment and weight changes Sashar showed how a dancer can change the intensity and focus in the dance and also achieve different textures in the character one plays.

For example; bending one’s knees and leaning forward with an approachable face gives a playful and bantering effect while standing tall gives a more distant, regal or brave effect depending on the facial expression.  Sashar used a wide range of expressions which all seemed to be based in a playful, coy, enthusiastic persona almost egging the viewer on to see/hear more, just like one may present or react to gossip. I experienced this to be in a nice contrast with other styles that make active use of expression – especially facial expressions.  For example, Egyptian dances where the expression tends to be either the visual result of internalized emotion or stylized gesture language with a certain sense of “personal space” surrounding the dancer, or Kathak or Ballet where the modes of expression are given in very specific definitions.

Sashar performance photoSashar brought attention to the placement of arms and hand gestures and demonstrated how focusing one’s main arm movement in the forearm and hands while maintaining the upper arm less active, yet positioned, creates a different experience for the viewer. In other words, making use of the stability of the elbow joint and generating movements from the radius and ulna (bones in the forearm), using their range of motion,  along with hand gestures gives a different visual experience than if the arm movement is originated from the shoulder joint. I would say this is a trademark of Near Eastern, Central Asian and Indian dances and is in contrast with the typical arm use of Ballet, Jazz or even Modern dance. He used rapid hand gestures and foot work to create engaging phrases of “gossip” or narratives. I found it interesting how he was able to give focused, clear narratives while moving so quickly between the gestures and that was one of the things that triggered my creative and analytical thought process in and after the workshop.

Sashar has a very intense use of gaze. I wish we had had the chance to to delve deeper into his thoughts on how to use gaze as an effective use of one’s dance work.

Sashar was able to give an insight to the ethnic diversity and similarities, and the pursuing challenges in the regions. One of the highlights for me was Sashar’s demonstration of how shaking movements are expressed in different dance traditions along the Silk Road.  It was interesting to see how he contextualized these types of movements in the body, shoulders and hands by changing use of alignment, arm positions and hands. It made me think about how we dancers always can afford to expand our definitions and horizons in our dance.

I was impressed by his relaxed and informal delivery of this substantial subject in such a short time. The way Sashar spontaneously broke into demonstrations and his sharing of the challenges he has faced, and overcome,  as a person and as an artist was very inspiring. 

Sashar’s second workshop was on Central Asian /Uzbeki dance.  In this workshop, Sashar focused on the subtle, but significant, differences in the wide range of dances in this region.  Traditional footwork, arm movements and hand gestures were taught.  Yet again Sashar’s ability to break down culturally charged movement concepts, typically difficult to translate, helps the workshop participants to attain quite the insight and understanding of the workshop material. I especially appreciated his explanation of the effort and intention in the footwook typical for Central Asian/Uzbeki dance. This workshop allowed us to delve deeper into the character and flavor of, and different stylizations in of Uzbeki dance. 

Although both workshops were packed by the students, Sashar was very attentive to each of us; I never felt like I was just another person in the workshop.  He took time after class interacting with us, sharing any information/ experiences we were interested in knowing.  I felt this same sense of comfort with all the instructors at IBCC and felt that Yasmina and the instructors help to create a relaxes and friendly atmosphere.

Sashar spellbound the room with his performance of an excerpt from one of his shows where he created his own music through singing, rhythmic footwork and body percussion.  His performance had an electrifying energy and hypnotized the audience completely.  His expressive range, his refined quality of movement – and not to forget, his agility – were definite highlights. I barely think a breath was taken for the time he was on stage!  He was received by an enthusiastic applause and cheers by the audience, and I believe even some tears.

Sashar’s workshops were an extra highlight for me during IBCC because for the past few years I have developed a curiosity about the cultural, linguistic, and the artistic exchanges and links between the Arab World, Central Asia and India – and even Europe.  Through Sashar’s workshops I, along with the other workshop participants, was able to experience some of the magic of the Near Eastern and Central Asian dances.  I think most of us, if not all of us, left the workshops sparkly-eyed, inspired and with big smiles on our faces.  I would highly recommend anyone that has a chance to take the workshop, attend a seminar for an intensive with Sashar Zarif a sign up immediately when an opportunity presents itself.  This man is an artistic gem!

IBCC 2012 Footage by Lynette

Sashar performs a small portion of "Sindirme", a Mughamat at the International Bellydance Conference of Canada held in Toronto in May 2012. Mughamat is the integrated art of Poetry, Music, and Dance. Mugham is the Sufi-shamanic art of spirit that exists in and out of physical realm. It inhabits deep inside the earth and far in the endless universe. The Mughamist expresses and embodies life by walking on the vulnerable edge of emotions. “Sindirma” is a fragment of SasharZarif Dance Theatre’s next production.


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  1. Lara

    Aug 12, 2012 - 05:08:23

    Great summary of the workshops, I’m glad you took the to e to write this up! I left the classes sincerely wishing I could take a year off to come learn more- or at least check out the weeklong intensive he mentioned.

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