Gilded Serpent presents...

Regina Raks!

Canadian Dance Community Flourishes on the Prairies

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From left to right: Brenda Trumbley, Azura, Annissa Spechko

Photo credit: Bill Allen

by Azura

With a non-profit organization devoted to supporting Middle Eastern dance and an annual show that has historically attracted up to 550 people, belly dance is flourishing in Regina, Canada. Regina is a city with a population of about 200,000. It is located in Saskatchewan [sas-KAH-choo-wan], which is a prairie province in western Canada . The city is surrounded by oceans of golden wheat and violet-blue flax thriving on the fertile bed of an ancient tropical sea whose layers of sediment created oil, gas, coal, and one of the largest deposits of potash in the world. Despite Regina’s relatively small size, there is a vibrant belly dance community with strong links to urban and rural centres in the southern half of the province. In the past few years, there have been more classes in smaller communities, with many teachers and groups visiting Regina for workshops and performance opportunities.

Belly dance began developing in the region in the 1970s. My instructor, Cheryl Bosley, was a second generation dancer in the nearby centre of Moose Jaw. According to Cheryl, Sue Bishop was the area’s first instructor around the 1970s. Ms. Bishop taught the second generation of dancers, who formed the Regina Association of Middle Eastern Dance.

The second generation also brought the American dancer Delilah to Regina for workshops and traveled to Seattle for instruction. As a result, belly dance in this part of Canada was strongly influenced by the American cabaret style.

Regina show on a mapThe Regina Association of Middle Eastern Dance (RAMED) is a non-profit organization devoted to supporting the instruction and performance of belly dance. RAMED provides bursaries (“scholarships” or “grants”) for members to attend workshops, seed funding to assist with organizing first-time shows, and has a process for accrediting teachers. RAMED also hosts an annual show, coordinates performances at some community events, maintains a lending library of music and videos, and owns equipment and props that members can borrow. Its membership has fluctuated over the years, but it currently averages about 100 paid members.

RAMED’s existence is part of the reason why Regina has a strong dance community.

The Arabian Fantasy Show brings virtually all classes and groups together, and teachers often plan their classes to present a choreography developed specifically for the show. Every person who dances in the show must have a current membership, which is important because RAMED exists to provide opportunities for its members and so many soloists and groups want to perform (there have been up to 24 acts in recent years, with an average of about 20). As a non-profit organization, RAMED has also been able to take the financial risk of bringing internationally known instructors for workshops. The featured artists have included Canadian and American dancers such as Aziza, Suzanna del Vecchio and Mesmera.

Azura-RachelAllen-ArabianFantasy2012
Azura-RachelAllen-ArabianFantasy2012
Author Azura (red hair) and Rachel (blond) dance in the 2012 Arabian Fantasy Show
Photo credit: Ben Checkowy

There are local traditions among Regina’s dance community, such as hissing and zagreeting (zaghareeting) during performances. Many shows open with the master of ceremonies explaining the history of belly dance and encouraging the audience to show their appreciation for the performers. In Regina and some other western Canadian communities, the audience and other dancers make a snakelike hissing sound when they see slow, sexy moves and zagreet during fast, exciting sections. Another local tradition is dancing to a choreography called "Fast Hip"* , which is performed to drum music. That piece of music has been used for about 20 years, and audience members are often invited to come up and do a few simple steps.

2TonsTassels
Ya La Habibi
Back row, left to right: Kelly Leiberet, Christine Moersch, Sophie Nathanial, Pamela Guay, Stacey Hack, Marie Berwald
Front row, left to right: Rachelle Stephens, Linda Yablonski, Mackenzie Brooks
Photo credit: Ben Checkowy

 

Linda-Yablonski-Rachelle-Stephen
Features members of the group The Divine
Background Rachelle Stephens
Foreground Linda Yablonski
Photo credit: Bill Allen

There have been two major changes in Regina’s dance community over the past decade. The first is the proliferation of dance styles. American cabaret was the dominant form until fairly recently, but now many people perform tribal and Oriental. There has also been a great deal of interest in fusion, including “tribaret” and Latin ballroom, and some experimental forays into hip hop and “grunge” music and costuming. While the cabaret style continues to be popular, the trend has been toward tribal and burlesque classes. There has also been a shift toward themed shows and collaborations with other kinds of artists. An example of a themed show is the one Linda Yablonski will have in fall 2012, where dancers will perform to rock music and other musical forms that are not traditional for belly dance. This is reminiscent of a tradition several years ago at RAMED haflas, where people brought cd’s from many musical genres and put the name of songs into a hat.

Dancers drew a random song, which meant they were as likely to dance to a rock hit from the ‘80s such as “Ballroom Blitz” as a classical favorite by Om Kalsoum.

In regards to collaborative ventures, the annual Shiver and Shimmy show involves writers such as Brian Clemmensen, original artwork and guest performances by ballroom dancers and ethnic dancers.

The number of instructors has grown, which has enabled them to specialize to some extent. Most classes are offered through neighbourhood centres and community centres. The only permanent dance studio is owned by Linda Yablonski, who teaches styles such as tribal and cabaret. Aschera Rose teaches fitness-related classes, hula hooping, poi spinning, cabaret, and Polynesian. Aschera Rose is also the artistic director of Zarifah Dance Troupe, which is the major performance troupe in Regina. Anja often collaborates with Aschera Rose on shows and projects, including burlesque shows. Darla Faal’s classes tend to emphasize tribal and fusion, and Barb Bell’s and Samantha Leippi’s routines present innovative choreography. My own classes focus on technique and performance skills in the Egyptian and Oriental styles.

The increasing professionalization of dance has been the second major change over the past decade. There is more competition for students and paid performance opportunities, which has affected attendance at shows and may have reduced the cohesiveness of the dance community to some extent. With many teachers having one or more events per year, attendance has fallen significantly.

Fortunately, instructors invite other teachers and classes to perform in their shows, make a concerted effort to attend other people’s events, and invite dancers from towns and cities outside Regina. The dance community also continues its history of supporting local events. Groups perform regularly at arts festivals, parades, multicultural festivals, and fundraising events for charities. With the increasing professionalization of dance, some groups are also attempting to perform more often at trade fairs.

Barb-Bell-Samantha-Leippi-Crystal-Geisbrecht
From left to right: Barb Bell, Samantha Leippi, Crystal Geisbrecht
Photo Credit: Ben Checkowy

There are few opportunities to dance in restaurants, which is a major difference between belly dancing in Regina and other places. Restaurant dancing is a mainstream for professional dancers in most communities, but there are not many Greek or Middle Eastern restaurants here and they tend to have Oriental dancers only once or twice a year. Yet Regina is experiencing strong economic growth and an influx of immigration from African and Middle Eastern countries, which has led to growing interest in belly dance and ethnic music. There are two world music bands that perform regularly with belly dancers. Skin and Bone and Tribal Vibes are primarily percussion groups, but they are beginning to expand into the nay, the oud and the mizmar, and Tribal Vibes is known for using the Australian wind instrument the didgeridoo.

The people who attend belly dance classes in Regina tend to be fairly diverse. Many instructors work with local drum circles with a wide range of members and offer classes specifically for seniors or moms and babies. There have been few male dancers in Saskatchewan, but there is now a men`s group that primarily performs burlesque, as well as a male Oriental dancer named Jim Anderson who is beginning to teach workshops.

Over the past 40 years, belly dancing in Regina has expanded from the American cabaret form to a wide range of styles and creative collaborations with other performers. There is continuing interest in Oriental and tribal in conjunction with the development of fusion and more opportunities to perform to live music. This evolution has been supported by the Regina Association of Middle Eastern Dance and the efforts of many teachers, groups and volunteers, and there is a strong future ahead for Regina’s dance community.

Raks-Azhar
Raks-Azhar
From left to right: Lisa Zurburg, Lauren Humphries, Azura (seated), Brenda Trumbley (standing),

Annissa Spechko (seated),
Heather Yeske (standing)
Photo credit: Ben Checkowy
Resources:
  • Author’s GS biopage
  • Name of the song "Fast Hip": I have been waiting to hear from some other dancers in Regina if anyone knows where this song comes from. I haven’t received a reply yet.  The song has been used for about 20 years or more in the area, so it’s possible no one has an original copy – I certainly don’t. 
  • http://www.regina.ca/visitors/
  • http://www.gov.sk.ca/services/visitors/
  • http://www.sasktourism.com/?WT.mc_id=skgov
  • Regina Association of Middle Eastern Dance website- www.ramed.org
  • Linda Yablonski (http://bellydancewithlinda.com/),
  • Brian Clemmensen (see http://www.azura-bellydance.com/Home.htm or his poem “The Dancer”)
  • Aschera Rose teaches fitness-related classes, hula hooping, poi spinning, cabaret, and Polynesian (http://ascherarose.ca/).
  • Anja (http://anjadance.wordpress.com/)
  • Darla Faal (http://www.earthmovesbellydance.ca/)
  • Azura-(http://www.azura-bellydance.com/)

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