Gilded Serpent presents...

My Belly Dance Dream

Studying with Saida in Argentina

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by Rosalba Jasso
posted August 21, 2013

There have been a couple of times in my life when I felt stagnated and bored with my dancing.  I felt frustrated with a lack of substance, technical complexity, and artistic vision. I had been a successful dancer and company director for 5 years, I had managed to make a living through performing and teaching in Los Angeles.  By the end of 2012, I reached  a point where the gigs were no longer feeding me, the excitement and drive to continue pursuing such a life style was fading. I had always agreed with the idea that if you want to become better, you must surround yourself with people and mentors that are more highly talented than you.

I looked at different options to satisfy this need to improve my dance. I decided to travel to Argentina and train with someone whom I considered the best modern belly dancer, Saida Helou.

I began to research about traveling expenses, housing, and classes.  I looked into blogs from dancers who had previously trained in Argentina, hoping they could provide any useful information for my journey. I found some old leads, sent emails, even put an ad online, both in English and Spanish, asking any Argentinian, American, and European dancers please to contact me with any information they might have.  A couple of weeks went by, but I did not hear from anyone.  I lost hope somewhat and felt that my dream of studying with Saida was just not going to happen.  About a week after I had given up hope,  I received an email from a student of Saida’s telling me how interested and genuine I had sounded about this project; so she would do whatever she could to help me.  She said she was enrolled in Saida’s school and would spread the word and ask around concerning the process of studying there as a foreign dancer. I was thankful and asked the Universe to please help me. When another couple of weeks went by and I had not heard from her, I began to feel pessimistic again. To my surprise, I heard from one of Saida’s students telling me she would be willing to rent me her living-room couch on a weekly basis.  I planned my trip to last for 1 month from mid February to mid March of 2013.

I arrived in Buenos Aires on a Wednesday and was ready to start taking classes the next day.  My roommate explained that there are 5 class levels and that foreign students are allowed to take any class from levels 1-4 but not 5.  (Level 5 is only open to former graduates of her school and Saida’s company members.)  She also mentioned that as good as a dancer I might  be, I wouldn’t be able to keep up anyway, since I was not trained in Saida’s style and technique. I was so excited about starting classes that the next day I arrived 2 hours early to Saida’s academy.  I was able to buy a package of unlimited classes and my first day at the studio, I took 3 classes, level 1-3. I also took a tour of the studio which included a large main studio, a large locker/changing room, a cafeteria and lounge room, and a boutique with costumes, CDs and DVDs.

Saida's Studio

My first impressions of Saida were strong. She is confident and carries a lot of presence when she walks into the room. She was punctual, and I could tell that she was ready to teach; by that statement, I mean she had planned and prepared. She had what she wanted to talk about exactly in mind as well as the technique she intended to cover in class.  Her music was edited for each class. She teaches most classes on a daily basis, that means anywhere from 3-4 classes per day. My first class was a level 3 class, and I was full of nervous anticipation.

Once she started the technique section, she particularly paid attention to me and yelled across the room, "Hey! You, in the black pants! You are not from here; are you?"

I shook my head with a "No".

"I can tell by your bad posture, lazy arms, and crooked feet.” 

I wanted to die!

"Just make sure you pay attention to those around you, and modify as much as possible so that you look like them.” she said. 

I nodded yes, hoping all eyes would turn away from me. 

I had been warned by my roommate that Saida was strict, demanding, and had a great ability to pay attention to details. She suggested that if I got feedback, I should try to fix it as soon as possible. She would teach a combination, drill it, have students repeat it in alternating groups on the dance floor.  If she did not feel satisfied with what she saw, she would continue drilling until students were ready for the next combination.

She would stand on top of the studio’s stage and watch carefully smaller groups of dancers, then come down and tell each individual student what they needed to correct.  She could make as many as 3-12 corrections, walking to each individual student, showing what they did wrong and how to correct it. She would confront lazy and careless students,  asking them, “Why do you bother coming to class when the effort and focus is not there?”  I could tell that she was intimidating her students but had enough respect and interest in the dance to demand that they meet her expectations. 

Earlier that day, I had read an article in which she explained that she barely gave compliments to students because it was counter-beneficial. Her experience had been that once you praise students, their egos are fed and their sense of humility drops.

She said that she believed that the humble student is the best with whom to work. They always strive to get better and are always open to feedback. If a student is being told constantly that he or she is a great dancer, they become arrogant, lazy, and even defiant.

Saida’s school was structured with a specific goal and artistic vision. That’s why I would consider it the most comprehensive Middle Eastern Dance Academy in the world.  Once students graduate from her school, they are well-rounded dancers and artists, in every sense of the word, in my opinion.  The school trains dancers on exceptional technique, musicality, history and culture, dancing with props, complex choreography, and stage production skills.

Grade Levels in Saida’s School

From what I gathered, this is how Saida has structured each grade level in her school in order to prepare her students:

Grade 1:  Emphasizes posture, alignment and the history of the dance. Basic combinations, turns, chasses, and the teacher might spend the entire hour breaking down 5-6 belly dance movements, drilling small groups on them. One third of the classes incorporate lectures on history, geography, music, historical context of the dance, important figures in the dance form and basic zill (sagat) patterns. 

Grade 2:  Building on technique. Dancers must have a firm posture, alignment, and build body awareness and confidence. Students continue to work on turns as well as technique that derives from ballet. A lot of their turns are on the flat of the foot, and they build their skill toward working on their toes during 3rd grade. Study of 12-15 most common rhythms in Arabic music as well as a strong emphasis in the history of the dance from ancient history to modern times. Their emphasis is upon studying Egyptian and Middle Eastern dancers and musicians. They must learn to play zills to about 15 rhythms, and at the end of the year, part of their final test is to play at least 13 of them within 3 minutes. They are also tested in technique and dance history. My roommate explained that grade 2 is the most demanding and students must be on top of everything if they want to pass. Some of them are asked to go back and take level 1 classes in order to reinforce their understanding of technique. I met several girls who had already passed level 2 but were taking level 1 classes also (at Saida’s request). At this level, dancers being to work in combinations, so combinations and retention of choreography are emphasized.

Grade 3:  Building on history, rhythms, and playing zills for each rhythm. Class is technically more advanced. Dancers must be able to identify all the rhythms in a song and dance properly to each one. For example: Don’t do drum solo moves during a Saidi or waltz section. The instructor begins to incorporate zills into the choreography that she teaches in class. Dancers begin to turn on their toes, not always flat, but a lot of her turns remain on a flat foot, depending on the effect or level changes she wants to see in the choreography. Choreography here is more complex and there is not so much repetition when it is taught. Dancers must learn and recall combinations quickly. Proper posture and alignment is a given.

Grade 4:  More advanced and complex choreography. Saida does a lot of entrance music here (at least at the beginning of the year) so there are constant turns, chasses, weight shifts, and the music is fast. Dancers must know all the rhythms and components of the music. They must be proficient in zills and other props.

Grade 5: I didn’t take any level 5 classes, but I was able to observe. Dancers who are allowed to attend these classes are level 5 students, professionals, teachers, her company members and students who have graduated but want to keep up with technique and training. Intricately advanced choreography, supple athletic dancers who learn choreography  rapidly.  She might do a full 2-3 minute choreography in a 1 hour class. Students are expected to show the entire piece with only minor technical and expressive flaws.

Performing

There are also final exams in which students are tested on everything that was covered that particular year, and if the student fails, he or she must repeat the year in order to maintain her school enrollment. There are certain instances in which she might allow a student  to pass the exam, but if the student is deficient in some aspects of the material, then he or she will be expected to enroll in classes of both the previous level and current level. I also met several students that would take classes from the lower levels they had covered, just to reinforce or master the material.

At the end of each year, Saida holds a gala in which students may perform and showcase the material they learned.  The preparation for the show starts 6 months in advance with required weekend rehearsals.  The process of making costumes and set design starts that early as well. 

The gala is usually held at a big theater where parents, friends, and dance aficionados pack the entire place and the shows are often sold out.

The standards for public performers and professional dancers are high, which is different from what I have observed here in the U.S. Most dancers must have at least 5-7 years of extensive training in order to perform. It is considered shameful for a dancer who is not trained enough to try to perform if her technique and presentation is poor. Dancers and teachers feel that students should really pay their dues and train enough before they perform in public for an audience. I noticed that some dancers would take anywhere from 2-5 classes per day at her studio and most of them would attend classes 2-3 times per week, some girls would take 3-4 classes every day. 

Saida only accepts dancers from ages 12 and up, but many girls start training at an earlier age at other schools and once they turn 12 they enroll at Saida’s school.  She also offers fully paid scholarships to students who have low economic resources but who show a lot of potential and commitment to the dance.

Another important factor about what makes such a model so successful is that belly dance is promoted and perceived as an art form in Argentina, and typically, not as a hobby or fitness class. There is a strong collaboration between dancers and musicians during workshops, public performances, showcases and stage productions, it all comes together beautifully.

Going to Argentina and studying with Saida was a great inspiration and a break-through in my life. I loved observing the passion and dedication that dancers put into their art form. I admired that they danced for the sake of expressing their art–not always for money since there is not such thing as gigging around at weddings and restaurants there.  I was influenced by Saida’s teaching methods, talent and honesty for her dance and work. Since I came back from Argentina I have been dealing with the question of what are the best settings for me to dance and how to transition into a more visionary and artistic one.

Tierra Santa
Mario Kirlis, his orchestra and local dance company performing at Tierra Santa,
a Jewish/Muslim cultural center, shows are open to the public every Sunday afternoon
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   |       |    17 Comments

  1. No Gravatar
    Shelley Muzzy

    Aug 21, 2013 - 04:08:44

    Oh dear.  to each their own, I suppose.  Nice that this dancer treats middle eastern dance seriously and has such a structured regime.  It sounds more like ballet on a professional level.  I’m not sure I agree with Saida’s attitudes on praise or correction, but I’m certain that she makes a lot of money catering to those who need someone to hold a whip over them and make them”do it right”!  when you insist students aren’t good enough and need more training, it’s kind of like ensuring a steady stream of income, isn’t it?  personally, it sounds like a nightmare full of BS.

  2. No Gravatar
    Zumarrad

    Aug 21, 2013 - 06:08:11

    I see where Shelley is coming from – this is very rigid and very strict, and one of the loveliest things about bellydance is that it is, at its core, highly personal and in many ways so simple that it is accessible to everyone, not just the athletes who can become professional dancers in the western world. On the other hand, I wouldn’t mind being the doofus in the back row for something like this for a year…. I really miss classes that seriously challenge and inspire me, and I’d love to do some total immersion work with a teacher this particular.

  3. No Gravatar
    Sadira

    Aug 21, 2013 - 11:08:03

    I can see both sides….We are definatly not used to this kind of dance regime in the United States in regards to Middle Eastern dance and I feel that’s why we lack a lot of professionalism and respect from other dance arts.   Dance is a serious study….but I for one also feel that in this style of dance, which originates from the “people”, there should be room for personal interpretation of the music and how it affects the dancer.  The people of the Middle Eastern countries and North Africa have two distinct styles when it comes to dance.  The current Classical/Cabaret style in Egypt has been taught as a strict balletic form of dance regime since the 1940’s or 50’s….taking from Egyptian teachers I was shocked at the amount of criticism and demand to be “exact”; where I never had that experience with teachers in America.   2nd.  IF you learn the dance of the Balady, Saidi, Shikhaat, etc. these are dances that are rooted in learning from one mother to a daughter, a niece and a whole clan, for the enjoyment and meaning it has in that context….so you dance, you are not criticized for something that is as natural as walking, playing, cooking , singing.  You will be appreciated when you stand out with a special “flair”.  But it is part of the experience of life to dance and sing and enjoy.
      When the Balady dances became theatricalized by Reda and dance troupes, then again we see strict form, changes for the stage and attention to detail.
      I feel that too many dancers in the U.S. think that if they take 3 months worth of class and can put on a costume…they should be deemed worthy of dancing or dancing for money to an audience.  That to me is appalling.  And as a dance teacher, you must give very good critique to your students as an obligation that they become the best they can with the moves.  Being supportive is good as well, for only criticism can make a person feel they are not doing anything well and give up…..It’s a healthy balance between the two….
      When I started FLamenco is when I realized the difference in dance technique and teaching…..while it may feel intimidating…at first; it is to inspire and teach you to respect your teacher’s knowledge and respect what kind of dancer you wish to become.  O.K.   or    exemplerary……..too rigid can be just as boring as a dancer who only knows a few interesting moves and the rest is not flattering.

  4. No Gravatar
    Anthea Kawakib Poole

    Aug 22, 2013 - 05:08:27

    Teaching like this is complete bullsh*t.
    There’s a difference between being “strict” and being a bully. A teacher can be strict and teach good technique without being rude, inconsiderate, and mean, which is how she is described here.
    Anyone who doesn’t understand this has probably never studied with a teacher like this – and you should be thankful for that.

  5. No Gravatar
    Rosalba Jasso

    Aug 22, 2013 - 09:08:37

    Hello ladies, this is Rosalba, the girl who wrote this article. I would like to say that I have the most respect and admiration for Saida, she is really my personal favorite dancer in the world and I actually greatly admire her teaching methods. It seems to me that some of the attention and focus is going towards her teaching approach as opposed to her accomplishments as a dancer and teacher.  Saida probably gets 200 students a day, generally 40-60 students per class. I think she has had a great influence on how serious and committed her students feel towards the dance and how highly respected the dance is in Argentina, which I have not seen in the United States.  Saida was in general very nice to me, and she is with her students as well but she wants dancers to improve and be serious about their dance so her approach is slightly different, I didn’t say it was right or wrong, just different and it worked for me and I think it works for her, and for what I observed, it works for the dance community she has greatly influenced in Buenos Aires. I am the type of dancer that likes to be given feedback and sometimes talked to with the honest truth, because I make the best out of it and work on what I need to work in order to improve my dancing, and that is exactly why I went to her.
      I think that one of the main factors to her approach on teaching and training is that her work is designed for stage productions in big theaters, for artistic purposes, think of Superstars and Jillina’s Evolution production, she is not training dancers for restaurants, parties or wedding gigs……which is what most ‘professional’ dancers in my area do.  It is because she has such vision, that she focuses on training the dancers the in such consistent and ‘rigid’ ways. Isn’t that what big ballet, modern, or any time of professional company does?  Yes, belly dance in its origins might have a more casual/community context but the dance is currently evolving and dancers have different visions of it and Saida is one of them.  Sadira makes a good point on how Reda began this process in Egypt at one point.
    I appreciate your comments and feedback. I like to see other dancers perspectives and opinions, I am glad my article is sparking interesting conversations=)
    Rosalba

  6. No Gravatar
    Monica B.

    Aug 22, 2013 - 09:08:50

    I really enjoyed reading about this Arab/Egyptian-Argentinian style and way of training that is so different than what I had as a student, and than what I see generally in the US. While methods of critique vs. praise may be different, I think the personal attention from teacher to student sounds wonderful. I also like the understood emphasis on waiting to perform. I don’t think this style of training needs to negate the social dance or balady aspect of raqs, either, and like Zumarrad said, I believe I would enjoy the challenge and experience of being a back row student in this school for a while!

  7. No Gravatar
    Rosalba Jasso

    Aug 22, 2013 - 10:08:40

    Thank you Monica, I appreciate your comments. I simply wanted to share my personal experiences there.  I think that the fact that Saida gets so many students interested in training with her is amazing, I had never seen that many dancers in 1 class, not even at workshops by well-known dancers in the U.S.  I took a couple of workshops and at least 1/3 of the students were 10-15years old.  The fact that dancers commit to train at such young age and as much as 3-4 hours a day on a daily basis is really impressive.  I personally took 3-4 classes per day and would spend 3-4 hours per day dissecting, drilling and working on her technique, recording, taking notes…. there were days I could not walk because I was so tired….but that’s just me, I am obsessive that way, and I think Saida is too, that’s why I ‘connected’ with her that way.  It was really a transforming experience for me and I am very thankful for it=)

  8. No Gravatar
    Mariana

    Aug 22, 2013 - 07:08:08

    Awesome article! I’m also the same about training and just hearing about her teaching method and levels of the school makes me want to jump on a plane tomorrow!
    This makes me happy to hear to be honest. Finally hearing that Saida has created an academy for dance and that it’s respected the way ballet or flamenco has been is so great. The fact that she requires near perfection and dedication to the craft is what I think we all want here in the States. I think the hard part is that with that can come a very demanding dance study schedule and relentless teachers that require the best, really swallowing your ego and not performing professionally until you have extensive training. I’m personally used to having Western dance teachers that drive drive drive you to be the best. Very few compliments, lots of critique. The truth is that just like some sports, there are some rough coaches out there and they are not there to be your best friend or stroke your ego, they will not settle until you are the best athlete/dancer you can be. To me, those are traits of real trainers/coaches/teachers.
    For Middle Eastern dance here in the US, this is unheard of. Most dance classes here foster the feeling of a female empowered community and positive reinforcement for haflas for all. As much as I’ve loved being a part of this, I also have seen it as detrimental. There are a lot of dancers out there that claim to be at a professional level that lack that core training that is only attained by hours in the studio heavily critiqued by a relentless perfectionist as a teacher. As I read Rosalba’s article, I feel like I’ve let my own training slide and am now inspired to find a teacher that’s teaching style is more equivalent to Saida. I agree with Saida- too many compliments create an unhealthy ego that prevents significant technical growth. This is my opinion though, others may feel like she’s a “bully” or a “slave driver” and I think that is because of the high bar she sets and will strip you to bare bones to help you build the kind of “muscle” you need to endure and transform into a consumate performer/dancer. I can only say from observation is that if you don’t have a thick skin for that kind of critique, yes you’re not going to excel in a class that is based on constant perfection. But I really encourage you give it a try, at least once to really push yourself as a dancer.
    I’d just remember why Saida has pushed to elevate this dance form: it’s just as respectable as ballet or flamenco (even tango!) and deserves recognition for the time and dedication oriental dancers dedicate to learning all the nuances. She’s all for the sophisticated art form and that I respect deeply.
    I feel incredibly blessed to have recieved an extensive interview via email with Saida recently about her dance journey, training and the creation of that very dance academy. She’s truly remarkable (and crazy busy!- but in a good way) (stay tuned for the interview in my upcoming business guide).
    Awesome job Rosalba, thank you for sharing your personal journey 🙂
     

  9. No Gravatar
    Pauline Costianes

    Aug 28, 2013 - 07:08:45

    I can understand how the average American Oriental dance student would find this type of training intimidating, although it was truly stated that in other dance forms, it’s not about making everybody happy, touchy-feely, “female empowerment”, sisterhood, blowing smoke up yer keister – it’s about training you properly and to get what you paid for.
    That said, I think that praise for doing things correctly is encouraging for a student, and validates that she’s doing a movement correctly. 
    I have had experience with a late well-known male teacher who, unlike Saida, wasn’t just strict, but mocked students when he felt they weren’t doing a movement properly. Well, I was appalled. Strictness can be a form of showing love for your art, but that crap definitely wasn’t.
     

  10. No Gravatar
    Sandra

    Aug 30, 2013 - 09:08:26

    I took two workshops from Saida at MBC last year and I was amazed, intimidated, yet impressed with her techniques and instructions. Very straightforward which is my preference actually.
    I think it’s awesome you traveled to Argentina and got a chance to her Academy and class structure. Makes me want to travel down there myself!
    Looks like you found the inspiration you were looking for, now let me go find mine!

  11. No Gravatar
    Shelley Muzzy

    Sep 1, 2013 - 01:09:57

    Perhaps some of my misunderstanding and discomfort comes from the way the article was written, not in the fact that middle eastern dance is treated like any other form of dance in Argentina.  I have taken formal dance classes myself, and even middle eastern dance teachers were very demanding and precise without being mean.  I never confuse the two attitudes.  However, please remember that a plethora of students doesn’t necessarily mean the teacher is great and we all should know by now that just because a dancer is fantastic, it doesn’t mean she is a good teacher.  It will be interesting to hear Saida speak for herself.  

  12. No Gravatar
    April

    Sep 12, 2013 - 01:09:46

    I really enjoyed reading your article and am very happy you got go study abroad!
    I myself prefer a strict instructor but one who also gives positive feedback and corrects
    without humiliation.  Thank you for sharing! Best wishes on your dance journey!

  13. No Gravatar
    Maria

    Sep 20, 2013 - 02:09:44

    I would love to be in a school like this. It actually reminds me of the pilates school I went to that seriously changed my life. I am very sick of teachers not giving feedback, not calling students on their mistakes or even worse, not noticing them. Also, being relaxed and teaching people that this is not a serious dance form by not using proper dance curriculum structure, I m telling you. Very, very sick of it, I had to learn all the important stuff from other dance forms and merge them back into my form because the bellydance teachers were not giving the effort. Too bad Argentina is so far away from me.

  14. No Gravatar
    analia

    Sep 26, 2013 - 11:09:28

    Hey Rosalba! I´ve read your article and (as saida`s student) I have to say that the person you are describing is not the same Saida I see in every class. I m in the 3 grade and I´ve NEVER heard her shouting to anyone!!!! We are a lot of girls in that class and she takes all the time to correct us, she sees everything and she walks next to you and explain everything. I think this article is not fair at all. A lot of times she says “well done”. Nobody goes to her school for hobby, we go because we want to be dancers so she teaches us hard work. And we choose her for that. If someone read this article and it´s doubting about going to her classes please know that you are going to be loosing an amazing class with a wonderful teacher. I always see students from all around the world and they left happy, I´ve been leaving that school with a smile since day one. That school is my place, where I go to dance and where I meet friends but it´s not this military school you described!!!!

  15. No Gravatar
    Elsa Figueroa

    Sep 27, 2013 - 08:09:24

    Thank you, Rosalba, for sharing your experience. I admire Saida very much and took pleasure in reading more about her and her school. I think I can relate to you because my current teacher in Oakland has a similar vision: she is training dancers for a theatrical setting, and although a very nice person with a great heart and lots of positive energy, she is incredibly strict and will never let you slack off. She is always correcting us on good posture and good technique, and provides well-rounded training for her company dancers: not just technique, but also musicality, instruments (zills and drum), props, stage presence, costuming and make-up. For me this is the best approach. I don’t like teachers that just impart a class without paying too much attention to what the students are doing, and too many teachers just let people do whatever they want. That’s not good and it’s not beneficial. I personally agree more with the culture in Argentina that you described where the stage is respected and one must earn the opportunity to make it up there. Often the community in the US encourages anybody and everybody to just get up on a stage without really paying attention to technique or form.

  16. No Gravatar
    Paloma

    Mar 29, 2014 - 01:03:15

    The truth is that in argentina the only people who loves saida are her students and at the same time they are afraid of her. In argentina the people who met her in workshops are not pleased, because she is very enlarged and pride. 

  17. No Gravatar
    Alexia

    Mar 29, 2014 - 01:03:00

    el metodo de la mayoria de los maestros de danzas arabes en argentina es exactamente asi. humillarte, tener preferidos, hacer diferencia, comparar, todo lo esto lo saco de amir, la diferencia es que amir no la caratea, admite que es su escuela no tiene las puertas abiertas para todo el mundo y que sino se siente comodo con alguien lo invita a que se valla.
     

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Gilded Serpent

MaryEllen Donald