My Return to Dance
posted March 15, 2015
Encore: Verb – To add to or repeat a performance, an extra or repeated performance. I was privileged to have the opportunity of an encore, a reprise that provided a look back at how very much I loved to dance – I still do! – and to teach and share my knowledge after nearly 15 years away from the art I spent most of my adult life practicing.
As many long-time readers of Gilded Serpent know, I had a 30-year career in Middle Eastern dance as a performer, teacher and writer. In the summer of 2000, while on tour with the Stanford Jazz Ensemble in Europe, I was walking with a group of students and was hit by an Italian tour bus, leaving me with TBI (traumatic brain injury) in addition to physical injuries. (See Bàraka and the Bus for details if you like.)
For more than 13 years I didn’t dance, though I missed it fiercely. I felt like I had unequivocally lost a part of myself.
My equilibrium was unsteady, I had been left with memory gaps and physical problems, and I felt that I could never again meet the standard I had always held myself to – to give the very best I could. But following the death of John Compton in October 2012, my dear friend Rita (Rebaba) Alderucci reconstituted Hahbi’Ru for memorial performances to honor John’s memory, slated for Rakassah and Tribal Fest in 2013. I so wanted to be part of this, even if I was limited to standing on stage and playing zils or tambourine, just to acknowledge John’s place in my life – and it was a big place he occupied, believe me!
There was a Ru potluck in San Francisco in early December of ’13, and I drove down from my home in the Sacramento Delta. I was nervous and frankly scared – one of the lasting problems I deal with is being highly sensitive to too much stimulation – and I was walking into a crowd of people, some of whom I’d never even met, though they too were part of the Ru family and loved John just as I did.
I was welcomed so warmly and was thrilled that several of my students had followed in my footsteps and become Ru’s. I agreed that I wanted to participate in whatever way I could, though I feared it would be minimal. A first rehearsal was set for January, and I decided I would go in cold. I didn’t watch any old videos or review any of the dances; I just wanted to see what, if anything, I remembered and whether I could dance up to the level that was required (at least in my mind.).
At that first rehearsal, there were many hugs and tears, and then the music started – Jamilo!
I was handed a basket, found my place in the line-up, and we began… the magic happened and I remembered!
It was still in my body, I could keep up, and instead of bumbling through, I realized that it was just the small things I needed to pick up – things like remembering the head turn when a foot came up, or which arm was on top on a linked turn!
At the end of that evening, I’m sure I wasn’t even touching the ground when I walked out of the studio, I was so elated, so excited, so dumbfounded by the joy of being able to move again, to be part of the family I loved so dearly! I bounced in my seat all the way through the 2-hour drive back home, laughing and telling myself over and over, “I can still dance! I can still dance!”
Over the next few months, we rehearsed weekly and things got better, though I struggled to learn the cymbal dance, which had been added to the Ru repertoire after I left the group. I borrowed costume pieces and remade my headdress and worked hard to learn what was needed to fully be a part of the memorial and reach the standard that John had always expected of us.
Top photo: At Desert Dance Festival 1990, in a much-loved Madame Abla costume.
This photo – Tahiya and me “gossiping” about John’s favored wife for the partner dance, with Mark Bell on doumbek. (1993)
When Rakassah came around, I felt almost ready – still a little shaky when there were sequential turns, a little nervous about remembering the cymbal choreography, but thrilled to be there. Seeing the heartfelt welcome from the audience, feeling the excitement of being back on stage and doing the dances I had come to love, and that were inextricably linked in my mind to the wonderful years we had at the Northern California Renaissance Faire at Black Point, made those 15 minutes beautiful to me. Jamilo and Tamzara were always two of my favorite dances, and performing them once more with my Ru family was sheer joy. Our tears flowed as the curtain closed, and we all gathered for a hearty dinner and endless remembrances afterward, shared between John’s “real” family and his Ru family.
Then it was on to Tribal Fest – and an even greater welcome. From the moment we started the procession to the stage, flinging flowers, singing and dancing, the audience was on their feet. Despite Rita injuring her knee in the first dance, she carried on throughout the show, and again we were lifted up by the love everyone held for John and Hahbi’Ru. We had added the Tunisian dance for this show, and added the pots in the entrance segment – it had been a long, long time since I’d balanced something, but it stayed on my head! One of the best parts of this show was that we prepped out in the park rather than in the dressing room, and it almost felt like we were back at Black Point, with perfect weather, good food and friends. Once more, John’s legacy was honored in great style and with great love shared and surrounding us all.
My first photo shoot, circa 1973 – a pretty hokey homemade
costume\ with CostPlus jewelry,
Finally, we were invited to be part of the Remembrance tribute to Jamila in Berkeley in October, where we did Beledi. To be able to honor my teacher and to dance once more for her filled my heart with gratitude for all she had done – she gave all of us a foundation of dance and terminology that made it possible to clearly communicate between dancers, and in many people’s eyes, gave a legitimacy to a form that had been undervalued for decades. She has always been a figure of great strength and power to me, and to give thanks to her in dance was a culmination long awaited. Though it had been a long evening for her, to exchange a hug and a few words after the show was a perfect end to an amazing encore to my career as a dancer that I had never expected to experience.
Now I look back at what I was blessed to have received from dance, so many memories arise: My first ballet class at 3 years old and dancing and singing my way through school; having teachers who inspired me, expected the best I could give, and encouraged me to grow; finding this form that combined so much of what I loved – dancing, of course, but music and ethnology and beautiful fabric to sew into exotic costumes, to play dress-up; being fortunate enough to be in the right time and place to find an incredible teacher in Jamila; making the journey from baby dancer (and how terrified I was the first time Jamila approved me to do a student performance at a Moon Celebration at the Casbah!) to (mostly) respected teacher and author doing something that brought me so much joy; spending those years with John and Rita, Hahbi’Ru and all my sister-wives and family at Black Point and at so many unique events; progressing from dancing in pizza parlors to a keyboard and clarinet duo who could only manage a single set of Middle Eastern-sounding music to working with many superb musicians in beautiful clubs and venues; being honored for my work with awards from my peers and mentors.
The Toolkit itself is truly a timeless resource, since it approaches Middle Eastern dance from a broader perspective than most instructional videos. It begins with material on body awareness, how to see dance, the dancer’s consciousness, and my dance philosophy. A complete warm-up, with explanations of why these particular movements are essential for Middle Eastern dance, is followed by a 24-step compendium that breaks down each movement from the bottom up, skeletally and muscularly, and then explains how to add variation and emotional quality to it. Following this is a multi-leveled choreography to the opening section of Leylat Hob, both in rehearsal and in modified costumes.
I wanted to make a video that would work for everyone regardless of their level of accomplishment, and that wouldn’t be tied to a single style of dance – American cabaret, Egyptian, Tribal, Turkish, or anything else. This is truly a tool that every dancer can benefit from. One of the important differences in the Toolkit is that there is always someone whose body type you can relate to demonstrating. Three of my students, Tahiya, Heather and Tara (who sadly passed away 8 years ago from brain cancer) are on camera constantly – so if you are long- or short-torsoed, slender or curvy, tall or short, you can see how each movement should appear on your body.
The Toolkit won Best Instructional Video awards from both GAMAL and IAMED the year it was released, and has been praised and purchased across the US and around the world. To have finally updated it – and its 20-page PDF workbook as well – and have it again available to dancers of all styles and genres and ages, is the best legacy I can leave to the form I loved and supported and labored in for decades.
It is bittersweet to recognize that an encore is also a finale, that the show is over. While these last performances were encouraging, I realized when viewing them that I didn’t have the confidence in myself that I had always had before the accident, and I knew that performing would never again be something I could do with ease – at least not as a soloist! But maybe I could still teach?
Rebaba was to teach the Hahbi’Ru Pot Dance for Jill Parker’s Gold Rush in February. Since she was still awaiting knee surgery, she asked Paula and me to demonstrate while she taught. I was happy to be part of this, and enjoyed the chance to be in the studio again, albeit in a secondary capacity. But it got me wondering if I might be able to teach on my own.
I had been participating in the 1970s Belly Dance Facebook group, and had been encouraged by many of the members to re-release my 1997 instructional video, The Dancer’s Toolkit. It took months to get the video converted, and I hoped for a June 2014 release. Terry DelGiorno wanted me to teach a workshop for her, tied to the Toolkit material, and after some convincing on her part – OK, honestly, she had to twist my arm and convince me to do this despite my fears – I agreed to a small event with student participation. My concept was to target specifics that students were looking to improve, so I provided a pre-workshop questionnaire to get ideas about what to address. This may not have been the most workable of ideas, since fewer than half the students signed up in time to submit their ideas. The day of the workshop I was very nervous, afraid I wouldn’t be capable of rising to the occasion.
While the feedback from those who attended was positive, I felt I hadn’t been able to be effective as a teacher. One of the issues I deal with post-injury is that I have become a uni-tasker – only able to do one thing at a time – and to teach well, I need to be able to keep a lesson plan moving, provide feedback, answer questions, and keep abreast of the energy and momentum in the room. On this score, I will frankly have to admit that I couldn’t do it, and there were moments when Terry had to take over and help me to refocus. I was disappointed in my abilities and my concentration wavered too much to work up to the standard I would expect from an instructor. I am still considering offering individual coaching, but I’m afraid that the workshop circuit is not a productive venue for me to pursue.
However, after considerable delays (over 6 months more than I’d expected) I have finally re-released The Dancer’s Toolkit as a 2-DVD set, including my 1996 performance video, The Best of Baraka, plus a final improvisation that is my last recorded performance. This final performance was at Choreography Consciousness in San Francisco in 1999 and I was to perform a piece I’d choreographed, but fate, being the fickle mistress she is, was having none of it. I’d performed earlier that day at a benefit in Marin for a dancer who’d suffered a severe spinal injury, and discovered on my arrival in SF that I’d left both copies of my music at the prior event. The organizer took me to her CD collection and I recognized a piece I’d coached a student on but never performed myself. The resulting performance still amazes me every time I view it – it was one of those rare performances where everything is in the moment, every beat is caught, every nuance of the music is expressed, and I love it! I think it is a performance of which I can be very proud, as well as humbled by the experience of it.
I have wished I had the last 15 years back as a dancer, but I realize that there comes a time when we must release things that no longer are possible. I am pursuing a new career as a healer, having completed my training as a Reiki Master and am now looking forward to becoming a certified massage practitioner. I have discovered that teaching and dancing and healing are all aspects of the same desire to bring harmony into the world and into our hearts, and so while I still love to dance and the movements will never leave me, my path forward lies elsewhere.
The years I spent as a dancer were at the core of my being. I will never forget the joy of live improvisational performance, when the music and the dance and the moment became one. I will never regret the many travels, the students who pushed me to be the best I could be, the friends I made – and the mistakes as well! And if on occasion I spoke unwisely or unkindly, I ask the forgiveness of anyone on the receiving end of my sometimes-unconsidered speech.
It was an incredible ride and I am grateful for so much, from the Casbah to Black Point, from teaching in church parlors and recreation centers to flying across the country to teach in ballrooms and auditoriums, for the safety pins shared and the costume malfunctions, for the many wonderful musicians who shared their talent. The late night breakfasts after the clubs shut down, San Francisco’s Broadway at 3 AM. Going to sleep under the stars at Black Point and seeing my favorite pirate in the tree above Caravansary Stage. So many memories, so much joy and laughter, so full a life, and finally, the encore that brought all this into perspective.
If you’ve ever taken a workshop or class with me, if you hired me to work in your club or entertain at your party, if you were an audience member in clubs or shows or contests or at a Renaissance Faire, if you bought a costume or shared a dressing room, and if I learned from you as a teacher or performer or especially a human being, you are a part of this encore as well. It would not have been the same without you, and you have my sincere thanks for making my dance life something I will never regret and never forget.
click photo for enlargement.
Miss America of the Belly Dance 1993
1-?, 2-Sese, 3-Pam Duka Stewart, 4-Nanna Candelaria (1st Runner Up), 5-Dhyanis, 6-Magana Baptiste, 7-Baraka, 8-Magenta, 9-?. 10-Meesheya?, 11-?, behind- 12-?, 13-?
Early Troupe: 1-Judith, 2-Rashid, 3-Cynthia, 4-?, 5-Baraka, 6-Don, 7-?, 8-?, 9-Carolyn
photo taken about 1975 – 76.
Desert Dance Festival- 1994 or 5. Susu on drum, who on violin?
Ready for more?
- 11-1998 Dalia Carella in San Francisco
- 7-7-03 Baraka & the Bus or What happened to Baraka?
By now, having lost my home, my studio, my library, my recordings, and my database, you would think I would start to get the hint that it might be time to move away from dance. Having been a dancer literally all of my life, I simply couldn’t give it up!
- 2-6-03 The Tale of Two Faires by many
It seemed that the ren faire we all knew in Black Point, Novato, kept changing producers and locations. Now their were two ren faires!
I left Cairo on September 9th, 2012, after a three-week visit to research the zar. I wrote the following article on my flight home – two days before the Libyan tragedy* and the violence outside Cairo’s US Embassy. As my plane circled the pyramids I had no idea Egypt would once again become the center of world attention.
- 9-18-12 The Glamorous Early Years of London Bellydancing:How Elaine Okba Became Fatin Shaukat in the 1960s!
Adel’s father was the person who modified the accordion by putting in quarter tones so that the instrument could play Oriental music, and he played in Nahit Sabri’s orchestra. When she came to London on a shopping spree she called us to have a meal with her.
- 3-22-00 Wave #2 of North Beach Memories!
1-4-00 Latifa-The Rest of the San Francisco Dance Scene-(Powell St Station)
2-25-00 Bert Balladine– at long last Bert begins his story
2-25-00 George Elias– a tribute written by his daughter, Nadia Elias.
3-22-00 John Compton– Finnochios, Bal Anat, to Hahbi’ru
3-22-00 Abdullah Kdouh– well known musician interviewed by mail, [ed- not much detail but we tried!]
- 3-7-2015 Facts and Misconceptions about Kawliya, Interview with Assala Ibrahim on the topic of Iraqi dance especially Kawliya
My first encounter with her was in her Kawliya and Iraqi Zar workshops at Amani’s Oriental Festival in July 2014. I was excited by this rare opportunity to learn the dance from a native Iraqi dancer because dance for me is not a fantasy but a way to understand the culture behind it and to make a spiritual connection with the people of the dance.
- 2-7-15 ,
Hindsight may or may not always be 20-20, but time to reflect always brings a broader perspective and deeper understanding. I know this both as a professional belly dancer and as a museum consultant. Recently my dance and museum worlds intertwined when I took time to reflect on my personal and professional evolution in dance and in business
For its first year, the NYCairo Raks Festival produced by Bellydance America and Mohamed Shahin created a notable event with star-studded performances, authoritative workshop instructors and opportunities to meet dancers from around the world. I was fortunate to have the chance to perform in the open stage, watch all the gala shows and partake in several of the workshops.
I have read many times that “Gypsy” is a bad word because they prefer to be called “Rom.” Therefore, it is disrespectful to use the word in any form. I beg to differ.
- 11-16-14 Color, Graphic Design for Dancers, Part 2
Now we’ll delve into applying colors in marketing materials, returning to the ever-present concepts of hierarchy and legibility introduced previously.
Exploring and blending these disciplines has long been my “secret sauce.” Centering and breathing, conscious transitions, body and soul awareness–from footfall to fingertip and beyond–nourish and replenish my dance.
- 10-17-14 Retirement, Is There Life After Dance?
Perhaps this was my mistake; I had a plan for my dance career, and I was not shy to tell it to everyone who would listen.
- 9-30-14 An Evening of Egyptian Music and Dance, a Report from El Leil
Amina and the Aswan Dancers did it again! The sold out show at the Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts was another stellar example of the kinds of show their fans have grown to expect and they have not yet been disappointed.
Like every area, the UK has seen an ebb and flow in the popularity of belly dance, the economic impact and the rise in popularity of fusions styles has changed the dance from when I first started twenty years ago. Yet I see a strong, healthy and supporting scene posed to expand when disposable income in the general population increases.
- 9-6-14 Don’t Come Whining to Me! An Open Letter to Aspiring Young Belly Dancer
If you audition for a Greek restaurant – do NOT come to an audition with anything other than Greek music.
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