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The Rainstorm in the Desert!

Experience Amel’s Authentic Maghreb Dance

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by Nisreen
posted May 7, 2015

After taking a prior workshop with Amel Tafsout, a dance professional originally from Algeria, I realized that I knew very little about dance styles of the Maghreb.  Eager to learn more about these dance styles, I signed up for the five-day Maghreb Dance Intensive at the Amador Athletic Club, in Sutter Creek, California, which this year was held during the last week in February, 2015.

The early-bird price of $750 was much friendlier to my wallet than international airfare to the Maghreb would have been!  This is because the Maghreb is in the region of North Africa comprised of Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Mauritania and the disputed territory of Western Sahara which is quite a long distance from my desert southwest. There is no comparison to studying with a dance professional with authentic cultural insight, technical skill and accurate interpretation of dance styles from another part of the world. After growing up in Algeria, Amel has since lived in Europe and now the U.S.  As a result of her time outside of Algeria, she is familiar with how Western students have a need to count out steps and break down movements. She accommodates that style of learning.  She can also teach in the “follow me” format too. Amel is proud to share her knowledge of Maghreb dance, and she does indeed act as a cultural ambassador in that regard.

The event participants consisted of six ladies.  Two of us were Maghreb dance neophytes, but we did the best we could to be quick to learn.  Another lady studies West African dance and she caught on quickly.  The remaining other three ladies were more familiar with North African dance.  Two of the ladies learned the drumming rhythms quickly and the rest of us focused intently to manage the simultaneous frame drum playing, singing and dancing. We had a lot of fun regardless of our skill level.   

Each day included 4 hours of dance instruction plus an additional hour or more of lecture, quizzes, review, videos, drum instruction, and discussion. During each dance segment, Amel taught us how to properly wear appropriate costumes, which meant that we all got to try on Amel’s costumes, and dance in them which was a treat! The first day of the five-day intensive included a brief introduction of the course, and an informative handout regarding the Maghreb, with country specific details, important vocabulary and dance explanations such as the importance of fertility and protection in the dance, as well as explanations of the various musical influences from the Middle East, Turkey, Medieval Spain and of course, Africa.  The handout was background information that Amel had prepared.  In terms of simple geography, for instance, I learned that Algeria is the largest country in Africa.  Amel also brought books on the Maghreb with her and allowed us to borrow them after class, for additional background on regional dress, travel and other historical topics.  

The North African music was infectious and fortunately, Amel had reasonably priced CDs and DVDs available for purchase.  Amel explained which CDs had which kind of music on them so that we could decide for ourselves which ones to buy. Since frame drumming was an integral part of some dance style we were going have frame drum instructional segment. The frame drums were provided by Amel, as most of us traveled to this event.

Day 1 – Introduction and Amazigh-Berber Dance and Culture

Our first day of class was an overview of Amazigh-Berber dance.  With her roots in Constantine, Algeria, Amel has Amazigh-Berber dance and music in her blood.  What a treat it was to learn the Amazigh-Berber shimmy and partner dances from Amel, with her feedback regarding our progress and hands-on corrections.  I will not forget her demonstration of the Maghreb hand and wrist movements, full of energy and grace!  

3 women
Amazigh Dance
Nisreen, Valerie, Melody

Day Two – Tunisian

The second day of class included Tunisian dance with its strong hip movement. This was a day for much constructive feedback from Amel as Tunisian dance was completely new to me.  I will not forget her instruction to me to keep my knees closer together, as she had to remind me about that detail.  We also began learning to play the frame drum.  This was something I had never done before.  We started with the basics – how to hold the frame drum and progressed to playing slowly and then faster, playing while singing, playing while dancing, and then playing while singing and dancing.  I am accustomed to playing my finger cymbals while dancing, but I was really challenged by this exercise.  As the days went on and Amel patiently lead us through this new experience, we all improved to the point where we could actually play the frame drum while singing in Arabic and dancing.  Although it is something that will take much more time to truly master, I am glad that Amel included this frame drum exercise in the event.  I plan on buying a frame drum so that I do not lose this ability!

3 women

Tunisian Dance
Melody, Amel, Nisreen

Day Three – Algerian Including Andalusia

The third day was dedicated to Algerian dance, which was another completely new experience to me. Amel’s expertise guided us as we learned how to coordinate a group dance and how to dance with a partner.  We learned that Andalusia music is the classical music of North Africa.  Andalusia music is based on the Nuba, which is like a symphony, hence the classical identification.  Andalusia refers to the fact that various outside musical influences (particularly Spain, but also Arab and Turkish) are represented.  You can see for yourself how the costuming for Andalusian dance is very colorful! We learned an Andalusia scarf dance which we performed with Amel at the hafla later on the fourth day of the event in the weekend.  

6 women

Andalusian Scarf Dance
Janine Ryle, Allison, Helena, Valerie, Melody, Nisreen

Day Four – Moroccan

On the fourth day we commenced a Moroccan dance, music and costuming segment. We were able to learn about the status of Western Sahara as land that Morocco claims as its Southern Provinces and that Morocco has had a history of independence that others in the Maghreb have not enjoyed to the same degree.  

6 women

Moroccan costumes
Nisreen, Allison, Valerie, Helena, Melody, Janine

Also on the fourth day Amel asked us in advance if we were interested in performing the Andalusia scarf dance or if we wanted chance to share our dance expression at a hafla.   Not everybody was expected to perform.  Once I heard that there was the possibility to dance to live music, I was on board!  We were cheered on by a very receptive and appreciative audience at Sophia’s Well of Wisdom, which is a cozy wellness center full of positive energy. I was on cloud nine as Amel’s husband, Ishmael, a master Kanoun player, played the Kanoun and Amel sang and played the frame drum while I was dancing.  The Kanoun is my favorite instrument, and I prefer to dance to live music, so I am grateful to Amel for making that very special dance experience possible.

Hafla

The Hafla
1, Allison, 3, Janine

Day Five – Sufi Spirituality

The last day of class was a spiritual journey.  We were already a cohesive group, so we entered the world of Sufi spirituality in a safe environment. Sadly I was unable to stay until the very end, as I had to catch a plane, but I can attest to the fact that the connection among the workshop participants was strengthened through that experience of music, movement, breathing and spiritual and emotional release.  We all received a certificate of attendance as a final touch of Amel’s thoughtfulness and to commemorate our participation in the event.

 

Conclusion

In the end, I left the Maghrebi Dance Intensive with the same impression of Amel that I had when I arrived.  What a joy to learn from a woman who dances like a rainstorm in the desert! Amel Tafsout offers a rare chance to nourish your mind, dance and spirit with a few sprinkles here and there in the form of an overview of the Maghreb or in a deluge of dance information; with a soft flourish of the hand or a veritable flurry of Berber shimmies; or with an introduction to Sufi spinning or an emotional/spiritual release.  Do not miss the chance to learn Maghreb Dance with Amel Tafsout!

6 w Amel

Dancers in Moroccan dress with Amel
Nisreen, Allilson, Valerie, Helena, Melody, Janine

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   |       |    1 Comment

  1. No Gravatar
    nadia

    Jan 23, 2016 - 12:01:16

    hello! this article made me want to jump on the first airplane and go to north africa to explore all this richness, can i ask a question? i’ve heard of beber shimmies before, can you please describe how to do them and whats the difference between them and a regular knee shimmy? thank you!

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