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Sausan teaches
Gilded Serpent presents...
Sausan’s First
Egyptian Dance Seminar

by Melinda

Student of Sausan's Academy of Egyptian Dance

What would you think if you heard somebody say, “There are no isolations in Egyptian Belly dance"?

You might be skeptical about it, as I was when I heard it; however, when the person who made the statement has produced many creditable professional dancers in a short time, you would probably want to hear what else she had to say.

Sausan of San Francisco gave her first-ever intensive dance seminar this past January. Though Sausan has been known on the San Francisco Belly dance scene for many years, you may be surprised to learn that she taught her first guest workshop last year, and only began teaching group lessons two years ago. I, among seven diverse and enthusiastic women, attended Sausan’s first seminar and was extremely impressed.

Her informational brochure for the seminar promised “four days of intensive Egyptian dance.” Each day was intended to cover one of the four courses in the current Sausan Academy program. As a current student of Sausan’s Academy, I knew that each course is ordinarily 12 weeks long, with classes held once per week. I wondered how all of that material could be covered in only four days!

  • The first course covers upper body movements,
  •  while the second incorporates one’s lower body with the upper body.
  • The third course dissects classical Egyptian music into its common elements such as: drum solos, bridges, etc. Students learn how to recognize and interpret these components in their own dance.
  • The final 12 weeks contains application of what has been learned in the previous three courses. The student learns Sausan’s original choreography for a nine to twelve minute classical Egyptian dance piece, usually a standard like “Mashaal”, and is then encouraged to go past the choreography to find her own interpretation based on her personal style and perception of the music, all within the framework of what Sausan terms the “Egyptian Dance Code.”

    One of the first things one was likely to notice is that Sausan had done her research! On the evening before the seminar began, each seminar participant was provided with a thick binder containing the fully-documented choreography they were to learn, biographies of the great 20th century Egyptian dancers and musicians, and even CDs of music and DVDs of dance clips taken from the golden era of Egyptian cinema, each illustrating one or more key principles of the Egyptian Dance Code.

She even included quizzes on the biographies that the participants could take home to use with their own students. Each biography was also accompanied by a CD of the musician’s work or a DVD of the dancer in action. Also included were Sausan’s instructional DVDs of Egyptian dancers subtitled with the names Sausan uses for the moves the dancers were performing. All of this was for the participants to keep and was included in the price of the seminar registration.

The participants were a diverse group, in terms of age and ethnicity, but we were all experienced dancers ready to try something new. There were only seven of us, and the seminar was formatted so that we were able to form personal relationships with each of the other attendees in the four-and-a-half days we spent together. Not only did we spend six to seven hours per day in class, we also shared three meals per day! Sausan had breakfast and lunch at her studio in Glen Park catered from her restaurant, Al Masri, in the Richmond District. The out-of-towners stayed in hotels close to the restaurant, where we had dinner and saw two dance shows per night. Everything was included in the price of the seminar registration and Sausan chauffeured the group between their hotels, the studio, and the restaurant.

Frankly, there wasn’t time for anything else. Although I didn’t hear any complaints, I imagine that the dancers attending from far away may have wished they had more time to see San Francisco.

The first and second days focused on the Egyptian Dance Code. It’s difficult to explain, but here’s a peek:

  1. No isolations; (Think of Keanu Reeves trying to bend the spoon in “The Matrix”.  The little boy told him ‘There is no spoon.’) In this dance there are no isolations!
  2. Keep your upper body as involved in the dance as your lower body.
  3. Always give the first and third beats an upward emphasis, and the second and fourth beats a downward one, which is opposite of Western dance forms, and a common mistake of Western bellydancers.

This is the sort of thing that can take a person like me, who has studied with numerous other instructors over the past eight or so years, some practice. If there’s no isolation, why have I been practicing mayas in a doorframe and other lower-body movements in a mirror covering my lower half and trying to look still on top?’ I wondered. I suppose what Sausan would say is that although I may have been Belly dancing, I wasn’t dancing in the Egyptian style. If you don’t believe any of this, just pop in a video of an old-style Egyptian dancer with these three principles in mind and see for yourself. We watched several videos in class, and by the end, we were all EDC converts.

On Saturday, which focused on listening to and interpreting Arabic music, well-known local musician, Musa Hanhan gave a presentation on musical theory and then discussed a few of the great composers and entertainers of the early half of the 20th century. Although some of the theory discussion went over our heads, I was impressed that he tried to explain the tonal scales of Arabic music in addition to rhythms. (Most Arabic music discussions tend to focus only on rhythm.) We were amused to hear him demonstrate how anything from “Jingle Bells” to the “Star Spangled Banner” can be Arab-ized simply by changing the musical key.

On the fourth day, which focused on application of method, Sausan’s Cairene partner, Hatem el-Sayed, pulled the whole seminar into perspective by leading a discussion on Egyptian culture. He explained how people often confuse independent but overlapping groups like Arabs, Muslims, Arabic language speakers, and Middle Easterners. We had an engaging question-and-answer session. Topics included these questions:

  • “How are professional bellydancers viewed by the Egyptian public?”
  • “How have things changed in the last 10 or 20 years and how might they change in the future?”
  • “What role has government played in regulating bellydance (who can do it, what can they wear, etc.)?”

Hatem also introduced four or five of the most influential dancers of the 1920s through the 1950s, like Samia and Tahiya, and he shared some interesting gossip on more contemporary stars like Fifi and Nagwa from his personal connections in Cairo during the 70s and 80s.

Both Musa and Hatem are staunch supporters of our dance art. Together with Sausan and other concerned parties, they have founded the Egyptian Dance Preservation Society, whereby they intend to create an archive of film, music, and costumes, and promote and educate on Egyptian dance from the early- to mid-20th century. It will be fascinating to see where their endeavor leads.

Our experiences at the restaurant were exemplary. We had the same reserved table all four nights right in front of the stage. On Thursday night, Al Masri’s newest dancer, and one of Sausan’s recent graduates, Gabriela, was the performer. Her first show was a classical piece and the second was a really cute rendition of a Nancy Ajram song.

Friday night featured beautiful Amani, who also did two shows. The first was a cane number in a beautiful tiger striped velvet costume with rhinestone accents and almost no fringe. The second piece was to Musa’s live accompaniment. About ten or twelve members of Musa’s family had come that night, and when Amani started pulling people up to dance, between his family and our table of dancers, it seemed that the whole audience was dancing. 

Sausan learned a great deal from feedback she was given from her first seminar’s participants. The next one she teaches will have fewer hours per day classroom time, more breaks, and there will be more than four days. There will be more free time to explore independently, or spend time as participants choose. Sausan’s next seminar will likely be held early in 2006. Melinda was given this workshop as a gift from Sausan and then asked to write an article about it.

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