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Gilded Serpent presents...
Giza Awards 2005
A Cultural Odyssey

Every year a crowd gathers in the basement of a colorfully decorated home in the hills of San Francisco to witness history being made, re-made, or more accurately declared. Now entering its tenth year, the Giza Awards were created by Amina Goodyear and Gregory Burke as an extension of the Giza Club, which is an educational and research organization founded by Amina.

Only one of many events sponsored by the Giza Club, this event took place from 7:30 to midnight, and included awards with clips similar to the Academy Awards. Following the awards was first-peek premiere of a brand-new documentary.

Judging for these awards is an arduous process. This year Amina and Gregory received over 40 submissions, including documentary films, instructional videos, and performance compilations.

The judges viewed each submission at least three times in total no skipping ahead, no running to the loo during the boring bits. Each submission averages at least 30 minutes in length. Sometimes the actual entry consists of one 5-minute clip of a particular dancer; at other times there might be several submissions on the same video. Still, this is potentially up to 120 hours of critical viewing, not counting the many in-person meetings for discussion. As Amina and Gregory state in their behind-the-scenes description of the awards process,"The judges may have no thread of personal connection to the material"; any connection will disqualify the judge from judging that particular submission. The judges don't have to even like the particular style much in order to acknowledge excellence or accomplishment within it.

The evening began with a short historical prelude, including remarks on media perishability and obsolescence. Anyone who's worked with computers for more than 5 years knows all about this.

The priceless footage and audio recordings from 10 years ago have to be transferred, and re-transferred, or they disappear.

We saw some of the latest from Lebanese satellite TV, quite interesting not because the dancing was that great (it wasn't) but because that's what was going on there, until recent events shifted the focus of the TV stations from dance to war coverage. Now, it seems, you can't pick up Lebanese dance broadcasts in the U.S., because either they are blocked for transmission to the West, or because the content of the shows has changed - we don't really know. However, you can still find recorded shows from vendors like Saut Wa Soora in LA. Amina has 2 satellite dishes and is looking for a third, so she can continue to view these broadcasts. Preservation of Lebanese dance was a recurring theme that evening.

After the original show, in researching this article I was given the opportunity to view at greater length some of the winning items, as well as some of the finalists' clips.

Awards this year went to:

  1. Best Live Theatrical Performance Oriental Fantasy #12 "Egyptian Love Affair" by Horacio and Beata Cifuentes
    When I saw a short clip from this at the Awards, I thought the video was kind of stagey, reminding me of the IAMED awards videos from a few years back. The dancers had very good choreography and execution but were a little swallowed by the large and well-lit space they were in. This award was not for the quality of the video, however; it was for their accomplishments in the video. Amina says, "They were two of the first dancers to take Oriental dance from the nightclub to a theatrical level." Horacio and Beata Cifuentes are well-loved in Berlin, their home base, and a second viewing backed up the reasons why. They did several acts in this full-length two-person show, and showed exquisite technique, as well as versatility in both style and musicality.
  2. Documentary "The Belly Dancers of Cairo" by Natasha Senkovich
    This hour-long movie was premiered in full after the awards portion, with the filmmaker present to answer questions. As an introduction to the issues surrounding the genre today it was very good. The central question was how can dancers be so admired and simultaneously so rejected in their home culture. The schizophrenic cultural attitudes displayed by many Egyptians ("Well bellydancing is beautiful but I wouldn't want my wife or girlfriend to dance in public, only for me") were eerily echoed by the filmmaker's own brother, an American police cadet. The important news is that all is not lost; there is a group of forceful, powerful dancers willing to take on the powers that would stifle them.

    The best part of the movie for me was the interviews with famous Egyptian dancers of the past and present: Lucy, Dina, Katya, Nagwa Fouad, Nagwa Sultan, Samasem. They spoke candidly of their own lives and their tribulations, with an indomitable spirit that made me see for the first time how much inner strength they had just for continuing to dance when their lives, and sometimes the lives of their families, were quite literally at risk from fundamentalist violence. Some of their stories were heartbreaking, such as the Ghawazee dancer Khayreya Mazin, whose husband was supportive of her dance but who had to abort three pregnancies out of fear that for her family's safety.

    During a subsequent interview, Gregory said, "This is the most important documentary that we have seen in a decade. It describes the state of dance in Egypt and contains multiple themes. It fits the classic documentary model in that there are no false conclusions, instead it contains real pictures, real interviews that speak for themselves. It is well-written, well-conceived, and comes to real conclusions."

    The fact that these women faced obstacles to their art is also not unique to countries with fundamentalists in power. Filmmaker Natasha Senkovich shared a personal anecdote, describing how her Egyptian boyfriend gradually became more and more controlling and disapproving of her dancing. It's all too easy to nod and pity those benighted Arabs, as if none of us have ever been yelled at by our partners for not spending more time at home waiting for them! And to be honest, there are plenty of women out there who are jealous of their husband's careers and interests as well (unless they make enough money to keep their wives in nicer houses than any of their girlfriends').

    Art requires sacrifice and sometimes hard choices. A truly dedicated artist with a supportive spouse may be the exception rather than the rule anywhere.
  3. Historical Documentary of a Troupe "Tribal Travels: a Collage" by Paulette Rees Denis and Gypsy Caravan
    Amina's remarks on this one really made me regret that there wasn't time to see the whole thing. This documentary spans two years in the life of the troupe, from 2002-2004, containing numerous vignettes. Paulette is a prominent Tribal dancer from Portland and the Gypsy Caravan audio CDs are probably on every bellydancer's shelf for their accessibility and overall dance appeal. One critique I have heard of American Tribal Style (ATS) dancing is that the dancers dance *at* the music, not to it; most of the stuff I've seen looks mechanical and somewhat expressionless, despite being physically demanding and technically gorgeous. The short clip I saw here showed a more lively stage presence, more like Hahbi'Ru than like Fat Chance. A second viewing reinforced this impression. Amina mentions the "family-like quality" of the troupe. I was impressed with Paulette's understanding in her remarks to the camera; she's compassionate, intelligent, down-to-earth, and articulate. Gregory noted that "she seeks to explain her process of creation and performance, and also [shares] technical notes of how they work together for maximum effect." They also have a core of dedicated and skilled musicians, so they don't have to rely on canned music or club DJs like many other Tribal dancers. That also gives it an entirely different feel.
  4. Best Troupe/Live Performance "Hahbi'Ru Tradition Legend and Folklore" John Compton and Hahbi'Ru
    The excerpt was Hahbi'ru doing a lively kick dance. I had finally caught Hahbi'Ru last summer at the Renaissance Faire in Novato, CA, and thought they were terrific: great showmanship, great dancing, great choreography, great entertainment. Some clips from the video were of John Compton (Hahbi'Ru founder) talking about how he collected original dances and costumes. The DVD submission listed 13 dances, all appropriately labeled with titles such as "Egyptian Mourning", meaning they wanted to be faithful to the genres they presented. The spice that they add - character work and overall entertainment value - in no way detracts from their authenticity.
  5. Veil: Instructional Oriental Fantasy - Veil" by Beata Cifuentes
    A second win by the same person made me wonder whether it was a paucity of submissions or is she really hot stuff? After viewing more clips from both the first win and this tape, I'd say definitely the latter. If you want to learn fancy veil tricks, this may be the one. The teaching is methodical with a lot of repetition and what looked like a huge variety of moves. At the end Beata shows a choreography with simple and complex veil combinations. This video is recommended for anyone who wants to learn veil, but watch out for those European DVD formats.
  6. Lebanese Dance: Instructional "Raqs Sharqi Lubnani" by Meissoun
    With the recent changes in broadcast policies of Lebanese TV, it seems that broadcasts of Lebanese dance are no longer available. This video will help in the preservation of Lebanese dance styles. Amina's notes say, "This video is concise, precise, thorough, complex, simple, methodically chaptered, can be printed out as a PDF file, is Swiss and is in 7 languages. Besides all of the above it is clearly demonstrated in the regulation Lebanese heels... and yes, with heels and big hair you too can look 'Lebanese'!" Gregory added, "It's a great gift to have a teaching video just as the source is squeezed off."
  7. Dancers Arms: Instructional "Dancers Arms" by Aruna
    Hands and arms are often a serious problem area even for experienced dancers. A good instructional video that focuses on this area can be invaluable as a training aid. I spent a lot of time in my second viewing going through the different chapters and reading up on Aruna's background, which includes Chinese martial arts, bodybuilding, yoga, Pilates, as well as being a certified personal trainer. All that conditioning and bodybuilding has given Aruna a very strong and smooth carriage, and she appears to have mastered several very different dance genres. Her DVD has chapters for Middle Eastern Arms, Hindu Arms, Adagio Arms, a dancer's weight workout with what looked like some very promising exercises, and a fusion dance performance. She wore a different costume for each chapter, and the videography was exceptional for its optimal camera placement and visual clarity. She also has a very pleasant speaking voice.
  8. Most Influential Person in the Middle Eastern Dance World Raqia Hassan
    Raqia Hassan's sponsorship of Oriental dance gives it legitimacy at a time when religious forces are harassing the best Egyptian dancers and driving them out of business. "Raqia is a strong woman who created a scene", as did Badia Masabni in an earlier era. Amina notes that "Madame Raqia is showcasing, introducing and enabling the young musicians and dancers of Egypt today and giving them to the rest of the world... Raquia Hassan is defiantly supporting the dancers who probably would not be able to make it on their own in this, the decade of the veil." Gregory expanded on this, saying "There is an attitude or stamp that Raqia Hassan puts on the dancers she works with. Something within her turns loose their creativity: Mona Said, Samasem, Dina, Randa, Katya [all worked with her], and yet Raquia's real talent is her force of personality... her dancers tend to be almost fearless... [she's] re-inventing Egyptian dance in the face of suspicion and oppression, giving it a strength it didn't have [even] five years ago."
  9. Dancer of the Year - The SuperStar - Dina
    "Either you love her or you hate her," said Amina, as she announced Dina as the winner of this category. I had never paid particular attention to her career myself, an omission I'll clearly have to correct. She has, according to Gregory, now attained a cult-like status: "Nobody else can command the money, the respect, the awe, or the admiration that she can." This status came only after overcoming serious obstacles, including a humiliating video posted by a vindictive ex. "People have tried to ruin her", says Amina, and it's true. She is loved by men and women in the Middle East, and yet she was not taken seriously by American dancers, who felt that she didn't do anything onstage and wore overly suggestive outfits. I was also interested to learn a bit of her background: she's educated and quite articulate, even in her gravel-voiced broken English, apparently abandoning a professional career for the dance. Amina and Gregory agree, "Attitudes are changing quickly about her. There has been much written about her dance skills and ability to interpret the song. She has a mixture of emotion, movement, and a unique style that invites the audience to experience her personal performance area, an intimate area between performer and audience unique to Dina."
  10. The Un-Awarded Prize
    Interestingly, there were no awards this year for "best live solo performance on video". Note that the Giza Awards can only judge videos that are actually submitted, that year.

    Amina's remarks were provocative and revealing:

    "Can it be that the West has been so involved in learning technique and choreography that the very soul of the dance has been left to those in the Middle East who are desperately struggling to keep their art alive. Maybe we, too, need to express or feel conflict, hardship, deprivation, and suffering to make our art memorable end exceptional."

At first I was inclined to quibble with this. Were there really no American (or European, or Far Asian) dancers who really Had It as a soloist? Then Amina and Gregory showed me a few clips from their "finalist" category - those who almost, but didn't quite win - and I saw exactly what she meant. I had had similar reactions to other "virtuoso" performances but had assumed that it was just sour grapes on my part since I'm not anywhere near that accomplished. It is hard to resist the compulsion to hit every single beat and note in the music, but that can make the dance look busy, overly regimented, with a drill-team feel rather than a lyrical one.

This event had a real down-home feel, very different from having a stuffy awards banquet at a hotel or impersonal meeting hall. Amina's home is filled with art collected from all over the Middle East, Mexico, and Asia, including divans, Oriental rugs, sculptures, books, and a variety of knickknacks that must have been what the Taoist sages were talking about when they mention "the ten thousand things". Plenty of snacks, sodas, and drinks kept us running back to the kitchen. The audience was mostly women except for Gregory, who held up well under the estrogen haze.

I don't know how to categorize the "who's who" in the Giza Club. The San Francisco Bay Area has several overlapping bellydance communities, including the South Bay chapter of MECDA (Middle Eastern Culture and Dance Association), "old style" folkloric (John Compton's Hahbi'ru), folk dancers whose primary interest is ethnographic, free agents who work with many teachers, as well as an extensive ATS (American Tribal Style) community. Some teachers have big followings and constitute their own self-contained communities. I'm not sure if they were represented here, although maybe people came and didn't make a big deal of their affiliations.

In fact, the fact that no one made a big deal out of their affiliations was a nice and refreshing change from many bellydance award events where there is a clear separation between those up on stage and those in the audience.

Despite the flame wars that periodically erupt between proponents of cultural accuracy and ATS or other fusion artists, the Giza Awards is pretty non-sectarian. It's a safe space for anyone to come and be welcomed. There are several women who've been dancing for decades, many of whom worked in clubs that no longer exist. Today, they still dance and they still go to Egypt every year. In fact, it's the members of the Giza Club that make it so special partly because they have so many years among them. Yes, they're opinionated. But that's what makes events like this so entertaining for the rest of us. And this event was very low-key in that no one's personality dominated the discussion; at some events, everyone hangs breathlessly on the remarks of the one "important" figure while ignoring or downplaying everyone who doesn't rank in the pecking order.

I also think the caliber of the audience is what makes this event different from the self-conscious mutual admiration society that can result when there are more good intentions than actual background, or where everyone relies on one or two experts for authentication. There's nothing wrong with new enthusiasts getting together to trade basic information, but sooner or later they'll need to grow beyond that. It's nice to hang out with people who have 40 years of field experience. They don't necessarily have a shelf full of awards from the Bellydancer of the Universe, or a trademarked Web site to prove their expertise. Some of them, like Amina, instead have huge archives and notebooks full of articles and painstakingly translated lyrics.

The ATS/fusion community was not well represented in the audience, but they were honored in the awards themselves (Paulette and Aruna). For those of us who, like myself, are only peripherally involved in the Tribal scene, it's easy to think of ATS as a static phenomenon. What is probably closer to the truth is that dancers in that genre are differentiating in the same way that generations of dancers in Egypt have evolved over the decades.

I am personally interested in tracing the roots of ATS in other dance genres, partly because if ATS is so fascinating after - what - 10 years? 20 years?, just think how many more undiscovered treasures could be waiting for us in art forms that have been around for a thousand years, passed down in not just one school or family or village but in hundreds of them.

One thing about the bellydance purist approach is it tends to be very uncritical. If it's Egyptian (or Lebanese, or from "over there") it's good, it's authentic, and is sometimes slavishly copied. The same Mahmoud Reda choreographies that people learn in mass workshops get trotted out at every open stage, and while this is a good learning exercise, it's hard to remember that Reda's presentations are in their own way very artificial and removed from their origins in the same way that "West Side Story" echoes a highly sanitized version of Latin culture for a theater-going audience. The open-ended approach of the Giza Awards lets us evaluate for ourselves what it is that we really want to pursue in our own dance.

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Check the "Letters to the Editor" for other possible viewpoints!

Ready for more?
1-4-06 What You Can't Get From Instructional Videos by Rebecca Firestone
Being able to withstand honest opinions is crucial. If one never communicates directly with one's peers AS PEERS, that is, not as sycophantic students, one can develop an insular and self-referential mindset without ever realizing it.

1-10-06 The Dina Show! Photos by Catherine Barros, Slideshow coding by Tammy Yee
Event sponsored by Little Egypt on May 28-30, 2005 at the Crowne Plaze in Miami, Florida

12-10-05 Articulating the Collective Dream: The Giza Awards, and why the legacy-making process is important to you. by Amina Goodyear and Gregory Burke. "We embrace change however roughly it appears. With video we feel secure in the knowledge that the legacy of the past will never abandon us."

11-17-05 Traveling with the Touareg by Linda Grondahl
This was my 5th trip to Algeria since 2000 and I have been amazed at the rapid economic development. The government is working very hard to make Algeria a very popular tourist destination once again.

10-4-05 Raqia's Response by Dee Dee Asad
I visited her in the Masr el Dawly Hospital, near where Raqia lives in el Dokki, the next week. Raqia was unable to travel to Sweden while sick!

9-16-05 Ahlan Wa Sahlan 2005, Cairo a review and diary by Leyla Lanty
On Monday night, the opening gala was a great success in all senses of the word! It was one of the best large scale events I've attended.

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