Miriams' candle dance
Gilded Serpent presents...
 Eilat Oriental Dance Festival
January 2006 - Report

by Sophie

Photos by Gali Tibon

As my friends' car was making its way through the desert, the sense of anticipation, mixed with excitement, was growing inside me. Many changes had taken place in the dance scene in Israel since I moved to the San Francisco Bay Area three and a half years ago and I was eager to catch up with them. What better way to do so than to attend an annual Oriental Dance Festival in Eilat?

This year the festival was celebrating its second anniversary, and, having missed its debut, I wasn't sure what to expect. Unlike the first Eilat event, which organizers held in low profile "stealth mode", the second festival was widely advertised, with articles published in the national press and the appearance of one of the organizers, Orit Maftsir, on a Friday night TV show. Of the 900 guests who eventually registered, 600 were dancers.

While I was skeptical about the educational value of the trip, imagining hundreds of students tripping over my toes, I was looking forward to seeing the best of Israeli instructors teaching and performing for three days in a row.

Registration and First Classes
The level of organization showed upon my arrival at the hotel: the greeting banner, the flock of juvenile dancers prancing around in bedlah, the abundant lobby decorations, and most importantly the registration tables. Within a few minutes, staffers handed me and my friends our orientation kits, which included a festival schedule, maps, tickets to the shows and keys to our room.

After changing into my dance attire, I wound my way through the crowds of fellow dancers, many of whom were showing off their most noisy hip scarves. My first workshop was to be Natalie Dvir's "Personal Style". It started with an intense African inspired warm-up and then moved on to guided improvisation. Unfortunately, I had to excuse myself at the very beginning, since my bad knee was giving me trouble during the floorwork session. That's how I found myself dancing the "Dance of Joy" with Avigail Klein. What a joy it was! The choreography to Hisham Abbas's "Wana Wana" showcased Avigail's sharp technique, precise instruction style and, above all, the flamboyant personality and witty sense of humor, for which she is so famous.

contest participants- Sonia, Lior, Naomi, Lucy, Daniel, Smadar, Yahalom, Noa, Suzy, Galit

Thurday Evening Show
In the evening, guests gathered in Badia Masabny hall to watch the opening show, which featured performances of dance ensembles and of some of the festival's teachers, as well as a talent contest. Each of the 10 contestants in the contest had only two minutes to impress the judges and the audience. The first prize, a page spread feature in a leading Israeli entertainment guide, went to Lior Bar, who performed an Egyptian-flavored choreography to "Ya Msafer Whahdak" by Mohamed Abdel Wahab. However, my first choice went to Yahalom Hadar, first runner up, mainly because of her joyous attitude, which could be felt all the way in the back rows, where I was seated.

Asi Haskal performing in opening night show
The show that came later featured three performances that caught my attention. California-born Malka Emanuel was the only dancer to accompany herself with sagat, while performing to "Tahtil Shibbak". The Pilpel Ensemble presented another refreshing performance, featuring three percussionists and two dancers, the only live-music act throughout the festival. The first day of the festival concluded with an energetic performance by Asi Haskal, vigorously spinning to transform his mantle into the most beautiful veil.

Friday Classes
The next morning I arrived strategically early at the Naima Akef classroom to ensure a spot at Miriam Peretz's workshop. Having studied earlier with Miriam, I knew that her workshops were not to be missed. Miriam taught three very short choreographies: "Hip-Hop Belly Dance Fusion", "Taqseem", and "Balady. Each piece comprised several combinations that could be extended later on to a dance, and Miriam gave us valuable pointers on how to do this. Miriam's teaching style was very clean-cut, and she managed about 70 students with ease, arranging everybody in columns to practice walking steps for the Balady choreography. After the lunch break I attended the Dynamic Combinations workshop with Zahava Brunovski. Zahava delighted the participants with her very graceful and flowing, yet utterly precise technique. The combinations included some basic layering and she eventually combined them into a short dance.

After the class, I decided to take a rest from the dance workshops and attend a lecture by Rachel Milstein, the head of the Department of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies in the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and a pioneer of Oriental dance in Israel. The first part of the lecture was dedicated to dispelling the harem myth and giving an overview of the history of the dance. Dr. Milstein spoke briefly on such topics as Orientalism, the status of women in Islamic society, and the role of men and ghawasee in Oriental dance. In the second half of the lecture Rachel Milstein imparted to us the story of her involvement with Oriental Dance, starting with the time she witnessed Lahaluba giving the first official Middle-Eastern dance concert in Israel in 1965, and then recounting her extensive performance career in Israel and abroad, including various anecdotes involving such celebrities as Gregory Peck and Nagwa Fouad.

click for lovely enlargement
Nili Mendelson

Friday Gala Show
At night, the guests gathered to watch the gala show, which featured Nili Mendelson, Natalie Dvir, Miriam Peretz, Elina Pechersky, Avigail Klein and Orit Maftsir. It was remarkable to see the distinct style, and unique artistic vision of each artist. Nili Mendelson was aloof and majestic as she opened the show. She was followed by Natalie Dvir's savage interpretation of Turkish Rom. Next, Miriam Peretz's candle dance was mesmerizing and hypnotic, eyes projecting light, connecting with the audience, just as she taught us at her workshop. Then Avigail Klein ignited the theatre, spattering energy, making people laugh out loud, as they watched her perform her signature pantomimes. The artists worked hard, dancing in two or three acts to bring variety. The show continued with Elina Pechersky in a playful cane dance, Orit and Avigail in an Alexandria-inspired duet, Miriam sending flowers to the audience in Turkish Rom, Nili and Natalie in veil duet, Natalie in cabaret act, and Avigail sitting on the bar in the rear of the theatre flirting with the audience members. Orit closed the show, leaving the audience with a taste for more.

Participant in Cymbal workshop

Orit workshop

Saturday Classes
The next morning started with a special treat: Miriam's "Turkish Rom" workshop. We warmed up in a big circle and then proceeded to learn several basic steps, such as the front-back-back-front step, followed by layering of shoulder rolls and hip circles. Miriam also taught a few gestures: some body cuts and hip and chest punches. At the end, she combined these components into a dynamic choreography.

While taking a break from dance workshops, I attended Samer Alian's sagat class. I find musicians' perspective particularly valuable for dancers, and I appreciated Samer's introduction to rhythm fundamentals: a subject often considered to be so self-evident that it is omitted from regular dance classes altogether.

Despite my overall mental and physical fatigue, I couldn't resist a shimmy workshop with Elina Pechersky. Elina started with a vigorous warm-up, and proceeded to teach various types of shimmies with Saleh Hibi accompanying us on doumbek. We shimmied, jittered and three-quarter struggled our way to the very end of this marvelous weekend. Then we replenished the calories we'd burned with pastries and cakes in the lobby, and I took a chance to thank Orit Maftsir and Yael Moav for organizing such a great event.

My overall impression of the festival was very positive, with two suggestions that would make the event even better in the future. While the dancers were talented and dynamic, I missed the presence of live music at the festival, since improvisation to live music is at the heart of this art form. All the performances except the Pilpel ensemble used recorded music, and the two musicians present at the festival did not perform. Also, none of the shows in the festivals included programs, and I missed the chance to read the artists' bios, and the details about the music and style of dance they used. Overall, however, the event was most enjoyable and I look forward to returning to it next year.

The third international Oriental Dance Festival will be held on January 18-20 2007 in Eilat, Israel.
For more details & photos please visit http://www.eilatfestival.com/

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