Gilded Serpent presents...
Rhea: Greek Flavor and Flair
Rhea & Laikis Orientale and Greek Folk Dance Workshop sponsored by Ma*Shuqa, held Saturday, August 19, 2006, at the Empire Buffet restaurant, in San Jose, California

Article by Rebecca Firestone
Photos by Carl Sermon

"All that is gold does not glitter
Not all those who wander are lost
The old that is strong does not wither
Deep roots are not touched by the frost."
- J.R.R. Tolkien, Lord of the Rings

Trends in the bellydance world include Egyptian cabaret, hip-hop fusion, Urban Tribal, Raks Gothique, Turkish Rom, and most recently Bellydance Burlesque (gasp!). You'd think at this point that no stone was left unturned, but last weekend there was a blast from the past when Rhea of Athens taught a Greek bellydance/folkdance workshop in San Jose on August 19, 2006.

Apparently, lot of people skipped this one, saying, "Oh she's just doing rehashes of Jamila's old stuff." She may have studied with Jamila Salimpour back in the 1970s but she's been doing plenty of thinking on her own since then, and living in Greece for many years has influenced her instruction and dance repertoire. She also worked with the renowned Dora Stratou dance company, which presents in-depth the regional dances of Greece.

Rhea talks to her class

Still black-haired at 60, Rhea is on the short side, strongly built, charismatic, confident, with sparkle and wit, a cute upturned smile, very much an entertainer and a showman, tough and game for anything. She could easily have stepped from a Renaissance Faire, which is where she got her start originally as the Sword Dancer and one of the featured dancers in Jamila Salimpour's original Bal Anat.

Ma*Shuqa, reminiscing about her past adventures with Rhea in Greece, says, "Rhea's engaging stage personality definitely was a hit with the Greeks. Joining Rhea dancing in Athens was truly a dancer's dream adventure, rushing from one nightclub gig to another throughout the ancient Plaka, and dancing to large live great bands was a dream come true."

Rhea taught in tandem with her partner Laikis, a native of Greece. They interspersed Greek folkdance -  Hasapiko and Hasaposerviko - with bellydance done to Greek music.

Later, Rhea taught us the performance form of the Greek Tsiftetelli/chiftetelli. In this case, Tstifetelli refers not to the rhythm of the same name but to the Greek "social dance" form of what an Egyptian might call "Raks Baladi".

Laikis was a very strong dancer, graceful, authoritative, and masculine. During his sets, we really traveled fast and covered a lot of ground - literally. I was also interested in Rhea's approach to styling, which had more traveling steps, grapevines in particular, and more emphasis on twists and whole-body movements rather than isolations. The tandem teaching made it easier to see the connection between her dance and the regional dances led by Laikis.

Laikis teaches Debbie? Ghanima, ?, ?, ?
Ghanima Ghaditana, a local dancer of many years' standing who also attended, says of Rhea: "She was well-organized, presenting steps in a logical progression; she was also clear in her verbalizations, did sufficient repetitions to allow the dancers to internalize the material, and reviewed the material at the end of the teaching segment to reinforce the learning. Her combinations flowed easily, with simple transitions. She also gave useful background information about the mind-set of the Greeks in relation to the dance, and life in general." Ghanima is accomplished in several areas (Oriental dance, Balkan, Greek, Turkish, Middle Eastern and Scandinavian folk dance, Balkan music theory and performance, folklore and cultural history of the Balkan and Middle East regions, Labanotation) and she has intellectual as well as physical depth... so for me, at any rate, her words carry considerable weight.

Rhea began the workshop with a brief history of herself, and then presented some very interesting theories. First, she mentioned the "posture of Aphrodite" which is that rather coy sideways stance shown in classical art, best known through the da Vinci masterpiece "Birth of Venus", AKA "Venus on the Half-Shell". She said that it was the turn of the ankle that was important, and this is something that I had already found to be true, especially in the sideways traveling steps used not only in line dancing, but in some Oriental dance as well. You need flexible feet and ankles, and not just the ability to go up on releve either.

Both the feet and ankles need to roll and twist. Most of those bellydance workout DVDs don't mention this at all, in fact nobody mentions it!

She stressed protecting your back by doing backbends from the knees rather than the low back - another method that I also had arrived at independently. John Compton of Hahbi'Ru is a good example of this. Check out how he goes down during his tray dance. It looks more like the Limbo than a Tribal style lean-back.

She talked about how classical Greek dance emphasized economy of motion. Some of what she demonstrated looked a bit like Martha Graham, who always reminded me of a perpetual-motion machine: effortless, perfectly balanced, performing feats based on coordination rather than strength alone.

Rhea the Passionate One!Rhea mentioned the principle of opposition as another point of dance theory that promotes the economy of motion idea. When the hip goes out, the arm goes back to compensate. If you do it right, the arm stays in the same place in space, so the hip LOOKS isolated, but really it's displacement that moves the hip rather than "locking down" the rest of the body in an unnatural and forced manner.

One thing Rhea said was "Dare to try things with your body."

Ethnically, there is a strong connection between Greek and Turkish influences, in music, food, and dance. Recent regional history of Greece and Turkey includes several population shifts as well as tragic wars and conflicts that, in the 20th century, resulted in formerly Greek territories changing hands. Rhea touched upon this as well.

She stressed the importance of including men's dance in her teaching presentation (Laikis presented this quite well). Much modern bellydance treats the Oriental dance as purely a "women's art".

Several important scholars would contest this view,  but it's commonly held that only women do it (or gay men), and it's a very feminine style. They forget the men's traditions - tahtiyb in Egypt, the debke (some very masculine interpretations by L'Emir Hassan Harfouche and Amir Thaleb, among others), and here, the Greek men's dances and styling which women can do as well as men.

The part about how classical Greeks might have danced centuries ago seemed a bit fanciful to me. How can anyone possibly know? All we have is how people are dancing today, and by that standard, yes, there's a smooth economy of motion in Greek folk dances, and also a peculiar sneakiness to the footwork.

Regardless of whether we can really know what went on centuries ago, there's nothing wrong with reconstructing ancient dances as best we can. Rhea wouldn't be the first person to seek dance inspiration in classical art.

Many other Oriental dancers have worked with "Pharaonic" elements, or have taken inspiration from classical art such as Persian miniatures. Ghanima comments, "As resistant to change as traditional societies are, it's a safe assumption that many rural dances changed relatively little until the 20th century. The two-handed finger snap is documented on Egyptian tomb walls, and if you allow for the stylization that required ancient Egyptian art to show to wrists and elbows at right angles, the S-shaped arm movements we still do are on the tomb walls as well."

Ma*Shuqa demos the famous finger snap

It is said by some that many Greek mens' dances were originally martial in nature - no surprise, really. And I could see some applications in the footwork, particularly for wrestling or hand-to-hand applications: foot traps, fake-outs, and low kicks could easily come out of these line dances in the right circumstances. I also have a totally unsupported theory that the footwork in some of these dances evolved as a natural response to living in rough terrain.

There are some renowned teachers who emphasize learning regional dances along with Oriental dance, as the root and foundation, Sahra Sa'eeda for one. Artemis Mourat, although she doesn't teach folkdance herself, also incorporates Turkish Rom into her solo style. And, many Egyptian dancers put a folksy section into their sets, where they get more earthy. So, it seems that one vision of a well-rounded dancer is to really know the regional dances and be able to do them as "one of the guys/gals". Well, if the Egyptian dancers do it, why not the Greek ones?

However, there are some basic problems when trying to combine Oriental dance with regional folk dances, especially when the dances are from a totally different region. For one thing, Oriental dance, at least the Egyptian style, seems to stay in one place whereas folk dances, at least the Greek and Balkan variants, travel and use a lot more footwork. Another obvious difference is that Oriental dance as we conceive it is mostly a solo art form.

Third, the posture and expression of rhythm is quite different, and attempts to fuse them can run into problems that either the bellydance gets too "bouncy" or the folkdance gets too "slinky". This could be again a problem of combining styles that essentially come from different regions, since Greek and Turkish style Oriental dance does have a lot more bounce to it than Egyptian style.

Several old-timers remarked to me that back in the old days (the 1970s), many of the dancers worked in clubs, mostly Greek clubs, with live bands. The bands were not strictly faithful to one region but were sort of a fusion of Greek, Armenian, and Arabic influences. Leyla Lanty, another local dancer, says, "[Rhea] does the mixture of styles which inspired American dancers in the 60s and early 70s, which include Greek, Turkish, Arab, with a dash of Armenian and other folk dancing.  Her costuming is reminiscent of many San Francisco dancers of the 70s which had an eastern Mediterranean ethnic look, often incorporating real antique pieces from the area."

So the dancing, sometimes referred to as "American bellydance" or maybe now "old-school American cabaret" may seem a bit outdated among all the modern specialties, and yet, it is less pretentious, more free and easy, and less choreography-obsessed.

Rhea said that back then, the club dancers *had* to  know the Greek dances and be willing to get out there and do them as one of the crowd.

The venue was very relaxing. The Empire Chinese Buffet & Restaurant in San Jose is at first an unlikely setting, but we had a huge, airy, and totally unused private ballroom all to ourselves for the workshop and the show. We could run to the next room over and get a buffet plate of very tasty and MSG-free food whenever we needed to keep up our strength. There were plenty of booths around the side for people who needed to sit down and relax. The vending consisted of Ma*Shuqa's Boutique, who had a huge table and rack filled with costumes and veils, Dhyanis of Goddess Dancing in Marin who displayed her Goddess Wear, and Aruba, who displayed her handmade sandals.

After the workshop was an evening open-stage show with performances by Dunia, Dhyanis, Ma*Shuqa, Leyla Lanty, Sabiba, Ghanima, Rhea, and many more. At the evening hafla of this workshop, Rhea displayed her effervescent dance personality and style.  A consummate professional performer, Rhea took to the dance floor with a borrowed sword and performed a spectacular sword dance floor taxim. We had a professional-quality open stage area, complete with 2 sets of free-standing stage lights, gaffered wires, and taped-down carpets courtesy of Ma*Shuqa and her husband Carl. Several dancers took full advantage of the 20-foot ceilings and treated us to spectacular veil shows. Although most dancers used pre-recorded music, we did have live Greek musical accompaniment for two of the performances: Paul Wernick (from a local Greek group, The Smyrna Time Machine) on the bouzouki and Ghanima's husband Lew Smith on doumbek. The workshop itself was very smoothly run by Ma*Shuqa and Carl, who paid attention to every detail. All in all, it was time well-spent.

Special thanks:Ghanima Ghaditana, Leyla Lanty, Ma*Shuqa and Carl Sermon

More Photos from the Evening show

Flor De Luna

Sponsor, Ma*Shuqa


Aruba performs Melaya Lef


Sabiba performs Isis Wings



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