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Astryd Farah, Cairo studio photo by Mohammed Joudi, © 2005
The Gilded Serpent presents...
Fresh off the Plane from Cairo

A Workshop Review of Astryd Farah deMichele

by Betsey Flood

On August 27, 2006 at Mission Dance Theatre in San Francisco, 30 students gathered for a workshop by Astryd Farah deMichele, who was sponsored by Amina of the Aswan Dancers group. Astryd was to review steps she saw dancers used in Cairo just months before the workshop took place.

Who She Is: Based in Eugene Oregon where she spends approximately six months of the year and in Cairo, Egypt, where she spends the rest of her time, Astryd began traveling to Egypt and training there eight years ago.  She spends so much time there now that she keeps her Cairo apartment year round. 

Astryd has studied with Raqia Hassan for the last four years and is featured on Volume 7 of Raqia’s training video series.  It was hard work, she says, and wonderful for her development as a dancer. She has also taken classes with Aida Nour and her assistant, Medhat Fahmy; Mahmoud Reda; Shalaby, who is also a former Reda Troupe performer and Mervat Mongy. The teacher she credits with instilling many of her fundamental dance skills is Diana Tarkhan, a French Algerian who performed in both Cairo and Alexandria and who is currently retired.   Diana Tarkhan has shared her knowledge of the older Egyptian dancers from Soheir Zaki’s heyday with Astryd.

Observing what she terms the “mean-spirited” behavior between many performers, Astryd had shied away from becoming a professional dancer in Cairo – until 2003 when she received a panicked phone call from a friend who was performing on an upscale Nile cruise boat and who needed to quickly return to her native Australia for a while.  Revealing that she felt nervous and unprepared to perform for an Egyptian audience, Astryd says she hesitantly agreed to audition by doing a live show on the boat and was accepted as the replacement dancer.

Since her debut as a dancer in Egypt on the Nile cruise boat in 2003, Astryd has been performing in Egypt at various other venues as well, including two different hotels, weddings, parties and a week in the resort town Sharm el Sheikh as part of an international revue (she was the belly dance section of the show).  In the past year, she has mostly performed at weddings and parties at the Marriott and Sheraton hotels in Cairo.

Her teaching content: As a professional, Astryd makes an effort to observe the shows of other dancers as much as possible.  Last June, Randa started working at the Zamalek Marriot, just down the street from Astryd’s apartment so she saw many of her shows, before the high season hit while they were still affordable.  In the last year, she saw Soraya at the Sheraton once or twice and saw maybe three of four shows by the “no names” in Cairo’s nightclubs.  During the Ahlan wa Sahlan festival she saw Dina, Randa and Katya among others. When she is out dancing with her friends, she picks up moves while watching younger Egyptian women there whom she says have “really original” moves.

So how does Astryd select the signature moves she wants to teach? What she looks for first and foremost is being entertained. 

She says she also looks at different movements and styles and pays attention to the music choices of dancers and how the dance interprets the music and words.  She observes the way dancers interact with the audience and their costuming styles.  She says she tries to understand the differences between dancers.  Sometimes she jots notes down and sometimes she just enjoys the moment.

What she taught: On August 27, Astryd began the two-hour workshop with a warm-up that began with a posture review.  Feet direct under hips, knees under hips then lifted all the way up spine into neck.  Shoulders are over hips, which are over the feet. The necessary posture according to Astryd (as well as most other Egyptian-style instructors) is very straight, tall and lifted while retaining a soft and easy feeling. She then included what she considers core movements in raqs sharqi: horizontal and vertical figure 8-s; undulations, hip slides, circles and shimmies.  

As she has in her previous workshops, Astryd distributed a detailed handout that described 13 “au courant” movements fresh from Cairo that she intended to teach.  She also described three themes that summarized what she saw used in 2006: pelvic locks, layered shimmies and heavy accents. As a teacher, I find the handout extremely useful as I can go back and practice what I learned, relying on her cursory descriptions along with my own handwritten notes to accurately recreate these movements.

Examples of Steps taught by Astryd deMichele in 2006

From Randa Kamel

  • Push pop shimmy walk
  • Travel with cross step and “out” pelvic accent
  • Camel with shimmy traveling side with accent

From Dina, Randa and others:

  • Big hip circle

From Soraya:

  • Strong hip accents with level down

Astryd taught two different pelvic locks, one using the hip flexors and gluteus maximus and another using the knees as well, to help push the pelvis forward.  She spent a great deal of time on shimmies and layered shimmies, ensuring everyone had good form. 

Using a selection of the latest Arabic pop hits to showcase her teaching, Astrid only rarely suggested what kind of music would fit the movements – for example she mentioned that the Souheir Zaki-style one-hip down accents she taught would be great with kanoun music.  It would have been be helpful if she had described the music that she observed being played for each of the steps she taught.  This was one of my very few beefs about this gem of a workshop.

A list of some of the movements Astryd taught – and the dancer who uses them -- are included in the sidebar in the review.  As usual, codification challenges arise when someone tries to describe a belly dance movement on paper but, just for fun, here is an example of one of the movements Astryd saw a lot of in Cairo in 2006: The “Cairo 8” is a reverse horizontal hip figure 8 where each loop of the 8 (as you pull the pelvis in to center) is combined with a camel.  Astryd suggested doing three loops (that is one and a half 8’s) with an overlaid shimmy followed by a pelvic lock and release.

Astryd may be under-reaching and could be capable of doing much more than teach disparate movements.  I liked learning these steps in this well spent two-hours and definitely plan on attending the next workshop.  It’s hard to tell yourself that you can’t spare two hours out of a day – no matter how busy – to take a class from an excellent teacher with valuable content.  But she could offer a longer workshop using one piece of music, incorporating the new movements wherever possible.  After her recent years of performing in Cairo and working so closely with Raqia Hassan, I believe she is ready for this next level.

I found Astryd to be a thoughtfully prepared instructor and unlike so many others, one without arrogance, willing to answer any question, no matter how elementary.  The workshop also made me a better teacher.  I was able to integrate many of these steps into my performances and the choreographies I teach my on students.  Not only have these new movements enriched my dance but also more importantly, my students absorb them like sponges.  They are all delighted to know that what they are learning is fresh off the plane from Cairo.

Astryd Farah performing at the JW Marriott Hotel in Cairo

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