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Dahlena with Maria behind her.
Note: Faces with a white shine are probably wearing sunscreen which reflects the camera's flash
Gilded Serpent presents...
The Classic Style Prevails
Saturday, April 29, 2007
Amina's San Francisco Studio
Workshop Review by Rebecca Firestone

Because this workshop came hard on the heels of a 2-day with Raqia Hassan (which I also reviewed) I had a hard time separating the two experiences in my mind. But the important thing is, what was it like to be there?

This was a smaller, more intimate setting, with 20 people crammed into Amina's basement studio. We all knew each other, very few collisions. Sometimes Dahlena's big movements were hard to do in that limited a space. Her daffodil-yellow costume was fetching, if only the skirt had been a little shorter; it obscured her feet.

Her body mechanics and interpretations were different from Raqia's. A week after Dahlena, Amina was teaching her usual performance class, giving her take on Raqia and Dahlena... and it was totally different from what I had picked up!

Raqia does everything from the knees, and Dahlena said not to do that! What's a girl to do? (Pick whatever works best on your body, that's what.)

It seems like every dancer has a different approach to arms and upper body, and even the visual images, the lines of force, can be worlds apart. Dahlena' arms express straight and powerful lines, making her seem bigger on stage. She sure knows how to project! A caricature would make the arms stiff but would lose the energy. She talked about moving arms from the center of the chest. It seemed like the shoulder joint was the main pivot, with fingers and palms slicing out to infinity. She would often have her arms in a V shape, palms down, fingers gracefully extended out.

This is an "expired" ad of Dahlena's. Same lady, same gorgeous stage presence.

Her arms often looked angular, and she used a lot of bends at the elbow as well as at the shoulder. Some of her arm movements looked almost Uzbek or Armenian. I gained some insights into Uzbek dance from watching her, actually. It also resembled the classic East Indian diagonal/oppositional pull. Her bio says, "early ballet training" - that's probably where she gets her big carriage, her far- reaching arms, and her floating torso. Her torso was very strong, and very integrated. No slackness, no flubber, no casual slouching from her!

Constantly lifted arms and torso combined with relaxed lowered shoulders make her torso and arms appear to float. Maintaining this posture can take away from the hips, because you must expend some energy keeping the arms up, instead of letting it all go to the hips or chest area for isolations. Mechanically, you have to make a choice. If you want big eye-catching abdominal pops and locks, you have to draw your arms and elbows closer to the body and cave your chest in a little so you have someplace to pop out FROM. Some dancers also lift their shoulders to better isolate the torso. This can invite bad habits, because letting them stay there all the time looks distorted.

(I'm trying to think of any classical movement form that mandates high shoulders or a crooked spine as the "home" position. They bend from various joints but tend to preserve the integrity of the spinal curve, both front to back and side to side, despite various twists that may occur.)

Dahlena is rather short, with a shortish torso. Her authoritative posture makes her seem a lot bigger than she is, and means she doesn't have to do much to command attention onstage. If you have a nice posture or can strike a sculpted pose, no one will ever know what you forgot what to do next.

She didn't teach a big elaborate choreography, but did do some combinations: horizontal hip 8s and such. She covered entrances and arabesques, including several nice variants of the "swimming entrance" often seen in high-glamour Egyptian style soloists. Now I can't remember what else she did for those 3 or 4 hours!

Her teaching style was pretty accessible: nice personality, no breaks, not overly methodical, but moving at a good pace. She spoke in a high, almost nasally voice. She watched us all carefully; rather than correcting individuals, she would make general remarks based on what she was seeing us do.

She went over time, because she was late after getting a bit lost on the way to Amina's house. None of us were sorry about the extra time! I felt like I was drinking from a fire hose, so much in so short a time. My brain gave out after a while and I hoped that my body would remember.

Dahlena learned, like Amina, from daily observation of native dancers- in America, and later on in the Middle East as well. She was diplomatically accepting of differences. She remarked that many dancers who perhaps had less exposure to native Middle Eastern dancers, ended up doing what they THOUGHT they saw, and "now it's a new step!" Maybe it was a way to side step the whole "American belly dance" debate.

I haven't had the bandwidth to even play her instructional DVDs yet. I did buy her performance videos, VHS on sale for $10, and watched the one labeled 1980s performances. In these, she wore glamorous and shiny costumes, and showed very exemplary styling and musical interpretation. If you want to learn to dance to real Arabic music and fill a big stage, her videos would be very inspirational.

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