The "B" Word
The article below is based on a post in the NYC pro bellydancers' discussion group, The Star Alliance ("BellydancePro"); Jenna responds to a suggestion to avoid use of the term "bellydance," as this term ignores the cultural origins of our dance form.
Although I completely respect & appreciate the reasoning & efforts of those who prefer not to use the term 'bellydance', and in fact, share the ultimate goal of achieving respect for what we do, I prefer to take a different route.
I feel that the name is simply a bunch of letters that people use to describe a concept, and it's the concept that needs changing, rather than the bunch of letters. I take my cue from some members of the gay community, which has experienced much progress in their public perception of late. Many have publicly embraced terms such as 'gay' and 'queer' (formerly derogatory & loaded with negative connotations) and taken them as their own.
This is my preferred method - I'd rather go out into the world calling myself a bellydancer (with pride!) and change how some might THINK about that title by presenting myself professionally & with self-respect; instead of changing the title.
There are plenty of dancers out there with the lofty, self-descriptions such as "Middle Eastern Dance Artist" and the like, who do NOT put on the kind of performance we would consider as an appropriate representation of our dance, to say the least; and who do NOT educate themselves on the roots & cultures of the Middle East, Mediterranean & North Africa (the fact that our dance pulls from traditions from many regions is another reason I'm not crazy about 'middle-eastern dance' as a term for what we do). Now, what if the audience sees said overly-sexualized 'middle-eastern' dancer, and associates THAT with the cultures/people of the middle-east?? Yikes!
Of course, there are plenty who use such terms and DO represent us positively, and, again, their contributions are VITAL!
Not everyone recognizes this term, however, and I would rather get the 17-year old who is enthusiastic about 'bellydancing' after seeing the latest culturally-confused hip-hop video into my class & share my technical & cultural knowledge with her than have her walk by my 'Middle-Eastern Dance' class, unaware of what she has passed up.
A rose by any other name still smells as sweet ...
Caravan of Secrets
By Zahra Zuhair
Being involved in Middle Eastern dance since a young girl in the early 1970’s, and becoming a teacher by the age of 20, I immersed myself in classes, workshops, and travel to the Middle East. I strived to get any information I could, and to do the best job I could as a dancer, performer, and teacher.
Through my love of raqs sharki, and the traditional dances, music and culture of many countries of North Africa and the Middle East, I also discovered its rich tales, myths and legends. I thought how great it would be to create a dance theater company portraying these stories. At the time, mixing traditional dance and fantasy just wasn’t done. There was a definite split of either being a “fantasy dancer” or a “real bellydancer.”
After putting my ideas on hold for several years, in 1997 I created Po Na Na Dance Theater (loosely meaning “a blend of many things”). My first adventure into theater was a production of “Layla and Majnun” (Layla and the Madman). I finally decided to mix my love of Middle Eastern tales and theatrical dance, with my traditional background. Going though the process of mixing genres was quite a learning experience. Although creatively rewarding, it was a lot more difficult than I anticipated.
By the 1990’s I had achieved the recognition I wanted as a knowledgeable Middle Eastern dancer, but oddly found myself “put in a box” as being a strict traditionalist. Not that this was a bad thing, I worked hard for my “box,” but I did find breaking out of the mold of tradition into fantasy, an interesting challenge. Incorporating the use of masks and dancers as sets, and props, mixed with theatrical dances based on traditional movements, I found mixed reactions from the community. People either liked it, or thought I’d completely lost my mind.
The dance community has changed considerably these days. Experimental theater isn’t anything unusual, but at the time it was an area less ventured. This was not discouraging to me, but all the more encouraging. I continued producing Po Na Na Dance Theater shows till 2001, and decided to take a break considering the demands of my busy teaching and travel schedule.
Time flying by as it does, I was surprised to hear from one of my long time Ghazella Dance Company members, Lailah, that it had been 8 years since we did our last Po Na Na production. I thought a resurrection was in order, which brought me to my latest production of, “Caravan of Secrets.” This was a co-production with fellow artist Carolyn Krueger. Carolyn is the artistic director of Gulistan Dance Theatre, specializing in the dances of Central Asia.
We first began working together in 1994 when I was recruiting dancers for a concert with the renowned Egyptian composer, Said Makawi. After the concert, Carolyn asked me to participate in her educational program performing for the Los Angeles Unified School District. The show was titled “Silk and Sand,” featuring traditional dances from the Silk Road and the Arab World.
Carolyn and I worked together for many years, and we each produced our own theater shows, as well as performed in each other’s productions, but this was our first collaboration on a full-length theater show. We each produced an hour of new works, my half of the show titled “Tapestry”, and Carolyn’s, “Crossings,” together creating “Caravan of Secrets.” The show made its debut August 15 and 16, 2009, at the Electric Lodge Theatre in Venice, CA.
Caravan of Secrets is a journey to imaginary landscapes inspired by the cultures and contradictions found among the ancient Silk Roads and Sea Routes of the Middle East and Central Asia – C. Krueger
Tapestry – Weaving through the fabric of rare Arabian tales, a perfumed potion unveils a whimsical array of dance fantasy – Z. Zuhair
Crossings - Mythical beings journey through the seasons and across dimensions in a kinetic collage of alchemy and ornament – C. Krueger
The production opened with my half of the show “Tapestry” which was in 4 acts: Magic Spells, The Forest, Metamorphosis, and The Sea. Lesser-known Arabian Nights Tales were my inspiration for most of the dances, such as “The Fairy Pari Bou” (aka Paribannon), Talking Birds, Singing Trees, Yellow Water,” and “Julinar of the Sea.”
The third act, Metamorphosis, was inspired by my original Po Na Na production of “Layla and Majnun.”
My husband Michael Cox, composed original music for seven of the dances in “Tapestry,” Oracle, Tree Melodies, Majnun, Transcendence, Spirits of the Garden, Sea Dwellers, and Queen of the Sea.
Singer, Iris Parker, did the vocals for Tree Melodies, Transcendence and Sea Dwellers. Iris is a professional singer, oriental dancer, and all around artist. She has performed worldwide and sings in many languages, including Arabic. Most recently, Iris performed as an international singer in Cairo, Egypt. Iris was my inspiration for the opening dance of the first act, Magic Spells, titled The Sorceress and the Magical Perfumes. Among other things, Iris is a fabulous perfumer.
Po Na Na cast members included Zahra Zuhair (artistic director), Farrah, Lailah, Myrna, Nar, Nasila, Shaunti, Akiko, DeVilla, Oceana, and special guest artists Carolyn Krueger, Michael Lee, and Jessica Hagan.
After intermission, Carolyn Krueger’s “Crossing” brought the audience to a very different environment. This half revolved around the seasons, Summer, Autumn, Winter, and Spring. The dances felt truly mythical, and mysterious, such as Winter In The Celestial Mountains (the Tien Shan), with evocative dance titles such as Missing, Migration, and Mountain Ancestors. An eerily masked migration to the Crystal Shaman (C. Krueger) was my favorite. The shaman had extra long prosthetic arms, with her face hidden behind a beaded crystal veil and tall headdress, creating an other- worldly being. Many of the dances were a bit creepy, enchanting, and beautiful all at the same time.
Summer--Enchanted Dune, was based on Silk Road hearsay with a twist. Three desert dwellers, which were more of a triple bodied-type entity, lure a wandering merchant to his doom. Autumn--Bamboo I and II, was the most charming to me, featuring 2 adorable masked characters as an old man and woman, as well as dancers sweeping across the floor with colorful brooms. The last act, Spring--Blue Sky, White Wing, was an enactment of a Central Asian creation myth.
Carolyn’s choreographies were based on traditional Central Asian and Persian dance, with graceful; articulate arm and hand movements, gliding steps, together with pantomime—storytelling elements, creating a modern theatrical dance performance.
“Crossings” cast members included Carolyn Krueger (artistic director), Nikki Henry, Donna Speckman, Monica Ramos, Alexandra Rozo, Sina, Jane Glaser, Super Kate, and Michael Lee.
Carolyn Krueger trained in ballet from the age of 5 –15 in Long Beach, CA. After completing a BA in dance at UCI, she moved to Los Angeles and performed with diverse artists and ensembles—where she embraced Central Asian dance. She next earned an MA in Choreography from UCLA, two Lester Horton Awards, and two ArtsLink grants for study and performances in Uzbekistan with People’s Artist, Viloyat Akilova. Carolyn has been featured as a Central Asian soloist across the U.S, Uzbekistan, and on Persian and Tashkent television.
Zahra Zuhair--Master teacher, performer, and choreographer, Zahra is world renowned for her knowledge, authenticity, and dedication to the art of Middle Eastern dance. Raised in oriental dance since a young girl, Zahra is known for her musicality, flawless technique, and elegant style. She has trained and influenced many of today’s oriental dance stars. Zahra has taught workshops and performed worldwide. She is the artistic director of the Ghazella Dance Company, and Po Na Na Dance Theatre. Zahra is co-owner of DanceGardenLA dance studio in Los Angeles. www.zahrazuhair.com
Diana Tarkhan: A Hidden Treasure
By Zahra Zuhair
My life as an oriental dance artist has spanned three decades. Being raised in oriental dance from a young age, I’ve never lost the magic and joy that Mid-east dancing has continued to give me in my life. This ever evolving dance form, with it’s rich music and culture, has always fascinated me, and kept me searching for more knowledge. Discovering the unique talents and styles of each teacher and performer that has influenced me over the years, was like finding hidden treasure.
The Eternal Egypt Tour 2005, sponsored by Samiha Dance Projects of New York, and myself, was nearly underway when we decided to bring a dance teacher on board our Nile cruise. Samiha suggested a Cairo based dancer, Diana Tarkhan. Diana is one of those performers I treasure, one with that special something that makes me want to watch her over and over again. She is truly one of my favorite dancers, but I did not know her as a teacher.
Samiha (Dr. Leona Marsh), is a professor at New York University and has lived and worked at the American University in Cairo Egypt. Samiha has studied extensively with Diana, and raved about her teaching and choreography skills, so I knew she would be a great choice for our Nile cruise teacher.
We met with Diana on our first night in Cairo, when she joined us for dinner at the Nile Maxime. Diana is a delightful, intelligent woman, who loves to have fun. She speaks English perfectly with an adorable French accent, and speaks fluent Arabic as well.
Diana is French Algerian. She began her dancing career almost 20 years ago in Paris where she performed in many famous nightclubs and for glamorous private parties. She was then invited to dance in Tunisia, Morocco, and the United Arab Emirates at prestigious hotels such as Hilton, Sheraton, and Hyatt.
Being a perfectionist, she headed to Egypt to be trained by Raqia Hassan. After spending four successful years performing in Cairo, she realized that she had fallen in love with Egypt, so she decided to make it her home. She has now lived there for over 12 years.
Once we arrived in Luxor and embarked on our Nile cruise, we began classes with Diana. She started the class with a warm-up, emphasizing posture and alignment, before beginning technique class. Diana is a stickler for proper technique, making sure everyone did the movements correctly before progressing into the choreography. I was delighted that she taught choreography to music I love so much, Niptedy Minain el Hikaya.
Diana is very musical, and plays on both the melody and the rhythmic elements of the music in her choreographies. Her experiences of Egypt, and her exposure to Egyptian culture through the language and its everyday life, plus an innate knowledge of Arabic music, gives her the essential assets to teach dance to those that are passionate about this art. Diana is also trained in other dance forms, which gives her unquestionable artistic skills.
Diana did a special performance for us in the lounge of our cruise ship. She performed the choreography she taught, as well as many other dances including a melaya luff. She did three costume changes during her 45-minute show. Not only is Diana a good technical dancer, she has tremendous feeling for the music. It is her expression and passion in her performance that made me first take notice of her several years ago.
Her reputation as an original choreographer grows each day. She also gives workshops throughout the world and has trained several professional dancers of international acclaim. Beata and Horacio Cifuentes of Germany have studied with Diana for several seasons. She has choreographed for them on several occasions, and they have incorporated these dances into their fabulous Oriental Fantasy theater productions.
Diana is a multi talented artist. Aside from her career as an esteemed teacher and dancer, she is also designing her own line of unique dancewear for the oriental dancer. As if that weren’t enough talent for one individual, her friends also rave about her amazing ability in the kitchen as a gourmet chef.
In addition, Diana studies psychology to enable her to teach using pedagogical theory, so she can better understand the needs of her students. Raqia Hassan requested that Diana create a special class for the first Ahlan Wa Sahlan, International Seminar of Oriental Dance, held December 28 –through January 6, 2006, lecturing on the Psychology of the Dance. Diana talks about the psychological need to dance, and how the origins of dance (since the beginning of civilization) are related to mythology and the archetypes.
Next time you’re in Cairo, or thinking of which teacher to sponsor for your next workshop, I highly recommend Diana Tarkhan. She’s a real gem.