Star Fest 2017 Performance

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It’s finally here! The long awaited footage of the shows from StarFest 2017 hosted by the wonderful Aalim Bellydance Academy of Oklahoma City. I was to learn from the amazing Karim Nagi, who is a wonderful teacher, an awe-inspiring musician, and really really funny. I greatly enjoyed the experience and I learned a lot from his music and rhythms classes. I’ve recently ordered his Finger Cymbals DVD to go along with my new Turkish Delight Professional zills from Saroyan Mastercrafts by way of Dahlal Internationale. I can’t wait for it to arrive.

I had a wonderful time. I was able to spend a whole week with Evryn and her husband leading up to the event. I spent a fabulous weekend of dancing, and I picked up my second costume, the red Fifi Abdo dress featured in Saidi Sass. I can’t wait to see what happens this year.

So, after months and months of anticipation, I present my piece from the Friday night show of the Star Fest 2017 festivities. It’s baladi, of course, my one true love. The music is Tahtil Shibbak by Fatme Serhan. The costume is a Queen Hanan galabeya from Neenee’s Imports.

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A Spectacle of Spectacles: Dancing in Glasses

PicsArt_04-22-12.16.51A particular trait that Evryn and I share, aside from loving this beautiful artform, is the fact that we both have horrendous vision. We have roughly the same quality of vision, although her prescription is slightly stronger than mine. We employ the wonderful technology of high index lenses so as not to walk around with Coke-bottle thick glass on our faces. She has worn contacts in the past, although not in recent years. I’ve never been able to wear contacts myself. Without corrective lenses, we live inside an Impressionist painting with a few extra blur filters added on.

A major component of Raqs Sharqi (belly dance), and any dance, for the stage is presentation. The glitz and the glamour. The costuming, the makeup, the accessories. One thing I noticed very quickly as I saw more and more performances, was that no one ever really danced in glasses. When I became involved with the wider community and the workshop circuit, those I saw at the shows who typically wore glasses removed them for their performance. Whether they wore contacts or stayed half blind, I can’t say.

But, seriously, I am all of the blind. I can see shapes and color, but more than a few feet away and I lose pretty much any degree of detail. I like to connect with the audience, see their reactions, interact with them a bit. When I don’t wear glasses, people generally look like demons from some horror movie, with blurry beige faces and fuzzy black voids where their eyes and mouths should be. So, if I can’t see, connecting can be…difficult.

I have also always been photosensitive. Going outside on a bright day gives me an instant headache, so I pay the price hike for Transitions lenses. Bright stage lighting can be an issue, even when I can see, but I can so see myself running into things and falling off stages if I try to dance blind. Thus, I never have.

At this point, I think it has become part of my overall style. I always like to emphasize how anyone can take part in this dance, regardless of size, gender, disability, look, impairment, situation. Belly dance on the whole is a very inclusive dance form, at least at the community level. I’m sure different regions expect a certain look on the professional level, but I’m not a pro, and I wager most dancers aren’t. I have no intention of being a professional. I’ve never danced for money. I’ve never intended to do so. I adore this dance, and I love performing. I just don’t get many opportunities to do so.

So, I dance in glasses. I think more dancers should. Embrace your imperfections. I’ve never been criticized for my bespectacled presentation. I doubt most people notice much. I have seen some online say that it ruins the aesthetic, but perhaps that’s just because we never see dancers, in really any dance form, wear them.

Join me, my myopic sisters and brothers! Let us begin the spectacle of spectacles and bring glasses to the stage! Bring on the sparkly frames and the smokey eye makeup! You can be glamorous and blind as a bat at the same time. Trust me.

Improvisation from the Vanessa of Cairo show in Tulsa, Ok, June, 2017.

“Dance Like You’re 100 Kilos”: Nada and the Baladi Woman

PicsArt_04-19-02.23.12I cannot begin to describe the excitement I felt when I heard Nada el Masriya was coming to Tulsa. She was one of the dancers I had come across in my previous explorations of the baladi style, and I adored her energy and her attitude. I couldn’t wait to learn from an actual Egyptian woman, a native of the culture I have fallen in love with.

The first day was four hours of just baladi, my dance bread and butter. Working with her was an absolute joy and I learned so much about the cultural context of the style and the idea of the character of the baladi woman. I had heard of the concept of characters in Egyptian dance, but I’d not really learned about the idea. As she described it, I began to realize why I connected so strongly with that style.

She said a baladi woman is a strong woman, confident, fully embracing her femininity and her sexiness, but still ready and willing to get her hands dirty to help people and take care of her home and her family. She is beautiful, yet unrefined. Earthy and grounded. She is voluptuous and her movements are deep and gooey.

“Whether you’re 50 kilos or 100 kilos, dance like you’re 100.”

As a large-bodied dancer, I can’t begin to describe how inspiring that one statement was. I mean, I’ve got that 100 kilo thing covered. I’ve always been fairly self-conscious about my body, especially when I first got into the workshop scene, surrounded by all the lovely professional dancers with their shapely, much thinner bodies. But the dance community has always been one of the most accepting and supportive groups of people when it comes to appearance.

But hearing that the goal was to dance like I weighed what I already weighed? Yeah, that felt good.

She still kicked my butt though, and the butt of everyone else in the class. I never thought dancing baladi could be so strenuous. Finding that deep movement was difficult. When I woke up the next morning, muscles were hurting that I didn’t know could hurt. I mean, my hips hurt. Like, how? I always come away from a workshop weekend with sore legs and feet, but we found some muscle groups I didn’t even know existed. PicsArt_04-19-02.25.04

I loved it. I loved everything about it. I learned about the character, the attitude, the movement, the culture, and even the styling. I did Saidi that night at the show, but I did baladi hair per the description Nada gave, and I think it turned out well.

Honestly, I can’t wait to study with Nada again, and I know my dance will be infinitely improved by my experience this past weekend.

Ilalliqa’!

Saidi Sass: My First Saidi Performance

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Vanessa and I post-show 2016.

My first experience with Saidi and the assaya (cane) came in the summer of 2016 when I had my first set of workshops with the fabulous Vanessa of Cairo as part of her Folklore Cocktail class. I had never danced with props before, so it was a brand new experience for me. The class didn’t involve a bunch of the assaya tricks one typically sees in a lot of Saidi performances. The focus was the dance. The cane was simply there to enhance it.

As a dancer who has always had trouble with figuring out what to do with my hands when I dance, I actually really liked the assaya, as it came me a way to control my arms without really having to think about it. I enjoyed the class, but I didn’t really pick it up until the following year.

Vanessa released a Saidi DVD through World Dance New York, and you know I got it immediately. As I watched more and more videos of Saidi stage performances, particularly those of Egyptian dancers and dancers working in Cairo, I fell in love with the stick that didn’t have a crook. I loved the look of it, and my OCD self didn’t have to worry about which way the crook was pointing.

The problem is, stick canes for Egyptian dance are ridiculously hard to find online, and I really didn’t have the money to go to Egypt and find one there. I finally found one at Star Fest in Oklahoma City in October of 2017 from Dahlal Internationale who was vending at the event.IMG_20180416_063251

I decided then that my next show would be a Saidi number. Armed with my new DVD and my new assaya, I had until April 2018 to figure out what I was doing. I could surely manage to be able to do an acceptable improvisation with six months of practice.

I spent loads of spare time at work watching videos of Sahar Samara, Randa Kamel, Taly and Kareem Gad, Cinzia Purificato, Carmen Duende, Wendy Sidar, and, of course, Vanessa of Cairo, trying to learn the attitude of the Saidi woman on stage. I pulled much inspiration from those videos. I enjoyed the powerful nature of their performances, the strong, sassy quality of their musicality. I wanted to be able to embody even a fraction of that energy.

I inevitably always pull something useful from the teacher of the workshops in the hours before the show that helps me with my performance that night. Nada el Masriya was no different in this. Her energy was thoroughly infectious, and she described to us the power and strength of the baladi woman. I will get to her fantastic teachings in the next few posts, but she certainly inspired my styling and a new confidence about my size.

So, at last, I present to you my first Saidi performance to the song Khissa Saidi. I have my issues with the performance, but I did not drop the cane once, so I’ll consider that a win.

Dancing with a Disability

Cerebral Palsy manifests differently for almost every person that has it and everyone’s experiences and struggles with it are as individual as fingerprints. That being said, I can only speak for myself and my own personal experience. I don’t even see myself as fully disabled, really. I’m able to walk around just fine, albeit a tad more slowly. Honestly, the only physical signs that I am any different from the average person are that my right leg and foot turn inward, I have a noticeable limp when I walk, one of my eyes tends to go lazy when I’m tired, my right side is significantly weaker than most people’s non-dominant side, and it sometimes takes me a little longer to grasp certain concepts. That’s it. Other than those few things I am a typical twenty-seven-year-old housewife and dancer.

It has become increasingly clear to me through research for this post and personal experience that the four most common things that are desired most among the disabled community are acceptance, compassion (but not to the point of patronizing), independence and overall, simply to be treated like everyone else. However as I stated above, I can only truly speak for myself.  This is exactly the reason why when I encounter someone who is, say, slow of speech, I speak to them at normal tone and speed unless they tell me otherwise. If there is one thing that I ask of anyone that is reading this, it is this: never treat anyone as if they have a lower intelligence just because you expect them to have a lower intelligence. I cannot stress to you enough how damaging it is to be on the receiving end of this.

Along the same vein is the problem that I face as a disabled dancer with other people never seeing beyond how I walk, or how my leg looks on stage. There have been times where people have simplified their speech around me just because they saw me limp into the room. Trust me, I can keep up. There have been people in the audience that have come up to me simply to say how good a dancer I was “for someone like you, with your challenges.” Qualifiers like that completely decimate any recognition of true hard work or bravery, because apparently I will never be as good as a fully “able-bodied” dancer. That’s the sort of thing that needs to come to a grinding halt. I know I may sound bitter to some, but that little reminder every so often that I’ll never be as good as my classmates in the eyes of others slowly eats away at my self-confidence.

This is a battle cry for all dancers, regardless of ability: OWN YOUR DANCE. For those that are disabled, do you have a move that you just cannot master because of your disability’s constraints? Talk to your teacher! I have found in the year and a half that I’ve been in a studio environment that belly dance teachers in particular will bend over backwards (pun intended) to help you succeed.

Don’t call me an inspiration for simply existing.  I want to be an inspiration because I’ve done something to earn it. Don’t call me “brave” or “courageous” for getting up on stage just because my leg is a bit twisted. I’m battling heaps of anxiety in the minutes before the music starts just like every dancer around me. We are all together on the same stage, each with our own unique spin on this beautiful craft.

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My first performance, Aalim Spring Showcase 2017

Bint al Balad: Hitting My Stride

When I initially became interested inPicsArt_04-06-12.56.00 belly dance, I was a sophomore in college, roughly seven years ago. At the time, and I suppose throughout subsequent years, I didn’t really have access to classes, so I began my study on YouTube. I found various little videos teaching isolated technique with very little context as to style or origin. I think most of what I found then would be classified as Modern Oriental. Eventually, I stumbled across Tiazza’s Free Bellydance Classes, which were the majority of my early learning materials. I remember her saying in one of her videos that she didn’t teach tribal because her body didn’t move that way. Although she has incorporated tribal style technique videos in subsequent years, that statement stuck with me.

In those early years, I had very little knowledge of Middle Eastern music and a penchant for alternative rock and metal, so I initially classified myself as gothic fusion. I feel a bit silly now for thinking that, but when you’re dancing to Disturbed, you can’t exactly call it traditional. But I was dancing to the music I knew instead of stumbling through the intricate Arabic compositions of which I was largely ignorant. When I tried to actually delve into tribal movement, I quickly realized that, much like Tiazza, my body didn’t move that way. It never felt natural to me. Slinky serpent, I am not.

Things clicked when I first saw baladi for the first time. I don’t know what dancers I initially saw, but everything about it intrigued me. It was just so earthy and beautiful, very natural. I loved the movements, the costuming. It took me a while I find the name of it though, which is frustrating. I wanted to find more of that style, but I didn’t know what it was, and I didn’t have anyone to ask. Once I figured out the word, I ended up buying Ranya Renee’s Baladi program from World Dance New York. That was the beginning of my love affair with Egyptian dance.

I loved the music. I loved the beautiful dresses. I loved the big, loose, gooey movements. I loved the way she talked about it being the dance of the people. Something anyone could do. This was what I had been looking for since I started down this path. The sensuality, the joy, passion expressed in the movement of the body. It was a dance I could get lost in, and I took to it like a duck to water.PicsArt_04-06-01.01.34

The inclusive nature of baladi has always called to me. I’ve never been flashy. I’ve never been one to actively draw attention to myself if I could help it. I’ve never felt like I have a “dancer’s body.” I know that any body is a dancer’s body, but we all experience that insecurity sometime in our lives. But belly dance, and baladi in particular, is the first dance form where I really felt that the shape of my body was perfectly fine.

I see videos of homestyle dancers in Egypt, many of which who are shaped like me, and the absolute joy they exude is infectious. I want to be able to share in even the smallest piece of that. Baladi has become my style. It’s the heart of my dance, and I find myself falling more and more in love with it as I expand into the Sha’abi and Saidi styles. I love these dances that embody the spirit of the people of Egypt, the country that has ignited my imagination.

But that’s a story for another day.

Improvising to Ya Omda by Fatme Serhan, hearing the song for the first time. Sorry for the blurry quality.

Nada el Masriya in Tulsa, April 14, 2018!

Come join us in Tulsa, Oklahoma the weekend of April 14, 2018 for some fabulous workshops taught by Nada el Masriya of the Egyptian Dance Academy of Toronto, Canada! Early bird pricing has passed, but come join us for an Egyptian extravaganza!

The option to pay at the door is available, and if you can’t take all of the workshops, just pop in for one or two! It will be worth it.

Midtown Tulsa Belly Dance always puts on wonderful workshops. You won’t be disappointed!

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Can’t make it to the workshops? Come join us for a spectacular show featuring dancers from Oklahoma and the surrounding areas, and, of course, Nada el Masriya herself. Oh, and me! I’ll be there too!

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Yalla!

My Journey to Belly Dance

Hello, my name is Evryn Amar. This is my first time writing anything for a public audience, so if things are a tad awkward, just bear with me! I’ll get the hang of this soon enough.

I guess I’ll get the elephant in the room out of the way. I have mild Cerebral Palsy. This has made my experience with Irish Dance – interesting, to say the least.  My disability is part of the reason why I left to pursue a different dance form, though jigs will always have my heart.

I actually began Irish Dance long ago, around the age of thirteen. My teacher at that time showed very little mercy to the girl with the wonky leg, and because my bones were young, I was actually able to force my feet into position. This was painful, and pressured by my teacher, even though she meant well and was very kind. Every week I sat there, legs as straight out as I could muster, while my feet were pressed down as close to the floor as I could bear. Over time, my training paid off and I went on to actually place in a county Feis, or Irish dance competition. Really, I only stopped because of the crazy commute from my hometown to the studio. I loved it very much, even though I looked very different from the average dancer onstage. It was through the support of my mother that I was able to rise above the self-consciousness so well. I missed it terribly.

Years later, my mother passed away. At twenty-four I got married and moved to Oklahoma, where I found the local Irish Dance Academy. I was so excited, after years and years I would be able to pick up where I left off and dance again! I would honor my mother’s memory by stepping onto the stage once more.

If only it had been that simple.

The perfect Irish Dancer keeps their back straight, arms to the sides, legs and feet working wonders against the floor. When one of your legs naturally turns inward, nailing those steps becomes an incredible challenge mentally, physically and emotionally. My heart was in the dance, but the body I saw dancing in the mirror didn’t match my classmate’s steps. I felt so graceful in my mind, but in the mirror I was all over the place. One can imagine how this messed with my head, being surrounded by classmates that had much more precise form. My teacher was very understanding, and let me fudge movements if absolutely necessary, but honestly, who would want to do that? I hated it. This wasn’t at all like how it had been when I was little. I felt alone, even though I had the full support of my husband. I felt very different. Imperfect. Finally, I had had enough, and stopped going all together, with only one recital under my belt.

Far before and during this time, my best friend Simina had been prodding me about trying out Bellydance. I was intrigued by the idea, but again, the old shadows of my wonky leg reared up. I still attended a few shows, watching, getting an idea of what this new world was all about. I watched my best friend shine on the dance floor, confident through any fear, embodying the music in ways I had never seen before. It was magical. I wanted to try it! During this time I had been struggling mentally for a while, fighting depression and terrible body dysmorphia. This didn’t stop me from attending my first workshop, though.

I was utterly mesmerized by the sheer variety of people at that workshop. People of all shapes, sizes, age and ability were there, dancing in their own skin. Pretty soon I came into contact with Aalim Bellydance Academy, and honestly my life took quite a turn. Suddenly I had the choice to hide my legs or show them off, depending on the costume. Suddenly, I could employ the rest of my body in the dance. I could feel the music again, this time with all of my being. I began to see myself as beautiful, for the first time in a long while. There would be other challenges to come with this new art, but I know that my mother would be proud as punch to see me where I am now. I would love to be able to return to Irish Dance at some point while I continue with Bellydance, but for now, my ghillie shoes sit patiently on the shelf, until the day I’m ready to return. With two showcases with Aalim down, I know that there will be many more to come.

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My well-loved ghillies together with my newest hipscarf.