Annoying the Entire Household: Learning Finger Cymbals

PicsArt_05-01-08.39.27Although I have been dancing for several years, I’ve never really picked up many props. Well, I’ve purchased a few, but I never really managed to acquire the skill. I purchased a veil and a set of finger cymbals (sagat, zills) at the same time, and never really managed to learn either one of them. My first real prop was the assaya, which I debuted last month. Now my newest project is figuring out the sagat.

My first set of sagat came in the form of the Moorish brass set from Saroyan. They were reasonably priced and the description said they were good for beginners. Lies! Lies, I tell you!

Okay, maybe not lies, just not really good for me. I always found the little things hard to handle, and because of that, I never really got around to mastering them. It wasn’t until the last couple of months, that I began to consider that maybe they were just too small for me. In the first zill DVD I purchased featuring Elsa Leandros, Elsa uses these great big zills. I also noticed Karim Nagi prefers larger cymbals as well. His mastery of that instrument is fascinating and super entertaining to watch, both live and recorded.

I asked around in the online community about whether larger would be easier to learn, and the general consensus was start small, but that still didn’t feel right to me. Small wasn’t working. Fortunately, while on a lunch break at the recent Nada el Masriya workshops last month, I mentioned the issue and another dancer pulled out one of her many sets and let me feel them out.

They felt good in my hands. A nice size, a nice weight. Not large, per se, but about a .25 inches (.64 cm) larger than my Moorish set. A week or two ago, I ended up ordering those same sagat, the Turkish Delight Professional brass set from Saroyan. I also learned the nifty trick of using tiny safety pins to secure the elastics instead of employing my sub par sewing skills and screwing it up. They are much easier to adjust, even if it’s not the way you’re supposed to do it.

I have always had trouble with the numbering system for learning sagat as well. It’s the most common method. At least three of my DVDs that involve cymbal patterns use it. However, I don’t count when I dance, so numbers just kind of break my brain. I much prefer using the dum-tak-tik-tok method as the sounds translate much more easily to me than the numbers.

After studying with Karim last year, I really enjoyed his method and his performance. I love learning the proper Arabic terms for the music and rhythms. I love how he approaches it from a musician’s perspective and not only from a dance perspective. So this week, I grabbed his finger cymbals DVD, because, I don’t just want to learn to dance with the sagat. I want to learn to actually play them like an instrument.

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We’ll see how well I do. I’m definitely going to spend a lot more time on these before I try to perform with them than I did with the assaya. Wish me luck! And pray for the poor ears of my cats.

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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.

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.

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!

The Language of the Dance: Learning Arabic

PicsArt_03-31-04.11.28In the course of learning belly dance, you tend to pick up a smattering of Arabic words and phrases. Hafla, baladi, habibi, Saidi, maqam, as well as a plethora of other music and culture-related words. I’ve always found the language beautiful. I remember that when I was in college, we had many students from the Middle East in the Engineering and Education departments and I enjoyed listening to them speak to each other in the cafeteria or the hallways, even though I could not understand them. There’s just something musical about Arabic that always intrigued me.

I’m not exactly bilingual, but I’ve always had a knack for picking up language and sounds that aren’t native to English. I had a strong interest in linguistics in college, which I would have minored in if they offered it. I learned to write in the International Phonetic Alphabet during a Phonetics class. We had several Arab students in that class as well, so we were able to learn about some of the sounds found in their language that weren’t found in ours.

I’ve gone down the language learning road before. There’s the obligatory language class from High School that we all had to take. I ended up taking German because I have German ancestry, and it seemed easier than Spanish (although Spanish would have been 100% more useful). I can’t say I made much headway then, as there wasn’t much interest. Last year, I picked it up again, using Duolingo as my primary learning tool. I brushed up enough that I could probably survive a trip to Germany and not die if no one spoke English. But, I have to say, there’s no real passion in me for that language.

I had considered trying to learn Arabic before. I can’t remember when exactly, now. We, as dancers, are encouraged to learn the meaning of the music we dance to. Some say we should learn the language or at least acquire translations for our songs so as to avoid inappropriate interpretations or accidentally dancing to a vulgar song for a native audience. I don’t know that there were many online resources at the time I was looking then. It was before I’d started brushing up on my German, and I found the Arabic alphabet thoroughly intimidating, being so different from what I was used to.

This past month, however, I’ve found a new wave of motivation to give it a go. I attended Sahra Saeeda’s Journey Through Egypt level 1 course in February, which sent my anthropological interests into overdrive. I want to understand my music and this beautiful language, so that I can learn more about Egyptian culture, both related and unrelated to dance. With my phonetics background and the knowledge that I can master a new alphabet, I’ve jumped headfirst into this new endeavor.

I picked up a textbook on Egyptian Arabic last month, and in the last couple of weeks, I’ve picked up some beginners workbooks to help me along. My phonetics class utilized a workbook, and I really like that style of learning. Duolingo doesn’t have an Arabic course yet, but they have one due to launch in August, which you can most certainly bet I will be using heavily.IMG_20180223_145559_874

I have to say, however, the most amazing resource I’ve found so far is the YouTube channel of Dr. Imran Hamza Alawiye, the author of the Gateway to Arabic series, Arabic from the Beginning, and a number of other Arabic language learning tools. He has a series of video lessons that walk you through some of his books as if you were taking a live class with him. I haven’t purchased his books yet, but I’ve already learned so much from the few videos I’ve watched, that I’ll certainly be grabbing them in the future. I’ve almost mastered the alphabet already because of his videos. His teaching method is wonderful and I highly recommend his materials if you are interested in learning the language.

I think this time my studies won’t taper off, because I feel far more passionate about learning this language than I did German. German was mostly just a way to pass the time when it got slow at work, but Arabic is an integral part of this dance that I love so much, and that will keep me motivated.

Ma’as-salaamah!

 

New Adventures

Assalaamu ‘alaykum, fellow raqstars, I’m Simina from some town in Arkansas, USA you’ve never heard of. I must confess, I’m a bit of a nerd, and that totally applies to my dance life. I sometimes feel the need to share my nerdiness with the world, so I have decided to start this wonderful little project, so I can gush about my love of Egyptian dance, music, culture and language. I’ve even conned my best friend, Evryn, to come toss her two cents in from time to time.

The tagline reads “Stories of the Unconventional Dancer.” Being a self-taught dancer, I think I come at things from a decidedly different point of view. I sometimes lament my lack of access to formal dance classes, but I have always thrived in an independent study environment, so hopefully I can illuminate the various pros and cons of that learning style as well as discuss the challenges of being a delightfully squishy dancer.

Costuming is an absolute chore, I tell you.

My lovely Evryn is also unconventional as a dancer with cerebral palsy who initially came from an Irish dancing background. I’m certain she’ll have some wonderful stories about studio life and troupe dancing that I don’t have as a soloist. Seriously, I can’t even begin to do choreography and I admire those that can.

Welcome to our sparkly corner of the internet, and I hope you enjoy reading our stories and feel inspired to share your own.

Here is one of my favorite performances of mine from the Vanessa of Cairo Dance Weekend in Tulsa, Oklahoma, June 2017.