MIZMAR, GHAWAZI AND SWORDS – OH MY! Celebrating Community Through Dance

By Abby Stein

November 1, 2014, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE
Bal Anat / Photo by Pixie Vision

LEAVE the chiffon, sequins and sparkles at home. Bring your friends, family and co-workers to enjoy what promises to be a spectacular afternoon with belly dance companies Bal Anat and Karavansaray. Just follow the sound of the mizmar and def instruments to San Francisco City Hall on November 7th. The performance takes place at noon as a part of the 2014 Rotunda Dance Series, co-presented by Dancers’ Group and World Arts West.

The public will be treated to a delightful afternoon of high energy dancing, live music and colorful costumes. Bal Anat and Karavansaray will be performing dances derived from or inspired by regional dance styles from the Middle East and will feature a suite of Egyptian folkloric dances by Karavansaray and Bal Anat’s mixed repertoire of “tribal” dances from Egypt, Morocco, Algeria and folkloric fantasy fusion.

Karavansaray will open the show with live music and a piece inspired by Egyptian wedding processions—perfect for celebrating dance with the public. I was thrilled to learn that both groups will include a Ghawazi piece. I am a huge fan of Ghawazi dancing, which is earthy and fast, with lots of hip shimmies and a bit of cheek. Other dances will feature Sa’idi rhythms and movement associated with rural tradition in Upper Egypt. The use of traditional movements in a nontraditional manner can be seen in the frequent use of props: canes, swords, pots, a goddess mask and possibly a live snake. Expect to see an array of textiles, including costumes made from assuit (a net-like cloth from Egypt with metal hand woven throughout in figural and geometric patterns).

When discussing belly dance, the issue of cultural appropriation frequently follows. I continue to feel conflicted when handling this complicated matter. Thankfully, Company Directors Suhaila Salimpour (Bal Anat) and Amanda Baer (Karavansaray) are fearless as they take on the challenges balancing representations of culture with the desire to deliver “good ole-fashioned” entertainment. Both women incorporate research, life experience and artistic interpretations to shape their choreographies and share their love of the dance form.

For Amanda, “the goal is presenting a theatrical experience enjoyable to audiences in a wide range of styles that they might not necessarily see within the genre.” She explains that to “become an expert in the breadth and depth” of the many dances within different regions would take a lifetime, but an understanding of the culture is nonetheless critical to her work. Amanda shared that “I do study and try to go to as many primary and secondary sources as I can.” The choreography inspired from these different folkloric dances “give the flavor of different regions.” At minimum, “someone from that culture would at least recognize and hopefully approve.” The company repertoire introduces many Americans to “a broader range of cultural offerings of a region, offering something different that goes beyond stereotypes associated with belly dance.”

We can see this blend of fact and fiction in the Karavansaray closing number. The group will perform a feminized version of Tahtib or stick dance—a “tradition of men’s dance and martial movement associated with farmers, herders, etc. of Upper Egypt.” Her interpretation includes a “face-off” format, but is danced by women. Amanda describes the unconventional piece as “fun but still evoking the power of the sticks.”

For Suhaila the mix of old and new, tradition and innovation, is about “pushing the boundaries without insulting [the culture it is representing].” She discusses her life as a second generation belly dancer, modern artist and cultural ambassador. “It’s a constant challenge and I often teeter on the edge.” She uses her life experience—her upbringing in an Islamic household, her life-long love of Arabic music, her decade-long stint as a dancer in the Middle East—balanced with research to inform her artistic choices.

When Suhaila re-established the company in 2000, she made sure she “did the research and turned over every rock” to ensure the costuming, tattoos “and everything are right on and respectful.” She explained that only after ensuring that the movements were appropriate for the regions they represent, did she then take creative liberties in her choreographies.

As part of her efforts to maintain that respect for Middle Eastern cultures, Suhaila works with her dancers to create emotional connections. She explains that even if a dancer does not have the same connection to the music as one from that region might have, s/he can still perform the choreography with emotional authenticity. “I understand the cultural weight of the dance form. Arab audiences have come to me and told me they were so thrilled because they can have a sense of country pride watching what we do.”

To better understand this mix of tradition and fusion, I will take a moment to discuss Suhaila’s mother, Jamila Salimpour. It is difficult to convey Jamila’s full influence on generations of belly dancers in her role as teacher, night club owner and founder of the original Bal Anat. Suffice to say that Jamila is recognized as a matriarch and pioneer of American belly dance. She founded the original Bal Anat in 1968. Both researcher and storyteller, she created a circus-like variety show presented as an Arabian festival with dancers from different tribes released from captivity in a Sultan’s Harem. “Half real and half hokum,” the tribes consisted of Tunisian pot dancers, Algerian water glass dancers, a Mother Goddess and more. Her theatrical pretext of a gathering of tribes framed the show within the context of community, while looking to entertain Bay Area audiences. It also reflected a growing belly dance community: Bal Anat became both a literal and figurative extended family.

Years later, many dancers from Bal Anat went on to teach and establish their own groups. Prior to establishing Karavansaray, Amanda danced with the well-known group Hahbi’Ru, founded by John Compton and Rita Alderucci (aka Rebaba). Both Rita and John were students of Jamila and Bal Anat alumni. In fact, John was the original male tray dancer. Amanda cites Hahbi’Ru as a great influence on her work to this day.

In 2008, Amanda created Karavansaray. Like many of the Bay Area belly dance troupes, this South Bay group developed organically as an extension of Amanda’s classes. “We all have day jobs, and many members practice more than one style of belly dancing, but we love dancing with each other and performing as a group.” Although the company will be performing primarily Egypt stylizations, their repertoire brings together “wide-ranging cultural influences from regions across the Near East: Turkey, Egypt, the Levant, Armenia, Greece, Persian and Central Asia.”

Suhaila grew up performing in the original Bal Anat. “As a belly dancer and daughter, it was my responsibility to continue my mother’s legacy.” In 2000 Suhaila re-established the group, revising much of the choreography. She points out that, “Bal Anat started as my mother’s vision, and I continue that vision now with its fusion-based movement, but the dancing is at a much higher level now.” At the time of this article, Suhaila had not finalized the set, but the show will most likely include a Moroccan dance, a Tunisian pot dance, the Mother Goddess piece and a recently updated sword dance choreography.

Although the November 7th performance will feature dancers based in the Bay Area, the Bal Anat company itself includes more than 60 members from around the world. Dancers learn the choreography online and are grouped by Suhaila’s certification level (1-5). All of the dancers are also part of the Suhaila Dance Company or the Suhaila Rep Ensemble.

During my interviews with Suhaila and Amanda, I kept coming back to the idea of community—more specifically community as family. Both companies arose from their own small communities: Karavansaray as dancers who wanted to perform together, and Bal Anat as a continued legacy. On another level, the Bay Area belly dance community continues to weave connections as the dance form is passed from generation to generation, even in the face of globalization.

Much of the folkloric dance vocabulary can be tied to community dances derived from specific regions in Egypt, Algeria and Tunisia. I believe it is most appropriate that this particular performance is being shared with all of the Bay Area as part of organizations, both World Arts West and Dancers’ Group bring visibility to Bay Area dance artists. Together they are inviting dancers and non-dancers alike to share in this free performance.

This article appeared in the November 2014 issue of In Dance.

Dance enthusiast Abby Stein is a nonprofit development professional in the Bay Area. She has served on the Isadora Duncan Dance Awards Committee and volunteers with World Arts West. Abby graduated with a B.A. from UC Berkeley in Dance & Performance Studies and Near Eastern Studies. Her writing garnered multiple awards in the dance department and she was selected as a campus-wide Haas Scholar for Undergraduate Research.