Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Journey Through Egypt Weekend Intensive


The longer I continue down my belly dance journey and the more I learn, the more I realize there's so much that I don't yet know. This last weekend was no exception, as I had the opportunity to take Sahra C. Kent's Journey Through Egypt 1 study intensive.

For anyone not familiar with Sahra C. Kent (Saeeda), she is a world-famous dancer, teacher, and dance ethnologist. Sahra lived in Egypt for six years while working under a contract with the Meridian Heliopolis. Additionally, she holds a Masters of Art with a concentration in Dance Ethnology from UCLA. Her experience and education have lead her to create a series of four immersion workshops called Journey Through Egypt that provide a systematic overview of the dances of Egypt.

Journey Through Egypt 1 was a 20-hour study intensive spread over three days. Sahra's system splits Egypt into eight major dance zones: Nubian, Sa'idi, Cairo, Delta, Suez Canal, Bedouin, Siwa, and Ghawazee. As she taught us over the course of the weekend, it was readily apparent that her depth of knowledge was incredible and we were only tapping the surface.

In addition to her extensive cultural and anthropological knowledge, Sahra also had personal anecdotes sprinkled throughout the weekend that really made her teaching come alive. She shared how on her first day of her master's classes with UCLA, she ended up sitting in the same class with Farida Fahmy, and how a friendship shortly ensued and they became roommates. Sahra also described conducting zeffah research with Mahmoud Reda in tow and how once people realized that Mahoud Reda was "crashing" their wedding, mild chaos would erupt.

My only "criticism" of the class (and I use that word loosely), was that it felt like we needed more time! The bulk of the class was devoted to lecture, and it would  have been constructive to also do a bit more actual dancing to learn more of the movement vocabulary of the dances and regions covered. My knowledge of the cultural history and significance behind the folkloric dances of Egypt is certainly much expanded after taking this class, but I wouldn't necessarily say that I learned how to perform any of these dances that I didn't already know. For me personally, I would especially say this in relation to the area of the Suez Canal dances, as this is the region I had the least knowledge on when entering the class.

Nonetheless, I overall immensely enjoyed the weekend and would highly recommend it to any dancer. You better believe I will be signing up for JtE 2 when it comes through Seattle next year!

While studying with Sahra in person would be the best resource, for those who can't currently, or just any dancer looking to further her knowledge, I thought I would end this post by sharing some of the supplementary resources Sahra recommended to us during the course of the weekend. And of course, don't forget about Sahra's blog and YouTube playlists.

Veiled Sentiments by Lila Abu-Lughod
Belly Dance: Orientalism, Transnationalism, and Harem Fantasy by Anthony Shay
40 Days and 1,001 Nights by Tamalyn Dallal, as well as related movie
The Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians by Edward Lane

Zar - Trance Music for Women available at

Egypt Dances by Madga Sala, only available for viewing at the Lincoln Center Public Library in New York

Aza Sharif performing a theatrical version of haggalah

Fifi Abdo performing beledi style with raqs assaya

Sahra Saeeda (Sahra C. Kent) performing melaya leff

Photo Credits: Alessandra with Sahra with traditional Egyptian clothing in the background

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Book Review: The Belly Dance Handbook

Given the popularity of belly dance, there have been surprisingly few belly dance books written. However, I suppose that makes sense: dancers are busy dancing rather than glued to a desk writing. And out of the ones that do exist, I have to say I haven't been all that impressed with the selection I've read thus far. That is, until now. I recently finished reading Princess Farhana's The Belly Dance Handbook: A Companion for the Serious Dancer and can easily give it a five zill rating.

Given that Princess Farhana has been a popular blogger for a number of years now, it's no surprise that she was able to couple her finesse at writing with her extensive experience as a dancer to craft a book that is both practical and engaging.

I think that dancers of all levels can find useful information in this book, as it starts out with fairly rudimentary belly dance knowledge and progresses all the way to turning pro and beyond.  After seven years, three teaching gigs, numerous performances, and countless hours of studying, I know that I still picked up on some new nuggets of information. The book comprises twelve chapters that cover fundamentals, belly dance styles, technique, practicing, costuming, props, makeup, performing, turning professional, running a business, teaching, and travel. The tone is friendly, with funny anecdotal stories interspersed throughout.  However, at the same time the author conveys her information in a manner that clearly displays her competency on her subject matter.

One of my favorite sections of the book was the chapter on styles of dance.  This was one of the best breakdowns of the various styles that I've read, with descriptions that were accurate and clearly highlighted both the similarities and differences between the various subgenres that comprise belly dance as we know it. I also appreciated that her book didn't include any statements to the effect that belly dance is an ancient art form or any other such belly dance origin myths. Yes, I know, equating belly dance to an ancient female dance of empowerment or birthing sounds nice to say, but to date there's no evidence or history to back those theories, and thus I cringe a bit every time I hear someone make statements to that effect. Happily, Princess Farhana stuck to the facts in this regard.

I also liked that the book included a lot of great belly dance "hacks" in terms of tips for storing and caring for costumes, as well as ensuring that you arrive at your gigs well-prepared and with all your necessary tools in tow.

I have one criticism of the book, and I almost hate to say it because I liked the rest of the book so much, but here goes: it's very poorly edited. I've never read a book with so many grammatical and proofreading-related errors. It averaged almost one per page. And now that I've said that, I'm sure I'm going to end up publishing this post with an overlooked error. Anyway, that being said, I still enjoyed the rest of the book enough to overlook this.

In short, I think this is a valuable resource for dancers at any step along their belly dance journey. If you don't already own a copy, I encourage you to shimmy on out and buy one today!