Ba Olek Eh - Amina's Daily Blog

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March 26, 27, 2013
Tuesday, Wednesday
The Girl Scout Motto

Tuesday nights are always devoted to Aswan practices. It may seem like a huge commitment to practice every week whether or not there is an upcoming show, but in my reality, there is never enough time to practice everything I want to practice. Besides, it's not about precision or synchronicity; it's about dancing as an ensemble.

I wish we could practice for a longer time period or even twice a week. Years ago we used to practice twice a week but now work and life seem to have gotten in the way and it seems that there just aren't that many hours in the day anymore. Not as many as there used to be. Strange, since there's always only been 24 hours in a day. But I guess it just depends on priorities how it's rationed out.

I know that asking for a longer practice on a work night can be too hard on the girls - unless there's an immediate crisis - like an important show in a few days or even tomorrow. Of course every show should be considered important. It shouldn't matter if it's a little event in a deli or in huge amphitheater accommodating thousands. I always prefer the little cafe/deli things to the big shows any day - except that theater stages are always optimum for group performance, spacing, theatricality and videotaping.

Well, since we practice every week regardless of whether there is an upcoming show or not, we should be prepared for any type of event. The Girl Scout Motto is: "Be prepared." In the 1947 Girl Scout handbook, the motto was explained this way "A Girl Scout is ready to help out wherever he is needed. Willingness to serve is not enough; you must know how to do the job well, even in an emergency."

The most important part of practicing is not just about remembering or memorizing choreography, it's about dancing with each other and seeing and feeling each other's space, energy and movements. Being prepared - knowing the material - should just be a given so that in an emergency, dances - choreography - staging - costumes - can just be pulled together in a minute.

Years ago we (The Aswans) used to present a show every other month to live music. It was kind of exciting because we did what we called loose choreography. We would practice dancing together (no choreography) to various pieces of music and then at our shows we would perform ensemble pieces based on feeling each other's energy. Sometimes we would have a designated leader (but not like ATS) and the leader would make it easy and it almost felt like cheating, but usually it was just dancing together based on peripheral vision and sensing each other's energy and dancing.

Our shows were called "Cairo Cabaret" and our musicians were called The Cairo Cats. Susu was the bandleader because she was always in the band. The other musicians were volunteers who supported our efforts and didn't play every single show. They included (in no particular order) Mohamed Amin, Nazir Latouf, Jad Elias, Reda Darwish, Vince Delgado, Hoda el Artiste, George Dabai, Daria Schwarzschild, Gregangelo Herrera, Imad Mizyed and I will have to look at old videos to remember them all. In other words, the musicians with the exception of Susu (Daria and Gregangelo) were rotating musicians. We would just ask them to play certain songs and hope for the best when we danced to them. It was an enormous undertaking and risk to dance ensemble work to live music minus rehearsals but it worked and we had a great following of not just the regular belly dancers who we see at most dance festivals, but also the general and Arab population. So, why did we stop? The Cairo Cabaret series was done in that transition period between the clubs waning and closing on Broadway in SF and a new Arab supper club opening (Shahrazade) in the East Bay. We stopped because it just seemed time. We filled a need at a particular period in belly dance history and also life changes and moves on.

From that time of spontaneous group ensemble work came Susu's first CD "Susu and The Cairo Cats - Live at the Giza Club". Her drum ensemble with her core drummers, Daria and Gregangelo (and some of the Aswans), just learned to drum with synchronicity without even knowing why. And so she was able to record "Susu and The Cairo Cats" with her drum compositions that were based on hours, months and years of drumming together with her group.

Tonight, Wednesday, Susu and I practiced with Hana and Sandy for an upcoming performance on Saturday. It will be for a World Drum Festival and because life gets in the way, we decided we would just have to quickly put something together for Saturday's show based having worked together before. Hana, Susu and I have drummed together for many shows; Susu and Sandy worked together for years and Susu, Sandy and I also have worked together as a team. So based on that, we decided we could pull off something spontaneous and hope it would look and sound tight. But first we tried counting and memorizing various riffs and drum rhythm combinations. It was hard and we kept messing up to the point of thinking we would embarrass ourselves. So we agreed to just play and practice being spontaneous - which is what we do best. Guess what? That worked! We actually sounded rehearsed when we just played and didn't think. (Sounds like my advice about dancing, doesn't it?) So, we called it a night and decided we would just meet at the venue on Saturday and go for it!

March 25, 2013
A cat has nine lives and purrs through all of them.
A cat has nine lives, but how many does a belly dancer have? I think a lot more.

In my first life I was a housewife and mother of three babies and I belly danced wearing housedresses and aprons while I vacuumed, scrubbed floors, waxed furniture, did laundry and ironed everything, watched soaps, stood in lines at supermarkets and banks and cooked everyday for 5 and I was happy.

My second life found me floundering amongst professional dancers at the Bagdad, a nightclub in San Francisco's North Beach neighborhood. I was desperately trying to fit in and be accepted by the other dancers, the musicians and the audience, but I was working 6-7 nights a week and so I was happy.

In my third life, I was the house dancer now working 6 nights a week and was comfortable in my role of welcoming other dancers. After all there were 3-4 dancers who worked every night and I had survived a change in ownership and felt secure in my job so I was happy.

My belly dance lives continued. I became a dance teacher, director etc. of The Aswan Dancers, my own dance group and although I was forced to change from being an American style cabaret dancer to an Egyptian style dancer when "the Egyptians" (musicians) started playing in our club, I was still happy.

A lot of years have passed and my lives have changed. I've added playing music as an extension of my dance life. After all, my hands are dancing. I'm doing what I like doing the one of my lives as a belly dancer and playing for and watching my belly dance children dance. Of course I'm still happy.

I love my life now and although I do love reminiscing and talking about my past lives, I'm not particularly hung up on the past other than recording various funny or memorable events. In fact, they are such past lives that sometimes I wonder if I really lived them. Did I really cook and clean every single day? Did I really do bake sales for the PTA? Did I need to wear false eyelashes to even put out the garbage? Was I really that tiny? I remember I used to think I was fat. Hah! I didn't know what fat was. I used to have to pad my bras, but I thought I was fat. Now I realize, none of us were fat then. We couldn't have gotten a job dancing if we were. I remember I thought I had wrinkles when I was 25. Was that really me doing The Sultan Act? Was that me going around the tables collecting $20 tips? Did that Saudi guy really try to knife my husband because he thought just because I smiled at him, that he owned me? Times change. Trends change. Dance, music and costume styles change. Lives change. My life sure has changed. But I'm still a belly dancer living one of my lives and of course I'm still happy.

Today in class I played some music from another life. It was music from the 70's and we used to dance to it a lot. It was interesting how my today dance style had to change to adapt to the style of yesterday's 70's music. It was almost hard to do. That style was so another lifetime. Fortunately some music is classic - ageless- but then some sounds are so dated that they really reflect another era, another life. I guess I've always gravitated towards the classic - ageless music. I guess that's why some of the music I buy gets pushed to the back of the queue and only gets used occasionally to remind me that I'm living another life - a newer life - in my many lives of belly dance.

March 24, 2013
The blessing of the drums

Last week was Rakkasah weekend. For some it was non-stop dancing and shopping from Friday night and on into the weekend. And for some it began the previous week with workshops classes. For me it was also Aswat weekend since I started the previous week at Aswat rehearsals and also teaching at Moon over Rakkasah. It was dance and Aswat overload.

Aswat was scheduled to do two performances last Saturday and Nabila had scheduled hours and hours of rehearsals the week leading into the shows.

After the marathon music rehearsals, the Aswat Women's Ensemble met at the San Francisco main library to open for the Annual Arab Women's Conference. After our performance, which received a standing ovation - this was after all an all women's conference so why wouldn't the women in the audience honor an all female ensemble and choir, I dashed home to teach my classes and get ready to go on to the next gig. This was in San Rafael for a Sufi convention and the show was called Poetry and Sacred Music. For this performance we percussionists mainly used tars and frame drums. Susu and I chose to use a couple of special frame drums with goat skin heads lovingly hand made by Alfredo Gormezano about two decades ago. We brought our Cooperman drums with synthetic skins as back up but didn't need to use them. The Alfredo drums never needed to be heated and contributed to the mystical feeling of the concert. Synthetic head drums can never compare to real skin drums. (At least when the real skin drums are tight.)

The next day at Rakkasah I was still high from the two - not one, but two - standing ovations we received at the Sufi show. I know it was for the singers and the whole ensemble, but I liked to believe that I had a small part in helping to make the show great. And I believed it was because of the special real skin drums we used.
Well, whom do you think I ran into at Rakkasah? Alfredo, of course! (Hadn't seen him in years!) He had driven down from Oregon to participate in Rakkasah. I, of course, told him that we still owned and used his special drums and that they were part of our special Sufi concert and had received a standing ovation.

Enough of that. I was at Rakkasah and Rakkasah is about dance. The Aswans were soon to go on stage wearing their new colorful costumes that I bought in Egypt on sharia al ghouriya. After they danced, and they were so cute, I was off to Pachamama for the grand finale of a fantastic musical and dance weekend. At Pachamama, we had a great lineup of dancers who had danced at Rakkasah and wanted to dance more. When the evening was almost over, in walked more people wanting more music and dancing. One of them was Alfredo - I didn't know he even knew about Pachamama. So Georges played more music for open stage dancing. It was one of those nights that we didn't want to end, but, alas, it was a Sunday night and Pachamama needed to close. The neighbors don't like loud music and drumming late Sunday nights.

So I gathered my bags of drums and equipment and started to head for my car. Alfredo gallantly offered to help me carry my stuff and when we got to my car, which was blocks away, I offered to drive him to his car because it was pretty late, the streets were empty and who knows who lurked behind the bushes or in doorways. His car - van - ended up being only a few doors down from Pachamama.

On the way to his vehicle, we of course talked about drums and he wanted to show me some of his new drums. So, in the middle of the night or rather, it was early Monday morning by now, he pulled out some of his favorite drums and began playing them in the street. North Beach, Pachamama, Powell St., Columbus Ave, it was all pretty quiet and sleeping and I was a little nervous that we might get arrested by the police but Alfredo seemed oblivious...happy in a drum world of his own. Pretty soon, though, Fernando, the drum set player for our Georges Pachamama band walked by. I introduced them and of course Fernando who also plays skinned drums - Latin and Brazilian, wanted to try out Alfredo's drums. I wanted to disappear. But no lights got turned on and no windows opened with people yelling at us to be quiet, so they continued to play. Then I got caught up in the moment and noticed that one of his drums would complete my set of the two Alfredo drums I already owned. It had a beautiful and completely different sound but matched the tones of the other two drums. So, guess what? I became the owner of a third drum.

Well, Alfredo couldn't let it go without "blessing" it. So after the entire previous ruckus, Alfredo obliviously began his blessing ritual. It seemed to be about about ten hours long but really was only about ten minutes long. Ten minutes can be a really long time. The blessing consisted of quiet and loud spiritual drumming, chanting, singing and finally, ya rab, quiet meditating. The police didn't show up, ilhamduli'llah and I possessed a new drum that promised me great music. I went home dreaming of finally becoming a great drummer now that I had a magical sacred drum and left Alfredo happily meditating and probably playing more drums in the quiet of a sleeping North Beach.

Today I brought all three of my drums to Aswat rehearsal and I plan on using them at our next concert.

March 23, 2013
Shaabi versus Classic
It was late at night and after getting lost in dead end streets, after manipulating numerous u-turns within the car crowded lanes, after multiple cars honked warnings of near collisions and after many pleas of "help, we're lost", yelled to different men in alleys who were carrying boxes, sweeping or just huddling in groups, we finally found our destination. There it was, a small unlit anonymous looking brass plaque that identified our desired address (which in reality was two blocks/buildings away) and under it were several men smoking, drinking (tea), talking, laughing and watching the gallabiyyaed bawab throw soapy water on the dusty marble stairway. "Min fadhlak, dee sound studio?" "Aiwa - aho! La! La! mish hena - hua henak" Yes, we were finally at the right location. But we couldn't go in through the open doorway, the most direct route, we had to go to the right through the closed door, turn left and walk past the open doorway and go up the dark unlit stairway up three flights of stairs. When we found a doorway with a light on and saw a woman wearing a tight blouse, flashy mini skirt, high-heeled boots with big blonde hair and waaaay too much makeup, we figured we were there.

We were greeted by a "coffee, tea or ... " invitation and then were directed to the door on the right. Susu and I cautiously and slowly pulled open the dark quilt-padded door and found a room dark and heavy with thick cigarette smoke. It was small and crowded with men and musical instruments. There was a real big young guy sporting the latest fashions with long hair pulled back in a ponytail at the mixing board. There was also the drummer, the keyboard player and his keyboard and others from the band including two singers. We were able to suppress coughing too obviously and choked out a very sincere "mesa' el kheir" (good evening). We really should have gasped "sabah el kheir" (good morning) as it was already past the witching hour. This was our first evening at the sound studio and we were there to begin recording music.

The bandleader greeted us warmly and just like the person in the lobby, he insisted that we drink something - coffee, tea, bebsi, or water. I didn't know if I could handle any more tea - it's always too strong and waaay too sweet for me. Too sweet? You know it must be too sweet if it's too sweet for me. So water was the popular drink of choice. It was refreshing and helped to dissipate some of the smog in our lungs or so we wanted to believe.

The two singers were going to sing two different styles of song. The one who was to do Tarab songs was wearing a suit and tie said he couldn't feel "Shaabi" and the other singer, looking young and hip, wearing a cap and looked more at ease in casual clothes just like the ponytailed sound engineer would sing in the Shaabi style. There seemed to be a bit of loving and friendly rivalry over what kinds of songs were more popular and more important - Classic or Shaabi. Since we didn't discuss this openly or simultaneously with either of them, the choice depended on whom we were talking to at the time. Since I had chosen a Shaabi song when I danced at a show the prior week, the Shaabi singer found me to be a great ally. But then I had also chosen a classic song, so Tarab was also most important to me. But I was only "Mama" and must have been confused because I obviously liked both styles. Drummer Susu's opinion actually meant more to them. She's a Libra, so she somehow managed to convince both of them that their songs were best. It just depended on whom she happened to be talking to at the moment. This was in Cairo a couple of months ago.

Now I'm planning a workshop in July with my friend Debbie and the Egyptian dancer, Leila. They will both be in the states this summer planning to get away from the Cairo heat during Ramadan. Leila told me that she had added a new Shaabi song to her dance routine. Leila wants to teach Shaabi in the workshop. And knowing Debbie, I'm sure Tarab will be covered.

Thinking of all of this in class today I couldn't get Shaabi off my mind, so I spent the afternoon playing and teaching to the new Shaabi music that I just bought in Cairo. However I finally gave in and decided to play something Classic. So I played an Adaweya song from the '70's. He was the original and foremost Shaabi singer. His music is still so now, so wonderful and so alive. His music is so Shaabi that it's Classic.

March 22, 2013
Carnival of Stars and the Side Show

My website needs a lot of updating and I just don't know where to start. No, that's not true. I do know where to start. I need to take care of current business first. No, I can't just make a new page about another entirely new subject. I'd really like to, since in the last week I've gotten two requests to write reviews. One - a CD review from someone I don't even know about music that is not exactly traditional - but is based on traditional rhythms (this ought to be a challenge since I sometimes get too wrapped up in "Egyptianism") and another, a book review written by someone I do know and greatly admire, about a book that I really enjoyed.

Yes, that's where I want to start. Make a new web page for reviews and anecdotes about music, films and books I really like and would like to share with others. Or maybe I just want to/need to update my Ghawazee page with stuff about Khaireyya... new stuff - photos and thoughts about her and her dance since I just saw her a couple of months ago. Or maybe I should update the Bagdad Nights page since I've been receiving tons of photos and little notes from other people from the Bagdad days. All that needs to be done. But no - I need to work. I need to spend the day working on updating my Carnival of Stars Side Show page. That doesn't mean that I don't want to update the Side Show page, it's just that I feel compelled to move on to other things that are on my to do list. And I always like to work from the middle. I hate structure.

But - I've been getting lots of phone calls and emails from Pepper and from people who are interested in dancing at the Side Show and I guess scheduling needs to take a priority... especially when I checked my site, and realized that all the Side Show news was old - like from last year and even the year before.

I hadn't even posted last years' Side Show photos. How could I have been so remiss? I know why - I thought they were on the site because they're on my phone and I see those photos all the time. And I had even emailed a few of them out to some of the dancers, but, duh, I forgot to post them for others to see.

How can I even think about making new pages on my web when I'm not even taking care of the pages that need updating. Yes, I do have to make up a to do list and stick to it and be methodical. Well, actually I do have lots of these to do lists, but they're all on the backs of envelopes but sometimes they get tossed with the recycling before the chores get crossed off. Of course to do lists are not very efficient that way. I do love love love writing lists on envelopes - not on electronic devices - you can't crumple those up and you can't see what you do by checking and crossing them off - pressing delete and erasing just isn't the same. It's too permanent and then you never get to see what you actually did because then it's gone!

In fact, I usually write a list every day, but executing what's on the lists and being methodical is not how my mind works. I usually only get to cross things off the list when I find a really old one - like months old and then realize that since nothing's relevant on the list anymore, that I can finally make my check mark and cross out something.
Generally I like to jump around and work from the middle and then muddle my way through. No plan. No outline. No forethought. Just jump in. I don't think I'd make a good triage person. But that's how I've always worked and it seems to work for me because then God helps me get out of it, out of my mess or helps me finish the job. Such as: cut the fabric before thinking about what I want to do with it or how to make it. Actually, what about buying the fabric? Knowing how much to buy? That's an original thought. And using a pattern? Uh, well, maybe the pattern is in the other room or maybe I just don't like to read or maybe the pattern is too regulated, too many steps to follow and rules to know. Yikes. Maybe that doesn't sound like the best way to work, but that's how many new ideas, visions and dreams are realized from the chaos of my mind.

Now back to the drudgery of work. So today I spent the day getting the Side Show page on my site updated. It's still not done, but if you check the site, I put all the old stuff on another page and the current page shows the projected 2013 Side Show schedule. I also emailed myself the photos that I want to put up. (Posting them is on my to do list.) These will be the old photos from last year (from my phone) that will become new photos on the old (2012) site. Just a reminder. I'm not doing any links or posting any photos on my ba olek eh for another week or so - until I figure out how to keep the computer from crashing.

March 21, 2013
Finally we'll get to finish the CD

This morning I went to the Arab Film Festival office to do my volunteer work. Angela is leaving to work somewhere else and I heard that the new director was looking for someone to do admin work part-time. Mazen from Aswat had suggested that I be given the position since I was volunteering anyway. What? Work? I was going to the AFF office to watch movies and organize stuff, not to work. I don't want another job - I already have a part-time 8 hours a week job with my architects. That's enough work. Work would take all the fun out of volunteering. If they make me work, I may have to quit and I really don't want to. Anyway today was fun and I got to watch 3 films - they were shorts so I didn't even have to watch them on fast forward. This is the first pass. I may get to watch them again and again and again. These films were from Iraq, the United Emirates and Lebanon. This is the beginning of the season and the films are still fresh and haven't been watched by anyone else yet. If this is indicative of the crop of films submitted this year, it should be very interesting. The films I saw were two experimental narrative shorts and a documentary on artists. From what I could gather the other films are also of an uplifting nature. Am looking forward to my next volunteering session next week. They better not expect me to work.

Before my class tonight I went with Susu to the sound studio that we will be using to finish the CD that she started in Egypt. It's finally happening and I am so excited. There is so much to do in the postproduction since she wants to add more drum tracks. And now I have to figure out what to write in the liner notes. Plus we still have to figure out a name for the CD plus what kind of theme artwork we'll use plus Susu wants the CD to have an old-timey retro feel - kind of like the characters and scenery from Agatha Christie's "Death on the Nile" or maybe we could fashion it after H. G. Wells' Time Machine since drumming is all about time. We could have photos of the Elois and the Morlocks and Susu could be Weena. I want to be an Eloi. Wonder if there's any musician who would want to be a Morlock. Probably not. Maybe this is all too weird but then, who knows what we'll end up with. Or maybe we could just call it Susu and the Real Cats of Cairo and have funny cartoons of dancing cats with head shot photos of different musicians on the cats' bodies. Of course they would have to have cat ears and whiskers and maybe be playing a musical instrument.

March 20, 2013
Time flies when you're having fun

It's been about nine months since I last posted a blog. I wanted to continue daily blogs but got too frustrated by the state of my computer. Well, nothing has changed since, My computer is still not working well. It loves to crash. But since I've been constantly encouraged and made to feel guilty about not posting the state of my mind, I've decided to quit procrastinating. I will not, however, put up any photos for awhile. I think that is why my computer crashed so often. Memory. My computer has as much memory as I do. None at all.

If any of you have recently seen my dance studio, the adjoining garage aka the dance costume storage area or my two closets, then you would know that the state of my mind is a mess. Gregory just now watched a "Hoarder's - Buried Alive" program where the poor woman who was completely engulfed in her tremendous mess stated that she wasn't a hoarder, she was a collector who didn't have enough space.

Well, I guess that's me. I've often fantasized about buying the house next door so I'd have enough space to store my collections properly. Actually, I have almost (except for music and musical instruments) stopped collecting. But where there's one, there's another. And now it's Gregory who is a collector. Well, he's trying to stop also. We really, yes, truly, have run out of space. And as I have often said, the state of my closet, is the state of my mind. It's a mess - or maybe there's no room for anything else. I guess, in reality, that this mess is better than my closet being neat, empty and vacant. I remember years ago that Dr. Sari (Dowidar) our Egyptian Aswat director came over my house and I was embarrassed for him to see the mess called my house. He very politely told me that all artists are messy. He told me that if they aren't messy, there's nothing there. How polite!

OK, enough apologizing for not doing my blog. As they say: ba olek eh! kafeya, khalas! You know what! Enough, Finished! Time to move on.

The past nine months were pretty busy and I eventually want to talk about some of the things I've done and my thoughts about them. I'll just name a few things here: The Pasha Band did a lot of really neat shows - some big and some little but all important to me - we were at Al Masri, at a couple of bookstores, a couple of book release parties, benefits - really fancy and otherwise and also at the deYoung Museum; I sponsored some workshops - Zadiel of Berlin, Atlantis and Tonya of BDUC, Susu and maybe more. I can't remember everything because I can't find my calendar - is it in my closet?; I did weddings and zeffas and of course performed lots with Aswat and with Georges Lammam's band; The Giza Club also got together a number of times with film showings plus Gregory got to show his bead collection at a Giza Club event called Migrations. I also worked with Angela for the Arab Film Festival, and had a weekly Arabic language and study group to prepare for our Egypt trip.

The Egypt trip! Wow - that was something else. Leila Farid had invited me to play the riq with her band - Safaa Farid's band - at her Nile Cruise Camp Negum. That was too hard to pass up so of course I had to go. I really don't like to travel alone so somehow I managed to convince a few - lots? - of other people to go too. What an adventure. One of the convincees was Susu. She, too, ended up playing tabla every night with Safaa's band. After the cruise, she was at Merryland sound studio recording with them. More on that later.

Too much has happened in the past few months and it will take months to relate it all. In the meantime, as soon as I got back from Egypt, I had to go to Long Beach to judge, teach and perform at BDUC and since then have been teaching, performing and rehearsing non-stop - taught at Moon over Rakkasah, rehearsed the Aswans for Rakkasah, rehearsed and performed three shows with Aswat and am now busy trying to help Diana with the Raksa show with Amir Safi and Virginia and also next week will be going full force in organizing the Side Show for Carnival of Stars.

ba olek eh! kafeya, khalas! My mind is the state of my closet and it really is a mess. But, it's time to start cleaning again so I'll start by slowly organizing my mind - my closets, studio, dance storage areas - by putting it all down in this and future blogs. To start - below, I'll post a few left over blogs that I never posted last year because I was mad at my computer. Let's see if this will help me get organized. And I have to! There's too much to do and I need to be organized and together - like - it's time to get my next article written for the Chronicles, maybe - no, not maybe - but for sure, a book review for Sin Soracco on her book "Edge City", a new site on my web that will give music and book reviews, get the Bagdad and Ghawazee pages updated, organize Zadiels' next workshop and start working on the workshop in July with Debbie and Leila - yes - both from Cairo and starting tomorrow - start the post production and etc. on Susu's upcoming CD.

Here are some left over blogs - if you care to read old news. No photos or links at this point or I may never put these up. Soon though, I hope to be back on track. Please be patient.

June 21 2012
Owning a song

The way a dancer can really understand a song well enough to dance to it is to make it part of herself. That means to know its history, if the song is a classic or traditional song. That means to know about the composer, the poet or lyricist, singer or singers who sing the song and the time period from which it came. Then the dancer should listen to the song and break it down musically. The dancer should know the phrasing, the repeats, the instrumentation and the rhythms. It is also helpful to know a bit about the maqam or at least be able to hear what kind of emotion the maqam evokes.
Lastly, but not leastly, the dancer should know the translation of the song and, if possible, be able to recognize and maybe hear and know some key words in the song. At least the dancer should be able to hear some words and understand words like habibi, hayarni, saharni, layalli, 'albi, rohi and aini. With all of the above, I hope that the dancer can then complete the bridge between the music (be it live or recorded) and the audience. In this manner the dancer should then be able to include the audience in his or her performance and make the dance emotionally interactive, alive, exciting and believable.

And did I mention the dancer should have good technique? Well, I should hope that good technique is a given. The truth is, when I go to open stage dance shows these days, unless the dancer is really a rank beginner, I usually see pretty good technique. Most dancers these days get good training and drilling before they perform at belly dance events and festivals. But sometimes that is all that I see. Good technique. But good technique alone isn't all that interesting to the general public. It's very interesting to other dancers, but the public - the majority of the audience - wants to be entertained and feel emotionally connected to the music and the dancer. Usually the audience wants to just have fun, to be drawn into the dance or to feel a connection to the dance and the dancer.

In my opinion, the dancer/s who I enjoy the most, are the ones who make the dance seem so easy to do - just like walking. Yes, the dancer who looks comfortable in her body and in the music. That is, it just seems easy to do. But then, just you try it and discover that it isn't easy. It just seems easy.

Remember that once you get that good technique, it is in your muscle memory and you will no longer have to think about it. Your body will just go on automatic. So if you have done your homework and have learned the song, the music and the words, then you won't have to think. The music will tell you what to do. So don't think. Just dance. And your body will talk to the audience in a most comfortable and believable manner.

June 22, 2012
Show at La Pena

A couple of months ago Husain told me that Bashir asked him to accompany him on Friday, June 22 for a dance student recital in the late afternoon at Marrakech. Husain wanted me to be the drummer. I told him no - first, because it's too much pressure to be the main drummer (don't feel capable of it) and also because I didn't want to have to deal with the difficult job of finding parking and parking meters in the Tenderloin in San Francisco.

A couple of nights ago Susu asked me to play back-up for her for a student recital with Husain and Bashir (of the Marrakech) at La Pena in Berkeley. She wasn't sure she wanted to do it, but if I went then we could have fun. So, thinking of it as a mother/daughter evening of "quality time" we decided OK, it would be a fun thing to do. I called Husain and asked him if this was the same gig and if so, that I changed my mind but would go as back-up to Susu. He said yes, it was the same gig but that Nickie and Khalil (two other drummers) were also going as back-up. I said that was OK, I would go also since I knew both of the other guys and looked forward to playing with them also. Yes, this would be a fun evening and I was hoping that the students would enjoy the large percussion section.

Well, as it turned out, it wasn't in the afternoon, it was an evening show. And - it wasn't a little "student night", it was a full-blown dance production. Susu and I arrived on time for sound check and soon realized that the producer, Rebecca Vasile, had organized a show called "Menage 2012".

It was:
" Classical and fusion, an experimental night with live Arabic musicians and dancers juxtaposed with musicians and dancers of other genres. Featuring live Arabic music with Bashir Shahin and band, Bulgarian Bagpipes with Vassil Bebelekov, Chinese Erhu with Mingyuan Yuan, and guitar with Freddy Clarke from Wobbly World. Dancers include world-renowned Flamenco dancer Fanny Ara, Bellydance Superstars Nathalie Tedrick and Rebecca Vasile and amazing performances by bellydancers Kendra Katz, Avery Lamar, Krysta Cook, Ahava and Laura Lopez-Alderon".
Sometimes I wonder if Husain really understands English. Well, actually, Husain and I have had numerous discussions about this and after comparing notes with each other, realize that words compute, but sentences don't always. So, this little student adventure really was a serious formal show with lighting cues, other guest musicians and a hired videographer and of course a packed house and in another location - Berkeley, not San Francisco. It kind of reminded me of the time that Husain asked me to bring my tambourine and play with him at a restaurant because he felt lonely playing the oud and being the only musician, for some Iraqis. And when I arrived, I found that it was an important formal reception for the Iraqi Consulate General in Los Angeles. I wondered then - does he understand Iraqi? Maybe when they hired him, they spoke English.

Now, back to Rebecca's show. When Susu and I arrived, we each received printed out detailed notes for the program and soon helped to coordinate the seating arrangement for the band members. Bashir's Arabic Band was to sit stage left, Freddy Clarke's musicians were to be stage right and the dancers of course were center stage. We had sound check as best as we could muster (without Bashir, Husain, Nicky and Khalil because they were all late), we went over the light cues, the entrances and the exits and then went back stage where there were snacks galore - everything from warm Arabic dinner food, to mezza dishes, to veggie plates, desserts, chips, candies and drinks. Rebecca thought of everything. And I kept thinking - Husain said this was just a little student performance on Friday afternoon at the Marrakech.
It was a fun evening - especially the second half after we were able to use the first act as our official sound check. I really enjoyed watching the variety of the dancers and musicians that Rebecca chose and am sure that soon Rebecca will have clips posted up on you tube.

June 23, 2012
Linda's purple dress.

Saturdays seem to always be the same for me. Private class, regular classes and then time to relax which usually means catching up on a book or movie while I eat my breakfast, lunch, and afternoon snack all bundled together while warming up for an early dinner. Today I had another private after my classes. I'm helping someone prepare a cymbal playing section for a competition.

I think that's so funny because when I first started dancing, my cymbal playing sucked big time. I originally learned Turkish style cymbal playing and for years couldn't switch over to the Arabic style. At one time, I even got changed from Saturdays to Mondays (my job at the Bagdad was 6 nights a week) because I was trying (and failing) to change my cymbal playing from Turkish to Arabic. My boss, George Elias told me he'd put me back on Saturdays (bigger audience and more tips) after I figured out how to play my cymbals better. That sure speeded up my learning process!
Years later when Loay was around looking for clubs for our bands to play in, he told me that he wanted to hire me to play the big cymbals - exclusively - with the band. He liked my cymbal playing. So, what does that tell you?

Practice, practice, practice. I hope this person practices so she will get better.

As soon as she left, I had a visitor. It was Giselle who used to take lessons and dance with me and The Aswans. She was going to perform and wanted to buy a dress. I, just by coincidence, had one dress for sale - for $20. It was Linda's and it didn't fit her anymore since she had lost weight. And, guess what! It fit Giselle perfectly - even the length. This is the second time in a month now that I had a costume that was meant for a specific dancer and with the price being right.
The other was when Hana returned a costume that she had inherited from Maria because it didn't fit right. I had it in my studio for a week when Dannhae called saying one of her student's was looking for a costume for her Quincineara party. Dannhae was going to bring her to look at Nayan's costumes (that I had). Her student liked red and Nayan had a couple of red costumes for sale. Well, when her student arrived, and I saw her, she was tall and rather slender, I knew that Nayan's costumes would not work as they were for short, busty girls. I felt bad thinking that this was a shopping trip for nothing. Then I remembered Maria's costume. I looked in the bag and, il'hamduli'llah! It was a red costume and upon trying it on, it fit - perfectly! Best for her - happy 15th birthday - it was free. Only good vibes and memories belonged to that costume.

June 24, 2012
Al Masri

It was just another Al Masri night with Husain and Mohamed. Nothing unusual about the evening except that for some reason the sound wasn't mixed properly and I just gave up on playing the drum. I really don't know why Mohamed even has me - except maybe for the company or, I hope, good vibes. So tonight I decided that I would just play tambourine and duf. Besides not being able to hear the other musicians that well, playing the drum in a tight space just wasn't working. I realized that being squeezed into the cramped space between a table and chair with people sitting there and Husain on the other side made my shoulder cramp. I just couldn't make myself any smaller, but maybe I could use a smaller drum. I think if I remember to bring a shorter drum - not a sombati size, that there will be more room in the tiny little space. It really is amazing but sometimes 2 or 3 inches can really make a difference.

Linda showed up with her daughter-in-law and family. They seemed to have a great time watching the dancers. They especially enjoyed Linda who managed to convince them to join in on her act. I wonder what they must think of us American dancers performing to Middle Eastern music. Linda looked great in her new found body. I particularly enjoyed her dance tonight because she didn't clown around as much as she usually does.

June 25, 2012

In the mid seventies my Iraqi friend Naji Alash told me he wanted to open a dance and music studio with me. I told him that it needed to be close to my home because then I could always be close to and available for my three children who were in elementary school. We found a rental exactly one block from my home and rented it. We worked on making it a studio. We fixed and sanded the wood floor, put up large mirrors, installed curtains to cover the storefront windows, and painted and decorated the studio, dressing room and bathroom. I was all set to start business and then...Naji backed out telling me that he didn't think he could really commit to teaching drum or music on a regular basis. Typical? I didn't know. But I did know that I had a lease on a dance studio so I went forward and started advertising that I was open and accepting students.

Later my friend Naji (yes, of course we remained good friends) started a weekly belly dance show on Cable TV *The Naji Baba Show* and of course my students and I were frequently on his show. Naji died many years ago and I inherited all his footage from the program. Someday I will do something with it and probably find out that age has erased all the video.

One student who frequented my studio was a young teenage girl named Cindy. She was later to become the dancer Sinda. Cindy loved animals, lived in the East Bay and also studied with Rhea who was also in the East Bay. After she studied with me a few years she began working in North Beach and at a club called Powell Station where she ended up marrying Ty, the owner. It was a very popular club that featured five dancers every evening. Each dancer did five sets each, Think about it - five dancers a night doing five shows each - that was twenty five dance shows a night. Ty put all the music on a large reel to reel tape player and like clockwork the dancers would appear for their set. They rotated their dance positions so they ultimately danced to all the music on the tape player. Eventually Ty and Sinda sold the club and moved to the country to be closer to nature, horses and other animals and I lost contact with her.

A few years ago, Sinda reappeared in my life and came to class. She now lives in the state of Oregon (or is it Washington?) and is a flight attendant for American Airlines. Her home base is SFO and sometimes when she is in town she drops in for a lesson or to hang out at Pachamama. The last time she went to Pachamama, she brought along an old childhood friend and her friend's daughter.

Her friend's daughter now takes lessons with me. Her name is Cati and she loves anything Arabic or Egyptian. This was in part because she grew up seeing Sinda dance. Cati now wants to move to the Middle East - she was just accepted to a university in Tel Aviv - to study and ultimately teach art in the Middle East. In the meantime she is studying dance.
Cati just returned from Israel and Egypt a few short months ago - less than three months ago and. She's been updating me on what it's like to be a young girl and an American tourist in Egypt after the revolution. It didn't seem to be too bad. But it seems that, at least in Egypt, things change daily and I am starting to be skeptical about tourism in Egypt now as opposed to three months ago. Well. We'll see. Hala is in Egypt now for Ahlan wa Sahlan and I'm curious to hear about her take on the state of affairs. If nothing else, I'll see her and Raqia Hassan in less than a month from now.

June 26, 2012
Get off the duff

Ayman has decided to start coming to my studio for our weekly Arabic sessions. We've been starting the sessions with drumming and then he was worrying that his neighbors might complain about the noise. I mean, the drumming sounds. I like working with him on his drumming because I feel like I can reciprocate him for all his time and patience he's had with me over the past couple of years. Also, I like drumming and practicing and I really feel good when I see that he's making a little progress with his drumming. I wonder if he feels good when I remember a word. I need to be better at my Arabic so he won't give up on me.

Tonight at Aswan practice we worked on the opening dance for our show at Carnival of Stars and I am finally trying to think of what costumes we will be wearing. I guess it's inevitable. I need to get off my duff and do something. Is that a word or an Arabic frame drum? I think that's also a word and means I need to finally get serious? Anyway, in the dictionary it says it means "to play a bad shot (in golf) by hitting the ground behind the ball". Yes, I need to get off my duff or the girls will be choreographing their "controlled chaos" dance on stage wearing twenty year old costumes that don't fit.

I don't know why I have such resistance to finishing choreographies and making costumes. I think it's all related to the procrastination syndrome. If I put if off till last minute then I really didn't have enough time to make it perfect and therefore that's the reason why I failed. Well, I can't fail this because it also involves five other people.
Yes, no more procrastination and play the duf.

June 27 2012
Rehearsal for July 6 show

Tonight we rehearsed for the show at the deYoung museum. It will be such a great lineup. Jalal, kanun, Husain, violin, Bouchaib, oud, Susu, tabla and then of course there's me on riq and duf.

Susu had a private drum class and as soon as it was over, we started our practice. I guess my role in this group is to take charge, so I started suggesting songs and the song order for each set. Amazingly no one seemed to object. It was a very democratic rehearsal so when they didn't want to play a certain song I chose, they would just say "I really don't know that song that well". Sure! I already knew that I only chose songs that I knew that they knew. Well, I guess no one wanted to hurt my feelings. Little did they know that I didn't even like some of the songs - only chose the ones that I they knew.

We are supposed to wear traditional Arabic outfits. It's interesting that most Arabic male musicians don't own anything Arabic outside of their musical instruments. (Bouchaib, is an exception. He has Moroccan clothing.) So, I guess that my other role in this group is to provide "costumes" for the guys.

Fortunately, many years ago when Gregangelo was dancing with the Aswan Dancers, he took a trip to Egypt compliments of his student loan. He also took with him a wish list for the Aswans - tent material, girls costumes, assayas, tarbooshes and men's outfits. Thanks to this, I'm pretty well supplied in at least Egyptian men's outfits. But I sure would like to supplement what I have.

It looks like a trip to the Middle East is in my future. Sure would love to make it to more than just Egypt. Morocco would be a great destination. There are so many great costumes and they're all so colorful. And the jewelry! Moroccan amber and silver. And of course, we mustn't forget the food. It's the greatest. Think of all the great Moroccan restaurants you've eaten at here. In Morocco the food tastes even better. I remember having merguez in a market and thought, ok, if I die right now, I know I'll be in heaven.

June 28, 2012
Packed class

Ayman, my Arabic tutor called me today and told me that he would be bringing his friends Giselle and Mohamed to class tonight. I wondered what I should teach - should I do something special or not? Well, I decided to not change the class even though it would be a little intimidating to be teaching an Arabic song and it's translation to a group of Arabic speakers. What if my translations were wrong? What if they laughed at my feeble attempts to teach Arabic mannerisms when it is their culture. What if? Well, I decided that if they were coming, that I'd just have to treat them like one of the others and ignore the fact that they would know the song better than me.

We had been working on Wahashtini so I just did what I normally do. That is, pass out the song translation, make everyone listen, point out words to recognize and remember and then just teach as I normally do.

I really didn't stress about Giselle because we go way back. Giselle and I have a symbiotic history. I always helped her with her dance and she always helped me with my Arabic. Giselle started with me when she was 15 and now she says she's 36! Can that be true? Yikes. Time sure flies. And Ayman is my Arabic teacher, so he knows my shortcomings. But Mohamed? He just moved here from Egypt a month ago and I really don't know him.

So here I am in class and I'm teaching a group of American women, one Jordanian and two Egyptians how to dance and perform. What fun! During class the new students (the Arab and the Egyptians) kept sitting down and/or leaving the room. Great for my self esteem. Later I learned it was because they were getting tired. They kept going out to rest AND to smoke. Small wonder that they were getting winded.

Of course the highlight of the class was when we all sat down and performed individually for each other. My little Arab students of course were the stars of our performance class. Each of them had a different personality and dance style but one thing that they all had in common was the "under the eyelashes" approach to performance and interaction with the audience. I wish that all western Middle Eastern dancers would understand that particular dance and personality trait. It is such an important aspect of this dance.

June 29 2012

I'm getting tired of trying to work my website. I hate computers. I hate trying to keep everything together when the computer just crashes all the time. It just doesn't have the capacity or the memory to make things work. Kind of like me.

June 30 2012
Retro dancing

Nadia Elias came for a private lesson today after my classes. She and her sister Faten used to study with me when they lived in San Francisco but now they live a few hours away - like Modesto and Sacramento.

I worked with their mother Arousiac at the Bagdad in the 1960's. She was the cocktail waitress.This was before she met and married their father George Elias. She was Turkish Armenian from Iraq and wore cute little outfits like hot pants. At the time, they were the latest rage. But we dancers, the Americans, were required to wear Middle Eastern outfits when not dancing. Since we weren't Middle Eastern, we were told to wear costumes to look the part.

Arousiac's brother Yousef Kouyoumjian was the owner of the Bagdad. He was my boss. He was also a dancing musician. He played the violin while singing and dancing. It was amazing and fun to watch. I worked for him for quite a few years until he eventually sold the Bagdad to George who had married Arousiac, Yousef's sister. George was an incredible singer and violin and oud player. When George and Arousiac married, she stopped working and had three children, Nadia, Faten and Mona. I continued to keep in touch with Arousiac because we were neighbors. I spent many afternoons at her house having coffee and other goodies and watched the little girls grow up.

Several years after the Bagdad closed and after their father George died, I got a call from Arousiac telling me that two of her daughters - Nadia and Faten - wanted to study Arabic dance. Of course they wanted to study with "Auntie Amina".

What can I say? The music genes were there. These girls, Turkish Armenian on their mother's side and Lebanese on their father's side couldn't help it. They inherited a love and a talent for Middle Eastern music and dance. It was inevitable. They had show biz in their blood. But when they told me that they wanted to perform, I felt a little uneasy. As their "auntie" I wasn't sure if their father would have wanted it. But, with their mother's blessing and knowing they were their father's legacy, I helped them get started and both of them performed in clubs and restaurants part-time.
Since they've moved from San Francisco I don't get to see them as often and was really looking forward to seeing Nadia who now lives in Sacramento. She wanted to work on recreating veil dancing like we used to do at the Bagdad in the '70's. So we spent the afternoon playing with veils and working out veil choreographies.

Nadia told me about how she used to go to the Bagdad as a little girl and at the end of the night when her mother was helping to clean up, she would grab the microphone and sing away on it. She loved to pick up the sequins that fell off of the dancers’ costumes and take them home. At home she would play with veils and finger cymbals in front of the mirror, hoping that someday she could be like all the beautiful dancers she watched at the club. Well now she is one of the beautiful dancers.

July 1, 2012
Rhea Al Masri

Went to Al Masri tonight to see Rhea. She's here on her annual trip from Greece.

I walked into Al Masri and there she was talking and it was as if I just saw her yesterday, not a couple of years ago. Rhea and I go way back. Like from the Bagdad days. I remember the first night I met her. I was working at the Bagdad when Jamila Salimpour had a student night with a new group of dancers. One of the dancers was about 8 1/2 months pregnant. She was wearing a two-piece assuite outfit bearing a beautiful bare round belly. This was Rhea. Eight and one half months pregnant brandishing a long shiny lethal sword slicing paper thrown in the air to prove that the blade was sharp! The musicians wanted to leave the stage and we dancers were staring at her round belly wondering if she would deliver on stage and what we would do if that happened.

A lot has happened since then. Rhea moved to Athens with her two daughters and was the tourist attraction in the Plaka, She still lives there and now trains other dancers. Her two daughters have gone on to become wonderful entertainers - first experiencing life in the Plaka in Athens, Greece and later living and working in the U.S. as "Daughters of Rhea".

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