of Stars Side Show
of Stars Belly Dance Queen
olek eh (present)
olek eh (beginning)
History & Songs
- Aswan Dancers
Photos + Amina
March 26, 27, 2013
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
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 most...living 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
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
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
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
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. Home
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
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.
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
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
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
" 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
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
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
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
June 28, 2012
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
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
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
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
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