Friday, July 16, 2010

The Road

As they say in Lord of the Rings (yes I do like Lord of the Rings!), "the road goes ever on and on, down from the door where it began." That's how I feel now, sitting at "home" in Cairo and looking at my last 3 upcoming days and 4 nights here before I fly home. This part of my journey is about to end, but the road will keep going afterwards I have been realizing, this isn't the end of anything, and that I will probably be back to visit sooner than I realize. I've seen the road go down from many doors though by this point, and each time it does feel a bit jarring. I do worry that the dance training I have been working on and the stylistic aspects that I have been grasping due to watching Egyptian dancers may start to slip. I'll try my best not to let that happen, but I worry nevertheless.

It actually hasn't been so hard to say good bye so far (although there are still some very important ones coming up) because I know I will stay in touch with my friends here, and though it won't be the same, things never stay the same anyway. How bored would I be if they were? Our paths will all continue and we'll be able to tell each other about it from afar until we meet again.

I probably will not have much time to update until I arrive in Seattle, so don't look for lengthly posts until probably the 22nd. Yes, I do intend to continue this blog because I have a lot to recap and talk about still that I would enjoy to share with anyone who is interested. I'd also like to take some time to edit the blog and redo the tags and things so it will remain as a good resource for other students of dance or academia. Though I won't still physically be in Cairo, I feel like I'll be taking just a little pinch with me to talk about!

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Madame Freiz, Shareen El Safy, Karim Nagi, and Randa Kamel... (part 2)

So with now 10 days and counting left in Caro, here's my experiences with Karim Nagi and Randa Kamel:

Karim Nagi:
I've run into Karim a couple times before around the globe in the past couple of years, the last time in San Francisco.  He's getting a lot of good work and publicity lately, and thus traveling tons to teach and perform so we never have spent much time face-to-face as he's a super busy guy.  I bugged him to let me know when he would be in Cairo so we could hang out or do a low-key "lesson" and he indeed rolled in during Ahlan Wa Sahlan time to teach at the festival.  I caught his excellent performance during the teachers' show too, of which Hallah said, "He's crazy! But I highly recommend his kind of crazy."  Finally, I did manage to snag him for a half day of casual shop-talk and hanging out last week!

While waiting for his arrival, I found myself thinking back to Ozma of Japan's experiences she wrote about on her own blog and which you can (and should, because she goes in to much more detail than I will) read here:

Entries from 2008: 1, 2
Entries from 2009: 1, 2

Her experience as described is spot-on in her assessment of Karim's skill as a teacher and his excellent understanding of the relationship between music and dance which he is quite eloquent about. I completely relate to her talking about "teacher smitteness!" I think Ozma illustrated that in her writing much better than I can in my frantic pre-leaving state right now.  The man is smart, articulate, and has a lot to offer dancers. I came out of our "hanging out"/"lesson" session full of food for thought and lots of notes.

We started off just talking about the community, Egypt, and the festivals for awhile.  He asked me what I'd like to work on and I mentioned that I had danced to Lissa Fakker the previous week at Nile Group and been unsatisfied with it.  I also explained that, having gone to the teacher's night at Ahlan Wa Sahlan and seen lots of good-but-not-amazing, and a few real star dancers, I was wondering what really made a real star dancer stand out from the pack.  All the teachers at AWS were good, many were definitely considered "masters" in their home country, but only a couple really stood out to me.  He said it came down to musical interpretation and charisma so, remembering Ozma's blog posts, I asked him to speak to me a bit about interpreting Oum Kulthoum and if we could use Lissa Fakker as an example.

I won't go into a huge amount of detail, because I do think people should give their time and money to study with him, but suffice to say it was illuminating.  I came out of the experience with lots of new ways to look at music and many levels to draw from in my dancing from the octaves, tempo, maqam, emotional intensity, and so forth.  It was a bit freeing after sitting through a week of Nile Group evening parties beset by people showing very similar interpretations of popular classic songs.  There are some standard ways of interpreting classic songs that become quite stale and may not actually be executed according to what the music is telling the dancer to do.

I also came out of the experience with an even greater appreciation of the classic music like Oum Kulthoum.  I've always preferred music my Egyptian friends seem to think of as "old fashioned," but the fact of the matter is that there is a lot more dynamics, sophistication, and subtlety going on than with pop music.  It's been difficult for me to put my finger on why Oum Kulthoum is intriguing to me, but I always felt that there was a lot more depth and richness there.  What I realized through Karim's explanations is that the music is cleverly crafted so that the words, mood, maqam, tempo, etc. do tell a story and work to support eachother to build up into that story.  Great stuff, and invaluable to understand from a dance point of view.

I just wish we had both had enough free time to meet again before he left town, and we were intending to so, so I could interview him for Gilded Serpent, but we both went to Alexandria back-to-back and his time ran out before he had to run off to Rome.  The poor, poor guy!  Therefore, the interview will be coming out later, probably next month, and I will have to wait to really wrack his brains about other subjects I wanted to go over with him from folkloric dance to drum solo technique.  So much knowledge to be shared, so little time!  He's excellent though and I would highly recommend him for workshops or privates!

Check out one of his latest pieces which I like to think of as Mozart reimagined and to use his term, "arabized."  Normally, I don't much care for fusion, but this was pulled off intelligently to produce something fresh, catchy, and different so I enjoyed it.

Randa Kamel:
Well I hate to carry on with the gushing over various teachers, but apparently I have to continue with Randa!
Here's a clip of her from Nile Maxim, when Shareen and I came to see her last month.  I've seen her twice on the Maxim before but this time I felt she was particularly on this night and I liked the costumes a lot more than before.

After that, Shareen and I popped down to her dressing-room to say hi and get her card.  She was cute, grinning while, hanging out and having a snack in-between the early and late sailing while re-curling her bangs using a round brush.  As a side note, I happened to notice her fabulous nails--quite long, squared-off with big holographic glitter over lavender polish.  Talk about bling!  We talked a bit, me mostly smiling and nodding since Shareen was the one who actually knows Randa, but I managed to blurt out a request for a lesson on our way out the door which was rewarded with a big smile and, "of course, Habibi! Just call me!"

That was how, the following week, Shareen and I found ourselves trekking out to her villa near the pyramids (she has a school on Faisal street but wanted us to visit her at home) for some more shop talk and a short lesson.  We spent most of the time discussing community politics and why she hadn't ended up teaching at Ahlan Wa Sahlan this year and so forth.  Eventually we retired to her small home dance studio to do a swift half hour lesson, which actually proved to be enough for two me and Shareen who were still exhausted from Nile Group.

Randa gave us basically the introduction to a choreography set to a popular current pop music tune.  It's not a song I particularly like, actually, so I was wondering how she was going to make it special, because whenever I see Randa dance she really brings something extra.  This was no exception, as she took a song I barely liked and showed us a choreography that made it interesting.

I was particularly struck by the way she uses her arms, which was totally foreign for me.  Shareen was joking that for Randa the arms are almost as important as the hips, which I agree with.  She uses very unusual postures, and for the choreography she always made sure we knew which arm movements she wanted. It was difficult for me since I usually go for fairly casual, relaxed (but with proper technique) arm styling with occasional dynamic accents.  I felt like I came out of the experience though thinking of my arm usage as LAZY.  Randa's usage of her arms and her dynamic arm movements really make her look professional, polished, and like her entire body is engaged with the music, which I love.  She just looks so alive and her movements are clearly very practiced and crisp.  I remember her mentioning she spends hours a day in the dance studio working, and it definitely shows.

It was something to see and I love being pushed out of my comfort zone in dance when I feel the teacher has something relevant to share.  In this case I think it was particularly necessary as I realized an important area I need to focus on.  Of course now I'm seeking her out for a few more lessons before I leave!

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Madame Freiz, Shareen El Safy, Karim Nagi, and Randa Kamel... (part 1) excellent combination for the week!  I decided to really pile it on during and now post-Nile Group.  I'm down to about two and a half weeks now, so I'm going to go hard with the dance lessons until I head out!

Shareen El Safy
I met Shareen at Nile Group through Hallah Moustafa, who studied with her back in California in the day.  It was interesting, because she's told me about Shareen and I've been studying Shareen's technique through Hallah in a way.  I was glad to meet the lady herself finally, and we spent a lot of time together during Nile Group chatting, hanging out, and me helping to decipher her new cell phone.

I took a private lesson with her during the insane Nile Group week up in her spacious hotel room to try it out and see if I wanted to try and catch more classes with her when we're both back in California, since she's down in Santa Barbara.  It was a really interesting lesson, and I would definitely recommend her to anyone interested in getting at the heart of real Egyptian dance.  She talks about the body in a way that is pretty unique, and again was something that reminded me of Alexander Technique with her descriptions of directing the energy in one's body and the energetic relationship between the different parts of the anatomy.

Shareen's technique involves a differentiation between skeletal movements and muscle movements, but not in the so literal way of the Suhaila butt-shimmy.  What she's talking about is not just dancing by moving the bones into the right form, but having the muscles active and supporting the movement on a different level.  This has, in my case, a lot to do with moving with "purpose" instead of just going through the skeletal motions.  I enjoyed her discussion also of different ways of using the muscles in something as simple as walking on to the stage.

One other thing that Shareen talked to me about concerning movements is the preparation that comes before the movement itself.  She was saying Egyptian dancers actually do the preparation and then the step, and they may show it clearly or not depending on the styling.  It's a deliberate thing, that that sort of fed into what Farida Fahmy was speaking about in her workshop of how Egyptian dancers keep a "flow" in their dancing instead of moving in chopped up steps.  It's a whole series of movement, not just individual movements, and I think the preparation plus the movement means there is more continuity.  The other purpose it seems to serve is when you have a real belly dance drummer watching your every move in order to play the accents with the dancer.  They then have the preparation and the movement itself to watch, which gives them more information about how the dancer is moving and how they will accent the rhythm.  Interesting stuff...I will definitely be trying to corner Shareen for some private lessons back in California.

I did take her workshop as well at Nile Group which was a great choreography to Alf Leila, and I liked her enough to buy her DVD which I usually never, ever do!  Will be writing about the workshop in my Nile Group report for Gilded Serpent!

Everyone who goes to Nile Group Festival knows who Freiz is.  She, Abou Shebika, and Aida Nour run the whole deal, but Freiz is kind of the big mama, the older, semi-retired dancer, the one who sits through all the shows every night until 5am cheering everyone on.   I always liked Freiz, she seemed like a no BS, real down-home, Baladi girl with a big attitude but piles of sweetness.  I decided it was about time to catch a lesson with her, so I did a a couple this week.

I arrived at her place in Mohandiseen right on time for my first lesson, and the place was luckily easy to find.  I was ushered into her huge flat by her very quiet son, and the lady herself soon came out to kiss my cheeks, offer me a drink (I was swiftly cornered and told to drink tea so it wasn't exactly an 'offer' as one might think), and chit chat a bit in her limited English and my limited Arabic about the festivals and if was going to "Raqia's festival" Ahlan wa Sahlan.  We got along and Freiz seemed to find me amusing to chat with, so we got down to business a bit later after establishing that I wanted to study anything she cared to work on and she smiled, saying we were going to do Shaabi at her suggestion.

We then dove straight into a Shaabi choreography loaded down with quick changes and combinations of moves!  Luckily, I was familiar with most of the moves as she assumed, and was able to hold my own.  After awhile though my brain began to implode with the sheer amount of choreography I was learning in a short amount of time.  The breaks to swig some tea came more frequently with Freiz saying, "no, tea, tea!" if she thought I didn't seem ready to practice more. I was impressed at how much she gave me her full attention though and danced alongside me to show the moves, considering she's not exactly young and a lot of the grand Egyptian dancer figures like her have a reputation for not engaging physically in the private lesson as much as one would hope.  Not Freiz, she was there beside me, watching me like a hawk or dancing right next to me holding my hand to emphasize her movements the entire time.

I really enjoyed the choreography as it was quick and clever, but with a very clear sort of chorus combination to bring it home that was solid and spunky.  Freiz didn't do a lot of technique instruction for me, but I think that was partially due to the language difficulty.  Luckily from training with the AUC folkloric group I know some dance terminology in Arabic, so I understood when she asked things like, "btlefi izzay??" She did show me some ways to make the moves more Shaabi, after shaking her head at me for being, "too oriental" a few times and shaking her finger at my foot pointing.  That was helpful to see and encouraged me to get a taste of the Shaabi flavor from a real Egyptian, which I think will prove invaluable. If anyone plans on taking lessons with her, don't let her stern facial expressions fool you, she's actually pretty sweet.

To sum up, Freiz is excellent for choreography, and actually I made up my mind to take classes with her because she did several of the choreographies I saw in the opening and closing shows at Nile Group.  I remember chatting with her daughter, saying that I found Camelia's shamadan segment of her show to be the best, when Su laughed and said, "well, actually my mother did that one!"  She's got a great ear for the structure of the music and putting together clever combinations which I like, and if you have a pretty good eye you can pick up some of her Shaabi styling.  Not only that, but because she choreographs for some big names, she is one of the sources of contemporary trends on the Cairo dance scene so it's important to go right to the source to see what's new in moves, styling, and music choices.

To other English-speaking dancers, be a bit warned that her English isn't fantastic, which led to some confusion at times, but she does make herself understood if she wants to.  Su, her oldest daughter, translates at the lessons if you have one at a time she's awake and not at university, and her English is excellent.  Her lessons are at her flat in Mohandiseen which is fairly easy to find on a major street, and she treats guests with Eygptian hospitality of course.  She expects you to take tea or coffee and it's a bit rude to refuse, and she'll make sure you have biscuits or fruit after the lesson, saying, "eat, eat!" until she feels you're sufficiently stuffed of snacks and dance.

Still to come, a meeting with Karim Nagi and some great music discussion, and a lesson with Randa Kamel!