All comments are my opinion only. They are not the final word or general opinion of any group. These are just my observations. I wrote the below, raw, unedited thoughts from my perspective as a first generationer with relatives and friends who are from and remain in the region. While I saw and participated in Middle Eastern Dance as a child/teen/Univ years residing in various international communities I do not declare myself an authority…just a mega fan who works hard to promote our culture in the best light.
I could seriously just let those two words be the entire synopsis vs. this novel I just wrote. The Gulf Weekend sponsored by Amani Jabril Middle Eastern and World Dance provided more than a wealth of knowledge and amazing performances that were…wait for it…engaging and interactive with a focus on the social aspect of raqs – in other words, this was the real deal! The aspect of Khaleegi and Iraqi Dance being honoured for the social dances that they are was finally welcomed and instilled not just to the attending Atlanta dancers but also to the international visitors and those from SEVERAL other states. If you were not there, what a tragic pity. Yes, I’m giving you the side eye!
~~~ The Workshops ~~~
Friday – Drumming Workshop and Iraqi Dance Party at Babylon Cafe
The place is just gorgeous with traditional decor. There’s track lighting strategically placed, adding to the ambiance. There’s also a really beautiful covered seating area and gorgeous cushioned couch. This is where Kay and Majda sat to teach the Friday night drumming class. Attendees flew in from all over the states to be there. These were dedicated fans of Kay’s as well as fans of the Iraqi genre from New York and other large or iconic cities (i.e. Chicago, Savannah). Kay handed out worksheets with songs, rhythms, music and other useful information. Majda played the violin PERFECTLY alongside Kay, who was on the Oud. Attendees brought their drums, daf and doumbek to play along. Soon the restaurant was filled with their singing and drumming. It was like having a chorus and band. Might not be a bad idea to have such events spotlighted there every month? I certainly would attend to hear some traditional music. The class lasted for two hours (?), correct me if I’m wrong. Everyone seemed more than pleased and I must say Kay was very thorough. She went through song pronunciations and talked about the structure of the music, musical trends in the region and educated us on how to tell if a band or an orchestra are truly skilled. It made me appreciate the songs and music I heard growing up so much more. I’ll certainly be looking out for those gentle nuances, pauses and signs that indicate a really great group of musicians.
Iraqi Dance Party
Uza’s presentation was a bit delayed by technical difficulties and for a while we were under the impression that she would not be performing. But, if you know the owner of Babylon Cafe, she was not having any of that. She came out of the kitchen and got the tech issues straightened out with lightening speed. Uza was able to continue right on time. Describing Uza’s dancing can be summed up with the phrase, “bada$$”…in every sense of the word. She’s a bada$$. They say there’s one in every family…that person you look forward to seeing just so you can watch the bada$$ery that they are going to bring to the table. In this case, it’s dancing…she dances like the really “cool girls” from back home. One of the highlights of the night was having Majda around. I appreciate that Majda glided right on in with what I call ‘first generation swagger.’ Again, nuances that those who live among those from the region or are related to it (or are there) seem to bring forth. Seeing Uza and Majda (and Ziah who did several very beautiful hair spins/figure eights) out there on the floor made me say, “Full Circle Moment…this is what I’ve been waiting for!” Of course this is not about me and my wishes, but I do have a sincere investment in Atlanta’s ‘Raqs’ Community, wanting this to be the place that visitors say, “these groups know their stuff, this is not a joke.” I want people like Amani el Omr of Lebanon to mention Atlanta’s fine crew when she talks about “Americans taking care of Raqs Sharqi.” If I could have bottled up that moment and used that as a part of an intro to “Atlanta’s Raqs World” I would have. These moments are sadly too few and far between. I hope that events like that will continue for the preservation of the Atlanta’s international heritage. It goes beyond there being a Mexican and Asian community on Buford Highway, it’s in pocket communities all over and alongside the metro borders …and it’s beautiful!
Khaleegi Workshop with Kay
After some stretches, Kay jumped right into some basics and then quickly went into Khaleegi steps…and…say it with me, “how to capture the nuances” …and specific parts of Khaleegi dance that identify the person doing it as someone who “knows” what they’re doing. She noted a student of hers or someone she had mentored (again, correct me if I’m wrong) who had danced ‘Khaleegi’ at a nightclub. She noted that a man from the region had been in the audience and he walked up to her afterwards and asked, “Where did you learn that?!!?” He tipped her $300. Lesson here: we never know who is in the audience so it’s best to give each performance and presentation 100%.
Kay spent the entire 3 hours pouring knowledge into thirsty minds and it was absolutely beautiful!! Stunning in fact. I really couldn’t find anything about it that didn’t match the information that I had learned and seen over the years from people directly from the region (i.e. neighbours, classmates, new relatives from marriages, language teachers, etc.) I was surprised that she didn’t discuss the old school hair perfuming. I remember a lot of the girls who were older than me, perfuming their hair with jasmine oil and other scents like rose/rose water. When they did the hair toss, an aroma of a flower garden filled the air. I’ve always liked that. I have no idea if that is regional or what but I do remember it. Neither Kay nor Uza discussed it this weekend.
THE BEST part of this was that she showed everyone the dances of the men as well as the women. Given that I first learned these dances from male members of the family/neighbourhood I wanted to see the steps broken down and understand the history behind why the guys danced like that. I had never questioned it before, it was just always something that was done. That’s the way they danced and we’d mimic them the way they’d mimic us. But it was nice to learn more from a scholar who has taken the time to “get to know us” as Africans and Arabs.
Kay was awesome to bring music for purchase. She also brought thobes for sale, very beautiful ones I must say. There are more on her website. Check them out and if you weren’t at the workshop and be sure to read her site thoroughly and buy a cd. At lunch, Kay said for years she had always hoped to have a regional person in her class but knew that was unlikely. This is because it’s not really common for women to go out dancing in the public (I’ve already relayed my story and personal experience with this). She proved she wasn’t in this for personal gain when she said, “You should be teaching this…” thus recognizing that this needed to be taught by a regional woman. I say to Kay, you ARE that Gulf woman, go forth and educate, make all of us Africans, Arabs and Asians proud with your thorough presentations and respect for the culture. She is definitely “one of us.” SHE should be teaching this, SHE is a perfect person for it!
Summary of Styles and Social Dances Covered:
Al Ardah, Al Samri (includes using the sleeves as a head covering as well hair toss), Al Khatwa (Asir region line dance), Khobeiti and the singer on the music was Balquees. There was also a brief intro to Al Baddawi (cane dance esp seen in Kuwait).
UZA of New York
I didn’t stay for the whole workshop but I was there to see her presentation on how Iraqi dance has developed. She talked about the use of the knives/daggers and that this was just a regional thing that arguably has no exact reference or meaning. If anything the knives are used to emphasize one’s melodramatic response to the way they are feeling (i.e. your love or lack of love is killing me). I think Mark Balahadia has some really great Hetcha (spelling?) videos where he uses the dagger and truly expresses that sentiment. Speaking of, she talked about this particular rhythm/style’s significance.
Uza went on to do some warming up followed by basic steps and teaching attendees how to get into the rhythm. That was followed by explanations of rhythms, hair tosses, hair figure eights and later she showed some of the dresses worn to do these dances. It went very well and everyone seemed very pleased. I don’t know if she had music for sale.
Both teachers let us know that the over the top hardcore presentations of both Khaleegi and Qawliya are not necessarily correct. They both showed us how to present this in the traditional subtle fashion. Uza went as far as to say that the Russian presentations that have ‘gone viral’ are not “Iraqi” per se but instead the Russians’ interpretation and something they have made on their own. The excessive head throwing vs. hair tossing is not common in the Iraqi Qawliya community. Speaking of community, Uza also let everyone know that, while it is debatable, the Qawliya people are said to be related to the Roma. Many of us know, especially those of us who are from the region or have family from there/still there, acknowledge there are so many different ethnicities in each country. Cross cultural dances and western influence have touched us all. For now, I think it’s best to just let the Iraqi and Qawliya community dictate who they are. It’s not our place. Let’s just respect their music and dance as “Iraqi” until further studies and notice.
~~~ The Show ~~~
Shortly after these workshops, the show took place at Steve’s Live Music. Doors opened at 8pm and it didn’t take too long for the attendees of an event prior to vacate. So we were able to get seated pretty quick. The show started at 9:15 and I must say, for two women who didn’t sleep this weekend, Amani and Jenny looked amazing! Myself, not so much. I was exhausted but eager to participate all the same.
The live band included Meriwan/Amani’s husband, Samer KK who plays keyboard for a great ME group here in Atlanta and Amine who will be drumming with Amani in an upcoming tour. I am a big fan of Samer KK and consider Meriwan to be a relative. I’m new to Amine but fell head over heels for him as well. Together they were so good I literally jotted down several other events at which I’d like to see them featured. They were just so perfect I truly felt ‘at home.’ There were a few international community members in the audience and a one or two up front. Having the band there and the Arabic speaking comm there really added to the ambiance of the night because they were able to sing along and do the call back songs. Kay did as well. They played live for many of the performers and it was incredible! You can’t go wrong with a live band, it brings the whole regional experience to life. I miss these moments.
Suzan Healy (FL)
Leizel (ATL/South Africa -Intl Commty)
Amani (ATL Intl Cmmty)
Kay Hardy & Friends
Samira (music: Zay el Helwa) was one of my favourites because her spirit was so bright and visible throughout her performance. She wore a gold bedluh with a bright periwinkle blue skirt, matching bangles and other jewelry. She just beamed like the sun out on that dance floor, I couldn’t stop watching her, totally hooked.
Leela is another favourite of mine. I’ve always enjoyed her performances because they are so stepped in ta’arab goodness. Tonight in a professional black beladi dress she really gave it her all dancing to Daret al Ayam.
Aziza and Amani were their usual show stopper selves. They did their signature work and wowed the audience, one lady in the corner started crying (finally I’m not the only one). They interacted well with the band and were absolutely perfect representations of the region. Can’t go wrong with these two. Their make-up, hair and all was stunning. I would love to see these two partner on some regional raqs shows/presentations and continue to highlight gulf dance.
Uza…was a bada$$…I don’t know what more to say. Her first dress was a long purple textured one with a long fringed hip scarf, gold jewelry (especially bangles, brought back memories) and matching gold zills. The dress had a side slit in it revealing matching lace purple pants with flared legs. She looked like a doll…and she was a bada$$. I can’t think of any other term to sum up all that fantastic work she did. It. was. bada$$. I really enjoyed watching her. We need more of Uza at local shows.
Kay Hardy’s social dance oresentation went very well. I did get up and join them eventually but sat down after 5 or 6 minutes because I could feel the “hot pepper” hardcore, back door madness surfacing in my moves and I didn’t want to anger Kay as we had just gone over how that’s not really the graceful beautiful region specific social dance she just presented that morning. Having a multitude of cultures around me for years I certainly have mixed and fused several regional pieces, much like Uza noted is done these days in my generation, and therefore my gulf dance can look feminine at the start but by the time I’m done I’ll have done men’s dances and thrown in some Iraqi moves from various ethnic groups plus city stuff. That’s what happens when you grow up in an international neighbourhood…oh the stories I’d love to tell.
Additional Notable Dance Sets
Leizel did a sha’abi number wearing a party dress much like girls wear back home when the abbayah is off and the curtains and doors secured shut. She looked like a girl at a modern day Egyptian henna hafla, un-veiled, and enjoying herself acting out words to the song. While I’d have loved to see her do some really hard core street moves…as that’s what sha’abi is…it was the best presentation I’ve seen from her yet. I could totally see her at the next international henna hafla. Send her an invitation!
Zaia, Leizel’s mother, danced wearing a crisp white thobe in the style of dancers like Aida Nour. I was very impressed with her choice and I’m a big fan of the music she chose. It was by Fadl Shaker. She captured the regional nuances in her own way and I appreciated that. Had she been dancing with a ton of Masriyat at a party I would have had to take a moment to remember we were still in the states. Very nice!
Jawhara was a great addition to the show in her black Egyptian style beladi dress with assayah. The band sped up the version “Salam Aley” and that seemed to startle her a bit but she survived it and the audience’s zaghareets and singing along was surely an encouragement. Great song, great energy from her. She was very kind the entire weekend and I really like her as a person. I hope she’ll come back for more workshops and become a friend of ATL.
Saliah Noya was also a fun addition to the show. She mentioned to me how she was a big fan of Amani Jabril and Amar Gamal. She wore a white and red professional bedluh and did a very modern pop raqset with her own touches. People like Saliah who travel and have a real respect for the art should be swept up by modern legends like Amar. They usually turn into these amazing ‘next generation’ raissat. Wishing her lots of love and success! Mabrook!
Shoshanna’s costume was sensational and added so much to her performance to Tamra Henna. She tackled a very classic piece with the band’s additional touches. It was a myriad of spins and travelling steps for this raissa, known to do be able to do it all. Very eye catching and full of energy!
Costumes to die for!
Sue H had a blue beladi dress that was decked out in silver beaded fringe and palattes droplets. On the bottom layer just meeting her knees were fringed ruffles. Like a visual artist, she made such good use of it. With every opportunity she spun and that sent the fringe whirling. It looked really beautiful and you could see she was having a blast dancing to live music. I always enjoy Sue coming up from Florida to be a part of shows. It’s really cool.
Hasna’s set was good and her entrance in that fantastic costume made it even better. She takes a very professional and stage-like approach to raqs sharqi. I can’t tell whether this was a choreography or improv. I imagine she already knew the song but within seconds of it playing she just went into it full force with a variety of spins and techniques. She was polished in her stage presence, almost like a costume model. Another dancer said, “I like the choices she’s making in the set.” I agree. It was not the traditional set of moves that I have seen over the years to that particular song and of course everyone dances to it differently. But you could see that she took ownership of her set and did what worked for her. That is admirable.
This show was great but it was very late. I know that works for the industry but given that several had flown in from around the world, I wanted them to have some “time in Atlanta.” Maybe they spent that time in the city on Sunday since there weren’t any workshops on that day. I did like the Friday-Saturday format because it allowed for some recovery time before Monday morning. This permitted people to get back home and not rush on Sunday night. Also, Sunday at the airport isn’t as bad as Monday so, that made me happy (I’m thinking of the guests).
I mentioned before that I wish we had an Iraqi audience to enjoy it. Both Kay and Uza’s presentations could have been done in the back room at Taverna Plaka at some point that weekend. Though I don’t go to TP anymore I still think those dances deserved that “international” space or some place where the DJ can sort of rev up the audience to experience it. I feel like the ladies could have received proper money showers and praise and it would have been an added value to the restaurant and something they, too, could promote and say, “Guess what else we’re having…” It was a missed opportunity though I’m quite sure, knowing Amani and her connections, she perhaps thought about it. I want to see this branch past the workshop audiences and spill into Euro Cafe, TP and beyond. Because Uza should have had a club night. We need to share these ladies with the international community clubbers and not keep them to ourselves.
I have a ton of things to say about the event. I think Kay and Uza deserve a bigger audience on a large theatre stage. I wanted Uza to have a nightclub filled with Iraqis who could appreciate and understand her natural grasp of the region’s dances. So many thoughts going through my head. We certainly need more of these in ATL and I hope, much like this time, people will show up and embrace it wholeheartedly. It’s a shame that it took so long to take hold. But like Ryanne told me, just be grateful Andye. Be grateful it finally got here!
Overall, I’ll be furious if we don’t start having more regional shows. I mean that. I will be quite upset if something doesn’t take shape in the next 6-8 months. There really is no excuse. For all the shows we have and the fact that this workshop took place, we have the groundwork for taking this to the next level. Please, somebody partner up and make this happen. I’ll do all I can to promote it and help find funding.
Huge thanks to Sister Kay and Cousin Uza! Hats off to Amani and Jenni! Big hugs to all that attended from near and far!!
Thanks for reading!
Full Review is on Raqs Atlanta Facebook & Yahoo