Review – Ya Leil Ya Leil – Cabaret mn Turkiye

*I’m Nigerian-American. I love lectures and education on new and old trends in art, music, dance. I grew up watching relatives from Philistine, Lebanon and various African nations during holiday haflas, weddings and more. If I show up at an event it’s because something in the promotions and marketing screamed “cultural dance.” I once left a suddenly damaged vehicle (ran over a sink in the road in Canton, Ga in the middle of the night) on the side of the road because I wanted to get to a cultural dance show. I literally left he keys with the tow truck operator and gave him the address of a nearby autoshop, told him to leave it there and I’d take care of it in the morning. I wasn’t going to miss the show! It’s just that crucial. I’m always happy to support raqs art when possible! I write the below after being under the impression that I was headed to a cultural dance show highlighting Turkiye and many of the dance styles and cultural art there.

The Review
I just returned from the Ya Leil Ya Leil – A Night at the Turkish Cabaret programme at AFBD. Tonight’s topic was, again, Turkish Cabaret. All I saw was a photo of Aya on the promo and I knew I had to go. I didn’t even bother to read the rest or note that it said, “Cabaret.” That term can mean anything depending on the dance community one is in. I went expecting a variety of Turkish dances to be presented. It’s important to keep that in mind if you decide to read the rest.
I believe it was hosted by the Salimpour Collective? Following Bellydance Fashion week 2015, I remember distinctly having conversations about doing quarterly lectures at the studio with snacks and drinks. If this is what they had in mind, mabrook!

It’s really nice!
My goal tonight was to support Aya. I’ve loved her and her work for a very long time. I remember years ago when having a serious disagreement with my best friend at the time. I went to the Oojami concert to get away and calm my nerves. It was at the then Club Europe. Man, whatever happened to that place? It was fun, yeah?! So, I see Aya there and I had always wanted to dance with her. I think we as raqs enthusiasts always wish to dance with our favourite raissat. So, this was my turn!! She looks at me and we smile at each other and then we start dancing together as soon to be friends do. Here he comes out of nowhere (how did he know where I was?) and interrupts. I’m like, “Dude, move! I’ve waited 4 years to dance with her. She’s one of my favourite in this town. You’re messing everything up. Y’alla emshee!” Then he tried to dance with her. I moved in and got him out of the way. Thankfully he got the point and skedaddled along. It was blissful shimmying alongside her with one of my favourite bands playing live! So, of course I left swim meet early today to rush home, check the status of my online ticket, scrub off the chlorine and drive at the maximum speed allowed to hear what she had to say at this event. Though 10 mins late, I didn’t miss too much. She was the highlight of the evening!

The Décor
It would be wrong of me not to explain how they transformed the studio. There were large eastern style pillows everywhere and little fanoos lanterns on every table. The lights were dimmed and there was a screen. It was being used to give a presentation. She talked about the history of Turkiye, where she’s from in the nation and really went in depth. I was able to get some of it recorded and I hope to have a place to upload it soon. It’s an audio file vs. video…so, perhaps I’ll create a podcast.

Some of the highlights of her lecture were explaining the true life in the dance realm when it comes to Rrom/Romany/Roman. Notice she used the correct name for this blessed group of people who are strangely still called Gypsy by many – when are we gonna work out the respect in this situation? Gotta stop this in my opinion. I guess it will end when we stop calling most ethnic groups everything but their nationality and proper respectable title – aka when we start treating people like the real humans they are vs. a diminutive term – but I digress. Aya had slides and visuals that spoke about the usage of spoons in dance/spoon dancing/dancing with spoons and how it is done mostly by men. The concept of it being feminine is a western thing. She explained the differences between various men’s dance styles, regional styles and gave us the term Oyun which is used to describe what many of us call raqs sharqi. Oyun is used specifically to describe this style of dance in Turkiye. She also noted that Oyun/Bellydance is a happy dance and not to be used to commemorate sad occasions. It’s always upbeat, cheerful and inclusive. Again, there was so much more and my small paragraph can’t even begin to do it justice. I could have listened to her for an hour. I did expect her to dance and perhaps I missed it?

The Dancers and Additional Presentations
There were two other dancers present. Sadly, I only remember the name of one of them. Karma Karmelita was the final one and before her another lady who presented a style that was to replicate a Turkish dancer or Turkish dance style from several decades ago. The air conditioner was kind of loud so I couldn’t hear what Majda (the MC/lecturer) was saying. So, pardon me if I botch this terribly. I remember there were some clips shown of dances from the region or representative of the region and this particular dancer was to pay homage to what we had seen on screen in the second half of this programme. Things that followed left me with mixed feelings…some too harsh to speak of on a public blog post.

From western dancers, I’ve always been marketed Turkish dance as a girl in pasties, tiny bedluhs that are complimentary to only two physical aesthetics vs. the robust fully clothed cultural dance and group dances that I grew up seeing from Turkish friends and neighbours. This presentation referenced that side of Turkiye including women in just their underwear (one flashing her huhu quickly while dancing). Now, I know this is reality for some and not for all. That was made clear. Some choose or have no choice but to take their dance to this level for a variety of reasons. But it hurt me to see that in that setting because it made me think too much about politics and the role/state of women in the region and the world. How much of it is by choice? What are we really seeing here? That of course made me think about stereotypes and, again, the two aesthetics that the western world promotes that are picked up by other cultures (of all the things to culturally exchange, right?) when they decide to emulate a western form of raqs sharqi with their own regional version of it. This limited aesthetic has pushed a lot of diversity out the window.
The rub occurred just before Karma came on…another known dancer who was lovingly termed as one who “gave no f*cks” was shown on screen. While her dance was nowhere near vulgar and was tastefully done, quite beautiful in fact, Karma’s replica of it felt like a sexier version of what we were presented on screen and I was confused. I think I need to see the other dancer again (the whole video not just a snippet) to better understand Karma’s presentation.

The second half of the programme made me ask “But what about the rest of Turkiye?” It made me so sad that we don’t have any male Turkish dancers in this town willing to get up and teach. They’re here but I suppose no one from the Turkish Cultural Centre could make it that night? I don’t know. There’s just so much more to Turkiye and I think I went to this thinking there would be more time for it.
I spoke to someone we all admire and respect after the programme was over. She literally ran over and said, “That to me is what I’ll always see bellydance as…that was the style when I first got into it.” She continued saying that it just exudes sex and being sexy …and that certain people in Turkiye really go for it. Okay, fair enough. It’s liked as much as the other styles, group dances and festive Oyun. However, I was expecting a lot more of the cultural dances to be featured for some reason. Given how far Atlanta has come in its cultural knowledge of many parts of the dance globe, I never thought I’d leave feeling like, “what just happened?” I left, I thought about it, re-read the title and thought…well, it said cabaret…again not cultural dance.

So, I hope in future there will be one that is “Turkish Cultural Dance” or any other region of the world that this community likes to represent in their dance and feature the hard core regional styles that we rarely get to see until someone’s cousin moves here or the (insert cultural dance center) wants to partner and do a big dance night. Maybe it was already featured and I missed it?

Pros: Awesome setting! Incredible ambiance! Majda and Jenny are involved…enough said. Deonce and Faaridah were there…again, enough said. You know when you see these four names at minimum, the event is going to be tight and worth your while. Was happy to see Ziah, Diane and some of the members of the Kawaii Street Fashion group in attendance. Someone was wearing a Ghibli studio jacket featuring Totoro. That was awesome and yes, I bought a Totoro jacket online while there because I was so inspired. There was a lot of ethnic diversity in the audience. One of the loyal Persian couples was there. I believe Turkish coffee was served? Very nice! The team really made the place look great! Very impressed!

Cons: Were there any? Probably not. If anything, it’s on my part as I wasn’t sure what to expect. The term cabaret is so wide. It’s hard to tell what one might see. I took a chance hoping that there’d be Turkish cultural dances. Aya did a great job referencing them at the top of the program. I just wasn’t ready for the second half when the cabaret material was featured. It pushed me into a political frame of mind more than one of art appreciation.

I was very appreciative of the effort put into the programme. It was spectacular and I do want to go to another if the presentations continue to include those from the region. I appreciate that Aya was included.

When is the next one?
Not sure. I heard it’s going to be about American Vintage Bellydance. Not my thing. I’m ready to continue my focus on regional dances from the Gulf, Iran, the Maghreb and my parents’ region of the world. That’s where I find the most joy and benefits. Still, I may go simply because the set-up is so darn nice and there’s a learning atmosphere. And, as mentioned, if Majda, Jenny, Faaridah, Deonce and team are involved then it’s worth it! I’m a lecture addict when it comes to cultural dance and art. If educated icons like Donna Mejia had their own Raqs Lecture Network I’d be the first to sign up!

Given that there are still new people trickling in, I do hope that future events in our good town will continue to feature diversity and inclusivity in this art. I hope that it will be presented on a cultural level in addition to the commercial side (is cabaret synonymous with commercial?). I find that wholesome and healthy images are so important for newcomers to the dance. We must be conscious of who we worship in this realm. Is it someone who is doing us good or harm? We speak so much about body image and inclusivity but we’re still so quick to exclude certain types of dances, dancers with a non-western aesthetic and sadly quick to cut out the cultural history of the art itself. I’m grateful Majda, Faaridah and team have taken up the torch to guide people in a healthy direction. It’s such a task but who better than this group to do it! G-dspeed!

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