October 29, 2010


"Ni how" (Hello) from China. 

China is full of unusual sights; cars on the sidewalks while people are walking in the middle of the streets- in their pyjamas no less! I keep threatening my friends that I will, one day walk down the middle of the street in my PJ's too. I have to get some nice fuzzy flannel ones first. He he. 

Today I saw an old woman and a toddler lighting a fire on the top of a big can. I asked "What are they doing?" My friend and sponsor, Estelle replied "Twenty years ago that's how we all cooked." She explained that cooking over open fires inside tiny apartments was normal not long ago. Life has changed so much.

China is full of optimism these days. Sometimes I wonder about this bouyancy when the rest of the world is crying "crisis!" Yet, our standard of living is far higher than the Chinese. "Everything is possible in China" I often comment. This can mean anything from seeing dogs dressed in sailor suits (no kidding...The dogs wear all sorts of cute costumes and seem happy about it) to dunking ducks stomache linings in fiery hot red liquid at "hot pot" restaurants, or getting high fashion prescription glasses for $50. It has a deeper meaning too... a sort of optimism, where people don't define the doable as something that has been done before.

Back home in the US, we hear doom and gloom on the TV, radio and newspapers. Yes. The economy is in a downturn. The more we repeat it or the more we talk about how bad things are or the things we can't do, the worse it gets. The average American is still rich by most of the worlds standards. 

It is amazing to be spending this month and next month in a place where home is still a simple place, but hope is a grand affair, and anything is possible. 

I teach weekend workshops around the world, but dreamed of doing something with more impact. Now, the Isis Club of Shanghai organizes a month long bellydance workshop for me once a year. Dancers from all over China, Japan, Taiwan and Singapore came to study intensively, 30 hours per week for one month. No one questions whether such a commitment to bellydancing is possible or not, or the impracticality of moving to Shanghai for a month to do this intensive study. Hence, with this crash course, each participants dancing improves drastically.

I taught the students about everything from the difference between Bedouins and Berbers, to tracing the Arabic diaspora in East Africa. We learned ten Middle Eastern rhythms, and how to interpret ten Arabic instruments, and who the musical greats of Egypt's Golden Age were: Umm Khulthoum, Mohammed Abdel Wahab, Farid El Atrache, and Abdel Halim Hafez. We watched DVD's of dancers from the 20's to the present, carefully observing the differences from generation to generation and what we could learn from them. We explored oriental concepts of energy within Middle Eastern dance. We discussed the similarities between Chinese instruments and those of the Arab world, searching for the links between them. 

All activities led up to a final concert. This was called "Bellydance Through the Ages." Using original music with the finger cymbals played in the 1920's by Badia Masabni (founder of Oriental dance as we know it today), original vocals and compositions by the above mentioned greats of Egyptian music, and music of subsequent generations; 70's, 80's, until today, we were partially sponsored by the government to do an elaborate theater show. Dancers learned the value of proper lighting and seamless transitions to put our dance on the level of more commonly respected dances such as modern or ballet.

I choreographed five group peices for over twenty dancers. For solos, they were not allowed to use music they were comfortable with. Here in China, many people learn from DVD's, and they do the choreographies of other dancers with no voice of their own. I insisted that they create their own dances with music of my choosing that represented each era. Every piece was a challenge. Some were new students and this was their first performance. They were terrified. Others were seasoned- at what they knew. So I selected music that would make them equally terrified.
At every break, I pods in hand, headphones in their ears, the dancers practiced their solos without being told to do so. It was intense. There was exhaustion and a few tears, but each dancer came through beautifully, opening up new ways to experience the dance. These women from diverse places who had not know n each other one month ago, supported each other like sisters. They lent one another costumes, shared food, etc. The concert was a smashing success. it was commended by the governments Director of Culture. A representative from the League of Arab Nations was surprised and thrilled! He commented that we showed appreciation and understanding of Arabic culture and he thanked us for that.When it was over, no one wanted to leave. We went to a restaurant, then no one wanted to leave the resteurant until the workers were about to lock us in for the night. 

Check out what I've been doing in Shanghai on Chinese Youtube