In a New England Snowstorm,
Hopes of Spring...
Revive Wellness Center
New Haven, Connecticut
February 10-12, 2006
Despite the nearly two feet of snow that fell during
the weekend, a powerful warmth pervaded the dance studio at New
Haven's Revive Wellness Center. Nine students whirled in
orbits around the sun that was Amel Tafsout (her name translates
to "hopes of spring"), as she taught a workshop in Sufi Healing
through sound and movement, and led us in a Zar.
is a scholar in many areas, including women in Sufism, as well
as North African music, dance and literature. She has taught
extensively in Europe and the US.
weekend began on Friday evening with an intoxicating dose of line
dancing to Rai music, both traditional songs from Cheika
Rimiti, and more modern interpretations from the young
Chebs and DJs of North Africa. Amel shared many stories: of her
life in Algeria, the cultural influences stemming from the different
sides of her family, and the powerful impact of colonial France
and the politics of liberation that followed. Only recently coming
to live in the US, she also shared glimpses of her peregrinations
through Europe as a student of such varied pursuits as linguistics
and psychic mediumship, as well as her adventures as a professional
dancer, dance instructor, and troupe director. All these influences
are apparent in her teaching; while she stresses a sense of authenticity
in her movement,
it is clear that our own life stories and experiences are an important
inflection in her dance. It is generally not uncommon to learn
a medley of Middle Eastern dance movements that have originated
in one country and have been subsequently modified in other countries
without learning a clear sense of their history; the blur is intensified
when we dance to music whose origin we are not sure of, or to
lyrics we might never translate.
of the joys of dancing with Amel is her continual linkages between
music, lyric, and movement. She has a knack for teaching without
lecturing, and indeed, rarely talks during a dance class. Yet
during the question and answer periods, the queries all homed
in on making the connections, which were inevitably arrived
work we did as a group on Saturday was quite simply astounding.
Amel introduced us to the movement work initially through a warm-up
period that stretched and prepared our bodies while simultaneously
familiarizing us with the gestural movements that would become
the foundation of the day's work. We learned a set of breath and
sound exercises that pertained to the Five Elements: Earth, Water,
Wind, Fire, and Ether. Then, alternating between an ordered succession
and a wild, exhilarating cacophony, we employed these sounds in
a series of healing exercises that varied in formation.
in a circle dance, but sometimes in stillness, we devoted to
ourselves, to members of the group, and ultimately, to others
not with us towards whom we wished to direct our healing energies.
afternoon was a journey of wonder, as Amel introduced us to Sufi
devotional movements of spinning or whirling. Her teaching methods
enveloped us in a feeling of absolute safety. I felt completely
secure that I would not become dizzy and fall, or become disoriented
and "fall apart". The exercises were developmental and progressive.
We learned the lyrics to the devotional music we were listening
to, and translated them to English. We had ample time for exploration
of our feelings and comfort levels regarding our participation
in the rituals of another tradition, with its own language of
belief. For me, one of the most profoundly rewarding aspects of
this time was the comparison of Arabic and Hebrew words, along
with the concepts expressed by them.
a world where hatred between Islam and Judaism is assumed, it
was life-affirming and spirit-affirming to find such deep and
a few hours, we had entered a period where we could, for a few
minutes at a time, abandon ourselves to the whirling. Wisely,
Amel allowed us some time to discuss out experiences, but skillfully
avoided creating the situation where students might wonder if
"they did it right" if their experience wasn't exactly like the
next person's - she encouraged us to share what was appropriate
to the group dynamic without creating a confessional or a competition.
Slowly but surely, we all converged on a commonality of experience
derived through very personal and individualized "whirls" - the
sensation of cessation of movement, of being very still at the
center of a vortex, and then of that vortex expanding ever outward.
One of my favorite moments occurred while slowing to an end of
a session of spinning, when my focus returned to my surroundings.
Artemis Morris, the wonderful dancer, healer,
and director of Revive, has decorated her studio with
many images of goddesses from around the world and many cultures.
I was spinning to a stop, I felt like I was on a carousel -
a veritable Goddess-go-round - and was receiving their blessings
as I spun by, having become a human prayer wheel. This feeling
of being blessed has persisted for many weeks now.
next day we woke to a very white world of high winds and deep
snow. Somehow it deepened the intimacy of the group as we gathered
again, this time to learn the movements and sequence of the Zar.
Under Amel's gentle, careful, technically flawless guidance, we
warmed up with some circle dancing and got accustomed to the drumming
of the traditional movement, as we fully prepared our bodies to
support the unusual head and neck movements of the Zar. The combined
movement and music of the Zar seems so directed to the trance
state that I think everyone was a bit surprised at how quickly
it can happen once one "lets go" - or "gets cooked" as Amel put
it. We formed partners, and prepared a safe space for ourselves.
We took turns entering the trance state, dancing slowly at first
but rapidly surrendering to the loud and powerful drumming and
chanting. We were very carefully protected by our partner, who
both physically and spiritually supported us as we danced until
we - well -what words can describe getting "cooked"?
didn't seem like fainting; rather, it was a strange nexus combining
an out-of-body experience with the heavy physical exertion of
the movements themselves. At some point, one collapses into
a dream, but this dream world is the most real of realities.
we were "away", our partners covered us in a symbolic shroud,
and Amel anointed us with water. As we returned from our journeys,
our partners massaged us and comforted us.
we were all back, we had a group flower meditation. Then overcome
with hunger, we shared a feast of fruit and chocolates. My journey
had been very peaceful and comforting - I did not realize until
afterwards that I had been afraid that there might be something
fearful "out there" - and it is a powerful life lesson indeed
to learn that there need be no fear; there is only, as Amel signs
her letters, "love and light".
the past year I have personally witnessed the transformative
power of dance in many ways - in the change it has brought in
myself, in my dance friends, and in my relationships with my
daughters with whom I dance.
with Amel, learning traditional Maghreb dances at several workshops
and classes, has brought a beautiful sense of place and time to
my dance vocabulary. While we "tribal-style" dancers in America
sometimes agonize about authenticity and ethnic-ethics, it is
a treasure to have the opportunity to study with Amel and be adorned
by the wealth of her traditions.
workshop I have tried to describe here takes us to the next
level of dance and transformation, of cultural exchange and
mind-opening, of the opening of the heart through music and
dance as one.
will find more about Amel Tafsout, including extensive bibliographies
and discographies relating to Islam, Sufism, and the Maghreb at
her web site: www.ameltafsout.com.
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