Gilded Serpent presents...
In a New England Snowstorm,
Hopes of Spring...

Amel Tafsout
Revive Wellness Center
New Haven, Connecticut
February 10-12, 2006

by Rachel Scherer

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.

Amel 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.

The 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.

One 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 at experientially.

The 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.

Often 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.

Our 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.

In a world where hatred between Islam and Judaism is assumed, it was life-affirming and spirit-affirming to find such deep and abiding commonality.

In 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.

As 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.

The 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"?

It 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.

While 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.

When 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".

In 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.

Dancing 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.

The 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.

You will find more about Amel Tafsout, including extensive bibliographies and discographies relating to Islam, Sufism, and the Maghreb at her web site:

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