A Weekend Workshop with Raqia Hassan
Gala Performance Show,
April 21 and 22, 2007
Odd Fellows Hall,
Redwood City, CA
Review and Report by Rebecca
weekend I went to a 2-day marathon with Raqia Hassan
in an Oriental dance workshop sponsored by Hala
Fauzi of Santa Clara. A native of Egypt herself,
Hala brings many teachers over from Egypt and strives to promote
the "Middle Eastern" part of Middle Eastern dance. Madame
Hassan, as she was respectfully called, is one of the grande dames
of Egyptian Oriental dance. I couldn't help but remember the words
of Amina Goodyear
Burke about why
they gave her a Giza Award in 2005.
is a strong woman who created a scene...defiantly supporting
the dancers who probably would not be able to make it on their
own in this, the decade of the veil...Raqia's real talent is
her force of personality... her dancers tend to be almost fearless...
[she's] re-inventing Egyptian dance in the face of suspicion
and oppression, giving it a strength it didn't have [even] five
It was these
words that inspired me to register for the workshop - that, and
the few minutes of footage that I'd seen of her on a video at
Amina's house. Even on a small TV screen, I could see her sharp
and powerful hip drops, very internal and yet explosive, like
is how I felt after the first hour. Raqia gets her powerful technique
from her legs, specifically from the knees. If I said "snapping"
or "popping" the knee that would give a wrong impression,
because there was no hyperextension. Nonetheless, I felt the shock
in my spine and it took awhile to adjust for that. Amazingly enough
though, after two full days, I felt terrific! So whatever body
mechanics she's using, they left me feeling better than before.
person was very unpretentious and down to earth. She seemed like
a family matriarch: strong-willed, gracious, and fearless. Somewhat
stout, with minimal makeup, she was clearly not image-obsessed
like so many teachers are. Some of them wouldn't be caught dead
at any event with anything less than full makeup, because what
if someone got a bad photo of them? I really don't like feeling
like I HAVE to wear makeup every time I take a class. It's a workshop,
not a show, we're there to work and learn.
speaking, I don't wear makeup to the gym, either.
she stood before us in tight-fitting capri leggings and a T-shirt
tucked in, not even a hip wrap. Her informal attire made it easier
to see what she was doing than, say, those flaring bell-bottom
pants where you can't see the instructor's feet. Even with heavily
accented English, her explanations were clear and articulate as
she alternated between demonstration and speaking. She taught
two full choreographies, both very densely packed. They had the
slightly off-rhythm, lilting, and surprising quality that also
Reda's workshops, but her movements were bigger,
more committed, and perhaps less sanitized.
Her Style and Technique
personal style was an oddly elusive mixture of street attitude
and elegance, both "fierce and friendly" as one person
said. She used the word "elegant" many times to describe
the classiness that she wanted to see in the movements - legs
not too far apart in most cases - so she'd stand there and do
a beautiful undulation with a head-down, deadpan stare that, on
anyone else, would have looked belligeren.
fact some of what she did would have looked almost vulgar on
anyone else. There was a frankness to it all that was bare of
all pretense. And yet, some quality that she had also kept it
It was interesting
that she taught many of the same movement sequences as Astryd
de Michele, who actually learned them from Raqia,
but it was over an hour into the class before it registered with
me that I'd seen them before! I suppose that is one reason why
it's good to see the same movements on several different body
types and dancers.
to concentrating on the choreographies, I was also obsessed with
seeing exactly HOW she danced generally. Her arms and hands were
less studied than what I think of as the "modern" Egyptian
style, and she wasn't on releve all the time. Doing the same movements
flat-footed forced the upper body to work harder and gave the
movements a more earthy, powerful feel.
dance gave me insights into things I'd seen other local dancers
do. Many of them are intermediate or advanced students who are
polishing their dance technique, and they'd have everything down
except for maybe one or two things that just, to me, didn't look
quite natural, like they were copying something they didn't quite
understand yet. And here, I saw the exact same things in Raqia's
dance, and they looked absolutely flawless.
distinctions between Ghawazee
dance and "elegant" Oriental dance, and easily switched
from one to the other, showing arabesque variants from both styles.
She also demonstrated folkloric and "elegant" versions
of what my first teacher used to call the "Persian headache"
- fingers touching the temple on one side of the face.
is another movement that to me looks affected on most American
dancers, because it's not really part of our everyday movement
vocabulary. How long we study to make even such casual gestures
natural dance was what she emphasized over and over again. She
used her legs to drive and power the movements rather than the
abdominal or glute muscles [ed note:gluteus maximus
is the largest of the muscle groups in the buttocks]. The
glutes and abs were certainly involved, but the movement initiated
from the legs, bracing off the floor, which was conveniently holding
us up the entire time.
almost straight legs for shimmies, vertical sideways hip figure
8s, hip drops and tucks. A huge variety of hip drops in every
conceivable direction, no point trying to describe them all, you
had to be there. She also emphasized several twists and sways
which pivoted around the middle torso as opposed to the waist.
Even in the midst of the most intricate isolations, however, she
still looked casual, relaxed. It appeared to be pure coincidence
that the rest of her body was not frozen in space, but was simply
temporarily at rest.
choreography on the second day was to a vocal song, to which Hala
provided printed transliterations and translations. This particular
Arabic love song had lyrics where the singer was berating someone
for breaking it off. The pain was still there, but the longing
was now replaced with a more everyday disappointment. Having been
on the receiving end of a lot of real-life scenarios of this type,
I can tell you that it's no fun to be yelled at by someone in
a bad mood who refuses to understand why I don't want to see them
again (as if their failure to listen could have anything to do
movements are the vehicles
in which to carry emotion."
we were, dancing to a song that boiled down to just this scenario,
except this time WE were dancing the part of the jilted party.
Many of the gestures and movements were deeply expressive of the
singer's frustration and bewilderment. "If you're going to
end it with me, just end it already... the pain will be easier...
forget what we had... it's all over..." Moreover, the body
language and gestures were what an Egyptian would use during a
lover's quarrel, not, say, what a San Francisco urban hipster
would do. There was a defiant, sulky, reproachful feeling to it,
perhaps an attempt to guilt-trip or manipulate the imagined lover,
and a dismissal of anything the other person might possibly have
to say - all of this clearly shown in Raqia's stance, expression,
and attitude. I kept trying to tap into my last bad relationship
so I could "throw" him out again!
on emotion is a hallmark of solo Egyptian Oriental dance, and
is a stark contrast to the increasing emphasis on ever more complex
layering and drilling as the pinnacle of bellydance achievement.
there certainly is, but the movements are the vehicles in which
to carry emotion.
that the Oriental dance is also different from Reda-style folkloric
dance, which typically has no story line and is more theatrical,
with a greater gap between audience and performer.
Raqia demonstrated on a slightly raised podium at one end of the
hall. The Odd Fellows are a philanthropic, quasi-Masonic order.
Their hall had these elevated areas on each wall - nice to stand
up and see across the room from time to time. The only thing it
didn't have was mirrors, and in the end I didn't miss them because
I spent more time watching Madame Hassan.
other times she would teach in the round and we would circle around
her. Some people liked this; others found it hard to transpose
left to right when she was facing them. I personally liked seeing
her expression and just lived with being on the "wrong"
foot some of the time. It was the essence I was after, not the
of the class was pretty good. There were a lot of serious dancers,
who paid full attention and asked about the right amount of questions.
We did NOT spend too much time standing around talking.
Saturday night there was a show at the Veteran's Hall. The Show
was: Big on technique; sometimes a little too studied. The soloists
were selected mostly for being Raqia's students. I would have
liked to see a little more troupe work, since other than the Hala
Dance Company the evening consisted entirely of soloists,
and with one exception all the soloists did modern cabaret style
Egyptian dance. I suppose it would have been inappropriate to
put some Turkish or Greek dance, or even Tribal, in there with
Raqia as the guest of honor - or maybe not... With the right people,
it could have added more variety to the evening without in any
way lowering the standard. It's also hard for a soloist to fill
a stage at an institutional setting without either a spotlight
to condense the space, or a stage set to provide a sense of place.
stars of the evening were Tamra-Henna and Mohamed
Shahin, both of whom traveled into town just for this
show, with additional performances by local dancers that I knew:
Marcela, and Debbie
Lammam/Smith. Additional performances were by Catarina,
Karawan, and a lovely dancer from Los Angeles named Meera.
According to the bios in the program, most of the dancers had
either studied with Raqia herself, or were proteges of other Egyptian
teachers from the Mahmoud Reda school. (Raqia Hassan originally
was dancer and choreographer with the Reda Troupe.)
I felt that
technique predominated in the show, which was both good and maybe
not so good. Many of the locals are people that I always try to
catch whenever they perform, because they are so d***ed good.
And no one could really top Tamra-Henna for exquisiteness of technique.
She came on twice; her first number was a very exquisite cane
dance, all the more enjoyable as a contrast coming immediately
after Mohamed Shahin's masculine double cane. I believe that the
double cane was directly from the Reda Troupe's choreographies,
and very similar to Atef
Farag's double cane dance - even down to the costume
- as performed on last year's performance DVD which I purchased
also performed a Tannoura dance, which is the colorful
"whirling dervish" dance adapted for performance. In
that dance, he spun around almost nonstop for what seemed like
forever, without missing a beat, while handling 4 frame drums
in constantly changing formations (as a visual accent - he didn't
the one thing that I would have liked to have seen more from
him was some internalization of what the movements had meant
in their original context.
dance was originally from the tahtiyb, which is a martial
art, albeit, already a ritualized and stylized one, and the Tannoura
was originally a spiritual movement done by a particular order
of Sufis. I watched him closely, and saw no awareness on his part
of that these movements were anything other than dance choreographies.
I wished that he had at least pretended to be doing "real"
tahtiyb, or pretended to be a Sufi seeking God, while he was performing
On one of
Ali's compilations, "Dances of Egypt",
there's about a one-minute sequence of some nameless guy on the
docks of Alexandria doing a cane dance that really rocked... and
another of tahtiyb using longer rattan sticks. In both of those,
the men used a lot of deep knee bends - maybe to strut and show
off their strength - and included both strikes and blocks, with
very smooth and flexible shoulder and arm movements. These qualities
are too often missing from cane dances adapted for stage, particularly
when performed by people who haven't seen much tahtiyb in its
natural setting. Who knows - perhaps the Egyptians themselves
don't even do it for fun anymore, having forsaken these rustic
arts for more sophisticated urban pursuits.
my impression was due to some self-consciousness on the dancers'
parts, performing in front of Raqia (who doesn't perform).
evening felt like a student recital - with very advanced students
- but a recital designed to showcase rather than to entertain.
The fact that it took place in a formal institutional setting
rather than a more colorful but lowbrow setting such
as a club, probably added to this impression.
folkloric sections were almost too polished. And, as I said earlier,
with the exception of the Hala Dance Troupe, the evening consisted
entirely of soloists, each of whom came out, danced, and then
Lanty, another local dancer, emceed with graciousness
person who really captured my very fullest attention was Meera,
and she was the only one who didn't do Egyptian dance! She presented
a Bollywood fusion/folk dance that portrayed a young girl on the
threshold of marriage, out in the meadow by herself for what might
be the last time as a maiden. Somehow, Meera managed to convey
the chaotic and mixed emotions that such a person might be feeling
- excitement, anticipation, but also sadness, with occasional
unguarded moments of real fear. Meera has had a lot of classical
Indian dance training, and she showed superb control of her face
and body, switching between the varied emotional states in the
blink of an eye. So I guess even she had the "exquisite folkloric
syndrome" but yet, with her, I didn't mind, probably because
I really believed in those few dark moments that she put into
quizzed Hala on Raqia's personal history, since I didn't know
much about her. Raqia has never performed as a solo Oriental dancer
the way many other top Egyptian dancers have. She performed for
many years with the Mahmoud Reda Troupe, and was one of their
very first soloists after Farida Fahmy. Even
though she never performed it herself, her first love was always
in fact, a very gifted choreographer, working by seeing how the
movements looked on other people. Hala says, "She became
known as a great teacher because her choreographies were so fascinating.
All the top dancers in Egypt started training with her."
Raqia, the music is the starting point. Sometimes dancers will
come to her with a particular piece of music, wanting to dance
to it. If Raqia doesn't like the music, she asks them to pick
something else. With her, the music is first.
few final notes about the workshop. If you get a chance to see
Madame Hassan... GO! Borrow money if you have to, and sleep on
someone's floor if you can't afford a hotel, but go. This one
was just about the right size, not too many, not too few.
My only nitpick
was the sound. It was earsplitting, both during the workshop and
the show, and the genteel cries from shocked ladies to turn it
down were no doubt drowned out by the din. There were some technical
difficulties during the class, which Raqia worked around without
much trouble, and the class announcements were also over-miked.
I guess it's a choice between shouting over the crowd or getting
on a microphone.
But I can't
end the review on a negative note! That would be so... harsh...
aha! I'll leave this space for quotes.
"I can't contain what I feel for Raqia in mere words; I have
such utter respect for what she has done. When she started putting
on her annual Ahlan
wa Sahlan festival, she told me she had very good reason
to fear for her life. Now it's a major tourism generator, enjoying
respect from Egyptian officials, with lots of media attention.
Initially, she had to keep all mention of it OUT of the media.
She single-handedly turned the tide [for Egyptian Oriental dance]
from something that had to be hidden into a national treasure."
"You know that the instruction is a success when the dancers
taking class look beautiful each in their own way as they learn
and internalize the instruction... Although some students may
have found it difficult to take instruction "in the round"
with Raqia in the center of the room, this instructional format
provides four learning aspects not found in the traditional dance
instruction in lines. Instruction in the round provides:
1) the opportunity and option to "mirror" the instructor
and learn the choreography with the opposite footing and body
presentation, 2) learn feeling and attitude by watching Raqia's
facial expressions , 3) learn to perform the choreography with
a holistic presentation in the round, and consequently 4) to develop
more individualized performance of her choreography."
Donderi: "quivering with intention. direct gaze,
fierce and intensely friendly. every muscle communicating directly…
elastic body… tight bright leggings easy to see… whole body obviously
used to making things clear."
Pena: "She did some breakdown of movements,
but toward the end it was more the 'follow the bouncing butt'
old school style. Drove me crazy when she kept doing directional
changes but I really enjoyed watching her perform the choreography.
Her speech about being your own dancer was priceless. She said
'Take the steps you learn from me and make them your own."
Lanty: "Her English is fluent and she uses simple
direct words like 'down', 'out', 'in', 'opposite', 'right', 'left'
while demonstrating. Once you learn what she means by each
word, the rest is easy... In private lessons, she is a lot
more demanding than in a group class, but, as in the group classes,
she is supportive of your desire to learn... She never puts you
down for making mistakes or having a hard time learning a certain
movement. A typical comment from my private lessons, which
I remember to this day 'Leyla, you are a teacher so you must learn
to do this right so you can teach your students!'"
Goodyear: "Although Raqia Hassan began each workshop
class with invaluable technique and combination drills and continued
on to teach unique and intricate choreographies, her main contribution
to the workshop dancer was inspiration. Her power and passion
emerging from her soft yet strong and precise dance style is clearly
emotional and melodic based on a grounded percussive base. If
the workshop dancer 'listens' to the energy of Raqia's persona
and psyche, the dancer will find permission to truly dance. Through
Raqia Hassan's demonstrations of her choreography the dancer learns
to internalize the dance and transform the kinesthetic exercises
into a marriage of dancer, music and audience. This is a priceless
a comment? Send us a
Check the "Letters to the Editor"
for other possible viewpoints!
Ballet Afsaneh and
Carmen Carnes Dance Ensemble Reviewed by: Rebecca Firestone
Circle Little Theater Marin Civic Center, San Rafael, CA February
16, 2007 And
since when was Rumi associated with Mother Earth?
CD Reviewed by: Rebecca Firestone
On one of the
mailing lists I'm on, there was recently a heated discussion on
whether there was such a thing as "Balkan bellydance".
Circle Dance by
Melina of Daughters of Rhea
circle is a perfect, democratic & unending shape, the shape
of an energized community, the shape of this lovely round planet.
Raqia's Response by Dee
visited her in the Masr el Dawly Hospital, near where Raqia lives
in el Dokki, the next week. Raqia was unable to travel to Sweden
Follow the Bouncing
Butt; in Defense of a Teaching Method
of the "Follow Me" teachers should be more aptly described
as "inspirationally oriented".
I Dance; You Follow by Leila
As Westerners interested in an Eastern dance form, we might want
to ask ourselves if we are missing certain critical aspects of
Raqs Sharki because we are not open to Eastern teaching methods.
A Report on the First International
Bellydance Conference of Canada Part One- Lectures, Workshops,
Panel Discussions by Diane Adams Photos by Lynette
18-22, 2007 Toronto, Ontario. Hosted by Yasmina Ramzy of Arabesque
Academy in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, this International Bellydance
Conference of Canada, the first ever on the Canadian dance scene,
proved to be one of the top dance experiences in this reviewer’s