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Gilded Serpent presents...

Mona el Said in Dallas, Part 1

at the Holiday Inn, Dallas Texas, September 3 - 5, 2004

by Catherine E Barros

From the first time I watched Mona el Said perform on video, I've loved the way that she dances.  I was so new to dancing when I watched this particular video in which she performed a drum solo in a gold lame costume.   This is one performance that lots of dancers relate to.  I always remember it as a good example of an Egyptian dancer that is comfortable with herself as a dancer and who radiates joy and passion during a performance.   For that reason, I like to use that video to show students and non-dance friends what a wonderful dance form we are all learning.   As circumstances would limit my attending the First International Conference of Middle Eastern Dance organized by Shareen el Safy, I missed the opportunity to meet and study with Mona, when she came to the U.S. to teach and perform for the first time in 1997.   Imagine my delight when I had the good fortune to be introduced to Mona during my first trip to Cairo.  I couldn't refrain from taking the opportunity to tell Mona how much I loved her dancing.   Then, I braved the legions of eager festival attendees to get my first glimpse of Mona teaching and dancing in her 3-hour class at Ahlan wa Sahlan in June 2004.   

A good article with some background information on Mona was published in Habibi in 1996 ("Mona el Said: Moving in Mysterious Ways", Vol. 15, No.1, Shareen el Safy).    This article is evocative of Mona's essence and the whole experience of being in Cairo; I heartily recommend reading it.  In this article Shareen describes how she came to take a private class with Mona, which was arranged by Raqia Hassan, and her visits at Mona's apartment where she met other members of Mona's family.   When Shareen asks Mona if she is influenced by anyone, Mona replies "I didn't take my style from anyone.  I have my own style and that's why I am successful."   I know that it is Mona's unique style which draws me to her and makes me want to dance with the same feeling that she projects.  I've heard that Tahiya Carioca nicknamed her the "Princess of Raks Sharki" and I can't think of a more suitable title to bestow upon Mona.

It seemed that nearly everyone at the Ahlan wa Sahlan Festival wanted to take Mona's class.   When you have so many dancers in one room with varied levels of experience, it is hard to accomplish much more than what she did with us.  Teaching a choreography would have been impossible and technique only would have been just as difficult.   I decided that the best thing to do was dance when it was my turn, watch when I had to sit and enjoy. 

But I knew that this was just an appetizer for the big Labor Day weekend coming up in Dallas, when we would have Mona for two days plus we would get to see her perform.   

I'm sure you all want to know all about our big weekend in Dallas, but I just have to mention how "star struck" I felt at first.  I got so nervous when I was driving her to Denny's for a late dinner that I over shot the driveway.  As you can imagine, everyone in my car was giving me a hard time, laughing and joking at my expense.  It's always nice when you find that someone, whom you've put up on a big pedestal, is down to earth, just "folks" like the rest of us.   Mona surprised and delighted us for the whole weekend.   I feel like I made a good friend whom I'll be able to visit on my next trip to Egypt .

Friday Night
The weekend started out on Friday night with a star-studded show headlined by Jasmin Jahal (Chicago IL) and Hadia (Montreal, Canada )--two of my favorite dancers to watch and to take workshops from.   It was a great night for everyone.   We were all excited to be there, to meet and study with Mona.  I was in the show, but I was not one of the stars.   I was just someone who loves to dance and was thrilled to be given the opportunity to perform for Mona.   Thankfully my star-strickenness didn't impact my dancing.   Mona made everyone feel so comfortable, smiling at all the performers and being attentive to their performances.   Other than Jasmin and Hadia, the line-up of dancers for the evening  included RAKS (Desdemona, Alia, Rivkah, Serena, Zahara, Tamr-Henna - DFW, TX) , Debbie Lamman (CA), the duo Amani (TX), Marisela (TX), Catherine Barros (TX), Rimarah (CT), Shiara (IA), Selena (NM), Desert Fire (OK), Layla & the Lotus Flowers (CA), Kaya (CO),  Aradia (NV), Charli (AK), Shahna (mother of Charli), Isis (TX).    It was a quite varied show ranging from a fabulous double-veil by Aradia,  Fusion/world beat style, beledi style, Egyptian Pop,  Egyptian style, to Isis' famous high energy sword balancing.  It was a great show and made for a high energy start to the weekend.

The Workshops
For both days of the workshop, Mona picked out several songs which we danced to.  Out of the ten or so songs,   I liked "Barsha, Barsha" and "Bahebak Moot" the best.  The selection was varied enough in style and type that there was always something that appealed . . . if you didn't like one song, then you probably would like the next one. 

Each time Mona danced a song, she would change how she interpreted it.  The intent of this approach was so that we could understand how you can do different things to the same music.

  I had the good fortune to talk with Mona a bit, so I have more insight into why she teaches the way she does.   I think that Western-style dance classes have impacted a lot of the Egyptian dancers (Raqia, Dina, Aida, Magdy, etc) in that, over the years, they have shifted to teaching choreo more in the fashion that teachers in the States/Canada/Europe are doing.  

But Mona is totally adverse to learning dance in the "1-2-3-4" method!   She told me about when she first tried a dance class at a very early age that she got kicked out because she couldn't follow.  She didn't understand the counting that was going on.

But she wanted to dance so much and knew that she could dance!  She was just not able to learn following this method.  She thinks it is more important to dance with feeling then count everything, and therefore, she approaches teaching by using the "follow-me" (aka "follow the bouncing butt") method.   She thinks all the counting restricts a dancer's ability to really feel the music. 

This was actually a very exhausting weekend because we moved constantly and we constantly had to change what we did.   No time for memorizing the choreography because it was different each time!   You really had to pay attention to catch on to what she was doing.   Mona also made us dance for her so she could see what we were learning . . . each song she did this.   This gave us the opportunity to feel the music much more.   Mona told me that she could really see a change in everyone because she was watching each person as they danced.   She was happy that we did well.  

I told her that it is hard for most of us to switch over to this method of learning because we are used to the choreo breakdown workshops

. . . and a bit chaotic also to begin with as we are trying to understand the different steps she's using (although most are not that different if you have a good basics grounding).  By day two of the workshop, I think everyone in the room had really gotten into it so much more as they became more comfortable with this approach to learning.  Sunday was a more relaxed day.   

Throughout the workshop, Mona would talk about concepts and ideas that she felt are necessary to make us better dancers.   She mentioned that we all have an Aura that surrounds us which we should not touch, except for the head and hair.   If you touch your Aura while dancing, then you weaken it.   She also talked about love and being happy.    She said to love yourself first, then give love to others . . . you give love and get it back.  She says that love keeps you young.  Sounds like we are getting a bit of a lecture, but the point of this discussion was to make us aware that we show all of this in our dancing.  

She mentions that our dancing should reflect all the women that we can be (she called it "Seven women in one woman" but I don't have all seven identified):  show our feelings; dance stronger, faster, slower, romantic, like a tiger.

We should change the mood or feeling to make the performance interesting because if the audience gets bored, they will stop watching.  The mood and the movement should work together.  The dancer creates magic on the stage, catching everyone's attention, and the audience will be focused on you, the dancer.  The part about the tiger puzzles me a bit but I think it is just one aspect of the dancer's personality to be shown on the stage--think about the way this big cat moves as it prowls around, thinking about pouncing on its prey--the audience is the dancer's prey!    (But I don't think we want to kill or eat them!)  Just project this aspect of danger through strong, slow, graceful movements.  I can see this aspect of Mona as she moves around the stage--she shows her love, happiness, grace and passion as she dances, positively radiating all of the different aspects of her personality when she performs.

Amr Kamaal, singer with the band, and Miabella

Part 2- the Saturday Performance

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