The Gilded Serpent presents...
A Metamorphosis Before My Eyes
My Experiences at Oasis Dance Camp West
I was wary of camp. I almost talked myself out of going, in fact.
Being an American Tribal Style dancer, I was concerned about the heavy
emphasis on cabaret style dancing. Whatever you call it - Oriental
dance, raqs sharki, American nightclub - it wasn't for me. In recent
months, however, I had been experiencing an increasingly voracious
appetite for dance.
Mere weeks prior to the start of camp, I attended a fantastic workshop
taught by the lovely Paulette Rees-Denis of Gypsy
Caravan. It encouraged me to carefully examine my demands when
it came to dancing and learning.
I found that my strict definitions of who would and
would not make an ideal instructor was holding me back from
being the dancer I wanted to become.
I find it ironic that it was the most inspiring American Tribal
experience of my short dance life which in fact encouraged me
to consider instruction in the cabaret community. My revelation,
which may seem simple or obvious to some, was that any professional
dance instruction would help me grow and improve. Just moving
my body, involving my heart and soul in Mid-Eastern dance, and
meeting passionate dancers to inspire me, would better prepare
me for any style on which I chose to concentrate my energies.
Think about it: the best American Tribal Style dancers, whom I
admire and emulate, once studied cabaret - not to mention classical
ballet, jazz, and other dance forms. So I finally admitted to
myself that I could find growth in more places than I previously
believed. Quite a lesson to take into my heart from that one workshop!
It served to stoke the fire within me to
a record burn, driving my desire to learn and dance to a fevered
On Monday, I eagerly signed up for Oasis West Dance Camp.There
were over 50 campers and staff this year - a record turnout. The
days were chock full and this year we had the honor of studying
with Amel Tafsout - a spiritual woman, storyteller,
and life-teacher from Algeria. The best way I can think to describe
Amel is to compare her to one of the dances she taught us. As
we learned the Ouled Nail, she kept reminding us to take very
small steps, and carry our bodies erect and proud, chins up - "like
she said. That is how Amel seemed to me as a person. Her presence
is tangible; with her dark, beautiful face and exotic eyes, all
framed by her tousled black ringlet curls. She was all at once
imposing, yet utterly approachable. Her dazzling smile, freely
given hugs and kisses on the cheek make one feel like a friend
or possibly a long lost relative. She is patient and gentle, with
an energy that seems to come from deep within her center. Her
teaching style is distinctly non-Western - a very, "See what I
do? Now you do it," with less structure than most of the classes
I was accustomed to. This made the overall student experience
fascinating, but also foreign and difficult.
day we attended a demanding technique class with endless drills
to live drumming, all orchestrated by the talented taskmistress Cassandra.
The organizers of the camp freely admit that their reason for
starting Oasis was an excuse to study with Cassandra, and now
I understand why. She is a focused and challenging instructor,
with seemingly boundless endurance. She exudes a low-key attitude,
yet maintains a commanding presence; and her smile and enthusiasm
makes you proud to be a part of whatever she has to share. And
share she does, layering increasingly complicated moves on top
of one another, until it is clear the class can't keep up. Then
she drops back to a simpler and more easily rewarding move without
a hiccup. She effectively taught repetitive muscle-memory combinations
without it ever losing our attention. I myself would return to
Oasis every year myself just to study with Cassandra.
Each day I would dash up to "Luxor" (nickname for the main hall)
to study drumming. What inspiration! Our drumming instructor was
the beautiful and infinitely skilled Nicole.
How I wish I had had more time (and energy!) to devote to studying
with her. Friendly and upbeat (no pun intended), she was an incredible
drummer. She told us in her camp introduction that she and a friend
were so passionate about drumming that for about a year they lived
out of a van, driving all over the US, chasing the best drummers
to study with them.
The one day I thought I might take a nap, I couldn't let myself
lie down and miss the opportunity to sit and visit with my roommates.
Everyone's enthusiasm for the dance was infectious, and hung in
the air throughout camp. In my meager down time, I fed off each
woman's stories and experiences and advice. I know I never could
have danced and studied eight hours a day for 4 days straight
without the energy and passion for the dance which surrounded
me each day.
It would be extremely long-winded to tell about all the experiences
packed into those few days, nor would I be able to do them justice.
So I will skip ahead, past the arduous yet rewarding hours of
dancing, the late nights spent sitting up, watching my cabin-mates
practice routines in their pajamas, and afterwards talking in
the dark about life and dance, the Friday night fashion show where
I wore my first cabaret costume for kicks, the following khaleegy
and henna party where we danced in colorful thobes until we couldn't
stand it any more, and then sat and chatted while hennaing our
palms. I wish I could relate how it all felt when put together.
The closest I can come to describing the impact Oasis truly had
on me is to tell you about the last night: The Oasis Hafla.
that moment, I saw the woman and the dancer unite, and become
To be honest, I have never been one to get excited at attending
performances. I have always preferred
"doing" over "seeing". But tonight, I was fortunate to bear witness
to something quite new and intensely fascinating. A small open
circle amidst the chairs and cushions, bathed in a soft light,
served as the stage, lending a very up-close-and-personal feel
to the whole affair. It was in this space I saw the dance AND
the dancer for the first time. I had had the rare pleasure of
getting to personally know and admire each of these women over
the course of a few days. At the climax of the event I saw each
woman utterly transformed by the dance. At the risk of sounding
cliché I saw the chrysalis truly became the colorful butterfly.
Take, for example, Faith LaFavre. Faith is
a friendly, frank, bookish woman from Canada. A bespeckled, self-professed
computer geek, she turned an afternoon discussion we were having
on faith and spirituality into a debate on quantum physics - her
favorite topic. She confessed to me that she has never been big
on creative ventures, that dance was really her only creative
interest to speak of. Had you been in attendance at the hafla,
not privy to what I knew, you never would have guessed it. When
Faith took the stage, she revealed a delicate beauty . She danced
with grace and extreme confidence, transformed into a princess
in her deep green cabaret costume, with her long hair flowing
free. At that moment, I saw the woman and the dancer unite, and
become the dance.
She was one of many that night who has been seemingly altered
by their appearance on stage. Performance after performance, I
was stunned again and again by the unabashed beauties that poured
endlessly from behind the dressing room curtain. Every level of
skill and effort on that stage was met with resounding support
and applause from the audience. Were these the women in sweatpants
and tee shirts I had been taking classes with all week? Wasn't
she wearing glasses? I didn't know her hair was so long. Wow!
She seemed so shy and quiet! And now look at her.
Now look at all of them!
before had I had an experience quite like that night. I realize
now that before the hafla, I had only ever seen "the dance". I
had only seen random strangers take the stage, marveled at the
shimmies, the skillful zilling, the unique costumes. Now I could
recognize the woman behind each soulful sway and twisting hip.
I was an honored witness to the metamorphosis of each performer
from mother, or wife, or "computer geek", to a stunning goddess
bathed in stage light and the admiration of the crowd. Words cannot
express how I felt as the last round of thundering applause marked
the end of the long evening. I had been audience to the dancing
for almost five hours. Looking back on it, I recognize what a
unique opportunity this experience this was for me---to be able
to have my eyes opened and see beyond that which I had known before.
I watched as the Woman joined the Dance, and became The Dancer.
Few will ever see the metamorphosis occur. I saw an entire night
full of Dancers, and without exaggeration I can say that I will
never look at Middle Eastern dance the same way again.
...Without exaggeration I can say that I will
never look at Middle Eastern dance the same way again.
The next day was the last day. We gathered our belongings and
packed up to leave. I was discussing the weekend with one of my
cabin-mates, and I shared with her how important this weekend
had been for my growth as a dancer. I shared with her my new-found
philosophy: that I could learn so much from any good dance instruction,
and that I was only more open now that I had such inspiration
from the camp. I struggled to tell her the ideas I had in my head
about where I wanted to take my dancing, including Tribal, folkloric,
and a fusion of so many beautiful forms. She looked at me and
"If you never put yourself in a box, you never have to
figure out how to get out of one."
I was aghast at the concise way she had summed up the results
of my recent experiences. I don't have to define myself. I can
undertake a lifetime process of exploring the dance, and I may
never decide that one label is right for me. That is the beauty
of artistic expression--it is an extension of You in a unique
way, one that need not be explained. These women had shown me
an extension of their inner selves at the hafla that night. Though
I know that American Tribal will always be my true love and the
roots of my personal style, I, too, can make my dance an extension
of Me - whatever I want that to be. This is what I took away from
Oasis Dance Camp West. American Tribal, cabaret, folkloric - it
doesn't matter. This is what I hope for all dancers.
Ready for more?
The Hook When We Need It?" Desert Dance 2000
Review by Bobbie Giarratana, Photos and Layout
by Susie Poulelis
How about this article: 12-12-00 Producing
a Middle Eastern Dance Festival by Ellen Cruz
Would you like to respond to this article? Write a letter to the editor!