SUMMER CARAVAN 2001 Lumbers Through the Bay Area with Heavy Feet
by Lilly

I attended Summer Caravan, all day yesterday. Summer Caravan is a festival in Oakland, CaliforniaI, produced by Shukriya of Rakkasah. arrived right at 11:00 a.m., and I had a clear view of the stage. Around fifteen minutes after noon or so, the first performer appeared on the stage. She was Samra el Helwa from Santa Rosa. I remember wondering what she was doing on stage and why because there was no fanfare or showy introduction to the day of performances. Samra was a good opening for the festival though.

The next performance was by The Four Elements from Dublin, CA. When they first entered, they had feathers on their heads, and their costumes looked really strange and outrageous to me. Eventually, once they got going with their dancing and their veils, I realized that each dancer was portraying one of the four elements. It was creative, but somehow just missed being spectacular.

The one who really impressed me during that dance, however, was the snake dancer who was supposed to represent the element of earth. She did a very luscious and quite mesmerizing floor work with a large boa constrictor.

She knew her snake really well, and the way it moved. After about five minutes of her performance, she stood up and kept dancing with the snake. By then, the audience looked like they all focused on her. I would have preferred to see each dancer include what was specific to their elements.

I don't remember the next two performances really well. They were Grande Divas and Tatseena.

Natica Angilly did a solo performance that was quite sweet. She was very smooth and was apparently influenced by Flamenco dancing. She had a long skirt that she incorporated into her dance. It was quite impressive. She was very expressive in her solo dancing. However, when she started dancing with the Poetic Dance Company there was quite a different outcome. There were four dancers who played tambourines and recorded poetry was playing in the background. However, one couldn't hear the poetry very well, because it was drowned out by the music. It seemed very busy, and was not personally moving for me. The dancers' movements were monotonous and easily dismissed.

I missed Banat Al Hogar.

Then the "Disaster of Caravan" was next. I cannot understand why this next group was even there! It was a martial arts demonstration of various weapons. I saw this group once before, at Rakkasah, and remember being baffled then about their performance in a supposed dance venue! The entire troupe, except for two or three, were children with black belts whose ages ranged between eight and puberty. Eventually they brought out their token Belly dancer. She was the mother of one of the children performing a sword dance, which, I supposed, was to validate the group's participation in a dance festival.

The rest of the performances of the day became a blur to me. I recall being quite annoyed with some of the dancers level of skills in both dancing and performing. They all seemed to me to parrot the same moves with the same lack of stage presence. There were many performers who used upbeat songs with lots of drum solos, and looked like they weren't even listening to the music! They had an agenda of what moves they intended to perform, and completely disregarded any of the changes in melodies or rhythms. The musical transitions were sluggish with many of them, including songs that ended in mid-sentence (even while the singer was still singing!). Some performers walked off the stage without bowing, and almost worse, some that bowed, used another song for fifteen seconds that was very different from what they had been dancing, just so that they could exit the stage to it! Many of the day's performers inadvertently ruined the songs by inadequate or inappropriate responses.

Around mid afternoon, it was time for Bal Anat to appear. The small auditorium completely filled up. Many people were standing or sitting on the floor. Bal Anat was Jamila Salimpour's creation made during the seventies. There was so much happening that I don't know where to start my comments! The dance opened with a large troupe led by Suhaila Salimpour with drummers and musicians. After much setup, they finally settled on a semi circle. A tall covered dancer entered, leading another completely veiled dancer that she placed in the middle of the stage, and then unveiled her. The woman was wearing a frightening mask, and for the next five minutes or so, she proceeded to make hand gestures. They were something similar to dancing. I felt puzzled, but apparently she was supposed to represent the "Mother Goddess". The symbolism was nearly lost on me. When she finished her "dance", the same tall figure veiled her again and took her backstage.

By then, I had become quite annoyed with the symbolism. What I perceived, rather than the Mother Goddess, was "wrap her up, unveil her so she can be displayed, veil her up again, and escort her backstage". I'm still not sure why Westerners go up in arms about covered womanhood, yet, with dancing, we seem to have no problems appearing veiled, or displaying the same symbols that we spend so much effort protesting. It seems quite inanely hypocritical.

The Bal Anat danced some more, and one point featured a male dancer who was quite skilled gracious, and he could shimmy like no one else!

After Bal Anat, Reda Darwish did a fantastic drum solo.

About two other performers later, Shoshana did a solo performance. I truly enjoyed her performance. She was passionate, expressive, and it seemed like she truly enjoyed being on stage performing. While everyone else relied heavily on drumming, she used a more melodic piece, and performed a sensual veil routine. Shoshana's troupe came on after her solo, and they did a very lovely piece. Their group seemed very tight together, and while Shoshana is the leader of the troupe, she did not take center stage, and seemed to be very encouraging of her troupe.

The treat of the day did not come however until Hahbi'ru. They were fantastic performers and actually reminded me a lot of the dance festivals that I used to attend in Lebanon. They were very playful on stage, joking with the audience and the musicians. John Compton did a great dance with the tray. The man can dance! He was very inspiring. At one point he announced that his mother was in the audience. All I can think of is that that's the quality of performance that I would have like to have seen at Rakkasah! The troupe was together. They knew their music, were very comfortable being on stage, and performing for an audience. While most of the other performers were serious, the Hahbi'ru troupe was actually joyful!

After the Hahbi'ru performance, I began to become burnt out on tribal dancing, or what's called "Tribal dancing". I don't fully understand its draw for dancers. Is it the perpetuating of the stereotypes of femaleness or enforcing some images of fantasy female?

In all the time I lived in Lebanon and all the studies I've done on the Middle East since then, I've never seen heavily tattooed and pierced women performing while wearing costumes such as the ones they wore. Most of what's considered "tribal" in the Middle East usually has more conservative ideas of clothing and dancing than what's performed here.

I was hoping that Summer Caravan would have a higher standard of quality of dancing and dancers than it does. While I understand that it's a showcase for Belly dancing, I believe that it should adhere to a higher standard, or at least, break away the amateur performances from the professional ones. Having to pay money to see one or two good performances seems like almost like a rip-off to me. Perhaps it's for the good of the dance community to have a place where dancers, amateurs and professionals alike are able to dance and perform. It's good for a beginning experience.

I think, perhaps, my disappointment comes not because of the lack of over all quality at dance festivals (I fully understand why such events are necessary and useful), but more because there are almost no other large events that have a high standard of performances in the Bay Area.

Almost every festival now has this "open attitude" which combines the slip-shod with the professional. However, I would be more than happy to pay my money to go see a performance of the caliber of Hahbi'ru!


Ready for more?
10-28-01 "Faddah" (Silver) by Hossam Ramzy, A Review and Commentary by Najia El-Mouzayen

Dancers who have enjoyed many of Hossam Ramzy's 16 other CDs will doubtlessly be thrilled by this
beautifully produced collection of new music.

10-18-01 My Taxi Ride in Egypt after 9-11 by Fred Glick
And as we reach my destination, he asks me to tell America that he is sorry, that Egyptians, they are sorry.

10-26-01 Dispelling the Myths: The Many Faces of Belly Dance, by Susie Poulelis
A Teachers' Showcase July 7, 2001, Berkeley, California
One of the first events produced by the recently formed San Francisco Bay Area Chapter of MECDA


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