I attended Karim Nagi's Arab Dance Seminar in Cambridge, Massachusetts this past weekend. Oh my goodness!!! It was an absolutely incredibly great weekend.
My Honey and I drove to Cambridge on Friday afternoon. He dropped me off at the YWCA in Central Square and continued on to the home of our generous host for the weekend, our dear friend, LF. I entered the building, checked in, and took my seat. Women traveled from all over the country to attend this seminar. In fact, the first two women I met were from the LA area. They were both lovely and we shared most of our breaks over the course of the weekend.
Karim began the workshop by welcoming us and thanking us for wanting to learn more about dance and music in the Arab world and their cultural relevance. He then taught a class on Arabic rhythms. I am already familiar with several of the rhythms since I have been taking drum classes for almost a year. However, Karim explained more about the original purpose of each rhythm and the meaning of the name of each rhythm. He also asked us to clap and say and move to each rhythm. The exercises enabled us to truly "feel" the rhythm as opposed to just knowing it intellectually. It made me want to get a sling for my drum so I can always move while I am drumming.
Next, Kay spoke to us about Arabic music. She first talked about maqamat. MaqamWorld.com defines "maqam" as follows: "In Arabic music, a maqam (plural maqamat) is a set of notes with traditions that define relationships between them, habitual patterns, and their melodic development. Maqamat are best defined and understood in the context of the rich Arabic music repertoire. The nearest equivalent in Western classical music would be a mode (e.g. Major, Minor, etc.)." We then learned Maqam Bayati. One point that I found interesting is that a maqam may include quarter tones, or "half flats," which are notes between a flat and a natural note. These notes cannot be played on a piano! With Kay playing oud, we learned to sing Maqam Bayati using lyrics that may be used in a Zeffa procession.
Our next class was with Amel who discussed the Arabic language. She guided us through the pronunciation of the Arabic alphabet and taught us a few words along the way. The pronunciation was difficult since there are so many sounds that we do not make in the English language. Also, there are distinctions between sounds that one might not notice until it is demonstrated. A few examples were given of how a slight mispronunciation could turn one word into something else entirely. I suppose that is the case in any language. I think I might need a little one-on-one coaching on this topic to be sure I am pronouncing things correctly.
The focus for the weekend was on music and dance in traditional wedding celebrations. And so, the fourth and final class on Friday evening was about the history of music and dance in wedding celebrations. All four of the teachers participated in the discussion, Karim, Kay, Cassandra, and Amel. We learned about the Zeffa, or wedding procession, and how it may differ in different areas, or in villages as opposed to in the city. We also learned about the henna nights in which the bride's female family members and friends decorate her hands and feet with henna. Cassandra showed a video of an elaborate Zeffa procession. A friend of Amel's who recently had a traditional wedding in Algeria brought in two of her wedding gowns (she changed several times during the celebration) and also pictures of the celebration and her henna party.
After only a handful of hours with these four instructors, I had already learned so much, and only wished I had a week, or month, or years to study with each of them. They all exuded sincere joy in sharing their knowledge and experiences with us. I would have felt the weekend worthwhile after only Friday's session... but I had two more days to enjoy! I took the T back to Maverick Station where I was greeted by My Honey and LF. They were kind enough to let me ramble on and on and on about everything I had learned over delicious Santarpio's pizza pie. Santarpio's pizza is a must-have meal whenever we stay with LF. Then, I climbed into bed knowing I would need a good night's sleep for the long day ahead of me.
On Saturday, I arrived at The Dance Complex in Central Square almost an hour early. I was not sure how long it would take to get there on the T and I certainly did not want to be late. I decided to find myself a nice cup of coffee, and by the time I returned, the studio was unlocked. I chatted with some of the other workshop attendees, and soon enough, our next class was beginning.
We started the day learning North African dance from Amel. Amel has a way of filling the room with the most amazing energy. When she wanted us to be lifted in our posture she would say "Remember your sunshine." When we were to be looking to the left and to the right she said "Don't just look... look!" We learned steps in two facing lines with our arms interlocked... and we learned steps in a giant circle... Honestly, the basic posture and movements were challenging, but great fun! The highlight of this class was watching Amel and Karim "play" together with Karim drumming and Amel dancing. It was impossible to not share in their enthusiasm and joy in dance and music.
After a quick water break, we began a Raqs Sharqi class with Cassandra. Raqs Sharqi is the performance version of bellydance. Cassandra taught us a few great new moves (or new to me, anyways) and a fun choreography. We learned the basic choreography first, and then learned how to embellish it. She also described how it could be modified to fit music in other time signatures. This being my first workshop of this sort, I was pleased to see that Cassandra was using the same 'language' as my teacher, Jamileh. She also stressed the importance of details that Jamileh always drills us on. Studying with Jamileh has truly prepared me for more advanced workshops like these.
We broke for lunch at about 1 pm, and my two friends from the West Coast and I headed to The Middle East Restaurant just a few doors down from The Dance Complex. We all ordered the chicken kabobs, and they were delicious. I enjoyed our discussion about what our respective dance communities are like at home. I have always been grateful for what I have here in Portland, Maine, but now even more so. They were surprised to hear that we have the opportunity to perform with Okbari's live music, and even more so that we enjoy their live music in class!
After lunch we learned more about the details of the Zeffa wedding procession, and were all assigned roles to create a procession of our own. Karim asked who might like to play the part of a drummer, and with the encouragement of one of my new friends I raised my hand. He instructed us to come to the front and pick up a frame drum. My first attempt to play the Zeffa rhythm was surprisingly off! On the frame drum, the "doum" sound is at the side of the drum, and the "tek" is in the center. This is the exact opposite of the doumbek. For a moment, I did feel silly! Karim very politely corrected my mistake. Just moments later, Cassandra came over and took my wrist and asked if I'd play a different part in the procession. I was disappointed, but I could not say ‘no.’ And so... I played the part of a young girl carrying a candle. It was far less exciting than being a drummer, but it enabled me to see what everyone else was doing in the reenactment. The procession was lead by drummers, then a small boy carrying the Koran, then the young girls carrying candles, then two different groups of dancers, then the bride and groom followed by the parents of the bride and the parents of the groom. Everyone else played the part of wedding guests and sang the song we learned the previous night in the Bayati Maqam. It was great fun to be in a room full of people singing, dancing, and drumming. It truly felt like a celebration!
When we were finished, Karim stated that we had enough time for a second procession with people in different roles. I was standing at the edge of the room when Karim walked by and said "I saw you brought your tabla, do you want to play?" ("Tabla" is another word for "doumbek.") I shrugged my shoulders at first as if I did not want to seem too eager, but then I smiled as wide as possible and nodded very quickly. I could not contain my excitement at the possibility of drumming with Karim! I ran over to where I had stashed my belongings, tore off my rings, and pulled out my drum. Since I do not have a sling for it, he showed me how to hold it and play at the same time. I followed him to the head of the procession, and he demonstrated some simple steps to do while drumming. He is amazing at drumming and dancing at the same time, and it is extremely fun to watch. I struggled with the simple steps at first (while trying to keep a steady rhythm), but I got the hang of it. I was dancing and drumming with Karim! It was great, great, great, great, great, great fun.
Next, we learned Khaligi with Kay. The world "Khaligi" means "gulf" which describes the region where this dance originated. It is performed wearing a loose fitting, large sleeved, embroidered thobe. The picture below not only shows the beautiful studio in which our classes were held, but to the right you can also see a few women in their thobes.
Much of the dance is performed by holding the edges of the embroidery in the front and gently swaying it from side to side. It is a more demure dance, with celebratory movements such as gentle hair tosses from one side to the other. Kay taught us a choreography which included all of the moves we learned.
After a full day of dance, I was looking forward to finding a place to sit down and rest for an hour or so before the performance on Saturday night. I was still full from lunch so I found a small cafe and ordered a most delicious strawberry banana mint smoothie. I studied some of the reading material provided at the seminar, but otherwise sat back and reflected on the already fabulous day.
On Saturday night, the instructors along with Rachid Halihal put on a fantastic show. It was open and free to the community and so the small YWCA auditorium was packed. I wish I had better pictures of the performance, but even if I did, they would not have conveyed the energy and power of the performances. Each of the dancers performed beautifully, and the musicians did not stop playing for over three hours.
After the performance, I rode the T back to Maverick Station and met My Honey and LF. I knew they had met My Honey's brother, PA, for dinner and expected to find a granola bar or something to tide me over until morning... but instead... I was greeted with a to-go container full of fresh lobster meat. Thanks, PA!!! It was a good day.
The final day of the seminar began at 10:30 am at The Dance Complex. We started by learning the Dabka with Karim. The Dabka is a social dance that is performed at any type of celebration. It is also used as a form of non-violent protest. The Dabka is performed in a line, with hands joined. The 'lawwih' leads the line and calls out the steps. The basic step has a bouncy, leaned back sort of posture. This dance is an incredible work out, and so much fun! With Karim's energy and enthusiasm, it was a great way to the third and final day of the seminar.
Next, Cassandra taught a Saidi class. Many people associate 'Saidi' with the cane dance, but it can be performed with out a cane. The use of the cane comes from women light-heartedly mimicking the men's Tahteeb. The Tahteeb is derived from a form of martial arts and uses a stick. (Karim taught the Tahteeb at the workshop I attended in the spring.) We learned the general posture of the dance, and steps with and without the cane. I remained towards the back of the studio for this particular class since I do not necessarily trust my cane-spinning-skills. It is very fun, but one that I definitely need to practice.
After the Saidi class, we were given a short break. My new friends and I embarrassingly ran to the McDonald's next door for a snack. I balanced out my french fries with a fruit and yogurt salad... I do not think I can go to McDonald's with out ordering french fries.
We returned to The Dance Complex for our last class entitled "Hadra and Zaar." The instructors took turns leading us through breathing, meditation, sound healing, whirling, chanting, and trance. I can only gloss over this portion of the workshop, and recommend that you seek someone far more knowledgeable than I for further explanation. It was a quiet and powerful ending to an incredible weekend.
I began gathering my things, but could not resist asking Karim if I could have a picture taken with him and the other instructors. He generously obliged...
From left to right are myself, Karim, Amel, Kay, and Cassandra... well... Cassandra was in the picture but was caught in an unfortunate moment between facial expressions... so I cropped the photo...
(I thought long and hard about what the right thing to do might be. I really wanted to post this photo, but I felt terrible posting an unflattering photo, and almost worse about cropping her out... Nonetheless, if I were her, I would appreciate being cropped out... so that is what I did. If by some coincidence she happens upon this blog post, I hope she understands my decision.)
As I gathered my things, My Honey appeared in the studio doorway. I introduced him to my new friends, and hugged them goodbye. He helped me carry my things to the car, and listened to me talk about what I had learned the whole ride back to Maine. His love and support made an incredible weekend even sweeter.
This could be the world's longest blogpost, and yet it does not scratch the surface of what I experienced this past weekend. Thank you Karim, Amel, Kay, and Cassandra for sharing your enthusiasm, knowledge, and experiences with us. Thank you Meiver for helping to make this weekend happen. It may take months for me to digest everything I learned, but already, I know that my greater understanding of the music and culture will make my dance more rich.