An Evening of Experimental Middle Eastern Dance
EEMED Audition

X--MED: An intensive three-day seminar in Experimental Middle Eastern Dance Memorial Day Weekend 2006; Instructors: Amara, Anaheed, Djahari, Sa'Elayssa
by Jeana Jorgensen

"X-MED 2006" Zaghareet! Sept./Oct. 2006: 62-64.

It's hard to know where to begin with X-MED; those three days of rigorous kinesthetic learning have reshaped my experience of Middle Eastern Dance, or belly dance, as I usually call it. To give a brief overview before launching into my full review of the workshops: the instructors brought immense creative energy and expertise to the workshop, which the students matched with enthusiasm; consequently, we all learned a lot, challenged ourselves and each other, and worked our butts off.

Since one could register for the nine workshops (three a day) individually or all together, the number of students varied, anywhere from a dozen to nineteen. I signed up for everything, and came alone, not knowing anybody, until I brought my younger sister (who also belly dances) to the third day of workshops; Everyone was so warm and welcoming that I didn’t have a chance to feel shy; indeed, soon the workshop participants-students and teachers alike-were trading jokes and sharing snacks. Some of us went out for dinner before the evening performances. I didn't expect to connect with so many people at the workshop, but now I have friends with whom I'll keep in touch from afar, and whose dance careers I'll watch with joy.

The reason I came to the seminar is a simple one: since I began belly dancing over seven years ago, I've felt drawn to new things within the dance. I started learning cabaret in Los Angeles; when I went to school at UC Berkeley, the whole San Francisco Bay Area dance scene opened up to me. I continued cabaret classes with Nanna Candelaria (whose technical precision and generous teaching still inspire me) even as tribal intrigued me. I took classes with FatChance,
Suhaila, Ultra Gypsy, and Rachel Brice. Upon moving to Bloomington, Indiana for an M.A. and Ph.D. in Folklore at Indiana University, I was overjoyed to find belly dance comrades practicing ATS, tribal fusion, cabaret, and everything in between. I attend workshops when they swing through the Midwest, learn what I can from DVDs, perform, and teach. However, I know there's always more out there in the wide world of belly dance. I search the internet for inspiration (which is how I stumbled upon gothic belly dance, one of my new favorite genres) and take modern dance classes, hoping to expand my repertoire of movement. I've also recently felt drawn to burlesque, controversial as its potential overlap with belly dance may be. When I found out about XXMED, I knew I had to go ... which is convenient, since I was planning to visit my family in the Los Angeles area to begin with.

I give so much of my personal dance background in order to illustrate what I brought to the workshop. X-MED not only inspired me to choreograph new dances, but also to return to older pieces and revise them in light of what I learned. One of the main impulses driving the series of workshops was to ask, "Well, why not?" in regard to everything within the dance. The workshops also created a small, intimate space in which it felt safe - if not always comfortable - to experiment and share pieces of ourselves. In each of the workshops, we students had multiple opportunities to speak and give feedback regarding our experiences of particular exercises or general principles. In fact, one of the most amazing things about X-MED is the impression I received that not only were we learning from the instructors and from each other, but also that the instructors were learning from us! They complimented us on risks we took ideas we came up with, and insights we shared. The; watched us synthesize information and dance our new knowledge with respect, even as they offered suggestions for improving our form and making even larger leaps out of comfort zones. Ranging from gently analytical to earnestly considerate, the instructors worked and played with us, alternately pushing and cradling us with love of dance.

Some of the individual workshops stimulated me more than others; this probably had a lot to do with my varying energy levels and where I'm at in my dancing. Hence, my account of the X-MED workshops reflects my experience of them- I'm well aware that different people may have received and processed the workshops in various ways.

Day One began with "The Zone" (like all the workshops, it lasted two hours and had two teachers). Anaheed and Djahari greeted us with some light stretching, and launched into a series of individual and group meditative exercises. We danced to themed music and experimented with using contact and pressure to improvise while dancing with partners and in small groups. We also strode through the studio with our eyes closed, again using soft contact to guide our steps and learned to dance through different body parts. Energized from "The Zone," I looked forward to the next workshop: "Movement, Music, & Expression," with Amara and Elayssa. In this workshop, we completed many drills designed to expand not only our abilities to follow different musical lines and expression of different emotions, but also to combine these factors in exciting ways. For instance, we played with what it felt like to maintain a shimmy while communicating distinctive emotional states. We articulated various factors that feed into expression: facial features, one's position in relation to the audience and other dancers, an internal vs. an external focus, and so on. In the final workshop, "Acting Through Dance," Djahari and Elayssa led us through a series of exercises designed to help us convey emotions and stories with our faces and bodies. Sometimes we used just our faces, and other times just our bodies. Still other exercises had us melting into the floor and pressed against the walls as we acted as lumps of flesh and sea creatures. This was one of my favorite workshops by far, though the entire first day blew my mind.

The first night of performances was wonderful not only due to the caliber of the dancing, but also due to the question-and-answer session following each performance. Princess Farhana's piece based on Orientalist fantasies alluded to the past yet was very accessible. Amara performed a more interpretive piece, utilizing a straitjacket as one of her costume components. Anaheed's performance to "Rock Around the Clock" and "Wipe Out" was both humorous and technically adept; Heather Stants demonstrated her urban tribal style to piano and electronic music, while Desert Sin's "Ode to Silent Film" drew on movie genres and music to create a darkly funny piece. The vast differences between all of the performances inspired me greatly.

Day Two of workshops found me a little tired (due to an epic struggle with L.A. traffic on my way home from the performances), but still eager to learn. First, we had "Fusion Techniques" with Djahari and Anaheed. We explored what felt comfortable and uncomfortable while layering different movements atop each other. In terms of fusing dance style, we were urged to do research first if we wanted to add another style for flair or flavor. The exercises where we experimented to music were both fun and useful - we layered styles like kung fu and Indian classical dance and Western (as in cowboys and square dancing) atop belly dance, aiming for smooth transitions regardless of how much we knew of the style we were supposed to incorporate. In "Creating & Destroying the Rules" with Elayssa and Amara, we articulated a number of rules that belly dancers commonly follow-keep your head up, maintain good posture, be sexy but not too sexy-and then broke as many as we could. It was particularly fun to watch people dancing and try to identify which r les they were breaking. The final workshop of the day, "Creative Staging & Lighting," took us next door to a studio. Djahari and Amara put some ideas in our heads regarding claiming our space using the stage, props, and lighting, and then turned us loose to explore. I'd never had the opportunity to experiment with lighting, so this workshop offered me a lot to think about (and hope for in terms of future staging!).

The second night featured even more outstanding performances. Tatianna's use of dualistic imagery, costuming, and music formed a powerful expressive whole, while Tandemonium's "Rumble in the Casbah" was both socially aware and uproariously funny. The two solos by the Desert Sin directors left me speechless. I watched Elayssa's "Hypothermia" with a sense of awe, and Djahari's "Recurring Scream" with respect. Finally, Ya Helewa!'s piece was experimental enough that it was difficult to make sense of, but thought provoking nonetheless. As with the first night, being able to ask the artists questions afterward was phenomenally insightful as to their creative processes and choices in execution.

Day Three of workshops continued to challenge us. We started the day with "Creative Make-up & Costume," wherein Elayssa and Anaheed shared ideas and exercises to help us create unusual designs. We drew-on paper and on ourselves-and shared tips on obtaining and putting together clothing, hairpieces, cosmetics, and so on. In "Dance Structures-Non-Narrative," Amara and Anaheed listed features that non-narrative dance styles can focus on, since they are not explicitly telling a story. These features include mood, space, tempo, shapes, direction, weight, and so on. In exercises, we combined elements and explored how they interact when combined with different lines of a song. Djahari and Amara led the final workshop, "Storytelling Through Dance." We discussed how to construct narratives using the elements of character, conflict, and image. Some dance narratives might be inspired by existing stories, whereas others might arise from music. As the concluding exercise, we got into groups and choreographed story-dances that were each under two minutes. We had the chance to perform our pieces and revise them after an initial critique, which illustrated how the editorial process might proceed.

In sum, we explored, danced, and discussed a lot of things-ideas, inspirations, themes, expressions. I got to dance with my head on the floor and ask questions about body paint. All that plus the camaraderie we developed made it an extraordinary experience.