Wednesday, June 3, 2009

My SITA Chapter 8: Teaching and learning improvisation from Sahar

Suspecting that there was much more going on in solo improvisation than I understood, I decided that I needed more training in SITA. I turned to local performer and teacher Sahar. I have long admired Sahar’s solo improvisations with live music. They are sheer delight: refined, elegant, and humerous. In addition, Sahar and I had spoken about her teaching philosophy and goals and I knew they were in keeping with my current interests. As I believe its always best to start at the beginning with a new teacher, I signed up for her 6-week beginners course.

Sahar teaches beladi, the traditional folk dance and core rhythm of Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, and many other cultures of the region. Raks al Beladi (Dance of the Country) was traditionally learned and performed in the home by and for women, passing organically from mother to daughter. Movements extend up from the feet and hips giving it a grounded, domestic sensibility. It is distinguished from Raks al Sharki (Dance of the Orient), a variant of beladi that developed in urban and more public settings. Sharki drew influences from India, Persia, Turkey, and eventually from the West. It lifts out of the hips, reaching elegantly into space. Today, American dancers are likely to blend the urban and rural Egyptian varieties with our own social and classical traditions. Based on Wendy Buonaventura’s[i] descriptions of the traditional Egyptian forms, Sahar seems to be teaching a hybrid of beladi and sharki.

Sahar maintains the relaxed and inclusive spirit of the original beladi dance. Her goal, she tells us, is to give to us a vocabulary of movements (drawn primarily from Egyptian, but also from Brazilian and American dances) from which to make our own dances, expressing our own lives and not the lives of some timeless Egyptian dancer (my words, not hers). She provides us with a supportive environment in which to discover our personal expression of the musical rhythms and melodies. Sahar encourages us to leave aside our reluctance to move, to shed our emotional inhibitions so that we can discover how we uniquely express this vocabulary.

When Sahar teaches a technique, she also teaches the emotional, or spiritual, content it is meant to convey. For example, she tells us that the shoulder shimmy is celebratory and should be high and joyous. To demonstrate, she remarks on the exceptionally warm weather—“I can’t believe its January”— and performs a rapid shoulder shimmy. Emphasizing the importance of hands, she tells us that they should project energy and joy. Arm and hand gestures should say, “I’m so happy to be here!” Stylistically, hip lifts can be big and free or small and percussive. The latter “save” the energy for ourselves by pulling it in; the former gives it out by bold movements.


It is uncanny how Sahar directs our attentions to issues I have been consciously exploring at home. Learning to listen to the music and respond to it thru movement is a case in point. (See my blogs My SITA Ch. 4 First Try and Ch 7. Cypress Raks.) In her intermediate class, Sahar has us just stand, listen, and ask ourselves “Where do you feel the drum in your body? In the hips? In the shoulders?” Then she asks us to practice letting that impulse, our own impulse, move us.

Working towards a studio performance in June, Sahar has constructed a piece that alternates choreographed and improvised sections. We stand in a semi-circular chorus and learn a simple 8-count pattern of stepping towards one diagonal, opening our arms to frame, and dropping the hip for 4 counts. We then step to the other diagonal and repeat. Once we drilled that sequence enuff so that we didn’t have to think about it, Sahar asks us to perform it while concentrating our hearing on the drum patterns that play over the basic rhythms. Finally, we take turns stepping out of the chorus and improvising to those patterns.

I was just beginning to be able to do that…but here’s where my story ends, at least temporarily. Upcoming shoulder surgery will prevent me from performing until late summer and I have had to drop out of the class. In the meantime, I will practice conscious listening in anticipation of my return.

[i] Buonaventura, Wendy.  Serpent of the Nile: Women and Dance in the Arab World, (Interlink Books, Brooklyn, New York, 1998)

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