Lebanon Part III - Dance!


Photography by Tony Bejjani


Here’s my essay, teacher! Haha! Just kidding… but it is a long one, so hang tight. I had to dance, write and draw in order to digest all of this information that, even still, is being processed. Have fun! 

This blog I've been mulling over in my brain since Day 1 in Lebanon. Recently I made my first trip to the Middle East, to Lebanon, where I had a fantastic experience of the country, it's beautiful people and dance culture. I was there for 10 days, guided by Simon Sako, who is a Lebanese artist is his own right, my Dabke teacher, mentor and friend. It was three of us - Simon, Sandra and I - adventuring and causing trouble everywhere we went. Dance brings us together. This blog is special just for that, what we saw in Lebanon, what we learned, and my interpretations from this experience, which is humbly, only a taste of a colossal and innovative world of artistry.  Still thirsting for more - we were served a full-course meal yet were only able to try a little of everything. Can't wait to go back!

bassima drum belly dancer

Our first dance experience was Bassima - "rock star" Bassima, which is what I like to call her. Saturday night at Le Royal Hotel, feasting on delicious food, we listened to live music, watched a mesmerizing show and danced. Oh my god, just remembering that night, it felt like an initiation, a "welcome to Lebanon" with fireworks and confetti. You can tell Bassima's element is live music, dancing in her own unique ways with arms, coarse and quick turns, hands, hair, and that super rock-star set of floor work and drops she makes. When she first entered it was one of those anticipated entrances where the music goes on for a full minute or two and you know she's about to hit the stage... it was exciting! I "felt" her sparky energy pass through the floor with that veil over her, I couldn't keep my eyes off! SI apologize in advance if some of my videos are wobbly! Then I noticed her shoes... I loved them! Black laced up stilettos heels that didn't look like "dance shoes," her stiletto orange nails; her gold, black and red costume had two slits on the sides. I wasn't sure what to expect because I had seen very few video's of her performing. I also wasn't sure what to think when I was sitting and watching her. I naturally don't create expectations and always leave room for surprises, so it was such a treat when at the end of the night, 3am (or was it later…?) I wanted more! I really enjoyed a fresh performance! It left me with questions and interesting things to think about. Her floor work stunned me the most. It was raw and it's one that you either like or don't like. Her moves are fresh to my eyes, dancing full body and lots of traveling. Her presence also impressed me very much. She was so sweet, so welcoming, and when she got Sandra and I up to dance one at a time, we each squealed freezing a little with our dance moves. Compared to her fire we were tea-lights, haha! 

pierre haddad

Our second dance experience was class with Pierre Haddad. Pierre is a well respected master instructor with over 30 years of dance artistry in Oriental and Folklore. He has worked with legendary Lebanese icons Fairouz, and managed the Nadia Gamal dance company for over 12 years. 
We participated in one of his weekly group classes which I REALLY enjoyed! I like privates and workshops - gaining information this way is great - but this was a more thrilling way to learn; to dance with other students, women who come to enjoy and learn for fun. I had taken with him once before about three years ago when he came to Miami for Lebanese Love Affair, and dancing with him in Lebanon felt much different than in the context of Miami. Three years ago I was just getting acquainted with Lebanese styles, thanks to Valerick for bringing that over the event world in Miami. I just wasn't sure if I liked it or not, though that feeling usually happens to me when I'm not sure about the origins/background and such. I gave it chance, something I try to do with anything career-related, but I think Pierre's work impacted me much more within its natural environment in Lebanon. I loved that first workshop three years ago, but I understood a little better now the uniqueness of the movements, arms positions that coordinate with the back-bends, undulations, hip lifts/drops, and level changes. Pierre's class, though quick as it was, offered me a better sense of frames with arms, a balance of movements in a combination (such as 4 counts here and 4 counts  to the other side), simple yet they were fresh to me. That sense of simplicity was a special and a good reminder to keep that quality in my dance with honesty and beauty. We met his beautiful family later that night as they graciously invited us into their home to dine, talk and dance. It was a great experience, I'll be ever thankful!

amani lebanese belly dancer

Amani and Mounir Malaeb were the last two for our dance experiences. We had their classes in one day. That was fun to have Oriental then Folklore in one day - hard and heavy work because our jet lag and outings were catching up to us.

Amani is just gorgeous! A legendary dance icon, Amani pioneered Oriental and Folklore into the theater with striking productions directed by Amani herself. She strives to preserve the artistry and history of her culture through her work. A beautifully poise woman, you can sense her feminine power entering the room. I had studied with Amani when she came to Houston in 2015, and again, like Pierre's experience I was just getting acquainted. I love the respect and  energy of her innovative style, both conceptually and movement-based, because they employ me to be more considerable of the history, culture and art of the moves. She has a way of making you feel comfortable in your own body. Her movements are joyful and emotional, there's purpose in everything. I'm so happy took her folklore and oriental workshops in Houston and again a fun and spiffy choreography class in Lebanon.

mounir malaeb

Mounir - UM, so, this one was the most intense! I mean, Dabke is intense as it is, and when you add in Mounir's style it catches more fire and heat! Mounir Malaeb has a strong dance background, not just in Oriental and Folklore, but in Modern and Classical western dance. He was a member of the Caracalla Dance Company (one of, if not the, largest Arab Dance Theatrical Companies) and is now Director of his Rajana Veda Lebanese Dance Group. He is actor, choreographer, interesting character, and a bad-ass instructor!

The day before the three of us met him and his wife to hike the mountains and the cedar reserves, something we actually had not planned, it just worked out that way. In my mind this outing is now connected to Dabke and my deeper understanding and interpretation of the dance. Looking over that mountainous landscape down to the city and the Mediterranean Sea to the horizon was absolutely breathtaking. We were very high up in altitude yet I felt so grounded. This feeling reminds me of the characteristic leaps and heavy foot work and the holding of hands in Dabke. We may jump high and honor the air and the winds yet our energy is always connected to the ground and to each other. This style of folklore makes more sense to in this way, nature and dance. And just as a friendly reminder - I am not a Dabke expert - this just my humble interpretation through my experiences. 

The next day we took Mounir's sweat-dripping Dabke workshop, which opened my senses to more. Just… more! The first choreography he taught us had modern moves that took me out of my comfort zone in good ways, and the second was more traditional. The moves were very strong, upbeat, and had excellent frame-work. We were sweating from the first minute and on! Forget Cross-fit, Mounir's classes are way harder, haha! We also had the honor of dining with him and his family later that night in his home - a really great way to finish the day with good company!

mounir malaeb simon sako

I am so thankful to all three instructors and Bassima for this huge dance experience. I can't be biased to just one - they were all too special! There is a lot more that these amazing artists have to offer and in all honesty we did not just take a regular "tour and learn" vacation - it became so magical through their hospitality and artistry. 

Miami has its own beautiful adaptation of Arabic Dance; Oriental and Folklore. I understand that Miami is dominated by what some call "Egyptian Style," an arguable term for some dancers, and we also have that entertainment factor, the glam, the glitter, the attention towards audiences. The Lebanese are so worth looking into their history and styles for many reasons, as I personally believe, to open up our own dance vocabulary. Theirs I see it as "powerful," raw power ready to be tapped into. In our Miami dance culture we are taught that the emphasis is hips, pop and locks, hitting accents via isolations, and some added footwork. It's extreme emphasis and it can be overwhelming to the point where it can become boring (not that it always is!). If you're not a classically trained dancer, in modern and contemporary dance like me and many other belly dancers out there, then we only get a small percentage of what we are capable of in the field of just "isolations and torso work." We actually have to work extra hard in our careers to explore places where we may not have had mentors for at a younger age.

I went to Lebanon not realizing I would come face-to-face with a missing place in my dance-journey of over 12 years. I'm sure there will be more, but for now; The arms, hands, frame work, positions of the body all working together in an open arrangement of movements. Everything is with purpose - not that I wasn't taught to have purpose in my dance movements, but I mean… Egyptian styles are more lax about that for sure! I am not saying it's a bad thing at all and there is a time and a place in the music for special elements. I feel more involved in my passion when I have options to either channel softness or vibrancy and know how and when to use these elements. The Lebanese dance in various energetic ways with hands and arms, I needed to experience these other options. I needed to feel that space around me - a full-body experience, not an isolation. 

We would never make unique creatures of our own-selves if we become extremists to one style. So whatever I have extracted from my learning's is taken with respect and honor towards those who taught me, and used so that we can keep sharing this universal language of love.  

Hope you enjoyed this little analysis of my experiences! I'll be teaching some fun concepts related to this in my regular classes at Belly Motions! 

xoxo - Alexandra

PS - Putting all these big names next to each other in one blog was VERY daunting!!! Nervous if they read it, but, all-in-all I'm equally happy with my unique experiences with each of them! 

Drawings after coming back to Miami... It's too bad I can't split myself to dance and draw at the same time! I prefer live models to draw. :D

Photography by Tony Bejjani