Sunday, April 02, 2006

first of the dance posts

Welcome to my “This is Not a Review of the Rakkasah” Review....
which is really just a few notes about what I found interesting there this year.

So for the uninitiated, the Rakkasah is the largest bellydance festival in the United States (actually, if the claim is true, which it probably is, it's the biggest bellydance festival in the world). It's always held right around the Spring Equiniox (so it came and went last weekend). And it just so happens that it's held right here in the San Francisco Bay Area (East)…which is my 'hood.

It’s basically a week-long event of workshops and classes. At the end of the week, the whole shebang culminates with a 3-day festival just dripping with shopping opportunities. Two separate stages also run non-stop with bellydance performances. For those who shimmy (or want to) it's pretty much an annual pilgrimage to Bellydance Mecca.

For you knitters out there, picture something like Stitches, only a whole lot sparklier and covered with body glitter. Oh, and it's noisier. A lot noiser. Aside from the ooohs and ahhhs of ecstatic shoppers, there is music being played for the dancers to perform to, and onlookers are zagareeting (the bellydance version of “woohoo!”). There are merchants playing the cd’s and dvd’s they are selling. Other booths have people playing and selling Middle Eastern drums and zils (finger cymbals). Even most of the costumes for sale make noise, and dancers are picking things up and playing with them like kids in a candy store (and even sometimes like grabby bargain hunters on sale day at Macy's).

Here’s a picture of just one corner of the main floor, taken from the rafters.

The market/bazaar is also set up in both the upper and lower lobbies, down five separate side hallways, and into two side rooms. I’d say if you look at this picture and multipy by maybe 12 or so, that’s about what you are dealing with when you walk into the place. It’s pretty overwhelming, to tell you the truth. And it’s very easy to buy stuff you then bring home and can't figure out how to incorporate into your next costume. I personally didn't get it right until my fourth or fifth time going. Those with experience know that when you start feeling a bit nutzo and get glassy eyed, it's time to sit up in the balcony and watch everything from above for a little bit.

I didn’t buy one damn thing this year…which never happens…but that's because I actually had the “pleasure” of going broke. To tell you the truth, it actually made for an interesting day because I looked at things differently. Here's a few things that caught my eye....

I was completely blown away by the amount of yarn I saw going into costumes.
There was fun-fur everywhere. It was knitted or crocheted and then sewn onto things. It was tacked onto cuffs and collars. It was the fringe hanging from belts and hair ties.

A good portion of what I saw in yarn, was pretty crappy looking.
Here’s a (blurry, sorry) photo of my co-teacher holding up a belt covered in knitted fun-fur. The blur actually makes it look better than it really was...I would have felt like I was wearing a muppet if I had this thing on.

But some of it was not crap. There were a couple of extremely crafty girls at Tribal Source that really had it figured out. They were hand sewing belts out of fabric and attaching yarn fringe. Lots of ladder, ribbon, and chenille yarns, or even just wool. Some of the belts and bras were adorned with what at first glace appeared to be shells and coins...but upon closer inspection, they actually turned out to be buttons and metal washers.
And the costumes were beautiful.

Googling around on chat boards this week, I see that the tribal clan has got some awesome ideas about all kinds of trinkets to costume with:
"I was totally into making a 'mirror' belt with piece of motherboard instead of mirrors, and computer wires for yarn."
"...more chains, using recycled computer parts as sparklies (i.e., "shisha" mirrors out of old CD's), etc. Think Mad Max bellydance. :)"

The other place I saw alot of yarn was in people's hair. Lots of "hair extensions" and "falls" made out of yarn. Basically what's going on is that people are attaching different kinds of yarns to hair ties, clips, and barettes. Some folks then braided the yarn or tied in beads and baubles, etc.

Now, I guess this has been around for awhile, especially in the world of tribal-style bellydance, and that must be why I missed the boat. I'm not tribal.

<--there's me in one of my costumes (old photo/two legs)

there's some ladies in their tribal costumes (or one version of tribal, at least), including the yarn hair falls-->

Now, like I said, I love the concept. Given the right yarn and dingle-dangles to tie on them, and some artistic flair, I think that yarn hair accessories have real potential for endless self entertainment.

In my not so distant past, I've had blonde streaks in my hair that I could dye over in different colors like purple an red. And although I'm itching to have my funky hair colors back, my life doesn't permit me to do have something that permanent right I'm enthralled with the notion of tying in something like my left over wine colored Koigu.

Unfortunately 90% of what I saw out there in this category scared me to death...

...or lacked proper execution.

(I know it looks like I kidnapped this woman and have her bound and gagged with duct tape, but I swear this is my compasstionate attempt to protect the poor soul's anonymity)

And guess what?!! You can even make a hair fall that is felted "dread locks".

I know, I picked out something ugly to show I said, given the right yarn, this could actually be some big time fun.

Bell bottom jazz pants are all the rage in the bellydance world.

I think these are awesome, and would wear them for practicing in dance class even though I'd lose half my swish (because I dance one legged and would consider lopping a pant leg off so as not to get tangled up in it). I might even wear these pants as an acutal costume piece under a skirt instead of harem pants.
I saw someone perform in them just with no overskirt though, just a coin belt hip scarf (like above), and I didn’t like the way it worked for the performance setting.

One of the things that makes bellydance appear the way it does is that there is a whole lot going on with the knees that the public just doesn’t need to know about. It's mysteeeeeeerious. And sometimes unattractive. Our skrits and harem pants keep all of that underwraps. Jazz pants do not. Great for class though, because it definitely helps to see legs while you are learning.

Has to go to Uberkuchi.
I realize they mean "Kuchi" and not "coochie"...but when you put an Uber in front of it...well, my mind just goes where it goes. Their logo gave me a huge giggle, and if I would have had money to spend on one thing at the show this year, I would have bought one of their t-shirts.



Maybe I just missed them in all the chaos, but I think maybe they've just moved on:

Saroyan Mastercrafts and the best zils on the planet, Gilded Serpent Magazine (second year on the blacksheep list?), Mary Ellen Donald and her drumming tapes/cd's (not to mention her wonderful presence), Dalia Carella and her booth companion that made her gorgeous costumes, Delilah and the opportunity to fantasize about dancing under a waterfall in Hawaii during one of her workshops, and Hahbi'ru (if they were on the bill, I missed them...darn).



edit to this blog post: I just discovered that the Rakkasah organizers have issued a formal apology for one of the performances I'm about to describe

Ok, now this is indirect feedback. It comes from my best friend, and at one time co-dance teacher. I went on Saturday she went on Sunday.

She was watching peformances on the main stage with her daughters, one of whom is in 1st grade. A troupe came out wearing skirts that were about 4-inches long in the front, about 6-inches in the back. Apparently they were talented, which is grand...but at one point buff male bellydancers came out donning their version of the mini skirt, faced the girls, butt to audience, and the girls jumped onto the guys, wrapped their legs around the guys' waists and gyrated on them, and then writhed in and out of backbends. Apparently 5 or so families with kids in the audience fled the building. And that's the part that bugs me.

So my friend left and took her daughter over to the smaller Cabaret Stage, where two women were doing a "sword dance" with the addition of modern dance and dramatic theater mixed into the bellydance medium. Grand again. Until they staged a fight about something, had a fencing match, and one of them ceremoniously sliced the other's throat. Two male bellydancers came onstage to drag their dead "bloodied" bodies away. Families with kids fled. And that's the part that bugs me.

So my friend takes a break, probably to debrief her daughter, and eventually makes her way back to main stage to watch Suhaila Dance Company. I love Suhaila's dancing. True artist and entertainer, ALWAYS pushes the creative envelope, precise skilled execution of movement, and very sexy...but professional. I guess during this performance piece, at one point she has a guy come out with an electric guitar and she performs a solo to his hard rock guitar....and a good porotion of the solo is spent with her playing with this guy's hair and stroking him. More than likely, Suhaila was not obscene...I have hunch my girlfriend just had the last straw at that point. But at least one more family fled, because my friend's sure did. And that's the part that bugs me.

Now, I wasn't even there on Sunday. I have no idea how accurate of a description I am giving, so please dont blast me if you are googling around and end up here. I'm not here to critique the dancing. My point is not about what was ON the stage, but rather about what was happening as an audience experience. At least one family (and probably more), with young children had several experiences of feeling like this year's Rakkasah was not a family venue. And it's always been a family venue. And I am disappointed.

I dont believe the Rakkasah organizers have ever issued a statment about what you can or cannot do during your dance. And I hope they dont ever have to. I'm a big fan of creative freedom. I just wish dancers would consider who their audience is when they choreograph. I'm not saying you shouldnt be allowed to explore your choreographic options, just consider saving the more risque performances for other venues. I've seen bellydance used as a medium to choreograph peices about anger and rage and violence and teacher did groundbreaking work using bellydance in that way herself (so have her troupe members)....but it was always peformed in a concert setting. Not a festival venue.

The other thing that occurred to me is (and I know I'm going to get shit for even pointing this out,'s just making me think, that's all...) all of these acts do share one common theme: there were men in them. And some of them weren't dancers. They were "props."

Now hush, y'all. I have seen many a male bellydancer. Professionals and amateurs. There are several out there that are completely talented and have totally rocked my world. My own dance teacher's teacher was a male bellydancer (the one and only Roman (Bert) Balladine, who I consider my Bellydance GrandPapa), and I've studied with him on several occasions. I have taught a male student in my own class, as well.

I just think it is interesting that as more male dancers enter the into the current stream of modern bellydance, that there is an increase of this dance form being used to portray sex and voilence. I have no idea if there is a connection or not, if what I'm observing is merely a coincidence, and honestly, I haven't formed any opinions (yet). To tell you the truth, I am willing to bet that the bulk of the choreography in these questionable dances were created by women, not by men. And so what is that saying? For me, it's giving me some food for thought.

One of the things that I truly adore about bellydance is it's rich and multifaceted history. In ages past, women and men bellydanced together to celebrate the harvest and fertility. Women of the harem used it as a way to entertain each other during long hours of seclusion, not just dances for a sultan. There is a lot of joy, and ritual, and comradeship in this danceform. I have spent way too many years trying to explain this to people who think that bellydance is one step away from doing a striptease (and I think stripping can be an art, too...but bellydance is not intended to be a striptease, and several in the bellydance community have tried to correct the misconception so that it can viewed for what it is--an art form). I understand that one way the message got there is because early performance venues (at least here in SF in the 60's) were at places like "Bimbo's" and "The ChiChi Club". I get it. But I think today, decades later, it's hard to change the message when some of us are prancing around in 4-inch skirts doing clothed versions of live sex shows.



Here's who gets to dance on stage at the Rakkasah:


The performance slots are filled on a first come/first served basis that takes place one fine Sunday morning in January when we all dial in by phone for hours, waiting to be the lucky ones to get a ring instead of a busy signal. Our troupe didn’t get a slot this year, but we usually do. Because the dance slots are filled lottery style, you get to see alllllll sorts of styles of bellydancing and different skill levels. It's really neat.

After 12 years of going to Rakkasah, I will never in my life forget this story. One year our troupe was getting ready in the shared dressing room backstage and this reallllly nerdy girl with very thick eye distorting glasses asks one us in this very nasal mousy voice if her rouge looked okay. After we danced, I made my way to the audience to watch for awhile, and out came our backstage friend, who took center stage, eyes closed (sans glasses), and the music started...Phantom of the Opera's "Music of the Night." She performed the most gorgeous double veil routine that I have ever seen anywhere. She looked like a goddess. It was very emotive, and my hair is standing up on my arms right now just thinking about it years later. I ran into her later that day while shopping and told her how wonderful it was, and she nudged her glasses back onto her nose and kind of squeeked out a little "thank you."

Anyhow. Sorry. I digress. The most moving performance I saw this year, on Saturday, was the esteemed Suhaila Salimpour dancing with both her daughter and her mother as part of the performance with Bal Anat (yes, the same Suhaila that twiddled her rockstar guitar dude).

Suhaila's daughter (I'm sorry, I dont know her name) is probably 7 or 8 by now, I'm guessing. We've seen her onstage almost every year since she could's been fun watching the progression. This year she wasn't her usual shy thing....she came out of the ranks of Troupe Bal Anat and took center stage to perform solo. Then slowly her mom, Suhaila (who has also bellydanced since a baby herself) came out to join her in a duet. And then slowly her mom, the famed Jamilla Salimpour came out to join them in the matriachal line spanning three generations. And then slowly grandma left, then mom left, and the little one held center stage, in a way that for me celebrated the way this dance is passed down from generation to generation. It touched me deeply, and when I looked around, maybe people besides myself had the watery eye thing going on.


There's my (very long--sheesh!) non-review of The Rakkasah....stay tuned for more about dancing in "private place" and an announcment of upcoming dance events.


jodi said...

Wow. Except for the heavy metal stuff, that sounds AWESOME. I wish more people at Pennsic believed that bellydance is not the same as striptease.

Hey, my friend Kerri is a vendor at events like this; I wonder if you saw her there? That could totally be her booth right down in front in your photo, but I realize it could also be any of hundreds of similar booths. I bet she was there, though.

Anonymous said...

Cool report, Bonnie! Very diverting.

I was intrigued to discover that there are male belly dancers now. My information on belly dance gives its earliest origins as exercises developed by women in the harim to help strengthen the body for childbirth, and then also to entertain each other, sort of like an early version of an exercise class...and then men saw it, found it erotic, started showing off their dancers to their friends, and it became more of a performance art which got blended in with other dance arts.

This of course would all have transpired over the course of centuries, beginning centuries ago, so who the heck knows anymore, right? But with the origins in childbirth and the shape of a woman's body, I have a hard time envisioning men in the dance. How fascinating that one of your teachers was a man.

Anonymous said...

Hi Bonnie,

It's Karen coming out of lurk mode again.

Great post about the Rakkasah. I'm going to tell some friends about it because you really convey its wide-ranging atmosphere. Plus there are pictures.

Re the Most Disturbing Trend. I have no idea of what the intentions of these dancers are. Perhaps they wanted to be provocative? Sexy? Edgy? Quite frankly, it comes off as rather unimaginative and too easy. Especially in this day and age.

Right now I'm thinking about the Mark Morris version of the Nutcracker where some of the males roles were played by women and vice versa, and he managed to have romantic/erotic duets that children could watch. Or the Matthew Bourne version of Swan Lake where the swans are male. And both of these pieces are at least 10 years old.

Okay, okay, I'm ranting and sounding like a cranky old lady. Back to being a lurking cranky old lady.

Love, Karen

Anonymous said...

Mark Morris is a genius.

Just sayin'.