Saturday, 6 November 2010

A little corner of Egypt comes to Dorset

Early October, did not just bring an unseasonal return of summery weather to the South of England, the warm wind also brought with it a little bit of Egypt, in the form of Béatrice Grognard, one of the foremost European teachers of contemporary Egyptian Dance.

Béatrice Grognard is a Belgian dancer who originally trained with Suraya Hilal’s Raqs Sharqi School in the early 1990s and subsequently went on to found her own school of Egyptian dance, Tarab of Egypt, primarily based in Brussels. Through Tarab, Béatrice promotes what she defines as the Theatrical Dances of Egypt and has choreographed and produced several full shows, often resulting from groundbreaking collaborations with traditional Egyptian musicians. Inspired by her original training as an archaeologist, she is an artist who has developed a unique and new translation of Egyptian dance, both modern and expressive but connected to centuries old Egyptian music dance tradition. You can read Béatrice’s own carefully crafted description of her art on her website.

I first discovered Béatrice’s classes when I worked in Brussels for a spell in 2006. Attending her classes twice a week was a wonderful escape from what was a very busy but exciting period in my life. And since returning to the UK, I have continued to train, attending Béatrice’s occasional UK workshops and participating in two of her study trips to Egypt to work with live musicians. When Diane and Ellie of Raqs Sharqi Dorset said they were arranging for Béatrice to come to their corner of England to teach, I jumped at the chance. And after over 7 hours of travel from Edinburgh, by planes trains and automobiles, we arrived at the sleepy Dorset village of Broadmayne for two intense days of workshops. And what an amazing weekend it was.

The first workshop on the Saturday morning was Baladi. As we worked with a Mawaal (vocal improvisation) sung by Ahmed Adeweia, the focus of the workshop wasn’t about learning sequences or technique, but explored tapping into the essence of Baladi, the Egyptian spirit; where the singer, musicians and dancer melt together like hot chocolate into a single melody. We were challenged to confront and break the boundaries or perceived rules of Baladi. To use placement of feet, fingers, changes in height and leans. To forget the single move to the music, the vertical eight, the camel…, but instead improvise through isolation focused on different parts of the body, the sacrum, the back, the neck to express the melody. And to intersperse all of this with elements of surprise. 

Ghawazee-Sha'abi Workshop
Saturday afternoon, brought a change of pace, with an incredibly energetic and enjoyable afternoon focused on the Ghawazee style of the Sha’abi dance, an earthy yet feminine dance made famous by performer families like the “Banat Maazin”. This workshop was focused on feeling like a Ghawazee, the strength, femininity and most of all fun. We worked with some fantastic music to interpret the sound of the Sai’idi instruments, Sibs, Mizmar and drum. We learnt the signature moves like throwing hips, twists, walks and back leans. We also practised the dynamic movements, wide shimmies, and rhythmic footwork, all contrasted with stops and poses.

Classical Workshop
An early start, the following morning brought with it the third workshop of the weekend, classical. The classical form, sometimes known as Sharqi, is the most modern of the three main types of Raqs Sharqi Egyptian Dance that I study, and can even be considered contemporary in its interpretation. And wow, what a workshop. We introduced a new perspective on classical technique, revisiting the previous day’s focus on introducing flexibility in the sacrum, back, and neck. We used our fingers, hands and arms to pick up melody and add a touch of Egyptian humour. But most of all, during this final workshop, Béatrice opened our eyes to challenging all our assumptions about how to interpret the music, unpicking many years of learning the “correct” way to dance. Why should we be intent to always shimmy with the sound of the qanoun, to be expansive with the violin and to travel to the dynamic passages? Is this indeed the correct interpretation, or is this the predictable one, or could it even be considered comfortable in its interpretation? And when the tempo changes, do we have to suddenly react, or can we respond instead with subtlety, to explore an alternative layer in the music, to pause for breath before embracing the new rhythm?

In fact, this is the part of the weekend of learning that I have been mulling over in my mind ever since my return home. So many questions that I am now compelled to consider. How can I apply this to my own dance? What are my assumptions? What are my goals as a dancer? How can I learn to perfect my dance and find a place in this wider art? Can I continue to teach what I teach? How can I apply this to my own teaching? What an amazing lesson to be part of.

Thanks to Diane and Ellie for their fantastic organisation, help and support over the months leading up to the weekend and throughout the weekend itself.

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