Thursday, November 15, 2012

Egypt and the Middle East Today

(Nov 2012 article in Zaghareet Magazine discussing my struggle to keep up with the changing dynamic in the Middle East and what the changes mean to me as a dancer.)

So, I had begun writing this article back in July.   I wanted to document my own struggle to understand the foreign culture I choose to represent in my dancing, in the hopes that it might assist someone else’s journey for understanding or spark a desire for others to jump into the fray.  I found myself struggling to keep up with the rapid changes happening all across the Middle East and how these political and social changes affect the culture. 
As Middle Eastern dancers, we are representatives of the culture we choose to portray through our dance and therefore must be knowledgeable about that culture.  How else can we answer questions and explain our artistic choices if we don’t fundamentally understand what we’re portraying or what sources we’re drawing our inspiration from?  Ideally, we should strive to be experts. 

Granted, to be a Middle Eastern dancer, one doesn’t need to be a high level expert on current political policy, that’s just my own obsession.  But, a firm understanding of the history and origin of the dance and the dance region you draw inspiration from is absolutely required.
My particular dance interests lie with American cabaret (easy- that one I understand) and Egyptian oriental and folkloric dance styles (specifically Saidi and Ghawazee).  That being said, when I perform Egyptian styles, I’m relaying a representation of Egyptian culture to my audience. 

I had hoped to narrow in on current Egyptian culture after exploring broad Middle Eastern dynamics.
But, to be an expert on the complex culture of Egypt and its ever changing climate today, is a tall order not easily filled by an Appalachian girl, born and raised in West Virginia with British and Irish ancestry.  I have no leg up on this question, and after the events of September 11, 2012 in which Egyptian demonstrators scaled the US Embassy in Cairo to tear down the American flag in protest of a film they say insults the prophet Mohammad, I scrapped the entire article I had worked on.  I was back to ground zero, as it were, in trying to understand today’s Egyptian and Middle Eastern dynamics.

I was left with a burning eagerness to answer how I, as an American choosing to perform dances based in a culture that is not my own and is (in many respects) not currently approving of American ideals, am viewed (by Egyptians).  My confusion changed my question from what is the current culture to how does that culture view me?
Being the co-producer of a film production company also left me with the brain splitting question of freedom of speech versus personal responsibility for one’s actions and words.  One film had sparked protest and violence across the Muslim world.  Yet, how could the creators of the film not have realized what the reaction to that work would be?  Certainly, they had been inciting reaction just as sure as various groups in the Muslim world had used and steered the protests to their own ends. 

Speech should be protected, yes, but humans should not abuse that liberty in order to inflict pain on others.  Isn’t purposeful incitement of pain and stereotyping equivalent to a hate crime?  Can’t we all just get along?  The age-old question.  For me, it comes back to personal responsibility.  As a filmmaker/writer/dancer (insert designation here) with freedom of expression, it’s my duty to exercise that freedom with great care and understand exactly what I reference and what effect I’m likely to have on my audience.
I no longer have any illusion that I can ever cultivate more than a layman’s grasp of the current Middle East.  The political and cultural changes occurring across the Middle East will continue to evolve and shape the landscape both there and globally for years to come.  The forces eliciting this change are varied and complex.  Experienced scholars are working hard to keep up.

Which leaves me to believe the best I can do is become an expert at the history and origins of the dance and remain an informed student of the current cultural climate.
What do Egyptians think of an American performing Egyptian dance?  As varied as the inhabitants of Egypt are in their backgrounds and views, I can’t know the answer to this generically wide question any more than I could answer what an American thinks about an American performing belly dance.  It depends on who you ask and where you are. 

With neither of my questions answered, I’ve come to the determination that my job as a responsible dancer is to understand the references I make in my performances and execute them with great care and upmost respect.  That’s all I can do.  How each audience member interprets the performance after the fact is their job.  Just like with film, once it’s distributed into the marketplace, the filmmaker’s careful crafting of the story is over and it’s for the viewer to interpret.  If only every filmmaker/dancer (insert your choice here) would execute with the same care. 
In my efforts to master the history of the dance, I’ve had the pleasure of studying with Sahra Saeeda in her Journey Through Egypt 1 and 2 classes.  I highly recommend them.  Sahra will be the first person to explain the dynamics of Egypt are “complicated”.  But, she’s able to unfold the dance’s evolution in a way any student can understand.  And, in her dedication to further dance research, she continues to plan trips to Egypt for Journey Through Egypt 3 and 4, Egypt as classroom expeditions.  She’s my hero for continuing on even though many, myself included, are scared to travel to Cairo at this time.

I understand not everyone is as obsessed with following current political events in the Middle East as I am, but for those with a deeper fascination and driving urge to try and comprehend the dynamics, the following are some of my favorite finds so far.  May your journey lead you to a new understanding and excite further exploration. 
1/2 Revolution, a documentary that follows a group of friends living in Cairo during the initial 11 days of the Egyptian Revolution and suggests more revolution is yet to come.  Co-directed by Omar Shargawi and Karim El Hakim, it’s available through Focus Features.

Frontline:  Revolution in Cairo, available on NetFlix, is a documentary that goes inside the “April 6th” youth movement group that sparked revolution on the streets. 
The Arabs by David Lamb is a very readable study of the Arab people that works to destroy common stereotypes.

Both Holy War, INC and The Longest War by Peter L. Bergen document the life of Osama Bin Laden.  While not dance related at all, they provide some fascinating insight on the rise of extremist groups in the Middle East and around the world. 


Al-‘Anqa is also known as Cindy Marie Martin. She double majored in Broadcasting/Journalism and Theatre at Concord University. More on her exploits can be found at 

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Odyssey of your Columnist:  Tribal with a Twist

By Al-‘Anqa
(May 2012 article in Zaghareet Magazine featuring Kawakib and her TRIBAL ODYSSEY Bellydance™ Egyptian style group improv format.)

Zaghareet readers know and love Anthea (Kawakib) as the insightful columnist providing user friendly tips geared toward helping them find their feet in Zaghareet’s “For Beginners” column, which she’s been writing since 2001.  Kawakib is also known for her mastery of zills, well displayed in Serpentine Video’s “Lifting the Veil of Time”, which can be viewed online along with her series of free online instructional videos for dancers on playing finger cymbals.  Those can be found on her YouTube channel, DanceEternal.  Personally, I know Kawakib as a generous instructor of Egyptian style raqs sharqi and folkloric dance, having been her student for four years now.

She’s also the primary founder of Tribal Odyssey Bellydance™, a group improv tribal format based on Egyptian beledi-style movement which combines all the reasons we love her into one fun, brightly colored package.   
TOBD has over three dozen combinations, all unique to the format, spanning four levels of study.  The combinations include veil work, skirt moves, and finger cymbal patterns.  Pixie, another of Kawakib’s students, notes “Using zills for tribal taught me the basic techniques which are a stepping stone for advancement and a plus for any drum circle.”  Galiyah, Kawakib’s longest running student, adds “One of the values of playing zills during Tribal Odyssey is that we hear the others playing and that reinforces the pattern in our brain and our hands.  We build confidence because we are playing with others and not put on the spot.”
That spirit of community, bringing dancers together in dance, is one of the things Kawakib loves best about the tribal style of group dancing.  “That is something that’s unique to group improv- the fact that dancers can so easily create together a little bit at a time,” she says.  She expanded on this idea in a recent post in her blog at
Odyssey seems a fitting name, as Kawakib notes the style is “a work in progress” and that new props and combinations are still being added at Level Four.  I like watching FCBD do sword, and think we can improve on that. Sword is pretty easy after all, and the audience always really likes it. I'm getting lots of encouragement from students about developing some Tribal Sword, and I do have some moves worked out but not ready at this moment to bring out yet.”
When asked how many items/ideas have been discarded along the way while developing the format and what causes her to discard something, she replied “I'm guessing, 25%? I have no idea really. What causes me to discard something is either 1. It's not easily workable in the group improv format (for instance, regarding sight lines; differentiating cues, etc.) or 2. The idea is opposite to something we currently do in the format that is working well.”
Staging options that have passed these tests and been incorporated into TOBD include a crescent line (also called the chorus line), a circle, or a staggered line that allows dancing in any direction and any size space.  Solos, duets, trios, and quartets of dancers can all perform in front of the chorus line.  Kawakib’s favorite combinations?  “The slow ones, many of which are in Level One, and used in the chorus line.”
Why bring out a new tribal style at all?  After viewing some FatChanceBellyDance videos, Kawakib’s curiosity was peaked.  She was strictly a "cabaret" dancer at the time, though she did do some folkloric dancing.  She was moved to attend Kajira Djoumahna’s workshop on American Tribal Style bellydance sponsored by Artemis in Maryland, and what she found excited her.  “Experiencing the group dynamic was a big eye-opener,” says Kawakib.
“When I saw ATS, I loved the energy of the group dancing but the required posture looked very “flamenco” and stiff to me.  I wanted movements that felt more natural, more “beledi”, and I also wanted more variety of finger cymbal patterns.  Creating short dance combinations (with different cues) that fit together well is not that easy but I have a talent for dance composition, for fitting dance to music- especially in terms of tempo and rhythm- so I enjoyed this challenge.  Dancing with the music is a huge deal in the cabaret world.  Musicians don’t want to play for dancers who don’t use the music and beat correctly.  So having this skill and background of live band experience, I felt I could bring something valuable to the bellydance world, even if it was limited to my own community.” 
From 2000-2002 she worked with the members of her troupe, Pearls of Rhythm, developing the combinations, cues, lead throwing, and group formations.  She also collaborated with fellow dancer, Miramar from Winchester, Virginia, who contributed several combinations and staging ideas.  “Without the active participation of my dancers,” says Kawakib, “I doubt that I could have developed this group improv format. Miramar also provided feedback and suggestions from working with her students.”  Miramar has now gone on to develop her own flavor of the format, called Tribelle Chic.
What has emerged for Tribal Odyssey over the years is a style of group improv that fosters community and a group dynamic between the dancers while still feeling familiar to dancers used to Egyptian cabaret or beledi technique.  As put by Nancy McAndrew, the head of Lynchburg Tribal, “Tribal Odyssey is a real gem”.  
And of course, the costuming itself is a gem:  colorful and jewel toned.  When asked if the costuming style she uses for her student performing group, PRISM, is intended to carry across the format to other teachers of Tribal Odyssey Bellydance, Kawakib explained:
“"Tribal Bellydance" traditionally had a certain look; in a nutshell, chiffon and sequins say "Cabaret", rayon and yarn say "Tribal". Much of our costuming was developed because of Kajira's "Tribal Bible" recommendations, as I really did look to her writings for guidelines on all things "tribal". You have to take into consideration what effect you'll have on your audience, what image you're getting across, as well. Teachers are always going to have their own ideas on what to do, for instance, I'm not a fan of Harem Pants, I think they're unsafe, so I recommend salwar instead. Our usual TOBD costuming is not really that formalized; except that the Tribal Veil moves were developed using a certain type of veil so that's what I recommend for my students. And the Skirt Combinations of course won't work in pants or a beledi dress, although I have some ideas on how to work around that, which we haven't implemented yet. “
At this time, there is both a DVD and instructional manual available for those wishing to learn more and incorporate Tribal Odyssey Bellydance™ into their dance practice.  The Tribal Odyssey Bellydance Level One Foundation DVD is an instructional DVD for anyone new to group improv or teachers ready to add an exciting new performance option to their troupe.  The Tribal Odyssey Reference Book covers all four levels of current combinations, cues, lead-changing techniques, stage formations, and finger cymbal patterns and includes step descriptions, staging diagrams, and costuming ideas.  You can find more information at or 
“If this format moves into the larger bellydance world I’m sure other dancers will relate to this style, this feeling, and how it fits with the music,” says Kawakib.  “I have no “conquer the world” agenda, I’m content to let things play out as the Creative Spirit dances through our lives.”

Al-‘Anqa is also known as Cindy Marie Martin.  She double majored in Broadcasting/Journalism and Theatre at Concord University.  More on her exploits can be found at