Following her Soul
Raks Sharki, Serendipity and Morocco
By Tarik abd el Malik
For three years I had been going to great lengths to catch WFUV’s “Middle East Melodies.” The music had touched a special place, deep in my soul. One evening in October, 1985, I raced up from midtown Manhattan in the rain to avoid the static interference on my Walkman. I could faintly hear Richard Mazloom endorse a series of concerts at Riverside Dance Festival to be given by Morocco and the Casbah Dance Experience. It was a miracle that the information was audible through the static.
Serendipity means an accidental encounter of a fortunate or happy nature. That concert proved to be a fortunate and happy encounter, indeed. The talent, costuming, variety and folkloric authenticity were far beyond anything I had seen. I knew that it would no longer be enough to just listen to the music; I had to be a part of it, I had to learn to dance. Serendipity had led me to Morocco and changed my life.
Over the past nine years, I have benefitted from Morocco’s quick wit, sense of fun, warmth and total dedication to her art. Her authenticity and athletic stamina challenged me in a way no other teacher could, and she shared her knowledge and time without reserve as no one else was willing to.
In 1958, shortly before she got a B.A. in Modern Languages and Education. (She speaks Russian, Spanish, French, Italian, German, Yiddish, Greek, some Arabic, Romany, and Calo, or Spanish gypsy.) Morocco started studying Flamenco and continued (as a break from the books) while pursuing an M.A. She turned professional in 1960, performing with such Flamenco greats as Curro and Olga Amaya, and Pepita Ortega and Goyo Reyes. She joined Ballet Español Ximenez-Vargas for a ten-week tour. It meant leaving her job as a commercial translator for a Wall Street firm, and a total break with her distraught and horrified family, but she knew she had to follow her soul — or lose it forever.
It was a successful but grueling “dues-paying” tour: on a bus all day, iron costumes, make-up, on stage. Different hotel each night, greasy-spoon meals on the run: real “show-biz glamour.” No rehearsal pay. The rehearsal studios were owned by Spiro Avlonitis, a Greek Orthodox priest, friend and mentor to many struggling young artists. He noticed her losing weight. “Not enough money for good food? We’ll see about that!”
He had a Greek-Lebanese woman friend, Marianthe Stevens, who was ready to open a new club with Arabic decor and music in the heart of New York’s “Greek Town:” Eighth Avenue and 29th Street. She had hired the best musicians available, needed dancers, and paid better than the Ballet Español. Spiro said, “Go there. Use my name.” If she got the job, she’d work at night, sleep, rehearse afternoons with Ximenez-Vargas, eat! Assuming they wanted a Flamenco dancer, she went.
The way Rocky tells it, there were so few Oriental dancers and relatively so many jobs then, that if Godzilla had a costume, she could have gotten the job. Godzilla didn’t show, so Carolina Varga Dinicu got the gig: a two-week contract, with option.
Marianthe Stevens said she looked Moroccan, and gave her the name “Morocco.” Actually, although she was born in Brooklyn, her family ethnicity is Hungarian and Romanian Gypsy, and she was named after King Carol of Romania, because her grand uncle had been a violinist in the royal court.
At first, Carolina hated the name, Morocco, but she flipped over the music: it got to her even deeper than Flamenco. She was home. She had to know more…
The sixties were a special time in New York’s Greek Town. There were eight clubs on Eighth Avenue, from 27th to 29th Streets, each with three dancers, six nights a week, and a fourth on the three days the others were off. From 9:30 p.m. to 4:30 a.m., six nights a week, they sat on stage with the musicians, playing drum, finger cymbals, and tambourine for each other, and drinking countless cups of Turkish coffee. The musicians were from all the countries of the Near and Middle East, North Africa and the Mediterranean. They played together and learned each others’ songs and rhythms. It was a wonderful time of sharing, where knowledge and friendship were freely given.
Whole families from those countries came, from grandparents to babies, to listen to their music, eat their food, and dance. Morocco sponged it up, and when a movement caught her eye, she waited till the (usually older) woman went to the ladies room, followed and convinced her to teach it then and there. The elderly musicians, seeing that Morocco was a “family girl,” extended their protection, advice and instruction. This environment enabled her to learn Greek from the songs. Twice a night, six nights a week, Morocco improvised to live music for half an hour or more, using all she’d seen, learned and felt inspired to try. Her Flamenco training had given her a love for and skill in executing complicated rhythms, countertempo, improvisation and soul. What she lacked in technique then, she made up for with warmth, charm and enthusiasm, which endeared her to her audience.
On her night off, Morocco went to other clubs to see the other dancers, hear more music, and dance for her own enjoyment. Realizing that the grandmothers had the cultural knowledge she sought, she made friends with a few of them and was invited to their homes and family celebrations, learning the culture from the inside. Morocco’s obvious love and respect for the music, dance and people, plus her dark Mideastern looks, made her a welcome guest and gave entree into the women’s culture, something no male, even from the culture, had. Since she wasn’t “bint al balad” (a native daughter), most sex-based restrictions didn’t apply.
She’d heard varying tales as to the origins and meaning of Raks Sharki, Anatolitiko Horo, Chifte Telli. One thing was certain, no one from the cultures called it by the misnomer “belly” dance. Most, especially North Africans and Saudis, mentioned a link to childbirth. (See “Bellydancing and Childbirth,” Habibi: Vol. 3, #2, 1976; Sexology, April, 1965)
In July, 1963, after working in the top ethnic clubs of New York, Washington, D.C., and Montreal, Morocco was hired (two-week contract, with option!) at the Roundtable, the New York club that would reign for five years as the best place for Oriental dance in the U.S. She headlined there from July 3, 1963, until March 2, 1968, except when she was in Off-Broadway and Broadway shows (including “I Had a Ball” on Broadway, receiving rave reviews, and off-Broadway in an old-style vaudeville show, “International Playgirls ’64,” choreographed by the Indian dancer Bhaskar), on research trips, or doing galas and weekend club dates. The music was great! Every Oriental dancer in America dreamed of dancing there.
By 1962, Morocco had already been featured in two movies, and had done a couple of television interviews. Critics began to recognize the art of her dance, and the first of many rave revues to come was printed shortly after she opened at the Roundtable (Jack Thompson, “Morocco’s Belly Dance Is High Art,” Daily Mirror, July 7, 1963.)
In mid-1963, Morocco heard that there would be a Moroccan Pavillion at the 1964 World’s Fair in New York. Dozens of phone calls later (research!), she reached the men in charge. As she tells it, having more nerve than brains, she jumped right in with both feet: “Hi. You don’t know me yet, but my name is Morocco. I’m a well-known Oriental dancer in New York. Wouldn’t it be great publicity for you if you had a dancer at the Moroccan Pavillion named Morocco?!?” Rocky says they laughed so hard, they dropped the phone. She was invited to see the real Moroccan dancers rehearse before their opening: Schikhatt, Ahouache, Gnaoua, Danse du Plateau, Houara: all wonderful, but the special magic and mystery of the Guedra was over-whelming. She had to have more…
Having started her research from within cultural enclaves in the U.S., Rocky took the next step: on-site. Borrowing planefare from her mother, with advice, addresses and letters of introduction from her new Moroccan friends, telling no one (in case of failure), she flew to Morocco during one of her vacations from the Roundtable.
Emboldened by her first Guedra experience in Goulemine, Morocco took off for Egypt (1964), earning the money with several gala shows in Morocco and Paris, arranged by the Pavillion directors. A real thirst for knowledge brought her back to both countries repeatedly, and to Tunisia, Algeria, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Iraq, Iran,Turkey and Greece for research and performances. Marriage to a Russian (“Most interesting mistake of my life.”) gave her access to Caucasian, Central Asian and Islamic republics (1976 to 1979), where she was thrilled to find Raks Sharki in some homes, but saddened that it was done only by grandmothers and actively discouraged by the Soviet government’s racism and mid-Victorian attitudes towards the body.
Morocco opened many new doors to Mideastern dance with her joyful, tasteful performances. She was the first Oriental dancer invited to perform in a New York museum. She was the major subject of a segment in the documentary, “Only One New York.” She also did many TV shows, including an appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show. (Censors made her wear a robe under her costume!)
In addition to restaurant and night club performances all over the U.S., Canada, Germany, the U.S.S.R., Morocco and Egypt, Morocco’s amazing career includes commercials, a record (she sings, too!), voiceovers, acting, more movies and TV shows, and specialty dances in operas. She received the first grant to teach Mideastern dance to children, was the only two-time winner of a grant for choreography, and received two Arts Exposure grants to present Mideastern and North African dance in New York City Public Schools. She is a frequent lecturer/performer at universities and museums, the Museum of Natural History in New York sponsoring her regularly for full lecture series. She has also filmed a one-hour TV special in Germany (Koln, WDR #1). She has presented (several times) at the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, and the Museum of Natural History also sponsors her regulalry for full lecture series. She has performed in thousands of shows, including the Lincoln Center (many times), the Statue of Liberty Centennial, Delacort Dance Festival, and the Riverside Dance Festival (5 times). She wrote and appeared in “Belly Dancing: Midriff Myth,” a one-half hour video produced by the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Morocco has released six full-length videos: five in 1984, taken from her on-site film documentation, and one in 1985 of her dance company’s award-winning concert at Riverside Dance Festival. Her dance company, Casbah Dance Experience, gained tax-exempt status in 1978 as an educational organization. When the Moroccan Tourist Office needs Moroccan dance in New York, they hire her and Casbah. Casbah was the first dance company to be hired by the United Nations to perform in its Dag Hammerskjold Theater.
Rocky taught privately in the 1960’s, training many dancers. In 1970, a friend from the Broadway show “I Had a Ball” made a proposal she could not refuse: “Teach a weekly class at my school or I’ll never speak to you again!” Ok. For seven years, she did. She started teaching master classes for other schools in 1972, taught a three-credit course in Mideastern Dance and Culture at the State University of New York, Purchase (1975-1978), and opened her own school in 1976. Credit goes to Dr. Paul Monty for creating her favorite teaching arena (in 1974) when he invited her to teach the second Middle East Dance Seminar, beginning her seminar teaching career, and giving her the opportunity to share her hard-won knowledge on a wider scale all over the U.S. and Canada.. In 1986, she taught master classes in Casablanca, Morocco, and began doing seminars and concerts in 1988 in Germany (she now teaches in German), England, Sweden, Switzerland, Finland and Israel. She is one of their favorite teachers, and is brought back twice a year by popular demand.
From personal experience, I can attest that Morocco’s regular classes are a gold mine of information, both verbal and physical. We work on routines, where steps are broken down and explained. We also “follow the moving parts,” when Rocky does several different interpretations of the same music, and/or shows how the same movements fit different pieces, to get us to forget our self-consciousness, relax, and “be the music.” She guides us to be ourselves, within the vocabulary of the Sharki movements and eschews what she calls the “cookie-cutter approach.” After all, Soheir Zaki never danced like Negwa Fouad, Nahed Sabry, Aza Sharif, Shushu Amin, Samia Gamal, Nadia Gamal, Nadia Hamdy, Tahia Carioca, etc. Bits of cultural and anecdotal information are given throughout, leaving no time for boredom or competition. Correction is gentle, never hostile or embarrassing: if she’s on any kind of ego trip, it isn’t in the classroom. She believes the difficult can be made attainable by keeping a light touch to make it non-threatening. She has no patience for teachers who, having limited knowledge, dole it out in miniscule bits with heavy doses of ballet or posing, justifying themselves by saying “less is more.” Often, less is simply not enough. Boring. However, Morocco is thrilled with the progress Raks Sharki (Oriental) and Shabiyya (folkloric) have made in the West over the last 35 years. She feels that the level of ability and the seriousness of the “average” student and performer are far higher than they were when she started (or she never would have gotten that first job!). Ninety percent of her performances are in venues where no Oriental dancer would have been accepted back then.
For seminars, Morocco developed a special format that makes it easier to remember the dance routines, and can even explain her unbelievable cymbal-playing so that it seems possible and logical. She has a gift for making hard work feel like fun, because that is what it is for her. Rocky always includes related historical and cultural information with the movements. Some do not realize how much they are getting until they go elsewhere.
Morocco began writing on the dance for international medical and feminist magazines in 1965, for Ballet Dancer in 1974, and Habibi and other Mideastern dance publications in 1976. Continuing harassment at her former home/studio, and the upheaval of finding a space, constructing new studios, and moving left no time for writing from 1986 to 1992. The good news is that she is back and at it again, writing for Habibi, Tanz Oriental, and others. She is even threatening to get started on the opus magnus everybody is after her to write (“How to Evade an Expectorating Camel”).
It was Morocco who started organizing dance tours to prove that the real dancing was far better and more varied than the fantasy: first to Morocco, for genuine “tribal” dance, from 1976 to 1990, when King Hassan II dropped the Marrakesh Folk Festival, and then Egypt for real “Egyptian style” Oriental and Ghawazi, from 1978 to 1993, stopping temporarily due to terrorism’s current effect on the dance scene. She set the highest standards of quality and quantity in dance events on her trips, not settling for less.
With her personal library of over 2,800 related books and documents growing daily (willed to Lincoln Center Dance Collection), she is a one-woman encyclopaedia. She has seen enough to know if what she is reading is accurate, or filtered through personal fantasy and prejudice, just as she knows when she is seeing real folk, or Moscow/Hollywood-on-the-Nile. With this kind of “clout,” you would expect much more “attitude,” but Morocco says, “I’m not the Ethnic Police. If a dance isn’t (perhaps inadvertently) culturally offensive, if it’s presented as ‘theater,’ ‘personal interpretation,’ ‘inspired by,’ and done with taste and talent, I can accept and enjoy it as such. But if it’s presented as ‘real,’ and is just b.s., well…”
Morocco is worried: so much real “stuff” has already disappeared down the oasis forever, and more goes daily. She feels obligated to preserve and pass on what she’s learned, and judging from the packet of rave reviews for her seminars, and the fact that her August week-long sold out by mid-May, with dancers coming from all over the world, she just may get her wish. How long does she intend to continue? To put it in her words, “‘’Til six weeks after I’m dead!”
Author Tarik Abd El Malik (Tyrone Bailey) is a leading performer/teacher of Raks Sharki and Mideastern and North African folkloric dance in the U.S. and abroad. He is the lead male dancer in “Casbah Dance Experience,” the ensemble of Mideastern and North African dance directed by Morocco. Tarik teaches at the Morocco Academy of Mideastern Dance in New York and at seminars around the U.S. He also taught at Jerusalem’s International Seminar of Mideastern Dance, and has travelled and studied extensively in Morocco and Egypt.