Amani’s Magic Mirror
Lebanese superstar, Amani, came to southern California bringing with her the timeless mysterious air of the East. Ever-fascinated, insatiably curious western Oriental dance devotees gazed with rapt attention to every detail of her concert performance, observing en personne, the young superstar direct from Beirut. From head to toe, cultural clues abounded: metallic platinum heels, retro-costumes in the classical, modest styles popular in the 50s and 60s (full chiffon skirts topped by a vestlike Andalusian gilet by designer Roland Haddad), and highly choreographed theatrical presentations accompanied by her heavily electronic Lebanese band. The occasion was the International Conference on Middle Eastern Dance in May of this year, where over eight hundred audience members were treated to several hours of stellar performances, including the fabulous Mona El Said of Cairo, Egypt. (See review in this issue’s “Caravan” section.)
First impressions are sometimes deceptive; the subdued, diminutive young woman who had landed jet-lagged at LAX two days earlier then seemed anything but a brilliant new star, as she stood shivering beneath an overcast night sky. Now, as the spotlight embraced her, Amani glowed chameleon-like with luminous celebrity as the audience enthusiastically applauded and zagareeted her continuous barrel spins (32), controlled shimmies, syncopated hip work, dramatic flair, and joyful expression. Her dancing was immediately familiar to our western eyes, being more in harmony with the American characterization of Oriental dance, from our formative beginnings. Edwina Nearing wrote of these factors in her article “Out of the Ashes: Oriental Dance Renaissance in Lebanon,” Habibi, Vol. 14, No 3. “There is much in Lebanese Oriental dance that is reminiscent of American Oriental dance in the 1960’s, perhaps because most Middle Eastern dancers in the States at that time were Egyptian, Turkish, Lebanese and Syrian (Damascus being both physically and culturally close to Beirut), so Americans learning Oriental dance were subject to the same mixing and leveling influences that shaped the Lebanese style of Oriental dance, as well as the Syro-Lebanese style itself.” Also, we cannot underestimate the impact on American style by trainer, choreographer Ibrahim Farrah, U.S. born and of Lebanese descent.
“I am not Egyptian; I am Lebanese!” Perhaps Amani’s unsolicited, unequivocal declaration as she took the microphone during her appearance at Petra, a San Francisco area supper club, a few weeks following the conference, indicated a fierce nationalistic pride. She may have been challenging American dancers’ current love affair with all things Egyptian, due in no small part to the relative accessibility of Egyptian dance artists and teachers. Lebanon, however, has been out-of-reach for most American dancers carrying a U.S. passport, since the 1982 bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Beirut. Punitive restrictions on travel and trade were in place until just recently. A few days ago, as this article was being written, the U.S. State Department lifted its travel ban! A whole new dance frontier now beckons the adventuresome traveler.
The last great star to come out of Lebanon was Egyptian born Nadia Gamal. Nadia had preceded Amani to the States, arriving in 1981, when Ibrahim Farrah presented her in New York. Nadia had made Beirut her adopted home for several decades, dancing for the chic elite of the “Paris of the Middle East.” Adored by millions, Nadia even continued her nightclub and television appearances in the midst of civil war while grim, tragic images were broadcast to the world by CNN. Amani’s life and career were also affected. Survival during the war meant that she and her family stayed within a very small area of the country for 17 years. Later, when Amani was living in Beirut, there was the frequent routine of having to duck bombs and dodge sniper fire, while hurrying en route to a performance. Self-reliant citizens learned to travel through warring territories, even attending nightclubs during the bombing. Many stories are told about the resilience of the Lebanese people and their ability to maintain their cultural traditions and certain high standard of living through the most difficult of times. Surely one of the more trivial accounts was the news report that fashion conscious women in Beirut had carried water to their hairdressers after the plumbing had been damaged by an exploding bomb.
When one sees Amani in motion, comparisons to Nadia Gamal are unavoidable. Some of Amani’s movements, phrasing and stylistic interpretation suggest the influence of the late legend, and she does admit to taking something from her. Before she began to dance, Amani saw movies and videos of Nadia Gamal. “This is how I started.” Eventually, when she was in college and after she had begun to dance, she met Nadia Gamal. Although somewhat illusive about the details of their friendship, Amani describes getting her early costuming ideas from Nadia’s closet. She also learned from her how to work on stage, using each end “to get attention from all the people,” with Nadia’a incredible geometric line of movement across the stage.
Amani knows how to “work a crowd.” A favorite with audiences, her charming and refreshing style combines the grace and elegance of an older era with dynamic modern movement. Her delightful personality and subtle ease of movement underlie a masterful command of the stage. What we witnessed in concert at Orange Coast College was a polished, confident and gifted performer, although Amani may still be too young to have the depth of feeling and fiery passion of a more seasoned artist, qualities which were Nadia’s domain. One critic voiced the opinion that Amani shouldn’t try to be a carbon copy of Nadia, but should work on developing her own style. But artists don’t incubate in a vacuum, they are sensitive to and shaped by their environment. The truly great offer their original artistry evocative of the human experience. The continuing unfoldment of Amani’s potential will be well-served by her considerable innate talent and cultivated stage presence.
Amani, named Angel Ayoub at birth, was the firstborn of four children. She and her family lived in northern Lebanon in the small village of Hamat, midway between Beirut and Tripoli. Her father is a rancher with other businesses, including a trucking company, and her mother is a housewife. “Life was typical,” says Amani, “like any other family.” Even now she seems like the familiar “girl next door,” a petite gemini who loves animals, jeeps and chocolate ice cream. Her favorite color is white, and her current perfume of preference is Jean Paul Gautier. But Amani’s sky-rocketing career is atypical, and nothing short of spectacular.
Her curriculum vita reads like an Oriental dancer’s wish-list. She began her career in 1987, first appearing at the Lebanese super nightclub, Melhem Barakat, in Adonis. Following her debut, she headlined at Lebanese clubs in Beirut, Jouneih, Brumana, Khaldeh and other cities: Jimmy’s at Verdun, Epiclub, Bodega, Carte Blanche, Monte Carlo, Rimal, Samaya, Emporium, Le Harem, Carlucci, Al-Bustane, Al-Feyrouz, Al-Mushref , the Printania, Summerland and Coral Beach Hotels, and the Al-Madina and Athenee Theatres. She also appeared at Miss Lebanon ’95, the Miss Universe Pageant ’97, and was Lebanon’s representative at a UN ceremony in Nakoura. Amani’s performing tours throughout the Middle East have included the Sheraton, Meridien and Al Sharki Club in Damascus; Shahba’a Al-sham Hotel in Aleppo; the Intercontinental, Regency, Plaza (Forte Grand) and Holiday Inn in Jordan; Dubai’s Intercontinental, Metropolitan, Holiday Inn, Crowne Plaza, Khalij Palace and Four Points Sheraton; the Sheraton, Meridien and Intercontinental in Abu Dhabi; the Stadium and Al-Bustane in Muscat, Oman; and the Meridiens in Tunisia and Cairo. She has also performed in Australia, Germany, Brazil, Italy, France, Greece, and now Canada and the United States.
Lebanon began to notice this upcoming artist through appearances on television, late night shows and even game shows! Some of the imported dance videos available were filmed on a T.V. game show set with a large stage and theater seating. The contestants try to guess the name of the special guest star, who then performs with her orchestra. “In Lebanon, you have the freedom to wear what you want on television. My outfits are not covered, but they are respectable and classical.” She has never worked with other well-known dancers in Lebanon (like Narriman Aboud, Samarra, Howeyda Hashem and Dani Bustrus), although she says they get along well, “not too close and not too far.” Unlike most other artists, she never performed in the Maharajans (Festivals of Music) which are marathon music and dance celebrations. Thousands of people attend these traditional Middle Eastern summertime gatherings held outdoors with food and music. In Lebanon they are local events, but also take place in wonderful environments like Ba’albeck, featuring big dabke dances and folkloric ensembles. Many of the Lebanese dance videos that we see in the U.S. are filmed at Maharajans. Amani, however, eschews these forums as there are LBC (Lebanese Broadcasting Company) contract requirements and restrictions which she finds too constrictive.
Her path to international stardom as a dancer was not as direct as one might think, noting her high level of professionalism at such an early age. Amani knew, however, that her future was “ in the arts, acting, dancing or doing nothing.” As a teen-ager, she and her friends listened to “Oriental Lite” and western music, especially the very danceable disco. When her favorite radio station began to program Oriental music of a more serious genre she said “I was lazy to change the station, so I began to listen to this music.” More and more the best of Oriental music entered her musical memory and soul. Attending her sixteenth birthday party in a club with very “upbeat Arabic music,” she was excited and started to dance. On this hot evening, she saw a young man wearing a sweatshirt and asked for it, tying it around her hips for a belt and “opening the evening for all.” Everyone liked her dancing and begged her to continue. Step by step, she became more and more involved in Oriental dance when asked by elderly people, students and friends to dance for them, knowing she loved it so.
During college she met many artists, becoming good friends with them and their families. One day, while sitting with a famous singer, an actor came to offer her a job at a big party after the dancer that had been previously hired had quit. “I have no costume!,” she protested. He said, “That is your problem.” How could she do it? After a few more objections about preparations and costumes and his repeating “That is your problem,” she agreed. “My heart started to beat. I had to tell my parents.” With her mother’s support, they went to the market to buy beautiful things to make a costume. The party was on Sunday evening. “I started to dance on Friday after midnight, the whole of Saturday and Sunday, till noontime. I took a shower and then said, I can’t move anymore! God help me! How am I going to dance?” But dance she did, and to a cassette. With this unlikely beginning, Amani was on her way to the career of her dreams.
Amani was surprised when her parents approved of her dancing, or otherwise would not have pursued it. She made a “deal” with her father, that professional dancing would be a possibility after finishing her formal studies in sociology at the University of Beirut. (She is also a certified aesthetician.) Although Amani has never had formal Oriental dance training, she studied jazz in college and learned dabka. In school, she created choreographies for herself and the dance ensemble for performance at the end of the year, during a teacher’s holiday.
When asked who has influenced her dance style, Amani’s first response was that her mother was her main inspiration. Her mother was gifted herself, and had, in turn, learned dances from her mother, who danced traditional dances with a pot on her head. To this day, Amani’s mother is the best critic of her work. Amani’s flawless performances, both on stage and in nightclub settings, demonstrate her unique, individual style. Beautiful lines, posture and form belie her “self-taught” discipline. Her eternal and mesmerizing spins were learned in front of the mirror. In fact, when asked if she had invented any of her movements, Amani replied, “I owe the mirror a lot. Try it and you will find you will do something new. The mirror is my teacher.”
Amani has created her own shows, calling them histories or narrative dances. Each one tells a story. Performed in the theater, she has provided “little books” explaining to the audience the story or history of each dance. These dances portray myths, religious holidays and festivals, ritual dances and stories depicting ordinary people in daily life. Nuria Tahan described one such production in her article “Amani-Lebanon’s Diva de la Danse Oriental,” Habibi Vol 14 No 3. “It is set to the music of Ahmed Fuad Hassan and relates an old Arabic story. Amani plays the part of Abbassa (Haroun Al Rashid’s sister), and is carried on stage in a litter by four ‘slaves.’ Abbassa, a Sunni Muslim is in love with the minister who is Shi’ite Muslim. Such a mixed marriage was generally frowned on, so they married in secret. Haroun Al Rashid was the former Caliph of Baghdad during the era of ‘One Thousand and One Nights.’ When he discovered his sister’s illicit marriage, he had her husband executed. Amani’s dance portrays the inner conflict felt by Abbassa as she agonized over whether or not she should kill herself to be with her love. Unable to bear his death, she finally stabs herself to death, and the dance ends as Amani/Abbassa is carried up to heaven by angels to join her husband.”
In preparation for her performances, music is at the center of each creation. She works with the composers herself, sitting with them and telling them what she likes and responds to instinctively. She listens carefully and sensitively. “I have to love the music, feel the music before I can work with it.” She has collaborated with Rafik Hobeika, Mazen Zawaedy, Bassem and George Yesbik and presently Ali Reda, who is working on new music for her next production.
This tour of the United States and Canada is her first, teaching and performing in fifteen cities with her own musicians from Lebanon: Ali Reda, guitarist and band leader; Michael Haj, keyboard; George Rabi, tabla; and Amir Gawi, vocals, deff and mazhar. When asked if she has had any of the security difficulties associated with long tours, she said, “I have never been allowed to be alone. I don’t like being alone.” She is well-insulated and protected by her manager and musicians, who are with her at all times.
In 1989, Amani met the well-known Lebanese drummer, Bassem Yesbik. They were married in 1993, and together produced numerous CD’s and videos. Eight of Amani’s ten years of dance have been a collaborative, synergetic effort, until her marriage to Bassem ended in divorce in 1997. Still obviously saddened by the break up, she said that they had postponed having children in order to pursue their full-time careers. One day she hopes to have a husband, settle down and raise a family. Then she plans to end her professional dancing career, devoting herself full-time to her children, and later teaching.
As a teacher, Amani follows a somewhat western model. Her classes begin with extremely long warm-ups, developed with a physical therapist while she learned to stretch to avoid further damage after an injury. However, it was noted by some that her warmups “bounced” the muscles, unlike the newer, safer method of holding stretches and gradually lengthening. When teaching choreography, she describes and breaks down movement often, taking the class through many repetitions. Although participants are eager for inspiration, especially the exotic interpretive stylization which is Amani’s hallmark, she would be well-advised to consider that not all, but many, western dance students have been researching Middle Eastern dance forms for decades, often going to the source for regional dance traditions. Flavorful but inaccurate and truncated versions of the real thing, for example, the melaya liff or zar, while charming to an audience, may disappoint the more knowledgeable student.
In class she also utilizes her love of cultural history with a mini-lecture during a break in the workshop. While performing throughout the Middle East, she has had the opportunity to research the history of Oriental dance, studying the writings of Al Jahez, Ibin Abed Rabbo, Al Masoudi, Al Asfouny and Al Bateri in the libraries of Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Egypt. Amani cites the cultural diversity of the 13th century Empire of Amayad, when Damascus was the capital, and the Abyssinian capital was in Baghdad. The harems were full of women from other countries who had been summoned to court or captured in war. The resulting exchange of movements and dance styles led to the “Oriental” or “Eastern” form.
Amani thinks Oriental dance has now become a world dance. “It is travelling around the globe, step by step.” Europeans are good students, she finds, but the best are in North America. The West, in her opinion, is taking “care of the dance more than the East.” Although western dancers are innovating, she hopes that the East and West innovate in the same direction.
When asked if there was any meaning, symbolic or narrative, in her drum solos, with their spine-jarring body locks, aggressive hand gestures, and tense facial expressions, she said “No, nothing at all. No message, I just want to show what I can do, how I am powerful.” And the origin of her various steps and combinations? “It is all Oriental. Oriental movements come from everywhere. Addis Ababa, perhaps. There is African influence in some of my movements. They are combinations of all the cultures in the Middle East. What I am doing is not modern. The movements I do are typically and completely Oriental.”
Contending that she does not use the Egyptian style as a model for what she does, Amani states, “Dina is sexy; I like Sohair Zeki, and Nagwa here and there. I love Fifi Abdou in the old movies. I understand their dance, but I have my own style.” She speaks with a barely concealed bravado, a strident self-confidence born of the demanding pressures of a high-profile career. Spirit and determination are elementary core qualities that have launched and keep aloft many a solitary star. Flushed with the apparent success of her North American tour, Amani was now light years from her alter ego, the vulnerable, unassuming “girl next door.”
Amani, whose name means “wishes” in Arabic, says of her future, “I would like all over the world to be known. I would like to give what I know. Deep in my heart, I feel like an amateur, because I love my work. (The latin root of amateur is “to love.”) When I am a professional, I will do my duty. A professional does his job.”
Interview notes compiled by Jeanette Cool. email@example.com.
Shareen El Safy is an award-winning instructor and choreographer who has performed and taught Egyptian dance in sixty major cities on five continents, including many states throughout America. She has made numerous trips to Egypt, researching dance, studying with renowned artists there, and leading her Dance Study Tours. As one of few westerners, Shareen performed raks sharqi in Cairo nightclubs during the 1988 to 1992 summer seasons. She has released a number of instructional DVD’s focusing on Oriental dance technique. Shareen presented at the 1999 World Congress of Sports and Dance, and taught and performed at the Ahlan Wa Sahlan Festival (2001), and the Nile Group Festivals (2009 and 2010) in Cairo. Shareen co-produced the 1st and 2nd International Conferences on Middle Eastern Dance in 1997 and 2001. She was Publisher and Editor of Habibi from 1992-2002 and Editor-in-Chief in 1993. www.shareenelsafy.com
Shareen El Safy is an award-winning instructor and choreographer who has performed and taught Egyptian dance in sixty major cities on five continents, including many states throughout America. She has made numerous trips to Egypt, researching dance, studying with renowned artists there, and leading her Dance Study Tours. As one of few westerners, Shareen performed raks sharqi in Cairo nightclubs during the 1988 to 1992 summer seasons. She has released a number of instructional DVD’s focusing on Oriental dance technique. Shareen presented at the 1999 World Congress of Sports and Dance, and taught and performed at the Ahlan Wa Sahlan Festival (2001), and the Nile Group Festivals (2009 and 2010) in Cairo. Shareen co-produced the First and Second International Conferences on Middle Eastern Dance in 1997 and 2001. She was Publisher and Editor of Habibi from 1992-2002 and Editor-in-Chief in 1993. www.shareenelsafy.com.