Imitation and Originality

Imitation and Originality

by Shakira (Elizabeth Fannin)

Imitation leads to originality. It sounds odd, but there it is. The thought was one I’d been mulling for quite some time, reinforced over the years by my experiences and comments by other dancers such as Amina Goodyear on the internet and during other conversations. It crystallized into beautiful illustration at a 1998 seminar with Nadia Hamdi hosted by Zarifa Said.

Near the end of the class, I had stepped out a moment to note the order of the steps before jumping back in. Watching the other dancers I noted that they were all following what they saw Nadia doing—following their own interpretation of her movement in their own style, in their own natural way of moving. Being a devoted student and practitioner of Movement Awareness techniques, it was fascinating to watch. Each dancer was doing a version of Nadia’s choreography, but with their own energy, personality, style, origination of movement and interpretation. A simple walk in a circle with a shimmy had innumerable variations: one might be more fluid with a very delicate shimmy; another, more one?leg centered; another, with an added downward emphasis. The diversity was a feast for the eyes: everywhere, dancers were working easily, naturally, in their own “voices,” even while following Nadia’s lead.

This is not by any means to say that people were doing entirely different steps or careening in varying directions, or that Nadia was at all leaving people guessing as to what the steps were. She is one of the clearest dancers in her body that I’ve ever seen: an unusually fine teacher, she demonstrates so well and so concisely that her ability to break down a step, which is considerable and always clear, is rarely needed. Her expressive hand positions and gestures, an overlay of detail, were also very clear, somewhat unusual among instructors. In this piece, she was also clear about the feeling associated with the music and each movement, another rarity. You can see “how it should be” done or felt, from Nadia. Yet because she did not regiment either the style or the feeling exactly, each participant brought an authentic quality to their own version of the piece— and it was authentic, because it was truly their manifestation of what Nadia presented. “Happy” on this dancer was sweet and a little shy; “happy” on the next one over, boisterously so.

Watching Nadia and the class, I thought of our “history” of dance in the U.S.: our predecessors in performance and teaching and those students who, quite literally, followed them. At one time, the only method of teaching was for the teacher to demonstrate and the students to follow as best they could. In some cases, with “old time teachers” or complete language barriers, this is still the case today—and I’m glad it is.

Why would I be glad of this when so many people are relieved to have clear, precise verbal breakdowns of steps, right down to weight shifts and tiny details of position and origination? I have certainly been one of those very relieved people, so glad to find a teacher who could clarify what she was doing and what she wanted me to do. I am even someone who went to the trouble of developing a special teaching methodology using movement awareness techniques so that students would be able to find and feel the most effective originations of steps, so that I could transmit technique and steps as precisely and immediately as possible. Why, then, would I advocate, to any extent, the “follow me” method?

Because I believe in diversity, both personally and as an inherent, defining aesthetic of this particular art form. I have always said to my students, and heard other mentors confirm, that Samia Gamal did not dance like Taheya Carioca, who did not dance like Naima Akef, who did not dance like Nadia Gamal and so on. My methodology, in fact, can be used to teach any steps or originations any teacher thinks are important: not solely the ones I think are “the beans.”

It’s wonderful that teaching has evolved to the point that teachers can explain steps and body positions in fine detail and can direct us so that we look as they look, start exactly as they start and do the step exactly as they are doing it, with the same muscle groups and the same alignment and valuations. That kind of knowledge allows us to stretch beyond our own inherent body habits; it gives us totally new ways of moving that expand our vocabulary and possibilities and that might otherwise have remained beyond our reach.

It’s also wonderful that teaching has evolved so far, in our field, that people have taken the time to acquire extra knowledge so they can teach in this way. It’s a sign of growth that we attract this sort of person as a teacher. The field of Middle Eastern dance instruction would be ages further back without this, and the frustration level would almost certainly be higher, since not every “follow me” teacher is as skilled as Nadia. Participation might even be lower.

I think it is important, however, not to disdain, disrespect or necessarily avoid those teachers who don’t have this precise knowledge, this ability to explain down to the last nuance. Historically, many of those early teachers were begged into teaching, and were doing the best they could. If they were like Nadia Hamdi, their best was worth a lot; if not, the better ones may have struggled to find ways to get material across. Teaching simply had not evolved so far as a field or a profession, as it has today. Even when we begin, today, there is knowledge out there to be had that early teachers didn’t have access to.

However, I think those early teachers gave us something important: a challenge and a push to reach for what they were doing from our own natural start, within our own natural ways of moving. Subtly, by asking for “imitation,” they helped create each dancer who followed (in both senses of the word), moving in her body’s own natural way and, in the process, discovering it, discovering her own versions of the steps and ultimately, especially if she studied with enough different teachers, her own natural style.

We now have the best of both worlds: teachers who can help us to produce the same exact step in the same exact style as theirs, resulting in the same exact movement “statement,” and the possibility of each dancer discovering her own natural movement concepts and descriptions, kinesthetic map, muscle originations, feeling and attitude, creating beautiful and rich differences in the “same” steps. While the former is a great gift we have gained due to hard work and study by dedicated individuals, the latter is a gift we must not lose. I think the authenticity of each individual “voice,” each dancer speaking for herself from within her own style, is one of the core aesthetics and rare prizes of this dance. As such, if we lose it, we become only parrots, imitators who never find our own “voice,” technicians with no feeling of our own and thus, in a sense, we are no longer performing raqs sharqi at all.

I often compare Middle Eastern dance, particularly raqs sharqi, to poetry. If we compare the teacher/choreographer to the poet, a skillful teacher/choreographer such as Nadia Hamdi can help us feel her poem, take us inside to under/standing of it so that we can live it; it becomes “real” to us, and therefore sounds real in our voice. Our sense of it and feeling for it are conveyed to the audience. A skillful poetry reader, or dancer, who can do this in some sense becomes the voice of the poem, so that it comes alive in and as her interpretation. But we must speak our own truths, either by fusing our meaning with other “poets,” other teacher/choreographers, or by finding our own voices, our own meanings. Additionally, how much more do we gain, with completely new voices, new dances, new “poems?” This is why I revere the teacher who can give insight into the feeling, such as Nadia, why I applaud study of multiple styles, and why I applaud those teachers who can teach style exactly, yet still have the grace and wisdom to recognize, allow, encourage and value diversity.

I might note that in no sense do I endorse lack of correction of hurtful or bad technique in the name of “diversity.” Recognition of and encouragement towards effective technique are the gifts and responsibilities of teaching. The dancers I saw at Nadia’s workshop were largely experienced performers, not requiring technique corrections; when this was required, on earlier occasions, Nadia had been entirely capable of making sure, in a sweet and gentle way, that people clearly saw what was being asked, and moved towards that. There is a vast difference between stylistic differences, which offer richness to the dance, and problematical technique.

In closing, I want to mention two examples, illustrations of diversity and authentic voices. One additional gift from studying with Nadia was a clearer insight into and appreciation of Morocco’s technique. When I first encountered Morocco, even as a not?so?knowledgeable “baby dancer,” it was clear to me that she “had something,” some feeling, some foundation of movement, something I could not name at the time, which other dancers didn’t. The deep roots that her dance is drawn from became clearer when I saw Nadia. The two women danced entirely differently, yet they shared something others, in all their beauty and diversity, had only tastes of. Not for nothing has Morocco traveled “over there” years ago, and for years. That night she performed a taxim that nearly made me stop breathing. It was entirely Arabic, entirely natural, entirely felt, entirely authentic to her, one with the music. There was no artifice, no Western theatrics, and none were needed for its impact. It was feeling itself: her own feeling for the music. It was 100% real, and a revelation.

I saw an equally beautiful revelation in the form of a taxim by Andrea Deagon at the 1997 Mahmoud Reda show sponsored by Kaharaman in Greensboro, NC. This one also nearly made me stop breathing, and it also was the truth of its artist, no lesser thing. I knew that her costume, music and opening were suggested by a theme that has depth and very rich breadth of meaning for her. As the quality of Morocco’s movement had been authentic to her, so was Andrea’s authentic to her body, her self, her feelings, the image she felt at that moment. Andrea’s taxim certainly included Arabic movements and sensibilities, but it also included her: as a poet and essayist, her own style of thinking and feeling, the lyricism of her voice, the color, style, intensity and grace of her own emotions. All this was apparent in her dance, reflected in her movement in the taxim.

Two dancers, both producing inspiring pieces, each being absolutely true to herself within raqs sharqi. As we all should be. We can and should stretch for what isn’t yet ours, to enrich our dance: the cultural understanding, the nuance, the alignment, and a world of things more. But ultimately, to have real depth, we must be able to dance the taxim. Nadia Gamal said, “I don’t watch the fast part. When I want to know if a dancer is good, I watch her taxim.” I have come to abide by her words more and more. In a taxim, artifice, bright colors, and parroting no longer suffice, if they even ever did within true raqs sharqi. In a taxim, the depth of the dancer, visible to the perceptive eye everywhere in raqs sharqi, is clearly seen; artifice will neither obscure it nor suffice. To have real depth, we must have our own voices, we must dance as ourselves. As our predecessors, those earliest teachers, did. And we must find those selves in our being as well as our exploration, in what is there as well as what is to be added.

Shakira teaches and performs internationally, drawing on 23 years’experience in Middle Eastern dance. Her background also includes four years of medical school and several years’ study of movement awareness and analysis methods including the Alexander Technique, the Feldenkrais Method, and Being in Movement, in which she recently obtained her certification. Her teaching and teachers’ training methodology include and introduce techniques from these disciplines. She has also worked in knowledge acquisition and analysis in the field of Artificial Intelligence.efannin@columbus.rr.com.

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