Interview with Rachel Bond from Inspire Bellydance
I first met Rachel in Perth in 2013. It was part of the WA Middle Eastern Dance Festival, and she performed a beautiful show with live music. I was instantly struck by her grace (beautiful arm lines especially) and feeling with the music. Rachel lives in Sydney and is passionate about Middle Eastern dance. For this month’s newsletter, I was lucky enough to interview her about her passion, recent trip to Egypt and life as a dancer.
“Performing is another thing that I adore doing, for much the same reasons: it’s all about joy!”
You recently returned from a trip to Egypt. How has Egypt changed since your last trip? Did you notice any changes in the dance scene since then?
Actually, I’ve been to Egypt several times. Each time I’ve been at a different point in my own dancing, and been looking for something different through the trip; so I can only view the changes through that lens. The first was in 2005 when everything was new to me. It was overwhelming! I was grateful to be on a dance-related tour (with Ali of Adelaide) to help Mae sense of it, as well as for the logistics and companionship. On intervening trips, I timed it to attend dance festivals, as well as seeing lots of shows, taking private lessons, etc. One of these trips happened to be when the Egyptians were overthrowing the Muslim Brotherhood – exciting, but put a dampener on some dance activities! On this recent trip my focus was folklore. My trip was built around Sahra Saeeda’s “Journey Through Egypt” dance ethnology course, levels 3 and 4; plus staying extra time in Cairo, Luxor and Aswan to train.
“Each time I’ve been at a different point in my own dancing, and been looking for something different through the trip; so I can only view the changes through that lens.”
One thing that struck me was that there are a lot of foreign dancers in Cairo. I had wanted to focus on seeing and learning from Egyptians, but that was actually quite difficult (partly due to my timing; several were away at international festivals). So while I took a number of lessons, several were with non-Egyptian dancers such as Shahrzad (who, I must say, has an impressively deep understanding of Egyptian dancers’ styles, and of body mechanics). On the other hand, the rise of Facebook and Instagram has made dancers more readily accessible. On my first trip, it was a major achievement to be able to find a dancer’s phone number!
“The rise of Facebook and Instagram has made dancers more readily accessible. On my first trip, it was a major achievement to be able to find a dancer’s phone number!”
It also seemed that there just weren’t as many shows around to go and see, especially with a good big band. I saw a couple of dancers performing just to CD, which was virtually unheard-of a few years ago. This was common at venues where the dancer isn’t the main attraction but is just part of the background entertainment for hotel guests. In such places, the dancer’s energy is relatively low and the experience is quite different. On the bright side, they’re usually very affordable, and it’s easy to get front-table seats with a fabulous view.
One stalwart through this whole time has been Dina. I try to see her every time I visit Cairo, and she’s always breathtaking. Her focus is absolutely on CONNECTING, not on showing off; she wants everyone in the audience (but most particularly the women) to enjoy themselves, to be part of the show, to respond to her and to be ‘in’ on what seem like private ‘in’ jokes that she shares. She gives the impression of loving what she does and still being as excited and entranced by it, as we are by her. At the same time, her technical skill is mesmerising. Often her movements are quite small, but incredibly sharp and powerful. Her energy doesn’t fade through the whole hour-long show (did I mention it started at nearly 4am?). I think she’s still my favourite, after all these years! Bellydance if you’ve never seen her live, you must. You just won’t get it until then. There are other dancers whose work shines more on video; Dina’s doesn’t translate, you really do have to be there.
Dina’s “focus is absolutely on CONNECTING…she wants everyone to enjoy themselves”
She has recently complained about the influence of Eastern European dancers on the Cairo scene and how their style is affecting the dance, even in Egypt. I understand what she’s talking about. On the other hand, there are still some very Egyptian dancers on the scene, each with their own unique style. Camelia is an energiser bunny of almost constant shimmying; Sahar Samara is an Amazon, strong but somehow more laid-back in style; Kawakib is soft and sweet. Sadly I didn’t get to see Aziza this time.
But as I mentioned, for me this trip was more about deepening my knowledge of Egyptian folklore. I was very fortunate that both the Reda and Kowmeyya troupes had shows at the historic Balloon Theatre while I was in Cairo. It was such a privilege to see them on their home stage, with a big cast of dancers and their own orchestra; and to be taken on a backstage tour and treated like a VIP by both troupe directors. Mahmoud Reda’s work has been a massive influence on Egyptian dance (including bellydance) for the past 50 years, and has also played a huge role in my own dance development. It’s hard to describe the emotion for me of seeing his work – some of which I know by heart – up on stage in a recreation of how it was decades ago. Yes, I shed tears! Seeing and comparing the Kowmeyya troupe was exciting, because their work is a little less known in the English-speaking dance world. It’s similar, because it’s based on the same concept of adapting regional dances for the stage, but the overall feel is quite different. Their general technique is more up and bouncy, partly due to the Russian influence on the development of the troupe; their female dancers are given more physically challenging roles; their selection of styles is rather different; and yes, I did get to see their trademark “horse”. It even came out into the audience and danced with us!
For many dancers, the Reda troupe’s work is our first introduction to folklore. Of course, both these troupes are not ‘real’ folk dances, but stage adaptations. My focus in recent years has been to go deeper: to learn how people from various regions actually dance in their own homes or parties, and understand how this is modified and adapted for the stage. In Cairo I saw several shows that were still crafted for audiences, but much closer to traditional dance and music; a highlight being Nuba Nour at the small El Dammah theatre downtown.
“My focus in recent years has been to go deeper: to learn how people from various regions actually dance in their own homes or parties, and understand how this is modified and adapted for the stage.”
This was all a prelude to travelling to the Saiid and Nubia, to learn from and dance with locals. That’s another story altogether.
Are there any lessons from Egypt that you will take back into your classes and performances in Sydney?
Where to even begin? On the one hand I can say yes: I’ve learnt more steps, combinations, technical elements, etc. But what I think is more important is the feeling, and the example it sets to be continually investing in developing my dance and cultural awareness. I’m always striving to bring more cultural connection to both my own dancing and my classes. When you spend time in Egypt, even if you’re not dancing, things change within you. Aspects of the culture, attitudes and way of life seep into you; and these affect your dancing, whether you intend it or not. This dance is not just a movement vocabulary. It’s deeply and inseparably embedded in its cultures of origin, with all the complexity and contradiction they bring. As dancers (and teachers) we are representing that culture, and it’s vital that we constantly seek to understand and embody it better; and share that with our audiences and students.
Can you tell me more about your life as a belly dancer in Sydney? What are your classes and performances like? What keeps your students and audiences coming back?
Anyone who runs a dance school for their living will tell you it’s hard work for not much financial recompense! You have to love it. At least two-thirds of my work life is spent at the computer: the bulk of it is on boring stuff like communications, marketing, data management, invoicing and accounting, organising, solving a hundred tiny problems and responding to a hundred tiny requests. It’s frustrating, but that’s running a business. The creative side only gets to be a small fraction of my time. Luckily, I absolutely LOVE teaching! I teach every weeknight 2-3 hours, as well as a few daytime hours a week. The joy of sharing dance, of helping women to learn and uncover something new in themselves, or to become healthier and happier, is what drives me. There’s nothing like seeing faces light up as their bodies come to life! Often, dancing can induce a wave of personal growth, and its a privilege to precipitate these changes. I also love seeing friendships blossom between students.
“There’s nothing like seeing faces light up as their bodies come to life!”
Performing is another thing that I adore doing, for much the same reasons: it’s all about joy! When I dance, I’m not there to be a diva. Rather, I see myself as bringing the party. Dance is a conduit for happiness and connection. I love it when audiences are engaged: that doesn’t necessarily mean getting up and joining in, although it can. It might mean me sitting down beside someone and having a shoulder shimmy together; mesmerising a toddler with finger cymbals; getting a group to clap along; or even just seeing the look in someone’s eye, knowing they appreciate it. Audiences from the cultures of origin celebrate the connection to their history and homelands, and dancing for them is a real treat. But I also love dancing for people who start out not knowing or understanding anything about Middle Eastern dance, and leaving them with a positive impression. Not every gig is amazing; giving up your social life, spending hours on hair and makeup, going out in the freezing cold or stinking hot are not always easy, and on a bad day the gig circuit can take a big toll on your self-esteem. But when it’s good, it’s wonderful.
Sydney-siders can connect with Rachel at Inspire Bellydance.
Thank you Rachel! It is wonderful to see you sharing your passion and joy.