Your Best Dance Point

Interview with Tarik Sultan – Middle Eastern Dance Expert , NYC USA

Dev – Tarik Sultan welcome to devs. Lets go back 20 years in time, How do you find the Middle Eastern dancing scene in the USA then?

Tarik – Very different than it is now. In the general population, there was a greater deal of ignorance about the dance than there is today, certainly much less exposure. The mention of Middle Eastern dance would cause raised eyebrows. Back then, at least in New York, people thought that the dance was something like strip tease. It wasn’t uncommon to be turned down for participation in cultural events on the grounds that it wasn’t considered respectable entertainment. However, we were beginning to make inroads in important areas. My teacher, Morocco, had already pioneered performances in important cultural institutions around the City, such as Lincoln Center’s Dance out doors festival, The Museum of Natural History and Parks and recreations.

Despite her successes though, there were still a lot of places that slammed their door in her face. No one had even thought about the possibility of teaching dance classes in gyms, even though Aerobics was becoming very popular.

Inside the dance community itself? Well, the prevailing style was American Oriental, or American nightclub style. It was a style that evolved in the ethnic nightclubs in the ’60′s and ’70′s. Back then, the ethnic clubs were a melting pot of people from different Mediterranean and Arabic speaking countries. Therefore, there was a mix of Greek, Turkish and Lebanese dancers. Eventually, Americans began to dominate the field, so they learned by watching all these people and of course, they interpreted things according to their cultural perspective.

There were only 4 main dance schools in the city at that time. Morocco, Serena, Anahid Sofian and Ibrahim Farrah. The main performance venues were still ethnic clubs and restaurants run mostly by Lebanese. However, there was a Turkish nightclub called Fazils, which was an important asset to the dance community in New York. On thing all of the clubs had at that time, which is lacking now, is that they had live bands, a real designated dance floor or stage and it was a family atmosphere. I was lucky to make my nightclub debut in Fazils. I got to dance there twice before they closed. Unfortunately, by the late 80′s all these clubs started closing one after the other as the price of real estate and rents skyrocketed. Today we have many more establishments, but if we have at least a postage stamp to dance on, we consider ourselves lucky, and even then we have to compete with customers and wait staff. Back in the early to mid 80′s, when the dancer was on the floor or the stage, no one set foot on it unless they were invited by the dancer, or they wanted to

tip her.

As for the quality of dancing….. Well, in a lot of ways the basic skill level is much higher now, even though we still have to contend with the phenomenon of the 6 week wonder who learned from some who watched a DVD. A lot of what I saw being done did not relate in any way to Middle Eastern culture and certainly not to anything I had seen when I visited Egypt three years later. It was a combination of the general misperceptions that the Sharki is a legitimate dance form and the overall poor quality of dance that I decided to become a dancer myself. I wanted people to see how beautiful this dance was and so I decided the best way to do that was to show them, even though I had no ambition of making my living as a dancer, certainly not as a teacher.

Dev – You have mentioned Ibrahim Farah, one of the leading schools from that era, Bobby Farha and The Near East Dance group claimed to preserve and introduce many elements of Oriental dance to Western audiences. Do you think some of them were Bobby Farah’s own creations?

Tarik – To be honest with you, I’d never seen his dance company perform. I think by the time I came around, they might have been disbanded, so I really can’t say how authentic his material was. However, all the dance companies that I knew of, including Casbah, had numbers that were the artistic creations of the directors. Usually they were inspired by a particular idea or folk dance. When that was the case, it was always stated as such in the programs.

Dev – In the Middle East everybody dances, Male, Female and children. But I have identified through my research that there is a negative attitude portrayed towards the male Raqs Sharqi artists. Do you have an opinion on why this is a subject for debate?

Tarik – This is a simple question, but the answer is very complex, so I hope you’ll forgive me if it’s a bit long because I need to give some background to place it in the proper context. Basically, the issue is fear. Fear of being misrepresented, slandered and misunderstood by the outside world. You may ask, why do they care what others think, but you have to understand Egypt and the other countries in the region from the perspective of their historical relationship with the West. That relationship has more often than not, been an antagonistic one for quite a long time. We can see the roots of it during the growth of the Roman Empire in its conflicts with Carthage and Egypt. In the Middle Ages, there wee the Crusades and in the 18th and 19th centuries, up to our present time, Colonialism and the Iraqi and Afghanistan Wars. So there has been a long history of tension between the regions and a tendency for Western powers to portray Easterners and aspects of their cultures in a negative light, whether it is religion, life style or in this case, dance.

The issue at hand finds its roots in the colonial experience of the last two centuries, when various European nations look control of the countries we call the Middle East for the sake of gaining control of their resources and trade routes. Of course, whenever one nation commits an act of aggression against another, they must always have a reason to justify their actions. With the case of the European colonial powers, the justification was always that they were saving the natives from themselves. The subjugated peoples were always made out to be intellectually and morally inferior to the Western powers and so colonization was actually a benevolent act because the benefits of the superior Western culture would be bestowed on them.

One way this moral superiority was shown was to contrast Eastern and Western. The public dancing girl became the image of Eastern womanhood by extension, Eastern Society and so a dichotomy was created. The West was masculine, assertive, logical, and industrious whereas the East was feminine, passive, lazy, emotional, sensually enticing and available. And so, in the minds of Europeans, the East and the dances of the East became sexualized in a way that they never had been in their own cultures.

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