COVER STORY" Roxxanne Shelaby and the MENAHT Dancers Collective

For our inaugural MENAHT and source teachers edition Fanoos met up with Roxxanne Shelaby to discuss the Fez, her thoughts and her new project The MENAHT Dancers Collective. Let's start with the Fez.  The Fez nightclub in Hollywood belonged to your family-

what inspired you to create a documentary on it? 

My father and his family opened The Fez in 1959 and he sold it just after I was

born, so what I know about The Fez is through stories and a few pictures.

However, throughout my life, everywhere I went with my father to events in the

Arabic community or even just random people who lived in Hollywood at that

time, we always ran into people who knew The Fez and when they talked about it

always got this starry look in their eyes and spoke of such fond memories that I

never heard the same way about other places.

As I grew up in the Arabic Dance community in Southern California and even

abroad, as the dance community expanded, I noticed that many new dancers

didn’t know much about our dance history. I felt it was important to not only

document my father and his family’s history with The Fez but also our dance

history. So many notable dancers came out of The Fez and have gone on to

have a global influence on our dance, that I had to document it and share it!


Did you have any realizations or find out anything new during the interview

processes?

My biggest realization in this process is how the dancers at The Fez were all

drawn to the dance as part of the culture. Even as Americans with little prior

knowledge of Arabic Culture, they learned the dance among the people of the

culture, listening to Arabic music and soaking up the culture. This informed their

dance in a deep way.

There were also some really good stories, but unfortunately, I can’t share them!!


What is your fondest memory of The Fez from when it was open?

My father sold The Fez when I was only a year old so I don’t have any memories

of it personally. I only know it from stories and pictures. For me, The Fez brings

a sense of family and community, as well as food, music, dance and culture that

is engrained in me. Although I only experienced it physically for a few years, it

lives within me.

It warms my heart when I still run into people today, 60 years after it opened and

they have such fond memories of The Fez. Some experienced Arabic food,

music and culture for the very first time and some developed a life long love and

careers in the music and dance, others just talk, with twinkle in their eye, about

the wonderful time they had!

How did it feel to win awards at film festivals?

Winning awards from film festivals has truly been an unexpected and incredible

bonus which I never imagined would happen. Winning ‘The Best Documentary

Film’ from the Lebanese Independent Film Festival in Beirut was really the

highlight for me. Being recognized in a Lebanese film festival for this film which

is about a family of Lebanese immigrants keeping the culture alive in America is

truly an honor for me.


What is the biggest thing you hope viewers gain from watching the documentary?

The goal of The Fez Documentary is first and foremost to document our dance

history and I hope that those who view the film learn about some of our dance

pioneers as well as to document a piece of the Arab American immigrant story.

My goal is also for dancers to see that our dance history in America is based on

dancers of the culture or who learned to dance among the culture

Finally, I hope that my story inspires other dancers to document the richness and

beauty of our dance in their communities.



Now you've started the MENAHT Dancers Collective.  Tell us how that came to be

and started!

As a dancer of MENAHT origin myself, I always felt like an outsider in our dance

form since there were not many of us. We are in an unprecedented time now in

2020-2021, due to the pandemic dancers are taking their art online and so many

dancers of MENAHT heritage are stepping into the light and taking the reins of

their own dance forms. It was important to me to create a safe space online that

we could get together and support each other as well as provide a platform for

dancers of the culture to share their artistic voices and vision.

I am thrilled to see how many dancers of MENAHT origin are choosing to be a

part of the group and the response from the dance community has been

overwhelming!


What was the decision-making process for choosing dancers and will you be

adding more?

I started by including dancers who I know are of MENAHT heritage and then they

suggested others. This group is open to all dancers of MENAHT heritage and we

continue to add dancers as time goes on. The criteria for being a member of the

group is to be of MENAHT heritage and study, teach and perform MENAHT

dances.

Why do you feel it is important to study with MENAHT teachers?

It is essential to study with dancers of MENAHT origin as they provide a

perspective on the dance and culture that you cannot get secondhand. There is

an authenticity of transmission of the movements and how to put them to the

music. So much of MENAHT dances, including Raqs Sharqi, are learned from

dancers who are not of MENAHT heritage. As I mentioned, today we are

blessed to have so many dancers of origin that we have a duty to go to the

source to learn from them. In no way am I suggesting that dancers only study

with MENAHT teachers but to be inclusive and ensure you as a student of this

dance form is also supporting dancers from the source.

What do you hope to achieve with the MENAHT Dancers Collective?

My vision for this group is two-fold. First, it’s to provide a safe space for

MENAHT dancers to support each other and collaborate with each other.

Secondly, it’s to provide a platform to share our art with global dance community

and beyond. I have started a series of weekly online interviews called Live With

Roxxanne which features each of the members of the MENAHT Dancers

Collective. We also intend to produce panel discussions, shows and workshops.

Stay tuned!!


What would you say to someone who might be looking for more resources on

studying with source teachers or looking for reliable information on the dances?


I think it’s important for dancers to learn to research who they study with. There is a wealth of information at our fingertips on the internet. Check dancer’s websites and read their bio ad do some cross checking! There are also dancers and teachers in our community who are well known and respected-ask them who they recommend.

One of the goals of The MENAHT Dancers Collective is to put together a sort of directory of the dancers of origin so that people will know who to contact to learn about a particular style.


Roxxanne Shelaby is the producer/director of the Internationally awarded "The Fez

Documentary", she teaches and performs Egyptian and Lebanese style Belly Dance as

well as Dabkeh and Khaleeji both nationally and internationally and now online too!!

As a Lebanese American, Roxxanne has been dancing Dabkeh socially all her life!  She

has also studied performance Dabkeh since 1998 with master teachers Vivianne

Hamamdjian, Karim Ali, Hasan Harfouche and Malek Andary.  

Being born into the Arabic Nightclub scene in Hollywood, Roxxanne had the good

fortune of growing up surrounded by Belly Dance and Live Arabic Music.  She began

studying Belly Dance and Egyptian Folkdance with Sahra Saeeda as well as Farida

Fahmy (The Reda Troupe) and Faten Mohamed (Kowmeya Troupe) at a very young

age. 

Roxxanne has produced Belly Dance shows for the past 20 years throughout Southern

California and currently produces the highly acclaimed "Fez Nights." www.Roxxanne.net https://youtube.com/channel/UCDNKNLCNn6O9UODaVRB-xEA

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