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