Interview with A’isha Azar
by Staff Writer Nizana El Rassan Nizana: Thanks for the interview, A’isha! When I heard this issue’s theme was “along the Nile” I thought of you and your dedication to Egyptian style dance. When I first started dancing, I studied with American Cabaret style dancer Azura of Spokane, WA and then I began studying and performing Egyptian and folkloric styles with you. Thank you for that solid foundation!
I know you’ve pretty much retired from performing, but I also know you are staying active in the dance community! I think the belly dance community should be aware of the A’isha Azar project, your ongoing workshops and your efforts to be involved with quality presentations. I understand you are also emceeing, and some other things you’ll have to spill the tea on!
But first, tell those in the community who may not be aware of you or your contributions to the dance field, a little bit about yourself and the evolution of your dance journey. I recall you performed American Cabaret before becoming mostly? fully? immersed in Egyptian and folkloric styles. How did you get started and who has influenced you most along the way?
A’isha Azar: I have been dancing since 1974. My introduction to the dance was at Renaissance Faires in California. My first teacher was Jodette Silhi and my second was Badawia. Jodette was Egyptian in her style and Badawia danced the style of Jamila Salimpour. I then studied with American dancers because that is what was available. For me, I LOVE American Cabaret. It is my 2 nd favorite style. But I always felt a pull back toward
Egyptian though I had a very hard time finding a teacher. Then one day I saw a video of Suheir Zaki at the home of Marlene Powers, and I KNEW I had to get back in touch with those Egyptian roots. I stopped studying everything else. I took very few live classes but began to study videos of Egyptian dancers intensely. Because I had a good foundation in movement, I began to be able to really SEE how the style differed from what I had learned from western dancers, and I began to incorporate what I was seeing, after tearing the movements down and dissecting them. I have also since had the privilege of studying with native dancers. And along came Shareen el Safy! Not only were her classes just what I needed physically, but she also bolstered and validated what I had been learning through watching videos. (BTW I rarely recommend trying to learn by video. It usually takes years of study with live teachers before we understand what we are doing and can actually break down what we are seeing. Even with teaching videos, there is no feedback and that is a very necessary part of the learning process.)
One of my pet peeves in dance is those classes where we are treated like herd animals instead of individuals. I have made it my goal as a teacher to NOT be that kind of instructor. Many years ago, I started developing a teaching format that I call “Student Based Awareness”. It takes to heart the theories of Howard Gardner, who believes firmly in seeing students as individuals, with individual learning talents and challenges. I became very
interested in developing a teaching format that addresses people as individuals in the class setting, whether it is a private lesson or a full workshop. I limited my workshops to 30 people because I feel that I cannot successfully give individual attention to more people than that. I strive to recognize each person in class as important as the information that I am imparting through movement, music and lecture. I want to be sure each person in class recognizes that I really SEE them and am there to work FOR them, not just to stand up in front of them and
And of course, through dance, I have been introduced to so many wonderful aspects of various cultures, including music, food, traditional clothing and other arts such as jewelry, beautiful pottery, textile arts, poetry and a host of other wonderful things.
Nizana: What is it about Egyptian dance that you love and how did you know the style was for you?
A’isha Azar: There is SO MUCH about Egyptian dance! First, there are things that are so subtle, so culturally inherent that they are often missed. That total involvement of the torso and pelvis that drives most everything even when it is not obvious. That way of presenting movement so that the mechanics are not in your face. That connection to the music that influences everything else. The complexity of technique that enhances something
even as simple as a small hip circle or a lean into the side of the body. The way Egyptians use their arms as frames for movements on an almost unconscious level that we outside the culture have to learn to really SEE to even begin to emulate. And that is just one example of what comes naturally that we must strive to understand, both physically and culturally as well as emotionally. This is one area where the Eastern European hard girl stuff has stepped so totally away from the dance, unfortunately. One of the most important things I have learned is that when we try to remove the cultural elements from the dance…… we no longer have the dance. We have something else; maybe just as intriguing, but not the same thing any more.
Nizana: Absolutely, all of those nuances and you make a good point. Tell us a little bit about your costuming experience. Were you a costumer before being a dancer and have you retired from costume making? I still have three of your gorgeous costumes!
A’isha Azar: Oh, thank you! I began costuming because I was too poor to buy them. I learned some things from accomplished seamstresses, namely my friends Kathy White and Hallah Mousafa. Kathy danced in the same company as me and had been sewing since she was a girl. She made costumes for many of the dancers in Spokane. When Hallah moved to Spokane we worked together on costumes. She was a trained designer and she is the best draper I have ever known. She could make cardboard act like silk! She taught me about fabrics and fittings and I taught her beading techniques and experimentation with different elements. She also really expanded my horizons with the use of color. I was into interesting textures and I learned so much from her about creating a costume feeling with textures. I still am into texture though I no longer costume. I teach movement texture now!
I did spend 7 years as costume designer and shop supervisor in Eastern Washington University’s Theater Department. I learned so much about presenting performance there. When I worked there, I also costumed the dance program and the music program as well as outside things like Gonzaga University’s Opera Workshop and the Christmas Carolers who sang in downtown Spokane.
Nizana: That is awesome! Speaking of performances, you have hosted some wonderful shows and dancers in the past including DaVid of Scandinavia, Ahava, Mark Balahadia and others. Who are some of the other dancers you have hosted (or been hosted by) and do you have a poignant or funny story you can share about one of those events?
The first person I hosted ever was way back in the 1970s and she became a regular teacher of mine as well as a good friend. Badawia was from Jordan, but she taught American Cabaret dance in the Salimpour style. She was beautiful, a wonderful dancer and funny as heck once you got to know her. What she really taught me was that there are things that culturally forever mark us and that each culture is different in a general sense of how people
see and relate with the world. Anthropologists refer to this as “world view.” She taught me how to see through different eyes, see the dance in a different way. She also was very supportive when I was going through the phase where I wanted to deeply study Egyptian Raqs Sharqi. She shared some amazing music with me and told me to start using it. She is the first person who ever really explained to me how much the music IS the dance!
Baharat Dance Company and I separately over the years have hosted some wonderful dancers! Cassandra, Aziz of Utah, Badawia, Jodette, Hasani Abbot, Miriam of Mexico, Mohammed and Dina Hamid of Jafra, Salome, and Arizona’s Mahin, to name a few. Many times, our purpose has been to sponsor up and coming dancers who have a lot to offer but have not yet been “discovered’ by the larger dance world. Mark Balahadia and I have
hosted each other and both experiences were wonderful. Mark is a fantastic dancer and a wonderful teacher. If you want to learn about Iraqi or Lebanese belly dance, he is the person to see! Mark got me a metro card so we could travel on the subway to the places we needed to go in New York City for the classes I was teaching and the performance. I LOVED that and Mark was extremely patient with my overly effusive attitude toward having a Metro card. When we got back home, his sister Sharon was there and I proudly took out my card and said, Look, Sharon. Mark bought me a Metro Card!” She looked at me with such disdain and said, “Oh my god, you are such a rube.” I laughed so hard! I still have that card and I keep it in my wallet just in case magic transports me to NYC! BTW, Mark is also one heck of a great cook. His Biryani is second to none!
On that trip to NYC, some wonderful things happened. Morocco, whom I love so much, walked into my class and surprised me!! I actually cried because she has been so supportive of me since we met in person many years ago in Seattle. She is one of the people in the dance community who has sustained me in my lowest moments and rejoiced with me in the good times.
And I got to meet Kay Hardy Campbell in person after years of loving her work in Aramco Magazine. I was so grateful for the opportunity to talk with her and get to know her a bit. Kay was so complimentary about my classes and I felt very validated. She now lives in my home state of Maine. Kay is remarkable in her ability to bring things about the cultures to life in a way that makes us remember. She is so conscious of the subtle, important, small things, which is where every culture really lives.
Nizana: Wow, sounds like some great times and friendships! Thoughts on the newer dance and music styles of sha’abi and marhaganat in Egypt? Favorite piece of music you used to dance to?
A’sha Azar: Shaabi has been around for a good long time, since the 1980s at least. I think Shaabi and Mahraganat have their place, but the problem is that many dancers are confusing that place with belly dance. They are not the same thing at all, have different meaning and purpose within the culture. As one segment of a long performance they are fine. As THE performance, they tell a very short story. Really, I have more a favorite composer to dance to rather than a specific piece of music. I LOVE Ahmed Fouad Hasan! His music was very much culturally based, and he used western instruments alongside traditional ones
in a perfect blend that made rich, complex things happen. His music appeals to me so much because even after years of dancing to it, there are new things to discover, pretty much as often as a person lets their heart and soul really hear it. And next is Hani Mahenna and Baligh Hamdi who are pretty much from the same era.
On my teacher’s forum on Facebook, I recently asked what new belly dance music people were liking. The general response was that no one was liking very much of it. They preferred the older composers and orchestras. I think the thing is the play between melodies and rhythms in the older music that is missing in beat driven newer pieces. There is often no softness. Dancers need both to really feel complete. Based on that, for newer stuff I like what Georges Lammam is doing. He respects tradition while bringing new elements into his
Nizana: Great choices. Please tell us what you have been involved in since “retiring.” I know you are still teaching some workshops; tell us about those- are any still online? Describe what the A’isha Azar project is about, your work with (troupe) Baharat and whatever else you have going on for a “retired” dancer?
Yes, I am teaching online and I have been so happy about the dancers who are attracted to our classes. Really, it is Namva Chan and Sue Duffey who make the classes possible because I am a Luddite. Technology and I are not on friendly terms! We have dancers from all over the States, Canada and beyond. One very special dancer, Iris Galesloot, regularly joins us from the Netherlands. Iris and I are old friends from the Oriental Dancer forum days and it is so wonderful to connect with her online! I have recently gone back to teaching in person, too, which I have very much missed. As you know, I am a very hands-on teacher who sees the people in my classes as individuals, with individual dance skills and individual challenges that a teacher really needs to, not only see, but also acknowledge and know how to foster the good stuff while correcting with positive messages geared toward the student. The dance is personal to each of us and it must be taught with that in mind.
Baharat Dance Company; I founded it in 2004, was Artistic Director until 2014 when I retired from performance. Now it is in the very capable hands of Namva Chan who is a wonderful dancer in her own right. We focus on bringing dances from various regions and countries of the Middle East, North Africa, the Near East and India. We have studied for decades, with natives and many of the best western dancers. We strive to bring our audiences culturally based, fun entertainment and also to educate. I am now the announcer and only do tiny bits
of dance in order to allow for a costume change or some such.
The A’isha Azar Dance Project is really the brain child of Shining Belly Dance and Namva. It took a couple of years of poking and prodding, but they both finally convinced me that I have a very unique approach to teaching the dance and that my classes need to be on film so that they can be accessed by people now and once I am no longer able to teach. The classes seem to attract dancers who want to delve deeply into things like the music
connection, how the body actually generates movement and from where, how to present movement to an audience as opposed to just doing movements, etc. Right now, we are about in the middle of a year- long study called “Exploring.” We dive into a movement family and look at it from many angles, including how variations might express music, what the cultural aspects might be, how to show a movement to its best advantage, etc.
Our classes are meant to emphasize the dance as a holistic thing, not just as a set of movements. The Project is growing and we are getting a good reputation for true quality in teaching online. I am proud of the work we are doing.
Nizana: That is fabulous, all kinds of cool stuff. You sound just about as busy as you were when you were dancing! It is great that your institutional knowledge is being carried through in these different ways. As the dance world evolves, change can be good, and it is also important to
hold on to the roots and foundations of the styles, honoring the cultures and traditions. Thank you, so much, A’isha, for spending this time with us, you have
accomplished much in your dance journey. I am glad to have studied with you (and hope to get around to another online class) and I’m glad you haven’t completely retired!!
A’isha Azar: Thank YOU for having me and it is good to spend time with you again. We have known each other for many
years and it is nice to connect.