Spotlight On: Samai Oriental Dance Company of India
1. Tell us how your company started
Samai Oriental Dance Company was made official in 2019. Prior to that, I was actively involved in teaching with various academies and curated informative bellydance productions independently, bringing concepts that were never seen before to Indian audiences. The seed for SODC was planted in 2016. What followed was years of careful research, rigorous training with teachers around the world and designing a comprehensive, holistic dance module that would then go on to become the basis of the SODC approach to bellydance education. Our vision, from the start, has been to highlight the historical and cultural aspects of the dance, giving it equal importance as we do to technical dance training. At the time of teaching bellydance and laying the foundation for SODC, I was teaching dance along with juggling a demanding 9-6 job. When I decided to register SODC and make it an official dance company, I took a leap of faith and quit my full time job - something that gave me financial stability and I was doing for 6 years at that point. I did encounter a fair amount of resistance at first, but as time progressed, it made more sense to me and everyone associated with me - I wouldn't have had it any other way. Dance chose me, I chose it back and this is what I was meant to do.
2. What are some of the notable performances you've done?
Starting with our most recent work - I curated a full length, 80-minute tribute to the emblematic dance choreographer and Egyptian dance legend, the late Mr. Mahmoud Reda and paid tribute to the Reda troupe's legacy on September 24. The show, titled, Leylet Reda, highlighted 11 of the maestro's most iconic choreographies across various theatrical folkloric styles. This production was one of the most challenging I've worked on with my students, but also one of the most rewarding. The honour of being able to study this style and technique
with Reda troupe artists and teachers over a period of 6 years, while being able to represent some of their most iconic work and vision on stage, is something many artists only dream of doing. The production has been lauded by the troupe and has paved the way for so many learning opportunities for us as a school, going forward. Vintage Lounge, my 2019 production focused on throwing light on what is understood as the Golden Era in Egypt, with performances inspired by the artistry of Samia Gamal, Taheyya Karioka, Hind Rostom, Nagwa Fouad, Naima Akef and the like. We received rave reviews and feedback for the production as the unique artistry that is often associated with the Golden Era period was never taught earlier or seen before on stage. Some of my other notable performances include a full length online production called Arcanum, with 20 international bellydance artists combining concepts of the Tarot with Bellydance, and an explorative 80 minute performance titled, Strii, fusing concepts of the Mahabharat, the great Indian epic, with belly dance vocabulary.
3. What are you currently working on?
Every year, we focus on a theme. This really gives us a chance to delve deep into one area of study and gives us a chance to explore our opportunities in the subject. Our school focused on studying a wide spectrum of folkloric dances across Egypt and the Gulf from 2020-2022, which culminated in our end of year production. We are ready and pumped to be offering our next set of courses, long-term classes and intensives for 2023, with a fresh theme. Our focus for 2023 is going to be a study of Raqs Sharqi, supplemented by traditional and modern props. Our goal is to give our students a whole year to properly train in and study the various props we use for our dances - the veil, zagat, shamadan etc and incorporate them into their regular study of Raqs Sharqi. This year-long study will give the students an opportunity to present their learnings in "Tale As Old As Time", our 2023 bellydance musical, inspired by the Disney classic, Beauty and the Beast- The first of its kind, with a concept that is yet again, novel in the Indian-belly dance diaspora.
4. What advice would you give to other dance groups on how to Rehearse and stay friends?
Connection with others creates a sense of community. It is imperative to build trust with one another in order to be able to sustain our dance connections and therefore, the community. From my own personal experiences, I know that keeping the communication channel open is extremely important. We need to be able to openly talk to one another, facilitate a process where we can check in on each other every now and then and build safe spaces for each other. We are a small community and there should ideally be no room for animosity or
negative experiences. When you have built a solid foundation with your team, getting together, rehearsing and dancing with one another becomes a far more enjoyable experience and can also help the team be more proactive with dance and/or related work. Once you have everything in place, make it a point to meet up with your teammates outside the regular classroom setting, offer community support/initiatives, get artists or students together, and collaborate with artists from your city or outside, to help build a network and maintain a strong connection with one another.
5. What do you hope for in the future?
In spite of the grief, fear and loss we all experienced during the pandemic, I feel like it brought out some amazing creativity from artists around the world. It also brought the world together in the online format and we were able to network, meet and learn from one another in ways that we may not have been able to pre-pandemic. I'm hoping that we can continue to build on these connections we've made with one another through this time, work on putting some honest, artistic work out (whether in the online or offline format) and continue to support artists across the board. I hope we can be kinder towards one another and build a positive environment for the dancers that come after us.
6. How do you achieve group costumes?
In India, we unfortunately don't have access to professional costume makers or boutiques that specialize in bellydance costuming. Sourcing bulk professional costumes from designers or bellydance boutiques for events and shows is usually an expensive affair, which is why we usually have to design our costumes and sometimes, even tailor it ourselves. We take long, arduous trips to the local market and bulk source material, which we then design on our own and have it all stitched. The whole process takes anywhere between 3-4 months, from sourcing the material to the final product. While this is a challenging aspect for many dance schools here, we think of this as an opportunity to get creative and absolutely love the adrenaline rush we get from having to do the whole thing ourselves. Sometimes, we have to get different sets of costumes made for 30-40 dancers at a time, but this really helps us come together, channel our creativity differently and work on something new. Group costume work has now become a therapeutic activity for our school!
7. What is your biggest challenge?
One of my personal challenges has been to maintain the balance between how much I should be doing and how much I want to do. I'm usually an over-achiever and I have trouble with sitting still. I sometimes take on a bit more than I can chew and end up obsessing over getting all of it done and set impossible standards for myself. This is something I have often talked about in my dance classes and for online lectures. I have personally struggled with perfectionist tendencies and imposter syndrome, which led to chronic anxiety early in 2020 - an aspect of my life that I'm still trying to balance today. Mental health and dance go hand in hand, but we don't have a lot of conversations around the detrimental effects of the impossibly high standards that dancers set for themselves and the pressure we put ourselves through, because we are taught to chase 'perfectionism' in dance. While not everyone struggles with this, this has been my biggest challenge in my dance career and I am slowly learning how to respect my body, be kinder with myself and
others who could be going through these pressures, while having more conversations about this. One of our goals for 2023 is to be able to offer mental health support and wellness initiatives for bellydancers in our school, in the community and for any one who may need it around the world. This online mental health awareness and wellness programme for dancers, C.A.R.E. launches in March the next year and will become central to our school's vision along with everything else we have been doing.
8. What do you love the most about the dance company?
Samai Oriental Dance Company is a true pioneer for belly dance in India and while I love that we are one of the only few internationally-recognised schools that offers a holistic approach to bellydance education, I am particularly proud of the people who make the company what it is. My dance sister and the head of Operations in our company, Meghana Suresh, has been my rock and believed in my vision for the school at a time when it was just a floating idea in 2016. My students, quite literally the backbone of my company, are wonderful human beings, who have hearts of gold, a zeal for learning, with passionate outlooks to dance and life. As a school, we are blessed and lucky to have such a strong set of technically-sound, driven and compassionate individuals, who have been key to our growth!
Shruti Narayanan is the Director of Samai Oriental Dance Company and is an internationally-acclaimed performing artist, choreographer, certified Egyptian folklore teacher and instructor from Bengaluru, India. She has been performing and teaching belly dance for over a decade and began her dance journey at the tender age of 4 in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. For the first 16 years of her life, Shruti was raised in the Middle East (Jeddah, KSA) and was exposed to a host of Indian performing arts by her parents, as a means of keeping her connected to her culture and roots in a foreign country. While in Jeddah, Shruti was rigorously trained in Bharatnatyam (Kalakshetra) under her Guru, Pushpa Suresh for over a decade and completed her Arangetram (Graduation and/Or Professional Debut) at the age of 15. It is this structured practice and disciplined outlook from her classes as a Bharatnatyam disciple, that have now seeped into her personal bellydance practices and is central to her ideology of bellydance education at her school, Samai Oriental Dance Company, founded in 2019. Shruti has a keen interest in the socio-political, cultural and historical aspects of Oriental, North African and Middle Eastern dances and spends a great deal of time working on historical reconstructions of dances from the early 1900s. She is also known for her choreographies and dances inspired by the Golden and Transition Eras in Egypt and her dances using the Reda technique and style. She is currently the only certified practitioner for Muwashahat in India. She additionally holds an IDTA Dance Associate Certification (200 Hours), the Drumzy Foundation Programme Level 1 by Hossam and Serena Ramzy certifications, the prestigious Journey Through Egypt certifications, 1 to 3 by Sahra C. Kent and has recently been conferred the honour of being ambassador of the Reda technique and style in India. In 2021, she was also recognised as the Top 100 Women Icons of India by the Foxclues Network for her performance and teaching work in the field of bellydance. Shruti is actively committed to imparting a well-rounded education in bellydance, going beyond the technicalities of the dance style. She has a number of dance productions to her credit. From charting the evolution of Bellydance to representing the dances and music that emerged from the Golden Era, to infusing Bellydance vocabulary with universal themes such as the Tarot and weaving socially-relevant stories of women through the protagonists of the the Indian Epic, Mahabharat with contemporary bellydance vocabulary, and a full 80-minute tribute to Mahmoud Reda and his legacy - she has done it all. Her projects and productions are a reflection of her desire to preserve the essence of the dance form through various mediums, while engaging the audience in the diversity of bellydance and its deep historical legacy. You will find that her body of work is largely informative, socially-relevant and elegantly designed. She has presented performances at various international festivals and platforms across India, China, Egypt, Indonesia, Italy and has taught at prestigious online platforms and events such as Bwitchs International Festival, Kan Zaman Golden Era Music and Dance Festival and has also been the Jury for the first ever, International Raqs Film Festival, curated by Kamala Almanazar. Apart from being a dancer, Shruti is a classically-trained singer, professional Tarot Reader, a certified Reiki practitioner and holds degrees in Business Management, Arts Management and Egyptology. www.samaiorientaldancecompany.com