Updated: Jun 9
An interview by Nizana El Rassan
Interview with Tarifa Salem
Nizana: Tarifa, thank you so much for the interview, I think the readers will find you as fascinating as I have. We met at some Florida dance events several years back and I was hoping to take your classes, but we both moved. I see you have some classes coming up; can you share with us what happenings you have going on this year?
Tarifa Salem: I’ll be offering 2 Levels of classes at Sage Studios in West Columbia, SC on Tuesday evenings; True Beginner Raqs Sharqi at 6 pm and Tarifa’s Raqs Repertory at 7 pm for more advanced students who are interested in performing with me at a few upcoming gigs I’ve accepted. I’ll also be teaching Lyrical Dance Class at the Lourie Center SC in Columbia, SC which is an adult activity center. I have been teaching Cardio/Core, Gentle Yoga/Stretch and various dance classes at the center for the past 3 years and really love it. My focus in 2023 is on local classes and events. Since my last total knee replacement, I’ve been spending time modifying my choreography to my limitations. Now that I have two bionic knees, floor work has become more of a challenge, but I refuse to abandon that most mystical aspect of the oriental dance.
N: That is awesome, you have a lot going on and I am glad to see you are keeping at it and still loving it! So, tell us about your dance journey, what has led you to teaching these classes today? Who have been your biggest influences?
TS: This has been a lifelong journey. Being born into a Lebanese family within a tight knit Lebanese community where all aspects of social life revolved around extended family gatherings and Eastern Orthodox Church activities (haflas, weddings, christenings), my siblings and I were immersed in Middle Eastern Culture where we were exposed to Arabic Music and Dance from very early childhood. My maternal grandmother, Abla Farrah was one of my biggest influences. She taught us how to do the dabke and what we called the “Happiness Dance,” a refined version of what is referred to as “Raqs Sharqi” or “Danse Orientale” among Arabic folks.
I had no plans to pursue Middle Eastern Dance…. my aspirations were to be a singer/dancer/ actor on Broadway. After graduating from undergraduate studies with a BS degree in Health/PE/Recreation with a Dance Emphasis, I obtained a job in NYC as a Dance and PE teacher at The Nightingale Bamford School, an elite girls’ K-12 private school on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. That was my opportunity to get to NYC for what I thought would be my big break. I started taking jazz classes at Luigi’s studio and an array of other open classes at Steps on Broadway and Carnegie International School of dance. Once in a while, I would go to Fazils to watch my uncle, Ibrahim Farrah, teach his classes. Though the family did not appreciate it, he convinced me to take class with him. When I first started, I was quite overwhelmed because his oriental dance technique was above and beyond the “homestyle” Arabic dancing I had been exposed to as a child. In order to catch me up with foundational work, he sent me to Carnegie School of Dance to study with Phaedra, a principal dancer in his company, Ibrahim Farrah Near East Dance Group and also his life partner. She was very particular on execution and line. She was a great influence on my own teaching style. When she felt I was ready, she sent me back to “Uncle Bobby “aka Ibrahim Farrah and though it was quite intimidating at first (he had high expectations from his students and very high standards on how the art should be represented), I became enthusiastic and looked forward to the challenges his classes provided. We all worked so hard to execute his choreographic sequences with passion while trying to capture the essence of the Raqs Sharqi. He was my number one mentor and influenced my art more than anyone else. The opportunity to work backstage and perform with the Ibrahim Farrah Near East Dance Group from 1979 – 1982 was most certainly a career highlight.
There were many others who greatly influenced me. Jemela Omar was one of them. I saw her perform at the Darvish, a Lebanese Nightclub in the village on a weekend visit to NYC to see my uncle. I was a freshman Music major at West Chester State College in Pennsylvania. She was the most dynamic Middle Eastern Dancer I had ever seen. I promptly changed my major from music to Health/PE/Recreation so that I could declare an Emphasis in Dance upon my return. From that point on, all my electives were dance technique classes, choreography, dance production, etc. Many years later, after developing a close friendship with Jemela, I interviewed her for Yallah Magazine, a Miami based Dance Magazine I wrote for.
Nadia Gamal came to NYC to perform at Town Hall with the Ibrahim Farrah Near East Dance Group, which I was a member of, during the summer of 1981. I was totally mesmerized by her command of the stage during rehearsals and the performance. I was struck by her ability to direct the musicians in rehearsals in making small changes to provide smoother transitions. Her incredible talent and stage presence had an indelible effect on me. To be on the same stage with her was a dream come true. What was even more special was to have been assigned by my uncle to assist her during her stay because it gave me the opportunity to get to know the person that she was. She showed me every kindness. As I am writing this, I pause to look up on the wall above my desk at the photo she gave me with a personalized message handwritten on it. Her photo is right next to my uncle’s photo, and I often look up and see them both together thinking how sad that they both passed before their time. I keep them both within my heart.
N: Remarkable. What a life story! So much
history and culture. It actually brought tears to my eyes hearing how magical this all was. Growing up in this family, especially with your famous uncle, Ibrahim “Bobby” Farrah, must have been very special indeed. I studied with Maleeha who spoke fondly and highly of him. What is your favorite memory of Bobby and did you get to perform together?
TS: Obviously, we performed together when I was part of the Ibrahim Farrah Near East Dance Group, but we also had danced together at family functions. My favorite memories of Bobby when I was a child was when he would dance informally at church picnics or haflas where they always had live Arabic music and then maybe lead us all in the dabke. Another favorite memory was when he and Phaedra danced at my wedding in 1976. He brought Eddie Kochak to entertain which as you can imagine made my wedding into a real Lebanese happening! He also led the Dabke all night so everyone was happy! I was honored when he stood as Godfather to my firstborn. He was a doting Godfather and I have wonderful memories of his interactions with both my kids. Sadly, my son (his Godchild) was only in 9th grade when he passed.
N: That is incredible, and he sadly did pass too soon. Thank you so much for sharing these very special memories!! What have been some of your (other) favorite performances and what made them special?
TS: I enjoyed performing at the Lebanese Love Affair in February 2016. I had given my “Farrah Factor” power point presentation and in the evening, performed a Folkloric Handkerchief Dance. For the finale, I got to do a little improv performance with Sami Khoury and Lebanese Simon and Sami ended up leading the Dabke and everyone who performed came out and joined us and I felt like I was with family just having fun dancing. I really enjoyed dancing after my “Farrah Factor” workshop and PowerPoint presentation in Jacksonville 2017. I did a solo performance, but also my students and I performed my Veil Fantasy number and those who took the workshop danced Ibrahim Farrah’s “Ayeela Tayha” choreography which is what I taught in the workshop. It was just pure joy! I also enjoyed performing at the Sweetheart Gala in 2018 after teaching a Zar Workshop. I premiered a choreography that was a fusion of Sufi, Zar and Veil. It was one of those performances where everything came together, and it felt good. There are so many more.
N: I bet it was hard to pick just a few, and those events sound amazing. I love when everything comes together. You have a Master of Arts in Dance Education and studied other styles of dance as well, if I recall. How have those studies influenced your dance style and your teaching?
TS: Of course. My ballet, modern dance and jazz dance studies have played a major role in my ability to keep my body strong throughout my career. Technique has helped me to understand the importance of correct alignment, proper execution of movement and kinesthetic awareness, all of which I try to convey to my students. My ability to deconstruct movement and evaluate qualities of movement help me in every class I teach. Much of this comes from my graduate studies in Dance Education. Dance Kinesiology, Effort Shape Movement Analysis, Dance Production, Choreography, Dance Anthropology and Dance History Appreciation have all given me the tools to go deeper into content with my students and to help them connect the dots between technique, expression, design, culture, aesthetics and production.
N: You are the whole package and I know you have also had your articles published and several other accomplishments. I hope your local students know what a true gem you are!! What advice do you give to your beginning dancers?
TS: Dance for self-fulfillment and personal growth. Try to find the pure joy of expressing yourself through movement regardless of your level of ability. Don’t let frustration rob you of attaining that joy. Give yourself time to blossom in your ability to move.
N: Great advice! On a different note, what is one of your passions outside of dance?
TS: My grandchildren, cats, and coonhounds! They are my raison d’etre!
N: How fantastic! Those certainly are worthy reasons for living! Thank you so much for spending time on this with me, Tarifa. This was an over-the-top awesome interview. It was great being able to share your talents and history with the readers! For more information, go to Tarifa’s website at https://www.tarifasalem.com/ and she is also on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/tarifasalemeasterndancearts
TS: It was my pleasure to share a bit of my history with you and your readers. As an older dancer, I find revisiting my past to be quite therapeutic so Shukran! (Thank you)