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Hadia Speaks... on Belly Dance

Interview by Janikea

Janikea My first introduction into the world of Hadia was in the DVD review pages of Jareeda magazine. I was immediately drawn to her Ultimate Oriental Belly dance System. After Amel Tafsut had suddenly and sadly moved away, I was on the prowl for a mentor with a no nonsense approach to teaching & at least 25 years of experience under her hip shawl. With almost 40 years in the field of dance, Hadia had an impressive resume which included studying and working in the Middle East with many of the great masters of oriental dance and Folklore, like; Ibrahim Akef, Farideh Fahmy, Zohari Zeki, Mona al Said, Dina, Ibrahim Farrah, Ahmad Jarjour, Raqia Haasan, and the Kohmeya National Folkloric Company of Egypt, I was impressed, To say the least. From her wealth of knowledge, I knew she had answers to some hard pressed questions...

Janikea: I have noticed there is an epidemic of buffet style 2hr. workshops presented almost everywhere now. In fact, I would say that they have become the standard. For many years, I jumped at any opportunity to participate in and absorb as much as possible from anyone with a name on topics of interest. What concerns me most is that these workshops typically left me feeling insecure, fragmented, and with the impression that they were lacking in substance and content. You are, as you say, an eternal student of the arts. From the hundreds (thousands) of workshops you have taught or participated in; is there a formula to follow, and is it possible to present an outstanding and well rounded 2 or 3hour study?

Hadia: As a matter of fact, I don't think that it is possible to teach a 2 hour workshop that is satisfying for either the instructor or the student. People only just begin to get a feel for me and what I do in 2 hours and then the time is up. In fact, when requested to teach 2 hour workshops, I make it clear to my sponsors that I can not really teach anything of any value in less than a minimum of a 3 hour workshop. I also recommend that the best option is to design a series of consecutive 3 hour subjects that create a progressive total package over the entire weekend.

This 2 hour workshop formula can not give the student much more than a superficial taste of dance and a few little combinations that the student is then told to take away and use with any music in any situation. Perhaps this is a good marketing concept, but not such a good teaching tool, as movements and progressions of movements are supposed to "interpret" specific music, not be "plugged into" any music available. Although 2 hour tastes may be good for an attention deficit society, it can not offer the students the understanding or the tools they need to enhance their oriental dance skills.

I have also seen that over the past couple of years, the business of belly dance has almost completely occluded the art of the dance. The long time standard of the oriental dance workshop has been to spend a weekend doing one or two choreographies. I love a good choreography. It offers the instructor a chance to share not only their technique and style, but also their individual interpretation of the music for which they have created the choreography. Although this is preferable to the 2 hour combination "try a taste" formula, this has also created a tendency for students to become prisoners of "the choreography". This has been an increasing dissatisfaction with and resistance to the idea of learning choreographies. if the instructor does not present all of these elements to the students, explaining the why's, why not's, how's and when's, then it is not likely that the student will either understand or even properly execute what is being taught. However, if the instructor clearly explains and teaches the elements in the music as well as their reasons for interpreting these elements in the way they have chosen, PLUS if the teacher is careful to teach, clarify and correct the technique required to INTERPRET these elements, then the students will begin to understand the processes involved and be able to use these processes to alter and adapt the choreographies to suit their own unique style, to eventually create their own choreographies AND eventually not NEED a choreography to interpret and embody the music that they dance to.

Janikea: What I respect most about you is your honesty. If a student is not executing a movement properly, you don't just ignore it and pretend that she is doing lovely. The teacher will often think that they are being "nice" to the student, but this doesn't really help the student to "learn" or understand the movement.

From my own personal experience in your classes, you have taken great care and attention with each individual to clarify, explain and breakdown the movements. Although your classes are really challenging, they are really clear and after several attempts, the movements start to resemble what they are supposed to be AND as a student, it was really clear what I was getting, and what I was not, then you also explained really simply how to get it.

Hadia: As an instructor, I believe that it is my responsibility to assist and guide each of my students to understand and eventually be able to reproduce what I am teaching them in the class(es). I will do whatever it takes to make this happen and I do admit that I can get pretty creative and even outrageous at times. After all the student is there to learn. If they could already do what you are teaching them, there would be no reason for them to have to come to the class(es). Although must of us are taught by the demonstration approach, it is only with the help of individual correction, explanation and breakdown, that the student is guaranteed to actually understand (with their brain and their body). I have always been completed puzzled when students interpret the instructors attention and correction as criticism.

Janikea: You make it very clear that you believe that belly dancing is a very healthy and body friendly kind of dance. Are there specific movements you often see done improperly that could lead to injury?

Hadia: Yes, I do think that our dance form (specifically Egyptian style oriental) is not only a safe and healthy form of exercise, it is also one that can prevent and even correct a wide range of injuries and physical conditions. This has been my personal experience and that of hundreds of my students. However, incorrect posture and/or technique or versions of technique found in other styles of "belly dance" can have quite the opposite effect and create injuries of the muscles and joints.

Some of the common problems include hip, knee, lower back and neck pain. Overstretching of the hip joint, large, aggressive movements that force the hip joint beyond its acceptable range of motion, doing most hip movements and accents on one leg and working with an excessively curved lower back can also create serious hip problems.

This excessive arch in the lumbar spine, especially when combined with backwards leaning posture and backbends, as well as large twisting hip movements, will almost certainly destroy the joints and disc of the lower back over time. Strong driving downward movements of the hips can also damage the lower back and often create the condition known as sciatica.

Dancing with constant and excessively bent knees is an almost certain way to injure your knees, while a relaxed soft knee will keep your knees healthy and keep you dancing forever. The popular trend of doing hip isolations while slowly descending (while bending the knees and keeping the body straight) then coming back up again puts incredible strain on the knee cap and quads. Although it should be obvious, like Turkish drops will ALWAYS destroy your knees.

Of lesser consequence, but still very damaging to the body are large snake arms executed by first raising the shoulder blade, then lifting the elbow and finally the wrist. This will result in rotator cuff injuries. Finally, the very flashy and trendy head throw backs and 360 head rotations are guaranteed to result in chronic whiplash injury and herniated discs in the neck.

On the other hand, the luscious, beautiful, gentle, flowing and sensual style of Egyptian oriental feel soooo good, are sooooo good for the body and will keep both body and soul healthy, happy and dancing with joy and freedom until well into your 60s and even longer!

Janikea: That reminds me of the difficulty I had in unlearning what I had previously had been taught, and how to then relearn proper alignment and muscle engaging. That was very emotional for me. Like a battle of loyalty to my previous mentors and what, for so many years I had been teaching my students. Is it difficult to walk into class, letting your students know that what you've been teaching them was not good for their bodies? How do you prepare for and deliver this kind information?

Hadia: With massive doses of enthusiasm. The way I dance feels good, looks good and is really good for you, so I am VERY enthusiastic about sharing this with others and it does not take a lot of effort for my students to embrace the changes once they experience them with their own bodies. Theories and ideas are great. Anatomical and kinesiological explanations are even better, but what really allows people to just let go of how they are used to creating movement is, quite simply, the experience of just DOING it! It feels so good, so easy, so gentle, so fun, so why would anyone want to have their body feel any other way?

I had a similar experience (I call it my quantum cellular shift) over 30 years ago in San Francisco during a workshop with a Lebanese Canadian instructor. I had been immersed in West Coast "ethnic belly dance" style for several years, with its primary focus on tricky technique, lots of effort and hard edges and no expression or emotional content. I loved what I was doing and learning and the entire mindset of the style and thought that I was the cat's whiskers! However, after 20 minutes with Ahmad repeating one luscious Egyptian oriental movement, I experienced an entire garden of delight within my movement, my body and my soul. I instantly let go of what I had been doing before and knew that I HAD to go off in search of people who could teach me more of what I had just tasted. I did not dwell on what I had been doing previously, just accepted it as part of my journey along the road and let it go with no regrets! So, if you just try it, I am pretty sure that you are going to like it and there is not much need to do a great deal of explaining after the fact.

Janikea: Although I have yet to participate in one, I enjoy watching competitions and seeing how they challenge dancers to be their best. I also appreciate the valuable feedback given by the judges to better their performance. What are your thoughts on Belly dance competitions?

Hadia: One good aspect of competitions is that they provide dancers with a specific goal to work hard, practice and improve their dancing and presentation skills. However, this enthusiasm should ideally be present EVERY time a dancer prepares herself for any performance anywhere. The down side is that they only foster a competitive rather than a cooperative attitude among dancers: they are primarily focused on as a marketing tool as opposed to an accolade or quest for improvement.

Also, oriental dance is really a highly individualized and personalized art form, with only a handful of essential techniques, with a 1001 ways to do each one, according to the music, the mood, the body and the personality of the dancer. Combine this with the perceptions, personal experiences, preferences and understanding of the art form on the part of the judges and it becomes clear criteria and decision are both far too subjective.

Janikea: I understand we have a fairly saturated market. Is there room for anything else? Perhaps, a niche that hasn't been filled?

Hadia: The market of belly dance is not saturated; it is completely oversaturated, has been for some time and is getting more so every year! There are billions of instant new stars who have millions of instant workshops and great marketing strategies. They are attempting to create niches with almost any silly nonsense under the sun, none of which will keep people's attention or interest for more than a few months.

At this point, I believe that there is a good market for real and true masters (not the million and one masters who have instantly sprouted up out of nowhere in the past few years) who are willing to be mentors and teachers for the people who really love the dance and who understand that to really understand and master the art form takes many years of patient and dedicated guidance, while everyone thoroughly enjoys every exciting and 'ahh' moment along the journey. Maybe they don't know it yet, but I think that will.

Janikea: Due to the large popularity and influence of Egyptian Oriental there appears to be a growing interest in preserving the distinct characteristics of and differences between Egyptian and Turkish Oriental, and between Turkish Oriental & Romani dances. Would you give us some examples?

Hadia: I see the present dance scene composed of two distinct groups; one could be described as a movement to preserve certain styles, as they try to DEFINE these styles, to learn, understand them, represent them and teach them to others; a second group appears to have a very different goal and motivation, as I will present later, but first, I will back up a bit...

Although "belly dance" comes from the Middle East; belly dance classes originated in America. The first teachers tried to repeat the rare glimpses and impressions of the dance that they had seen and had a tendency to throw everything into a large, fun and friendly pot and serve it up. There was a bit of baladi, a taste of Turkish (oriental/folklore who knew the difference anyway?), odds and ends of folklore from almost anywhere, not much maghrebi, lots of Lebanese and rare glimpses of Egyptian "Sharqi" all rolled up into one and dressed up as the other - all to the tune of an amazing musical mishmash.

Over time, as access to the Middle East became easier, video was invented and then WOW - the internet arrived, our understanding of the dance forms and styles at the source increased dramatically. Many wonderful and dedicated instructors devoted their lives to researching and sharing this information throughout North America, Europe and eventually the world. The Middle Eastern Dance Arts were really developing solid bodies of knowledge and new standards of excellence. We were even beginning to throw off the "Milaya" of marginalization and be viewed as an art form. It was an exciting, inspiring and magical time!

Then something began to happen... I am still not sure what or how, but I think that it was primarily due to belly dance becoming big business, rather than an art form. This has resulted in a very rapid and global departure from the various dance forms of the Middle East and Turkey, Iran etc.

This trend has been facilitated by the fact that the belly dancing market does not demand the excellence and expertise that is an unwritten standard for recognition in other dance forms. This is true both for performing and instructing (which is even more critical in the preservation of an art form). No qualifications beyond aggressive and major marketing campaigns are required for either and as a result, we all suffer the consequences.

Not only is it possible and even very common to have girls with absolutely no training performing in public, we have students with 1 to 3 months of training out there teaching classes themselves. We even have extremely high-profile, internationally recognized "masters" who have only pursued basic training in many of the forms that they instruct. There are also a lot of "styles" which have popped up over the past few years that contain virtually no elements of Middle Eastern dance or music, so it is pretty confusing out there these days and a bit difficult to preserve anything, never mind try to sort out different styles.

Now back to this question about the differences in styles. There are differences between Egyptian, Turkish, Lebanese, but they are basically oriental and, as such, are highly individualistic, creative and rapidly evolving.

Egyptian oriental is calm, smooth, relaxed, lifted, centered, tubular and focused primarily on undulations and hip shimmies. Lebanese style is busy, more energetic, has much larger steps and travels more than Egyptian, has a backward lean to the torso, large and busy arms, larger, twisting hip rotations, hip shimmies and some pelvic movements. Turkish has no hip shimmies but lots of pelvic movements and side to side hip twists, not much arm movement, floor work and lots of zill playing.

Although many of the Turkish oriental dancers are, in fact, Roman girls, Turkish Roman dance, with the exception of the strong pelvic movements, is a very different form of dance. The Roman is a strong, powerful, earthy, visceral and raw form of dance, at times almost trance like and internal, at times bursting with strength and joy and VERY much a part of the earth upon which these people have been forced to roam. Although each dancer is spontaneous and individual, they all use a repertoire of common gestures and movements that personify and connect them to a past - perhaps the only tangible unifying connection for a people with no history. This form can be compared with the Egyptian Beledi or Moroccan Maghrebi dance forms etc., which are all the basic foundation of these more evolved and complex oriental forms and which are performed by the every day oriental woman within their circles and for their celebrations, as opposed to a professional artist performing for money for a general public. I personally feel that it is VERY important to study these forms with the ladies from these countries to truly understand and preserve the essence of what we call oriental or "belly dance" today.

The situation of preserving folkloric traditions is even more crucial, as these dances are generally very specific to country, region, music, costuming, theme and purpose that is begin presented. I truly love oriental dance, beledi, folkloric and Roman dance and all of the gifts that they have brought to my life. I would love to see dancers taking the time and making the effort to study and present these traditional forms of dance as they are and have been, if we are to preserve them and thus ensure the evolution (and not the degeneration) of oriental dance.

Janikea: What are your future projects and plans. Will they include North America?

Hadia: My future plans definitely do include North America because that is where I am from and where I will live (at least half of the time). However, these plans will revolve around my career as a therapist - not as a dance instructor. I will move to a gorgeous wee village on the Atlantic Ocean in Nova Scotia. I will practice, as well as instruct post graduate courses in advanced techniques of therapy. Perhaps I will teach some dance classes locally and probably work with some very good flamenco artists in Halifax (about 90 minutes away). Also, if people are interested in continuing to study with me, I would be happy to offer oriental dance training and teacher training programs out in this very peaceful and breaktaking beautiful corner of the world.

However, as I really cannot tolerate Canadian winters, I will be spending most of that part of the year far away from Canada. At present, I have a very large and strong following of devoted students in the Far East and South East Asia, so I will be delighted to continue touring to teach dance workshops, as well as my professional dance training and teacher training programs over there. I will also be starting to spend time in Brazil, once my apartment in Salvador do Bahia is finished. Therapy could be part of my reality down there, although dance, both oriental and Brazilian will probably be my primary focus. It is also likely that the other countries of South America will be interested in hosting me for workshops once I am closer and the travel expenses are more realistic for them.

Perhaps, if this absurd over saturation and hyper commercialization of the market that is the current reality in North America, Europe and many other parts of the world (even the Far East and Asia) begins to regain a sustainable level of activity, I may resurface to continue teaching dance over here again. If not, I will just be happy in the knowledge that I have had a very magical, wondrous and blessed 38 years. I will also be very thankful for a life full to overflowing with a very special magic, and so many beautiful and special people, places, experiences, adventures and joy.

Hadia Hadia is one of Canada's natural jewels. "She has the energy of a five year old, the wisdom of an old woman and the ageless spirit of a true dancer." Hadia is considered by all who see her as a dancer's dancer, in every sense of the word.

Accolades: 2003 - Nominated by IAMED for Best Modern Egyptian Dancer. 2002 - Global Woman of Vision - Arts, Entertainment and Culture. 2001 - ADOS Lifetime Achievement Award 2000 - The winner of the International Association of Middle Eastern Dance Best Choreographer Award (Los Angeles, Ca.). 1999 - Giza Academy Award for Best Instructional DVDs.

Hadia has lived and performed through the Middle East and has studied and worked with many of the great masters of oriental dance and Folklore including Ibrahim Akef, Farideh Fahmy, Zohari Zeki, Mona al Said, Dina, Ibrahim Farrah, Ahmad Jarjour, Raqia Haasan, and the Kohmeya National Folkloric Company of Egypt. Her understanding and mastery of the very soul of Raks Sharqi and her innate ability to weave the subtle nuances and textures of oriental music into movement have earned her an international reputation as an exquisite performer of impeccable quality.

Her ingenious teaching skills draw upon her multi-faceted 37-year career as an artist of Middle Eastern, Flamenco, Jazz, African/Afro-Brazilian, Polynesian and Salsa, as well as her 15 years as a registered practitioner and instructor of massage/manual therapy. She skillfully applies her extensive knowledge of anatomy and kinesiology to create thorough, clear and disciplined breakdowns of all techniques. Her understanding of the peoples and cultures of the Middle East is reflected in her attentive application of oriental rhythms, instruments and phrasing, as well as her ability to encourage emotional and artistic expression. She has a fullness and depth to her teaching that embodies her deep love and respect for our art form as it challenges, inspires and accommodates all levels of students - novice to professional. Dedicated to educating dancers, all that she knows she willingly shares.

In great demand internationally as a performer, master instructor and choreographer, Hadia continues to tour throughout the Middle East, including Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, and Syria; Europe (England, Belgium, Holland, Germany, France, Luxembourg, Spain, Italy, Greece, Czech Republic, Hungary); Turkey; The Far East (Korea, Hong Kong, Japan, Bali) ; Australia and New Zealand; Canada and the US; Mexico and South America, including Brazil, Argentina and Chile.

Hadia also conducts dance-oriented tours to the Middle East and Turkey, as well as week-long intensive courses in Professional Oriental Dance Training and Development and Certified Teacher Training Programs in such exotic locations as Acapulco, Bali and Europe, as well as her from her home in Montreal and many other locations throughout North America.