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Dance as Celebration

by Margo Abdo O'Dell

For generations, music and dance have been the hallmarks of celebration and fun in my Lebanese family. Though dedicated to my technique, my choice of music and the mechanics of a show, thoughts of those components remain in the shadows when I am on stage. The performance is the celebration, for the audience and for me.

The joyful nature of Oriental dance allows performers to participate in many celebrations in varied venues. From the Army Reserves Intelligence Unit to the police department, from The Minnesota Twins to church groups, from the birthday of a terminally ill father to the birthday of a visiting foreign minister, and from various corporate affairs to renaissance fairs, I have been honored to be part of many. But of all the celebrations an Oriental dancer is involved, none is as steeped in tradition as the wedding celebration.

A Middle Eastern wedding celebration, whether Egyptian, Lebanese, Armenian, Syrian, Saudi, Turkish or Palestinian is one where the dancer has a special place. I remember discussing a time-honored ritual respected and practiced at Egyptian weddings with Nadia Hamdi several years ago. Nadia Hamdi, though now retired from the stage, is a well-known Egyptian dancer who toured the United States a few times in the 1990s. (For an interview with her, go to http://www.margo1.com/articles.html and look for "Shimmying Beneath the Hageb: Reflections on a Weekend with Nadia Hamdi"). Nadia is famous for her performance of the shamadan (candelabrum dance). She explained that in the old days before streetlights, the wedding party would process down the street with the dancer balancing the candelabrum upon her head, leading the zeffa and lighting the way to the festivities. She went on to say that the more well to do families continue the tradition today, but the gala activities take place in a hotel where the shamadan is performed inside. Other elements of the Egyptian wedding festivities include great quantities of food, music and merriment for entire families. Children are always included as they are in any Middle Eastern celebration. Family is central to the culture.

My mother was one of nine children in her immigrant family. When she was alive, I asked her about the Lebanese weddings she attended while growing up. The families were all from working class neighborhoods yet the celebrations lasted several days with food and parties aplenty. The homegrown "band" usually consisted of whoever had an instrument and thought they could play, while the dancer was not always someone to brag about! I was the surprise-wedding gift at one of my first Lebanese wedding receptions many years ago. The family giving the gift was also my accompaniment: a father and his two sons playing nay, tabla and deff. The father in the band grew up with my mother and what a thrill it was for her to have her daughter perform for her community. She was always one of my greatest supporters and I miss her accompanying me to my various ethnic engagements.

The wedding party is a way for Arab-American families to keep some tradition alive while living and raising a family in a new country. For Egyptian families, I have led zeffas around a hotel swimming pool, through a public plaza, across VFW floors, and carefully down the elegant winding staircase of a private club. For Lebanese and Armenian families, I have led the debke (folk dance from the Levant) on patios, in restaurants, and at reception halls both fancy and frugal. I have performed for segregated guests at a Saudi reception and have been joined on the dance floor by Turkish guests too excited to wait until completion of my show. The looks of approval and appreciation from women from the "old country" are the best compensation. Hearing their music and being reminded of celebrations back home has them clapping and zagahreeting. Their eyes sparkle even more when they learn I am Lebanese and we share a few Arabic words.

There is special joy in performing for the weddings of my Lebanese cousins and we have another coming up in December. The extended family has anointed me the keeper of tradition and apparently expects me to perform as long as I can walk. I say that because at the most recent wedding last year, a teen aged cousin enthusiastically told me he wanted me to dance at his, as of yet unplanned, wedding. (I'm not sure I can hold on that long!). In December, I expect to see the full range of generations up and participating in the debke.

Though the first generation of aunts, uncles and parents is aging and beginning to pass on, the second and third generations are trying to uphold tradition. We still remember the actions and words of our grandparents that made us proud of who we were and where they came from. We are a mixed breed now, the Lebanese distilled by English, Irish, German, French and who knows what else! Yet when all the relatives and new in-laws are dancing together at these wedding celebrations, we all know Grandma Hasna and Grandpa Paulos are smiling in approval.

"Margo Abdo O'Dell brings passion and inspiration to audiences and students through her skill and love for Middle Eastern dance arts. Through dance classes, workshops, performances, speaking engagements, and DVDs, you are energized and become part of her artistic world. Sign up for her free e-newsletter by sending an email to margoabdo@margo1.com Contact Margo at www.margo1.com or 612-239-9004 to include her in your next event."