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Interview with Amel Tafsout

by Robynne

Amel Tafsout "Brought up in Algeria, Amel Tafsout was fascinated by dance and music since childhood and grew up among the finest traditional dancers and musicians of her native country.

She also studied European Folk dance in Algeria, dances of her neighbor Maghreb countries and the Middle East, African Dance in Europe and Afro-Cuban dance in Cuba.

Her research focuses on ritual dances of the Maghreb (reflecting the dual Amazigh-Berber-Arabic identity of Algeria), the Middle East, West Africa and Cuba. She looks at the ways in which spirituality is part of a daily life and sees the dance as a search for harmony between Body, Mind and Spirit."

"The roots of the dance are focused on specific Maghreb communities; Imazighan (Berber), the Djurdura, Ahaggar and the Aures in Algeria. Also, the Rif and the Atlas from Morocco are included, as well as Matmata in Tunisia, then Libya and Mauritania; and lastly* the city Andalusian dances in the Northern regions.

The dance is at the same time public and personal to the dancer. It carries symbolic dimensions, examining and interpreting that which is Life: the value of planetary movement and their relations to the Earth, known in other areas and spiritual paths as "the Wheel of the Year". It is a celebration of Mother Earth's fertility; and the personal and cultural feelings of Communication between the Earthly and the Divine. "Maghreb Dance is about contact with Life and Nature, where the woman represents Nature and the man the Human being." (http://www.ameltafsout.com/dance_life.html)*

Robynne: What exactly is North African Maghreb Dance? Obviously, this means the cultural dances of the region, but can you give me a breakdown of the costuming, some of the movements, things we could use to identify it, if we see it?

Amel: It does vary between the North and the South, [in the south] people wear more loose costuming because of the heat and the Northern costumes are more "Andalusian", with a special pant and waistcoat, and more elaborate.

There is also the Berber-Amazigh costumes with a lot of silver jewelry and some dresses that look like Eastern European dresses but with more flowers and embroidery. Algerian head-dresses are very famous, such as the ones of the Ouled Nayl tribe, with a lot of heavy head dress decorations and feathers. They inspired the American Tribal dance turbans, among others. View Amel's Algerian costume pictorial.

The movements are, first of all, earthy and strong as Berber-Amazigh dances are all fertility dances. Strong hip and belly movements such as hip drops and belly drops, more syncopated chest movements and many shoulder shimmies. Facial expression is also important. In Maghreb dance, the basic movements are the same as in Middle Eastern dance but the focus is different because of the rhythms. North African rhythms are more related to African rhythms, the one is on the off beat whereas in Middle Eastern dance, the one is the on beat. So, Maghreb dance is strong, fluid and very spiritual because of the use of rituals. The connection to the audience is very important.

Robynne: You have performed all over the world, for a variety of cultures. Do you have one performance that stands out in your memory, a time that you really connected with your audience, maybe a time you learned something, just a memory that stands out?

Amel: Yes I have many beautiful memories and it is difficult to choose which one was the best. (Your question is interesting as it is only in the U.S. that people are so related to the competition in choosing what is the best...)

I can remember my first performance in London, UK at the I.C.A. (Institute Of Contemporary Arts). I had just moved to London from Germany, and after only a few months I was invited to perform in such a prestigious venue, in a dance festival called "Sans Etiquette" involving mostly Modern contemporary dancers.

I performed with an 9 piece music band. I was not only dancing but also singing and drumming. I performed traditional Maghreb dances, ritual, and Andalusian as well as my own dance experience from the Afro Cuban, African and North African background.

The venue was sold out every night and the audience was incredible. The whole performance was such a journey as it was breathtaking for all of us. I was like in an altered state of consciousness; there were so many changes in the rhythms and the music and I felt lifted and I had to just surrender to what was happening.

After the show the audience couldn't just clap and leave; many people came to me to talk, as they said they had never seen such a performance. That was a big breakthrough for me as I am not a cabaret dancer.

Robynne: Your research focuses on the ritual dances of the Maghreb, the Middle East, West Africa and Cuba. Do you find similar rhythms, patterns and movements, or do you have to completely start from scratch in learning them?

Amel: Yes, many similarities. The melody is often related to the Middle East, especially the singing, the improvisation called Taksim, the feeling. The rhythms are often related to Africa and Cuba as well as some of the movements.

Robynne: Would you consider this "bellydance" in the same scheme as American Cabaret, or Classic Egyptian?

Amel: No, it is a more Ethnic dance and I call it MAGHREB DANCE as it is traditional and contemporary dance of a specific region.

Robynne: I know in the past, you have traveled extensively. Do you find that with today's restrictions that this has become harder?

Amel: I love traveling but today it is indeed more stressful. As a performer there are things you need to take, such as the costumes but also the jewelry, the make up and when I give workshops I need another outfit and also the music as people don't know about North African music. I have special music compilations for them, so all that is weight; putting all that in a small suitcase is impossible. Not to mention that many airlines make you pay for the first bag.

I find it easier to travel overseas as I am still allowed to have at least one big suitcase, but traveling in the US is so stressful because of the weather changes and delays. So, I try to take a simple costume and also to fly less or to focus my travel in specific months.

In June I am going to be touring in the UK and Hungry; it is easier to fly in Europe because of the distance. In the US I am still trying to find my way! Not to mention the stress going through the security, taking off the shoes, making sure that I have no liquid, and so on...!

Robynne: As someone that has grown up in this culture, do you find it difficult to watch someone that learned third or fourth hand?

Amel: Not at all, it is not difficult. I really enjoy watching American dancers as I find them very creative. The very professional ones respect(...) our culture, do their "home work" as they try to find out about everything and I have a lot of respect for them.

Amel's website is an amazing resource for more information about Maghreb dances. In it, one can find not just workshop and performance schedules, but a plethora of cultural information. The background of the dance, and the specific costuming information examples are genuine, not just commercial. You can also find articles and resources for the history of the dance, the fine details and some great pictures.