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Interview with Belly dancer Artemis Mourat

by Salome

Artemis Mourat - belly dance star. Artemis has been dancing, teaching and researching dance history in the United States and abroad for her entire adult life. She brings her spirited and articulate technique to workshops which include information on the history and cultures that generate the dances she teaches. Extensive travel to 33 countries and intensive research into the idioms of the East, women's issues, psychology, ancient history, oriental dance, Romany (Gypsy) dance and dance ethnology have yielded many manuscripts and articles. Artemis has an M.A. in psychology, an M.S.W. in social work (with specialized studies in cross cultural awareness) and has done postgraduate work in dance movement therapy. Her research is used by Egyptian universities, the Middle East Institute in Washington, D.C., the Library for the Performing Arts in New York and by numerous dance publications. She has lectured, taught and/or performed for Cornell University and Princeton University, National Public Radio (NPR), Voice of America and in Spain, England, France, Czech Republic, Slovenia, Canada, Japan, Greece, Turkey and throughout the United States. She uses her writing and her dance and history lectures to fight the racism which exists against the Rroma and to help Middle Eastern dance to receive the recognition and respect that every other legitimate dance form enjoys.

Artemis has done field research in Turkey, Romania, Czech Republic, Spain, France, London, Slovenia, Italy, Egypt and Greece. She has attended Rromany Festivals in France, Turkey and Romania. She has collected wonderful archival video footage and also has one of the largest collections of antique illustrations of women from the Middle East in the United States. Some of these illustrations have been used by the International Encyclopedia of Dance, the Smithsonian Institution, the largest Rromany Museum in the world (in the Czech Republic), the Rromany archives at the University of Texas, all the major Middle Eastern Dance publications and in several books.

Artemis is listed in the International Dance Council (CID) Who's Who of Dance. Her photograph can be found in the International Encyclopedia of Dance under the listing for "danse du ventre" (Belly dance) which is produced by the Oxford University Press. She has won the "Ethnic Dancer of the Year Award" presented by the International Academy of Middle Eastern Dance (IAMED) and the "Most Popular Ethnic Dancer Award" from Zaghareet Magazine.

Salome: I understand that you are of Greek and Turkish heritage. Were you exposed to your multi cultural heritage as a youth? And did music and dance play a part in family life?

Artemis: My father is a Greek who was born in Turkey and his family was there for over 300 years. My mother is American, born in Alabama and raised in NY. There was a pull in all four directions for me when I was growing up. Turkish Greeks are different from Greeks from Greece. We are heavily influenced by Turkish culture. My last name is Turkish and my grandparents spoke fluent Turkish as well as Greek. My father's family moved to a small Greek community in the US and barely learned to speak English. When I was a child, I thought everybody had one set of grandparents who were foreign and the other who were American. I was very much influenced by my father's family in culture but not as much in terms of music and dance. Remember that in Greek and Turkish culture, it was (and still is to a great extent) not considered proper to become an Oriental dancer. But despite my family's objections, I started dancing at 21 and went into the Greek and Turkish club scene in the Washington, DC area. It felt familiar to me - the languages, the food, the people and the cultures.

Salome: What was the dance scene like when you started out and how has it changed through your career?

Artemis: When I started dancing 35 years ago, I was doing the dance style that people call: "American Cabaret." I really do not like this term as it is not correctly descriptive. I prefer to call this genre "Vintage Orientale" as it is based on genuine Pan Arabic and Turkish Oriental dance material and it is an endangered dance form. I then specialized in Turkish Oriental and its mother dance the Turkish Rromany dance and that is where my true heart lies. Both the American Cabaret and the Turkish Oriental styles were eclipsed by Egyptian Oriental dance or what people were calling Egyptian style dance in the United States. Both dance styles were treated very unfairly by the Middle Eastern dance community due to ignorance about them. But this is changing now as people are becoming more open minded and better educated about Oriental dance in general. If you want to learn more about both genres, I have posted an article on my website at www.serpentine.org for you.

Salome: In addition to your many celebrated qualities as an artist you are also a humanitarian. What role does dance play for you in fighting the good fight? And what causes have you used your background in the arts to support?

Artemis: I earned my second Masters Degree in social work almost 20 years ago. At that time, I took some classes on racism that changed my life forever. When I started specializing in Turkish Rromany (Gypsy) dance and its daughter, the Turkish Oriental dance, I realized that I could not perform and teach this dance without telling people about the unfortunate circumstances under which these people live. I felt that if I did not do anything to help them, then I was exploiting them by making money with their art forms. I never teach their material unless I can give at least a brief talk about their history and culture and you cannot talk about that without describing the racism that they fight every day. Many sponsors want more than a brief overview and this is a very good sign.

Salome: You have done extensive field research with the Roma. Can you tell us a little bit about your experiences observing and studying Roma dances?

Artemis: I began studying as much as I could about them. I went back to Spain where I had sometimes lived and saw the Rroma in a different light. I also went to their festivals in France, Romania, Turkey and California. I connected with Sani Rifati of Voice of Roma, an organization that helps Rromany communities. They offer mediation on behalf of displaced Rromany people in Europe. They have also taken food and even goats to his impoverished community in Kosovo (goats provide milk for the babies and these adaptable animals can exist by foraging). I went to Turkey 16 times and lived there for 4 months once. I also began working with Tayyar Akdeniz who is a wonderful Turkish man who lived in New York for almost 20 years. He founded Folk Tours and our mission statement is to build bridges across cultures through music and dance. We put on a huge yearly Folk Tours Middle Eastern Music and Dance Camp in the United States outside of Philadelphia and we also put on the Folk Tours AlaTurka festival in Istanbul (www.folktours.com) . At our events, we have brought Egyptian and other Arabic, Turkish, Rromany, Armenian, Greek, Israeli, Balkan and American Tribal teachers together. These are magical events where music and dance students from many cultures learn, make music, dance and break bread together with people from other cultures. They all get along so beautifully. On a personal level, I have cultivated some cherished and private relationships with some Rromany people from different countries. It is very difficult to gain acceptance with them since it is a closed society. If you look at their history, who can blame them for being cautious? Read the book entitled, "Bury me Standing" by Isabel Fonseca and it will open your eyes.

Salome: It seems that interest in Turkish style Oriental dance in the United States has been rekindled. What do you attribute that to? And what is the state of Oriental dance in Turkey today?

Artemis: I think that the renewed popularity of Turkish Oriental and Turkish Rromany dance is due to the good work of Dalia Carella, Eva Cernik, Tayyar Akdeniz and, if I may say, myself. Oriental dancers who see the Turkish style are excited by the passion and energy of it. The Fusion dancers and Tribal dancers are also interested in including this exciting material into their genres. Our global Middle Eastern dance community is requesting more and more Turkish material.

Today there are still fine dancers in Turkey but unfortunately, many of the dancers are imitating the Egyptian styles of dance and they are using Arabic music. I think that it is great to try different genres and I believe in the right of artists to fuse things together. After all, dance is creative and we are supposed to CREATE. However, it is necessary for us to have people preserve and teach the original styles. If the new generation of dancers in Turkey are all fusing Arabic with Turkish, it will become impossible for the newer students to know where one ends and the other begins. Dance is, by nature, music driven. The music is the backbone of the dance and if the dancers do not use Turkish music, it will not inspire Turkish movement styling from them.

Salome: You have documented, produced, and published invaluable works. Can you name some of these projects and where to purchase them?

Artemis: I have written over 40 articles and several manuscripts (some are being revised at present). I also have 4 DVDs out. There are three from Serpentine Communications and one instructional DVD on Turkish Oriental from IAMED. You can order these through my website at www.serpentine.org. I am now working on a series of DVDs for Serpentine to teach much more about the Turkish Oriental and Turkish Rromany dance.

Salome: What are your thoughts on creating a universal dance vocabulary? And what body of people do you think should guide that process?

Artemis: People were trying to apply the Laban technique to Oriental dance back in the early 1980s but the application of Laban was not successfully completed. The concept of creating a universal dance vocabulary is wonderful but the only way that this would work is if we expanded the movement descriptors and it would have to be extremely inclusive NOT exclusive. In other words, the vocabulary would need to embrace many different movements AND it must include material from all the Middle Eastern dance styles including Tribal and Fusion. I think that our movements should be described in anthropological and anatomical terms. I have seen at least five different movements that people call "the camel walk" and not a one of them looks at all like the way that camels walk. I prefer to describe my version of this step as "a front to back full body undulation going up." I know it is wordy but once you know the verbal components, it is clear.

The people who are guiding this process would have to be open minded and very skilled. We have all seen people who command a great deal of attention because of an attractive website, a charismatic personality and good networking skills. This is absolutely no indication of talent or skill. Yet, some of these people are ever present on the internet and their voices are heard. Some of these people spend more time writing about dance than learning it or performing it. Unfortunately, many of these people become powerful in our dance world. These are not the people who should guide the dance vocabulary process. This noble project should only be undertaken by well skilled impartial observers.

As for certifying people, I think that artists who are truly accomplished may want to certify people who they believe have mastered their specific movement style and techniques. But, beware of the temptation to think that achieving this type of expertise is all that is required to be a good dancer. Each dancer should also learn from many people and explore her (or his) own inner self so that she can then create her own style which is born from her own personality. We must honor our teachers but not become clones of them.

Salome: With the well deserved success you have already achieved, what's next? What directions do you see yourself going in the future?

Artemis: I intend to retire from performing and touring within the next 5 years. I will be very busy teaching and performing during that time. It is most important for me to pass on my knowledge to help to carry on the lineage of Turkish dance. When I finish touring, I will continue to write, research, teach and coach in the DC area indefinitely. I just finished working on a documentary film that is being made in Turkey on Oriental dance. By next year, I will have taught in 27 states in the United States and 10 countries. I think it will be fun to be able to say that I have hit every state before I retire and I am interested in teaching in France, England, Germany Switzerland, Russia, Australia, New Zealand, Italy and the Far East.

Salome: What advice can you give those on a journey for knowledge?

Artemis: Do your homework. Immerse yourself in the cultures that created the dances that you do, through serious study. It is not enough to mimic these steps. You must learn about and respect these cultures. See the realities not the fantasies that you want to believe about these cultures. As you learn about the people, the music and the history, you will be able to express the feelings and the subtle nuances that belong to the dance. Study with lots of teachers (not just your local teachers and not just Middle Eastern people). The only way to achieve proficiency in this and any other art form is to study and practice earnestly. Do not allow anything to diminish you or your healthy opportunities for growth - not the local politics of your dance community, not the jealous boyfriend, not your inner insecurities and not the abundant distractions that will cloud your vision. Dance is a healing and empowering phenomenon. It can enrich your life in innumerable ways - whether you are a hobbyist or a professional artist. Embrace all that it can give you.