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Interview with Belly dancer Lulu Sabongi

by Salome

The Brazilian star, Lulu Sabongi, began her Oriental Dance studies 23 years ago. Her performance career started at the Khan El Khalili Egyptian tea house, now a national symbol of Oriental dance in Brazil.

Among her many international performances, the Brazilian Association of Egyptian Culture invited Lulu to Egypt where she performed, televised, at the Shepperd Hotel. She was also invited to officially perform at the International Dance Festival in Egypt. And Shoukry Mohamud brought Lulu to Spain where she performed at the release of his second book, "The dance and its women".

Lulu opened an Oriental dance school, "O Harem", with 7 teachers and 500 students and was the first to release an instructional video in her country, selling 20,000 copies. She has produced 5 additional didactic videos, with great success. She continues to teach in Brazil and abroad.

Lulu Sabongi

Salome: I've heard more than one remark from Egyptian natives that Brazilian Oriental dancers are superior to North American dancers, specifically in terms of musicality. Would you agree? And if so, what elements are present in your culture that allow Brazilians to assimilate and interpret Arabic music with more ease and ability?

Lulu: Yes, I have heard the same comments from Egyptian teachers about Brazilian dancers. I do agree with that. Concerning musicality, I believe that this ability is related to the variety in our own music. In Brazil, because the territory is large perhaps, our ears receive different stimulus, and through that, develop a particular richness when listening to music.

If we consider that people from all over, not just north American, tend to follow the pulse of the song when dancing and not the fluctuation of solo instruments, this could be the reason most Belly dancers are not prepared to translate the wealth of oriental music into movement.

I believe that we all deserve to have oriental teachers who are able to explain how important this audio sensibility is, and further to explore this in detail, teaching how we should listen to the music. Nobody can learn without the right source. We can't just be creative and invent our own way of listening, there are patterns which must be respected and a native person can help us with that.

Salome: You were a part of the Brazilian Oriental dance scene in its beginning stage. Can you tell us about the development to date?

Lulu: When the dance started here you could only find performances at restaurants or special situations, for example, when a group of Lebanese would meet. For many years, those were the only times a dancer could be seen. Everything was very limited.

There were just two restaurants actually, one was called "Bier Maza" and the other, which survived for more than 10 years, was called, "Porta Aberta". But in 1982 my partner, Jorge Sabongi, opened the doors of Khan el Khalili Egypt. The first Egyptian tea house in Brazil, which has been running bravely for the last 24 years.

When we opened we had shows once every 3 months. It became clear very soon that we should produce shows more often. We changed to having a dance show on Saturdays, every 15 days, then Friday and Saturday, every week, until we had a show every night of the week, which continues today.

We started classes inside the tea house, and this gave a huge push toward the development of Oriental dance in Brazil. In part because the classes led to producing instructional videos. Because the videos were the first in my country, and we have a big country, girls from all over who could've never dreamed about learning before were suddenly able to learn through video.

The video collection grew, and now we have in total, 40 tittles, this includes shows and instructionals. Maybe the largest amount in the world released by just one dancer. I cant be sure. But these video's being consumed across the country made a big change. Every video featured me and my students, who were already professionals. This very interesting mix created curiosity for my work, and soon other groups were being generated, studying together, using videos, meeting.

Since I have the tea house plus the school a sort of ring was born. The tea house became a kind of beacon for Belly dance in Brazil, and many schools follow the patterns we established, continuing my technique.

In fact, what I like is that this ring was created naturally, just because we shared knowledge. Mainly here we try to develop the Egyptian style, and this is the preferred style at our place. What we have today is the creation of a huge group which meets for big events involving Oriental dance, and are connected by this special bridge. All of us are somehow linked to my name, through students that became teachers, who nowadays have other students, becoming teachers.

Salome: Tell us about your school.

Lulu: All of the teachers at the school learned dance at the same source, so there is harmony in technique. We don't believe there is a fixed amount of time to develop the structure of a dancer, since it is related to their own difficulties and each person needs her own amount of time to flourish.

Learning all the basics, from the most simple to refined elaboration, the movements are taught little by little. I try to get quality from them, and we know exactly where we should take the next step. It is very nice because the method isn't based on copying the teacher but really understanding what you are supposed to do and feel to get the step you want.

We divide levels into 3 categories: Basic, Intermediate and Advanced. Beyond the dance itself, there are the use of accessories, like swords, sagats, cane, veils, etc. I love folklore so we try to study this part hard as well.

Salome: I understand you are writing a book "The art of Belly dance."

Lulu: Yes, the book is still being created. My idea is to write about my own experiences, useful information about the dance and include a lot of pictures showing the method. I already have the dancers who will work with me on this project. I would love to put a complete guide into this book, serving dancers and others who are interested in knowing more about this marvelous art form. There is a photographer who will be responsible for the images, every single detail. When this is ready, it will be proof again that we can do a lot more if we are united.

Salome: What are your thoughts on creating a universal vocabulary or certification system for Oriental dance?

Lulu: I don't think a certification system is necessary but a respectable source of knowledge that supports dancers and teachers is. Technique should have a big importance, together with quality as a performer, fidelity to the music, and commitment, with a progressive learning process.

Since the dance is open to everybody, many times I feel we have a lack of rules and limits towards the source culture. As Farida Fahmy says, there are no fixed rules, but there is a frame that must be respected.

We should study the Egyptian temperament and their life style, so it will be easier to understand the essence of their dance. We should have contact with the music, country, festivals, and movies. We should feed our eyes and ears with information, this can turn us into wonderful dancers.

A universal vocabulary would be very useful. Teachers travel all over and have to deal with different names for the same step. Why not have the same names? I hope I explained my points clearly, thanks very much for the opportunity. I hope one day you (who is reading this) and I can meet for a coffee or a piece of dance!