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Interview with Belly dancer Tarik Sultan

by Salome

"With a career spanning almost 20 years, Tarik Sultan is one of the few male Oriental Dancers in the world. He is the proteg'e of dance legend "Morocco", a leading pioneer and authority in the field of Middle Eastern Dance and was the assistant director of her company, "The Casbah Dance Experience from 2002 till 2005.

Over the years his talent and dedication to the art of Oriental Dance has earned him a reputation as a dynamic performer, teacher and choreographer in his own right. He is also a dedicated researcher and has written several articles on the history and culture of Oriental Dance. To that end, Tarik regularly travels to the Middle East and North Africa in order to increase his knowledge and to document the various folk dances of those countries.

Tarik can be seen at the clubs Le Souk, Casbah Rouge and Mehenata where he performs regularly every Friday and Saturday nights, (consult the Shows page for times and locations). He also performs one Wednesday of every month with Morocco at "The Lafayette Grill", in her Monthly Magical Mideastern Moments show."

Tarik Sultan

Salome: Dancers are often heard to comment that they were compelled to learn Oriental dance after seeing a performance. You, however, had a relationship to the music first, dance coming later. Tell us about your beginnings with the music, how long before you got involved in dancing and how did your early love of the music benefit your dance training?

Tarik Sultan: It's true, I came to the dance through the music when I was in High school. Music was always central to my existence even from the time I was a baby. By the time I was a toddler, I had learned how to work the stereo system. I grew up to the sounds of Ska, (precursor to Reggae), Mambo, Salsa, Calypso; but it seems that my ear was always tuned to Middle Eastern music. My mother tells me that when I was as young as 3 or 4, I got excited whenever I heard that music on T.V. or in a movie and would ask her where it was and what it was like there.

I didn't start listening to it seriously though until I was in High school. I accidentally found several weekly Arabic music programs on the radio while channel surfing. This music made me feel happy and it was also a way of escaping the ugliness and negativity around me. I grew up in the Bronx and at that time our community was struggling with the AIDS epidemic, drug addiction to Crack and the gang violence that erupted as a result of fighting for drug turf. For the next three years, I made sure that I was tuned in to those weekly community programs wherever I was and I would forget the madness I saw and heard around me. I started taping the programs so that I could listen to them through the week. Pretty soon, Arabic music was the only thing I listened to.

Occasionally, I would go to a dance concert, or performance. Not because I had any interest in dance, but because I knew if there were going to be dancers, there had to be music. Nevertheless, after three years of listening, to this stuff, I wanted to learn how to dance to it, but I didn't know how guys moved to it. When I saw a male dancer, (Sergio), at Morocco's concert, I asked her if men really did move this way. People had been telling me for years they did, but I didn't believe it. When she assured me that they did, only not on stage, I started taking classes with her, but I had no intention whatsoever of performing.

Listening to the music all those years did help me greatly. I automatically knew how to respond to the rhythms, when to anticipate a change and which movements best suited the changing rhythms and melodies of the music. I also knew how to hear the music and be able to follow it. It sounds like a simple thing, but one of the things I spend the most time on in classes is teaching people how to move in time with the music. Because they're unfamiliar with it, they often don't know what to listen for or follow in the music, or which movements work with a particular rhythm and which ones don't. Because of my previous exposure, this was second nature to me. I didn't have to be told, it just made sense.

Salome: Morocco is a revered figure in the Oriental dance field and something of a character! Can you tell us something about your experience as her protege?

Tarik Sultan: I owe my career to Morocco. She took me seriously, saw my potential and encouraged me when no one else did and gave me my first opportunity to visit Egypt and Morocco to see the dance in its native setting.

She encouraged me to sit in on the company rehearsals because she saw that I was hungry for knowledge. Pretty soon I was a member in the company. In between rehearsals, she would answer all my questions. Through her I learned about the history behind the dance and what was fact v.s fiction. This was one of the reasons why I decided to become a dancer. I wanted people to know that this is a real dance and not something sleazy. I figured the best way to do that was to get out there and show them.

It was at Morocco's insistence that I started teaching a dance class and a few years later, doing seminars. In the beginning I couldn't afford dance classes, so she had me do the warm-ups for the class in exchange. She noticed that I had a talent for explaining movement and had the potential for being a good teacher and so she pushed me in that direction. Truth be told, I wanted to stay home to watch cartoons. Hey, it was the X-Men, can you blame me?!

Salome: I understand you have traveled to root countries to further your studies. What insights and experiences have you gained from these tours?

Tarik Sultan: In 1988 I traveled to Egypt and Morocco for the first time. That experience totally changed my understanding of the dance, myself and the culture the dance comes from. In the States, many dancers were still portraying the harem girl fantasy stereotype, or they were overly concerned with what props they were dancing with rather than how to interpret the music. Not too many people were doing the Egyptian style of Oriental Dance. Many had never even seen or heard of the legendary Egyptian Dancers. Getting videos back then was still pretty hard. Morocco and Aisha Ali's video collections were still the most accurate sources to see authentic Egyptian dancers and Mid East and North African Folk Dances.

I saw Sohair Zaki perform at the Nile Hilton my first night in Cairo. I remember she wore a green dress covered in green sequins, a gathered hip belt with no fringe and a tiara. She had a 30 piece orchestra behind her. I'd never heard anything like that in my life! What struck me about Sohair was that she didn't do any of the things that most dancers in the U.S. did. She didn't give the guys any seductive stares, she didn't run over and wrap her veil around some guy in the audience, in fact, she didn't have a veil at all. She took her place in the middle of the dance floor and began to move to the music with an air of confidence and grace like I had never seen. It felt like being in the presence of royalty. She was beautiful, elegant, regal and dignified. This was a true artist in every sense of the word and seeing her dance deepened my conviction that it was indeed a classical art.

I was also lucky to see Negwa Fouad, Shushu Amin, Nadia Hamdi and Lucy. I noticed that although they all had their own individual style, there were certain things they all had in common, mainly that they all used the movements to express the music. They weren't concerned about showing every move they knew how to do, or "tricks" to impress the audience, but expressing the feeling and mood of the music. It was an emotional, rather than an athletic expression. Each dancer expressed her own personality through the dance. Nevertheless, it took several visits and many observations before this principle sunk in. It really has changed the way I dance. I used to be very technique oriented and showed very little charisma or passion on stage. Now I understand that expression is every bit as important as technique.

It was also on this trip that I truly realized that the dance we see on stage is based on the social folk dance done by the ordinary people and that in its natural setting it was shared and enjoyed by both men and women alike. Some friends took me to a disco where for the first time, I saw a room full of guys who could dance just as well, even better than I could. There were still some movements that I didn't feel comfortable doing because I felt they were too feminine, but seeing them expressed by all types of guys showed me that I could in fact do those movements without losing my personality. I also learned many new movement combinations from what I saw, which I added to my movement vocabulary. I also paid close attention to the way the men and women carried themselves, in their everyday life and how this body awareness was expressed when they danced. This is what we often refer to as that "Egyptian feeling or essence".

Down in Luxor I saw the Banat Mazin Sisters, (Ghawazee), which was an unimaginable treat. After reading about the Ghawazee for so many years and seeing them on video, now I got the chance to see them live! They were the last of their line. I was truly watching a vanishing cultural and historical institution. I'm glad I went at the time I did, because they stopped dancing a few years later. By the time of my second trip, only one of the sisters was dancing and while Khiriya does dance at Ahlan Wa Sahlan, she no longer wears the traditional costume. There was nothing like watching her and her sister dance together, it was pure magic.

Of course I also saw my main inspiration, Osman Balatta dance, as well as other Saidi guys. I saw him doing the real Saidi stick dance. I learned from watching him that the men also do hip work in addition to manipulating the sticks.

I also had the opportunity to meet some of the most respected choreographers, like Mahmoud Reda and Mohamed Khalil. The high point of the trip was when Morocco and I went to Morocco, (the country), and on our way back we performed for the Dar America Association in Marakech. Meeting all these people who recognized my talent and encouraged me to continue dancing was the greatest confidence builder I could have received. From that moment on I knew that dance would forever be an indispensable part of my life.

Salome: Do you perform and/or teach folk and theatrical dances from the Middle Eastern region? If yes, can you tell us a bit about the other dance styles you are versed in?

Tarik Sultan: Being a guy in a female dominated profession has made this difficult. Most of the traditional men's dances are group dances, such as the Debka, (I can do a few steps), Tahtib, or the many dances of Morocco, Turkey and the Arabian Peninsula. However, I am known for doing the Moroccan Tray Dance, Raks is Seniya, the Turkish Dervish, (The Egyptian version still makes me nauseous for days on end!). I can do the real Saidi style Raks al Assaya, as versus the stage version, but don't perform it much because I rarely get the opportunity, or space to do so.

I've always admired the Shamamdan, but it is a woman's dance. However, I admired the challenge of balancing a free standing object, so I developed the Shisha Dance, where I balance a free standing water pipe while dancing. Apparently some Egyptians also like the idea. Tito has also started doing a Shisha Dance as well, but to be fair, I did borrow doing a drum solo standing on a tabla from him. I can also do the Turkish Kocheck dance, but I have to get the costume made before I can perform it. My long-term goal is to be able to faithfully recreate as many folk dances as I can. I'm still learning, so every time I try to see something different. I really would like to study the different versions of Debka, and I would also like to learn some of the Nubian folk dances, as well as some of the men's dances of the Persian Gulf and Yemen.

Salome: There are those that continue to feel that Oriental dance is a women only art form. Can you give us a bit about your philosophy concerning men performing Oriental dance?

Tarik Sultan: The version of Raks Sharki we know was created in the 1930's. It was designed to display the beauty and femininity of women. However, it is heavily based on the native dance of the Egyptian people, Raks Baladi, which is done by both sexes. Although the male tourists may have been content to just watch a beautiful woman in a revealing costume, the dancers themselves were determined that what they did would have artistic merit. They strove to create a true art form. My philosophy is that this dance, is truly an art, in every sense of the word, and since this performance art is based on one of the social dances, (Raks Baladi), done by both sexes, there is no justifiable reason why it can not also be performed by men as well as women.

The night club industry is not concerned with cultural accuracy. The first question they ask is will people pay to see this show, and by people, they mean guys. The only reason why this became a female dominated field is because men with lots of money to spend, who wanted to be entertained by pretty women overran the tourist industry. Had Cairo been inundated by droves of financially independent women who wanted to be entertained by handsome, virile young men with chiseled bodies, male dancers would have been a common sight.

Whatever the motivation may have been, the fact is that in Egypt today, this art form is dying because it was never seen as anything more than a popular form of entertainment. The current generation of the upper and middle classes are becoming more westernized in their tastes. They want to emulate the West. They would much rather go to a club and dance to hip-hop, Salsa, and Techno, than to listen to Arabic music and watch a dancer. Therefore, if this dance is going to continue developing, it needs to brake out of the old mold. It needs to be developed more as a theater art, rather than something only done in restaurants and clubs and there have to be as many skilled performers as possible, of both sexes so it can shake off the girly show image most people still have of it. Only then will it be taken seriously by the larger dance community and then, perhaps when that is achieved, it will begin to be held in higher regard in its home land.