Many of you know that Ibrahim “Bobby” Farrah is one of my major influences. I attended his classes in NYC often several times a week for several years. One of the things I have become aware of over the course of writing the book was just how well his teaching methods prepared me for improvisation and performance to live music. Here is a short piece I wrote for his neice, Tarifa Salem, for his birthday last year.
What Bobby had was firstly a deep understanding of the soul of this dance. He realized the dance is about expression of the dancer’s feeling from the music, that it is about embodiment and timing more than steps or combos. He encouraged personal expression and style in all of his classes. But he did so much more than this.
Bobby’s classes, especially in the early days, were models of learning science.
One of the hottest concepts in learning today is interleaving. This means that rather than sticking with one thing until you get it, you keep the brain always reaching. You do different things so the brain never knows what to expect. You cycle through things and make them different every time.
Bobby never repeated. You could go to his class three times in a week for two hours at a time (and I did). He never repeated. Every single time, he would do something completely different. There was a fairly consistent format of options—for example, a combination, traveling across the floor, following Bobby as he improvised—but it was never the same combo, the floor crossing was always different (and sometimes different for each person), and the impro—well, that, by its very nature, was different every time, even to the same music.
The result of all this multiplicity was that we learned.
We learned musicality, how to combine moves, how to transition between them, how to improvise, how to interpret music, how to compose, how to use a stage—without him ever having to say anything about it. And we learned how to present ourselves, even though we giggled to see Bobby swan across the floor, beaming at himself in the mirror. We learned. It was hard, but it was worth it.
Even in his later years of choreography, the dances were deceptively simple. They embodied this deep understanding. They didn’t beat the music to death. They made space for the dancer’s own special sauce. For her feeling. For the love she brought to the guests. For the expression and communication of her feeling.
You can tell a Bobby dancer by the way she uses the stage. He marked us all, in the best possible way. It took me years to realize what gift he had given us, what a world-class education I had received. It took watching a lot of dancers, many famous, and slowly realizing, Huh. I can do that. I get it. I see it.
Bobby taught me to own the dance.
He taught me that I had something to say. He taught me how to say it with dance. I am proud to carry on his legacy.
2. I’m delighted to be a guest tonight on Nadira Jamal’s Belly Dance Geek Clubhouse!
Every month, Nadira interviews a belly dance luminary about something cool, interesting, and useful. This time, it’s me.
We’ll be talking about how a performer’s emotional resonance enriches both herself and her guests.
Here’s Nadira’s description:
My guest, Alia Thabit, will talk about how the gift of sharing your feelings with your audience can enrich not only your performance, but their experience.
Imagine a world with less fear and detachment. A world with more joy and connection.
As artists and performers, we have the ability to share our emotional responses to the music with the audience, inviting them into our experience. Amid the glamour, the flash, and the hip drops, we have the amazing power to spread joy and cultural understanding through our dance.
– The power of dance as a personal practice
– The gift of connection in dance (for you and for the audience)
We’ll also have some discussion time, so you can ask Alia your questions.
This free call will take place TONIGHT, Monday, February 27th at 8pm Eastern time.
To see that in your own time zone, visit:
There will be a recording and Nadira generously makes these available to everyone. Clubhouse membership, however, does give you some great perks: you can join the monthly conversation live, get notification of call recordings, and an invite to join the private Facebook group where you can interact with each month’s guest (and fellow dancers from all over the world). If you are already a member of the clubhouse, check your email for the details. If not, it’s free and easy to join.
Thanks and see you then!