Farewell, Azza Sherif

Alia and Azza in 2011.

Bittersweet greetings…

Azza Sherif, Egyptian dance icon, passed away in early February of 2019

Alia and Azza in 2011.
Alia and Azza in 2011. Thank you Lisa Talmadge for taking this picture

I had the pleasure of learning from Mme. Azza at Camp Negum in 2010 and 2011. She was a vibrant, funny, lovely woman. One time, she danced the same song five times in a row (to live music), so we could see and follow her as she (and the musicians) interpreted the song differently every time.

I had the honor of Azza correcting me. 

It was in 2011. Camp Negum was set on a cruise boat en route to Aswan. It was a Tuesday.

Madame Azza was teaching us a move, a deep hip circle with a head drop and a side lift. She went around the group, correcting  each person individually. When she got to me, she called me to the front of the room. “Look, here,” she said to the rest of the group. “Demonstration.”

She turned to me.”What is this?” she asked, pointing to my shirt. I looked down. She chucked me under the nose, lifting my face, like Moe in the Three Stooges, only nicely. “Look up,” she said, smiling.

“Where are you from?”
America, I said.
“You speak English?”

“I like your dance,” she said. She spoke English slowly, her voice rich and warm. “You,” she gestured top to bottom, “all dance.” She turned to the rest of the group and touched under her eyes, saying, “I watch. I see.”

Then she turned back to me and said, “I love your dance.”
Out loud. In front of everyone.

“Shukran gezilan,” I gasped.

“Now, do,” she said.
So I did the move. And nearly fell on my head.
“Slower,” she said.

I did.

“Ah,” she said, nodding, pleased. “Very good.”
Then she eyed my tummy full of lunch. “After tomorrow, you don’t eat so much.” And she went on to the next dancer.

That trip was the last time I saw her. 

That Friday, the Egyptian Revolution shocked the world. We were in Aswan when the curfew came; Lisa and I ended up stuck there for most of a week.

Mme. Azza made it back to Cairo, which was maybe not so good, as Cairo was devastated by the upheaval. But she survived, even coming back to teaching. I went back to Egypt in 2016, but she had hurt her knee and did not teach that time. 

I am so sorry that she has gone, and so grateful that she has left us so much of herself on film. Here is a link to her page on the Carovan where you can see some of her performances (please copy and paste if links are not clickable). https://thecarovan.com/category/azza-sherif/

Farewell, Madame Azza. God loves you, and so do all of us. 

We also say farewell to something more mundane. I am moving our email service from Mailchimp to Convertkit. This will be the last newsletter coming from Mailchimp. I’ll be back in touch soon with a brand new service. Fingers crossed for success!

News and happenings

Mar 24 – Mar 30: March into the Spotlight: Bring Basic Belly Dance Back Challenge


Tamalyn Dallal’s new book is out! The Belly Dancing Kitties of Constantinople. http://www.bellydancingkitties.com

Alia’s Upcoming Classes and Workshops

FunClasses. I’m teaching live weekly-ish online dance classes! Each class is streamed live (currently on Thursdays at 7pm EST) and a recording is posted until the next class replaces it. Registration coming soon! Email me if interested. 

July 14. I’ll be at Cairo Cabaret in Chicopee MA, dancing and teaching workshops in Improv and Group Dance composition. https://www.facebook.com/events/2223293227683591/

Aug 12-Sept 23. I’ll be covering for Amity’s Session Four Beginner, Intermediate, and Advanced classes in WRJ. http://raq-on.net/index.php/classes-events/classes

Any time. Zitastic and Embodiment are now available on Teachable! 

Thank you for being here!

What Dina Said

This past May I attended Yasmina Ramzy’s final Belly Dance Blossom festival. I was fortunate to be on the panel Raqs Sharqi as Revolutionary, with Christine Sahin and Amara of NYC. It was fabulous, as are all of Yasmina’s events. But the main attraction was Dina Talaat (yes, THE Dina).

Dina taught a workshop each day, was the sole member of a panel discussion, and performed in the show Saturday night.

Her Friday workshop, I gave up even attempting to follow. Saturday brought another two-hour workshop. This time I was better able to follow along (as were many other folks, so I think it was just easier ;).

While I was there, I took a few notes for you.

First, she said some interesting things.

“I never turn from a cross. It’s ugly. No bellydancer should turn from a cross. You have the long skirts, and, uhhh,” she shuddered (By cross, she meant crossed legs. I’m just reporting, folks. We’ve all seen gorgeous turns from crossed legs—like every barrel turn ever).

“You explain the mawaal with your body, so you have to go with the words. You can’t be early. Wait for the words,” ie the movement you make must be hinged to the timing of the words of the mawaal. (Mawaal is vocal improvisation).

“The mawaal is slow, you have to dance slow. It is more difficult to dance slow. The good dancers show what they can do with the slow. Anyone can dance fast.” (I’ve heard this from others Egyptian dancers, too).

“Shimmy comes from the knees (shimmy from the floor is ghawazi). It must be very tiny. Keep legs and feet closed.”

I also noted a few things about her style.

She shimmies a lot (very tiny) on one leg. She shimmies like this on extended vowels from the singer (among other places).

Her mouth is relaxed and open when she dances, even when she demonstrates the moves.

She does these little flat-footed quarter-turn pivots, where both feet appear to be on the floor the whole time, and she often chains then together.

And for that conversation about getting up from the floor, while Dina never went to the floor, but she often did accents or small hip circles all the way down, but she never then came right up to standing—instead she released the head and upper body to the front, so she could toss the hair back and roll up (much, much easier).

And then there was her show…

There’s a reason she’s so famous.

First of all, it was a tremendous outpouring of energy, maybe the highest-energy show I have ever seen. The woman is a powerhouse.

She danced on a recording of her band. The sound quality of the recording wasn’t splendid, but oh well. She was.

She does a LOT of complicated, complex stuff, but it’s just thrown away, part of the whole. She didn’t show off technique.

She loved all of us We could feel it <3.

And the clothes!
She changed costumes four times (link to pix below).

The first was somewhere between chartreuse and acid yellow. It was the most “normal,” simple bra and straight skirt design. It had a big sparkly star around the high slit and a sparkly bra. Her stomach was bare.

Photo by Ken Dobb.

The second was a straight blue skirt (like a French blue leaning towards violet), open on one side with funky flat silver decorations. Never seen anything like it. It was build on nude mesh. The bra was half silver and half green and red stones, yet somehow understated. Her tummy was covered in nude mesh.

Photo by Ken Dobb

The third was silver-gray lace, heavily textured, covered stomach (I can’t remember her arms). It was gorgeous and not really sparkly, more subtle.

Photo by Ken Dobb

The fourth. Was black lace and ribbons (I think) on nude mesh. I thank god there is a picture, because I can’t describe it. It was splendid.

Photo by Ken Dobb

So, that’s Dina.

With all my love


All of Ken Dobb’s pix from the Saturday show. If you poke around you can see his pix of all the events from the weekend.



Review of Dunya’s Summer Movement Monastery

Coming at the end of a difficult year, the Summer Movement Monastery, shone like a precious jewel in my mind’s eye. It was my last chance at release and renewal. After the previous SMM, I hadn’t wanted to yell at anyone for a good month–this year I hoped for more.

Summer Movement Monastery (SMM) happens at Ravenrock.

That’s Dunya’s retreat on top a mesa in New Mexico. It’s nearest town in Las Vegas (not the one in Nevada). The air is dry. It rains for a while almost every day, often spectacular thunderstorms. But then the sun comes out again. It’s 7,000 feet up, wide open, flat, turfed with scrub and cactus punctuated by clumps of piñon pine and cedar.

There are sometimes bears on the mesa (we’ve never seen one), and rattlesnakes (seen several, though not this year). The steep road is a series of impossible switchbacks, some of them on bare rock. The earth is red clay, which turns to sucking mud after a rainstorm. Most cell phones work, somewhat, somewhere. There is no electricity, though there is a solar charger. There is a privy in a tent. We sleep in tents. There is cold running water, by virtue of hand cranked pumps, cached from the many rainstorms.

None of this matters.

The view off the rim matters.

The bones of the earth, jutting up from the red clay. The stillness. The light. The brilliant lichen clothing ancient stones. After dinner, we often gather on the porch and relax, laugh, watch the sunset, the stars. The stars at night are brilliant. It is always chilly after dark. At breakfast, which is silent, the sun warms us. Each day is a gift.

Arriving this year felt sweet, so sweet. The land is gracious, spacious, soothing, welcoming. I felt more grounded at once. Stepping into the studio–a red corrugated metal barn on the outside, a warm, secure space on the inside–felt like coming home.

Practice matters.

Every day, two sessions, several hours long. But they fly. I am a clock watcher. Not at SMM. It is always over sooner than I think. There are so many things. Following, Slow Movement, breath practices, chanting, various layers of attention to various body parts. Always marvelous music. Always the others, the group, engaged, present, peers. People who embrace this practice tend to be easygoing, smart, and fun. It’s a pleasure.

Dunya matters.

I’ve written about her before. You know the 90 Days is based upon her work. The work stands on its own, but Dunya’s decades of experience and deep understanding permeate everything here. It is her eye that chose this location, her power that invests it. When we did a modest fast, she knew simply by looking at our eyes if we should go another day or step out of it. She knows what she’s doing. It’s impressive, over and over again, to see her do it. She’s fresh from helping both parents move on from this earth, double hip replacements. This is a big deal, this SMM. She brought her A-game, speaking each morning with hair-raising clarity.

Her first commandment for the retreat was rest.

She read us this quote from the poet David Whyte that encapsulated our mission:

To rest is to give up on the already exhausted will as the prime motivator of endeavor, with its endless outward need to reward itself through established goals.

To rest is to give up on worrying and fretting and the sense that there is something wrong with the world unless we are there to put it right; to rest is to fall back literally or figuratively from outer targets and shift the goal not to an inner static bulls eye, an imagined state of perfect stillness, but to an inner state of natural exchange.

The template of natural exchange is the breath, the autonomic giving and receiving which is the basis and the measure of life itself. … When we give and take in this easy foundational way we are closest to the authentic self, and closest to that self when we are most rested.

To rest is not self indulgent, to rest is to prepare to give the best of ourselves, and perhaps, most importantly, arrive at a place where we are able to understand what we have already been given. —David Whyte

For the first week I thought no thoughts and did as little as possible. We all have tasks to do each day, kitchen, privy, or space cleaning. We rotate through these details, a day or a few days on each. I did my tasks, ate simple food, practiced with the group for five hours each day, and took walks on the land. The rest of the time, I lay in a sun-dappled hammock amidst buzzing hummingbirds and read a marvelous 600+ page historical novel (Through a Glass Darkly by Karleen Koen). It was exactly what I needed.

By the second week, I began to feel human again.

Like a normal person, with ideas, who could be silly, in a good mood. My body felt more cooperative. Though the weather was cold, rainy sometimes, my tent was dry, and the sun was out most of the time. The peace I feel in this place is unmatched in any other. Just sitting and staring off into the valleys, watching the colors shift, the far-off thunderstorms, seeing the sun play across the mesa feels profoundly worth while.

The work itself is deceptively challenging, but rewarding. Opening oneself to one’s inner workings is a messy business. It can engender tension and heaviness–contraction. This is mitigated by the quiet and grandeur of the land. Having a safe space to encounter difficulty helps bridge the process. Some days I felt withdrawn, even cranky. Others I felt happy and human. But the whole period is a process of becoming whole, of uncovering one’s true self.

Key concepts this year: Rest, Relaxation, Receiving, Reciprocity.

More about these in another newsletter.

I can’t remember how many SMMs I have attended. At least six. I keep coming back because there is nothing like it. Because I love how I feel, especially afterwards, so much more able to greet my life. So much more able to live in the moment. I always look better when I come home, and the benefits last a long time. I love the people, and I love the place. I’ll be there again this year. I hope you will check it out. Info is here: http://www.dancemeditation.org/movement-monastery/



PS If you’d like to sample something smaller, here’s Dunya’s events calendar: http://www.dancemeditation.org/events/