Importance of Improvisation to Live Middle Eastern Music

In the mid 1970s, Jamila sponsored a student night once a month at the Casbah, a belly dance night club in San Francisco. The Casbah was open seven nights a week with live musicians and dancers every night of the week. Once a month on a Monday night (the slowest night at the Casbah), Jamila organized what she called “Moon Celebrations” to provide her students an opportunity to dance to a live band. The nights were very successful for the students and provided them an invaluable opportunity to work with Arabic musicians in a “student night” capacity, so the dancers could develop their improvisational skills in a responsible venue.

Jamila began her belly dance studies by watching the famous dancers in Egyptian movies and emulating their movements. She continued by observing as many dancers as she could and seeking out all Middle Eastern music she could. . . even taking instruction in playing traditional Middle Eastern instruments. She insisted that her students learn about the famous dancers, Middle Eastern music, etc. Later, from her work with Bal Anat, Jamila became known as “the mother of tribal belly dance”, but the folkloric, fantasy and fusion dances of Bal Anat were just one element of Jamila’s program. The same dancers who participated in Bal Anat were the ones dancing to classic Middle Eastern music played by live by Arabic music in the night clubs.

The Moon Celebration shows would get started close to 11pm and would continue until 2am or later in the morning. As a child, Suhaila remembers going with her mother to these Monday night shows to watch the students dance to live Arabic music. Rather than go home after the show, they would curl up on the rug-covered benches along the walls of the club and sleep. Jamila would wake Suhaila up around 7am Tuesday morning to take her to school.

Now we fast forward to 2011. As part of her certification program, Suhaila’s Level 4 focuses on the professional performer of which improvisational skills to a live band are incredibly important. But how do dancers acquire this skill if live bands, specifically Arabic bands, are scarce? For members of the certification program who are working on their performance catalogs, finding opportunities to dance to live Arabic musicians proved incredibly difficult. To combat this problem, . . . similar to Jamila’s Moon Celebrations in the mid-1970s. . . Suhaila arranged to bring four Arabic musicians into her studio to provide a live band improvisation opportunity for her Level 4 workshop students. The night was a great success, and you can view highlights of the night on the Suhaila Belly Dance YouTube channel.

Highlights of the Level 4 Workshop Show
Behind the Scenes at the Level 4 Workshop Show
Featured Performance, Stacey Lizette, Level 4 Certified
Featured Performance, Emily, Level 3 Certified

Picture: Jane (Taiwan), Nadia (California/Mexico), Arya (Netherlands), Vashti (California), Kitiera (Washington), Nadira (Washington), Suhaila (Mothership), Rachel George (California), Stacey Lizette (Texas), Emily (Oregon), Alexandra (Virginia), Ginger (California)