Student nights at Al Masri, a continuing education for the seasoned dancer.
As one of Joweh's newest members, my initial response to the prospect of a student night brought a wave of intimidation and unpreparedness. Why the sudden feeling of insecurity? My feet had danced across stages for most of my life, so why the hesitation now? Preparing for our student showcase, I quickly became aware of the depth of what we were about to bring to the dance floor. Fusion and American cabaret had set the foundation on which my journey into belly dance was built, but I was now climbing the rungs of that structure, and learning lineage, historical significance, and terminology with each step.
Our student night, and the nights that follow, are hosted by Al Masri Egyptian restaurant in San Francisco. We would be performing to a live band and traditional music. The troupe who I have come to know as family, had been here before, many times over. Within the walls of our troupe's home at Sirens Studio, was buzzing excitement, talk of costumes, and calling dibs on favorite songs. I did my best to follow suit, and with some direction, even pieced together my first bedlah, a costume that I would learn was suited for the Egyptian and cabaret dance we would be bringing to the stage.
Entering Al Masri for the first time, I was overcome with the delightful fragrance of their cuisine, a homestyle buffet of Middle Eastern favorites. The restaurant itself is a small, comfortable space, beautifully decorated, and seems to encourage merriment and togetherness. Covering the main space of the floor is a large, intricately hand painted scarab. Its rich, vibrant colors illuminate the interior, and cast an undercurrent of warmth throughout. The heartening atmosphere of Al Masri is matched by the owner and staff, who welcome dancers and patrons alike as if they had been dear friends in excess of years.
The band itself, as hospitable and jovial as the establishment and its hosts, is positioned in a corner of the dining area. The array of instruments took me aback as I laid my eyes on these works of art. A violin, drums, and standing alone, a kanun. This was an instrument I had until now, only heard in recordings, but never considered putting an image to. Large, flat, and stringed, the kanun produces a palette of sounds which create inflections that one could swear were actual voices.
Preparing myself for the inevitable stage appearance, I pored over the song I had chosen for the evening, Wahashtini. The word means "I miss you", and I focused intently on emoting the song's meaning through my dance. When my turn came, all I intended to feel was a longing for my heart's desire. I had never thought so much about emotion in my dance. I had always danced, smiled, and bowed to the crowd. This, this was different. I truly wanted to feel the lyrics of this song in my heart, and in my body. I wanted my audience to know word for word, what my song meant.
I gathered my confidence as I watched my dance sisters have their turn on the floor. I made mental notes as they each delivered their skill sets through motion. The audience clapped in rhythm, and I could tell their favorite songs as they sang along and swayed with sentiment. The musicians were as skilled at their craft as their instruments were beautiful, and while they played, the outside world ceased to exist. My turn came, and though some apprehension had snuck in, my song was finished before I could think much about my piece. I had afterthoughts of what I should have done more and less of, and gently reminded myself that I was a student, and always will be.
Returning to Sirens that following week, I entered with a sense of having completed a sort of initiation, or perhaps a renewing. My student night experience rekindled a flame that I hadn't even noticed was reduced to embers. I had allowed my eager anticipation as a new student to long since dwindle, unaware of how much I hungered for more information. My subsequent appearances at Al Masri grow comfortable and familiar, but I now keep a watchful eye on my flame of knowledge. Fed with more abundance than I could acquire in a hundred lifetimes, I shall ever remind myself that no matter how well seasoned a dancer, there is always room for more.