Interview with Amel Tafsout by Nadia for FatChance Belly Dance

During your workshop, why were you saying: The NAYLIYAT used to do such and such?

Because they do not perform anymore.

 

What happened?

Their tradition was to learn the dance, as a child from their mother, to leave their home village at the onset of puberty, to make their way to other oases in order to start a new life while traveling and performing, to get paid with jewelry and to live as a courtesan. When they earned enough, they returned to their home oasis, looked for a husband, married and ended their professional career after which they handed down their skills to their own daughters. This tradition was misunderstood by French people.

 

Djelfa, the real Ouled Nayl (I mean the tribe) home oasis, became in 1852 a military station. A large number of French soldiers settled there. A railway was built, which enabled this area to become a commercial and entertainment centre, where tourists, searching for exotic places, arrived “en masse”, in order to relax in cafes and be entertained by the dance of the “enigmatic” Nayliyat dancers. In the oasis, Bou saada, the Nayliyat dancers withdrew greatly from their true traditions because the French authorities had made them into a big touristic attraction. Their dance changed and became more vulgar: They lost their dignity and became prostitutes. They were used for publicity and exploited. French soldiers required more “naked dance performances”. Tourists were invited to see the “fantastique danses des Ouled Nail” after the daily desert entertainment; and very late in the evening, they had the opportunity to watch a more exclusive “naked” dance performance from the Nayliyat.

 

This touristic vulgarization led to the degradation of the status of this dance, usually performed with amazing costumes. Around 1954 the Nayliyat lost respect from their own community. They, themselves, rejected the “Roumis”, the European clients. Many of them returned to their homes and stopped dancing .Nowadays men perform their dances.How did you learn all the different dance styles you teach? the SHIKHAT, The NAYLIYAT?

I learned to dance in my natural environment and during weddings or other ceremonies. We always dance with each other. I was very interested in any kind of dance. In my childhood, I was surrounded by female dancers and singers who performed the Berber fertility dance, ’ABDAOUI”, and Oasis dances such as the NAYLY.My mother’s family comes from an oasis near Bou saada, where one Ouled Nayl tribe used to live; and although I was little, when we used to visit the area, I still can remember the bright colors of the Nayliyat’s dresses, their fantastic jewelry and the smell of their strong perfume.My family used to move to different parts of Algeria, because of my father’s job. This enabled me, already as a child, to play with children of other regions and be interested in their traditions, their dance and music styles. I used to go to weddings and copy the adults. Even at that age, I was not able to explain what I was doing, I was feeling the dance which was transmitted to me through an older woman. We never had dance school like you in the West. I also have learned the other dance styles during my travels in specific areas. I love traveling and meeting people from different cultures. I often visited other Arab and non Arab countries in order to study. I studied with various Moroccan SHIKHAT and I have a friendship with some of them. 3 Years ago, in London, we had a Moroccan festival with 45 dancers, singers and musicians. I had the great opportunity, with my partner and drummer Salah, not only to be part of the festival but also to interview the artists, on stage, for the British audience. I have learned a lot about North African religious music in attending ritual ceremonies. I also have been to Egypt. I performed, in Germany at the same festival as the MUSICIANS OF THE NIL, who became my friends. I have relatives in Tunisia where I have been many times. The Tunisian dance style is very similar to the East Algerian dances.

 

Apart from that I love not only reading, researching and writing about the history and the meaning of dances and their development, but also talking to normal simple people, who usually have a lot more knowledge about the meanings of dances than experts. When I was at High school, I had a Russian Math teacher, who was very difficult; but she was a dance teacher of European folk dances; and I used to go to all her classes in order to study Russian, Greek, Breton, Scottish folk dances. I really enjoyed every minute of it! My ever first performance, outside my traditional environment, was a Scottish folk dance performance with a beautiful Scottish costume and my thick plaits! I also was intrigued by Ballet dancers with their funny short skirts, but that was alien to me, as a child, it was something which belonged more to the French culture, whereas European folk dances had something in common with our traditional dances. I love it and still do!

 

Is the Algerian Ballet performing Algerian folk dances?

The dancers of the Algerian Ballet have been trained by Russian choreographers. They perform Algerian folk dances combined with Ballet steps. Algerian choreographers are mostly men. They are very talented and very good. I have a great respect for their work. I just think, when a folk dance starts to be stylized, it loses its spirit and its strength.

 

Was dancing part of your daily life? Did you ever think of performing it?

Yes, it was part of our daily life, like singing. Every day was a ritual. We did not go to performances or theatres. As girls, we did not even think to ask our father about it. We always found ways to entertain ourselves. When the weather was nice, we used to sit in the courtyard, and enjoy the story tellers and the nice weather.

 

This was a family get-together.

We used to take card board boxes or even tins and use them as drums. I remember, we had a very nice tradition which consisted of making our first couscous pot with clay. When the making of this pot was a success, we had to cook our first couscous in it and invite our little friends. After the meal, we had a party: We put two spoons inside the bottle in order to have a percussive sound, the card board boxes were the drums, clapping and singing were part of it. We did not think or pretend to be great dancers, we just did it without thinking about it. It was part of growing up.

 

I never thought to perform. When I was living in Germany, I used to dance in friends parties for my own enjoyment. Some friends advised me to start a class, I never took it seriously. Women, who like my dancing, wanted to learn with me. They organized a space, and students. It is how I started teaching. At that time I was missing my own culture and the dance brought me back to it. My idea was to perform as a group because every dancer was a soloist and that was a amazing experience. I am very grateful to those women who helped me to rediscover my own culture.

 

Where did you exactly grow up?

In the Aures mountains in the East of Algeria, not far from the Tunisian border. I grow up with snow. A region where the famous professional singer and dancers, called “‘AZRIYAT” (transl. The free women or Women without men) came from.

 

When you see Amel performing, you get a sense of incredible power, a real solid strengh,as well as grace and beauty.(to A.T.)you are incredibly stong and it’s really good to represent that Arabic women’s strength.

Thank you so much! that strength is the result of the suffering of many women of my family. There is also the struggle to find a way to be accepted and respected by the East and the West. When you arrive to that level of appreciation from different cultures then you belong to the Universe. I like to perform for different kinds of people, teaching Arab or European women is giving something special to both of them, something which was always inside themselves and has been lost.

 

When you perform, do you incorporate all the different dance styles you know into a fusion type of style, or do you remain pure to each one?

It depends if I am performing with a tape or with musicians.

 

And also on which occasion the dance is for.

Definitely. Tribal dances have a function inside the community, they lose their function on stage. In this case, the dancer should be more creative, or find a way to create an athmosphere for the dance in order to transmit the message to the audience. An Arabic audience might be able to understand the meaning of the dance but an European audience needs to be informed. On the other hand a dance performance is a show and not a lecture. I like to put my own experience and expression in my dance and develop it. A fusion is not something new. All cultures had their own fusion. I like combining dances which I know very well, where spirituality has a great part. I work with Salah and I learn a great deal from his amazing music experience.

 

Always perform as a soloist?

I used to have a troupe, called BANAT AS SAHRA (Daughter of the desert). It was a great experience. I used to perform all the time with them, we worked with a famous band called “Die DISSIDENTEN”, that was when I used to live in Germany in the 80s. I enjoyed it very much. I started being a soloist when I came to the U.K. It was not easy, but on the other hand I have more contact to the musicians and I understand more about music and I have more time to be more creative. I teach choreograpies to my students and I am pleased to see them performing together or as a soloist.

 

Do you think contemporary Belly dance has been influenced by these Maghrebi tribes?

It is difficult to define contemporary Belly dance. They are so many different styles and in every country it is different, some styles focuse more on the 1001 nights fantasy, on the cabaret style; and that is fine with me.Other dancers prefer to be more authentic and know more about the cultural background, some of them might have been influenced by the Maghreb dances, in France for sure, because of the big number of the Maghrebi community. I think nowadays there are more possibilities. Oriental dance mixed with Modern dance, flamenco, Indian, African, and it can only benefit from it. I like Carolena’s work, because she is creative. Helene is also a great artist who respects the cultural side of the dance. I am fascinated by the interaction in the dance between the East and the West. Every one can chose, and we can learn from each other.

 

 

Amel Tafsout:Transcending Traditions of Maghreb Dance

Beatrice Parvin

 

Amel’s hands have a character all of their own. When she moves she uses them deftly, as if creating a moving portrait surrounded by an ornate and scalloped frame. Her hands are in constant motion. They roam unceasingly around and above, magnifying her emotions portrayed by her hips, torso and face. Her feet stay rooted, and yet they contain tremendous grace; slightly brushing the ground before she rests.

 

She moves her arms around her chest in the shape of a heart, her hands curling then uncurling. At times her fingers open as if coyly playing with a fan, or they curve as the cards of a gambler who hides her secrets. Her hand is ingeniously played. It is as unpredictable as the cards dealt in quick sharp succession by the nimble fingers of the croupier. At times she strokes each wrist in turn as if she is applying the purest of perfumes and then she will flick her palms out to the audience and then towards herself - a gesture of giving and receiving energy.

 

Watching a performance by Amel Tafsout is a cathartic experience. Contrary to common stereotypes there are no mincing, shallow flirtations to be seen in her dance. She dances from the very core of herself. Sensuality is expressed as power and generosity. She has a direct stare, a presence that can come only from a true knowledge of herself and her art. She is a unique performer and there is no one else who dances like her.

 

When I arrive to see her perform at a Queensgate mansion, a blonde jet-setter climbs the steps with me, “Coming to Aniko’s birthday party” she drawls with a flick of the hair.

 

Aniko, who wears a multi-coloured glass-studied tiara on her black hair, has a warm open smile and she ushers me into the grand front room. The windows are bedecked with saris in drifting shades and on the walls North African textiles are hung. I sit down on a voluptuous sofa and observe the Euro darlings that swan gregariously into the room. Aniko ushers people away from the centre of the room and announces the beginning of the entertainment. The musicians, a derbouka player; Salah-Dawson Miller, an electric guitarist; Justin Adams, and on the bass guitar and gimbri; Simon Edwards, take their place. After playing a short introduction the dancer enters.

 

With her deep stare she reaches out to the merrymakers. She plays a frame drum, a large shallow ring covered in skin, that creates a rasping echoing sound. She paces the room with the drum, coming close to the circle of onlookers. Once the audience is engaged she discards it and begins to dance. It is then that the costume that is Amel comes to life: her black, yellow, purple, green and blue polka dot skirt is swathed at the hips with first a fringed black shawl and on top of this is a gold layered belt, smothered with coins. From the elbows of her tight black top, emerge layers of floating canary yellow frills. Scarves fly from her cap, flowing veils in purple and yellow. Her face emerges from this farrago of flamenco patterns and arabesque imagery; it too is adorned, painted with black dotted tattoos.

 

Underneath her headscarves flow her many long black plaits that twist and swirl and flicker with the swishing silks and metal finery on her hips and around her neck. She moves freely with the many layers of material and various trinkets hanging from her body which is wrapped over and over again. The costume is so skillfully put together that her movements can be clearly seen and felt by the audience. It is as if the fragments of silk and satin strewn carelessly together in a wicker basket at a market stall begin to weave and float into the air. From the many colours and textures a strange peering face, its eyes staring, its head sliding from side to side, begins to evolve. It then begins to dance and the incredible happens. The face smiles and the figure of a woman slowly forms from the abundant amorphous material. The eddying fabric has become a beautiful dancer.

 

“I want you to remember that you are the most beautiful women in the world”.

 

Today, teaching at the Oval House, Amel resembles a Spanish shawl that has come to life. Her thin black plaits fall onto the fine tassels of an antique scarf tied loosely around her shoulders. Around her waist another shawl with longer tassels reaches to the feet. Her fine curved fingers occasionally pick a strand from the long fringes of the lower shawl, which her hand guides so as to frame her movements. She is like a weeping willow as she sways - the leaves and branches swinging gently with her to the accompanying rhythms.

 

Amel begins always, when teaching a beginner, with the circle. This is a journey around the latitudes of the body. You push the hips around your middle as if you are drawing a circle with a compass around yourself. This circle defines your personal boundaries. This can grow from a tiny almost internal circle to a wide expansive declaration of the self.

 

If the body is your world, then the circles in Maghreb dance define the territories of that world. The hips are your equator, guarding the most important female part of you, the source of your creativity. You can move as a spiral journeying through the different latitudes of the body, beginning with your head and ending with your knees.

 

Roots of El Andalus Interview (Minneapolis):

 

Carmine Profant:

 

1.What makes the material you will be presenting in Roots of el Andalus different from the Egyptian styles dances with which the audience is familiar?

 

Amel Tafsout: First of all I would like to invite you to look in my bio in my website (www.ameltafsout.com), there is some info about North African (I call my dances “Maghreb Dance”) dance and music that you could include in the interview .

 

The difference with the Egyptian dancing style is based on the Berber dances, although there is a Berber minority in Egypt who perform a dance called “Hagalla”.

 

Berber dances are mostly ritual dances related to fertility in general and to Mother Earth in particular. The dances still have a function in the community e.g. during the harvest. Some of the dances are related to animal, specially the partrige , the horse , the eagle, the pickock. … .

 

They represent the strength and the dignity of Berber women. Berber women are know for their love of freedom and independence. they represent the Priestess rather than the Princess. Berber dances are not only matriarchal , some of them are but there are many ere women and men dance in lines or circles. They are mostly group dances performed to specific occasions.

 

The difference is also seen on the variety of the costumes .The rhythms and the music are different from Egyptian music that is more Middle Eastern. Maghreb rhythms have a different focus and is more connected to West African rhythms although having the Berber,Arabic Turkish, Andalusian and sometimes even French influence.

 

The dances are related to the energy of the group, it is why often Berber and Andalusian music styles start slowly and get faster at the end of the piece.

 

2. What are the ancient ties of these dances?

 

AT: I think I did reply to this question but let me know if you need more details.

 

3. How is this material relevant to the audience in the US?

 

AT: Since my travels in the U.S. I realise a big interest in North African culture. I believe it is due to the fact that in the Maghreb we have an awareness of our own history and culture since childhood.

 

The U.S. audience is used to Egyptian dance culture but was always fascinated by North African dancers and their costumes already in the 70s.The first Californian Belly dancers used to get dressed in North African costumes. I have been positively surprised by the interest in the dance scene about the Maghreb, and the Tribal dance style did integrate some of the North African head dress and also some of the movements.

 

For the American audience I believe and I do hope ,they would like to understand about the rituals and the beauty of these dances. Since Algerian Rai music is more listened in the West, people can related to the music more and want to understand the background of this music.

 

In my travels in the U.S. I met various people who would ask me thousand questions about culture. They is a need and a longing for culture in the U.S. and I am sure that the audience will appreciate to be taken to the Maghreb. In our times I feel more willing to show the positive about my culture and let the audience appreciate it.

 

Question 4: What are the artistic challenges and opportunities of collaborating with Cassandra and Jawaahir on Roots of Al Andalus: What do you hope to accomplish?

 

AT: I met Cassandra in Dusseldorf Germany in the 90s and I was very happy to meet such a great dancer and a humble person. She invited me to do Oasis Dance Camp and I enjoyed the camp very much .Cassandra is very creative and very knowledgeable and I always wanted to have a collaboration with her. It is a great challenge to have a collaboration with such a very well skilled dance performer and a chorographer as Cassandra .

 

We both come from different cultural background but we are also similar in our creativity. In this difficult moment in time ,it is even more important for both of us to work together and show that it is possible to collaborate creatively and communicate our love for the dance and our friendshipto the audience.It is also the first great opportunity for the U.S. audience to see a show of North African dance and music culture .I am very happy to show the different styles we have .I have very much respect for Cassandra and the Jawaahir company, because they are very serious about what they do and I am very excited to see the result of our collaboration.

 

I hope to accomplish a great show with great musicians, great dancers and a great artist as Hend El Mansur and share everything with a great with the U.S. audience

 

Zaghareet Magazine Interview by Tempest

 

I met and studied with Amel Tafsout first in January 2010, and it was truly a life-changing experience. That maysound cliché, but when I look back on the last two years, it’s been quite a journey and 100% true on so manylevels.

 

I actually was not familiar with her at all before I signed up for one of her workshops. I just remember liking the topic, and since my friend had talked me into traveling to the event to vend with her, I figured I might as well take some workshops while there. I ended up taking all of Amel’s workshops available that weekend, and headed home with plans to host her back in Rhode Island as soon as possible. For me, it was about finding what I had been looking for when I first discovered bellydancing (and its roots and offshoots) over 12 years ago, but didn’t quite find in cabaret/oriental or tribal, and figured didn’t exist. Her instruction and performances truly brought North African dance to life for me like none other, and struck a chord in my heart and stirred my spirit. A total of 40+ hours of instruction with her later, I’m still endlessly amazed by this incredible woman, and I want to make you discover her.

 

Amel Tafsout (her name means “Hopes of Spring”) was born and raised in Algeria. She was fascinated by dance and music since childhood and grew up among the finest traditional dancers and musicians of her native country. Amel became versed in dances both new and old from her native Algeria as well as a multitude of ethnic/tribal/folk dances from neighboring countries. This background forged her to be an inspirational master dance performer, choreographer, and one of the finest exponents of North African traditional and contemporary Maghreb Dance of our time. She is also a storyteller, a singer, a language instructor, and a dance anthropologist.

 

Amel explores the rich tapestry of movement and rhythm that has woven over time between Spain and the Maghreb, Africa and the Middle East, the Mediterranean Sea and Europe. Fluent in 5 languages she is always aware of the impact that cultures have in art and how that can be expressed in dance. She has developed a new experience in teaching, which combines Dance, Singing and Drumming.

 

Her work draws on ritual and traditional dances from the Maghreb and the Middle East, Africa and Cuba: areas where spirituality is part of daily life. Her research focuses on rituals in Maghreb dance and her work is characterized by a very passionate and spiritual approach to dance: a search for a great harmony between body, mind, and spirit and the awareness of the Human Being as the Medium between Mother Earth and the cosmos She strives to break down barriers between different worlds, especially the East and the West. With an M.A degree in Sociolinguistics, Tafsout is graduating at the University Of Eugene, Oregon.

 

And now some Q & A that I did with Amel:

 

What do you see is the link between spirituality and dance?

To me, dance is spiritual; that is what differences it from Sport. The music is what I feel and I express it through the dance. I grew up with music and dance and that is the food of life. Without it, I cannot live. Spirituality is understood differently in the West --where I come from we live with it already as a child. It is what is in daily life. You can not decide to be spiritual --you are born with. Unfortunately in the West everything is made to make you forget it, to make you irresponsible.

 

In my dance style, I use symbolism in the dance. Technique is important but feeling what you are dancing is what dance is about. Oriental dance became popular in the West because it is feminine; it is about women finding their strength and the love for themselves and sharing that beauty with each other. Dancing is also connecting with the core of myself, with my ancestors and my roots.

 

As an Arab woman, how do you feel about fusion and the dance?

Fusion has always existed; it is not new to me. Since people were traveling, they were inspired by music or dance of other cultures. I do appreciate creativity and good fusion is beautiful. I am always amazed about the creativity in the costumes and how some dancers succeed to make their dance very special and unique; but often there is only one fusion style more performed and that is related to American Tribal style. It is interesting that that fusion style is not called American Fusion Dance.

 

Fusion in dance is great if dancers would take the time to find out about the music styles they want to fuse. Nowadays everyone is using Western music and that is understandable because there are Western dancers using their own music, and they can relate to it. I found it a pity that they are not interested to know about the roots of the dance they are dancing. Even if it is fusion music, the most of it still belongs to Arabic or Middle Eastern music as the rhythms are. The fusion style is easy to learn as the younger dancers can use any kind of music and learn a choreography. I think that the more they will get deeper in the dance , the more they would like to know about the roots if they are still using Middle Eastern music or perhaps they would want to know more about the history of the dance.

 

As I dance North African, often the dancers are still not familiar with the rhythms, but it is possible to use Rai music, because that is also a fusion of many music styles. I think dancers are now confused about what fusion means. To me Fusion should mean creativity and unfortunately that is sometimes missing.

 

What do you think dancers need to pay attention to most in their study of the dance?

As this dance style still didn't reach the level of Flamenco, Indian dance not to mention African dance, I think dancers should pay attention of the responsibility they have toward this dance so that it becomes more recognized and respected. Dancing in restaurants is a good school, but it will keep the dance in that milieu. It is important to present the dance in the best way they can. I found it a pity that the most of the festivals don't pay attention to have a good lighting to make the dance look more professional.  I do appreciate the dancers of the ‘70s as they didn't have the opportunity to google for everything; they had to struggle sometimes to find out some information or they had to travel not even knowing how they will find people to help them or even they would find dancers or musicians but they would not be able to communicate with them. Nowadays information is taken for granted and the new dancers don't realize how lucky they are.

 

How do you put together your performances?

 I first think about the event, if that event has a theme or a topic, and I try to find music related to the theme or sometimes I focus on the music that appeal to me but I like choosing music from North Africa as I focus on the lyrics and try to bring the lyrics in my dance. When I have the music I try to think about the dance that will go with it and if I need to bring up some movements related to the lyrics, then I think about the costume. I like focusing on the color as I have phases of colors, sometimes I feel more to wear blue, or red, or yellow or green. I want to be creative in my costumes as I love using different layers and headdresses. Sometimes I like being very traditional with the costumes and jewelry and sometime I like being just simple with less colors and jewelry, as it is not the costume that makes the dance, it is the dancer that makes the costume and the dance. I want people to understand that when I am dancing I am connected to the divine source and when I feel that way, it doesn't matter if I look amazing or not, sharing that moment of feeling will be understood in the silence of the movement.

 

What do you want to do next?

I would like to dance as long as I can. I would like to explore new ways using poetry, singing and dance, bringing some new information and new experience in the dance. So many projects are getting planned and usually I wait for the right time to explore them. I am excited about the future and I am very grateful that dancers are touched by my work. I would like to explain to dancers to honor themselves without focusing on the ego and fear, and things will unfold when they are supposed to.

 

To find out more about Amel Tafsout and her upcoming workshops and events, please visit http://www.ameltafsout.com

 

About Tempest:

 

Tempest pulls from her visual arts background, literary tendencies, and global inspirations to create dances that cross the boundaries of time and culture. She is the premiere instructor of Gothic and Steampunk Bellydance in North America and her extensive work in these genres has helped to define and develop these movements across the world. Her compelling performances exemplify her distinctively theatrical and expressive style, and are rooted in oriental dance technique with a transcendent approach.

 

Find out more at:

-Tempest's Nouveau Noir Dance: www.darklydramatic.com

-Tempest's Teapot - A Bellydance Blog: darklydramatic.blogspot.com

-Owl*Key*Me Arts - www.owlkeyme.com

-Waking Persephone: Dancing Through the Dark & Unusual: www.wakingpersephone.com

 

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