Thursday, 29 May 2008

Greenville High's Jernigan uses dance to teach art

By Kathryn McKenzie, City People Writer
Published: May 7, 2008

It's hard for Hilary Jernigan to hide her love for art.

"I knew as a freshman in high school that I wanted to be an artist," she says. "My passion was in art."

Jernigan teaches art I, II, III and IV at Greenville High School and is a working artist herself. Much of her personal love for what she does is shared with her students by showing them the endless possibilities and variations that art can bring.

"I'm a non-representational artist. A lot of my work is purely compositional. It doesn't have subject matter," Jernigan says. Non-representational art focuses on shape, color and space.

To incorporate her medium and to help the students grasp the concept of non-representational art, Jernigan brought in another art form into the classroom -- dance. Jernigan says that with the help of dance, the students were able to see the pure concepts of composition.

"I have real passion for modern dance," she says. "So overlapping those two concepts was to me, very natural ... and I wanted the students to see composition in modern dance and composition in modern art is very similar."

To teach the concept of compositional art, Jernigan paired up with a teacher from the Fine Arts Center, Jan Woodward, to teach a unit on dance and art.

"The kids drew from watching the dancers," Jernigan says. "We sent artwork over to the Fine Arts Center and the dancers created some original choreography off of the artwork. Then when we got together, they did the dance for us and the students continued to work off of the dancers choreography, so it was a reciprocal process."

There's always an aesthetic beauty to Jernigan's medium and she recognized that about dance, as well. Both art forms deal with shapes. "It's all about shape, a lot of positive and negative space," she says. "Dance is a composition that's always changing and moving. After college, as my work began to mature more, I began to see that relationship.

"The first time I really saw wonderful modern dance was when I watched Alvin Ailey's dance company, " she says. "The composition was so moving and shocking. It's three-dimensional art constantly changing, it's kinetic art."


Danza Voluminosa, a Cuban ballet troupe

Plus-size dancers are crowd pleasers
Published Tuesday, May 27, 2008

HAVANA — Barbara Paula looks nothing like a classical ballerina, but when she speaks of dancing on the stage, her face glows with confidence.

"I always wanted to be a dancer, but I was heavy and never had the opportunity," said Paula, 30, who weighs 275 pounds. "Becoming a dancer has changed my life 120 percent. It's given me confidence and helped me emotionally."

Paula is a member of Havana's Danza Voluminosa, a group of plus-sized women who have become a well-established and respected troupe on the Cuban arts circuit. Their performances draw large audiences and favorable reviews, challenging stereotypes about beauty and the arts.

Founder and choreographer Juan Miguel Mas, 42, came up with the idea in 1996, drawing on his own experience as a heavy-set dancer entranced by modern dance.

"The first performance was received with a lot of expectation and reservations," he said. "The house was full and some people laughed, but others applauded. At the end, there was a big debate about whether it was appropriate for the stage and whether it was aesthetic or not. But we have continued, and we are breaking down barriers."

The group has become quite popular in Cuba, its members' girth something of an anomaly in a country where food is expensive, rationed and at times scarce. Members of the six-woman troupe weigh between 200 and 300 pounds. Their art is also experimental, somewhat unusual in a country where many artists hold closer to classical and indigenous forms.

Mas scripts dances that follow classical themes, infusing touches from African, modern, jazz and Caribbean dance. He also creates plots around the challenges and discrimination faced by the overweight, who — as in other countries around the world — often endure exclusion, teasing and insults from a young age.

And sometimes the performances are whimsical, including a parody of the classic Swan Lake.

"The idea is to expand dance and culture, creating respect for diversity," he said.

While most modern professional dance troupes are filled with lithe, muscular bodies swirling and twirling around and above the stage, the movements of the heavy dancers are, by necessity, more earth-bound.

"It's slower," Mas said. "There are gestures from pantomime but also some from ballet, depending on the characteristics of the play. The aim is to always make an intense visual presentation."

Mas says he has heard of other troupes of obese dancers in places as far as Moscow and London, but most seem to have put on a limited number of performances and none has continued for long or reached a professional status akin to what Danza Voluminosa has achieved in Cuba.

The group has official sanction, conducting practices and performances in the National Theater, and Mas receives a government salary for his work with the troupe and other activities.

But the dancers typically work regular jobs, squeezing in rehearsals and performances around the demands of their daily lives.

"We practice twice a week most of the year, but before a performance I lose track of how many hours we rehearse," said Paula, a homemaker. "After we perform, I feel such an excitement and happiness."

Expanding from his work with the overweight dancers, Mas also runs workshops and seminars, sometimes for visiting international groups.

Some of his work combines yoga and dance, and some of his seminars use dance as therapy, helping build self-esteem.

But the Danza Voluminosa troupe remains his main focus, an unexpected success that has been accepted with enthusiasm.

"This January we shared the stage with three thin dancers in a production called Alliances," Mas said. "We looked for alliances between these types of bodies, in the end creating one body with the bodies of six dancers. It was a call for respect of our differences, not just between body types."

With more than 30 dancers trained over the past 11 years, Mas keeps his regular company at six performers and enjoys no shortage of interest from women wanting to join the group. He also has no problems scheduling performances.

"Most of our dancers are afraid to appear in public the first time, but their confidence grows when they see the audience's reactions," he said. "And while that first audience laughed at the idea, now it's different. People come now to the theater with expectations to see a serious work. It's serious and professional."

Source: Palm Beach Post-Cox News Service

Danza Voluminosa, a Cuban ballet troupe, fat dancers win respect
Published: 29 July 2007

Formed a decade ago by Juan Miguel Mas, this company of obese dancers has become a cultural phenomenon in Cuba, breaking stereotypes here of dance, redefining the aesthetics of beauty and, along the way, raising the self-esteem of heavyset people.

The prima ballerina of the Danza Voluminosa troupe weighs 286 pounds, and as she thumps gracefully across the floor, she gives new meaning to the words stage presence. Her body is a riotous celebration of weight - of ample belly and breasts, of thick legs and arms, of the crushing reality of gravity.

"I always liked to dance," said the dancer, Mailin Daza, who weighs the equivalent of about 130 kilograms. "I wanted to dance in the classical ballet, but my mother told me fat girls could not dance. I always dreamed of being a ballerina. With this group I feel I am a ballerina."

While the troupe is not the first to employ larger dancers, its popularity comes as a surprise in a country known for its muscular, lean dancers in every genre from classical ballet to salsa.

Mas, a choreographer and dancer who moves like a pampered cat and weighs 136 kilograms, acknowledges that he often uses the stereotypical humor of his dancers' proportions to bring in audiences. The troupe is well known for its parody of Swan Lake and it engages in hilarious renditions of the Can-Can.

But Mas and his troupe are serious about dance, and once the laughter dies down, they are capable of performing moving pieces that drill into the universal themes of love, death and erotic longing. The audience forgets the joke and begins to feel the dance, he said.

"We use humor to get the public in," he said. "Then we can hit them with something stronger."

Mas, 42, also choreographs pieces on themes like the tragedy of gluttony, love between obese couples, the prejudice that fat people face and the psychic toll of obesity.

One of the troupe's recent successes is called "Sweet Death" and tells the story of a woman, rejected by her family, who tries to commit suicide by eating huge quantities of candy. The work has surreal elements, the dancers using their bodies to create furniture in the performance. Another piece, "The Macabre Dinner," explores gluttony.

Mas says it would be a mistake to think that his work is intended to glorify or sanctify obesity, or even to deliver a moralistic message that one should not discriminate against the overweight. Rather, he says, the troupe's art tries to face the reality of obesity while giving larger people a chance to express themselves through dance, a chance they are denied from youth in most dance classes. "Although we are obese and dance, we are against obesity," Mas said. "We are always trying to lose weight."

But something strange happens when the troupe takes the stage. Classical and modern dance often give the impression of human beings flying, freed of the earth. The female dancers are like nymphs, the men like Greek statues. They soar, spin, leap and reach for the sky.

Because of the size of the dancers in Mas's troupe, however, the work of Danza Voluminosa conveys something more earthy and human. Fat people move differently, he said, and the choreography must change.

"We are more mountainous," he said with a smile.

The dancers' movements are often slower than those of their slender colleagues. These dancers favor limbs swinging in pendulous arcs and wavelike motions that seem to ripple through their bodies. They seem to grip the floor rather than to abandon it, keeping a low center of gravity, often crouching or dancing while kneeling or lying on the ground.

And when their dance becomes frenetic, the sheer weight of the dancers thudding across the stage conveys an excitement akin to a stampede, something out of control and wild, yet made of human flesh and blood. It can be a riveting sight.

Mas says he has borrowed from the work of Martha Graham and José Limón but also incorporates moves from African dance, jazz dance and the folkloric dance of the Caribbean, often with West African roots. "I use whatever I can," he said.

For the dancers, working with Mas has changed their lives. Several said they suffered from constant embarrassment and guilt over their weight before they began dancing. But dancing has taught them to accept, if not love, their bodies. They also say that after a performance they feel self-esteem that is foreign to most them, having suffered from the gibes of their peers since childhood.

Barbara Paula, 29, weighs about 125 kilograms and has been dancing with the troupe for five years.

She says it still feels strange at times to be on stage, as if she is constantly discovering the potential beauty hidden inside her body, which for years was a source of shame for her.

"It's something new," she said. "I don't have this complex anymore that because we are obese, we cannot dance, we cannot walk in the street."

The reaction of audiences here in Cuba has been immensely positive. The government now lets the troupe practice and perform in the National Theater of Cuba.

Mas now receives a state salary to continue his work. The dancers who have been with the troupe for years say that the when the group started in November 1996, they faced ridicule and laughter. But these days people take them seriously.

"We have always had those who laugh at first, but by the end of the show there is a standing ovation," said Xiomara González, a 43-year-old mother of two who gave up her job to dance and weighs about 80 kilograms. "And this is a beautiful thing, a very beautiful thing."

Source: Cuba News Headlines
(Original Source: By James McKinley Jr., International Herald Tribune)

A montage of clips from Danza Voluminosa's performances

Saturday, 17 May 2008

Coffee with Raqia Hassan

by Layla Taj

Almost behind every successful Egyptian Style Dancer is the name "Raqia Hassan".

I had the opportunity to meet and take a class with Raqia when I was invited to perform in a Gala show in Stockholm Sweden Belly Dance Festival ..June 2000. She made a great impression on me. I want to share with you a question/answer article I wrote for a Middle Eastern Publication.

Layla: Raqia where were you born?

Raqia: I was born in Cairo and my father was born in Alexandria.

Layla: When you were a young girl in school , what type of student were you?

Raqia: I was a very good student, very quiet and honest.No one needed to push or beg me to do my homework. I wanted to do things right.

Layla: When did you begin dancing?

Raqia: When I was 4 years old, I started to move to the music. I rememember when I was young and sick in bed and suddenly I would hear the music ..and I would move to the music, even in bed while I was sleeping" she laughs.

Layla: Did you know as a little girl that you would become a professional dancer?

Raqia: Yes , many times and I'm sure others feel the same. If you love dance, the dance is always with you. It's in your blood. All Egyptians have dancing in their blood but some know their fate will be a life of dance.

Layla: Who inspired you the most as a young girl?

Raqia: When I was a young girl, I always wanted to go to the movies, the cinema. I always liked to watch the dancers. Samia Gamal , Tahia Carioca, etc. There were many good dancers during this time.

Layla: Who was your favorite?

Raqia: Nemat Moktar. Her movements were fantastic, it was as if she were singing.

Layla: Were there any obstacles which you encountered with your dancing career? For example government, boyfriends , your parents etc..?

Raqia: No, No. Nothing stopped me! I had a free life. I started dancing in a small group when I was 14 years old. Everyone around me knew how much I loved dance and no one tried to stop me.

Layla: What was it like dancing for the famous Reda dance troupe?

Raqia: It was a great experience for me! All this experience really helped me with what am doing now.I learned ballet, folkloric and gained alot of experience being on stage! I learned much from Reda, as he dealt with us as dancers. This is where I also learned my vocabulary! I learned a lot.

Layla: You were also a solo dancer for the Reda Troupe. What was the difference between dancing as a solo artist as opposed to dancing with a troupe?

Raqia: At 17 years old , I started to be a solo dancer with the Reda Troupe. But it is not for everybody. At this time I was very gifted with moving my hips and so he used me. I was the first one.

Layla: In your opinion what are the elements that make up a good choreography?

When a dancer has good form with her arms, good posture in general, a good smile and personality.. it executes the choreography well. But before everything else, a dancer must have a good ear for the music. Too many dancers don't have "the ear' and this is not good. When a dancer has a good ear for the music, the choreography will come automatically.

Layla: What is your opinion concerning choreography verses improvisation?

Raqia: I prefer choreography when it doesn't look like choreography.

Choreography should flow from the dancer and look natural. It should be a secret of the dancer that her music is choreographed. No one should notice. As a master teacher I have an eye for great detail, and my eyes cannot help capture the mistakes that a dances makes during her performance. And sometimes this makes me very tired. But when a performance is good it is as though I am in a dream.

Layla: What should dancers never do in front of an Egyptian audience.?

Raqia: A dancer should never sit, lie down or roll around on the floor. This is Turkish style but not Egyptian. I feel a dancer is a queen and a queen never sits on the floor! She should always stand up with a majestic posture. This is the Egyptian way.

Layla: Some dancers remark, "I dance for myself when I perform". What is your opinion about this remark?

Raqia: Never should a dancer dance only for herself. She can dance for herself at home in front of a mirror. When you are on stage you can dance some from your own feeling but mostly for the people. Some people really go out of their way to see you. How can you dance just for yourself? Can you just forget your audience? Never!

Raqia is a generous teacher giving of herself completely. I remember fondly during a class in Stockholm Sweden, she boldly walked over to me and put her foot on my foot to keep it down during a combination. She said "okay, now move the other foot" I did so. She replied "There, you've got it!" That's Raqia ..hands down simply the best!

Source: Layla Taj

Friday, 16 May 2008

Dancers get style tips from Egypt workshop

Published: December 24, 2007

CAIRO (AFP): Some 80 professional dancers from around the world have gathered this month at a luxury hotel overlooking the pyramids in the Egyptian capital Cairo to take part in an intensive dancing workshop, aimed at improving their technique and offering them style tips.

From Kazakhstan to Brazil, Italy and Indonesia, lovers of oriental dance flock to Egypt to pay homage to the cradle of this ancient art.

"If you haven't danced in Egypt, you are not a real dancer," said Raqia Hassan, Egypt's most famous dance teacher who organizes the winter workshops and who is also responsible for the Cairo Dance Festival held every summer since 2000.

"It is absolutely necessary to be trained here. Egypt is the source after all," said Nadia Sement, a French oriental dance instructor attending the workshop.

With colorful sequined scarves jingling around their hips, the dancers who each spent 1,000 euros (1,437 dollars) for the workshop, train vigorously for eight hours a day and listen to lectures on the dance's history in the evenings in order to truly capture the spirit behind the moves, the organizers said.

And cursed be those who reduce the ancient art to a simple form of seduction or who dare call it "belly dance", says Carolina Vargadinicu, who goes by the stage name Morocco.

"That would be a false, colonial and racist interpretation by the West," says the 70-year-old New Yorker whose family roots lie in Romania and who has been dancing professionally for 47 years.

Legend has it the dance was originally an ancient fertility rite. And while Egyptians like to trace it back to the Pharaonic times, the dance actually comes from India and was brought over to Egypt by gypsies.

In Mexico some still believe that the dance has the power to help fertility, says Grinnelli Sandoval who runs a dance school in Ensenada in Baja California.

"I have some students who have been sent by their gynecologist, because the movements help massage a woman's internal organs, which helps support the uterus better for childbirth," she said.

The workshop has also drawn local creative talent eager to showcase the accessories that must accompany the perfect dancer.

Displays of shiny, sequin-studded or pearl-embroidered costumes hang on display next to stands overflowing with music CDs and dance DVDs, and posters of the dance legends.

Not only has the golden age of the dance, embodied in the legendary Samia Gamal or Tahia Cariocca, long gone but foreign dancers working in Egypt are subject to strict restrictions aimed at keeping the art in Egyptian hands.

For Raqia Hassan, the dream would be to set up an oriental dance academy granting recognition to an art that she feels has not been given its rightful dues.

Actors' Guild Threatens to Penalize Male Belly Dancers

Published: 11 May 2008
Written by: Mona Madkour,

Renowned male dancer Tito Seif performs at a Giza hotel

CAIRO: As tourist season approaches, Egypt's professional belly dancing association has reported a surge in the number of professional belly dancer applications, including for the first time, from men.

The men who applied for permits already work as belly dancers on an unofficial basis, the head of the permit committee of the Egyptian Actors' Syndicate, Sami Nawar, told, adding that many have feminine- or gay-sounding names.

Nawar said the syndicate – which he descried as a "respectable" organization – would reject applications from men on the basis that it violates the social norms of the country, and said it would penalize male dancers.

"The syndicate will never encourage them [male dancers] to become part of the social fabric and will not play a role in creating controversy about how religion accepts what those men do and wear," Nawar said.

Male belly dancing, a centuries-old Egyptian tradition, is making a comeback despite suppression by government and religious officials due to its association with homosexuality, news agency Bloomberg reported.

Male dancers were in fact preferred by 19th-century Cairenes who thought women should not to expose themselves, it said, adding that from 1834 to 1849, women dancers –ghawazee -- were banned from the city.

Male belly dancing all but disappeared in the 1950s during the reign of Gamal Abdul Nasser because it smacked of monarchical decadence.

(Translated from Arabic by Sonia Farid)

Source: Al Arabiya News Channel

Tuesday, 13 May 2008

Belly dancer wows Britain's Got Talent team

Published: May 3, 2008

A BELLY dancer thrills the judges on Britain's Got Talent tonight - and catches the eye of presenter Declan Donnelly.

Sophie Mei, 19, tells hosts Ant McPartlin and Dec backstage how she turned to the Middle Eastern dance six years ago.

Speaking at the Manchester auditions, she says: "I've always loved dancing but I've never been that comfortable with it, and then I saw some belly dancers and I found out my curves could be useful for once."

As she steps on to the stage, Dec can barely keep his eyes off her.

And Simon Cowell is also transfixed by her curves.

Fellow judge Amanda Holden jokes: "Is it a yes or a no, Simon?" before Sophie has performed.

An insider said: "Dec was completely gobsmacked when he met Sophie and couldn't keep her eyes off her.

"He really wants her to do well in the competition."

And student Sophie, from Sheffield, is not the only one to win the judges' approval this week.

Grandad Leonard Henry Bennett, 72, impressed them with his strongman act.

Britain's Got Talent is on at 8.05pm on ITV1.

Note: The judges obviously haven't seen a professional bellydance performance before... but I'm glad that bellydance is getting some publicity, at least. :)

Source: The Daily Record