Rakkasah West 2014

Rakkasah West is a Middle Eastern dance festival held every year at the Richmond, California, Convention Center. By some accounts it is the largest belly dance festival in the world. Hundreds of women dancers, singly and in troupes, come from around California to dance, take dance classes, and oh yes, shop for dance costumes and related adornments.

This is my 5th year of attendance, but as I pulled into the parking lot, something was not right. I found an empty spot within seconds of driving in. And this was Saturday afternoon, prime performance time. Inside, the large foyer, usually jammed with folks browsing the vendor booths, was not so packed. Same thing inside the Convention Center, a hockey-rink shaped amphitheater. Two-thirds of the floor was dedicated to vendor booths, with the far third set with chairs in front of the large stage at the end of the hall. Here too, it felt a little thin. Not so many people cruising the booths.

I took a seat on the side balcony to watch the shows. Each group was given 7 to 15 minutes to perform, some dancing to their chosen canned music, and some to Pat Olsen’s band, Pangia, which included old friend, percussionist Tim Bolling. I’ve heard Pat sing before, but this evening his voice was unusually soulful. He closed his eyes, dug deep and delivered a mesmerizing performance.

I’ve been watching raqs sharqi (belly dancing) and playing in Doug Adamz’s belly band, Light Rain, for about 8 years now, and have come to a deeper appreciation of this dance. Belly dancing is a discipline, an exacting, demanding discipline for the women who take it seriously. It is not about sexy; it is about sensual, the dancer’s expression of her sensuality.

Most troupe performances I’ve watched – usually a teacher with her students – constitute dance. Some, the better-choreographed ones, rise to the level of show, in the best sense of the word. A few troupes I’ve seen rise above show to the level of spectacle.

One of them was the renowned John Compton and his troupe, Hahbi ’Ru, whom I saw perform at Michele Nicola’s Arabian Nights at Sea belly dance cruise a few years ago. John took his audience to a nomadic desert village and showed us how the women there dance, with large measures of his theatrics, humor and stagecraft added.

Another troupe that rises to spectacle is Suhaila Salimpour’s “Bal Anat.” Her mother, Jamila, is a life-long belly dancer, and her daughter, Isabella, is also a dancer, and performs with the troupe. During their performance, three generations of Salimpours, grandmother, mother, and daughter stood at the side of the stage playing zills – finger cymbals – and shimmying to the music. A memorable sight.

This was the second time I’d seen Suhaila’s company perform, and both times were spectacular. The troupe of two dozen came out and stood next to each other along the back curtain.

Bal Anat
The music was full-throttle, loud Middle Eastern dance music, and included not one zurna, but two. The sound of this wind instrument has been called a “shrill, high-noted, whiney, saw-toothed, screechy, yakety-yak, eardrum-drilling yowl.” Two zurnas could be ear overload.

But the dueling zurnas were the perfect foil for the company’s fevered dancing. From the troupe of brightly costumed women, a group of three dancers emerged to center stage and performed. They were high energy, enthused, fun-loving dancers having great fun. They danced ensemble, but did not look like they were choreographed. Of course they were, but they performed with such joy-of-dancing delight that I did not see them sweating the steps.
 
When a student troupe dances, it is not uncommon to see one dancer who does not have the moves down cold. She’s looking at the girl nearest to her, trying to suss the next step, but she is always a beat behind. This does not happen with Suhaila’s dancers. Never. They say this has to do with her highly disciplined school where dancers progress through five levels of certification, a three- to five-year odyssey.

So, twenty-plus women were in a semi-circle, zilling and shimmying while the group of three was dancing center stage. Bal Anat
The music was blaring: high-tension, turbo dance music, which I understand Suhaila has had recorded to her specs. There was drama. Hard to explain, but some of the passages were dramatic, flaring with tension and release. And there was humor as well. At the side of the stage, two dancers stood on overturned water glasses, shimmying, a juggler juggled, and a tray dancer performed his balancing magic. More was going on than my eye could take in at once. I had to move my focus from event to event on stage, all of which pulsed to a background of insanely hot music. Bal Anat was spectacle.
                                                                                      
Afterwards a few of us went to Bacheeso's Restaurant in Berkeley for a celebration of the life of Daniel Eshoo, a renowned Bay Area oud player who passed away in 2013. An acoustic pickup band played, led by Ishmael, a master of the qanun, a zither-like instrument. I saw a Greek bouzouki, and a bağlama, a long-necked, three-string instrument, an Arabic tambourine known as a riq, and a North African goblet-shaped drum, called the darbuka. A tar, a Middle Eastern frame drum, kept the bottom-most beat. Philip Gabriel sang some Egyptian tunes; Turkish, Armenian, Assyrian, and Greek melodies were played. A dozen people held hands and line-danced around the restaurant. Daniel’s son, an experienced musician, and his daughter, a skilled dancer, joined in. As with most events that commemorate lives passed, the feeling in the room was one of celebration etched with sadness. Though I never met Daniel, I’m glad I was there. The Bay Area belly dance community is small. Daniel’s passing was felt by all.
 
The turnout at Rakkasah has been shrinking for a few years, a reflection, I’m sure, of America’s shrinking middle class.