There have been a couple of times in my life when I felt stagnated and bored with my dancing. I felt frustrated with a lack of substance, technical complexity, and artistic vision. I had been a successful dancer and company director for 5 years, I had managed to make a living through performing and teaching in Los Angeles. By the end of 2012, I reached a point where the gigs were no longer feeding me, the excitement and drive to continue pursuing such a life style was fading. I had always agreed with the idea that if you want to become better, you must surround yourself with people and mentors that are more highly talented than you.
I looked at different options to satisfy this need to improve my dance. I decided to travel to Argentina and train with someone whom I considered the best modern belly dancer, Saida Helou.
I began to research about traveling expenses, housing, and classes. I looked into blogs from dancers who had previously trained in Argentina, hoping they could provide any useful information for my journey. I found some old leads, sent emails, even put an ad online, both in English and Spanish, asking any Argentinian, American, and European dancers please to contact me with any information they might have. A couple of weeks went by, but I did not hear from anyone. I lost hope somewhat and felt that my dream of studying with Saida was just not going to happen. About a week after I had given up hope, I received an email from a student of Saida’s telling me how interested and genuine I had sounded about this project; so she would do whatever she could to help me. She said she was enrolled in Saida’s school and would spread the word and ask around concerning the process of studying there as a foreign dancer. I was thankful and asked the Universe to please help me. When another couple of weeks went by and I had not heard from her, I began to feel pessimistic again. To my surprise, I heard from one of Saida’s students telling me she would be willing to rent me her living-room couch on a weekly basis. I planned my trip to last for 1 month from mid February to mid March of 2013.
I arrived in Buenos Aires on a Wednesday and was ready to start taking classes the next day. My roommate explained that there are 5 class levels and that foreign students are allowed to take any class from levels 1-4 but not 5. (Level 5 is only open to former graduates of her school and Saida’s company members.) She also mentioned that as good as a dancer I might be, I wouldn’t be able to keep up anyway, since I was not trained in Saida’s style and technique. I was so excited about starting classes that the next day I arrived 2 hours early to Saida’s academy. I was able to buy a package of unlimited classes and my first day at the studio, I took 3 classes, level 1-3. I also took a tour of the studio which included a large main studio, a large locker/changing room, a cafeteria and lounge room, and a boutique with costumes, CDs and DVDs.
My first impressions of Saida were strong. She is confident and carries a lot of presence when she walks into the room. She was punctual, and I could tell that she was ready to teach; by that statement, I mean she had planned and prepared. She had what she wanted to talk about exactly in mind as well as the technique she intended to cover in class. Her music was edited for each class. She teaches most classes on a daily basis, that means anywhere from 3-4 classes per day. My first class was a level 3 class, and I was full of nervous anticipation.
Once she started the technique section, she particularly paid attention to me and yelled across the room, “Hey! You, in the black pants! You are not from here; are you?”
I shook my head with a “No”.
“I can tell by your bad posture, lazy arms, and crooked feet.”
I wanted to die!
“Just make sure you pay attention to those around you, and modify as much as possible so that you look like them.” she said.
I nodded yes, hoping all eyes would turn away from me.
I had been warned by my roommate that Saida was strict, demanding, and had a great ability to pay attention to details. She suggested that if I got feedback, I should try to fix it as soon as possible. She would teach a combination, drill it, have students repeat it in alternating groups on the dance floor. If she did not feel satisfied with what she saw, she would continue drilling until students were ready for the next combination.
She would stand on top of the studio’s stage and watch carefully smaller groups of dancers, then come down and tell each individual student what they needed to correct. She could make as many as 3-12 corrections, walking to each individual student, showing what they did wrong and how to correct it. She would confront lazy and careless students, asking them, “Why do you bother coming to class when the effort and focus is not there?” I could tell that she was intimidating her students but had enough respect and interest in the dance to demand that they meet her expectations.
Earlier that day, I had read an article in which she explained that she barely gave compliments to students because it was counter-beneficial. Her experience had been that once you praise students, their egos are fed and their sense of humility drops.
She said that she believed that the humble student is the best with whom to work. They always strive to get better and are always open to feedback. If a student is being told constantly that he or she is a great dancer, they become arrogant, lazy, and even defiant.
Saida’s school was structured with a specific goal and artistic vision. That’s why I would consider it the most comprehensive Middle Eastern Dance Academy in the world. Once students graduate from her school, they are well-rounded dancers and artists, in every sense of the word, in my opinion. The school trains dancers on exceptional technique, musicality, history and culture, dancing with props, complex choreography, and stage production skills.
Grade Levels in Saida’s School
From what I gathered, this is how Saida has structured each grade level in her school in order to prepare her students:
Grade 1: Emphasizes posture, alignment and the history of the dance. Basic combinations, turns, chasses, and the teacher might spend the entire hour breaking down 5-6 belly dance movements, drilling small groups on them. One third of the classes incorporate lectures on history, geography, music, historical context of the dance, important figures in the dance form and basic zill (sagat) patterns.
Grade 2: Building on technique. Dancers must have a firm posture, alignment, and build body awareness and confidence. Students continue to work on turns as well as technique that derives from ballet. A lot of their turns are on the flat of the foot, and they build their skill toward working on their toes during 3rd grade. Study of 12-15 most common rhythms in Arabic music as well as a strong emphasis in the history of the dance from ancient history to modern times. Their emphasis is upon studying Egyptian and Middle Eastern dancers and musicians. They must learn to play zills to about 15 rhythms, and at the end of the year, part of their final test is to play at least 13 of them within 3 minutes. They are also tested in technique and dance history. My roommate explained that grade 2 is the most demanding and students must be on top of everything if they want to pass. Some of them are asked to go back and take level 1 classes in order to reinforce their understanding of technique. I met several girls who had already passed level 2 but were taking level 1 classes also (at Saida’s request). At this level, dancers being to work in combinations, so combinations and retention of choreography are emphasized.
Grade 3: Building on history, rhythms, and playing zills for each rhythm. Class is technically more advanced. Dancers must be able to identify all the rhythms in a song and dance properly to each one. For example: Don’t do drum solo moves during a Saidi or waltz section. The instructor begins to incorporate zills into the choreography that she teaches in class. Dancers begin to turn on their toes, not always flat, but a lot of her turns remain on a flat foot, depending on the effect or level changes she wants to see in the choreography. Choreography here is more complex and there is not so much repetition when it is taught. Dancers must learn and recall combinations quickly. Proper posture and alignment is a given.
Grade 4: More advanced and complex choreography. Saida does a lot of entrance music here (at least at the beginning of the year) so there are constant turns, chasses, weight shifts, and the music is fast. Dancers must know all the rhythms and components of the music. They must be proficient in zills and other props.
Grade 5: I didn’t take any level 5 classes, but I was able to observe. Dancers who are allowed to attend these classes are level 5 students, professionals, teachers, her company members and students who have graduated but want to keep up with technique and training. Intricately advanced choreography, supple athletic dancers who learn choreography rapidly. She might do a full 2-3 minute choreography in a 1 hour class. Students are expected to show the entire piece with only minor technical and expressive flaws.
There are also final exams in which students are tested on everything that was covered that particular year, and if the student fails, he or she must repeat the year in order to maintain her school enrollment. There are certain instances in which she might allow a student to pass the exam, but if the student is deficient in some aspects of the material, then he or she will be expected to enroll in classes of both the previous level and current level. I also met several students that would take classes from the lower levels they had covered, just to reinforce or master the material.
At the end of each year, Saida holds a gala in which students may perform and showcase the material they learned. The preparation for the show starts 6 months in advance with required weekend rehearsals. The process of making costumes and set design starts that early as well.
The gala is usually held at a big theater where parents, friends, and dance aficionados pack the entire place and the shows are often sold out.
The standards for public performers and professional dancers are high, which is different from what I have observed here in the U.S. Most dancers must have at least 5-7 years of extensive training in order to perform. It is considered shameful for a dancer who is not trained enough to try to perform if her technique and presentation is poor. Dancers and teachers feel that students should really pay their dues and train enough before they perform in public for an audience. I noticed that some dancers would take anywhere from 2-5 classes per day at her studio and most of them would attend classes 2-3 times per week, some girls would take 3-4 classes every day.
Saida only accepts dancers from ages 12 and up, but many girls start training at an earlier age at other schools and once they turn 12 they enroll at Saida’s school. She also offers fully paid scholarships to students who have low economic resources but who show a lot of potential and commitment to the dance.
Another important factor about what makes such a model so successful is that belly dance is promoted and perceived as an art form in Argentina, and typically, not as a hobby or fitness class. There is a strong collaboration between dancers and musicians during workshops, public performances, showcases and stage productions, it all comes together beautifully.
Going to Argentina and studying with Saida was a great inspiration and a break-through in my life. I loved observing the passion and dedication that dancers put into their art form. I admired that they danced for the sake of expressing their art–not always for money since there is not such thing as gigging around at weddings and restaurants there. I was influenced by Saida’s teaching methods, talent and honesty for her dance and work. Since I came back from Argentina I have been dealing with the question of what are the best settings for me to dance and how to transition into a more visionary and artistic one.