Yasmina Ramzy is a dancer/choreographer and the founder and artistic director of Arabesque Dance Company and Orchestra, Arabesque Academy, and the International Bellydance Conference of Canada.
Your work involves an amalgamation or fusion of many different kinds of Middle Eastern dance. How do you distinguish or characterize “bellydancing” and the different styles of Middle Eastern dance or dances?
I am familiar with and teach fourteen different styles of Middle Eastern dance, three of which are under the category of bellydance and the other eleven are folkloric or spiritual trance dances, such as the Zaar Exorcism ritual or the Whirling Dervish. Each style has a character, a musical style and a realm of movement. Within each realm, there are limitless ways of expression. Some of the architecture or physical movement is shared between some of the styles but the nuances are very different. Bellydance, in particular, has borrowed from many of the folkloric styles but is presented with a different character and nuance.
What artistic values underlie your vision as a choreographer and artistic director?
Although I do not make an obvious point of it, all of my messages are in essence spiritual. In other words, I am always striving to open the hearts of audiences with powerful emotion. The kind of emotion that reminds us of the miracle that the universe exists and that we are blessed with the pleasure of enjoying its experience. There is something profound in the multitude of subtle layers and weaving interconnections of Arabic dance, music and poetry that I feel is a key to this experience.
Some people believe that bellydancing reinforces the characterization of “women as sexualized spectacle”. Others consider bellydancing an empowering, feminist practice. How do you address these opposing views?
Both can be true depending upon the view of the bellydancer and the view of the spectator. From ages fourteen through twenty-one, before I was a bellydancer, I lived in a Buddhist centre with celebate monks and nuns. I was always taught that sex is a very holy expression of the miracle of the universe and an expression of infinite love. I feel that bellydance is the perfect vehicle for this message. Many women who study bellydance find it very empowering because the archetypal movement and nuance they are tapping into ends up rewiring their view of their own womanhood and its importance. People who may be more in tune with the last 2000 years of sexual denial will experience bellydance as a negative thing. By the same token, bellydance is fast becoming globally popular, because it is a way of overcoming this inner oppression.
In your work, you place an emphasis not only on dancing style and technique but also on musical understanding, folklore and history. Do you consider your company a kind of cultural ambassador?
My last production called Asala was a thank-you kiss to the Arabic community for giving me my artform and nurturing me. I created a two-hour presentation featuring many of the folkloric styles of dance I had learned over the years. I wanted to inspire and pass on my knowledge to a future generation and thus free myself to go beyond and find my personal voice. My school Arabesque Academy continues to give a solid foundation in tradition while encouraging creativity. Lately I am experimenting with traditional Arabic musical poetry, which is always about love – a profound love in which the desire for the Beloved is the same as the desire to be one with God or the Goddess.
When you create a new production, what kind of audience are you primarily considering?
The choreographies that come together to make a production come out of a need to express something, not with any particular audience in mind. I think all the members of Arabesque Dance Company and Orchestra want to stir up the hearts of all kinds of audiences.
How is your new production Egypt different from past full-evening productions?
Egypt has a little bit of all the different directions I have expressed through my art over the years. It is my way of summing everything up and deciding which is the direction to pursue more deeply for the next part of the journey. I am starting to see that bringing the differences together might be creating a whole new way of expression that can include them all, the Goddess worship, the folklore, the sensual and playful bellydancer and the deep and profound poet.
Contemporary choreographer Robert Desrosiers is a choreographic advisor on this project. How are you and he working together on the production? What new discoveries have you made through this working relationship?
I knew many, many years ago that Robert and I used diametrically opposed ways of moving but we both expressed essentially the same message. When we met in person, we found we had too much in common. Working with him is euphoric. He is such a fountain of creativity. We found it was impossible for him to choreograph on my dancers because they cannot move like him, but when he describes a feeling or vision, I can translate it to our movement. We hope to do more in the future perhaps with half the dancers trained for his movement and the other half trained by me. The juxtaposition of opposite movement approaches side-by0side could be either impossible or fascinating.
In the last few years, you have initiated a successful international bellydance conference. What prompted you to develop this project and how is it affecting the bellydancing community internationally? Is there a conference in 2009?
I had attended and was greatly inspired by a similar conference at the Orange County University in California. This, coupled with the frustration that there is so much talent across Canada but it is little acknowledged, were factors to propel me to take on this huge task. Canadians were always looking south of border when very often, it was Canadians who were ahead of the rest. The conference was a way to put Canada on the bellydance map and instill pride in Canadian artists. Most of all, I enjoyed bringing together so many inspiring artists and scholars from all over the world in one place at the same time, debating and discussing the pertinent issues with one another. We need to skip 2009 to recoup and regroup. We hope one day to take the conference to a different Canadian city each year. We are currently working on the line-up for 2010.
*An excerpted version of this interview appears in the March 2009 print issue of The Dance Current.
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