Santa Cruz Dancers Among the Few Highlights of Rakkasah Festival

This past Sunday, I traveled up to Richmond, CA for Rakkasah West 2010, a bellydance festival, with my friend Tami. Since this was her first festival, I used the opportunity to introduce her around to the varieties of bellydance in this region, and to make those introductions explicitly through the dancers from the Santa Cruz environs. (There were 10 soloists and troupes from Santa Cruz performing on Sunday. Yes, I know Ma’shuqa is from Los Gatos but I count her as one of ours since she performs here so often.) The entire range of bellydance styles can be found in Santa Cruz, from the big Vegas-like productions by Sese to the classical performances of Ma’shuqa to the avant garde choreographies of Crystal Silmi and the folklorics of Siwa. We have it all here, a veritable feast of bellydancing and it was fun to point this out to Tami.

It was also illuminating to introduce her to a very popular teacher/performer who has had a strong influence on Santa Cruz bellydance. The big name of the Sunday schedule was the Salimpour dynasty, with three generations present: Jamila, Suhaila, and Isabella (who is so like her mother, Suhaila, that even she calls Isabella her “mini me”). I have never been a big fan of Suhaila’s, nor even a small one to be honest. I think she is a lazy performer and her dance company is often sloppy. Sunday they performed a choreography more appropriate to the FlyGirls of In Living Color from the 1990s. It was an embarrassing bit of nonsense.

On the other hand, several Santa Cruz dancers who studied under Salimpour have developed remarkable technique, subtly, and strength. Two of them performed on Sunday: Crystal Silmi and her troupe Raks Arabi and Janelle Rodriguez and her troupe Desert Dream. It is easy to see the influence Salimpour continues to have on their choreographic styles, though Silmi and Rodriguez each have taken it in different directions.

Crystal fuses the in-your-face dramatics of Salimpour with street dance, and jazz while maintaining a strong base in bellydance techniques, especially tribal fusion. She has passed on her rigorous training to her students and troupe, Raks Arabi. Crystal’s hard-hitting choreography produce a sexy and brash band of women, similar to Salimpour’s women but with a deeply embodied conviction.

Using the same isolation techniques she learned (in part) from Salimpour, Janelle produces a more luxurious style. Her dancers undulate gracefully while popping chests and hips. Janelle’s exquisite cross-stage glides are skillfully punctuated with upper and lower torso articulations. Janelle’s Desert Dream is comprised of a junior and senior company and she uses them smartly, never exceeding their abilities.

Salimpour’s technique has been good for Santa Cruz but I honestly think she could learn a thing or two about choreography from her old students.

This year Rakkasah celebrated its 30th year and truth be told, it should be its last. The quality of this once celebrated festival has declined to such a degree that it has lost many of its big-name performers and replaced them mostly with third-rate dance troupes and soloists. Their outdated policy of allowing on the stage any dancer who has the time to sit at the phone for hours trying to dial in, has been disastrous. “We do not choose the dancers,” says the website, “the phone company will determine who is next in line.” The phone company determines who performs? Really?

I am torn between a democratic desire to place all levels of dancer on one stage and my respect for the art of dance. Rakkasah stages are now filled with fifth-grade recital level performers with occasional breaks for the few outstanding artists who bother with this event. It is no longer a prestige festival drawing the best leading and up-and-coming dancers. Where they are going now, I don’t know but while this festival is in its decline, I hope new festivals arise with a clearer sense of purpose: to celebrate bellydance and dancers by showcasing the best we have to offer.

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6 Responses to Santa Cruz Dancers Among the Few Highlights of Rakkasah Festival

  1. Street Dance says:

    This sounds really fun and interesting!

  2. arvis skinner says:

    that is what is so great about this country you can band together with you peers and create the kind of dance event you would like…. just as the people who did with the event you attended . Will take alot of work but I am sure you can do it. And in your 30th year you can look back and say……I did it my way!!!!!
    much love

    • I agree; we can and should band together to create our worlds. But it is also important to look critically at what we do as artists, for the sake of the art itself.

      • arvis skinner says:

        I reread your piece and I found something else that moved me………third rate dancers dancing in public or at rakkasah. I understand that this is your opinion and that you are entitle to your opinion. So I can respect that.

        Here’s the thing…. I am a third rate dancer. I am a hobbyist and I am not the best dancer but I love it soooo much. I understand that I will never be an Ava Fleming or Jillina. But I think I feel as much joy when I dance as those ladies do. And sometimes I think maybe even a little more. Where those types of dancers are use to having a stage, live band ,lights, and all the glam I get my chance to experience that stage show performance thing at least one a year, if I am lucky enough to get in through the calling process. So it is very dear to me. The minute I get in the show for the next three months I am planning music, costume making dancing everyday and putting all of my third rate ability into this. Because being only a third rate dancer I am not going going to have a gig next weekend, or fly off to do a work shop and show and have people telling me how much they love me. Maybe that is the thinking or mind set of the rakkasah promoter. The call in gives every dancer a chance to have a wonderful belly dance experience. Because for third rate dancers it is an experience that starts the minute you get through on the phone from the time you exit the stage and someone will say good job. Some you you don’t even know . It is the coolest thing ever. It is because of this joy I feel when I get to dance on a “world stage” so to speak that I do shows where I live for anyone who would like to dance. I try to make it as nice as possible and just a wonderful experience. I encourage the dancers to stay for the whole show and support their sister dancers. I have beginning students to pros in the areacome out and dance. After years of doing the whole belly dance thing I have learned that it is the third rate dancers who makes the belly dance world go round. These are the people who come to the pro shows, who take the workshops, who buys the DVD, and will take the lessons. With out these people the jillina’s and Ava Fleming’s would not have a career or maybe as much of a career. So Rakkasah is gear to allow any skill level of dancer to perform…. there are many shows that you do get the best of the best. I have seen many dancer who are at a low level of dancing but I saw the joy and just really understood her because I am her I knew she was doing her best she was having her moment. I have danced at Rakkasah about 6 times and I have enjoyed it so much. The year I got to dance to live music on the main stage was mind blowing it was the thrill of a life time.(I guess you could counter with …wow you must not have much of a life but I do the best I can with what I have) I can only thank her (the Rakkasah promoter)for looking out for us third rate dancer. Maybe she understands that third rate dancer makes the belly dance world go round. I hope she has another 31 years God bless her

        Maybe I looked like a fifth grade performing but it was my best and I put my heart and all I truly had into to all of my performances at rakkash because I have respect for the event and what the promoters are doing for our belly dance community. I have always walked away feeling very proud of myself and with a great since of accomplishment)



      • Thank you so much for your comments. It is good to hear another perspective…I know my own is very skewed. It really is all about the joy, isn’t it? Thanks for reminding me.

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