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.