Is it balady or beladi? Is that some kind of music or a dance form or a costume style? I know I had a hard time sorting this out when I first started out and would have benefited from the baladi workshop Janelle Rodriguez taught recently at her Santa Cruz studio, Pleasant Point Fitness & Dance Center.
Janelle began with a review of the history of baladi. She addressed what the term baladi means (my country or home), its various spellings (beledi, balady, et al), its dance, music, and sartorial references, and concluded with nice quote from Hossam Ramzy about “bint il balad,” the girl of the country, and her expressive dance.
Baladi, or “country” doesn’t just mean “rural” (though it may refer to that); it refers to one’s home land and its people; to being one of those people or performing the dances of that place; to being home grown. Raks baladi, then, is a dance that expresses a people “from the inside out,” as Janelle said; the baladi expresses one’s roots. Though these were originally Egyptian people, she continued, there is no reason why can’t we find our own sense of home and country to express. Janelle describes the Egyptian dance as “earthy, grounded, simple, spirited, playful and joyful.” And she challenged us to find what authentic experience we could express through our raks baladi.
Her warm up was not typical, but designed specifically to prepare us for this choreography. She did not, however, let us out of those deep yoga-like stretches and alternating glutteal contractions, to my general chagrin. Be that as it may, the warm-ups were based on traditional baladi dance movements which are folksy and bouncy, gently flirtatious.
She taught us a revised version of one of her earlier choreographies. The music of Issam Houshan’s baladi accordion opens with a taxeem (slow, a-rhythmic music or movement—the snake-y stuff) which we improvised to. In fact, raks baladi is traditionally entirely a solo improvised performance but Janelle choreographed the second half of the music. I liked the taxeem exercises she gave us in preparation for the improvisations. First we sat on the floor and could only dance with our arms and upper torso. Then we stood and held our hands behind our backs so we could only dance with our torso. Finally, having figured out that we can do more than snake arms and mayas, we incorporated the whole body.
Janelle’s choreography was more American than Egyptian in flavor: bold, dynamic, and rapid-fire. Ah, youth; always in a hurry. With her foundations in traditional baladi, Janelle built a complex choreography with combinations changing every 4-8 counts and never repeating. Her musicality is always spot on, one of the things that makes her such a great performer. She makes the music visible, tangible and, when I could remember and execute her choreography, I felt that connection to the drum and accordion. It was very satisfying…as was the whole afternoon.
I’ve known Janelle for about 10 years. She was a student of Helené’s when I started taking her classes. I recognized her talent even then and when we were learning one of Helené’s choreographies, I knew who to stand behind. I’m still standing behind Janelle, only this time she’s the teacher and the leader of a busy tribe of bellydancers.
PS: you can see Janelle and other local bellydancers this weekend at the Cabrillo Festival in downtown Santa Cruz at 5:00.