Owning: From Auction Blocks and Pedestals to Platforms

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Raks Africa

By Tammy Johnson and Etang Inyang

Let’s go there! That was our mantra when we began developing our new piece, Owning: From Auction Blocks and Pedestals to Platforms. We knew that it would touch on some contentious themes, challenge us to stretch our dance chops and reveal ourselves to our audience in a very different way. After more than a decade of dancing, five years of promoting body positivity through Girls Raks and two years of spreading bellydance, body justice and joy with Your Body Raks, it was time for us as Raks Africa, the dance company, to step things up as well.

2014 has been a year of tremendous discovery and growth for us. It’s a time of inspiration and perspiration! We have been attending dozens of theatrical and dance performances from a wide variety of genres throughout the Bay Area, taking note of what inspired and challenged us. We peeked in on the conceptual development of the work of other artists and attended theatrical workshops. Adding regular classes and coaching with Monica Berini to the mix has strengthened our grasp of the Egyptian bellydance style. More classes. More rehearsals. More conditioning. More dreaming.

The dreaming led to doing. And before we knew it we were buying lumber and assuit cloth, writing scripts and listening to countless drum solos. Owning was born. Here’s a peek into our own artistic process.

For us this piece is about definition. Women throughout history have always been on display, objectified by others who defined their womanhood and worthiness. We invoke the memory of three women in our performance as we see them as historical markers of moving from the labels of others to an affirmation of self-definition. The image of Saartjie Baartman, known as the Hottentot Venus, initiates the piece. A Khoi Khoi woman of South Africa, Saartjie was exhibited throughout Europe in the early 1800s as a sexual oddity and imperialist scientific curiosity, even after death. Appearing in the “A Street in Cairo” exhibit of the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago, a Syrian dancer called Little Egypt introduced the United States to what would be known by the misnomer bellydance. And then there is Nabaweya Moustafa, who danced with great revelry in several Golden Era (1940-1950s) Egyptian films. As Raks Africa we are constantly redefining what it means to be bellydancers in the 21st century. So for us there is a transition from the gaze of others (auction blocks and pedestals) to possessing the platform for our own view of self. YBR_projection_images2We must emphasize that we did not do this alone. It would be a bit too easy to step into fusion and add elements of modern dance or other forms. Our teacher and dance coach Monica Berini, kept us rooted in the Egyptian feel that is so important to ground the piece. Craftsman Rene Lake brought our vision of the platforms to life, with a visual nod to drums that beat out Egyptian rhythms. And then there is our costume designer Sandra Escott, who has done wonders with a precious few yards of Egyptian assuit fabric for our costumes. platformsassuit

So yes, we went there! We’re rakin’ about issues of body image, definition and resistance. And you should go there too and join us! We are excited about premiering this work at The Next Big Thing, the annual production of Big Moves Bay Area. The show will be held at Oakland’s Laney College Theater (900 Fallon Street) on Saturday, June 14th at 8pm and Sunday, June 15th at 2pm. Advance tickets are $13 and $18 at the door. Other performers include Big Moves Bay Area’s own resident dance company, emFATic DANCE and guest performers include Magnoliah BlackKitty Von QuimThe TartlettesBahiya Movement, Tigress and Sarah and more!

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