Revolutionary Dancers

We are excited about our Resistance and Revolution production this year because Liberated Bodies in Motion is a theme that is wholly embraced by our guest performers. They bring, not only their talent, skill and creativity to the stage, but powerful stories of defiance, beauty, joy and ancestral promise fulfilled.

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Antoine Hunter

In The Root Antoine Antione Hunter calls on our ancestors and presents American Sign Dance, expressing felt syncopation through the body. A Bay Area native, Antoine Hunter is an award-winning African-American Deaf and Hard of Hearing choreographer, dancer, actor, poet and Deaf advocate and the founder and artistic director of Urban Jazz Dance.

monica_high_res_riq_logoEgyptian style bellydancer, Monica Berini presents, Safety Dance, an investigation of the social tug-of-war between traditional and modern healing practices. Berini’s style mixes a long career of professional performing for and with pan-Arab diaspora communities, an ongoing study of the complexities and joys of Egyptian dance, and a love of Arab, North African and Mediterranean music and performing arts. She is also a performing member of Aswat Ensemble.

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Ifasina ThaHood Alkemist

With her offering, The Embodiment, ThaHood Alkemist mixes it up with a fusion of hip hop, West African and deep south Black church praise dance. ThaHood AlKemist is a wellness worker and dance teacher. With 15 plus years of dance experience she empowers others, and creates unique dance spaces that challenge external and internalized notions about the way bodies are supposed to look and move when we dance.

ss2With their piece Magical Bodies, the contemporary and hip hop group, Shapes & Shades Dance Company creates something mystical from the struggles with body image and societal pressures. Founded by Megan Briceno this dance company promotes diversity in dance by creating art on bodies of all shapes and shades and sharing it through performance. The group hosts age-appropriate workshops for children to introduce them to dance and body positivity.

Andrea Sendek

Andrea Sendek

Andrea Sendek’s interpretation of Mawood (I’ve been Promised) a tarab song crafted to invoke complex emotion, will be nothing short of breathtaking. She will finish with a pulse raising drum solo. With over two decades of bellydance experience, Sendek has performed and taught across the United States and internationally, including appearances in Japan, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Canada, and South America. In 2015 she founded Khepri Dance Company.

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Matilda St. John

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Jessica Erin Judd

Jessica Erin Judd and Matilda St. John tackle the lure and the lie of an individualist politic and the power of connection in the face of injustice with their piece, System Failure: The Weight of Individualism. Jessica Erin Judd and Matilda St. John have been dancing together with Big Moves, a service organization dedicated to getting people of all sizes into the dance studio and up on stage, since 2002. They are also Co-Artistic Directors of emFATic DANCE, Big Moves’ resident dance company.

Check out these and other great performances at:                                                        Resistance and Revolution: Liberated Bodies in Motion                                                   

Free! Saturday, October 8th, 7:30pm

Laney College Theater, 900 Fallon St., Oakland

RSVP here!

Can’t attend the show, but you want to support Girls Raks?

Great! Find out more here!

Resistance and Revolution: Aiwa!

Photo by Robbie Sweeny

Photo by Robbie Sweeny

In the Egyptian Zar spiritual tradition, your jinn is that spirit that is the anxiety, the voice of trickery never leaves you. Unlike Western medicine, that claims to rid you of what ails you with one cure-all or another, this tradition recognizes that we carry trauma in our genes. So you are never rid of your jinn. But on occasion you can, as the Buddhists say, invite it in for tea and discover healing through truth and understanding.

dsc_7852 Through the journey of creating the Zar-based pieces, How is Your Heart (Kayf Haalik?) and this year’s Aiwa! I have found that healing. I have asked myself, “How far, how deep, how wide can this woman say yes to herself?” As a Black woman, society makes it difficult to say yes to the totality of who you are. In this historical moment where we are bearing witness to a particularly commanding expression of Black womanhood, this an especially compelling question. If, in the face of daily transgressions to my very being can I say yes to the whole of who I am? Is this possible to be whole and healed? If so, what does it look like? How does it feel? How does it make me move? What sounds does that healed liberation make?

Robbie Sweeny

Robbie Sweeny

Aiwa! is my story of finding the courage to say yes to the totality of my experiences and to the body that bore witness to it all. Arabic for yes, Aiwa! is an affirmation of self and the claiming of one’s wholeness. Grounded in bellydance’s Berber origins through song, drum and movement, Aiwa! is in essence a liberation ritual. The dance is a healing salve that restores the soul from decades of systemic oppression and intergenerational trauma. Northern African trance-music the Zar, grounds the piece in the notion that there can be no personal evolution or social revolution without healing. Aiwa!

Aiwa and my 2015 piece, How is Your Heart (Kayf Haalik?) are bookends to a series of pieces that will be performed by me and other Bay Area bellydancers in a 2017 production called The Healing Suite.

Check out Aiwa! and other great performances at:                                                      Resistance and Revolution: Liberated Bodies in Motion                                                    

Free! Saturday, October 8th, 7:30pm

Laney College Theater, 900 Fallon St., Oakland

RSVP here!

Can’t attend the show, but you want to support Girls Raks?

Great! Find out more here!

Resistance and Revolution: The Girls Raks Experience

Monica in rehearsal with Girls Raks

Monica in rehearsal with Girls Raks

It was a classic bellydance song. Lushly orchestrated and dripping with drama, Alf Leyla Wa Leyla had our dancers captivated. And we took note. For six weeks, guest teacher, Monica Berini not only taught Girls Raks some cool new moves, but introduced them to this old school groove, and a few Egyptian bellydancers who have shimmied to it. And so their 2016 piece was born.

Meaning 1001 Nights, Alf Leyla Wa Leya is an Egyptian song made famous by Oum Kalthoum, deemed to be the most gifted and loved Egyptian singer of the 20th century in Northern Africa and the region. Much like many of the songs Kalthoum sung, 1001 Nights is a love song ostensibly about two lovers. But also like many of her songs is doubles as a song about love of Egypt and its people.

Girls Raks

Girls Raks

You and me my sweetheart, my life.

Let us live in the eyes of the night, let us live in the eyes of the night.

In a night of love as sweet as one thousand and one night,

They say it is the life.

What is life, but a night like tonight, like tonight, tonight, like tonight.

Girls Raks

Girls Raks

Girls Raks takes the lyrics even further to embrace love of self. Knowing that our society has a way of turning us against ourselves, their performance flips the script and embraces the concept of self-love. This act of love is compelled not by ego or vanity, but by a sincere appreciation for all that we are, our whole beings.

Check out Girls Raks new piece and other great performances at Resistance and Revolution: Liberated Bodies in Motion                                                  

Free! Saturday, October 8th, 7:30pm

Laney College Theater, 900 Fallon St., Oakland

RSVP here!

Can’t attend the show, but you want to support Girls Raks?

Great! Find out more here!

Creative Growth Brings It Home

 

It’s been a crazy morning. I’ve been hard at it since 7:00 a.m. answering emails, rearranging my schedule, preparing for trainings and moderating a phone conference. After a quick lunch, I’m on my way to downtown Oakland. As soon as I cross the threshold of the Creative Growth Art Center everything changes. The artists greet me with smiles, hugs and unbelievably inventive watercolor, cloth and found-object creations.

Our Programs 250x670For the past two years, I have been teaching a monthly mid-day bellydance class at Creative Growth, which serves adult artists with developmental, mental and physical disabilities. A quick look around proves that the phrase on their website “providing a professional studio environment for artistic development, gallery exhibition and representation and a social atmosphere among peers” is no exaggeration. It’s a place where you can buy the funkiest jeans-turned-tote-bag for a few bucks or witness the transformation of a canvass that would have given expressionist Jackson Pollock a run for his money.

Exhibitions-top-of-page-imageIt’s my job to get them out of their chairs and on their feet. So our classes are more like a dance party, where what is most important is that you move something! Unlike many bellydance classes, half of my students are men who shimmy just as joyously as the women next to them. And whether it is Egyptian walking to an up-tempo Shabby tune or a doing snake arms to a slow takasim, the artists are happy to take a break from a desk full of chalk, stencils and fabric. I feel really fortunate to have the opportunity to have fun dancing without an agenda, connecting with them and appreciating their work. I often think of my Aunt Eula, who loved music, braiding hair and making cookies, and who had a developmental disability, as well. I am glad to know that there are now places like Creative Growth that embrace the full humanity of the people who walk through their doors.

JohnMartin300x200-300x198But don’t take my word for it. Check out their current exhibit, Home 2016: Where Horror Meets Hilarity Meets Adventure, a title borrowed from John Martin’s drawing of a Simpsons character gone rogue. The exhibit features new work from more than 50 artists. Gallery hours are Monday through Friday from 10:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and Saturday from 10:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m.

Raks Africa gives a special thank you to Studio Manager Julie Alvarado for introducing us to this wonderful organization and Client Services Coordinator Cristina Moraes for assisting us with our monthly classes. You can find out more about the current exhibit here.

 

Two Women

E&T Cairo

Etang & Tammy in Cairo

As women navigating the culture of violence in society, we have many stories to tell.These stories, are our memories of violence that are not only endured by our bodies and psyches, but even limit our ability to speak and define ourselves. Two Women, a bellydance choreography created by us, Raks Africa, attempts to tell those stories. It’s a story of pushback, of finding one’s voice and solidarity with others amidst the chaos of a broader social revolution. 

We were fortunate to find the talented Anand Parmar of the Sol Collective, who skillfully remixed Lauren Hill’s I Find It Hard to Say (Rebel). The song now has a prominent dumm of a doumbek that creates a heartbeat that emotionally and sonically moves the piece. The drive of the drum and Lauren’s plea of “Rebel! Rebel!” matches our own desire to connect the lived experiences of the women that we met in Cairo and the young women that we dance with in Oakland. 

Protest Street Art in Cairo

Cairo Street Art

Cairo Street Art

Cairo Street Art

And so Two Women was created. Two women from different cultures, Cairo and Oakland, forging a new nation through revolution and through the demand to Say Her Name

Two women, seemingly fighting in isolation from each other, eventually finding solidarity in each other’s struggles and triumphs. Two women united in the fight against violence against women and for dignity for their communities. We have a voice. We have agency. We can and will rebel. Rebel! Rebel! 

Cairo Two Women

Cairo Street Scene

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Andri: What I wear does not equal consent

Check out Two Women and Girls Raks’ piece, The Calling, at Resistance and Revolution: Sisters Challenging and Changing the World. The show will be held Saturday, November 21st, 7:30pm, at Laney College Theater, 900 Fallon Street, Oakland. It’s FREE!

In Appreciation of Asata

Etang's blog headshot
We all start somewhere. In July of 2001, I found my way to bellydance as a means of adding movement to my life. I walked into the Albany Community Center tentative, unsure and disconnected from my body. I did not know much about bellydance. Really, I did not know much about dance. I just knew that I was not the stereotypical image of a bellydancer at all. That July, at twenty-nine years of age, I walked into my very first dance class. I was uncoordinated, and lacking in both confidence and musicality. Bellydance felt safe and accessible to me because I saw that the instructor Asata was explicitly introducing the dance to women of color and full-figured women. She helped me see myself in the dance. I don’t think I would have taken the chance otherwise, and I am glad I took the risk. I wonder if I would have found my way to bellydance without Asata.

Our first bellydance teacher, Asata

I am grateful to Asata for holding space for people like me. In our work with Your Body Raks, Tammy and I work to plant seeds and to seek out folks who have never considered bellydance. Asata was our mirror and now we are the mirrors for others, too. Thank you Asata. I celebrate your grace, your courage, and your passion. Thank you for introducing bellydance to me in a way that helped me to connect to my body and myself. Thank you for igniting a joy, a love and a freedom inside of me.

Who inspires you? We invite you to join Your Body Raks in our celebration of Women in Dance this month by submitting a photo or video with a message about the dancer to yourbodyraks@gmail.com. They can be an international, national or local dancer from any dance style.

Keep up with us daily on Facebook, “like” our page, Your Body Raks!

A Shared Mission

Sometimes you just don’t know what you are getting into until you are in it. When Etang and I started Your Body Raks, our intention was to create a safe space for people who wanted to move, but didn’t fit neatly into the confines of society’s dance and fitness boxes. There are so many us who look nothing like the young hopefuls gliding across the stage of So You Think You Can Dance. But who says that you have to?

To our surprise, there are a lot of people who agree, including the great staff at Oakland’s Women’s Cancer Resource Center (WCRC). Keeping to their mission of providing services that assist women in coping with various forms of cancer, WCRC creates opportunities for their community to stretch, meditate, move and dance in a safe and accessible way. After seeing us perform at a local event, Community Outreach Manager, Margo Rivera-Weiss felt that Your Body Raks was a perfect match for WCRC.

In addition to teaching regular bellydance classes at the Center, we were invited to participate in a February 6th community dialogue entitled: Fitness and Movement as Medicine: Making Exercise Work for YOU & Understanding its Relationship to Cancer. It was a great opportunity to hear women share their movement tips and concerns, and the need for more advocacy around issues of access and fairness.

As people who have family and friends affected by cancer, our partnership with WCRC means a lot to us. It reminds us that this dance that we do is a part of a long tradition of awakening our body’s wisdom and healing power. And for that we are grateful.

The Women’s Cancer Resource Center’s services are mainly for women with cancer, but community members are welcome to participate in these classes. Your Body Raks WCRC bellydance classes are free, but you must register at this link. The classes are held at 5741 Telegraph Avenue. The dates and times are as follows:

Thursday, February 28th @ 6:30pm

Tuesday, March 26th @6:30pm

Every 2nd, 3rd and 4th Tuesday starting in April @ 6:00pm

Keep up with us daily on Facebook, “like” our page, Your Body Raks!

 

 

 

 

Exploring New Stages

Etang's blog headshot
Boxes are safe. They are all about straight lines with equal angles. They have four corners that all measure 90˚. They are predictable, limiting, and yes, safe. As Raks Africa, we have adopted the slogan, “Big Bellied Girls Doing Big Things!” While that is certainly true and a source of great pride, as a dance company we strive to embody much more beyond that box, the novelty and spectacle of full-figured Black bellydancers shaking it.

Raks Africa
photo credit: Michael Baxter

 

This year, Tammy and I have made some goals beyond the safety of the box. One of our goals is to seek out new stages to dance our hearts out on and new audiences to captivate with our sparkle and joy. Last month, we had the challenge of auditioning for the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival. This was a new stage for us, outside of the comfort zones of the bellydance community or the size acceptance community. In that setting, we had no peers except each other. Taking that risk and dancing beyond the safety of the box is what this year is all about.

And we’re about to do it again! This Sunday, February 24th at 7pm we are taking the stage in the 9th Annual Black Choreographers Festival Next Wave Choreographers Showcase at Dance Mission Theater in San Francisco. This three-weekend festival of performances is typically loaded with dance work from the modern, contemporary, and ballet worlds. We believe this may be the first time that bellydance has been included in the Black Choreographers Festival. We are thrilled to represent ourselves and our dance genre to present a beloved choreography that will have its San Francisco premiere. Ticket information for the Black Choreographers Festival is HERE.

So while some may prefer the safety of boxes with clearly defined boundaries and predictable angles, we have opted to reshape them into platforms for our art. Bellydance and big bellied girls deserve nothing less.

Keep up with us daily on Facebook, “like” our page, Your Body Raks!

Daydreaming and Dancing

 

Tammy's Headshot

Daydreaming can be a beautifully dangerous thing. Your mind just goes there, way out there. It goes places that you dare not otherwise imagine. And if you really let go, you begin to believe that the daydream can become a reality. That’s what happened to Etang and me during a cross-country gig in November 2011. Exiled from the land of nine to five jobs, and feeling a bit heady about appearing in a historic film about bellydancers of color, we began to daydream.

What if this could be our life? What if we could spend our days helping people of all shapes and sizes feel good about themselves? What if we took bellydance to places that it has never been before, and burst the bubbles of thinking that say bellydancers looked like this and that the dance was all about that? And what if we danced all of the time? What if it was our job, our duty, and our purpose in life to just get out there and shimmy to our heart’s content? What would that look like? How would it feel? Is it possible?

Head in the clouds, Etang and I peeked over the edge of the cliff, took a deep breath and jumped! Falling. The events of the first few months passed us by in a blur. As we came down to earth we were all business. We created a name, a logo, a website, filed our business papers, drafted business and marketing plans, created curricula, and hired a bookkeeper and a business coach. Yes, we put a lot of energy in getting all of our administrative ducks in a row.

Then we had to step out of the comfort zone of our studio-office and actually make it happen. We taught dozens of classes and workshops. We organized, fundraised and hosted the third year of Girls Raks Bellydance and Body Image Program, and produced the Hotter Than July Bellydance Extravaganza benefit show. And of course there was dancing, dancing, and more dancing, nineteen performances in fact! Dancing that required two to three days a week of rehearsals, two new costumes, three new choreographies, new techniques, and lots of glitter and sparkling smiles.

Living the dream wasn’t easy. As with many other small business owners, the nation’s economic climate wasn’t kind to us, but we shimmied on. Etang and I had to learn how to take our partnership from the dance floor to negotiation table as business partners. But it was the dance that kept us united and focused on our goal. And somehow we shimmied through failed promotional schemes, undercutting competitors and cynical naysayers.

Luckily our cheering section was deep and broad. Drowning out the pessimists, they attended classes and performances, donated their expertise, referred us for gigs, “liked” our Facebook page, shared our blogs, and never failed to offer a kind word of support when we were feeling low. And the good stuff doesn’t stop there. From the woman in recovery who was grateful to be able to be move her body with a sense of well being, to the post-performance giggles of women who never imagined bellydance done the Raks Africa way, the moments of grace have been priceless.

It is one year later and Etang and I are still living the dream. We are teaching bellydance through collaborations with community groups like the Women’s Cancer Resource Center. We are storming new stages as featured artists at the Black Choreographers Festival’s Next Wave Choreographers Showcase. And in a few months, we are unveiling a new project for Girls Raks, and producing a special show this fall. But more than anything we are grateful. We are thankful to have the backwind of support of our family, friends and well wishers. We are thankful for the dance. But most importantly, we are still dreaming and dancing.

Keep up with us daily on Facebook, “like” our page, Your Body Raks!

 

Listen and Keep on Moving

Etang's blog headshotI’m a planner. I appreciate structure and organization. In meetings, I like to have an agenda beforehand. What’s happening? Who will be there? What are our goals? How can I most effectively contribute? I like to know what to expect—beginning, middle and end. Life isn’t a fixed choreography. Some of the rigidity of my personal need for structure can put me in a box. I get stuck. I’m learning to embrace the spontaneity and the improvisation of life. Life isn’t in the future. Life is right now, in this moment. What garden will I discover when I take time to drive a different route home? Who will I meet when I walk in the door to a new autobiographical writing class?

Raks Africa dancing to shaabi music at Rakkasah in 2011

Choreography in my life and in dance has been somewhat of a crutch. There’s a clear necessity for choreography when dancing in the duet Raks Africa with Tammy. We strive for precision and synchronicity in our dance together. Hitting that beat at the same time on the same hip is everything. In a new shaabi duet piece we’re working on, we have been opening up to the idea of having a few moments that are looser and freeform. In rehearsal during that section of the song, every time is a bit different. In those moments, I feel present and not in my head. I’m listening and my body is responding to the music.

Etang, improvised dancing October 2012

For my solo dancing, improvisation has been a challenge. Fear and resistance get in the way. There’s no script. Just listen and keep on moving. What? I have been listening to Hoda’s shaabi song, “Bin Narain” over and over again on my iPod and as I’m working and when I’m driving. So, my structure cup is full in that I know the song and the changes of the song. However, every time I dance to the song, it’s been different. I have a skeleton outline, but not an A-Z choreography. My expression is the same each time because of the joy that fills me when listening to the song, but my movements are in the moment. I needed this and I didn’t know it. Bring on the next song!

You’re invited to join us for BOO Raks, a Halloween-themed benefit hafla for the Girls Raks Bellydance & Body Image Summer Program. We’ll see you this Saturday, October 27th at 1pm at the La Peña Cultural Center Lounge, 3105 Shattuck Avenue in Berkeley. We’ll be dancing duet and solo pieces and we’ll be joined by wonderful Bay Area bellydancers!

Keep up with us daily on Facebook, “like” our page, Your Body Raks!