Women of all ages (and a few men) swayed and contorted their bodies at a recent four-day, second annual Middle Eastern Mosaic dance conference in Miami.
Many wore hip scarves with rows of coins and beaded dresses, and all wore ear-to-ear smiles as they danced to Middle Eastern music.
The festival kicked off June 7 at the Miami Hispanic Cultural Arts Center with a discussion comprised of artists who specialize in Middle Eastern performing arts. The panelists spoke of various topics, including authenticity in an ever-changing art landscape, performing at an older age and the necessity of understanding the traditions.
“I have to applaud the community here because you guys are doing an incredible job keeping Arabic tradition alive,” said Elizabeth Ayoub, a Venezuelan singer of Lebanese descent, during the discussion.
Through June 10, students attended workshops conducted by the festival founders and honored guests, Egyptian dancer Kareem GaD and Canadian dancer Yasmina Ramzy.
Though it was his first time in Miami, GaD said he was not surprised to see a Middle East dance community here because it can be appreciated across the globe. He said learning about these dances provides a door into understanding the culture.
“When you understand the culture, you understand the society,” he said.
At the Saturday night showcase, nearly 20 performances occurred at the Scottish Rite Temple, including one by GaD, in which he performed the Tanoura dance, an Egyptian Sufi practice that consists of whirling with a large, heavy skirt (called a Tanoura) for an extended amount of time.
Roxana Cabaleiro and Marilyn Regueira, who are known professionally as Roshana Nofret and Majilyn, conceived the festival late one night after discussing their yearning for an experience like the one they had at the now-defunct school Mid Eastern Dance Exchange.
Cabaleiro said dance provides an avenue to understanding Middle Eastern cultures that is not bogged down by politics.
“It’s definitely a non-political way of getting through,” she said, “and when people see the dances, they’re always fascinated.”
Cabaleiro is the director of the MECA Dance Ensemble and co-director of Mid East Performing Arts Academy. Regueira teaches on a freelance basis and has produced various theatrical Middle Eastern dance performances. Both said Miami’s scene is among the best in the country.
While the pair agree belly dancing and other forms of Middle Eastern dancing are empowering for women, they said a common misconception of belly dancing is that its purpose is to please men.
"This is a dance for women, by women. They would do it among themselves,” Regueira said. “It didn’t start because of trying to seduce our men.”
Jihan Jamal, who was born in Cuba and raised in Miami, said local dancers try to understand the traditions and seek to work with the best teachers in the world.
As someone who has been dancing for nearly 40 years, Jamal said she is grateful for Middle Eastern dance because it has helped her stay healthy and served as an economic opportunity. She now runs ADORA World Dance Productions, named after her grandmother.
“The best thing about it is it keeps you youthful,” she said. “It’s an art form, and it’s also a business.”
Ramzy, who has been performing for 38 years and has no intention of stopping, said she has seen women gain confidence when they start belly dancing. She said that belly dancing is often not treated as a serious art form.
“It’s a beautiful art form, but people keep using it for money,” she said. “But those involved give their heart to it.”
For more information, visit middleeasternmosaic.com.