Kamrah on Swords, Back Bends, and Energy on Stage – 059
Trans masculine belly dancer Kamrah of Chicago talks about key differences in Egyptian and Lebanese belly dance and highlights a big mistake that many of us make when dancing with a sword…
Kamrah is Chicago’s first trans masculine belly dancer. Kamrah has been dancing since 2001, and Kamrah performs and teaches what we used to call Tribal Fusion, American Cabaret, Lebanese, and Egyptian belly dance throughout the US. Kamrah is also a member of Raks Geek, a geek belly dance and fire company that was recently nominated as Runner Up for Best Dance Troupe in Chicago. We’ll talk more about that. Kamrah is also a trained massage therapist and studied martial arts.
Differences in Egyptian and Lebanese Belly Dance Styles
Most dancers know American Cabaret, or Egyptian style. There’s some controversy over whether there actually is a specific “Lebanese” style or “Egyptian” style rather than just “this dancer’s style” but there are some similarities between those artists and we can sort of describe them that way.
There’s a spectrum of Energy projection
Look where a dancer projects their energy on stage
Is it the direction of the dancer’s gaze? Not just that. It’s more than that.
Egyptian dance tends to be a little more internally focused
In tarab, the music carries the dancer to such ecstasy that the dancer is being moved by the music rather than choreography. They’re not thinking “Am I doing this right?” So the energy is very focused on listening to the music and hearing it and letting your body transform the music into movement.
Lebanese dance tends to be a little more externally focused
There’s more interaction with the audience. More up. More of a production. Theatrical. Showing off.
Turkish dance tends to be more athletic with high kicks and Turkish drops, and that can share similarities with Lebanese belly dance trends. Big turns. There are certain really athletic moves that are more common in Turkish and Lebanese styles. To many, Lebanese dance looks like more old-school AmCab.
Egyptian Cane Dance vs. Lebanese Cane Dance
Props like cane are used VERY differently in most Egyptian and Lebanese belly dance. For example, you’ll see Lebanese dancers dancing with cane to music that is not Saidi style.
But dancers like the Lebanese belly dancer Amani have raised discussions about what is just the dancer’s style and what is an overarching style.
These are generalizations – there will be pieces that are different in each style
My first teacher, without really acknowledging it, was very heavily Lebanese influenced, and showed us videos of dancers like Amani and Howaida Haschem and told us “dance like them.” I’ve since found videos of Dina Jamal and Bushra. I love the drama these dancers bring to the stage – it’s a SHOW. One dancer once arrived on stage in a hot air balloon.
Why are Glute Squeezes Important for Belly Dancers?
Suhaila Salimpour has taught us that practicing glute squeezes makes it easier to layer on top of hip work. You can get certification from the Salimpour School online now.
If you’re using your obliques or your knees for your hip work, then that takes away from what you can do on top of it. Using your obliques for your hip movements makes it difficult to do chest slides or chest circles. You can train yourself to do it, but it’s just very, difficult to do it that way. So glute squeezes are not easy because you have to train glute squeezes, but they’re easier to layer.
Once you get the glute squeezes down, it’s easier to layer moves on top of glute squeezes than trying to use obliques or knees.
I do glute squeezes everywhere. Waiting for a bus? Glute squeezes. Washing dishes? Glute squeezes. Vacuuming? Glute squeezes while walking. That’s a type of layering right? You have to be able to walk and do glute squeezes. This can be expanded to almost any movement – can you practice a movement when thinking about or doing something else?
How to be Inclusive of Dancers of All Genders
The best way to be inclusive (for genders) is to get rid of heavily gendered language in classes. No more “ladies” even if you think all your students are women. Some of them might not be. Also, no more “goddess dance” wishtory. All of that has been debunked.
It’s okay to want to connect to the divine through your dance, but adding that into the history is appropriation and incorrect.
I mean, I do ecstatic dance sometimes, but I don’t consider that part of belly dance. There’s belly dance in it because that’s what I’m trained in, but I don’t put it on stage and call it belly dance. I don’t put it in the history. You just can’t really call it belly dance and expect people to be okay with that.
So work to attract men into your dance, believe me there is interest but many men are turned off by all the “ladies” and “womb dance” and stuff like that.
Get rid of heavily gendered language in classes.
Being inclusive is one of the most important movements in belly dance right now. The next generation – Gen Z – is much more aware of being inclusive than any other generation. They are the queerest generation. They are concerned about cultural appropriation. If we want to attract them to dance, we need to follow suit. Seeing people that look like them in a class makes them feel less alone, and more connected. More likely to stay.
I’ve gone viral on Tik Tok twice now, and most of the comments were…
“I Never Knew There Were Male Belly Dancers”
I think there are a lot of people who would really enjoy belly dancing, but don’t do it because they have this idea that belly dance is this weird hobby that only certain women do. And they don’t fit that category.
I’ve talked to a couple of other male dancers who feel really singled out when a teacher comes in and says, “ladies…and gentlemen. Sorry.”
Just address the room as “dancers” or “everybody” or “y’all”
I grew up in the South, so y’all works fine.
Becoming part of Raqs Geek: Chicago’s Belly Dance and Fire Troupe
When I lived in Arizona, I had my infamous Silent Hill Nurse piece that I had performed at Mahin’s Fully Fusion show.
When I moved to Chicago, a mutual friend of the director, Dawn, told me I needed to check them out because the piece would fit in so perfectly with them. So I friended Dawn on FB and asked to be in the show. At first Dawn was like, no, we’re kinda full up and don’t need anymore dancers. Then she saw the Nurse piece and was like okay, we need this in the show. She booked me for a C2E2 afterparty and everyone LOVED it, and so I became a member of the main cast!
Danceable Song: Remix of Crystalline by Bjork
It’s a little fusiony (sorry) but I’m absolutely obsessed with Bjork’s song Crystalline that was remixed by Omar Souleyman. I use it for drills, I use it to just dance to, it’s so much fun. It’s also how I get my flutter practice in.
Dance Move: Traveling Twist Step
I love twists, and my favorite is the traveling twist step. R foot starts slightly in front of the L, step to the side with R, then L, keeping the L foot behind the R. When stepping on the R foot, twist the R hip forward, then release the whole leg open when stepping on the L foot. Can be done fast or slow, on releve or not, but it’s more fun faster and easier on releve.
How to Make Sword Dancing Dynamic and Bold
Yes! Remember the sword is not a hat! Balancing on the head should be the climax of the piece, not the full piece.
Find other places to balance, working up to the head.
I also teach a workshop on this, use the sword as a sword. Cuts, slices, even spins and holds rather than just putting it on your head and dancing under it.
Benefits of Cross Training in Martial Arts and Dance
I was very awkward as a kid and couldn’t easily control my limbs, had no discipline, etc. Martial arts trained me to be disciplined and to be much more aware of what my body is doing at all times. I could keep track of my left arm when using my right, because otherwise I might get kicked on the left side. It gave me confidence.
Learning kata (sort of like a choreographed fight) helped me pick up dance choreography more easily.
The movements are very different, but the cross training is good.
The “hard” styles like Tae Kwon Do and karate might be harder to put into dance, but softer styles like Kung Fu, Tai Chi, etc. are much more like dance when done well. Cross training is excellent, but martial arts can be really rough on the body (you’ll be covered in bruises).
Delicious Vegan Food: Coconut Yogurt
Coconut yogurt. I’m obsessed with it. Most brands are too watery, but I found one brand that was like eating cream cheese and pairs really well with bananas. You can make it yourself with just coconut milk and lactobacillus bacteria, doesn’t need sugar or anything to be yummy.
Costume Tip #1: Get Costume Pieces You can Mix and Match
Costuming is hard as a man – almost no one makes costumes for men, and then only in Egypt ($$$$$)
If you’re on a budget, get pieces you can use for multiple styles and pieces. Think outside just the silver bedlah, and go for mix and match pieces like a silver or gold skirt that can be used with multiple bedlahs, or flowy pants that can look like a skirt but act like pants for splits, kicks, etc.
Costume Tip #2: Don’t Wear Black When Performing in Front of Black Curtains
Black is NOT as useful as people say it is – black curtains are really common in shows and you’ll disappear into the curtain if the stage is not professionally lit. So try wearing skirts that are colors other than black.
Feel Good Habit: Moisturize and Drink Water
Even if you have oily skin, moisturizer is super helpful. And moisturize from the inside out as well by drinking lots of water.
What is a Common Belly Dance Move that Could be Hurting Dancers?
Chest lifts that go into the mid/low back can hurt dancers. When dancers throw their shoulders back and try to thrust the chest as high as they can, impacting their dance posture and risking injury to the low back.
Use the upper back instead, and work on developing strength and flexibility there rather than in the mid back.
How Can I do a Back Bend Like Rachel Brice?
Part of it is your spinal anatomy. How long your spinous processes are and whether they run into each other when you do a back bend. Part of it is natural flexibility, and part can be trained. It may be counterintuitive, but instead of strengthening your back you want to strengthen your thighs. Your quads will support your back as you bend.