Belly dancers shake up West Bank

V. Paul

Shimmering costumes enshrouding shaking hips and torsos sparkled under the stage lights of West Bank’s Southern Theater last weekend. Belly dancing solos, duets and full-cast Arabic pieces filled the theater spaces, accompanied by an eight-piece orchestra.
University alumna Cassandra Shore celebrated the 10th year of her dance group, the Jawaahir Dance Company, opening her two-week performance, “Jewels,” on Thursday.
Shore spent the last 20 years creating and performing dance of blended Arabic and modern Western styles. The Twin Cities’ dance community has largely welcomed her style, which has drawn audience members from other ethnic dance companies as well as dance lovers at large, she said.
“My bent to contemporary pieces comes from growing up in America and seeing different kinds of western dances,” Shore said. “You have some sort of slant that bends you naturally to experiment in whatever ethnic form you’re doing.”
Improvisation was entwined in the traditional and contemporary Arabic choreography, which is not typical of Western styles.
The San Francisco-based Georges Lammam Orchestra accompanied the dancers and showcased its own Arabic music repertoire.
“Cassandra is just an astounding artist,” said Sarah Harrel, a member of Shore’s dance company. “It’s amazing to be along on her ride.”
Dance and musical improvisation plays a large part in the Middle Eastern tradition, and dancers’ talents are measured largely by how well they can instantly match movements to the music they hear.
“The moods are subtle and the movements are different,” Shore said. “You need to hear the music like a native.”
Arabic dance is linked to its music much more directly than in Western traditions; the movements must match the music, unlike with contemporary modern dance when movement and music can clash, yet be aesthetically pleasing.
Shore’s background in modern dance provided her with a foundation on which to build her choreography, but her attention to musicality drove her toward Middle Eastern dance while attending the University studying pre-medicine.
“I was taking lots of different kinds of dance, but because I love music, none of (the music of other dances) spoke to me like Middle Eastern dance and music,” said Shore.
She did not embark upon opening her dance company until after she had been teaching for a decade. Shore formed her company out of her students at the time who she felt were ready to create and interpret Arabic dance with her, she said.
“When she started the company, I was going to be part of it,” said Margo Abdo O’Dell, who was a guest performer in “Jewels.” “I always enjoy working with her.”
Unlike other dance forms, there are minimal physical restrictions to performing Arabic dance. Dancers can have any body type, not needing to conform to the tall, athletic, young dancers that ballet engenders, for example, Shore said.
“It inspires people when they see the women aren’t just a certain type,” she said. “As long as they can make the movement beautiful, they can do it in whatever shape they come in.”
What Arabic dance is limited to is keeping within traditional movement patterns and forms to stay true to Arabic culture. Broad, exaggerated movements could be considered vulgar or offensive to a native-Middle Eastern audience member who is expecting to see traditional dance.
“All dance has a certain experience and I guess that would be out of the cultural expression,” Shore said. “They tailor certain movements to that cultural standard.”