Rocky’s Weeklong – New York – January 2006 – By Sara Shrapnell


Early in January I had the chance to go to New York for Morocco’s famous weeklong intensive.  Having done a few of her workshops in the UK I knew I loved her teaching style and her amazing history lessons – I hadn’t realised just how hard she would work us or how much I would learn.  The event was over seven days starting with a show on the Saturday night and ending with us all exhausted the next Friday.


The show was a mix of MED and other styles and was opened by the Casbah Dance experience doing a Tunisian woman’s dance.  This was followed by some traditional Hula, which I loved.  Tahya and Grant Smith followed with a mix of poetry, dancing and percussion.  After this we had expected some Tango by the American Creative Dance Theatre, but instead they presented a couple of alternative pieces.  This was followed by Karima Nadira dancing Esma Yalli, a dance we were to learn later in the week and Saqra who showed us some of her amazing veil work.


Bridging the break Robyn Friend presented two very different Uzbek dances and The Casbah Dance experience returned with a pair of Raks Sharki numbers.  We then had solos from Tarik Sultan and then the amazing Morocco herself – and finally a duet where they both showed how the movements could be used to frame and compliment each other’s dancing.


Overall what stood out for me was the stage confidence of the soloists and the very “modern” style of both Tahya and American Creative Dance Theatre.  By the end my head was spinning and I was keen to find my bed and get prepared for the next day.


Each day our warm up started at 9.30 on the dot and lasted at least 45 minutes.  It covered all the main moves and was aimed at warming the muscle groups.  The first thing I noted was how serious the whole group was and the pressure to perform each move very correctly and with perfect arms each repeat.  There was to be no half hearted efforts in this room for the entire week!


Our first workshop was with Robyn Friend and we covered Khorezmi Lazgi dance that is a social dance of the region.  She broke down the moves that each part of the body is expected to do and then helped us layer them together.  In order to help us get used to the layering she gave us some interesting exercises in brain/body co-ordination (like pat your head and rub your tummy…).  By the end of the session she had us travelling in a circle with beautiful arm and headwork.


After lunch we returned to the studio to meet Saqra and learn more about her double veil techniques.  We started with some nice warm ups and then she broke down many of the movements, which she makes look so effortless, but we were soon to learn were anything but.  Many of them use the turning to help power the changes in shape and while some, like me, struggle to turn, others were soon making fantastic shapes with their veils.  Personally I felt this workshop gave me lots of ideas that I can pass on to students who love veil, but that I would find the number of turns required challenging for a double veil number


Our first choreography with Rocky was a drum solo.  The session started with some time spent learning about the movements we were about to use and their context.  If you have never done a workshop with Rocky it is worth your money just for these moments.  She knows so much and is always happy to share.  Rocky taught by showing us the choreo through twice then breaking down the first section, getting us to repeat it and then moving on.  From there on we did section one plus two – then the first two sections with the new bit added on.  This way the opening gets imprinted in the brain and the progression becomes natural.  Sitting to watch her dance the choreography I felt disbelief that she was aiming to teach us such a long and complex piece in just a day.  The combinations were unbelievable – often with a move per drumbeat and many illogical combinations.  But as the day went on I started to hear what she could hear and realise that, while there was no compromise to pattern and learning, each move fitted perfectly with each phrase of the music until we truly were the drums.  The choreo included many travelling turns and times facing both the front and back so there was much confusion as we tried to pick up the beats.  Also much of the drum solo was movements’ layered or interspersed with shimmies – by 3.30 my legs and knees had turned to jelly and I was happy to head back to the hotel for a bath.



The next day there was a repeat of the warm up, which by now I was finding more relaxing although we were still expected to have perfect posture, perfect arms and lots of focus for the whole hour!  Next we ran through the drum solo three times to help with our muscle memory.  Repeating this each day certainly helped.  Our choreography for the day was Zey Hawa and again watching Rocky dance it through for us I thought it impossible to learn in so few hours – and yet it soon became second nature.  The combinations were complex with weight shifts and turns right from the start, but Rocky emphasized the relaxed nature of the moves and urged us not to push or force the turns – and to remember to breath.  By the end of the day it was looking fantastic and everyone was turning and travelling as one across the room.


Morocco brings nearly 45 years experience to teaching dance – she has travelled extensively to research and is keen to share her knowledge with those who take her workshops (and as everyones “Aunty Rocky” on email).  Not only does she perform beautifully, she can explain and break down the moves, fit them perfectly with a piece of music and mix her love of fact with theatre style presentation to make an end result that is a pleasure to watch.  At first her teaching is so different from other peoples that its hard to take in and focus, yet the more workshops I do with her the easier it becomes to hear what she hears and understand the layers as she interprets them.  I’m very lucky to have done as much class time as I have with her (as with all learning the more you repeat the deeper you understand) – and to have read much of her online work.  When her book comes out I will be first in line to read it !


And so the day starts again – long, full warm up and then we do the drum solo three times, then Zey Hawa three times, and finally we see today’s choreography through twice.  Today’s was a Modern Schikhatt dance from Morocco and Rocky kindly gave us a good understanding of who and when this dance would be done.  Compared to the others this one looked much more relaxed and easy, but its difficulties soon became apparent.  This is done with two small hankies and my brain somehow didn’t want to get them to match my hips for two beats and then do opposites for two – and then repeat on the other side!!!  For a while I tried without the hankies and that was much easier – until I added them back in again.  On one level it was a much happier, community dance so we had fun making eye contact and there were many more smiles all round.  But it was tough!  Also by now we were used to working with the speed and intensity that Rocky requires.  Amazingly we were done by lunchtime and sent out to eat and unwind.


The afternoon session was taking by Tahya and was listed as dance meditation.  We started with a gilded meditation that I fell into very deeply and was amazed to find myself waking refreshed and energised.  She then led us through a couple of very basic circle dances aimed at increasing our energy.  These were a wonderful chance to dance with each other, bond and relax.


After warm up and three runs through three numbers we were handed back to Karima to learn the beautiful Esma Yalli choreography.  Meanwhile Rocky was hidden away sorting out the running order for that nights show.  Karima taught in a very similar way to Rocky but also included the lyrics and showed us how to interpret them in our dance.  By three o’clock we were done and sent off to get ready for our show at the Lafayette.


The Lafayette is a lovely venue well used to bellydance shows – it has a fantastic floor level stage and a small but usable basement changing room.  I got to watch the first half and then performed in the second.  I think my performance went well – certainly it felt good.  I had a great reception “and please welcome, all the way from the UK…….” And then I was off.  The space was larger than I had imagined, but meant I could use it to travel and having tables on three sides meant that I could change focus and dance to the corners and sides in turn.  There were fans on the ceiling so I quit the overhead throws after the first (I had proved I could do one after all!) and then stuck with smaller closer veil moves.  At the end I got some nice reaction (American style!) and just had time to get change and see the end of the second set.


After food Rocky and members of Casbah danced some numbers for us – again the highlight was Tarik and his duet with Rocky.  Karima and Morocco also danced the numbers we had learnt that week so we could see how they should be done!


Friday had come all too soon.  Our first session was with Joe Williams and was on the Delsare system of expression – an amazing way of breaking down the body and face movement to give clear messages.  Wrongly assumed to be the style of acting seen in the silent movies, it is in fact a very natural yet powerful way to control the message you send out.  Best of all much of it is how we naturally dance this dance.  That may be because this theory was developed from the way people all round the world move, or it may be because early “Bellydancers” knew of these ideas and we have learnt them as part of the dance ever since.  Why isn’t really so important as how and we spent a couple of hours learning to give a facial layer to our dance.  This workshop had a huge impact on me and so students can expect to have their chins more involved in their dance from now on!! – Joe may be coming to the UK soon and if so you MUST take a workshop with him.


Finally after lunch it was time to review all we had learnt and pack up to go – not until we had done another hour long warm up and practiced each dance through three times – by now I could do the drum solo in my sleep – I guess that was the point!


We had a few photos, exchanged emails and said our goodbyes


A little later I had a phone call – Tarik was dancing at a club that night and did I want to come. – What a question!  I found the smartest clean clothes (very limited at that point) and re-did my face ready to head out at 9pm.


We headed to Lower Manhattan and found the club – surprised to get my ID checked – not long after we arrived a very pretty dancer came out in a blue two piece and danced for us – she pulled us up and was probably surprised to find we could echo her moves.  We danced a while and then were thanked and returned to our table while she looked for other volunteers.  She was very good but not Tarik.  My host had been told that Tarik would be there that night, but the restaurant had told a little white lie – he was actually at their sister club right up at 110th.  So we ate up our food (nice Lamb Tangine) and drove all the way up to the Casbah Rouge where we ordered sweet.  Just as we had settled down Tarik arrived balancing a hookah on his head and doing the most wonderful floor work routine.  If you have seen pictures of him dance then you have only seen 10% - he is much more beautiful, elegant and charismatic in real life – and a fantastic dancer.  His Zills never stop, and nor does his smile and he reacts and interacts with the audience with great flair.  He called me up and I had the chance to dance with him – mirroring his arms and trying to keep up with his hip work.  He was a wonderful partner and those five minutes was probably one of the highlights of my dancing so far.  Afterwards lots of the diners said they liked the way I danced with him, so I must have done something right.


Ok – so I admit that on the Saturday I went completely mad – my flight was mid afternoon and I wanted to cram as much into my final hours as I could.  I’d been good all week…..  I had done myself a deal, if it was sunny I would do the sights, if it was rainy I would get in some more class – woke up to sideways thrashing rain so I guess the fates had a clear message for me!


I packed up a bag with lots of dancewear plus my essentials for the flight and headed for the subway.  Popped up at 51st just a short walk away from Serena’s studio and 10 minutes early for her class.  I had heard that the 11.30 was the one she taught herself and I really wanted a lesson with her.  I found it no problem and was welcomed in.  She was teaching combinations to Chifiteli and each added an extra layer that could be mixed and matched.  Her movements were very fluid and her styling beautiful.  Some of the students were struggling with the speed, but she was always happy to break it down again and let us dancing it slower.  Only downside was that the shower looked 100 years old and never before used…..


So having had more of a splash than a shower I headed up to walk a short way into central park for 10 minutes of fresh air.


Next I took a bus back down town – I had to ask the driver to kick me out at the Flatiron building because its currently covered in scaffold and easy to miss – and returned to Morocco’s studio to take a class with Tarik.  This class followed much of the pattern of the warm up we had done all week, but with the moves broken down and then used with travel or in combinations.  Tarik makes many more personal adjustments and gave me a much better line – though I struggled to maintain it (could have been tired by this point?).  At the end of the class we did three numbers in “follow me” style.


And that’s it – story over.  I had my adventure, learnt lots, did the sights, got chatted up (three times!!! – I really should wear a ring), drank too much coffee, ate apple fritters for breakfast (blugh!), made some nice new friends and came back to find the kids had missed me a bit.  I can not recommend this week long highly enough.  It might be a once in a life time opportunity for UK dancers, but it is worth the flight and workshop costs ten times over.  New York is a beautiful city (I am totally in love !), and Rocky is the worlds top teacher.  Take a class with her in the UK to find out if you like her humour and bluntness – but if you do, book your flight today !


New York 2006




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