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The Power of Dance: Uniting the World Print E-mail
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By Marah Bukai
Exclusive for Al Waref

What kind of pleasure can be found in vibrant movements of the body, its studied shivering, and its fight against emptiness? And how can dancers succeed in maneuvering on the stage to the point where it takes our breath away?

Alvin Ailey made dance a multicultural affair, forever changing how the world - including the Arab World - views the art.

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg proclaimed December 23, 2003, the 45th anniversary of the establishment of the Alvin Ailey dance troupe, to be Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater Day and an official holiday in the city. "For the past 45 years, New York City has been the proud home of this legendary company, which unites people around the world through the power of dance," Bloomberg said in a statement released by his office.

The 30 dancers of this legendary troupe have performed on stages in 48 American states and some 68 countries. All told, says Sharon Luckman, executive director of the Alvin Ailey Foundation, they ve danced in front of 19 million people, their bodies defying gravity in spectacular performances that have stolen audiences breath away.

Embassy of Culture

In 1958, Alvin Ailey, a young man from Texas, established a dance company with the intention of capturing the unique cultural experience of African-Americans and enriching modern dance with a cultural pulse. At the time, he declared, "I believe that dance came from the people and that it should always be delivered back to the people."

The group attracted attention from its first theater performance and was soon in great demand. Word of its performances spread through the city like wildfire.

Since its inception, the Alvin Ailey troupe has relied on ethnic diversity in recruiting its dancers and technicians. As a result of that diversity, its performances are gems that stand sparkle with beauty and poetic character.

There is ballet dancer Masazumi Chaya, who got his training in classical dance in Fukuoka, Japan. He joined the team in 1972, performed his own dances for 15 years and then moved to teaching dance at his own institute. Today he is the associate artistic director of the team.

And there is Benoit-Swan Pouffer, who joined the troupe in 1997 from the Conservatoire National Superieur De Dance De Paris. There s Bahiyah Sayyed Gaines from Brooklyn, New York, who left the Frankfurt Ballet group to join the team in 1998. There are many other distinguished dancers under the watchful eye of Judith Jamison, who became the group s leader at the recommendation of Ailey, her mentor, who passed away in 1989. In all, there are 30 dancers who shake the stage with their feet and their hearts in the flying posture of a herd of wild horses.

Through performances such as "Rainbow Round My Shoulders" (1959), "Cry" (1971), and "Black Milk" and "Prayers from the Edge" (2002), the Alvin Ailey group managed to capture audiences attention with the curving of bodies, tapping of feet and nimble movements of the arms, all in an intense elevation of muscular performance that turned the dramatic movements of the body into poetic language, loaded with meanings and emotions, in luxurious scenes full of challenge and ecstasy.

The Alvin Ailey Dancers speak on behalf of the world; they have truly earned the title of "Ambassadors for American Culture," which was bestowed upon them by Mayor Bloomberg.

Jacqueline Ashmedowa, a dancer at the Universal Ballet Academy in Washington, D.C., says, "The language of dance is a universal language that unites expression and communication among all peoples on Earth, regardless of their origins, culture and colors. Our dancers are a real cultural and artistic messengers worldwide".

The Mediterranean body

Jana Al-Hassan, professor and researcher on human movement at the Lebanese University, is perhaps one of the most mature Arab voices emphasizing the importance of dance in spreading information about a society s culture. Al-Hassan believes in a special philosophy of the Mediterranean woman s body. "It is important for us, in order to understand the position of the woman, to analyze her on her own, and through her own tools," she says. "The woman moves, she dances, she conquers hearts with her rhythm. She is also a sexual machine that has continued over the ages as a typical solo portrait of Shehrazad."

"What is required from women in the dreamy East," Al-Hassan adds, "is either silence or performance within a very limited space that has rigid molds and oppressive regulations. [The] culture uses women and exchanges them within the stereotyping choreography. I do not exclude men from this game, although these regulations have been practiced against them in a less oppressive manner."

Oriental dances such as the Dervishes, the Andalusia dance, the folkloric dance, the debka, the sword and shield, and contemporary dance record a colorful history of the body seeking to establish an artistic dialogue between the audience and the dancers. Unlike the West, which inherited the long history of the Greek theater, the Arab World does not have a tradition of theater. Arab culture must also acknowledge the taboo associated with the body and its movements.

In other words, dance, as it is defined elsewhere in the world, is a new commodity in the Arab World; it still has to grow, explore and test society s values before it will become a staple of the cultural scene.
Al-Hassan says her dance performances must conform to accepted mores, particularly those concerning women, their bodies and social roles. In one case, she had the difficult task of presenting the elements of a love affair.

"He is madly in love and he is alert," Al-Hassan says, explaining the male role. "He is moody and she is kneeling down; he struts and she anticipates. It is impossible to make changes to how others view the woman and her body except through absorbing her historical relationship with the man."

Dance will always be a part of culture. Through dancing, the body rediscovers and reclaims itself through rhythm. It brings contrarieties together and makes them perform under a spotlight. It draws poetry with a bare foot. How it will continue to evolve in different parts of the world will forever remain an intriguing mystery.



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