In spring 2006, when I was living in Bristol, I went to a belly dance workshop with Hossam and Serena Ramzy. Hossam Ramzy is a world famous Egyptian musician and percussionist, who helped bringing Arabic music to the attention of the whole world. Hossam Ramzy also played with western musicians such as Jimmy Page (ex Led Zeppelin) with whom he recorded an album, called ‘No Quarter’. I still remember when I first heard that album, many years ago. At the time I did not know anything about bellydancing or Arabic music, but I was struck by the beauty of that music and, from that moment onwards, the wish was born in me to learn how to dance Arabic music and belly dance. Serena Ramzy is Hossam’s wife and she is a great and very graceful dancer.
During that first Hossam’s and Serena’s workshop on belly dance I learnt many things. First of all, I learnt the importance of recognising and knowing the main Arabic rhythms. Up to that point none of my belly dance teachers had taught me how to recognise Arabic rhythms and how to really understand Arabic music. Hossam Ramzy spent time explaining how Arabic rhythms work and the choreography that Serena taught exemplified beautifully how to dance to Arabic music. Also, Hossam Ramzy explained to his audience his famous belly dance equation ‘E=E in its size and direction’. This basically means that the belly dancer needs to move more around the stage and do more ample movements when an orchestra is playing, while her movements will be more contained and closer to her body when, for example, just one instrument, such as a drum, is playing.
Following this belly dance workshop, I found very useful two resources to keep learning by myself. One is a double CD by Hossam Ramzy, ‘Rhythms of the Nile’, in which he explains the main Arabic rhythms and the other one is an instructional belly dance DVD, called ‘Visual Melodies’ and featuring three belly dance choreographies by Serena Ramzy. Hossam and Serena Ramzy at the moment live and work in the UK and more information can be found on the website hossamramzy.com.
The workshop was very interesting as it was not so much about the movements, although Serena explained some shimming technique, but mainly about the culture that generated the Egyptian baladi style. What was interesting was especially the fact that Hossam Ramzy broke down for us the structure of a baladi piece. He explained how it starts slowly with a taqsim, to then develop towards a question and answer part between the drummer and the other musicians, thus alternating melody and rhythm. The rhythm then goes faster and faster, until the fallahy is played and then after the music slows down again.
Understanding this structure is very useful for improvising to baladi, because the dancer will know what to expect. Hossam and Serena also gave us some tips on drum solo improvisations and rules that drummers and dancers adhere to when improvising a drum solo, in order to communicate effectively with each other. Overall the workshop was interesting and I gathered some useful information, that have changed the way I started listening to baladi pieces from that day onwards.
Hossam and Serena Ramzy nowadays run workshops and perform all over the world and also they have made a lot of music CDs and dance DVDs. Mainly in Egyptian style, as Hossam is Egyptian, but also some fusion including ‘Flamenco Arabe’ and fusion music he composed with Phil Thornton. Dance wise, in addition to ‘Visual Melodies’ , ‘Bedouin Tribal Dance’ is worth mentioning as there are not many DVDs around about Bedouin dances. Since the workshop in 2006, I went to a couple more of their workshops in Cardiff in 2009, which were about baladi style, Egyptian rhythms and oriental style. I also attended a private class with Serena in 2012.
I find Serena’s teaching style very clear. She is a patient teacher who breaks down her routines clearly. In terms of style hers is inspired mainly by the dancers of the golden ages of Egyptian dance, such as Samia Gamal, whom Hossam greatly admires. However, because Serena is Brazilian, she also brings in her own heritage giving an ‘exotic’ Brazilian touch to her style, with the use of some steps and hips movements that are reminiscent of samba. I still remember some steps and combinations she taught during the 2009 workshops. In terms of learning from her privately, you can tell that she is very experienced and she gave me great tips with regards to how to interpret the music and start building a choreography.
Hossam and Serena Ramzy also run courses for dancers to gain a qualification in their academy of dance. I have never personally done one of these courses as they are not cheap, but I know people who attended and seemed to have got much out of the course. Also, I think, the most interesting part is the opportunity to perform as part of this course and I guess that, with such experienced artists, there is undoubtedly a lot that dancers can learn.
Hossam’s oriental and baladi pieces, as well as the drum solos, are very popular with dancers around the world and I myself often like to use them for my performances, as they are very inspirational. The reason being, I think, that his musical pieces, in addition to being very good in terms of quality, are done with the dancers in mind. Hence, they give the dancer the opportunity to shine by showing off their signature moves and experiment. For example, Hossam’s pieces always have a clear structure from start to end, with a proper entrance and good finale. They also have the right amount of repetitions but also of variation. This means that a dancer can develop a motif, which gives unity to the piece, but also vary by portraying different moods within the same piece. Also, there are points were the music slows down, giving the opportunities for slow juicy movements but also for effective poses before the music speeds up again. When the music speeds up, then the dancer can bring all the energy she wants into the dance, and bring excitement to the performance. Hossam’s pieces are not the only Egyptian compositions with these elements, which are indeed typical of Egyptian music. However, in his compositions a dancer always finds the perfect balance and combination. I suspects that this is because he is married to a dancer with whom he also works, and therefore he is particularly attuned to the creative needs of dancers.