Group photo from Amel Tafsout's Sunday of workshops, May 8th 2016These smiling faces are the Sunday dancers from Amel’s weekend of Maghreb dance workshops in Penzance (there were even more on Saturday).  No-one was disappointed!  The two days were devoted to four dance styles from the Maghreb, North Africa.  Amel Tafsout is a world renowned expert in these dances, coming as she does from the mountains of Algeria.  We learned so much more than just dance steps. Amel was also a mine of information about Maghreb culture, customs, costumes and music.

Saturday started with two hours of Guedra dance from the Sahraoui and Blue People, the Taureg Amazigh from Morocco, Mauritania and Algeria.  This is a traditional women’s circle dance.  The guedra is a pot, used as a drum to keep the rhythm of the dancing.  Amel divided us into groups and taught each a different clapping and chanting rhythm.  We then combined and overlaid these patterns to give a complex sound together and as call-response.  It took a lot of concentration initially, yet became almost meditative after a while. Then came the dancing, where we took it in turns to follow the staccato hand movements taught by Amel.  These take energy from above and push away bad energy from the dancer’s body.  This clears the past so that you can be in the present, able to give to others and look to the future. We have nothing like this experience in our everyday lives in the West.  It felt very poignant to dance this.
After the tea break, we had two hours of Tunisian dance, a Maghreb style completely different in form and feel.  This contains a lot of horizontal hip work and the hip belts worn are often padded to make them more imposing, with strands that fly out and twirl with the movement of the hips.  On tiptoe, we swung our legs out in wide sweeping motions, jumping, twisting and snapping, while keeping our upper bodies flowing and graceful…no mean feat!  Amel had us dancing in pairs and lines that criss-crossed as we moved. This was a most invigorating dance style, earthy and strong.
Amel opened Sunday with an illustrated demo of the many different styles of costumes worn across the Maghreb.  Each region, each tribe has its own particular form of draped garments and stunning jewellery.  It puts our notion of bling to shame!
Dances of the Ouled Nail from the Algerian Saharan highlands fascinated the West for years.  The French in Algeria couldn’t understand the tradition of young girls leaving their homes to travel, dance, become courtesans and save money.  They would then return home, settle down and raise daughters of their own to teach to dance.  Amel taught us some of the characteristic Ouled Nail moves: different undulations, hip and shoulder shimmies.  These felt very grounded and powerful: ‘the dancer does not walk, she glides along’.  Well, we did our best!
The day finished with Algerian ‘Rai’, which embodies the concept of freedom of opinion.  Yes!  This was upbeat, exuberant and funky.  To us in the West, it’s probably the most accessible of the weekend’s four Maghreb styles. Rai has hit mainstream music and discos with the likes of great singers like Khaled.  Rai dance combines the fluidity of Arabic-Andalusian roots, Berber energy, the earthiness of African soul and the jazziness of expression from the Mediterranean seaport of Wahran.  We loved boogying to this: a great way to end a weekend of North African dance in Penzance, South West Cornwall.  Thank you, Amel, for a fab experience.