The ensemble performs alongside a video submission from international students. Photo courtesy of Kathy Swanson.
The ensemble performs alongside a video submission from international students. Photo courtesy of Kathy Swanson.

The sensual art form of belly dance is not just a tool for self-expression, but a way of life at Karavan Studio, San Antonio’s premier belly dance organization.

Last weekend, for three nights at Josephine Theater, Karavan Studio hosted their 20th anniversary celebration for the Give Belly Dance A Chance (GBDAC) recital, to the delight of a multi-cultural audience who became as much a part of the performance as the dancers and musicians themselves.

The vision and movement of the studio came from champion and 40-year-old veteran of belly dance Karen Barbee, who is the owner and lead instructor at Karavan Studio.

“The recital saw the participation of 75 dancers ranging in age from 6 to 80,” Barbee said, citing the growth in number and age-span from previous years. “We also offered a full multi-media experience.”

Barbee referred to the 16-foot-9 screen on stage at the Josephine Theater, which allowed for online student participation via video submission from countries as far away as New Zealand and East Timor.

These international students learned from Barbee via Skype and virtually joined the San Antonio natives onstage through GBDAC’s innovative live interactive performance.

“I have had an online class site for the past six years and this year is the first year where I was able to have my online students from all over the world participate with us in our showcase,” Barbee said.

Other multidimensional approaches utilizing video included the group’s pre-filmed routine on the Hays Street Bridge, seen here, which they performed live alongside the recording during the weekend’s festivities.

While these multi-media approaches gave audience members a new way to appreciate the art of belly dance from a multitude of angles, nothing captured it quite like the live interaction between musicians and dancers.

The ladies of Karavan Studios prepare for the video on Hays Street Bridge.  Photo courtesy of Gylon Jackson
The ladies of Karavan Studios prepare for the video on Hays Street Bridge.  Photo courtesy of Gylon Jackson.

“Also of significance at our three-day event was the live Arabic music of the Byblos Band from Houston, the addition of Georges Lammam from San Francisco on violin, and Naser Musa from Los Angeles on oud,” Barbee said, referencing the group of Middle-Eastern musicians who performed alongside the dancers for Sunday’s finale. “Georges and Naser are quite accomplished musicians,” she added.

Tabla smiles at bass drum, bass drum readies, and eye contact is made with dancer. Those in front of the stage wait in suspense for the beat to drop and the hips to pop, unsure of what the interaction of dancer and musician will excite.

The tenacity of the percussive movement is playful while intentional, eliciting a thrust from the dancer, amidst more subtle rhythmic hesitations. At first, it appears the dancer is waiting for the next motif, the subsequent inspiration of one of the six musicians on the stage, but it is clear that the ensemble is playing off the gifts of the dancer, each one with a unique form and fluidity that paints the picture of Persephone in earthly tones and with darker hues that mirror the gravity of the music. 

Rami Ghafour of Lebanon laid down the musical foundation on the bass drum, and delighted in the interaction with brothers Ahmad and Houssam, as well as the other members of the Byblos Band.

“We’ve been playing with Karavan for about 20 years, doing a lot of workshops, and they come to Houston for classes,” Ghafour said. “We like this more than just the average wedding gig, you feel it more in this environment when you’re playing for the ladies to dance.”

The music the ensemble plays is all of a well-known variety, so the dancers have some familiarity, Ghafour said.

“We don’t change the song, but we do a little something for them to enjoy it more,” Ghafour said. “The improv is based on the dancer, we push based upon how the dancer and audience are reacting.”

Gracing the stage in a rich golden-yellow ensemble, contrasting perfectly with the subdued hues of the musicians, dancer Sara Martinez opened the show Sunday evening and felt the wave of improvisation.

“I did have that moment of inspiration,” Martinez said. “Georges (Lammam) was playing violin where normally I hear keyboards, it struck me and I wanted to dance into that.”

Martinez has been dancing with Karavan for close to 12 years and relishes the opportunity to perform alongside such talented individuals.

“Performing with a live band is amazing, it’s the best part of what we do,” Martinez said. “You really never know what’s going to happen.”

Martinez originally started belly dancing fueled by a desire to exercise without going to the gym. She quickly realized she could only learn so much from DVDs.

“Karen is awesome: so much experience, and so willing to share it with you,” Martinez said. “I’ve learned so much from her.”

For anyone that resonates with Martinez’s perspective, but proves a little reticent all the same, she has some sound advice for future belly dancers.

“Just go for it,” she said. “I’m actually super shy and it’s brought me out of my shell.”

To find out more about belly dance or other performance possibilities, visit Karavan Studio’s website here.

Top image: The ensemble performs alongside a video submission from international students. Photo courtesy of Kathy Swanson.

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Adam Tutor is a Trinity University graduate, a saxophonist who performs with local bands Soulzzafying, Odie & the Digs, and Volcan, and a freelance music contributor to the Rivard Report.