Testimonials for Cassandra
Review of Cassandra at Arab Dance Seminar 2008:
... Cassandra is amazing. Amazing, amazing, amazing.
She taught at the Arab Dance Seminar in Boston this weekend, and her
Absolutely everything she did was the exact perfect thing: exactly what
I think her taqsim was one of the simplest I've ever seen, in the most
There was no hint of "look at me!" or "be impressed by all the things
Cassandra - Poetry in Motion
The Scene: The small, acoustically-perfect concert hall of a distinguished liberal arts college. The eager audience has come to hear The Master—world-renowned Arabic musician Simon Shaheen. Throughout the first half of the concert, Shaheen kept the audience enthralled with his extraordinary playing on the oud and violin and left promising them a "surprise" in the second half. Now he stands slightly upstage, violin ready, and introduces the next number—his own composition. "And I am very pleased," he adds, "that Cassandra herself will perform with me." The audience murmurs in anticipation, then gasps as Cassandra makes her entrance. Tall, dark, and dressed in a dramatic red velvet gown, Cassandra instantly commands the space as she strikes a simple pose and waits for her musical cue. She hasn’t even danced yet and already she has them.
For most people in the Oriental dance world, Cassandra needs no introduction. Widely considered one of the premier performers of this ancient art form, she has studied the movements, music, history, and cultural aesthetic of the dance for over twenty years. She is the founder of both The Cassandra School of Middle Eastern Dance and Jawaahir Dance Company, one of only a handful of professional Oriental dance companies in the United States.
Cassandra herself foresaw none of this when, in 1974, she wandered into her first Oriental dance class. A pre-med student at the University of Minnesota, she had studied both modern dance and ballet, but found them too intellectual and sterile for her taste. Seeking "something emotionally expressive and earthy in dance," she felt "an immediate attraction/obsession with the Oriental dance, physically, emotionally, spiritually, and mentally. In Oriental Dance, I found a vehicle to express my love of movement, music, and the physical, emotional and spiritual lives we all share."
Cassandra soon dropped her medical ambitions and moved to San Francisco, then a mecca of Oriental dance in the U.S., to study with renowned dancer Jamila Salimpour. Cassandra vividly remembers her first class with Jamila: "I had found out that Jamila’s class were held at noon above the Casbah nightclub on Broadway Street, which was an entertainment district that had degenerated into a street of stripclubs—with barkers! I arrived at the club fifteen minutes early to warm up and found the door locked. At twelve-thirty another student showed up and informed me that Jamila was always late. At one-thirty the other dancers showed up, at one-forty-five Jamila herself showed up, and at two o’clock the class started! I was wearing the standard dancewear for the time—leotard, tights, leg warmers, and a scarf around my hips—but everyone else was dressed in exotic costumes—velvet harem pants, Macedonian vests, tattoos, kohl around their eyes, fabulous Bedouin jewelry. One woman had on a sort of breastplates made out of two silver fez tops connected with a chain. It was like a circus. I felt very modest, very midwestern. Jamila’s classes were very intensive. We danced non-stop for an hour and a half or more, playing finger cymbal patterns the whole time. She must have been about fifty at the time, but she wore us all out and seemed calm and relaxed the whole time. It was so easy for her, it was inspiring."
Cassandra also performed intensively in San Francisco, at both Arabic and Greek nightclubs, to both live music and tapes. "At one club, I performed five shows a night, from 9:00 P.M. to 2:00 A.M.," Cassandra remembers. "The owner had made evening-length reel-to-reel tapes, so I learned a huge amount of music. It was a great learning experience, because you had to think on your feet. You had no idea what was coming up next, so you had to learn to really listen to the music."
In 1977, Cassandra returned to Minneapolis to dance professionally and soon opened The Cassandra School of Middle Eastern Dance. She formed Jawaahir Dance Company in 1989. Today, Cassandra is busier than ever in her triple role as dancer, choreographer, and teacher. The Cassandra School now presents 13 classes per week, from beginning to advanced levels, and employs four teachers, including Cassandra, Melanie Meyer, Kathy McCurdy, and Margo Abdo O’Dell. The school also sponsors workshops and performances with international dance experts, luring such luminaries as Mahmoud Reda, Ibrahim Farrah, Ragia Hassan, and Yousry Sharif to Minnesota. "It is important for people to see quality performers from the original tradition, and to be inspired by them," Cassandra explains. "Through conversations with these artists, I was brought to new levels of understanding about the creative approach to my job as dancer and choreographer, as well as the highest aspects of the art."
In her solo career, Cassandra keeps up a busy international schedule of teaching and performing. Her travel itinerary literally goes from A to Z, from Austria to New Zealand. She also teaches regularly through the University of Minnesota dance department and at Oasis Dance Camps and performs at restaurants, weddings, and community events. She has been the star attraction and mainstay at the wildly successful Oasis Dance Camps for more than 12 years, which began in Michigan, but have now expanded to both coasts. Their success can be attributed to the directors, Mary Lynn Buss and Jean Courter, and to Cassandra’s strong teaching abilities. Always eager to increase her knowledge of the dance, she recently concluded her 14th study trip to the Middle East. Cassandra is currently choreographing Shoma, written by Kay Hardy Campbell, a theatrical performance that will unveil the traditional world of Gulf Arab women through music, dance and theater. Shoma will be performed at the Southern Theater, a vibrant experimental theater in Minneapolis where Cassandra has performed annually since 1992. "I feel very fortunate to have developed this great artistic working relationship with the Southern Theater," Cassandra notes, "because it gives me a chance to perform ‘art pieces’ that are not appropriate for a nightclub venue, as well as perform with our fabulous fifteen-piece orchestra. It’s the creative highlight of my year."
Despite her achievements as a teacher and choreographer, it is these legendary performances that earn Cassandra the most popular acclaim, as well as critical respect. The Minneapolis Star Tribune called her a "marvel of voluptuous power" and "a highly respected and popular purveyor of the sensuous subtleties of Middle Eastern dance," while another local publication called Cassandra’s dancing "an expression of beauty and powerful womanliness." For those who have seen her dance, the experience is unforgettable. Kay Hardy Campbell, who is collaborating with Cassandra on Shoma, explains why: "Cassandra is distinctive because she hears every nuance of the music, more than any American dancer I’ve ever seen. In her dance she makes the music come alive, so that you actually hear it better while you’re watching her. She’s mistress of everything going on in a performance—the music, the movement, the interaction with the audience and the musicians—and she makes it all look easy. Also, she’s enjoying herself and she communicates that enjoyment to everyone who’s in the theater." Legendary Egyptian dancer Ragia Hassan concurs, noting, "Because Cassandra has come to Cairo for many years, you can see it in her dance. She is the first American dancer I saw that is very soft, very relaxed [and has the] Egyptian style. She is a very great dancer and teacher."
Cassandra herself speaks passionately of the performing experience: "Ideally, when you perform, you must be totally focused, until you are a pure conduit for what you hear. Your ego disappears and is melded into the music. You become one with your body and music without being self-conscious of yourself as the performer. You are in touch with all the elements of the art: the music, the emotional expression of the music, your body in space, your body from the inside. Ultimately, you must connect with the audience—the final element that gives spark to the performer."
For the dancer embarking upon a professional career, Cassandra offers
the following encouragement: