The Bride Unveiled
By Mike Steele
Star Tribune Staff Writer
Sunday, July 5, 1998
Two non-Arab women fascinated by Arab culture, including Cassandra
Jawaahir Dance Company, are staging a new piece that reveals
the very private, raucous ritual of a Saudi women's wedding party.
Images of Saudi Arabian women flashed to us here in the West are
monochromatically similar: dour women swathed from head to toe in
black, veiled, austere, isolated, subservient. This is not a fun
It's also not a full image, according to Cassandra, choreographer
and artistic director of Jawaahir Dance Company. The Minneapolis-bred
Middle Eastern dance specialist has teamed up with Kay Hardy Campbell,
an Edina-bred Arabist, writer and musician, to present another,
very private, sometimes surprising side of Arabian women.
"Shoma," the most ambitious work yet for the nine-year-old
dance troupe, takes us behind the closed doors of a Saudi Arabian
women's wedding party in which the sometimes raucous women's dances
predominate. Music is by an all-woman orchestra. And there goes
"Beyond the male gaze, these dances can be unbelievably rowdy,"
said Cassandra. "Without men present - and men are absolutely
not allowed - women can do anything they want. It's freedom from
any social pressure to be polite or conform. And the dresses! They're
huge, unbelievably gorgeous and theatrical and colorful. You think
of black? Wait until you see these hot green, pink and orange stripes.
Cassandra (full name: Cassandra Shore) has been performing Middle
Eastern dance for 24 years, ever since she took a middle Eastern
dance class at the University of Minnesota. Campbell, now a resident
of Boston, grew up in Edina and was living an ordinary life until
age 15, when she saw the movie "Lawrence of Arabia." She
saw it 20 times and "decided I wanted to be an Arabist, whatever
She studied Arabic and Middle Eastern studies at the University
of Minnesota and at Harvard, married an Arabist from Golden Valley
and lived for six years in Saudi Arabia, where she first was allowed
into Saudi wedding parties. She's now writing a novel called "Shoma"
about an actual female storyteller, a Bedouin woman whose father
fought alongside T.E. Lawrence, the real Lawrence of Arabia. She
has written the text for the stage "Shoma," which is based
on her unfinished book. She also will lead the women's orchestra
and play the oud, the long-necked, unfretted Arabian lute.
"In Saudi Arabia," said Campbell, "it's almost a
duty to celebrate weddings. It's a huge event, the bringing together
of two families, and it can go on for days. Some of them have a
couple of hundred women in attendance. The men celebrate separately,
so the women are uninhibited, doing the latest dances they've learned
on trips to Cairo. And mind you, these celebrations have no alcohol.
The high comes from the dance and music."
Stories within stories
In Jawaahir's "Shoma," the emphasis will be on Arabian
women's dances. These are defined by, but not limited to, muscular
isolationism, especially in the shoulders but going all the way
up to the hair - which is also used expressively. The framing device
is the wedding party and Shoma herself arrives at the party to tell
stories. Cassandra calls it " the nest device, stories within
stories, like the Arabian Nights. Shoma's narrative brings to life
characters from folk tales."
The key is of Munira, a Bedouin shepherdess, and Badr, the mysterious
stranger who may or may not be a prince. It allows Cassandra to
bring in dances you wouldn't see at a Saudi party - a Moroccan street
dance and Kuwaiti Bedouin dances that are more in the belly dance
style to which Jawaahir fans are accustomed - as well as an elaborate
fantasy scene which Cassandra calls "highly theatrical, a combination
of folk, classical and Western dance." It also allows her to
use a male dancer, Morris Johnson, in the fantasy sequences.
The show will have a great deal of text. Campbell calls is a play
with dance, "an Arabian 'Wizard of Oz' colliding with the 'The
Nutcracker.' " Well-known Twin Cities actress Carolyn Goelzer
is directing the show.
The question arises: What are two fortysomething non-Arab women
from Minnesota, who grew up in a culture as distant from the sex-separated
Saudi culture as St. Paul is from Saturn, doing presenting these
most private of dances?
The answer, simply, is that Arab women can't do them publicly,"
said Campbell. "Yet they're beautiful dances, and we can show
them to a far broader public. My Arabian women friends love the
idea. For me, it's a way to say thank you to them for teaching me
the dances and allowing me into their private world."
"These are an important part of their culture," said
Cassandra, "presented in women's quarters and out of sight.
I feel it's valuable for people to see them, if only because it
changes the image of Arabian women. From that image of isolation,
deprivation and being downtrodden, you suddenly see they have a
power, a rich life filled with joy and a strong relationship with
other women. Their lives aren't as austere as we've been led to
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