written by Liz London. Title photo by Gary Campbell
If you’re like me, you might obsessively read about bellydance and everything related pretty regularly. I go through spurts, really – I may devour everything I can find at the library (I can tell you that the Memphis library system actually has dozens related to the topic – including Serpent of the Nile: Women and Dance in the Arab World by Wendy Buonaventura if you can believe it. ) order a couple books on amazon.com, and lose hours reading through articles on GildedSerpent.com and SuhailaInternational.com (my two favorite sites for interviews and artcicles from dancers.
Even if you’re not a total dance geek with time on her hands, you may have heard tidbits in class about the move we refer to as “maya” being named after a dancer ‘once upon a time.’ I finally spent the time tracking down as much information and photos as I can find on this mystery woman so that I can set my own record straight, and hopefully those of my students and anyone else who “has been meaning to look into that but never did.”
As with much of our dance nomenclature, we owe it to Jamila Salimpour. Jamila danced regularly in a nightclub in Los Angeles called The Fez in the 1960s, alongside Antoinette Awayshak (another epic bellydancer), Maya Medwar and a few other regulars.
And then Maya Medwar appeared on the scene. She had an exquisite and stately appearance, combined with snake-like, unexpected movements which to this day have never been equaled. –Jamila Salimpour in her article for Habibi Magazine “Antoinette Awayshak and ‘La Belle Epoch‘” on TheBestOfHabibi.com
Antoinette Awayshak remembers the first time she met and danced with Maya,
Her costumes were beautiful, and she oozed self-confidence when she danced. She was temperamental and demanding. She danced like the dancers I had seen in the Arabic movies, and she also sang as part of her act. – Antoinette Awayshak,describing Maya Medwar in her article “A New Dancer Emerges” on GildedSerpent.com
When Jamila went on to teach bellydance classes in San Francisco, she found it difficult to describe movements to her students. “When I first started to teach, I wasn’t used to talking…I began to make sense of verbalization as I went along, getting more and more complicated.” Jamila said in an interview by Sharin El Safy for Habibi Magazine. As her classes expanded, she began naming movements and slowly creating a standardization of her own teaching methods to use in her classes. She found herself naming the movements after her dance colleagues and their individual stylistic differences.
Suhaila Salimpour, Jamila’s daughter (and creator of the Suhaila Format, the first certification process for Middle Easter dance) says of her mother,
” My mother was the first one to have a format. She put names to steps that she learned from her experiences working with dancers from all over the world. She would find similarities in countries from which dancers were from, create a family of steps and then grow from that.” (from an interview by Salome, published on OrientalDancer.net)
So, from her first manual of bellydance moves and methods, Danse Orientale, Jamila dubbed the “maya” step as a vertical figure 8 movement, ‘as if your hips are trapped between two walls as they tumble down’, I heard one teacher describe it.
(Other movements named by Jamila in this way include Tabura Najeem’s “Turkish Drop”; the grapevine step, “Zenouba”; the walking 3/4 shimmy, “Samia, ” and the “Tunisian,” “Algerian,” Moroccan,” “Egyptian,” and “Arabic” families of movements.)
And there we have it. How the “maya” step became the “maya” step. Unfortunately, I cannot find any videos online of Maya Medwar dancing, and she passed away before a documentary about The Fez nightclub came out that included perfomance clips and interviews with many of the original dancers there, including Jamila and Antoinette Awaychak. (in 2015, check it out at thefezdoc.com) Also, I only found the one photo being circulated anywhere on the web, so if you have anything to contribute, feel free to contact me!
PS. Another fun tidbit that I found along the way – according to a few different folks around the web, there is a word “maya”and variations of it in a few Arabic dialects as well as Hebrew that mean “water” – if that’s correct, then this would be a pretty appropriate name for a dancer who became known for fluid movements!
*I am my own editor, so feel free to contact me with any mistakes or concerns about wrong information I’m sharing!
Resources and references:
Roxxanne Shelaby (daughter of Fez Nightclub owner Lou Shelaby) confirms the idea that Jamila did, in fact, refer to Maya Medwar in naming the vertical figure 8 hip movement “maya.” (from an interview with Roxxanne by dancer Mahin published on her site http://shes-got-hips.com/)