Kerry Stewart interviews Devi Mamak 2009

Tribal Corner
Devi is this issue’s cover girl!

Bellydance Oasis Issue 37. Jan 2010

Devi Mamak is the Artistic Director of Ghawazi Caravan, an innovative Tribal Bellydance company based in the Blue Mountains of NSW. Ghawazi Caravan and the younger troupe Ghawazi Girls both performed at the inaugural Australian Dance Festival in Sydney in June 2009 to a multidisciplinary dance audience (1). Ghawazi Caravan also include a student troupe, Ghaziya, formed in 2004 to give intermediate level students the opportunity to perform.

Ghawazi Caravan has the motto “diverse in spirit, united in dance” and the company grew out of Devi’s training with Carolena Nericcio, the founder of American Tribal Style (ATS). (2) Devi has completed Carolena’s intensive Teacher Training course, and taught at Carolena’s FatChanceBellyDance (FCBD) studio in San Francisco in December, 2008. In 2009, Devi co-taught ATS General Skills certificate workshops in Taiwan with Carolena. Devi’s Ghawazi Caravan is the first troupe in the southern hemisphere recognised as a sister school to FatChanceBellyDance (FCBD). It is a very significant achievement that many of Devi’s Ghawazi Caravan moves have been accepted into Carolena’s strict FCBD movement vocabulary.

From her base in the Blue Mountains, New South Wales, Devi has inspired many dancers and dance groups and has hosted workshops by Karen Gehrman (FCBD) in 2002, Paulette Rees-Denis (Gypsy Caravan) in 2004 and 2005, Rachel Brice in 2006, Blue Damsel and Solace in 2007 and Carolena Nericcio and Megha Gavin in 2006, 2007, 2008 and 2009. Devi also hosted the first inaugural Australian Tribal and Trance Festival in 2006, which has since become a biannual event organised by Deb Napier (3).

In August 2009, Devi hosted the first ‘ATS Drills and Individual Critique’ workshops here in Australia and plans to start the full course, as a series of two three days weekends, in 2010.

Devi has taught and performed widely in Australia and overseas and writes the regular column, Tribal Corner in Bellydance Oasis magazine. Devi generously gave time in her crowded schedule during WAMED 2009 to be interviewed by our Senior Writer, Kerry Stewart.

Kerry: Your mother teaches piano and you grew up with music in the house: was dance also connected with music?

Devi: I learned ballet [as well as piano], then came a time when they both became serious and I had to make a choice. I really wanted to choose dancing at that point, and my mother wanted me to choose piano, so I chose piano. I am a Conservatorium Accredited classical piano teacher and I have been teaching piano since 1981. I was a bit sad about that [choice] for a long time, but now I think it’s the best decision I ever made because now I have both.

Kerry: Your and your mother Natasha danced together at the Sydney MED Festival Concert, Dancing with the Stars, in 2007. Is she also a dancer?

Devi: She was a dancer when she was young. My mother is of Russian background and there are photos of her performing traditional Russian dances when she was fifteen or sixteen. She had to make that decision [I made], and she chose music. Now she is dancing too. When I became serious about dancing she also took up bellydancing. She flitted from teacher to teacher and finally went back to her roots to study traditional Russian dance. She really wanted to do something from her heritage. It’s something she is very passionate about. Took out the sentence about it being like ballet cause it is always Her teacher had been a ballet dancer and was ninety and still could do jumps. She only passed away last year, which upset my mum terribly.

Kerry: Was there social dancing in your family when you were growing up?

Devi, No, we didn’t do that as I grew up, but we see it at every family function now, and my mother loves to perform at every opportunity. We really enjoyed performing together at the Sydney Festival. It was one of her choreographies. I’m very proud of her that she’s taken up dancing at her age, and she’s really quite good.

Dancing has also been an inspiration for both of us in regard to our music. My mother has published several piano books, and her latest one is inspired by the rhythms of the Middle East such as Baladi and Ayoub, and includes a veil dance piece. I am looking forward to choreographing to these pieces.

Kerry: Do you think having music in your background helped when you took up dance later?

Devi: Yes, I think so, because I don’t have to think about the time signatures, or the phrasing of the music, it comes naturally to me – until my students stop me and question me about it! Then we have to stop and break it down.

When I first heard Middle Eastern music, it all sounded the same and I was not used to that style of music at all. It took a while for me to like it. The change came when I learnt how to drum, a couple of years after I started to dance. I’m not fantastic at it, but I can hold a rhythm. When I knew what all the rhythms were (and with my musical background I could hear the differences in the rhythms) then I could hear what was happening in the music.

I could not for the life of me ‘get’ zilling, but when we were doing our first zill choreography with Kaiya, I worked out that where everyone else was going 1,2,3, with right, left, right [hands], I had to go rrl, rrl. I was terribly downhearted that I was ‘doing it wrong’, but my drum teacher said she’s noticed that musicians zill like that. I don’t know what it means, or why that is, but I felt better about zilling then.

Kerry: How did you get started with belly dancing?

Devi: I was a bit of a party girl in my twenties. Then in 1996, that had to stop; I was not too well, and I was seeing a naturopath regularly. My naturopath was Kaiya Seaton and she mentioned something about teaching bellydancing. I didn’t miss the going out and partying, but I missed the dressing up and the dancing, so I decided to try bellydancing, because I already knew Kaiya. If she had been a samba dancer or a flamenco teacher, I would have taken that up!”

I went to her first class and we began learning choreography, so I went home and practiced. When I came back the next week, no one had practiced! Because I have the classical musical background, I was floored by this bellydance ‘scene’ where you didn’t have to strive for perfection. When I put my mind to do something, I really want to do it. After about eight weeks Kaiya invited me into her intermediate class, which I really appreciated.

I still consider Kaiya my teacher, and ask her what she thinks. Her opinion is still important to me, and I’m very grateful to have had her as a teacher. Kaiya taught a variety of different styles including classical and modern Egyptian, Baladi, Sha’abi, Pharonic, and Zaar. She had a very organic and unique approach to the dance but was also heavily influenced by Suraya Hilal.

Kerry: Was it the discipline and striving for perfection that caught your attention with ATS?

Devi: Yes and no. I’d only been learning bellydance for a few months when Kaiya organised a video afternoon to look at costuming. We watched a lot of videos and one of them was a FatChanceBellyDance live performance of Rina and Jill dancing together, facing each other (4). They were so synchronised that I thought it was one girl dancing into a mirror. I amazed by that and loved the look of the costumes and their hands. Kaiya told us the story that the reason they were so good together was that they lived in a caravan and travelled around the USA like a performing circus, and all they did was practice. Our thought was that none us would ever travel around and live in caravans, so we could never be like that. It seemed unachievable, and besides, they were on the other side of the world.

In 1999, I went back to San Francisco (where I was born) for three months, to take my son to see my father and grandmother. After I’d bought the tickets I remembered “that troupe is over there”. I’d never been on a computer in my life, so I wrote Carolena a letter [asking whether I could attend classes], and she replied (by snail mail) that I could. I did as many classes as I could while I was there and brought all the videos back. As a guest, Carolena let me join in the advanced classes, but I didn’t realise until after I got home that they were doing improvised choreographies. I [had plenty of] “gaps” to be filled, but I knew I really wanted to do ATS. Inorder to do this, I knew I would have to teach others what I did know, as no one else (to my knowledge) was doing ATS in Australia (except Alaine Haddon-Cassey in Western Australia).

I asked Kaiya’s permission to teach, and I was still dancing with Kaiya when I started to teach in 2000. I was teaching a combination of her style, which was very Suraya Hilal based, and what I’d learned from FatChanceBellyDance. It was very organic, and it evolved from there.

Kerry: Was teaching a real challenge, or did the fact that you’d already taught piano make you more comfortable?

Devi: I was really nervous the first time; I’m quite a shy one-on-one person. I was comfortable with the teaching side, and breaking things down, but it’s very different teaching classical piano to one person and teaching a large group of people [to dance]. Once I got my head around that, I was okay. It took me a couple of years to come up with a class structure and format. I got better [at teaching] as my own technique got better. I still went to Kaiya for classes, until she stopped teaching (a couple of years after I began teaching).

Kerry: Were you using ATS as a structure for your own teaching at that stage?

Devi: Yes, I was teaching the movements I felt comfortable with and which I thought were relevant at the beginner stage, and a lot of technique, which I’d done with Kaiya. What I really wanted to ‘get’, and focused on in terms of ATS, was the upper body and the arms. Classes grew, and soon we were performing as a troupe. We chose the name Ghawazi Caravan as homage to Kaiya, who loved the Egyptian style of dance and to the Egyptian ghawazi, known for being free spirits, using zills, dancing with props on their heads and in general for entertaining and shocking their audience.

In 2002, there was a shift for me. What we were doing as a group wasn’t looking right. Carolena was so far way, I felt it was too easy for me to get distracted and lose what I was trying to develop in my own muscle memory. I sponsored Karen Gehrman (then Assistant Director, FCBD) to give workshops in Australia. Her workshops were fantastic, and I made a decision to abandon all other dance styles until my body had fully absorbed ATS. We did only ATS for two years. In 2004, I felt we’d “got it” into our muscle memories and could begin “play” while still keeping the posture and body alignment of ATS.

Kerry: You have a real desire to be challenged and to strive for perfection!

Devi: Yes I do, but I enjoy the journey. I don’t worry that it takes years. The relationship with Carolena is something that happened naturally over many years. In 2004, nine of us in Ghawazi Caravan went to the US to work with Carolena as a troupe. Since then, she’s come over to us in Australia every year, stayed with me and given workshops. We’ve done a lot of private classes together and become friends. When I first started with her, she wasn’t doing much teacher training, so I’d video myself teaching the moves and send that to her for a critique to make sure they were right. If they weren’t right, I’d have to do them again and again until they were right. I loved that she was tough on me. I like to know that what I am doing is correct and if it is not correct I want to know how to rectify that.

Kerry: At what point did you think you wanted to go beyond dancing ATS steps as created by FCBD and develop your own steps and moves?

Devi: I always wanted to develop my own steps and moves, but I still use the body aesthetics of ATS when I’m doing my own thing. Even if I’m doing an Indian fusion, or an oriental/tribal fusion or a flamenco thing, I’m still using the ATS body aesthetic. I call ATS the ‘Audrey Hepburn of bellydance’; it’s so classical and elegant, no matter what age or shape you are. That couple of years doing only ATS was worthwhile, and now my muscles naturally go into that way of holding the body.

Kerry: You have also studied classical Indian dance (Odissi style) and taken flamenco classes and said that these are you favourite influences.

Devi: I am inspired by many different styles and have taken classes in a variety of styles. All of our Ghawazi Caravan choreographies have an ATS base, but may be influenced by flamenco, Classical Indian, Classical Egyptian, contemporary dance or even ballet. I really feel that for Ghawazi Caravan having a strong ATS base has helped us create beautiful lines in our body and movement, no matter what we are playing with. It has given us the freedom to explore other dance styles and to incorporate them into our ATS format.

Kerry: Would you recommend that dancers learn bellydance before they move into tribal style dance, or are dancers now starting and staying with tribal style dance?

Devi: That’s a really difficult question, and I think it depends on the dancer. I’m really glad that I had the background of other styles of bellydance, it’s helped me with shimmies and hipwork and also helped me to “play” with the music on a more emotive level.

Then again, I’ve seen great dancers who’ve gone straight into tribal dance. Whether you’ve started in ATS, or come to it later, I think you should always go out and try other styles of dance and exercise to challenge yourself. Using weights has really helped me to execute strong arm movements and yoga has helped me with my flexibility and suppleness, all of which are important aspects of ATS.

There are some dancers who have started with Tribal fusion before learning or even knowing about ATS. As with many things, when the pendulum swings too far away form the centre, it is only a matter of time before it comes back again. Lately I have seen more Fusion dancers studying ATS, or even Oriental styles and traditional folkloric styles. I think this is great, for whether you are a traditionalist or are into fusion you always need to know where “home” is. Regardless of our differences in dance, it is nice to share and the regular Tribal Student soirees in NSW in the past several years have solidified our community, improved the performance skills of our dancers and been a tool to share each other’s varied influences.

Kerry: You’ve said that there are very few solos in ATS because ‘the beauty of ATS largely falls on the synchronicity of the group as a whole’, but I notice that you dance solos as well as perform as a group. Do you use solos, like your performance last night at the WAMED Gala Concert, Tapestry, to explore other styles of dance?

Devi: That particular dance ‘Cleo the Fish’, happened because I love the 1940s movie Fantasia, and when I saw the fans, I thought “they could be the fish” and I could dance to Tchaikovsky Arabian Dance!

I now travel a fair bit without the troupe and am often asked to perform, which means I am forced to dance solo. A fifteen or twenty minute ATS solo just doesn’t work, so I do experiment with different ideas (like Cleo the Fish!) for these kinds of occasions. These experiments are usually a lot of fun artistically and can even challenge me into creating new steps, but dancing solo can also be a little bit lonely for someone like me who enjoys the connection of group dance.

I really like the group stuff, I like collaborating, and I believe that Ghawazi Caravan at the moment is the best it’s ever been. We get along well and bounce off each other. Sometimes their ideas are better than mine! We’re about to do a show ‘Intertwine’ where we’re working with fantastic musicians and dancers of other genres. We’re having such a good time doing it that I want to continue that idea as a project and put on more shows together. I like working with a group. I like solos within the group, but I learn and grow within the group. (5)

Kerry: Is the theatricality of your stage performances something you’ve worked hard on, or is it something that has developed out of Ghawazi Caravan as a troupe?

Devi: This has happened naturally over time. I think it stems from having a large troupe and not wanting to see all the dancers dancing all together for the whole show. I like to see smaller groups come out and do something for a short time and then a different group come out. This meant that the dancers who were in the background still had to fill the space naturally without taking away from what the dancer(s) were doing in the middle. I like to use the whole stage. I like seeing odd numbers of dancers and I like it best when things are asymmetrical. So we work on the shapes with that in mind, taking into account how many dancers we have for any given performance and who needs to get where.

On a deeper artistic level, I choreograph best when I have fallen in love with a piece of music. In fact, it is a never-ending quest for me to find the perfect piece. If there is no music there is no choreography. I have no ideas [in a vacuum]. Once I have found the perfect piece and I start the choreography, I often have old movies running through my head. This is not a choice, it just happens, and it actually helps me to create the steps and shapes of the choreography. I have also been inspired by statues, architecture and even the decor of Ghawazi Caravan’s costume-maker’s bedroom!

Kerry: With tribal style dance, is there a tension between the inwardness of the relationship in the group and with putting on a performance to entertain an audience?

Devi: We have talked about that many times within Ghawazi Caravan. I think that what works for us is, when the group comes together in the centre, we need to “say hello” to each other, and from then on we face out to the audience and acknowledge the audience. Whenever we change the wheel, we have a quick bit of interaction. The audience love the interaction but don’t like to be ignored, or they get bored. If you don’t have the interaction it just looks like a group of girls doing a choreography. Our dynamic is to do a lot of turns in when we smile and interact and have that friendly stuff but keep it interesting for the audience.

Kerry: Is there any dissonance between group improvisation and performing? Carolena Nericcio talked about “planned improv” when she was here in 2005 (6), but can you explain how you rehearse and perform as a group if what you are doing is mainly improvisational?

Devi: It’s called ‘improvisational choreography’. We use a lot of choreography and I like choreography just as much as I like improvisation. We sometimes perform choreographies. When we are doing ‘improvised choreography’, the steps are highly choreographed and structured, so that means that when the arm comes up, you are going to do a specific move. It’s a language, and if you know that language, you know what to do.

The other thing we do is to choreograph the structure, such that Devi and so and so are going to start, then be joined by… The key is to know the movements so well you don’t have to think about them, and leave room for what is going to happen on stage. It’s exciting!

Even with straight choreographies we still work on the rule of “the person that can’t see is by default the leader”. This means in a straight choreography if the person in front falls of the choreography “wagon” then we all fall off with her! That way we always look synchronised.

Kerry: You have a long standing association with Jrisi Jusakos and the Hathor Dance Studio, and this year you and Hilary Cinis taught a workshop together called ‘Interactive Duet’ for the Sydney Middle Eastern Dance Festival. You are teaching workshops in New Zealand and Belgium in 2010. What do you see ahead for yourself? What goals do you have to fulfil?

Devi: O.K, here is JUST the dancing list. I want to work on my technique. I have plans for creating my own DVD and to create FCBD’s vol 8 New Moves DVD with Carolena & Megha..

I want to do a duet with my daughter and have my son drum for us. I want to have more concerts for my students so they have more of an opportunity to perform if they so desire. I also want to travel more with Ghawazi Caravan to perform and teach.

I will continue to collaborate with great dancers, musician and artists such as the ones from Intertwine, but also extend to others I have not yet worked with. I feel that I learn so much from these experiences…and its fun! We are already in the process of working on the next instalment of Intertwine.

Jrisi & I and both our troupes are also working on a series of shows called El Mirage which show cases both Tribal & oriental styles.

But the MOST IMPORTANT goal for me is to continue dancing & working with like-minded people, artists who are masters in their field, who are fun to be with and that I enjoy working with. This is when you create your best work.



(2) For more information on ATS, see the regular Tribal Corner articles in Bellydance Oasis magazines, or email Devi for a copy of her notes for Café Ashra: WAMED 2009


(4) Jill Parker and Rina Orellan Rall, principal dancer FCBD, (1988-1998)

(5) ‘The Intertwine Project’’s first performance was on Saturday 13th June 2009, in Katoomba, with encore performances at the Wentworth Falls School of Arts in August, 2009. The project will continue using the collaborations already in place

(6) Stewart, Kerry Interview Carolena Nericcio Bellydance Oasis Magazine


Cinis, Hilary Tribal Chit Chat with Devi Palace magazine, Issue 39, May 2006

Haddon-Casey, Alaine An interview with Devi Mamak and Susan Brown Tribal Corner Bellydance Oasis Magazine Issue 9, July – September 2002

Mamak, Devi Intoduction to Tribal Corner and Bellydance Oasis BDO magazine Issue 28, April-June 2007