by Alaine Haddon-Casey

San Francisco Tales: Interview with Masha Archer.

In addition to the awe-inspiring experience of training with Carolena Nericcio and the teachers at Fat Chance Belly Dance I wanted to learn more about the teachers who were instrumental in developing ATS in the early days. I knew about Jamila Salimpour’s troupe Bal Anat and had the honour of watching Suhaila Salimpour’s ‘revived’ Bal Anat perform in Sebastopol. Jamila and Carolena’s philosophy of the dance is well documented, but what of the all-important link between Jamila and Carolena – Masha Archer? In the ‘golden days’, Jamila taught Masha who in turn, taught fourteen year old Carolena Nericcio. It was also Masha who was credited with the posture and other key aspects of the dance we now refer to as ATS. She left the dance scene in the 80’s and documentation on her dance career had proven frustratingly elusive.

Fortunately, fate lent a hand in the guise of a chance discussion with Robert Altman, a wonderful local gentlemen who ‘had a friend who used to bellydance in the 60’s’. His friend turned out to be Masha! When I explained that she was an important link in my quest to learn more about the development of this dance, he picked up his cell ‘phone and called her. She was in New York on business but would be back in a couple of days. She agreed to a meet at her home studio and suggested that we could adjourn to a nearby coffee shop.

In the meantime, our mutual friend filled me in on some details. Masha was born in Kiev, Ukraine. Her parents were both artists and teachers of painting and sculpture at the Kiev and Kharkov Art institutes. Studying at the Pratt Institute in New York City, Masha majored in painting and design and worked as a restorer and exhibitor at the Museo Nacional de Mexico, Mexico City and is highly regarded for her uncanny ability to turn simple materials into gloriously exotic art. Her work can now be found all over the world (to view some of work, visit Masha has been based in San Francisco since 1967 and has an apartment building where she houses herself, business, studio and family. She brings her artist’s eye to everything she touches, including dance!

As I sat in her sitting room among her jewellery, sculpture and paintings and looking through photo albums it became clear as that Masha was largely responsible for creating the ‘signature tribal look’, specifically the style of jewellery associated with the ATS groups. Later, over coffee she told me that she had studied with Jamila Salimpour, but left when she was to perform publicly at nightclubs, restaurants and bars.

You held some strong views on the venues where the dance was commonly performed? “Yes, I felt strongly that this dance is a valid art form, ancient, dignified and worthy of more and better venues and exposure. The only places to dance in those days were clubs, restaurants and bars. I did not want to send my students there. They were either paid poorly or danced for tips. The owners and the audience often had little respect for the dancers and the dance. I did not want to teach students that they had to put up with this if they wanted to dance professionally. I felt the dance should be afforded the respect due to any other legitimate art form, after all, this dance is the foundation of all others. Its movements are found in many other dance forms, yet these ancient roots are not acknowledged.

This dance has its own aesthetic and it should be respected and aspired to. So I founded my own dance school (the San Francisco Classic Dance Troupe) and for many years this is what I worked for, this is what I taught my students: respect for the dance, aspire to the aesthetic as you would with any other art form and respect yourself.

I also believed that the dance should be performed at broader cultural and community events and audiences should have the opportunity to understand the importance of this dance as an art form.

You are credited with the specific posture and presentation of ATS: “I taught my students to approach the dance as through they were already professional dancers. To hold themselves proudly. Some teachers did not like having women in their class that had studied ballet, but I loved the way they held themselves with a raised ribcage and they knew their bodies. They also understood about aspiring to an aesthetic. They knew how to stand in the recognisable ballet stance. I also enjoy Spanish Dance and as the especially the proud way the head and body was held. When the dancer achieves this even when standing still she is recognised as a Spanish dancer. It is the same with Tribal dance. If the correct posture and attitude is achieved, then the dance has a strong physical and artistic foundation. Every movement describes a line and a form and when performed well, becomes recognisable to audiences as what is now called ATS. Each dance form has its own recognisable aesthetic.

So you created a ‘fusion” “Almost all forms of art, dance, music, design, are a ‘fusion’ of different life experiences and cultural influences. My were migrants and artists and as a person who has travelled through many countries, I have been greatly influenced by a number of different cultures from my own [artistic and cultural] perspective and this shows in my work. In terms of dance, this is also the case. I see it as primarily an art form. Other members of the broader artistic community also see it as a legitimate art form and as with any other art form, it is new students and audiences who we need to educate to its history, beauty and meaning.

We cannot claim to be able to dance a culturally specific dance authentically if we are not from the originating culture, and even then, experiences differ greatly among geographic areas and generations. We bring to our art our own culture and experience, and add it to ‘their’ culture and experience and if treated with honour and respect, we should be able to produce something that is beautiful. I am an artist from a family of artists and of an immigrant family. From this heritage I saw this dance form as an art, with line, form, texture and beauty and with elements in common with many cultures.

How do you view bellydance as it is presented today: “Many forms of bellydance that we see today are a fusion of different dances or steps from different regions. But they have many basic movements in common, after all dance like everything else evolves and absorbs different influences. Bellydance has an intrinsic beauty in all its forms. It developed through centuries of women living in their own communities, travelling through others and incorporating regional, cultural and philosophical influences.

Also, when women danced it was often in their own company and that is quite different from how they dance with men present, or in couple and mixed gender folkloric dances. This is important to remember. In some countries women are still very oppressed, but the women’s dance, ‘bellydance’ belongs to all women. It is the ancient dance of the community of women of all ages. It is beyond cultural boundaries. Women of all cultures are the custodians of this dance. In some countries, sadly, women are not allowed to dance it and are taught to be ashamed, so I felt that we must be caretakers of it for them too.”

The passion with which Masha spoke of her philosophy of the dance as an art form was apparent. She is an astonishingly beautiful, strong and talented woman and it was through her eyes that I saw the dance not just as a joyous form of physical expression or theatrical performance, but also from a broader artistic, historical and community dance perspective. She regards bellydance primarily as an artistic form of the ‘ancient women’s dance’ with movements originating from the ways in which women interact and express themselves with each other in their communities, cultures and through their lifecycle. Her most important message? – “Respect and honour the dance and aspire to a high level of artistic aesthetic”.