Fritha Coltrain, Janet Maurer, John Cowan, and Marie Willkes perform a piece from a Lebanese group of dances. (Photo ©2004 Mark Paul Petrick)
Couple exuberant live music by the multi-ethnic band Salaam with Kahraman Near East Dance Ensemble’s dazzling international repertoire and the result is extraordinary entertainment. Recognizing this, the University of Iowa Dance Department sponsored Kahraman’s Tenth Anniversary Dance Concert, “Travels on a Silken Road,” performed in collaboration with Salaam, August 27-28, 2004, in Space/Place Theater in Iowa City.
Founded in 1994 under the guidance of Artistic Director Marie Wilkes Sage, Kahraman—Arabic for “amber” or “semiprecious stone”—is a nonprofit dance company dedicated to disseminating the joys of traditional North African and Near Eastern music and dance. Emphasizing authentic music and dress, the ensemble performs the expressive and hypnotic dances of Tunisia, Morocco, Persia, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Turkey, and Egypt. Both Kahraman and Salaam strive to cultivate appreciation and understanding of different cultures.
Currently the company boasts seven members: Marie (whose stage name is Maleeha), Fritha Coltrain, John Cowan, Felicia Magee, Janet Maurer, Joetta Meunier, and Elizabeth Kelley.
Over her 28 years of dance experience, Kahraman’s Artistic Director has studied with internationally known choreographers and teachers, including Mahmoud Reda in Egypt and the late Ibrahim Farrah in New York.
Marie’s interest in dance emerged early, but her blue-collar family couldn’t afford lessons. By age 12, she’d stockpiled enough money to take six weeks of ballet. The other beginning students were much younger; still, she says, “I loved it. I absolutely adored it. I really wanted to pursue it.” But the funding just wasn’t there.
Years later, Marie’s luck changed. While attending junior college in California, she wandered into an Arabic restaurant where musicians played oud (lute) and dombek (drum).
“The music spoke to me,” Marie says. When a dancer began executing the rhythmic undulations of classic Orientale—Americans somewhat oafishly call it bellydancing—Marie was awestruck. “It was so beautiful and so much richer than what I expected,” she explains. Within a week, she’d begun taking lessons.
Her first teacher, Feiruz Aram (still renowned in ethnic dance circles), not only traveled and worked in Egypt, she also held a dance degree from Long Beach University. When Aram left the country, she guided Marie to a teacher with similar credentials.
“Both these starts gave me a serious bent towards the dance because of my natural inclination but also because of the teachers,” Marie says. “It’s been a wonderful life of connections to people with a real high vision for the dance.”
Wanting to decipher song lyrics, Marie studied Arabic. One night, her language tutor took his students to a Middle Eastern supper club. When the band began to play, Marie started dancing, and a Hollywood moment ensued. The club’s owner, Lou Shelby, asked Marie if she’d considered dancing professionally and offered her a job. “I was lucky enough to have teachers who set you up if you wanted to work. They taught you about professional decorum, professional costuming, things like that.” Six weeks later, Marie launched her dancing career.
A mile from Disneyland, the club drew crowds. “The first show of the evening was for tourists who wanted to continue the exoticism of Disneyland. The second show was a mix. By the third show Arabic was the primary language spoken in the restaurant,” Marie says. The family atmosphere and musicality of the place charmed her. Her boss “played a real mean violin,” Marie recalls. “He had crippling in one hand and wouldn’t play regularly. But late at night when the music was of a particular nature, Lou would say, ‘I’m going to play.’ And he would get up, and it was wonderful.”
For three years Marie danced five or six nights a week. Lou helped her get teaching jobs, too, and she also performed at family celebrations. “When you’re hired to do a wedding or a birthday party by Arabs or Arab Americans, it is a glory because you’re part of the culture,” she says. “I was always treated very, very well.”
Marriage and motherhood dampened Marie’s enthusiasm for late nights, and her career tapered off after her family moved to Iowa in 1982. Before long, though, she was cruising Iowa City searching for dance classes. Spurred by the example of Sahra C. Kent (a.k.a. Sahra Saeeda), a Near East dancer who studied Dance Ethnology at UCLA, Marie considered pursing a dance degree and adapting it to Near Eastern dance. Serendipity struck again. One University of Iowa ballet professor had lived in Iran, and another had lived in Morocco. They’d both observed how authentic Near East dancing fits into its culture. “This was an extremely lucky thing,” Marie says.
Marie was admitted to the University of Iowa’s Dance Department and garnered acceptance for ethnic dance by performing for faculty judges. “I was always a peacock among the swans,” she says. “I was a little different from everybody else, but I still felt very supported.” By 1993, she’d earned both a B.A. and an M.F.A. in Dance with an emphasis in Dance Composition.
A year later the Kahraman Near East Dance Ensemble was born. For the past 10 years, Kahraman has held wildly popular semiannual concerts in Fairfield and Iowa City. Designed to approximate the typical Near East family or community celebrations called halfas, these ebullient evenings feature music, dancing, and regional home-cooked foods. (Dolmas, baklava, and baba ganoush are typical examples.) And audiences often have opportunities to move to the music. “People are meant to dance,” Marie says.