Nita Collins has two distinct musical passions, and she’s following both.
This Saturday night, Whitehorse gets to see her work as musician, choreographer and dancer inRockin’ the Casbah, a night that combines two musical styles from very different parts of the world: big band and belly dancing.
Collins is known to many in Whitehorse through her role as a belly dancer, as she is artistic director and teacher at the Saba Dance Ensemble.
She is also the secret ingredient behind Rockin’ the Casbah. Her unique position? Collins, who started belly dancing with her mother and grandmother as a child, also plays the baritone saxophone in the Big Band.
Collins also happens to know the Big Band’s leader quite well – Kelly Collins is her husband. She decided to spend the last year planning an evening performance that has room for both swing and swinging hips.
The dancer points to the 2009 show Raqs Farrah (the dance of happiness) as the initial impulse forCasbah. It was the first time she had the chance to choreograph for live music performance, and she loved it.
“It’s the top thing, to work with live music,” she says.
Rockin’ the Casbah will take the format of a variety show, with some very traditional Middle Eastern music and traditional Middle Eastern dances, and then some straight-up Big Band solos.
Then there will be fusion numbers that add belly dance movements to jazz dance steps, or combine Middle Eastern folk dance props with “a decidedly Western attitude.”
“You have to grow into your art before you can push the boundaries and start experimenting,” she reflects.
“I adore swing music because I play in the band, and I’ve always wanted to marry the two together and I could never imagine how to do it. After the Raqs Farrah, I thought, I don’t have access to live Middle Eastern music, but I do have access to a big band.”
There isn’t much history, if any, of big band and belly dancing music coming together, so she chose the music gradually over the last year.
“I would record the band in rehearsal and come home and try a dance to it and find out, ‘Oh no, that’snot working,'” she laughs.
One dance that she first wanted as a skirt dance just wouldn’t come together, but she made sure there was time to let the creativity come out the way it needed to.
She compares the process of letting the dance speak to the way writers talk about their characters coming alive.
“I remember standing in the middle of the studio and saying, okay you don’t want to be a skirt dance, what do you want to be? And I picked up a prop, an assiya – it’s a cane – and started doing a folkloric dance that women do.
“In modern times we use a cane, but in an actual village it would be just a stick, and it’s a really popular form for people to watch. So this is the dance that number became.”
Kelly Collins is one of the original members of the Big Band. He says he’s intrigued by the experience this performance offers.
“Usually when people dance for us it’s ballroom or swing,” the alto saxophone player says.
The Big Band typically plays from a fairly narrow context of show tunes spanning from the ’40s on. The 16 members come from all different walks of life; some have played since high school, and some are in high school.
“For Rockin’ the Casbah, it’s the dancers that are meeting us in our territory, and putting the Middle Eastern dance up against the swing and big band tunes. There will be no strange tunings or rhythms or anything – it’s a melding of one style of music with another style of dance.
“We’ll have quite a large footprint on the stage, and the level of polish has to be much higher when you have a sit-down audience, so I’ve had to crack the whip quite a bit harder. We’re excited about it.”
Nita agrees. “This whole show is about trying to be true to the swing music and true to the Middle Eastern music. I’ve tried to keep the heart and the soul of both. I love and respect both forms so much.”
Rockin’ the Casbah starts at 8 pm on Saturday at the Yukon Arts Centre.
Meg Walker is a writer and visual artist living in Dawson City.