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Bridging cultures through dance

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Dressed in coin-adorned headscarves, white shirts with lacy bell sleeves, and brightly patterned skirts, Salma Ferchichi and Adalat Omar act out daily life for Tunisian women a century ago.

As Ferchichi—a native of Tunisia and now a resident of Burnaby—explains, this traditional dance from the North African country centres on the chores the girls completed every day generations ago, before they were allowed to go to school.

“Some do laundry, some get dates from palms, some get water from the water source,” Ferchichi says of the different dancers in the ensemble piece.

But this is dance, not real life, so the women perform their chores while twisting their hips and swinging their arms down and up as they go.

The pronounced ruffle that runs below the waist of each skirt also helps emphasize the strong, fluid hip movements that are integral to Tunisian dance, as they are with many other Middle Eastern and African dance traditions.

Ferchichi and Omar, along with a multicultural group of dancers called Dance Allsorts, bring a global mix of rhythms and gestures to Vancouver’s Roundhouse Community Centre, every Sunday, including a special lineup of performances Nov. 25.

A professional dancer since she was 13, Ferchichi has found dance to be a great window into the life of a country while representing Tunisia around the world.

“I find it amazing that belly dancing, and all sorts of dancing, is a form of communication between people of all sorts of cultures,” Ferchichi says.

And while Canada’s diverse mix exposes its citizens to different cultures, many have a lot more to learn about other countries, the two dancers say.

Ferchichi notes many people know little about her home country. And Omar, who was born into the Uygur ethnic minority that lives in northwestern China, finds even less understanding of her culture in her adopted home.

“No one knows Uygur. People don’t believe I’m from China. I get lots of questions,” says Omar.

In fact, her traditional dress, with its pink, feathered headdress and long pink smock dress with flowers embroidered down the front, resembles historic attire from Turkey or Russia—not China.

Now at ease with Tunisian dance thanks to tips from Ferchichi, Omar also stays connected to her roots by teaching Uygur dance techniques in Burnaby.

While dancing, like music, can bridge cultures, it also provides a great release from the stress of everyday life, whether in Tunisia or Burnaby, Ferchichi adds.

“We have to have something artistic to keep us going in life especially in this country where you have to work, work, work,” said Salma.

“If people have a second life, it would ease up life in general.”

Belly dancing, which both Omar and Ferchichi have studied since moving to Canada, is also very cathartic for women, Ferchichi adds.

“Belly dancing is the most beautiful art for women because it gets you in touch with your inner soul and body,” Ferchichi said. “Just for the fact you have to get in front of the mirror and watch yourself move freely.”

• Salma Ferchichi and Adalat Omar will perform traditional Tunisian and Uygur dance at the Nov. 25 Dance Allsorts event at 2 p.m. and 4 p.m. at Vancouver’s Roundhouse Community Centre, 181 Roundhouse Mews. For info, call 604-893-8875.

ldickson@burnabynewsleader.com

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