BY BONNIE ROSENSTOCK | Anahid Sofian opened her Oriental dance studio on West 15th Street in 1972, and is celebrating that auspicious occasion on Sat., June 18, with a night of dance, music, and libation. Billed as an Atelier Orientale, it will feature performers who were her students or teachers at her studio at one time, plus two musicians, Rachid Halihal, from Morocco, on oud (a lute-like stringed Middle Eastern instrument), and Richard Khuzami on dumbek (a Middle Eastern goblet-shaped drum). The dancers will perform to taped music.
In a phone interview, Sofian related how she came to be drawn to Oriental dance, a term she prefers to the more popularly derivative “belly dance.” She had been dancing ballet and modern dance all her life in California. She joined a modern dance company in Los Angeles and sustained an injury. She moved to New York to recover, discovered Oriental, dance and fell in love with it. “I went to Greek nightclubs in the 1960s and would watch and watch, go home and practice, practice,” she said. “I was self-taught because nobody was teaching it. With my dance training I was able to break down the movements. It looks so fluid, but those isolations are difficult.”
She soon began dancing in Greek clubs on weekends while maintaining her full-time job as a copy editor at Saturday Review. When the literary magazine moved to San Francisco, she opted for severance pay and started teaching. In 1974, she went to Morocco with a videographer and filmed the folkloric festival in Marrakech with over 300 tribes, mostly from the south. She donated the films to the Lincoln Center Library. “They said it was among the best films of North African dance they have,” she said. “It was a life-changing experience. It turned my life around.”
By 1979, she had students good enough to form a dance company, she said. The first dance she choreographed was aptly named Morocco. “It was inspired by dancers I saw combined with a Western perspective,” she explained. “It’s true to its form, with added Western compositional ideas.”
There was a section of the dance that incorporated trance turns. She rented Webster Hall on E. 11th St. (then called Casa Galicia), hired a band, and debuted the dance and her company, in which 400 people attended. The downtown dance community took note and “discovered” spinning. Sofian was awarded a $5,000 NY State Cap Grant (her only grant) for the spinning dance. It was the beginning of her long, illustrious career as a dance teacher, choreographer, and performer.
Her 2,500-foot floor-through loft doubles as her living space in the front with the back as a dance studio and dressing room. It has maple floors, high beamed ceilings and brick walls. “I fell in love with it when I saw it,” she said. When she moved into the 1905 industrial building, Beth Israel had a methadone clinic on two floors. Some years later, when the building was put up for sale, the tenants formed a co-op and bought the 10-story building, each having their own floor.
Despite competition from other belly dance studios and teachers back in the day, like Serena, Bobby Ibrahim Farrah and Morocco, Sofian held her own. For me, she was the best teacher. Because of her dance training, she taught a Western-style dance warm-up, which built flexibility and strength, and then broke down the Eastern movements in a logical, easy to understand, progressive way.
These days, COVID has killed her studio and income, Sofian declared. She is barely surviving with one Zoom class and has just brought back one in-person class. A student of hers has started a GoFundMe campaign to help defray her expenses. But for this one night, leave worries behind. The enthralling dances and music of the Middle East will transport you to distance lands without leaving Sofian’s magical studio.
Atelier Orientale, Dance and Performing Arts of the Middle East, Sat., June 18, 5-7 pm. Meet-the-Artists Reception will follow. At Anahid Sofian Studio (29 W. 15th St. btw. Fifth & Sixth Aves.), 6th floor. Donation: $25. Limited Seating / Zoom. Tickets: Sofiana@tiac.net. 212-741-2848. Visit AnahidSofianStudio.com.
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