Articles written for various community newspapers in the Lower Mainland, B.C. and special interest print and online magazines

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Fiesta Fever for Vancouver

Entrepreneur Chen Lizra is once again pairing up with restaurateur Mona Chaaban of Mona’s Fine Lebanese Cuisine to bring back spicy nights of dance and Middle Eastern food to Vancouver.

The duo return with the all-ages celebration Arab Latin Fiesta, offering a cultural fusion unlike any other in the city. The first event of the season held on May 14 was packed, a sign that the event is filling a void in the city, said the Israeli-born Lizra. The two had hosted the event for three years before going on hiatus in 2007, when Lizra returned to business school and subsequently launched Latidos Productions, her Cuban dance business.

“It’s not just a coincidence that, after [the] three years we haven’t done them, that they were packed again and people said, ‘Wow, we’re coming back for the next one.’ There is something very magical about the event,” Lizra told the Independent.

Lizra’s goal is to keep the Arab Latin Fiesta nights going so that people can have an experience of cultural immersion that is generally only found in larger metropolitans like New York.

“It’s very hard to find, in Vancouver, nights where you actually enter a culture the way that culture is in its own country. There are maybe two or three cultures where you can do that but there’s a lot of cultures where you cannot,” she said, citing Latin and Arab celebrations as being particularly underrepresented in Vancouver.

Lizra and Chaaban’s fiesta features a set menu dinner, performances and dancing, as well as a hookah smoking room, all at Mona’s restaurant downtown Vancouver on Hornby Street.

When conceptualizing the evening, the two women created guidelines to help those in attendance understand the cultural setting and to encourage them to find their place within it.

“We create certain rules – not to be rude, but to allow for those cultures to exist the way they are and allow people to come into them. The majority of people coming are basically people from these cultures and they [naturally] form that kind of attitude.”

The atmosphere Lizra works hard to maintain is intergenerational and participatory, one in which everyone gets up to dance and join in the fun that typically lasts until the wee hours.

“It’s all about love, it’s a little more aggressive, [but] it’s warm, it’s family-oriented; you’ve got kids running around. You see grandma get up and dance with the belly dancer. It feels like you’re in the Middle East. Mona is an incredible cook and she just brings Lebanon to you,” raved Lizra.

The Arab and Latin cultures compliment each other because of their similar dance styles, suggested Lizra, whose Vancouver-based Latidos Productions offers courses in Latin dance, as well as vacation dance tours to Cuba.

“You’ve got the music from all these cultures mixed and people just love it, because people who love Latin dance love to shake it Arabic style and vice versa,” she said.

The next step for Lizra and Chaaban is to incorporate sponsorship so that they can make the event even bigger and support bringing in more dancers from outside the city.

“I think Vancouver is still limited with what we have here to work with and after awhile we’re going to run out of people we can book without repeating ourselves. It’s also fresh and interesting when people say, ‘Wow, we haven’t seen that,’” said Lizra.

Finding Cuban dance instructors for her academy is another challenge Lizra faces, as there are only a handful of professional Cuban dancers living in Canada. She travels to Cuba to train with professional dancers and then brings back what she’s learned to Vancouver. She has designed programs in reggaeton (Cuban hip hop), salsa, rumba, son, cha-cha-chá, mambo and rueda. Through the different dance styles, Lizra imparts the arts of flirtation, seduction and feeling sexy – things, she said, that get lost in North America.

“Something happens to you when you’re in Cuba where, a man or a woman, it doesn’t matter, you feel completely sexy and attractive because people come on to you all the time and they do it in such a sweet way that you feel gorgeous and that feels good. We just want to feel like that every day.” In North America, Lizra added, these same behaviors can end up being labeled “sexual harassment.”

Lizra fell in love with what she calls the allure of Cuba’s mesmerizing and energetic life force even before she had ever visited the country. When she finally did visit, she found many things that reminded her of her native Israel, from its core socialist values to the afternoon siesta.

Lizra’s Cuba was something she wanted to share beyond what she was able to translate from her regular visits there. This desire led to her facilitating small, two-week tours to the country to enrich people’s impressions beyond guidebook recommendations and popular tourist destinations. The next dance tour of Havana, which has room for seven travelers, is from July 8 to 22.

“A student who has been taking classes with me for about a year just went to Cuba and, as soon as she came back, she was ‘on’ – sexually. She was full of energy and life and she said, ‘I want more of this, bring it on,’” Lizra shared.

In addition to running her business, Lizra is branching out to reach a wider audience with a television series in development about dance around the world. Another idea in the works is a book, called Seducing Your Way to Happiness, that she plans to write after the TV show takes off.

“I think that at this point of my life I have something to say. I think that as you go through the years and you experience life and different cultures something clicks,” she said.

The next Arab Latin Fiesta night is June 18. For information, visit

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