Tarifa “Donna” Salem, Eastern Dance Artist, was exposed to the music and dance of the Middle East her entire life. She was born into a traditional Lebanese family, on March 30, 1956, and raised in a community in western Pennsylvania that had a large Lebanese population. Both maternal and paternal grandparents immigrated from Amioun, Lebanon and maintained the traditions of the Middle East throughout their lives. Her family stayed with the Farrahs, her maternal grandparents, for the first several months of her life. Her grandmother, Abla Nassar Farrah exposed all of her children and grandchildren to the traditional music and dances of the Middle East. Jacob N. Salem, her paternal grandfather was a chanter in the Eastern Orthodox church her family went to. He practiced these beautiful arabic phrases so typically sung in the Eastern “quarter tone” scale constantly. Family activities revolved around church events. Haflas, picnics, weddings and other celebrations were never without Middle Eastern music and dance. This is how the dance styles were handed down from generation to generation. Mimicking the adults who danced at these events was a form of entertainment as well as first hand exposure to the art. Tarifa’s uncle, Middle Eastern Dance Artist, Ibrahim (Bobby) Farrah, and her maternal aunt, Margaret “Peggy”Farrah were well known within the Lebanese community as exciting dancers. They were enthusiastically encouraged to perform at functions that featured live Arabic music. At Farrah family functions, Tarifa and her siblings were treated to private performances, lessons on how to do the “Arabic” dance and, often, how NOT to dance with several comedic renditions starring her two uncles, “Bobby” (Ibrahim Farrah) and “Sonny” (Jay Farrah) both of who were quite adept at mimicking less talented acquaintances. All in all dance and music represented joy, love and laughter in her life.
Dance and singing roles in high school musicals, piano lessons, ballet classes and voice lessons, occupied Tarifa’s teen years. She enrolled at West Chester State College as a voice major/piano minor. During her freshman year, she went to NYC to visit her uncle who took her to see the legendary dance artist, Jemela Omar perform at the Darvish. This had a profound affect on her. She promptly changed her major upon her return to college and enrolled in every dance elective her schedule allowed. She graduated with a BS degree in Health & Physical Education with a Dance Emphasis in 1978. Her first professional teaching job was in New York City where she taught dance and PE at the Nightingale Bamford School, an elite private girls academy. She enrolled at NYU in 1979 to further her dance studies and earned her MA Degree in Dance Education in 1982. She was a performing member of NYU based modern dance company, Kaleidoscope under the direction of Judith Schwartz. After working backstage for a year with the Ibrahim Farrah Near East Dance Group, she was accepted as a performing member during the latter part of 1979 and remained with the company until 1982 before the birth of her first child. Her most memorable performances was at Town Hall in June, 1981 where she performed “the possessed” in Mr. Farrah’s well known “Beit al Zaar, and in production numbers La Mystique Et Spirituelle (Zeffet) and Saidi Et Nawaria. International Dance Star, Nadia Gamal was the featured artist in that performance. Tarifa was able to study intensely with Ms. Gamal and to perform on the same stage with her that summer. She idolized Nadia Gamal and worked very hard to emulate her style of dance. Among other performances with the group, she enjoyed dancing at the Spoleto Festival in South Carolina in the early 80′s.
Tarifa studied Afro/Caribbean Dance with Lavinia Williams, a Dunham protégé, Flamenco Dance with Carlota Santana, African Dance with Doris Green and Bharata Natyam Technique with legendary Classical Indian Dance Artist, Indrani intensely during the early 80′s. Her Master Thesis on Moroccan Trance Dance was published in “Arabesque Magazine” as a two-part series. She was a featured dancer at several Middle Eastern Nightclubs in NYC, New Jersey and Pennsylvania during this period. Performances at special events such as the Atlantic Antic in Brooklyn, the Spoleto Festival in South Carolina and NYU affiliated performances developed her sense of artistry. She performed many club dates with Eddie “the Sheik” Kochak, another one of her mentors who taught her a great deal about the music and performance industry.
Tarifa also studied with Phaedra (Phyllis Saretta), a longtime principal dancer with the Ibrahim Farrah Near East Dance Group, who instructed her in preparation for Mr. Farrah’s advanced classes. Phaedra’s insistence on perfecting lines and proper execution of steps had a great impact on her career in regards to both performance and her ability to teach effectively. She also studied with longtime principal dancer of the Ibrahim Farrah Near East Dance Group, Jajouka (Merrill Peress). Jajouka had an astounding acuity for the rhythms of the East and an ability to convey extreme intensity and passion in her movement expression. Tarifa was mesmerized by Jajouka’s performance of the “Guedra” which greatly influenced her decision to write her Master Thesis on Moroccan Trance Dances. She frequently took classes with Elena Lentini and fellow company member, Yousry Sharif, both of whom continue to inspire her. Tarifa believes that growth is ongoing, therefore has participated in workshops of many dance artists over the years and continues to take regular ballet and modern dance classes, yet, she credits regular study with all of her mentors from the early days in her career, for any success she may have achieved.