Shalom Life | September 19, 2014

Chen Lizra Brings a Little 'Spice' to Vancouver

The Israeli-born entrepreneur pairs up with local restaurateur to create a cultural fusion.

By: Jeanie Keogh

Published: May 27th, 2010 in Culture » Art » Interviews

Chen Lizra Brings a Little 'Spice' to Vancouver

Entrepreneur Chen Lizra once again pairs up with restaurateur Mona Chaaban of Mona's Fine Lebanese Cuisine to bring back spicy nights of Latin 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 on May 14 was full, a sign that the event fills a void in the city, Lizra said. The two hosted the event for three years before going on hiatus in 2007, when Lizra returned to business school, and subsequently launched her Cuban dance business Latidos Productions.

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

Her goal is to get the events going again so that people can have an experience of cultural immersion that is really only found in larger metropolises like New York, Lizra said.

“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 are a lot of cultures where you cannot,” she said, citing Latin and Arab celebrations as underrepresented in Vancouver.

The night features a set menu dinner, performances and dancing, as well as a hookah smoking room at Mona's restaurant on Hornby Street in downtown Vancouver. The next event is June 18.

When conceptualizing the evening, Lizra and Chaaban created guidelines to help people attending understand the cultural setting and 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 form that kind of attitude.”

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

“It's all about love, it's a little more aggressive, 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 complement each other because of their similar dance styles, said Israeli-born Lizra, whose Vancouver-based business offers courses in Latin dance classes as well as dance vacation 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 into Arab Latin Fiesta nights so that they can make the event bigger to 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 a while 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,'” Lizra said.

Finding Cuban dance instructors for her academy is another limitation Lizra faces, as there are only a handful of professional Cuban dancers living in Canada. Lizra travels to Cuba to train with the best professional dancers there and then brings back what she's learned to Vancouver. She has designed programs for everyday people in Reggaeton (Cuban Hip Hop), Salsa, Rumba, Son, Cha Cha Cha, Mambo and Rueda. Through the different dance styles, Lizra imparts the secret art of flirtation, seduction and how to feel sexy, something that gets lost in North America because of sexual harassment.

“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,” she said.

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. But when she did, she found many things that reminded her of her native Israel from its socialist values to afternoon siestas.

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

“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 said.

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.

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