Originally published in Fantasia
What is Ethnic dance? How can we tell if we are doing the “correct” thing? Is there such a thing as “correct”? Does it change? How? Why? How far can we go and still be “ethnic”? How much room is there for creativity, or must it be rote imitation? What kind of leeway is there in music? Dress? How can I tell if what Im being told or shown is correct? Who are the authorities? Are they always correct? What are the criteria by which we judge all this? Can we sit in judgement? Must one be a native? Can we believe what we read? Do personal tastes, morals and opinions color so-called “historical accounts”? How did/does Islam effect all of this? What about Western influence? Christianity?
Okay, Culture Vultures, that should do for a start. Sooner or later, I will get to all these questions, not necessarily in the same order, plus whatever others come up from the answering process. If you get the impression that this is the start of a series, right you are!
Where do I get MY information? To begin with, Ive been a constantly working (thank god) performer in this field for almost thirty-eight years, having started with musicians who were real old timers in 1960 and from whom I got much advice/information about music, dance, lore, social custom, as it existed when they were young men and what theyd been told by their teachers, parents, grandparents, etc. These were people who took their ethnic heritage very seriously and with the greatest respect.
If a newcomer (and we were darned few and far between then, when there were no schools, classes, seminars, etc.) proved to be serious, a good “family girl”, she was protected, treated with kindness and courtesy by most club owners and musicians. The ethnic clubs were family clubs/restaurants, where they all came, from the great grandma down to the newest baby, who usually slept under the table in a basket.
I was lucky to be one of the privileged: wives, mothers , grandmothers thought I was sweet, a “good girl”. They taught me all the folkdances, all the Oriental steps and rhythms they knew, etc. I ate it up. I still do.
In those days, they didnt see fit to hire drummers, so the dancers and singers had to play for each other. Most of them hated it. I saw it as a marvelous opportunity to learn all the tempos and countertempos. To the delight of the other dancers in the clubs in which I performed, who hated drumming, I hogged the drum most of the night.
At that time in New York we had to sit on the stage in civvies between our shows. It was against the law to go to the tables. Most of the other performers drank booze or coffee, chainsmoked. They looked bored. I beat the drum to death, dancing in my seat, learned the language from the songs and conversation, inhaled the mix of Eastern cultures. I was NOT bored.
Of course, I made mistakes: most of them innocent and resulting from the fact that I didnt yet know that some things, which were considered valid and beautiful dance steps by Western standards, were vulgar and quite unesthetic by Eastern standards. Ask me, if you remember, when Im in your area and Ill show you a couple. We could use a good laugh.
I think I should mention that although I wasnt trained as an Oriental dancer, when I got my first job in the field, I had been a working concert Flamenco dancer with the world-renowned Ballet Espanol Ximenez-Vargas, having risen to featured and solo dances. The companys repertoire consisted not only of Jondo and Chico Flamenco, but also Jotas, Escuela Bolera (classical), Basque (from whence came all the legwork of Ballet) and folkloric suites from Argentina, Peru, and Mexico. I was no stranger to the spotlight.
I was thoroughly enamoured and fascinated with the music and rhythms, the variety within one dance performance that was possible; more so, even than in Flamenco. I switched allegiances, but was subsequently to find out, through logic, language, knowledge of history and in-person observation, that Flamenco came from the Moors – Moroccans that ruled Andalucia for over 900 years – and that the very word flamenco came from Arabic: fella al mengu.
The heelwork came from the Moroccan Houara and the Rekza part of the Schikhatt. We wont even talk about the Zambra Mora right here!
One thing really bothered me: what the music seemed to be saying to me and what I was seeing a minority of the other dancers do were very different things.
One of the many “styles” in the clubs at the time was what I would come to call “Turkish bawdy house”. I asked the musicians about this. They explained that some of these women had, actually, come out of the Turkish “pavillions” or brothels, some had learned here by imitating them, but that I was to ignore those who did that style, as there will always be those who cater to the lowest common denominator.
They told me to observe how the audience reacted to the different dancers. Trashy dancing got a louder, coarser reponse than the class acts, which were rewarded with attention, respect and admiration. Rote or bored looking dancers were ignored. They told me that I was definitely on the right track and theyd let me know if I did anything that didnt fit.
They did, but always gently and with love. There were also truly marvelous and inspiring dancers to watch. I learned, bit by bit.
Something else bothers me even more: the disgusting misnomer “belly” dancing: what other dance form do you know of, anywhere in the world, that is called by a body part? Especially since only two of the thousands of possible movements and combinations are done with the abdominal muscles.
Then, why not call it hip dancing or torso dancing, but then what about the arm movements and simultaneous playing of a percussion instrument: finger cymbals?! Spare me the agony. Thanks a lot, Sol Bloom.) and the terrible reactions I got from even friends, not to mention strangers (okay, so I mentioned it) when I told them what I was doing.
Those among you who came to the dance in/ after the seventies have no idea what it was like before then: the Whore of Babylon got more respect from the average (albeit grossly ignorant) American.
I had gotten glimpses of the truth of the matter from the old women and musicians, but it was verbal. The media werent satisfied with oral traditions told by a practitioner — they said I was trying to make myself appear “decent”. The only reason they listened to me in the first place was because I had a Masters Degree (in Political Science, thank you very much) and it was “freak value” copy: female, with a Masters (sexism reigned supreme at the time) shaking her *** Egads, whatever for? What will they do next? Quick, get the children out of here!
American clubs that occasionally hired raunchy “dancers” who wore two bandaids and a handkerchief and were billed as doing “the dance that drove the Sultan wild” didnt help. Klutzy starlets in the Hayes code* version of the above costumes, inviting lust-filled reactions from back-lot legionnaires, hot-eyed brigands and the Sultan himself in Hollywood films only intensified the sexist, racist, and colonialist misconception.
*The Hayes code for films had a definite no-no about showing the navel, which is where the jewel in the navel malarkey came from. Think about it, dancers: where in the desert would one get eyelash glue, spirit gum or double-sided tape?
I think that I should interject here that I only had hassles with people who hadnt seen me or some other serious dancer perform an Oriental dance! They were those who had never seen a proper dance at all and bought the fantasist baloney, or unfortunates who had only seen an inept or deliberately vulgar performance. I greatly resented being pre and misjudged on lack of valid information, or someone elses lack of talent.
Once I had been given an opportunity to dance, the tune was changed, but it was, “Okay, youre the exception” and not, as I would have preferred, “Yes, you are right, this is a valid and beautiful dance form that should be seen in concert halls as well as night clubs. It has been misjudged, but all that will stop.”
It took a heck of a lot of persistence and the hide of an elephant to break into areas that had been closed before I got there: museums, schools, Lincoln Center (1964), the United Nations General Assembly, NYC Department of Cultural Affairs, libraries, churches, (other than Mideastern ethnic churches), taken seriously on TV!
I was forced to wear a bathrobe under my Oriental costume for the Ed Sullivan Show. You wouldn’t believe what I went through before I got on the David Frost Show and how that came about.
I did not start, but I greatly benefited by the proliferation of Mideastern Oriental dance schools around the country, which introduced many thousands to the fact that this is a lot harder than it looks, its good for the mind, body, psyche, etc., Mideastern dance seminars around the country whereby I could share the knowledge I had amassed and learn from my students, publications devoted to the subject dearest to my heart, etc. Dancers who wanted to know MORE.
Yes, things are a darned sight better today than they were in 1960, when it would have been impossible to get a liquor board to change an insulting law by force of numbers and valid backing. Most of my jobs now are in places that wouldnt have thought twice about slamming the door in my face then. They did, but I kept coming back with more and more proof. I havent stopped. I wont. Little by little, the barriers crumble, but it takes valid facts and classy presentations.
Why am I typing my fingers to the bone telling you all this? Because it was this set of circumstances, myths, misinterpretations of my art and moral character therefrom that gave birth to CRUSADER DANCER!!!!
Carrying my library card, checkbook, eyes and ears wherever a printed or provable fact could be found that would aid in righting these wrongs and freeing sincere dancers to devote themselves to their art and be taken seriously. Notebook carefully concealed in pocket or purse, small change at the ready for every passing xerox machine, fingers permanently smeared with the dust of rooting through thousands of old magazines for pictures, buying prints, learning to distinguish which of the Orientalist painters had really been there in person and which had only been there in their imaginations; which of the writers were accurately describing what they saw and whose opinions were greatly colored by colonialist racism or religious fanaticism and hatred of any form of dance; which were colored by Victorian hypocrisies and ignorance. Which of these got to see anything in a normal households womens quarters? Which writers took the whorehouse tour of the Middle East, such as Flaubert and Curtis? Which photographers paid poor peasants or courtesans to pose for what they thought the readers wanted to see? Which photos had captions that reflected the condescending racism of the times or were downright wrongly labelled? Where were the kernels of truth in the muck of sensationalism?
I have a book, published in 1894, consisting entirely of photos of the pavillions and personnel of the Chicago Worlds Fair of 1893. Some of the photos are incorrectly captioned, some of those captions insulting to the subjects depicted.
I have National Geographics dating back to 1906, but bear in mind that although it is a prestigious magazine today, with decently accurate reportage, albeit superficial, it was the “Playboy” of the early years of this century, showing brown-skinned “native” women & girls in the occasional altogether. Beacause they were brown-skinned and there was some sort of text that had pretensions of educating, it got by the censors and into homes.
I have a National Geographic from 1914 with Lehnert and Landrock photos of the Ouled Nail taken at the close of the last century, at least twenty years before they were printed. In 1917 some of these were reprinted, with different captions and hand-colored with incorrect colors. Imagine a poor, innocent, novice researcher coming upon the 1917 version! Some of the photos in the 1914 (January) issue are obviously contrived poses: Pp 11,15,40,41, just to mention a few.
People who are strictly armchair ethnologists can go only so far, the same with those who become obsessed with unnecessary peripherals: eating all the hummous, baba ganoush, and tahina in the world wont teach you one dance step or give you a sense of rhythm. Garlic breath, yes. Maybe some think of it as atmosphere?
Knowledge of clothing styles, materials, etc., at various times, on the other hand, can be very valuable in determining how one moved within or in spite of the garments worn. Were they the real garments of the area or were they imposed by religious fanatics or colonialists? Were they ornamental or utilitarian? What were the socially acceptable methods of flirting? How far could one go in a particular dance? Did one acknowledge the audience or ignore it? The list is endless.
Politics and religion played/play a far larger part over there than most here realize: was any form of dance banned and why? When? For how long? Has it been forgotten? What dances were done then that arent done now? Vice-versa? Why? What is tribal dancing? Is there really such a thing? What does one wear for an ethnic dance? Can I do it in a cabaret costume? How does one get the real facts?
Misrepresenting dances, costuming, cultures can create serious problems and is insulting to the people to whom it belongs. Innocence is a poor defense in a country where so much knowledge is available and we can read and write. (Dont ever take that for granted!) Trying to do it right can lead to friendships and access to further information and help than you ever dreamed possible.
How do I know this? Because my eager attendance, observation and questions at the Moroccan Pavillion at the Worlds Fair, even before it opened to the public (1963), led to respect from and friendship with the then Minister of Culture of Morocco and a favored cousin of His Majesty, King Hassan II (no, I never met the King), both of whom opened research doors for me that no official credentials or amount of money could.
I went to Morocco at least once a year, from 1963 – 1990, sometimes more, and my increasing knowledge leads to ever further inroads. They made it possible for me to connect with members of the Ministry of Culture of Egypt and to go to areas not open to tourists of any kind, where much of life, until recently, had remained unchanged for centuries.
I make it a point to be in Egypt at least once a year. I have also done in-person research in Tunisia, Turkey & many other countries. When I say go to the source, I mean I pack the suitcases and get over there.
Because I am fully aware of local social, religious and traditional customs and I comply with them; because I can pass physically for any kind of generic Arab (except Black African); because I am female (for once it helps!); I can get to things that no male anthropologist can, without landing in a heck of a lot of trouble.
I have performed both Oriental and folkloric dance in the aforementioned countries, as well as Lebanon (first time in 1967), which I found very limited in dance resources at the time, having been overly Europeanized. Thanks to their long, sad civil war, they weren’t doing much dancing from the early ’70s to the early ’90s. So much more than lives and property were destroyed.
I have also been in Algeria, Syria, Greece (also forget it unless you like line dances and antiquities and other tourists or are lucky enough to stumble onto some homefolks doing a hot Tsiftetelli), Armenia, Georgia, Tadjikistan, Circassia, Turkestan, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, Khirghizia, and Iran (where the Ayatollah Khomeini’s minions are killing what is left of the music and dance in the name of “religion”).
My quest for “the Truth” in dance and music from those parts of the world has led to many opportunities, fantastic adventures, unexpected twists and turns, fleas, flies, mosquitos, intestinal parasites, disappointments, discoveries. If I was willing to place my performing career second, I could spend more time in research, but dance I must because for me thats what its all about, so I make the most of the time I do have. Facts are so much more comforting than fantasies.
As an example of how I will be developing these installments, lets start with Ancient Egypt. Does King Tutankhamun have any bearing on Oriental dance at all!?! I think not. What about all the lovely papyri, hieroglyphics, art treasures? only in so far as any form of dance or movement is depicted: who did the dancing? Male or female?
While there are papyri and tomb paintings showing male acrobatic dancers, the majority depicted are women. What did they wear or not wear? Was lack of clothing considered natural? Was the body taken as it is, or did it have a sexual connotation? (Bear in mind here that the original diggers, researchers, grave robbers and anthropologists were the products of a super hypocritical and filthy – minded Mid-Victorian Europe, so any of their writings were clouded by that fact.) Was the movement voluptuous — that is, did the torso move or was it linear or acrobatic? Look at the papyri: the attitudes of the performers and onlookers depicted are utterly casual.
Contrast that with the mosaics at Volubilis, left over from the Romans, or other Greco-Roman ruins that show their obsession with the sexual, written descriptions of orgies, etc. Nothing like that has come down to us from ancient Egypt so far. Did it exist? We have no way of knowing – yet.
While there seem to be a few torso movements, the majority of dance depicted is acrobatic in nature, sometimes in long lines. Clothing is depicted as diaphanous or nonexistent, whereas jewelry is elaborate. Wool wigs are worn by both sexes.
We know for a fact that temperatures in Egypt often go as high as 140 degrees Farenheit in summer. Geographical areas with that kind of heat, that havent been mucked around in by body-fearing missionaries, of whatever religious persuasion, tend to wear little or no clothing, often going so far as to shave the head. It is a known fact that cones of scented fat were placed under the wigs, on top of the head, so that the oils would perfume and protect from the sun as they melted. Yuk. Lets not carry imitation too far! How then, does one do an authentic Pharonic dance?
Good luck, cookie. The Pharoahs werent considerate enough to leave us any videotapes or movies, records, etc. Let those lovely art books serve as an inspiration. American audiences arent ready for real nudity – if you want to be taken seriously – when you present your version of a Pharonic dance. It will beyour version, since the dancers on the papyri arent teaching at this time.
I suggest you opt for a covered, non-diaphanous, bejeweled dress. Night club Oriental costume is a definite no-no.
Is Pharonic dance ethnic? Definitely not, because we have no way of being reasonably sure as to what they did. It is creative, it is interpretive. that doesnt mean you shouldnt do it, just dont misrepresent..
Reading tons of books on the art of the era is a colossal waste of time, unless you are an art major. Studying Grandma Moses, to use an example closer to home, wont do a damned thing for your Virginia Reel. That could be considered an unnecessary peripheral.
There is so much to learn, dance-wise. Dont allow yourself to be sidetracked, but it is a part of their history of which the Egyptians are understandably proud. A little research, so readily accessible, what with the Tutmania, goes a long and lovely way. Unless you are doing a dramatic tableau on a particular Pharoah and his queen, who loved whom is as relevant as a Barbara Cartland romance. If you are interested in Egyptology in and of itself, read on.