Giving to Light: Dancing the Baby Into the World

Habibi: Winter ’96 Vol.15, No.1
By Morocco (C.V. Dinicu)

My first inkling that there was any connection batween the slower movements of Oriental dance and the physical act of giving birth came in 1961 when, at the end of a performance at the Arabian Nights in New York City, I was pounced upon by a Saudi Arabian woman, Farab Firdoz, who refused to believe that I wasn’’t Arab because I had danced so authentically (or so she said).

She was a dancer and had been taught by her grandmother, who had also been a dancer. She told me that the “belly” roll (I hate that word), flutter, and some parts of the floor section were based on the movements of labor and childbirth, and that thousands of years ago they had been part of a religious ceremony. With the advent of monotheism and various styles of religious restrictions, it had ceased to be religious and became secular: either as an entertainment (women for women, men for men, women for male or mixed audiences, men likewise) or as a ritual/therapy. In remoter areas, where the West hadn’’t bolluxed things up, all the women would gather around a woman in labor and do certain movements, encouraging her to do likewise, thus easing the birth and reminding each other that they shared the same destiny and experiences as women. Having done these movements in various folk dances since childhood, their muscles were stronger and better prepared for childbirth.

Farab told me that as recently as 1937, she had been present when the women of her grandmother’’s tribe gathered around the pallet of a woman in childbirth and did those movements, which she did along with them. Other dances were done afterwards to celebrate the birth, as well as a more elaborate repetition of the actual birth dance.

Men were forbidden to watch the birth or the women’’s celebrations afterwards. They had their own dances and celebrations for the men, from which the women were, likewise, excluded.

Of course, she didn’t tell me all this the moment she cornered me in the dressing room. It came over several weeks of a burgeoning friendship and my interrogation tactics. To tell the truth, I though she was full of it at the time.

Then a couple of Sephardic women mentioned that a LaMaze course they had taken had been a laugh riot, since the main movements taught were termed “pelvic rocking” and “deep breathing”, which they knew as “camel” and “flutter”. I checked out a couple of the LaMaze classes at Mount Sinai hospital and found that they were correct.

These classes try to accomplish in a few short months or weeks what should have been started in childhood: namely, the shaping up of pelvic muscles to be used in pregnancy and childbirth, and to regain shape and muscle tone after birth.

The first lesson in the exercise review sheet of this hospital said: “Concentration Exercises — Object: to learn muscular control of muscle groups. Particular attention is paid to strong contraction and absolute relaxation of the rest of the body.” Class Two goes on: “Stand with knees easy, feet parallel and with the weight of the body well over the arches of your feet. Rock your pelvis upward. Slowly tighten your buttocks and lower abdominal muscles . . . Lying on your back with legs bent, press back firmly on floor, contracting abdominal muscles at the same time — release.”

The technnique of Oriental dancing is one of isolated muscular control of contractions and releases while all other muscles not involved in the movement are relaxed. There is a floor position commonly used in many Oriental dances, where the head reaches the floor from a backbend and the body relaxes until the spine rests on the floor. The knees are sharply bent and the feet outside of and close to the thighs. Slow rhythmic breathing is followed by fast shallow breathing, acceleration of which increases with contractions, producing a variety of abdominal movements.

One of the women who attended classes of this sort was the wife of a prominent lawyer of Turkish background and mother of twins. She told me that one of the movements her obstetrician stressed was a rippling movement of the abdomen, the old Arabic “belly” roll (or “camel”). It was explained that the upper part of the wave, as her doctor termed the movement, was to be done between the contractions of the womb, and the lower part of the wave, or the bearing down, was to be done as the womb contracted. This would aid considerably in expelling the baby with minimal wear and tear on all the internal organs and muscles involved.

The rolling movement itself is no child’’s play to learn, for when done wrong it only serves to stretch the stomach muscles. The lower spine, pelvis, diaphragm and abdomen are involved. This is extremely difficult to describe in writing and must be demonstrated and explained step by step, felt gradually, muscle by muscle. Each little muscle must be found and developed in turn before the whole can be manipulated to the extent that each split second can be perfectly controlled. Rather than a sharpness and angularity, there must be a smooth, circular, undulating motion.

Fortunately the Turkish background of the woman I mentioned gave her more than just a laywoman’’s knowledge of Oriental dancing, and therefore a greater knowledge and control of her pelvic muscles. Subsequently, she learned all the exercises with greater speed and facility than the average female produced by a society that is just discovering it has hips via Latin and rock dances. These are muscles that have been used by every Arab, North African and Turk from childhood on up in the execution of one of their national folk dances, Raks Sharki (Oriental dance), and all its variations.

Modern birth preparation classes usually include elements of hypnotic suggestion, concentration exercises, and other mental practices to better prepare women to deliver children in a more natural way. The thought of agonizing birth pangs is pounded into our heads from the earliest age of understanding. The Christian concept of original sin, and the penance to be exacted for it, reinforces this assosciation of childbirth with pain.

Although the Bible does not speak specifically about pain, it states, “In sorrow shalt thou bring forth children”. This emphasis on pain and suffering has produced generations of women, who approach childbirth with bodies and muscles tensed in fear and anticipation. Fighting contractions through fear and preoccupation with the thought of pain only tenses the muscles and tears them, rather than allowing them to stretch gently during the uterine contractions and relaxations. Instead of relaxing and helping nature along, we put stumbling blocks in her way.

The goal of the mental approaches in these classes is to reduce the emotional and physical effects of the concept of painful childbirth. The relaxed woman can now concentrate only on helping nature by moving with the contractions of labor.

This selfsame thing is accomplished by the circle of dancing Arab tribes-women who hypnotize the woman in labor into imitating their rolling pelvic motions. Their task is far easier, though, since much earlier societies do not tend to have the same pervasive and exaggerated fear of childbirth’’s pains, which we find in Western society.

In 1964, the Moroccan Pavilion of the New York World’s Fair opened. I was there for the first show on the first day. Because I sat through four shows that day, returned the next and the next and the next, the directors/promoters noticed me. Although I had met them briefly months before and would later perform at the pavilion myself, I had not yet met all the folkloric performers nor established the friendships there that would be so important to my subsequent research and development as a dance ethnologist, teacher, and director/choreogapher and the travelling over there for those ends, that had started in 1963 as a result of that first meeting. They were surprised and pleased at the extent of my seriousness about the dance and culture and began to supply me with information. Almost as a footnote to a conversation one day, one of them said that his wife had just gone back to Morocco to go to a small village from which her cousins came. One of them was about to give birth for the first time and she went to help “dance the baby into the world.”

What? He repeated pretty much what Farab had told me two years previously. First a Saudi and now a Moroccan with the same story. His wife wasn’’t a professional dancer, looking to “justify” or “apologize” for her profession. She was an extremely (by marriage) wealthy, bourgeois housewife, who didn’’t try to deny her roots in a Berber tribe that had remained almost unaffected by Western plastic culture. I was beginning to believe. I told him I would give half my soul to see such a ceremony and he promised to help.

I thought my Moroccan friend had forgotten his promise, but in 1967 word came to me from Casablanca: get down here now if you still want to see what you asked about. Another cousin was about to give birth, and from the size of it, they thought it might be twins.

I asked no further questions, grabbed my passport, borrowed some money from my mother (thanks, Ma!) and split to Casablanca. The wife met me at the airport and explained the situation on the way to the village, which was between Tisint and Tintasart. (Not exactly what you would call tourist towns.)

Since I couldn’t speak Berber by any stretch of the imagination, nor Moroccan Arabic (we spoke in French and Spanish), but could easily pass for a Moroccan physically, I was to pretend that I was deaf and dumb and would be introduced as a servant of my friend’’s wife. Anyone who knows me knows how difficult it would be for me to keep my mouth shut for five minutes, let alone a few days!

She filled me in on the background, what I would see and could expect, so that nothing would take me by surprise and produce a reaction that would give me away as a foreigner.

I was to start playing the role immediately, because we were going to pick up several other relatives on the way and they weren’’t to know a thing. Of course, we had to stay a few hours at every relation’’s house along the way and eat, etc. I was spared the excess avoirdupois by dint of the fact that servants ate the leftovers and didn’t have to gorge out of politeness.

My “mistress” got me in to see several of the family celebrations by saying that I was new to her household and that she had sort of adopted me because I was so young and so terribly afflicted by Allah. When I asked her how she justified the lie along with God’’s name, she said that my “affliction” was that I wasn’t really Moroccan!

I heard some dynamite singing and saw enough Schikhatt to o.d. on it for a while. I even danced my little asterisk off in the servant’s quarters, when they got together after work and had their own Schikhatt parties.

It took three and a half long, hot, tiring days and nights to get to the village, but as soon as we got there we were whisked off to the local hammam (steam baths). Allah be praised!

A special tent had been erected at one end of the village, to which the cousin had gone the day before, after having been bathed by several of her friends at the hammam. Her husband was a big mogul in the tribe and a lot of partying was to accompany the event. She was sitting on a divan in the back section of the tent, but I noticed that a small hollow had been dug in the center of the tent. There was food and fruit and mint tea aplenty for the female guests. Males weren’’t allowed within 100 yards of the tent flap. They weren’’t sure of the exact day she would give birth, but it would be very soon.

More relatives were expected, and there was enough food for an army, should it decide to go on maneuvers. We passed the day singing, playing bendirs, dancing Schikhatt, drinking mint tea ( which I served my “mistress” in a pretty passable manner, if I say so myself) and eating. Oh, yes, the VERY pregnant cousin got up and danced half the day herself, dressed in beautiful embroidered kaftan.

Later that night, when I was alone with my benefactress, I asked about the hollow in the ground. She said that it was there for the baby to fit into during the birth. Huh? Wait and see . . .

The next morning we were awakened earlier than expected by one of the cousin’’s servants: labor had started. We jumped out of bed, dressed, and ran like hell. She was dressed in a lighter kaftan and d’’fina and was squatting over the hollow, sweating up a storm. The other women had formed a series of circles, three deep around her, but made way for us to get to the first circle. All the women were singing softly and undulating their abdomens, then sharply pulling them in several times. The movements were much slower and stronger than what dancers call the flutter, and can be seen in some Schikhatts. They repeated the movements while slowly moving the circles clockwise.

The cousin would get up and do the movements in place for a few minutes and then squat for a few minutes and bear down. She didn’’t seem particulartly agitated or in any pain. The only sign of strain was the perspiration that soaked her hair and forehead. We stopped only for midday prayers. Thank heaven I’’m a dancer and imitated the movements of Moslem ritual as if I were imitating a dance , or I would have blown it right there! We drank some mint tea that she poured for every one of us and continued dancing.

Less than half an hour later, she gave a gasp and we heard a soft thud. She lifted her kaftan and there was a baby in the hollow. She held up her hand: it wasn’t over yet. Approximately fifteen minutes later, another gasp and another soft thud. It was twin boys. They were cleaned with soft, white tufts of lambs wool dipped in cool tea, but the umbilical cords weren’’t cut until the afterbirth had been delivered. Then the cords were cut with a silver knife and the afterbirth was buried in the hollow that had received the newborn babies.

The women started zaghareeting like crazy, the babies started crying (who wouldn’t with all the noise!) and from the shouts outside, I gathered that the men realized what had happened and were carrying the news to the other side of town, where the father had been waiting it out with his friends. Fifteen minutes later, he appeared, exactly 100 yards from the birth tent, and the babies were carried out for him to see. Then they were returned to the mother and she put them to her breasts. She had, by this time, returned to the divan. The women kept up the singing and dancing until way past sundown. It was so moving that I couldn’’t help crying.

While I had been watching her give birth, I could see her abdomen moving underneath the kaftan in involuntary undulations, much the same as my cats’’ abdomens when they kittened. I asked my “mistress” later if she had still been dancing at that point, or if natural movement had taken over, and she said,“Nosotros hacemos una imitacion de los moviemientos naturales. Ella tenia que hacer esos moviemientos cuando dio a luz porque no pudo menos.” ( “We imitated the natural movements. She had to do these movements when she gave birth — literally, ‘gave to light’ — because she couldn’’t do otherwise.”)

In other words, those were natural movements of labor and childbirth that we have been brainwashed out of in this society by religious propaganda and medical maneuvering.

This was more than sufficient to me to prove the origins of some of the movements of Oriental dance. It by no means implies that when I dance I pretend I am giving birth. It means I know the origins, intent, respect and love of life the dance is supposed to display.

Unfortunately, future generations of Bedouin and Berber mothers may have to give birth not only without antiseptic and medical help, but also without the comfort and muscular aid of their ancient folk ritual, because too many people there began to see sex in what was simply an exercise to aid a natural function, or call it backward superstition. As a result, it has almost totally died out.

In the London library in 1962, I found “The Dancer of Shamahka”, written by Armen Ohanian in the early 1920’s:

Thus in Cairo one evening I saw, with sick incredulous eyes, one of our most sacred dances degraded into a bestiality horrible and revolting. It is our poem of the mystery and pain of motherhood, which all true Asiatic men watch with reverence and humility, in the faraway corners of Asia where the destructive breath of the Occident has not yet penetrated. In this olden Asia which has kept the dance in its primitive purity, it represents maternity, the mysterious conception of life, the suffering and the joy with which a new soul is brought into the world.

Could any man born of woman contemplate this most holy subject, expressed in an art so pure and so ritualistic as our Eastern dance, with less than profound reverence? Such is our Asiatic veneration of motherhood, that there are countries and tribes whose most binding oath is sworn upon the stomach because it is from this sacred cup that humanity has issued.

But the spirit of the Occident had touched this holy dance and it became the horrible “dance du ventre”, the “hoochie koochie”. To me, a nauseatings revelation of unsuspected depths of human bestiality, to others it was amusing. I heard the lean Europeans chuckling. I saw lascivious smiles upon even the lips of the Asiatics, and I fled.”

A majority of folk dances have roots in some sort of religious ceremony, some of them deliberately erotic. Every dance form (or sport), done well, is pleasing to the eye and therefore sensual. There are ignorant people, who find any pleasing movement of the body, especially the female body, lewd and lascivious. That’’s their problem. Fortunately, there are those performers who respect themselves and their art, and there are those Mideastern people who have not succumbed to a colonialist misinterpretation and debasement of their ethnic heritage. And there are those viewers who know art when they see it.

Dear Readers:
The amazing experience I described first in “Roots” occurred in 1967 & I  wrote about it in the early ’70s. “Giving to Light” is a 1996 edited version of “Roots”. Subsequent research and “in culture” experience led me to realize that it was not specifically Raqs Sharqi they were doing, but Schikhatt – a Moroccan dance (called Medahat in Algeria).  Schikhatt’s hip movements are much stronger than Raqs Sharqi’s and it has almost none of Raqs Sharqi’s slower movements, but they are related ethnic dance forms.