Old Forms & New Influences

Morocco in her unique style, expressed herself on influences on her kind of ethnic dance:

“The dances that my dance company and I (Morocco and the Casbah Dance Experience) present are the beautiful and varied ethnic and Oriental dance forms of the Near/Middle East, North Africa, and the Mediterranean. There are many problems and frustrations inherent in this endeavor. There is almost nothing valid written on these dances, as most of what exists is highly colored by racism, colonialism, fanatical religious evangelists (who abhorred every form of dance, especially those forms indigenous to third-world ‘pagans’ and ‘savages’), fantasy, and just plain ignorance of or lack of interest in dance by writers/explorers. There are those men who took what I call the ‘whorehouse tour’ of the Middle East, just going from brothel to brothel (e.g. Curtis, Flaubert) or those who judged indigenous dance forms by their resemblance or lack thereof to ballet or current European dance forms, dismissing everything else as ‘ugly and ungraceful’ (the Kinneys).

“There is also the fact that almost all of these commentators were men, non-Muslim, and therefore had no access to family women and their dances. We had the disgusting misnomer ‘belly’ dance, exploited by Sol Bloom (1893) for its sensationalist effect (and great benefit to his personal finances). MGM movie fantasies of hot and cold running harem girls clumsily posing for a fat, uninterested sultan, and the hypocritical Hayes Code putting jewels in navels. (Where on earth would one get spirit gum or double-sided tape in the desert, fer chrissakes?)

“What was a serious researcher/performer to do?

“Get there myself, that’s what. One way or another. So I did. Over and over and over again. What did I find? Plenty!

“One advantage of being a woman — and probably the only advantage in those parts of the world — was that, over time, I was able to get in with local women and become part of their circles. The major advantage in being a New York woman was chutzpah to the square root: curiousity and no fear whatever of the unknown. (Prerequisite for riding the subways.) I was able to see where the dance was still intact and where it had been effected by mass media.

“Egyptian films on Moroccan city TV have definitely had an effect on the Schikhatt. As for local music, battery operated cassette recorders were to be found even in the smallest towns where there was no electricity, so that it is almost impossible to find ‘authentic’ Nubian music in Egypt, where it has not been ‘improved’ with the addition of incongruous Western wind instruments.

“Over-conservative misinterpretaions of the Koran have led, in some areas, to the exclusion of women from dances that used to be theirs. Young boys are dancing the parts, dressed as women. To my mind, the height of hypocrisy.

“Wherever the Soviets have had any influence, indigenous dance forms have been over-balleticized, sanitized, changed into wind up Barbie dolls in multiple, in a hypocritical effort to make them ‘art’. One glaring example is the beautiful Hagallah, which is found in Libya and Egypt.

“When it is done properly, there is one young woman or girl whose face is covered by a scarf or shawl, dancing in front of a long line of men who clap, sing, and chant for her. Her hips are constantly in motion. Enter Soviet experts during their romance with Nasser.

“What is the National Folk Troupe of Egypt’’s Hagallah? A chorus line of cuties who come in and do some very interesting steps in unison (I can almost live with that), then a line of men dressed in outfits that never saw Mersa Matruh, where the best Hagallah is done in Egypt, do the closest thing I’’ve ever seen to Ukrainian dance outside of Kiev, with a touch of Syrian debke thrown in. Don’’t get me wrong. I love Igor Moiseyev. In Moscow. Not in Cairo.

“When I asked the company’’s director about this and other dances that bore hardly any resemblance to the originals, I was told that the experts had judged the real thing to be too boring. In point of fact, they seemed to find anything in which motion of the hips played a major part boring. Mid-Victorian baloney! I don’’t go into hock and travel over 5,000 miles to be bored.

“Funny thing: I was present at one of their concerts in Mansoura. The theatre was filled with local Egyptians. It was a big event. They hated the Sovieticized numbers, even booed two dances right off the stage (that I personally found very creative). The director was forced to send on the real thing. Pseudo-sophisticated city audiences, on the other hand, judged artful those dances that bore the least resemblance to the real thing and were most like their idea of Western theatre dance.

“In the course of my travels over the last twenty-three years, I have found that where the French were the main colonizers/exploiters (Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria), they kept their hands off local music and dance. People from these areas, for the most part, retained a fierce pride in their ethnic identities, especially the Berbers/Amazigh.

“In fact, there is (was) a fabulous folklore festival every year in Marrakesh, with real people from the various villages doing real folk dances for quite a varied audience of Moroccans and foreigners. It is a success specifically because of its complete authenticity. I have seen many shows in North Africa that were goosed up or toned down for the tourist trade and they leave everyone cold — even those unaware of the real dances and music.

“The Victorian British, on the other hand, just couldn’’t keep their elitist, racist, prissy pink paws off of anything. If it wasn’’t stamped ‘made in England’, it wasn’t acceptable, and they foisted this attitude off on those locals, who managed to make a niche for themselves as flunkies or civil service bureaucrats. To please the British, Sultan Mohammed Ali exiled all female performers to Esna, Edfu, and Sumbat — hardly your cultural metropolises. The waltz was in. Anything Egyptian was out. Some of it was kept so completely out that it is irretrievably lost.

“Dancers with rigid ballet training are too turned-out and clench-buttocked to do the hip movements requiring relaxed control, or Dervish turns calling for normal foot positions and internal spotting. It takes far longer to break them of those habits than it does to train ethnic dancers in port de bras and group precision, but I find that ballet and serious modern dancers are accustomed to strenuous and lengthy rehearsals and detailed corrections that might lead to clashes and misunderstandings with ethnic dancers.

“Those companies that elect for such advantages and come with classically trained dancers have to modify dances of the type described above and also often sacrifice spontaneity. Although there are always exceptions, in general the ideal seems to be ethnic dancers, who then take some good ballet training for posture, arms, group precision, and detailed discipline.

“Unfortunately, it is virtually impossible to earn a living solely with ethnic dance. Those interested must combine jobs and often families and children with classes, rehearsals and performances. An additional obstacle: Western audiences have come to expect painfully thin as a physical ideal for dancers. Ethnic dance is for and by real people with real bodies. Too thin makes some moves barely visible.

“One critic, glaringly ignorant of standards and technique required for these dances, called a size 12 (small by Moroccan standards and beautifully shaped) fat and dumpy. It completely devastated the dancer and made me furious. I wrote a letter asking if she’’d expected anorexic sylphs in multiples? What does one do in the face of invalid criticism, however well-meaning?

“Fortunately, on the other hand, current audiences seem to be much more willing to attend and enjoy a greater variety of dance performances and are far more open to the beauty inherent in the ethnic dances of other lands. Twenty-four years of effort in educating the public seems to be paying off: 90 percent of my performances and those of the Casbah Dance Experience are at museums, schools, cultural/ arts centers, and other places that, due to misconceptions caused by the misnomer and those performers who catered to the lowest common denominator, would not have let me in the back door in the beginning.

“Greater appreciation and recognition of dance in general in the United States have certainly contributed to this new openness to ethnic dance forms of all types and areas.

“There is still much to be done. Ignorance still exists in a lot of areas. Cutbacks in arts funding hit non-mainstream forms first and hardest. More of the dances I seek disappear each day, due to creeping Westernization. Will I keep on? Yes! Why? Dunno. . . probably insanity.”