Review from Middle Eastern Dancer Vol. 10 #4

Anyone who has been involved with belly dancing since the 60s and 70s probably knows Morocco of New York. Newcomers to the dance may not, however, be aware of the vast contribution this lady has made to our profession.

This series has focused on dancers with exemplary academic credentials. Morocco fulfills this criteria many times over. She holds a B.A. in Modern Languages and Education and an M.A. in Political Science. Dance degree programs were virtually nonexistent when she attended college. She is currently trying to pursue further graduate work and attempting to obtain credit for her 30 years of original research in Middle Eastern folkloric forms.

She has traveled to and studied traditional music and dance in Morocco, Egypt, Tunisia, Lebanon, Algeria, Turkey, Greece, Jordan, and Syria. Many dancers now use her articles and publications to document their own teaching, writing, and performances.

Morocco feels that none of the education courses she took in college have helped in her teaching. Her language training has been extremely beneficial during her research travels and in communicating with non-English speaking students and audiences (she frequently gives lecture demonstrations for museums, schools, colleges, Departments of Cultural Affairs, etc.).

“I have often lectured and taught in Spanish, French, Russian, and sometimes even Greek and German. In North Africa where there are so many different Berber dialects and totally different versions of Arabic than one encounters in Egypt, all my verbal communication has been French or Spanish,” she said.

Her courses in Political Science have helped immensely in her understanding of the social/political climate of the various countries she travels to and in which she conducts her research. This broad knowledge has also facilitated her understanding of folk forms in a total cultural context. Her awareness of all forces impacting a country’s dances channels her own focus on dance toward reality, and authenticity, rather than fantasy and speculation.

Obviously earning the respect of her dance peers in the academic world, Morocco taught a three credit course in Middle Eastern Dance at SUNY Purchase. (Any of you who have attempted even a part-time university dance department position teaching Middle Eastern Dance know what an accomplishment this is, requiring rigorous backround & credential checking, expertise, and credibility.)

Morocco is a member of MENSA, a national organization of individuals with very high IQs. She discovered that even in this group “there’s the same spread & variety of voluntary ignorance & fantasy & the desire for and acceptance of truth about Mideastern dance forms that exists in the general population.”

Her membership served the purpose of gaining her publicity because “the sexism of the general media is so entrenched that they think it highly unusual and publicity worthy that a female might have a ridiculously high IQ, let alone be a dancer, not to mention a “belly” dancer!

The attention brought about by the “unusual hook” permitted Morocco to perform and lecture in many places that she might not have otherwise, including museums, universities and elementary schools. Her endeavors greatly enhanced broader acceptance of Middle Eastern dance to the extent that such efforts were made easier for others later.

Far and above, the most valuable training Morocco has received has been her firsthand observation of dance. “Labanotation, as it deals mainly with arms, legs, angles, is thoroughly useless in notating Raks Sharki or any other dance where the main moving parts are the various torso muscles. I guess I can state that the most important thing I learned from all my studies in colleges is that if I wanted or needed to know anything at all, the best way to find it out is to go after it myself. That’s why I do on-site research.”

To provide similar experiences for other dancers, Morocco sponsors yearly sojourns to Egypt and Morocco. (She would not currently consider Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Greece, Turkey for trips at this juncture.)

On-site research has enabled her to see things even local males cannot. In her travels she quickly discovered being a native had little bearing on the native’s knowledge of culture or ability to dance, except perhaps when it comes to the one particular folk dance for a particular village.

“The designation ‘Ustaz’ or ‘Professor’ before a name doesn’t signify education or qualification and is usually a title of age, respect or personal puffery; having been a member of a ‘Moscow-on-the-Nile’ style company, for however long, from however young, means nothing more than that person learned somebody else’s theatrical group choreographies that often had only a fleeting resemblance to the REAL thing.”

First hand observation has helped Morocco to determine what is real, what is theater, what is fantasy &/or stereotype. She has increased credibility for us all by being able to say she was there, she observed, and knows what has been changed, lost, modernized. Her longevity and observations provide the basis for comparisons and commentary on trends, developments, influences, and they help place folkloric forms in historic and cultural contexts. Nevertheless, she admits the real thing requires a great deal of research, understanding and insight to transfer it to the stage.

“One must find all possible variety of moves, theatricality, local color. Just because a village grandma can have a great time at a wedding doing the same three steps all night, with poor posture or possibly injurious ‘technique’ in black hegab, doesn’t mean it’s ready to go onstage like that in order to be ‘authentic’.

“Because a ‘dancer’ somewhere does something on stage doesn’t make it ‘authentic’ or worthy of imitation. Often it’s more important to see what doesn’t work or look good. It’s important to understand there are some movements specific to certain ethnic dances and do not belong in an Oriental dance and vice versa. One needs to know when even locals pass this line in an attempt to be ‘theatrical’ and to augment very limited repertoires of movements because they condescendingly feel that tourists won’t know the difference.

“On-site research differentiates among all the above and gives one a much more extensive range of possibilities. It has improved my dancing and teaching. If I had to do it over, I’d do it again, only 10 years sooner.”

Sandwiched in-between graduate work and trips are Morocco’s ever popular seminars. And somehow she still finds time to direct and perform with her company, “The Casbah Dance Experience”. A member of the so-called “Old Guard” in the profession, it will be difficult to ever replace the enthusiasm, energy, high standards, and persistent search for the truth that have and continue to characterize her approach to dance.

Bedia (Vienna, VA) is a teacher/ performer/seminar sponsor and producer of videos.