The Divine Ms. M

Morocco: The Royalty of Raqs Sharqi and her view on Middle Eastern dance in a brave new world.

The world of Middle Eastern dance in America owes much of its knowledge and status to its pioneer divas, the first women who came, gained knowledge and passed it along to create the vibrant, varied, bevy of beautiful stage dances today.

Exceptionally noted among these first Rasas is New York’s own Morocco, with whom I recently had the pleasure of talking.

This diva Rasa has spent over four decades researching and reenacting the many dances of the Middle East. A superb and magnetic dancer, Morocco has also made a name for herself as a Middle Eastern dance historian. Her first-hand research has been invaluable in enlightening others, and preserving the fokloric and traditional artforms that, increasingly, are vanishing.

Perhaps it is serendipity that lead Morocco down the strange and interesting dance path. Born a full-blooded Rom (Gypsy), Carolina Varga Dinicu eventually fell in love with dance, first exploring Flamenco with the Ballet Espanol Ximenez-Vargas company, and eventually “stumbling” into Oriental Dance when she was recommended to a local restaurant. As the story goes, she showed up, ready to audition in traditional Flamenco dress, but was told by the amused owner that they did Middle Eastern dance at the establishment.

From there, Morocco fell in love with the music, dance styles, and costumes, and prevailed among her contemporaries, mostly because of a never-ending curiosity—not surprising, for a member of MENSA. She honed her skills in the once famous section of New York called “Greek Town,” where various Greek and Middle Eastern restaurants stood side by side. As there was no instruction for those early dancers, she observed, asked questions, and analyzed both the dancers, and the particular musical rhythms that so influenced the dance. She was given the name Morocco because she “looked Moroccan,” but it was her never-ending thirst for knowledge that eventually led her to investigate various ethnic dances in the actual countries from which they originated. She traveled through Morocco to see Berbers, to Egypt for the Ghawazee and nightclubs, Lebanon for the Debke, and so on, cataloguing as she went along. She also made her way Off- and on Broadway and at the Roundtable in New York, where the “genius woman who did WHAT as a profession” attracted the curiosity seekers. In the meantime, Morocco continued to work with many of the top Mideastern musicians and dancers, building her repertoire and reputation. She taught privately throughout the 60’s and began teaching in a more public forum in 1970, eventually teaching a 3 credit master class in Mideastern Dance & Culture for the State University of New York/Purchase in the mid 70’s.

When budget cuts brought that venue to an end, Morocco opened a modest studio in her home; then moved to a larger loft space in New York. Thanks to Dr. Paul Monty, who started Mideastern dance seminars and hired her (and others), she began teaching master seminars, and was invited to do so all over the world.

Along the way she’s won several accolades, written for several Middle Eastern dance, medical, and feminist publications, and has been highlighted on several shows, the most notable (and possibly infamous) being the Ed Sullivan Show, where censors forced her to wear a robe under her costume.

The result of these decades’ worth of work finds Morocco still going strong, continuing her seminars worldwide, and teaching at her new, spacious studio on West 20th Street in Manhattan. There her colleague, Tarik Sultan, assists in the warm-up and movement drill. Affectionately deemed “The Boy Wonder” by Morocco, Tarik proves he is just that: his infectious energy, coupled with firm, positive reinforcement, is a testimony to his teaching talent. Though strict technique is enforced, there is an atmosphere of gaiety at each session.

Morocco is slightly more relaxed. She comes out forty-five minutes after her younger protégé, and conducts choreography using those movements, infusing them with smiles and winks at her students, and a quick joke or two between beats.

When I sit down to interview her, I find her personality to be a mirror of her dance style: a bold, mischievous, mile-a-minute, take me as I am whirlwind. Morocco is both highly animated and forthright. Her commentary is peppered with colorful phrases and a slight New Yawka accent, to boot. But make no mistake, she is highly articulate and intelligent; I found myself learning not only about Middle Eastern dance, but other dance forms, their relationship to each other, and cultural influences, as well.

The sassy, classy, Divine Ms. M spoke about the past, the future, and the state of Middle Eastern dance in relation to the sudden shift in the status quo.

Zan: What specifically about the dance has kept you in it for all these years?

Morocco: The Music, the varieties in the rhythms and the soul of the music and the leeway it allows you to express your own soul. Because, within the movement vocabulary, you can have many interpretations. You can get a thousand different valid interpretations to that music. There is just something in that music that touched my soul in a way no music has. I love Flamenco, but as much as I love it, this reached even deeper, and subsequent research shows me that a lot of what Flamenco was about is influenced by the Moors who ruled southern Spain…so in a way, I went back to the roots, without even knowing it.

Z: Do you find that attitudes regarding Middle Eastern Dance have changed over the years?

M: In the major metropolitan areas, where people have seen Middle Eastern dance, yes. In a lot of other places, no. What I find very interesting, since I teach internationally, is that anytime the dance gets to a new area, it goes through the same stages of colonial-racist-sexist-fantasy-Hollywood misinterpretation, and then people see that, finally, there’s more to this than meets the fantasy or the eye. Because when you see a really good dancer, you see that it’s more than just the fantasy aspect. But there are always going to be those who do cater to the fantasy, or cater to the lowest denominator, because it’s the easy way out, they think they can make a fast buck. That makes it really hard for the legit people.

On the other hand, if it weren’t for that misinterpreting, there wouldn’t be as much curiosity generated. So, in a way, it gets them to the dance. The important thing is to not continue to misrepresent it, not to use the misnomer such as “bellydance.” In fact it is Oriental dance – the correct translation of “Raqs Sharqi” in Arabic and “Oryantal Tansi” in Turkish, a folk dance form where the whole body is used, not just the stomach.

Z: Do you find that your students have very different reasons for starting the dance?

M: Yes. They decide to come to it, and stay with it, for many varied, individual reasons and combinations of reasons. It is fascinating to me the reasons people come to the dance, and to me and decide to stay with me. I have a very specific way of teaching, and its interesting to note that we (the American Middle Eastern dance community) haven’t been forced into any concrete type molds or particular style of teaching. There is more room for individual style and approach to teaching.

This is very good because, most of all, this is a folk dance and has, in some of its usage, evolved into a performance art.

Z: And so it’s not necessarily about staying with tradition?

M: Well, folk, and tradition aren’t always the same. There are some aspects of folk that lend themselves very well to the stage. Flamenco was of folk origins that evolved very well towards the stage. There are all types of dance that have lent themselves well to performance. Ballet was originally a Spanish Basque men’s dance that became a popular dance in the courts of Italy and when Catherine De Medici married the dauphin of France, she brought the dance over to France. And it evolved bit by bit. If you look at films of ballet from the ’40s and you look at what it has become now, the difference in the body type and technical achievement is evident and we’re talking about a dance that is much younger than Raqs Sharqi.

Z: So, your historian roots are apparent. That makes you a specific personality in the world of Oriental dance. Do you feel that people are interested in the historical aspect of the dance?

M: In the beginning, people didn’t really care. I did, because I was curious, and at that time, there were no such things as schools. You learned on the jobs, or within the families, and I made friends with all the grandmas and aunties and learned, but I found that Turkish families said and did one thing, Egyptians another, Syrians another, and so forth. The Moroccans would do one thing, the Saudis another. So which was right? Well, they all were, and I wanted to know it all and I was having such a good time watching these whole families come in and do these things that you usually don’t see in America. You didn’t see a whole group of people get together to do line and circle dancing, where the music, and what the people were doing fascinated me.

And they liked that I was interested and wanted to know, because their own children and grandchildren were trying so hard to “be American” and didn’t want to know all these dances. They would take me home and show me all this great fun stuff.

Z: But do you think all of that is being lost now?

M: Oh, yes. Except, in some ways, it’s evolved into Al Jeel…or Shaabi, Mideastern “pop” dancing, with singers like Hakim, Saad or Amr Diab. It’s not really done just for performance, it’s done when people want to boogie. So real folk dancing evolves and changes, but you need to know where it came from to get a handle on where it’s going.

It wasn’t that I set out to be a historian, but to satisfy my own curiosity. When I found all these different answers to the same questions the only way to find out the truth, or so I thought, was to actually go to these places (countries) and see for myself. I found out they were ALL telling me the truth, as they saw it.

Even within the same country, you could have different interpretations within the different ethnic groups or villages. You go to any village in Lebanon, and maybe each family has their own version of the Debke. So that there is so much out there, but its all going down the tube as the older people die off and the younger ones don’t want to do it, or they are too busy doing other things. That’s a great pity.

Z: Do you find that the Westerners are interested in learning these dances?

M: I’m finding that more and more people are interested in learning these dances, the history and culture that goes with it. I mean, you can teach a robot to do movement, but it’s what’s in the movement, the attitude you do it with, the way it’s supposed to be presented, that takes it from mechanics to the dance. But then you have these factions, or categories, of some people who want to learn the dance, or some people who just want to learn a style…this style or that style which I find amusing because the style, usually involves what kind of music you’re dancing to, more than anything. The movement vocabulary is the movement vocabulary. Then there are people who want the fantasy. The “I’m so sexy” harem fantasy, not realizing that it’s an Orientalist colonialist male fantasy. There were no places where there were masses of women running around in see-through shalwar. For instance, in Turkey, the women in the Grand Harem of the Sultan were slaves, and the way they “competed” was in the richness and elaborateness of their many-layered dress. They were never naked, the way Western painting would have you believe. Those painters, they could never get away with painting naked white women, in their day, so they pretended to depict “The Harem of the Lascivious Turk” or “The Carnal Moor.”

Unfortunately, people bought into that fantasy. But Harem means forbidden or safe/ sanctuary in Arabic. This was the inner sanctuary where your wives, your mother and your aunt, your female cousins, and their female servants were.

Z: So is that your pet peeve?

M: Yes, it is. If you are so insecure with yourself that you are dancing this dance as some kind of sexual turn on. I mean, when I am dancing, sometimes 90 miles an hour, working that music and sweating, what’s so sexy about that? Besides, I don’t need a whole dance to inform people whether I’m sexy or not….look, this dance in Lebanese, is called Raqs Farrah, or “Happiness Dance.” In Egyptian, “farrah” means wedding, and there’s usually a dancer at weddings, even in these conservative times in Egypt. When I was there two Januaries ago, at all the wedding processions, they didn’t have professional women doing them, but all men. But when the band started to play, everyone got up and did Raqs Sharqi, but socially, in their party clothes. However they weren’t paying a woman to put on a costume that you wouldn’t see any woman wear on the street over there.

Z: On that note, how do you feel about the new conservative notions in Egypt? Or the not so conservative attitudes about some of the dancers in Egypt? For example, what about Dina (a dancer well known for exceptional technique as well as skin revealing outfits)?

M: Well, Dina is being Dina. She thinks she’s making a big statement. She is a beautiful woman, extremely intelligent but, in a lot of ways, she’s a product of her own culture. One that says that if you put on bedlah (costume) and dance in a public place in front of males that aren’t part of your own family, your already pushing that border of what is acceptable. So you think, “ok, I’ve already crossed that line, so here are a couple more lines to draw in the sand.” My feeling is that, if you have something on that’s so short that you can practically do a DNA test while you’re in it, that detracts from the dance. But if she thinks that this wakes people up, then that’s her choice. But my choice is that, if you want them to watch you dancing, you wear something that highlights the dance.

Within the context of what’s going on in the dance, Mahmoud Reda (of the famed Reda Troupe in Egypt) was inspired by the folk dances and dances of the time and region. He made them into tableaux, to show the flavors of the dance. To me, he was doing something far more complex and artistic than simply a matter of costuming. But today, the nightclub business is down the tubes because tourism is way down. So there is no nightclub scene in Cairo anymore, it started going way down in the latter half of 1993.

Z: And why was that?

M: Economics. The market shifted. The prices in the nightclubs are such in Cairo that your average Egyptian can’t afford to go there. It was the wealthy, the businessmen, and the tourists who went. The expatriate Lebanese would go, the tourists from the Gulf would go. But then a lot of things changed. The civil war is over in Lebanon, so the expatriates all went back and took their business with them. Some of the older Gulf tourists, if the extremists saw them in Gulf dress or heard a Gulf accent, would follow them and say “you lock up your own women and don’t drink in your country, but you come to our country for both. Go back to where you came from.” They’re not going to spend their money in places where they are being harassed. The younger Gulf tourists that come to Cairo, they don’t want to sit and watch dancers. They want to dance themselves, so they go to the discos and dance and listen to the modern Jeel and Shaabi singers. Plus, there was the Gulf War and so the Saudis and Kuwaitis that used to go to Cairo are busy rebuilding their countries and businesses. The market changed in that direction.

Z: Speaking of wars, how do you feel about the incidents perpetrated here recently?

M: On some level, I’m still walking around in shock. On the dance level, it hasn’t affected my seminars, but some of the nightclub performances have been cancelled. Classes are still going strong. We did a performance at Sacred Heart University (in Connecticut) a week, to the day, after and I was a little worried about what the reaction would be, but I called for a moment of silence and explained that this was a folk dance that people do for joy and that these insane, suicidal wackos not only have nothing to do with Islam, but they have nothing to do with the principles of Christianity, or Judaism and one of the first thing they would do is to lock us up at home, under sheets and prevent any kind of dancing in public. So someone said, and I picked up on it: ‘ by continuing to dance, we can be the stone in the shoe of every terrorist out there.’ And they were a wonderful audience, they loved it, and it was a fabulous reception. And we’ll see what happens as far as the nightclub performances are concerned.

What I am worried about is that, if things escalate, people in their cultural ignorance will target things that have nothing to do with these extremist murderers.

Z: Because of that, do you feel that Oriental Dance in the long run will suffer?

M: I don’t know. The jury is still out on that. When the Gulf War happened, my student body went down by a third. In some ways, this is more serious on the other hand the good news is that people are making announcements not to take things out on the Arabs or other Muslims. I hope they listen to them.

Z: So then what do you see for yourself in the future?

M: I still see myself dancing. I want to keep doing what I doing until six weeks after I’m dead. I don’t really know what’s going to happen in the future, but I say what I always say. From here, it’s onward and upward.