Morocco’s Cane Dance (The Monty Model)

For almost a decade, Morocco (Carolina Varga Dinicu) has been bringing groups on tours to Morocco, Tunisia and Egypt, and has spent considerable time on her own in those locations, setting up tours, and independently studying and filming the dances she witnesses. Although one of her special interests is in the dances of the Moroccan Berber, including the “Schikhatt” and “Guedra”, her interests also extend to cabaret and nightclub performances in those countries which feature “Danse Orientale”.

Raks al Assaya: Egyptian Women´s Cane Dance

The researcher has witnessed her aggressive filming techniques in Casablanca and Marrakesh nightclubs. Morocco seems to prefer to minimally edit her films, so that she can make a verbal, running commentary on the film´s content when she shows these at various seminars and workshops.

Morocco knows what steps are performed by individual dancers, and if not filmed, mentally catalogues these dances, which provide her with a kinesthetic working knowledge of many steps, combinations and variations, from having witnessed, and put to use professionally, such dances as “Raks el Assaya” (Cane Dance). Morocco has witnessed this cane dance of the Saidi from many perspectives, with dancers of different levels of proficiency, from Islamic women who dance for their own enjoyment, to top cabaret performers on at least four continents (Africa, Asia, Europe and North America).

She has the ability to critically judge, and to reconstruct the dance, because of her kinesthetic and intellectual capacities, and her broad, well-traveled study of this, as well as other, Middle Eastern dances. She has been published frequently, and has been performing “Danse Orientale” continually from the time of her December 1960 professional debut.

Morocco is a dancer for whom the researcher has much admiration as a knowledgeable Middle Eastern dancer, and as an authority on many diverse and somewhat esoteric topics affiliated with “Danse Orientale”, and as a friend.

Since the mid-nineteen seventies, she has taught at least a dozen national belly dance seminars and shows, sponsored by the researcher. Further, the researcher has seen Morocco perform literally dozens of times at shows connected with seminars, workshops, in American clubs where she worked, as well as in an elegant club in Casablanca with a completely native Moroccan audience.

I have seen her perform the cane dance, or offer instruction in its performance, at many of these seminars and shows. However, the cane dance I describe here is compared with none of these. The phenomenological description is of Morocco´s cane dance as performed December 2, 1984, in the Theater of Riverside Church, at the Riverside Church Dance Festival, with fifteen subsequent viewings of the colored videotape made during the performance.

As the costume worn by Morocco for “Raks al Assaya” becomes a part of the “syntax” of the dance´s movement, its description is necessary. It consists of four pieces, which were designed, made, and/or purchased in Cairo: a theatrical “baladi” dress; a matching, fitted dance belt; a Saidi style “tarha” head veil; and slippers. The decorated and sequinned cane in this dance was also designed in Cairo.

The main garment, the theatrical “baladi” dress, designed by a private Cairo costumer for Morocco, was constructed with a lightweight black jersey, with large plastic gold sequins, over which are bunches of literally thousands of strands of six-inch-long gold and black strands of number one (small) bugle beads. Morocco noted that in 1979 Nagwa Fuád, a famed Egyptian cabaret performer, had this long fringe on her costumes, and that the styles of bead fringe come, go, and are reintroduced. The beads are strongly attached to the jersey. The sleeves of this dress were slashed into eight strips that were cut to above the elbow, lined with gold sequins, bugle bead tasseled,and when spotlighted, they gave the appearance of soft, flowing tulle on stage.

A headpiece was made of a sequined and beaded headband, with sheer black material that hung below Morocco´s long hair. This black “tarha” (head veil) with gold sequins and gold and black bugle beads, extended well below the waist.

A black and gold beaded dancer´s belt was perfectly framing the hips so that even after viewing the dance live, and fifteen times on the videotape, the writeer did not know that the belt was separate from the garment. The beads attached to the belt were in ten- to twelve-inch lengths.

The gold, brocade, lame heelless slippers had an elastic sewn into the top rim of the shoe, so that when Morocco went into “releve” or near “releve” the apperance was of a barefoot dancer, even though her feet were protected by “shoes”.

The ten minute dance had a basic outline, but because Morocco performs this cane dance, or portions of it, so frequently, she likes to leave room for improvisation. It is never done the same twice, and live music, although reputed to be easier for the dancer to respond to, is not necessary for the professional.

The music used, which Morocco prefers to keep secret, was a bright Egyptian piece that is termed “masmoudi saghir”, as opposed to the bolder or “bigger” “masmoudi kbir”, which may also have a slower tempo. Arabic male vocals were by Mike Hegazi, and this recording has not been spliced or edited by Morocco, and uses one song, which she states is for the cane dance.

Much of what is written during a first “open viewing” may sound more like a poem than research notes – for example, “Shimmering gold hips, broad golden smile”, which simply seems to be more expressive of how the dance began on stage. Morocco describes her opening movements as a slow walk, which develops into a walk at a faster gait, as an opportunity for her to see her audience, and for her audience to see her.

“Syntactically”, as this dance opened itself to me, Morocco appeared center stage in a dim spotlight, with the effect of thousands of strands of gold and black bugle beads, which created a muted gold, shimmering angora effect. As the spotlight´s intensity increased, the whole dress came into focus, in gold and black, against a backdrop that became bright golden yellow at the top, gradually fading into black. It was dramatic and effective.

The dance begins with a rapidly changing succession of walks, poses, turns, cane movement and hip movement. There are approximately eight step changes in the first minute of the dance, with the cane held predominantly in both hands, but moved briskly into different positions including tapping the floor (which complimented the individual steps), and to frame the face (as the cane is held in back of the head), as well as to accent the rapid hip movements.

Morocco´s facial expressions also react to the changes of cane and body movement, but the most dramatic effect is the shimmering costume with the thousands of strands of bugle beads reacting to the slightest movement. However, the effect of brisk movement and turns is one of perpetual vigorous motion. The knowledgeable audience immediately became involved by clapping to the fast tempo, that did not throw off the dancer´s rhythms.

The male Arabic vocal begins immediately after the musical introduction, with only brief pauses in the vocal rendition. Approximately the same musical tempo continues throughout the entire ten minute dance.

The cane is placed straight up and down on the floor with bright steps performed walking around the cane, or with rotating hip movement variations, including hip lifts to the right and left sides as the came remains in the vertical position.

The cane is swung to make broad circles to the side, and above the head, as the left hand just touches the head, as a salute. Intricate hip and foot work dramatize the broad cane movements. Briefly the cane is balanced resting on both arms, with a step that is done backward and forward.

With the cane balanced on the right shoulder, Morocco executes a large step-ball-change (step-close-step) circle part way, and finishes the circle with the cane pointed skyward, using a step-of-the-horse like gait, emphasized by a raised and lowered right thigh. This is followed in rapid succession by: Morocco facing back stage; the cane balanced on the right shoulder; the cane held overhead; the cane in both hands, making rapid rolling movements, accented by little jumps backwards; and the cane held in the back.

At just a little past the halfway point of the dance, the cane is placed in a balanced position on the head, and remains balanced in that positon for about four minutes. There is no vocal at the beginning of this section, and during this time Morocco´s hip movement and rapid floorwork are unrestrained as she taps out the tempo and frees her hands, allowing her to execute brisk circular walks and shimmies.

When the vocal portion again begins, Morocco sings (or mimes the words) with the musicians and vocalist who says in Arabic, “Stop, look, what is the pretty girl doing?”. On the recording the song is about a dancer called Zeina, which literally means “pretty girl”.

A drum section allows pronounced hip thrusts from side to side, which are met with considerable audience response (clapping, “zaghareets”, and yelling) particularly as this goes into the finale of the cane-balancing portion, which becomes a fast total-body shimmy, with heels raised to a near-“releve” position, and rapid foot movements with weight changing from right to left in brisk succession. The audience approval and participation extends from here through the finish of the dance.

During this last minute of the finish of the dance, Morocco returns to her opening strategy, with a number of quickly changing variations which begins with the cane being swung with her right hand to the side, overhead, and in figure eights, as she executes rapid stepped circles to the right and left. Ending with a foot twist movement and a huge circular sweep of the cane, followed by an extravagant cane-in-hand “grande reverence”.

Semantically, Morocco´s dancing is fast-paced, and in the whole dance, there is no relaxation of tempo. One would imagine that for a forty-four-year-old dancer there would have to be brief pauses, or slowed tempos; however, this dance has neither. Throughout, Morocco´s energy level does not diminish. The movements or moment which may provide what may be termed “rests” are during hip thrusts, but she is controlling these statements of contrasts, through carefully paying attention to her music.

The idea that Morocco enjoys what she is doing is also never in question. There are no awkward transitions, moving from one step or section to another, and her face responds in both short and broad smiles at various times to: the music, her own movement, the vocals, the movement of the cane, and her audience.

Morocco mimes the singing of Mike Hegazi, as she points to the audience for “stop”, to herself for “look”, and with open arms for “what is she doing now?”. This music was selected by Morocco, and is further dramatized by Morocco, as when she is on stage, she demands that all eyes, male and female, are focused on her alone. It cannot be any other way. Nor does she ever “forget” her audience. At no time during this dance could one call any portion of the dance a period of emotional self-involvement or self-reflection. There is never a doubt that this dance is from Morocco to her audience.

There are many times when the audience goes into a synchronicity with what Morocco is performing. This could be described, for the last minute of her dance, as a complete outpouring of approval and joy by her audience. It is also in appreciation of an incredible feat of balancing, which is sustained over a long segment of time, which builds anticipation and anxiety, as well as an appreciation for what Morocco is able to accomplish in movement patterns in spite of the fact that, as if nothing were there, she has an almost weightless cane balanced on her head.

That she knows innumerable variations and combinations of steps used in the Egyptian cane dance is never a question. What may be regarded as unusual is the fast pace. However, it is because she sees herself as doing her best at this tempo that she has selected the music for this particular cane dance, and this rapid pace has literally become her “style”. She surrounds you with “dance information”.

This is not a cute, flirtatious dance in which Morocco is looking for the affections of a peasant Arab boy. Her stakes are much greater as she is out to prove her incalculable knowledge of this cane dance. If there are some people who are more impressed with material things than they are with knowledge, the graceful, golden costume, framing and giving her body even more flowing energy, should answer those doubters.

Like the Egyptian dancers who, by tradition, wore their gold coin dowry around their neck, Morocco is swathed in her golden dowry. Such a custom-made outfit would definitely not be in the financial budget of an Egyptian cabaret dancer unless she had achieved the status of “star”.

The cane is not like a prop in the dance: the cane is the dance. It taps out the rhythm; it is swung to create visual patterns; it is used to frame body parts; for example, even when Morocco is facing backstage, she frames her “derriere” with the cane which provides its own emphasis for hip thrusts; it is balanced for spectacular effect.

The Ontology of Raks al Assaya

The costume, cane and music are inseparable from the dance, for it is these four elements that compose the dance. The absence of any one – movement, costume, cane, music – would have left an incompleteness, which therefore insists upon judgement of all these contributing factors, not individually, but rather as an integrated whole.

If one looks at the dance, as a physicist might judge volume in space, just the dynamics of a costume that has the ability to flare out so dramatically is attention-getting enough; but with Morocco´s emphasis, not on turns (except at the climactic finale) but on hipwork, the beads become like flowing golden waves, and create their own movement pattern established by the fast pace.

Juxtaposed against this backround of golden flowing movement is the rigid presence of the cane which has been wrapped in sparkling gold. However, the cane never has the feeling of a rigid stick, as it is: swung in various patterns; used while moving, sometimes creating its own countermovements; plays out rhythms; used to frame moving body parts; and is given its own life, until it is placed on the head.

At this moment, it becomes rigid and unmoving. The only way it can move is by falling off Morocco´s head. Her head does not become frozen, but rather, because her arms have both become freed, allows her even more serpentine arm freedom, even though holding a posture that assures the balance of the cane.

As the pressure and tension build, the audience becomes more and more involved in this balancing feat, which, rather than causing a reduction of fluid movement, seems to stimulate more. The audience claps, “zaghareets”, and yells its approval as the tension builds.

At the point where movement is at its most frenzied state, with a drum solo during which Morocco´s whole body is vibrating, the movement ceases. She nods her head forward, dropping the cane into both hands. The ecstacy, awe, amazement or appreciation of the audience is apparent through their continued applause which is suddenly caught up with the rhythm which is also clapped out, until the brisk finale of the dance.

The total integration of the costume, cane, movement and music brings fortrh the dynamics involved in the acquisition of a stage presence that is at the same time precise, mature, sure, and accurate as to theatricalized ethnic presentation. It is why men in Arabic clubs cannot understand how or why Morocco is American, and she is envied and looked up to by professionals involved in “Danse Orientale” internationally. Yet, it is doubtful that any of these other performers of the Egyptian cane dance would have choreographed this dance at the same sustained bright tempo, and even if the same music were to be incorporated, pauses and rests would probably be more abundant.