Weaving a Cultural Quilt: Dances of the Middle East

Review of the Keynote Presentation at their international conference in Cairo, Egypt July, 1999

At the 42nd World Congress in Cairo, Egypt, four speakers – Carolina Varga Dinicu (Morocco), Shareen El Safy, Gilan Abdel Kader, and Barbara Sellers-Young – explored several facets and forms of Middle Eastern dance. Some information was complementary and overlapping, and the symposium culminated in a workshop.

In many areas of the Middle East today, ritual dance is still a means of socialization training, and an essential part of family and extended community life. Unlike Western cultures where professional teachers produce dancers, in many of the Middle Eastern regions grandmothers, mothers, or relatives assume the role of teacher.

Barabara Sellers-Young, Professor at the University of California (USA), spoke on Ethnic and Hybrid: The Transnationalization of a Dance Form. Her discussion centered around Raqs Sharki and other Middle Eastern dances which are often lumped together under the single term “belly” dance, although specific dance styles come from diverse cultures – Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Turkey, Iran, and Saudi Arabia. Her paper concentrated on development of this hybrid form in the United States from the 1970’s , a form that became part of popular culture as more than a million American women started to taking classes under the general title of “belly” dancing, or studied what has been referred to as “American cabaret” and “tribal belly dance”. Seen at World Fairs and in Hollywood films, nightclubs, and vaudeville, “belly” dancing became a path of spiritual awakening for some, an expression of nature , feminine spirituality, and an active form of sexuality. It was part of feminism as it liberated the female body and replaced the 1950’s Victorian perception by accessing the eroticism within the female. In many cases evolution of a new belief system, desire to redefine the female body, and desire to use the dance form for exercise took precedence over artistic or performance aspects.

Professor Gilan Abdel Kader’s topic was The Use of Arabic Eurythmics. Dr.Kader, Vice Dean for Post Graduate Study and Research at Helwan University (Egypt) presented research on how Arabic music is used in creating eurythmic technique. Following the method developed by Jacques Dalcrose, students of the School of Music at Helwan University learn Arabic rhythm patterns through use of movement. Since music has many of the same characteristics of movement-time, duration, and dynamics-use of dance techniques allows a student to experience the natural feelings and expressive potentials of music. Goal of this new art form is to analyze and explain Arabic music forms using locomotor and nonlocomotor movements. Space, direction, level, and patterns are explored with additional components of speed, fluency of movement, and dynamics with varied rythmic patterns. Unusual time signatures, such as 10/8, 10/9, and 9/8, are explored with both light and heavy beats. Although students are music majors, not trained dancers, it was obvious from the video shown that they had become accomplished performers with a real sense of relationships between music and dance.

The presentation, Dance as Community Identity in Selected Berber Nations of Morocco, by Carolina Varga Dinicu (aka Morocco), director of the Casbah Dance Experience (New York), began with her performing the Guedra – a trance ritual of the Blue People of the Saharan Tuaregs. Guedra is a ritual in which anyone and everyone can participate as it serves to envelop all present with peace, spiritual love, and good energy transmitted from the depths of the guedra’s soul via fingers and hands. Accompaniment is by drum (also called a guedra), rythmical clapping, and chanting.

Following her performance, Morocco spoke about six of the dances of the approximately 200 Berber nations of Morocco, dances which are actually social rituals, assimilated within the family and community rather than learned. Her descriptions of the Betrothal Dance of Tissint, Ahousache of Imin Tanout, Kela’a of M’Gouna, Houara (actual origin of Flamenco dance), and Schikhatt (showing the young bride what to do) were accompanied by gesture and movement as well as slides.

Morocco stressed that each of the different Berber tribes has its distinctive dress, language, and social customs. For each, however, dance is an integral and pleasurable activity and form of self and group expression which is a constant affirmation of who and what they are. A variety of objectives are achieved through dance – prayers, blessings, celebrations, courting, challenges, communication, sex education. Dance is not theater, but rather a statement of specific ethnicity, an expression of pride by which each village, tribe, age, sex, class identifies and declares itself. Fortunately, participants had opportunities later during the symposium to learn movements of Raks Sharki, the Guedra and Schikhatt in a workshop.

Finally, the dance symposium culminated in a worshop with Shareen El Safy, Editor/Publisher of Habibi Magazine, on Exploring Egyptian Dance Innovation. Participants had opportunities to learn movements of modern Egyptian dance (Oriental or Raqs Sharqi ) as Shareen introduced fundamental movements, such as hip lift, pelvic drop, hip circle and Arabesque, as well as innovative steps using technical refinements and stylistic interpretations introduced during the Golden Age of Egyptian cinema. Based on her research throughout Egypt, instruction included mechanics of movement, dynamics of internal control, and creation of feeling and emotional substance.

The Dance Sympossium was an appropriate opening for Dance Commission sessions at the ICHPER-SD World Congress. We participated in workshops in Middle Eastern Dance, Moroccan Schikhatt and Guedra taught by Morocco and viewed demonstrations/performances by Morocco and Shareen. It became patently obvious to participants that techniques of Middle Eastern dance are diverse, subtle, and challenging; require concentration and proper form and technique; and, above all are more meaningful as the dancer becomes aware of context, and is sensitized by underlying significance of each movement and its relationship to the culture from which it springs. One cannot remove dance from its proper context as it represents, describes, and honors the traditional environment.

In final analysis, we must remember that dance is primarily an active, participatory activity. The understanding of a people about its own culture, values, and beliefs often is manifested in its dances. Dance expresses values, cultural identity, and group distintiveness, and is intimately connected to the people that nurture it.
Commission Director-Karen Lynn Smith
Assistant Director-Nadia M. Darweesh
Summarized By- Karen Lynn Smith