Thursday, July 30, 2009

BACK TO THE FUTURE: HONORING OUR PAST TO PRESERVE OUR DANCE



Like the rest of the world, the belly dance community is changing rapidly. Modern technology, globalization, forward thinking, trends and the inclination towards Westernization in the countries of the Middle East and North Africa are all contributing to these swift changes. And, of course, the fact that Oriental Dance-in all it’s myriad forms- has been booming into a worldwide fad doesn’t hurt, either!

It’s probably not an exaggeration to state that belly dancing itself, it’s practice, application, and traditions have changed more in the past decade than it had in the hundred years that preceded the New Millennium, if not many centuries previous to that.
While the evolution of new styles and fusions within Oriental Dance are exciting, revitalizing, and amazing to watch and be a part of, we are still running the risk of seeing many elements of our beloved dance fade into obscurity, and perhaps become lost forever.

Personally, I am a huge advocate of individuals bringing creativity and innovation into the dance; I love to experiment and mix and match dance genres myself, and have become well known as both a traditionally based dancer as well as a fusion performer. When I first started dancing, nearly twenty years ago, I learned as much as I could about all facets of Oriental dance, from cultural context to genre-specific signature movements, from differences in costuming to the traditions that surrounded certain rituals. I did this because it was fascinating to me, and I was obsessively hungry for knowledge about where our dance came from. I spent hours doing research in libraries, because there was no Internet; I took classes and workshops like a maniac and became familiar with- and in many cases, well versed- in the nuances of many styles of folkloric, classical and cabaret dances from Egypt, Turkey, Lebanon, Morocco, Tunisia, Uzbekistan, Persia, and many other countries- like flamenco, Romany dances, and the like. I was interested primarily in Egyptian raqs sharki, but also learned to balance scimitars and perform raqs shamadan. I played with many props aside from those as well, incuding trays, canes, Isis Wings, fans of all sizes, etc.

After a while, I wanted to add a personal stamp to what I was doing, and began imbedding my own ideas, concepts and flights of fancy into my performances, at the same time many other dancers from all over the world were doing the exact thin, or something similar to it..

Recently, I had an experience that was kind of like one of those Oprah Winfrey “A-ha! Moments”. I was dancing at a party, and there was a woman- obviously a belly dancer- sitting in the audience who was happily wriggling in her seat. Excited to see a “sister”, I called her up to dance with me. The music playing was classical Egyptian, “Ganal Hawa” to be exact. She got up and began dancing-quite beautifully, I might add- but as we moved together, I began to feel like we were trying to converse in two completely different languages without a common ground for understanding. Though she was dancing on the beat, and looked lovely, we were not in sync at all. I mirrored her movements, but she couldn’t mirror mine. She had dance training- it was apparent- but her movement vocabulary didn’t include the typical fluidity or layers I was used to seeing.

After my show, I spoke with her, and she was indeed a belly dancer, with four years of training. Though she liked my music, she didn’t know what it was; she also told me she was a teacher, but preferred “the modern style”, she was a Tribal Fusion dancer. The thing about her though, was that for all her wonderful movement, her hips were pretty much NOT involved, what she was doing was basically a string of arm and hand movements and gestures, with some foot work and upper-body isolations. I didn’t get a chance to ask where she had studied, or with whom, or if she was self-trained.

This experience stayed with me for days, causing me to think and reflect.

I adore Tribal Fusion…. or any kind of Fusion. I also love “traditional” ATS –or ITS, as it’s now sometimes called, as well as Flamenco Arabic Fusion, Samba-belly, Raks Gothique, Asian-Influenced, …. You get the idea. But it wasn’t just that the dancer was performing something “modern”… it just didn’t look at all like oriental dance to me.

I stared wondering: what happened to just plain old belly dance?

Two decades ago, if two dancers from opposite backgrounds- say Egyptian and Turkish- got together to dance, even just for fun, there would be a shared movement vocabulary. There would be stylistic differences of course, but essentially, they would be dancing in the same “language”. One decade ago, if a tribal dancer and a cabaret dancer got together, there would still be similarities in the movement vocabulary… hip articulations, foot work, hand and arm gestures, and of course, finger cymbals would be included! Nowadays, it’s different.

Thinking about the incident with the dancer, I wondered if I was mildly upset and uneasy about this for personal (as opposed to professional) reasons. I wondered if the disconnection I felt was because I was being stubborn, an “old lady”, a belly dance Luddite or just a big ole stick in the mud…then I realized that while no one can call me a staunch traditionalist, I believe in keeping tradition alive!

I became conscious of the fact that though I sometimes choose to take creative liberties within my own dancing, I know enough about the culture, history and tradition of oriental dancing to make these artistic choices from a well-informed, educated view-point. Since we are practicing an art form whose very origins are rather mysterious, and whose historical documentation has been spotty at best, it is our responsibility as dancers to respect and preserve our past, even as we lean towards the future!

There are many ways each individual dancer can do this, no matter what sort of style of dance you prefer to perform or teach, whether you perform cabaret or fusion, whether you are a baby dancer, a pro, a student or an old hand! Here are some ideas I have used in my own studies that may help you to connect- or reconnect- to the rich customs and rituals that make our dance so unique.

Study The Dance In It’s Cultural Context
Do some homework- learn what you can about the many cultures that influenced belly dancing, and how the dance grew and changed in it’s countries of origin. This can be as simple as opening a book or surfing the Internet, or as time-consuming and costly as “making a pilgrimage” to North Africa or the Middle East. If you are a serious student or working dancer and you can afford to plan for a dance-study trip, and haven’t been to any of the belly dance “motherlands” before, it would definitely behoove you to travel with a group, lead by a knowledgeable teacher. Many are available every year, many offer payments on time. Numerous “big names”, or dance legends such as Morocco, Hadia, Eva Cernik, Angelika Nemeth, Fahtiem, Delilah, Cassandra and many others offer educational tours on a regular basis. If, in these horrid economic times, taking a trip is not an option, then try to study the same thing closer to home. Sahra Saeeda, one of the most well-educated figures in dance ethnology, not only offers educational dance tours, but has a workshop series, tailored to locals around the world, called “Journey Through Egypt”, which is an intensive and ultra-comprehensive study of Egyptian dance traditions and culture, region by region.

Familiarize Yourself With Traditional Music, Movements, And Costumin
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As a dancer, you owe it to yourself, and as a teacher, you owe it to your students- no matter what style you perform or prefer- to be able to identify at least the most commonly used Arabic rhythms, as well as the movements that compliment them. You should also be familiar with Arabic musical structure, and know the titles of well-loved songs, and have a working knowledge of famous composers and singers. Do some research on line and have a look at costuming: traditional or folkloric as opposed to modern; Turkish vs. Egyptian, etc.

Study this on your own or seek out instructors who specialize in these fields, take a few classes or privates- or study via DVD’s, both instructional programs and dance documentaries. There are also many CD’s on the market offering tracks featuring Arabic drum rhythms to help you identify them.

Learn To Play Finger Cymbals
Unfortunately, what used to be a requisite for belly dancers of all stripes is quickly becoming a lost art. Keep this art alive by challenging yourself, and learning to play them if you don’t already! No matter what you call them: zills, sagat- finger cymbals, especially to “the general public” they are representational of belly dancing. No, they’re not always easy to learn, but you will be so glad you did!

Early on in my dance journey, like many students, playing cymbals daunted me. I declared to my primary teacher, Zahra Zuhair that I was only going to dance Egyptian style- and not play zills- just like she did!
She arched a well-groomed brow at me and said, sweetly but firmly,
“That’s fine- it’s your decision…. but the difference between us is that I can play them if I want to!”
Well…that kinda drove the point home to me, and even though I practically bit through every layer of my lip in the frustrating process of mastering them, I learned them well, play them often, and require my students to learn to play them, too. Again, if you don’t have time in a busy schedule for classes, there are many DVD’s on the market, which will allow you to drill your cymbal technique at home.

Get Lost In The Past For A Little While
Thanks to www.youtube.com, we all have access to a wealth of videos featuring legendary dancers- take advantage of this! Spend some time looking at cool movie clips from Egypt’s “Golden Age”, and watch Samia Gamal, Naima Akef, and Tahia Carioca in action. Have a look at Sixties and Seventies dancers like Suad Hosny, Soheir Zaki, Nagwa Fouad, or the Turkish star Nesrine Topkapi. While you’re at it, look up some North African or Lebanese folkloric stuff, traditional Rom dances, traditional dances of Yemen, Syria, Israel, Persian Classical pieces, Bollywood, Bhangara, Uzbek dance, Egypian balady… the possibilities are endless, and it’s all there for you to see and become inspired by.

Remember… it’s up to every one of us to help keep our dance alive, and by honoring and preserving our belly dance past, you can assure it’s future!

Photo: One of the many gorgeous antique oriental oil paintings at the Mena House Oberoi in Giza

9 comments:

  1. You don't know how hard it was as someone who basically started with fusion (although I'd had about 2 months of Cab before that) to backpedal and try to learn everything else. Dancers will thank themselves if they start where they should, with *real* Middle Eastern dance!

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  2. I personally lean towards Tribal although I have taken Cabaret classes also, but I still enjoy learning about bellydance in its more traditional context. I love zills and have enjoyed classic bellydance videos on YouTube many times. Gladly even my Tribal classes really place some focus on learning Arabic rhythms. It's sad for me to think though that some tribal fusion dancers may have little to no exposure to other types of bellydance - not that I'm an expert by any means on Middle Eastern dance, but it provides some great perspective to know where your dance roots are.

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  3. I feel like gaining a solid background in zill-playing, understanding Arabic rhythms, and knowing the differences between each style is sadly lacking in modern bellydance education. It's all a hodge-podge you have to pick up. I would love more than anything for a teacher to sit down and say, "For the next few weeks/months/etc. we will be immersing ourselves in (insert style here ex. Egyptian). In addition, here are some books and music you can look at to supplement your studies." I'm sure some teachers out there somewhere do this, but I have yet to find one in my area. I'd feel much more confident moving forward into fusion areas if I had that.

    Love your blog btw! Your tweets are awesome too :)

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  4. *applauds*
    You, me, same page.

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  5. I agree! it is soooo important to know our her-story! Regardless of style! xoxo

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  6. awesome article! sadly, traditions are losing ground in other cultures as well. As well as being a belly dance student for a few years, i'm also a Native American Woman's Traditional Dancer. I've been in it for 13+ years, it's the part of my heritage that I take seriously. A couple of years in there we stepped back for personal reasons, and when we came back, it was like stepping into another world. It was sad because noone really knows what to do anymore in the area i go to.

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  7. Yes yes yes! It kind of hit me a few months ago that, when watching tribal fusion, so much of it is slow. Looking delicious and honoring the music while dancing slow is wonderful, but I often want to see the dancers speed it up, to see if they are as well trained with a drum solo or fast piece.

    It's amazing too how much you can pick up just through dance osmosis from shows and videos. At troupe (ITS) practice one day a song came on my iPod that make me grab a (jazz, we practice at a dance studio that teaches kids and has props everywhere) cane and bust out some raqs assaya moves. Now, that's something I've never studied but from watching it I could figure out some of the basic premise, and my 45 second "show" made me realize I've love to learn more!

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  8. Thank you for this wonderful and much-needed article! I feel the same way about preserving traditional Raks Sharki. I like to say, how can you claim to do fusion if you don't even know what you are fusing? As a teacher of Latin dance as well, it reminds me of the Zumba craze. Great fun and exercise, but if you are going to say that you know Latin dance, learn the true forms of the dances as well. Or ideally, first!

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  9. thankfully, i studied under someone who really appreciates traditional styles. i also studied ITS with her, but the focus was traditional/cabaret dance. and i've also taken workshops from people who get REALLY traditional... which is even more tribal than tribal... if that makes any sense? i love to watch ITS and other fusion styles, and my troupe is really a fusion of cabaret and saidi styles, but when i dance for myself/solos, i really love cabaret/raks sharki. here, here on this post!

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