Dancing at the Edge of the World:
Ritual, Community and the Middle Eastern Dancer

by Andrea Deagon

      The oriental dancer stands at the crux of many conflicting images, both traditionally in the Arab world and in the Western world today. One such conflict is between the dancer’s purely sensual element and her aspect as a sacred being. In the 1970s, when popular and scholarly into oriental dance was in its early days in the United States, some of this discussion took the form of inquiries into “origins” of the dance: Was it originally a birth ritual or a “dance to please the sultan”; were the “original” belly dancers prostitutes or priestesses? Such arguments seem naive now. Anthropologists and scholars of ethnic history have shown the limitations of trying to explain a cultural phenomenon by seeking simplified historical origins. Culture has always been complex, and there is no reason to assume that the “meaning” of oriental dance has ever been more simple in the past than it is today.
      Yet the tension between the dancer’s sacred and profane aspects still exists. There can be no doubt that dance has been traditionally associated with prostitution in the Middle East. The first European traveler’s accounts of Middle Eastern dance describe the dancers as prostitutes primarily, and while the Europeans probably undervalued the dancers’ roles as entertainers and artists because of their own cultural prejudices, their observations must be essentially correct. Throughout the Mediterranean and Asia, from the hetaira of ancient Greece to the geisha of Japan, prostitutes of the highest and lowest classes have often been dancers (and musicians and singers) of the highest and lowest classes. While the overlap between the roles varies, they are firmly connected. Consequently, it is not surprising that in the Arab world, dancers’ morals are by definition questionable; dance and prostitution (or at the very least, culturally unacceptable sexual moves) are still often linked, both in people’s minds and in reality.
      Yet dance also has sacred and communally crucial functions. This is apparent in ritual dances such as guedra, in which an entranced female dancer is the focus of a community ritual; or the zar, in which mainly female - guides, through trance, oversee the healing of female patients. At weddings and other occasions, oriental dancers too serve vital communal functions in their performances which represent both fertility and sexuality. While most professional dancers lack status within communities, some are revered because their performances embody crucial experiences associated with a feminine and sacred power at odds with patriarchal values.
      The tension between sacred and sensual, and the view of dancers that causes them to be scorned and revered, seem strange and contradictory. In fact, a wider view of ritual and community reveals that such tensions are common throughout human society, and indeed the people most necessary in structuring a group’s self-image and sense of community are often defined as outsiders by ethnicity, sexuality, and social status.

The Nature of Ritual

      Although there are many possible definitions of “ritual,” most anthropologists would agree that a ritual is a performance act which defines communal values through a system of symbols and/or expresses and resolves tensions within the community. In other words, rituals consist of actions. Some element of these actions is symbolic. On a deep level these symbolic actions reflect communal values and concerns and promote communal solidarity and individual satisfaction within the community. Monotheistic, philosophically- and legally-oriented religions such as Islam and Christianity, which have replaced earlier polytheistic religions, have had the effect over time of removing or diminishing the narrative and overtly sacred meanings from some community rituals. As a result, we tend to perceive differences between, on he one hand, dances felt as experiential, religious, and connected auth the spirit world, often through trance (e.g. zikr, guedra); and, on the other, dances felt as social and hinging on community elations (e.g. hagallah, tahtib) . All the same, most folk dances are, anthropologically speaking, “rituals,” in that through symbolic action, community ties are explored and strengthened.
      By these criteria, the hagallah is a good example of a social ritual lance. While it is not “religious,” it occurs at specific communally important occasions (weddings), plays out social dynamics, and has a symbolic system which resonates with a wider world view. An important aspect of this symbolic system is its representation of masculine and feminine within the community. The men of the family/community clap and sing together emphasizing their solidarity and establishing the active and dominant context of the dance/world as masculine and group-oriented: A microcosm of the public world. The presence of the group of women is essential but as background to the event.
      The dancer, though, the central element of the experience, is female. In a social context, the dancer is often a member of the bride’s family, and women may take turns playing the central role. On the other hand, the woman may also be a professional dancer (1) Barbara Siegel has observed that the employment of professional dancers has diminished the importance of ordinary women in these ritual occasions, an unfortunate effect of urbanization.  (2)   
      On the other hand, whatever the actual social ramifications, the symbolic system of the dance is essentially the same whoever performs it. The dancer is veiled, obscuring her identity and individuality, but at the same time enabling her to represent a higher power or more universal image of woman as bountiful giver. The gift is not without struggle: The dance is rivalrous and playful, with men and dancer luring and challenging one another. The woman may dance with a stick, and dances are described in which she holds a sword or a rifle, sometimes striking the young men who get too close. On one level, this is a playful, good natured appropriation of masculine martial power, as the raks al assaya so often is today. On a deeper level, she embodies the vagaries of chance: As the men contend with her, she favors or thwarts them, the world wielding a sword or a stick Looking further, the stick becomes a concrete symbol of the ability to bestow or withhold blessings: An assumption of the kind of temporal and metaphysical power invested in such symbols as the king’s scepter, the shepherd’s crook, the magic wand, the poet’s staff. The dancer may remove and bestow her jewelry on individual men (to reclaim it later), a sign of benevolence toward them; likewise the men may throw down their tobs in front of her as a sign of bravado, respect, and as an attempt to gain her favor, all in one. The dance may have its roots in a woman’s dance to choose a mate, but more likely this explanation is a folk-historical reconstruction of a reason for the hagallah’s matriarchal substructure. The dancer embodies the universal woman, the earth and its ability to give or withdraw favor from her community.
      The hagallah is a manifestation of a common structure for celebratory dancing in the Middle East: A male audience receives and interacts with a female dancer. The audience may be mixed, but masculine participation is tore- grounded. Ordinary women are the dancers in some circumstances, but professional dancers have traditionally had a vital role in communal rituals, particularly those involving major life transitions, i.e. weddings and births. Edward Lane, writing in 1835, notes that “on the morning after [a] birth, two or three of the dancing-men called Khawals, or two or three Ghazeeyehs, dance in front of the house, or in the court.” While the tradition of professional dancing at births has faded, the practice of hiring professional dancers for weddings is now so widespread that it needs no comment.
      How is it that an outsider or someone associated with non-traditional accomplishments can take such a central role in rituals that establish both family values and community concerns? How is it that dancers, as disreputable as some Ghawazee, are essential a weddings, where maintenance of feminine morality is so much an issue? Why do dancers have the ability to represent what is deepest in the Arab soul, while following lifestyles that are at odds with traditional aspirations? Because in a ritual setting it is very often precisely the “outsider” who is responsible for defining community values and communal solidarity.

Liminality and Communitas           

      Rituals almost always involve some form of liminality, or evocation of the boundaries of spiritual and material states. Some rituals are specifically limimal, e.g. weddings, which focus on the bride’s liminal passage from childhood into her adult sexuality. Others invoke liminality for other purposes, e.g. the zar, when the afflicted woman must enter a liminal trance state in order to come to terms with her possessing the demon. In some ritual performances, such as a zikr, the trance state of the practitioners heightens the audience’s awareness of the sacred world, giving them a vicarious experience of liminality. All rituals involve some degree of liminality, since rituals are essentially incursions into sacred territory.
      In all societies, some people are better than others at entering this space, or at insuring community participation in it. Across many cultures, these people tend to have some things in common. Christian priests to dervishes to shamanic healers, to traveling bards of ancient Greece and Ireland, to court jester and village idiot, to the dancer/prostitute, all exist along the same continuum. Usually they are not full participants in the production economy of the local community, and are supported by that community because of their access to other experiential states. Many are defined as different by their ethnic origin (usually not mainstream religious leaders, but frequently entertainers and charismatic religious leaders). Sexuality and gender identity may be different as well; e.g. in ancient Rome, the priests of Cybele were eunuchs. Many religious traditions require chastity of their leaders. In India prostitutes were associated with many temples.
      The Ghawazee, Khawals, and other public dancers clearly fit into this pattern. They may claim different ethnic origins. They follow unusual patterns of gender behavior, with women taking on masculine leadership (Lane comments that the males of the Ghawazee are subject to their wives), and the Khawals mimicking female behavior. Their morality is openly different from that of the mainstream. These are people whose lifestyles make them lirninal by their very nature, and thus vital for defining communal identity.
      Communal identity, according to anthropologist Victor Turner, has two essential forms. “This first is of society as a structured, differentiated and often hierarchical system of politico-legal-eco-nomic positions…”. . .“ This is the normal world, in which we must be aware of our status and the status of others, and behave accordingly. But contrasting this is the state of communitas, an unstructured awareness of fellow-feeling and commonality, “which emerges recognizably in a liminal period... it is a matter of giving recognition to an essential and generic bond, without which there could be no society.”
      It is this sense of communitas that the “outsider” or person of liminal status is able to create. Turner observes, “Members of despised or outlawed ethnic and cultural groups [e.g. the good Samaritan] play major roles in myths and popular tales as representatives or expressions of universal human values.” Such folktales are paralleled by ritual structures. The experience of shared communality, where status markers lose significance in the light of fellow-feeling, is most often invoked by someone of liminal status.
      In the hagallah, the female dancer, when she is a member of the community, assumes a liminal status when she abandons both her individual identity and her feminine reticence in order to embody a larger power. In other circumstances, a dancer whose lifestyle marks her as marginal to the community, performs, an in so doing, creates the feeling of communitas. The oriental dancer today whether an actual foreigner or a local girl, whether defined as a “star” or as a “whore,” is an outsider within her community, who has the potential to create communitas.

Repression and Liminality

      Laws codify not the behaviors that are expected of everyone, but the behaviors that exemplify the public morals of the mainstream. Societies periodically misread themselves, taking their laws and moral precepts literally with terrible results for their own cultural integrity. The exile of the Ghawazee from Cairo in 1834, and the execution of some who defied the ban is a clear example of this as is the fundamentalist struggle to repress oriental dance today. In terms of cultural dynamics, societies set themselves rigid limits in part to create outsiders that they need to consolidate the whole community. Without a class of outsiders the rituals most vital to a society’s integrity cannot be preserved. Typically, the many of the people most vital to a culture, notably its artists and writers, are excluded from the moral and social mainstream.
      The oriental dancer of today is clearly the heiress of this-network of ritual and symbolic structures. It is not “perversity” of the Arab mentality that defines the dancer as morally questionable while at the same time welcoming her at weddings and all kinds of community and family celebrations. This is how culture maintains itself – by preserving the vital role of “outsider” within itself. Public pressure insures that only exceptional women, or women who follow the pattern of sexual difference, will pursue the path of professional dance. As a result, sensual wildness remains embodied in the dancer, and retains its power to move audiences to the heights of communal feeling. The best of the oriental dancers are able to create in their audiences this sense of communitas, bringing them to the borderlands where the world of the flesh merges with the world of the spirit, and the boundaries of the soul dissolve into a community without limits.


1) Or, in the case of a kaf observed by Magda Salehin 1978,  a woman with an unusual positson within the community: The unmarried schoolteacher. Magda Saleh, Egypt Dances (film), New York University. 1979; idem. lecture at Fazil’s Dance Studio, New York, June23. 1993.

2) Barbara Siegel, “Dance Archaeology Orierntalia: The Hagallah Revisited,” Arabesque, Vol XV, No. 6 (Maith-April 1990). 12-15.

3) Magda Saleh, lecture at Fail’s Dance Studlo, June23. 1993.

4) Observed many times; described and filmed by Safeh in Egypt Dances, the main source for my description; also note a 1927 description by Winifred S. BIackman (The Fellahin of Upper Egypt, London: Frank Case & Co Ltd., 1927 (1). p. 93), at a wedding where possibly the dance was performed by the women with no men present; in which case the symbolism is still there, but without specific gender reference: The same images received by a different community.

5)Magda Saleh, A Documentation of the Ethnic Dance Traditions of the Arab Republic 01 Egypt. New York University, 1979, pp. 43-71.

6) There may also be more than one dancer, but in any case, far fewer dancers than men. In some circumstances, a khawal may substitute for the female dancer, but I believe these circumstances are less likely to involve the sods of ritual interaction between men and dancer that characterize the hagallah.

7) Edward William Lane, An Account of the Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians. The Hague and London: East-West Publications, 1836 (1978), p. 497.

8) The wild parties and sexual experiences provided by prostitutes and considered inappropriate in mainstream life, are “other experiential states” of a sort, as are religious insight, poetic ability, and the idiot’s world perception.

9) The Ghawazee do claim different ethnic origins from other Egyptians, though this clam has been doubted, khawals are associated with the Ghawazee and may share their claim to different blood.  Lane also comments in boy dancers known as ginks. who were foreign, and not Muslim, and were scorned as prostitutes — though given the dynamics of the entertainment/prostitution network when Lane was writing, I would suggest that the distinction was not always dear. (Lane, p. 377) lii this centwy, some ordeazy street dancers called themselves Ghawazee, whether or not they were really of that background; so the claim of ethnic distinction may have had some idporlance in one’s legitimacy as a dancer.

10) Lane, p.375.

11) Victor Turner, The Ritual Process: Structure and - Anti-Structure. Cornell University Press, 1969, pp.96-7.

12) Ibid.. p110.

13)1 would argue that communitas has “high” forms, such as the benevolent fellow- feeling that can happen with sublime dancers but also has “Iowa’ forms, such as the all- male parties entertained by dancer-prostitotes, where there may well be a sense of extraordinary fellowship among the men.

This article was originally published in Arabesque, Sept.-Oct. 1994.

Andrea Deagon received her Ph.D. in Classical Studies from Duke Unviersity in 1984.  Since then she has taught at Victoria University of Wellington (New Zealand) and at her undergraduate alma mater, Guilford College (Greensboro, NC) before coming to UNC-Wilmington, where she coordinates the Classical Studies Program and teaches in the Women's Studies Program.  She has studied oriental dance since age 17, and has had a wide range of performing experiences in the US and (opportunistically) overseas.  She periodically teaches local classes and regional seminars.  One of her goals over the past ten years has been the integration of her academic research and writing, with her goals and perceptions as a dancer.  These articles are a part of that process.

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