Mythology and Symbolism in Middle Eastern Dance

(The Keynote Speech for the First International Conference on Middle Eastern Dance, May 1997)


Andrea Deagon, Ph. D.


We have come to this conference as practitioners of a dance form which has existed for millennia, and in diverse cultures, as a meeting place for timeless truths and individual expression. This is the solo improvisational dance that arises from the feminine principle. This form of dance has taken on a particular artistry and profundity in its Middle Eastern manifestation. In recent years, the dance of the Middle East has emerged as a living, breathing art amongst practitioners in many parts of the world, from Japan to Germany to the United States. It has created an international community, a diverse group of individual women and men who pursue depth of knowledge and artistic integrity in this art which has called out to each of them.

Why has Middle Eastern dance made such an impact? How has it taken hold in countries where its music is unfamiliar, its subtlety often overlooked, its sensuality misunderstood? How has it motivated talented women and men to devote their hearts and even lives to it, in places where their artistic accomplishments are undervalued and their financial payback is, quite frankly, pathetic?

I believe that Middle Eastern dance inspires this love and dedication because in performing it, the dancer finds a unique ability to transcend time, place and her own limitations and touch something eternal -- something even divine. She shares this with an audience in a relationship that can feel as close as a love affair, or a marriage. And the vision this dance brings is ultimately joyful, a joy filtered through the fragile wisdom of a well-lived life.

Anyone who knows this art will tell you, "This is an ancient dance." Perhaps this is a strange thing to say about a dance which has undergone so much recent change, and which solidified into the theatrical form we know only in this century. But it is ancient, in that it is a viaduct to our deepest and most ancient human stories. It is a drink from an eternal river, a brand from an eternal fire.

Its combination of present vitality and ancient truth is a volatile mix for both performer and audience. It creates experiences of transcendent value. The compelling power of Middle Eastern dance, for both the performer who feels it in her body and for the audience who feels it through the performer, is the vital connection with a network of mythic and symbolic images that goes beyond time and place and into the eternal. What is vast and cosmic is made comprehensible by the dancer who imbues it with specific meanings, those that arise both from her individual life, and from the values of her culture.

So this morning I will talk about mythology and symbolism in Middle Eastern Dance. I will talk about how dance's origin in the body and relationship to time and memory make it so well able to express eternal images. I will talk about some particularly evocative gestures we use as a matter of course in Middle Eastern dance. I will talk about feminine images for the dance's creative power, and its role as a necessary counterbalance to hierarchy. But behind all of these comments is one basic assumption: For the power of the dance to show itself, for the eternal to come to life, we need real dancers, in a real time and a real place. So we need to be seekers of three kinds of truth: the specific, historical truths that characterize investigations into the anthropology and history of the dance; the great truths that speak across cultures and across generations to the heart; and the individual truths that arise from the lives we live. All of these must work in harmony to produce the authentic experience of the dance.


Dance and the Body

Dance is the art of the body. It is a common and I believe accurate idea that dance is the art closest to our earliest human instincts. As newborn babies, we experience and express everything through the body. We do not differentiate between our senses and how we respond to them. Feeling cold or hungry, we cry. Our first movements are instinctual explorations. As babies, we are literally not sure of the difference between ourselves and the world. Where is the end of me and the beginning of my mother? When I lie on the grass, where does it end and I begin? Years later, in our adult dances, we may consciously approach this mystical union of ourselves and the world around us. We probably had a long journey back to our awareness that the edges of being are unclear.

As we leave infancy, we learn two things that are particularly relevant to how we later dance. One is language. We learn to say exactly what we want, to ask for "juice" or "a story." But when we gain this ability to be precise, we obscure the fact that our needs are really not precise. We may want a complex form of comfort, but only be able to ask for "juice." Language gets you some things but loses you others. As dancers, we try to return to the more evocative and exploratory, but far less specific, language of the body, to express ideas too complex to be spoken in words.

The other thing we learn is body language, the communicative subtexture of our world. We absorb nuances of stance and gesture. We learn what gestures and attitudes are praised, and which ones elicit disapproval. When, as children, we learn these physical textures, before we even learn to dance, we have left our primal state and entered history. We are, for life, members of the culture we grow up in. When we dance, we dance the dances of our people. If, as adults, we learn dances we did not grow up with, we will begin from a different set of assumptions about how to physically be in the world. There will be a different sort of intersection of individual, cultural and eternal truth.


Dance in the Field of Time

All cultures have their own body languages, their own physical web of meaning. They also have their own ways of making dances. The act of dancing is defined differently by different peoples, and is of course valued differently, and put to different uses. But there are some universals in the human practice of dance, and one of them is time.

Dance ethnologist Joann Kealiinohomoku begins her definition of dance, "Dance is a transient mode of expression, performed in a given form and style by the human body moving in space." The transience she begins with is vitally important to the historical, cultural and spiritual meanings of Middle Eastern dance. Dance happens in the field of time. It occurs in the present, and then it exists only in memory. A physical piece of art, or a written work, is there to be seen or read or touched again and again, to reveal new facets of itself. But dance vanishes from the material world. Any new facets of a dance performance can be uncovered only in our own unreliable memories. And although we are now, after millennia of dancing, able to capture performance on film, we preserve only the visual aspects of dances. All of us are painfully aware of how little of the experience of the dance a video conveys. The real dance is fragmented into as many different memories as people who shared it.

The ephemerality of dance has had a subtle and diverse impact on how it has been valued in culture. In the Western world, not surprisingly, its impermanence diminished its value. Susan Leigh Foster observes that in the early 19th century ballet, "dance took on a new role in relation to the other arts. It alone lacked the capability to inscribe itself. It alone endured only in one's memory. Dance's evanescence rendered it unique among the arts but also less powerful." In the minds of nineteenth century Europeans, oriented to hierarchical and material modes of evaluating experience, dance "could seduce viewers momentarily but never change them." Foster quotes the influential nineteenth century ballet critic Theophile Gautier, "'After all, dancing has no other purpose but to display beautiful bodies in graceful poses and develop lines that are pleasing to the eye … Dancing is ill-suited for expressing metaphysical ideas; it expresses only the passions.'"

Because dance could not be materially preserved, it was thought to lack depth. Dance was defined as impermanent, and therefore sensual, and therefore lacking real meaning. This Western construction of dance as inherently sexy and meaningless, which Middle Eastern dancers continually struggle with today, arose in part because dance happens and vanishes in the field of time.

In complete contrast, some other traditions emphasize that the cyclical repetition of dance ensures the continuation of both divine and human worlds. For example, a Javanese court dance performed at the sultan's palace at Yogykurta "commemorates the ritual marriage of the sultan's ancestor to the deity known as the Queen of the Southern Sea." The repetition of this dance confirms the permanence of the sultan's rule. This one performance is united with all its other performances, just as its nine dancers move in synchronicity with one another. This unity over time is considered an aspect of an eternal and permanent principle, not the ephemerality of an individual dance lost once it has been performed. Likewise, in the sacred dance of India, the traditional dances performed in honor of the gods are as meaningful as daily prayers. Far from being thought of as evanescent, the dance is eternal, only varying in dancer and circumstance. But the here and now are important as well. The devadasi, or temple dancer, reveals in her performance of traditional dances her own deeply felt love of the god. Ritual repetition combines with emotional commitment, the eternal dance with the mortal dancer.

In non-literate societies, dance is no more evanescent than anything else. Material art tends to be sacred or utilitarian rather than discrete aesthetic objects. Other arts exist in flux. Songs are sung a little differently by each singer, stories are told a little differently each time. Dances too are a part of this cycle of variation. Dance, song and story are not only performance arts. They are instead a part of the fabric of community, whether social or ritual. They bring pleasure, yet they hold deep meaning. And that meaning arises at the intersection of the temporal and the eternal.

This is the milieu in which Middle Eastern dance began its transformation into the performance art it has become. It has maintained a sense of this crucial intersection of worlds. In raqs sharqi, the individual expression glitters in the precious moment of action, then retreats into the shared but separate lives of dancer and audience, of family, friends and community. What provides the deep, sonorous undertone to the individual's expression, is the evocation of the eternal dance. It is the sense of closeness to eternal images and sensations, the sense of contact with the past, present and future of self, community and world.

The fact that dance lives only in memory, that there is no going back to it, makes it a particularly personal and transformative variety of experience. Dance, like theater, inspires a shared emotional release less likely in the cooler contemplation of visual or written art forms. This is an incursion into liminal territory, the place in which one's normal behaviors and assumptions may not apply, the place of emotional awareness of and vulnerability to the beyond, the place of instruction and transformation. In sharing an experience of the dance, the audience enters into what Victor Turner calls communitas, a sense of communal identity that goes beyond society's hierarchies and into a place of shared sacred feelings. In fact Barbara Seigel provocatively suggests that in Egypt, the dance that most serves to reinforce national solidarity is raqs sharqi, and that one of the processes through which it accomplishes this is in the creation of a shared, controlled experience of chaos. Dance inspires both the self-loss of fitna, the man's disruption in the presence of feminine beauty, and the bonds of communitas.

The shared emotion of the performance of raqs sharqi may have an important internal transformative quality as well, which arises from the very ephemerality of the single performance of a dance. In memory, the dance becomes an aspect of the self. Memories are notoriously fallible on material facts, vulnerable to suggestion, to rewriting, to complete erasure. Like dreams, memories exist in the electrical impulses of our brains, themselves liminal places. They emerge willfully, and they may resemble the real event more in the fashion of a Picasso, than as a photograph. A dance witnessed years before can emerge and re-emerge in myriad forms. It may be remembered as the feelings or insights it conveyed, or it may be encapsulated in brief physical memories that carry more emotional force than precision. An entire dance of Mona El Said's, for example, rich in complexity and nuance, may be remembered by one observer only as a sense of joy superimposed on the image of her melting shimmies and graceful arms. A dance may be remembered in images that evoke ancient archetypal gestures and thus connect our lives to the river of human experience that flows throughout time. These remembered, re-invented images contain many layers of meaning: those of the dance itself, those that arise from within the one who remembers, and those that arise from the eternal images within us all, which reveal themselves as we live their meaning.

Dance becomes symbolic because it cannot remain material.


Visible Gesture and Expression

Visual art is a poor source for historical reconstruction of dance, yet it does reveal something of how a culture sees dance, and may provide us with images and insights for our own interpretations of raqs sharqi. While there are many ways of representing dancers' presence and movement, one tradition I find particularly interesting. Throughout the ancient Mediterranean, in sculpture and painting, dancers are shown with their heads thrown back, or turned aside, away from the simple directional focus that characterizes other forms of movement. The dancer is not looking where she is going. What does it mean that dancers are so often portrayed stepping in one direction while their eyes are turned back, or to the side, but in any case, do not serve clearly to lead the body straight? It means that the dancer is not entirely in this world, or else, she is both here and elsewhere, her eyes drawn to the unseen landscape.

While she is completely in her body, hyperaware of her physical nature, at the same time the dancer is participating in an internal vision. Hearing other music or seeing other terrains, her head turns to that direction. The dancer's vision, or her failure to rely on ordinary vision, reinforces her liminal power. What is the nature of the threshold she crosses? Perhaps, like the dancers from the 18th dynasty tomb of Keruef in Thebes, she participates in the journey of the dead from the mortal world to the place of eternal life. Or, like the Maenad worshippers of Dionysos so often depicted in Athenian vase-paintings, she has turned away from her normal perceptions and embraces enthousiasmos, or possession by the god. Or, like the dancer in a Mughal miniature of 1588, she enters into a moment of timeless communication with the man for whom she dances, an eternity in the meeting of the eyes.

As dancers we may embrace this archetypal relaxation into the unseen, which takes many different forms in dance. We may seek the inward sensuality accessed in the dancing of young Fulani girls of Nigeria as they dance for men they may someday marry, or we may seek the physically-induced loss of self called up by zar dancers, or we may simply move with the hypnotic motion of the dance that seems to pull the dancer away from herself while leaving her more fully alive. It is the power of dance to become a vibrant gate between modes of experience, for the watcher and for the dancer herself. Dance -- as ancient art reveals in its formal images -- is about feeling and experiencing and expressing. It involves both a heightened perception of the world, and a withdrawal from the mundanities of that world. It is particularly physical, but it is also separate from pure physical reality, because it portrays more than what is simply there, by evoking what is eternal.

I have been speaking of "eternal images" and "archetypes," but perhaps now it would be helpful to look more closely at how archetypes function. Carl Jung coined the term "archetype" to describe the images, stories and situations that recur again and again from society to society, and are universal in the human consciousness. Archetypes may be stories, such as the underworld journey, or figures, such as the wise old woman, or images, such as the tree of life. Archetypes are so fundamental that, reduced to simple descriptions, they become trite and dull. But tempered by individual experience and cultural perceptions, they provide the loom on which meaning weaves itself. In short, archetypes are open and fluid. The fluidity of meaning in dance, and the fact that so much is implied in our subtle gestural language, makes dance particularly effective in conveying the power of archetypal images. A dance gesture can invoke a range of meanings, a range of stories and feelings.

Raqs sharqi arises from an expressive rather than a narrative tradition. It may contain many implicit stories, but it is not specifically the narrative of a mythology. In the process of performing this expressive dance, the dancer moves through positions that have behind them a long history of symbolic purpose. One of these is the gesture of hand to head, which signifies intense emotion. Its meanings can be personal and dramatic, or it can be used in an evocative, culturally determined way. It can also look silly. I have heard it called the "Lebanese headache" position, because when it is done mechanically, without a sense of its implicit meanings, it becomes a parody of itself.

But it is a gesture symbolic of deep feeling, often of the breaking of the barrier between worlds. It comes naturally under the force of emotional blows. News photographs show it, raw and unstylized, in many different parts of the world. In the ancient Mediterranean and North Africa, where women performed ritual laments, it takes on a formal element, as one sees in illustrations of mourners both in Egyptian tomb paintings and in Greek vase paintings of the Geometric period. It is also used to cross between the worlds of sacred and mundane. In votive statues from Bronze Age Crete, worshippers lift their hands to their heads in prayer to the goddess.

In Middle Eastern dance, this position is so typical that it would be foolish to try to ascribe any particular meaning to it. It is an intensely emotional gesture at some times; at others it is simply where the hand rests. A hand at the back of the head, such a similar gesture, can evoke the deliberate sensuality of lifting the hair. This gesture can call forth, by nuance, a great range of references, all with their history, all with their emotional impact. But it does maintain its sense as a position that indicates the meeting of worlds, the internal and the external, the here and the beyond. That meeting place may manifest itself in joy the dancer keeps inward but allows her audience to share. Or it may be projected outward in an exuberant involvement of the audience in the dance. Or it may be used to focus on more serious, internal moments, or even deliberately to evoke the complexities of the archetypal pose. In today's dance world, where we are open to so many powerful images of dance from so many different sources, these different possibilities of nuance in traditional movement have a deep impact on both our deliberate and our instinctual interpretations of the dance.

Some gestures are particularly likely to contain spiritual meaning. The gesture of lifting the arms is a particularly spiritually powerful one. A terra-cotta figure of a goddess from prehistoric Egypt, now in the Brooklyn Museum, lifts her arms in an open circle above her head. Her gesture is all-inclusive, all-encompassing, a statement of eternal presence and comfort and blessing. It is hard for a dancer to look at this figure without feeling a responsive, imitative movement in her own body. The goddess's very slightly off-center pose seems to imply a motion through time, space and meaning that is both fluid and eternal.

Other deities share this form of representation. A Cretan goddess of healing and comfort holds her hands upraised in a more approachable, less celestial version of the gesture. Figurines of the Cretan "snake goddess" hold in their outstretched hands the snakes that symbolize her elemental power.

In Egyptian art, the gesture of upraised arms is typical of the goddess who both protects and creates. In a painting from the tomb of Ramesses VI, Hathor holds a human in one hand, the sun disk in the other, showing her role in the creation and nurturance of both human and celestial worlds. The two positions, worshipper and deity, are cast in the same light, the same dynamic of generosity and respect. The lady Anhai is shown in her 20th dynasty Book of the Dead as having been judged worthy of eternal life. She carries the feathers of life in her hands, upraised in gratitude, both a triumph and a prayer.

This gesture occurs outside of the Mediterranean as well; it is virtually universal. For example, an African statuette represents one of the eight original ancestors of humans, known as nommo, among the Dogon of Mali. "[Its] gesture of upraised arms seems particularly symbolic, referring to an invocation for rain or to the sacrifice of the nommo ancestor."

This position is such a basic one in Middle Eastern dance that it is again absurd to try to give it a single archetypal meaning. It means a variety of things, but most of all, it means itself. Its manifestations change in the flow of the dance -- that's what archetypes do. It may be an aspect of confident self-presentation. It may radiate the power of pleasure in the moment. A photograph of Nadia Gamal, her arms raised, but with the added drama of her head thrown back, makes the liminal evocations of this pose passionate rather than contemplative.

In the performance of taqsim the archetypal images flow, taking form and vanishing into the experience of the moment. The dancer, in the movement of her taqsim, embodies the womanly completion we see in the primal goddess figurine. On stage we see a woman and her feelings in this one moment of time. But in her expression of present emotional reality, she evokes the eternal moment.


Women's Dance

It is significant that these images rise up in a feminine art, through a feminine body. Although Raqs Sharqi can be performed by men as well as by women, it is an art that privileges the feminine principle, and centers on the kinds of physical and spiritual strengths that are particularly characteristic of women. Its non-narrative aspect, and the fact that it is particularly closely allied with archetypal image, are also perhaps principles that arise from its history as a primarily feminine form of expression.

It has been the habit of complex civilizations, both Eastern and Western, to divide the world into masculine and feminine oppositions: public and private, light and dark, reason and irrationality, action and receptivity. It has also been their practice to privilege the masculine and to hold the feminine qualities as necessary yet less desirable. Also, commonly, men are felt to have individual direction and ambition, while women are considered more important in their collective aspect as the wives and mothers that provide the background for the masculine drama.

Raqs sharqi has its origins in a world where the natures and destinies of men and women are perceived as particularly distinct, a world in which women are particularly associated with family rather than individual identity, and with private rather than public space. Yet raqs sharqi is a path to a vibrant form of feminine expression that has brought a liberating capability for self-discovery even to the supposedly freer societies of the West. And this expressive power -- available to both women and to men who privilege the feminine -- arises from the traditional role of women as private, hidden, Other, separate from the responsibilities of the public world, and without individual ambition. There are two traditional readings of women's roles that have particular relevance in this dance. One is the definition of woman as intuitive, and the other is the ancient identification of woman as a vessel. In political contexts, these readings have been used to deny women full participation in public and intellectual life, or to undercut women's value as individuals in the light of their role as vessels for bearing children. But in the way female dancers perceive their art, these images work to show feminine strength.

The oriental dancer Nelly Malzoum emphasizes women's intuitive capability: "Sensuality," she says, "is part and parcel of a woman's sensitivity. She senses the world around her intuitively and creatively. She lives and moves at the very center of her dimurgical forces…Women are creatures imbued with insight and enrobed in sensitivity which make[s] them seem vulnerable. But soft does not mean weak." The culturally weighted criticism that woman are less rational than men finds its counterpoint in Ms. Malzoum's privileging of non-rational and intuitive forms of wisdom. She accepts the notion that women are softer and more receptive than men, but argues that these are the precise strengths and abilities that enable women to express such meaning in dance.

Women, who give birth, who wash the bodies of the dead and lament them, who bleed every month, for whom love may dictate the greater part of their final destiny, and who are seen as more prone to the incursion of spiritual forces, have a liminal aspect which places them close to the eternal images that rise up in the emotional milieu of the dance. The feminine strength of receptivity allows the dancer to touch what is eternal. The ability to navigate liminal territory, and act as a guide for the audience's emotional response, is a distinct kind of strength that arises from softness and vulnerability.

The image of women as vessels has been used to undermine feminine creativity. Lesley-Anne Sayers comments on the tendency of dance criticism to speak differently of male and female roles: "[I]n art, women become and embody, men create." The woman is the object the man paints or sculpts, the ballerina is the canvas on which the choreographer creates. But the concept of embodiment is not in itself a derogatory one. It all depends on your point of view. If you understand the dancer as an emptiness to be filled with something not herself, of someone else's choosing, then the image can turn exploitative. The dancer is an object in the viewer's gaze. But if the dancer is the subject, the one who approaches the fountain from which she wishes to fill herself, the one who chooses what to bring her audience and in fact brings it to them -- then this is a particularly feminine form of creative power. Embodying is one of the dancer's most effective techniques for conveying meaning. It is an ideal way to present the complex, non-linear, personal-yet-eternal ideals of Middle Eastern dance. The very images of women that may be used to undermine their sources of worldly power appear as fountains of strength in the artistic expression of raqs sharqi.

I would like to add that when we talk about "masculine" and "feminine," we are really talking about social constructs. Real men and women do not adhere to the constructs exactly. That is why I have defined this not as a women's dance, but as a dance which privileges the feminine. Culture and perhaps biology orient women toward these ways of perceiving and being perceived. But this dance has both women and men who unfold their intuitive powers, who dance through emotional terrains, who serve as vessels for the eternal, and who attain this strength and clarity we recognize as feminine.

It is a great privilege to have this liminal power to contain both what is oneself and what is eternal. It requires remarkable strength. And participation in the archetypal idea of the feminine vessel requires the dancer to be even more herself. The practice of raqs sharqi almost invariably enhances the personhood of the woman or man who is devoted to it. Contact with the eternal images, open-mindedness to a variety of different cultural realities, and the commitment to share them with an audience through her own physical and emotional self, serves to bring the dancer more deeply to herself. Being a vessel for such a force does not drain her. Like the endless pitcher of fairy tale, the dancer keeps pouring out her wine, but is never empty, and in the end her plain clay may take on the gleam of burnished gold.


Dance and the Sacred

The images that emerge from our bodies in the dance are often sacred. Dancers committed to their art are well aware of this. Western practitioners of the art, who come from a theatrical tradition in which themes of dances are thoroughly discussed, often articulate these feelings, identifying some performances as "ritual" or "for the goddess," or speaking of the spiritual and artistic feelings or intentions they have when they perform. I suspect that dancers within the Middle East are more inclined to leave the spirituality to speak through their dances, like the shaman who, when asked what his myths meant, said that they meant themselves. The dance, of course, means itself.

But if you listen to the way dancers talk, the way they understand what it is they are doing, there is a powerful spiritual undertone. Barbara Seigel observes, "When questioned men and women see this dance differently all over the Middle East. Women always bring up the spiritual component." In a recent interview with Shareen El Safy, Mona El Said says of her talents, "This is from God." Nagwa Fouad has said the same of her own dancing. Perhaps this is only a variation on a theme we all use when we thank god for our fortune. But if a dancer says that her dance comes from god, she acknowledges that dance is a proper place for god to take an interest. God honors and bestows the ability to express feeling and to embody beauty in oriental dance. In a National Geographic Explorer interview, Lucy expresses the idea that the celebratory gift of pleasure she gives has the approval of God. God loves beauty, and dance is part of his creation. We dance with divine gifts, and to the delight of a deity who delights in what is beautiful and good.

The solo expressive dance, especially embodied in feminine form, has immense power to create emotional feeling. It is spiritual, even sacred, on a level that goes beyond our intellectual interpretations of what "sacred" or "spiritual" ought to mean. Consequently, something in raqs sharqi and in its artists may be perceived as threatening to the hierarchies of mainstream religion and mainstream culture. Much as it is loved in the Middle East, it is frequently discouraged. Fundamentalists object to it altogether. Even those who appreciate it do not want their daughters to perform it. Mona El Said herself experienced familial rejection when she followed her calling to perform.

In the Judeo-Christian and Islamic worlds, religion emphasizes humble adherence to moral rules. Conventional religious thought tends to separate the body from the purer instincts of the soul. To a world that holds this view, and which is structured around hierarchies in which order, power and reason are primary, the gentle chaos of this dance can be terrifying. Here is a source of spiritual feeling that arises from the body, that is expressed through the body, that may even cause stirrings in the bodies of those who watch as they are drawn into the eternal movement. Here is a way to approach the liminal territory of escape from the here and now, an escape both into oneself and beyond one's time and place. Such liminal experience is one of the great offerings of religion. It is also one of the great offerings of sex. And this dance form is a blending of these instincts, the spiritual and carnal, in a motion that transcends time, speaks individually and universally, and fragments into insubstantial yet vital memory.

No wonder dancers are so often misunderstood, their art dishonored. The ability of the dancer to speak so intently and so physically of these depths is a frightening thing. And no wonder the dance is so loved, since we need this release and this expression.

I would argue that dance is a part of an archetypal dialog within society, an opposition as fundamental as male and female, or nature and culture. What is feral, wild, of the body, the wisdom that comes from other-than-intellectual sources, arises in dance as a necessary challenge to the great cultural hierarchies that privilege reason over instincts, the mind over the body, order over chaos, male over female, perfection over imperfect beauty. Dance works on the countercultural assumption that evocation is more meaningful than argumentation, that excitement is more effective than persuasion. It is no wonder that this powerful reality should be scorned by those for whom this mode of expression, this mode of being, is threatening, or by those who wish to remain blind to its revelations. Dance is allied with the senses and speaks through them. Dance uses our most primitive and most nuanced vocabulary, the gestures of the body. Dance speaks truths too important to be defined in words, too pleasurable to be spoken except through the body. It is the great gift of Middle Eastern dance that it continues to offer our exhilarating insights into life, love and the divine despite misunderstanding and even disrespect.


Dance and History

I have spoken a great deal about what is archetypal and eternal, and about how meaning takes place at the intersection of individual and archetype, but I would like to conclude with the third element that confers meaning in dance: culture. As raqs sharqi finds a home in very different cultures outside the Middle East, will it change? Will it keep its integrity in the face of foreign influence? How will foreigners make the art their own?

The movement of Middle Eastern dance into the West has provided a powerful creative environment that reverberates back to the Middle East. Theatrical borrowing between Middle Eastern and Western dance has been going on for over a century, with mixed results. But the West has provided an atmosphere that has enabled elevation of the dance to a publicly acknowledged artistic status. The model of Western folkloric troupes enabled the establishment of the Reda troupe as a symbol of Egypt's pride in its own dance heritage. Furthermore, dancers of Middle Eastern origin working in the West, such as Ibrahim Farrah in the United States and Suraya Hilal in England, have made significant contributions to defining the dance's classic form. The West has returned something very meaningful to the East in the ongoing internationalization of Middle Eastern dance.

But for the international performers of Raqs Sharqi, the issues are more personal. This is far more than a folk dance. It is a means of expression and artistry that calls out now to women and men of different cultures. How are its Western practitioners to speak in their adopted form? We are shaped by our culture. Our body language, our understanding of gesture, and our physical relationship to the world are formed by the culture we grow up in. Our definition of sexuality, gender roles, and what happens between dancer and audience, are shaped by our culture. Among dancers in the West, the question arises of how to maintain faith with an ethnic dance form while still answering our own call. To phrase it more provocatively: Since raqs sharqi has found hearts and homes in the bodies and spirits of dancers all over the world, does it still need its basis in the historical circumstances and the cultural contexts that gave it its current form? Or has it become its own entity, only loosely based in a culture that many of its international performers have limited acquaintance with?

This is a controversial question. In one view, authenticity means adherence to the values and expectations of the Middle Eastern cultures that gave rise to the dance in its local forms. On the other extreme, some dancers feel that the framework of Middle Eastern dance has opened realms of expression that go beyond culture and do not any longer depend on the values, aesthetics, or even the music of the Middle East. Americans dancing for American audiences may seek to express the same eternal truths as an Egyptian dancer performing for her compatriots. But audience, body language, the whole culture, are different, and so the form of the dance is different. We dance our history. We dance in the bodies that were shaped by our culture. We dance as the individuals we are. What is authenticity, after all?

I cannot answer this question and frankly, I don't believe anyone can. In an area where there are so many different and effective artistic truths, this will remain an ongoing debate. These vital issues hone us to new considerations of the meaning of our art. But I will offer some comment.

I would first argue that we cannot maintain our commitment to individuality and spiritual force in our dance, without also maintaining a commitment to the culture that produced the dance, and to the specifics of its history, as best we can understand it. Archetypes may provide the underpinnings of our dance, the deep waters we drink from, but the individual alone is not, finally, a sufficient mediation of the eternal forces. Removed from their context, archetypal images can lose their gloss and appear only as hardened artifacts. It is beautiful to recognize the permanence of the images that rise up through our bodies, or the stories that inform our experience. But this is our private dialog with the past. The culture and wisdom of the Middle East continue to give grounding to these images, one that provides the Western dancer with the sense of both recognition and otherness that confirms her approach to what is vital to her self.

I would also offer a comment from history. In the early years of this century, modern dancers in the United States and in Europe were influenced deeply by Eastern dance. This was a time in which dancers, often through solo female expressive performance, deliberately aimed themselves toward exploring archetypes, and their evocations of ritual power and spirituality. The very otherness of Eastern dance made it particularly capable of evoking the eternal. But modern dance, which once celebrated the ethos of woman's solo and archetypal evocation, an ethos so close to our own -- modern dance moved on. The female expressive solo became less common, and themes became more directly relevant to current concerns. As modern dance became incorporated into the mainstream of Western culture, the expressive dance of the female soloist became less central.

But the Middle East has had a dynamic for centuries that kept this form vital, of great importance to the culture. The female solo dancer, nonconformist, expressive, embodying both spirituality and sensuality, dancing from her own experience and from the nuances of her culture and as embodiment of eternal forces, has had a power that endures. The West has not privileged this form of expression. Women who have something to say in Western dance usually grow to say it in ways that are not the combination of eternal and individual that we achieve and find deep satisfaction in in our performance of raqs sharqi. The East can show the West how to keep this form of dance expression alive. As yet, we have only dipped our fingertips into the well.

In the end, I would say simply that knowledge leads to wisdom. Wise dancing comes from what we know. What we know deeply takes many forms. It may be our life experience, which becomes richer as we grow older. It may be knowledge of the body, both our own physical urges and capacity, and the empathy that comes from molding ourselves to other body languages that emerge from the Middle East. It may be knowledge of local customs, of the potential meanings of gesture and technique, or of the times and places in which dance performs its transformative magic. It may be knowledge of the archetypes, a consciousness of when you slip into an eternal image, or when you see one unfolding, in all its diversity, before you on the stage.

In the final reckoning, this is a dance of completion. It celebrates marriages, whether of man, woman and god, or of body, mind and spirit, or of eternal image, cultural perspective, and individual life. This is what we weave in our dance: a whole cloth, a brilliant tapestry. It takes each of us, and all of us, to do it.



From the Original Presentation, May 17 1997


  1. Egyptian clay figurine of a goddess, now in the Brooklyn Museum: Michalowski pl. 55.
  2. Javanese court dance: Jonas 89.
  3. Malavika Sarrukai performing bharata natyam: Jonas 61.
  4. Moroccan dancers: source unknown.

Illustrating gesture of head turned aside:

  1. Dancers from the tomb of Nakht, c. 1420 BC: Jonas 116.
  2. Etruscan dancers, painting from the Tomb of the Triclinium, 480-70 BC: Sprenger and Bartoloni pl. 155.
  3. Hellenistic figurines of dancers (Tanagra and bronze): Becatti pl. 239-40.
  4. Dancers from the Tomb of Keruef, Thebes, 18th dynasty: Michalowski 99.
  5. Maenad: Roman copy of a Greek original by Kallimachos (420-410 BC): Becatti pl. 161.
  6. Mughal minitaure from of dancer entertaining a prince, northern India, 1588): Jonas 117.
  7. Fulani girls of Nigeria dancing before young men: Huet and Savary 27.
  8. Professional Zar dancers: Duncan 105.
  9. Male dancer of Luxor: Jonas 113.

To illustrate "hand to head":

  1. Funeral scenes, tombs of Nebamun and Ipuki at Thebes: Lange and Hirmer pl. 175.
  2. Cretan worshipper: Marinatos pl. 108.
  3. Nadia Gamal: Arabesque 15. 1-2 (1989) 16.
  4. Dina: Arabesque 21.3 (1995) 15.
  5. Suhaila Salimpour: publicity photograph.
  6. Korean dancer: Lee and McCurdy 79.

To illustrate "Hands raised/outstretched":

  1. Same as 1.
  2. Cretan "poppy goddess": Marinatos pl. 131.
  3. Cretan "snake goddess": Marinatos pl. 24.
  4. 20th dynasty representation of Hathor with sun disk and human: patrick and Croft 39.
  5. Anhai, from her 20th dynasty Book of the Dead, Patrick and Croft pl. 89.
  6. Nommo figure of the Dogon of Mali: Newton and Boltin141.
  7. Berlin's Hathor Troupe c. 1993: Arabesque. 20.6 (1995) 10.
  8. Ibrahim Farrah: Arabesque 21.3 (1995) 15.
  9. Nadia Gamal: Arabesque 2.1 (1976) 8.
  10. Suhair Zeki: Arabesque 15.1-2 (1989) 6.
  11. Same as 1.


Works Cited

Becatti, Giovanni. The Art of Ancient Greece and Rome. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., Publishers, nd.

Duncan, David Douglas. The World of Allah. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1982.

Foster, Susan Leigh. Choreography and Narrative: Ballet's Staging of Story and Desire. Indiana University Press, 1996.

Goodman, Karen and Kirk Simon, producers, "Cairo Unveiled," National Geographic Explorer 1992.

Hanna, Judith Lynne. "Classical Indian Dance and Women's Status," in Helen Thomas, ed., Dance, Gender and Culture. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1993, 119-135.

Huet, Michel and Claude Savary. The Dances of Africa. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., Publishers, 1986.

Jonas, Gerald. Dancing: The Pleasure, Power and Art of Movement. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., in association with Thirteen/WNET, 1992.

Kealiinohomoku, Joann Marie Wheeler.Theory and Methods for an Anthropological Study of Dance. Ph.D. Thesis, Indiana University, 1976.

Kent, Sahra C. "One Flower in a Bouquet: Folkloric Pioneer Farida Fahmy," Habibi 14.2 (1995) 2-5, 24-5.

Lange, K. and M. Hirner. Egypt: Archetecture, Sculpture, Painting. 3rd ed. Greenwich, CT: Phaidon Publishers Inc., 1961.

Lee, Sun Ock and John McCurdy. Zen Dance: Meditation in Movement. Seoul, Korea: Seoul International Publishing House, 1985.

Malzoum, Nelly. "Soft Does Not Mean Weak," Arabesque 21.4 (Nov. - Dec. 1995), 8.

Marinatos, Spiridon. Crete and Mycenae. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., Publishers, nd.

Michalowski, Kazimierz. Art of Ancient Egypt. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., Publishers, nd.

Newton, Douglas and Lee Boltin. Masterpieces of Primitive Art. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1978.

O'Flaherty, Wendy Doniger, Other People's Myths. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1988.

Pagano, Grace. "Nagwa Fouad: A Brand Apart," Arabesque 6.5 (Jan.-Feb. 1981), 4.

Patrick, Richard and Peter Croft. Classic Ancient Mythology. New York: Crescent Books, 1987.

el Safy, Shareen. "Mona El Said: Moving in Mysterious Ways," Habibi 15.1 (1996), 2-5, 31.

Sayers, Lesley-Anne. "'She might pirouette on a daisy and it would not bend: Images of Femininity and Dance Appreciation," in Helen Thomas, ed., Dance, Gender and Culture. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1993, 164-83.

Siegel, Barbara F. "Belly Dance: The Enduring Embarrassment," Arabesque 21.4 (Nov.- Dec. 1995) 11-13.

Sprenger, Maja and Gilda Bartoloni. The Etruscans: Their History, Art and Architecture. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., Publishers, 1983.

Thomas, Helen, ed. Dance, Gender and Culture. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1993.

Turner, Victor. The Ritual Process. Cornell University Press, 1977.

NOTE:  The footnotes to this article did not format properly.  They will be added later.

This article originally appeared in Habibi Magazine.

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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