Raqs Sharqi Notes and Reviews
by Andrea Deagon



On Self-Expression

On Greek Tsiftetelli

Passion and Authenticity

On the Belly Dance Superstars

On Tradition and Fusion

Is This a Feminine Dance?







On Self-Expression


"Our dance is not about titilation," explains a Moroccan in formant in the PBS series Dancing, "it is about self-expression."  Expression is a crucial element of the impulse to dance in the Middle East.  Dancing erupts at all sorts of social occasions, and people dance alone for their own pleasure.  This attitude toward dance, that it's expressive and personal, is something Western society readily accepts and understands.  Dancers at any Western nightclub would probably say that they dance for fun, or for release, or for self expression.  In our society, oriented toward individualism and valuing feelings, self-expression is the most obvious reason to dance.

Dance is a complex phenomenon, though, one which has many levels of meanings.  Social dances can also be interpreted as communal rituals, in which the dancers explore current and potential community relationships.  Dance also exists within a symbolic system, so that the celebratory dancing at an Arab wedding, for example, whether done by professionals or family members, may be seen as symbolizing fertility and sexuality in a communally acceptable form.

Performance dancing, as opposed to social dancing, involves still other dynamics.  A professional oriental dancer may still describe her dance as expressive, but the stakes are different.  Her purpose must be to entertain and involve her audience through her self-expression, not simply to feel things herself.  Her audience may wish to see the dancer feeling something on stage -- in fact I would say this is a sine qua non of a good oriental dance performance -- but the feeling must be conveyed.  More, it must be shared.



On Greek Tsiftetelli
(MED-dance list, Sept. 1997)

Most of the posts we've seen on this say similar things: the Greeks say it's Turkish but they dance it like it's their own.  Do it but call it foreign.  And it apparently has a long history of being thought of this way.  Natasya's point about the Greeks having a dance they call Turkish that the turks know nothing about, highlights this interesting situation. Oddly enough, this kind of thing is common enough, and one reason why you can't completely trust "native informants" to be accurate about history. There are stories about the history of dances -- all kinds of practices, for that matter -- which can be shown to be false.  For example, the ancient Greeks said their god Dionysus came from Asia Minor after the other gods were established, but in fact Dionysus is one of the earliest gods whose name is known in Greece, predating some others in Linear B. The lesson: some things that are completely intrinsic to a culture, part and parcel of it, are defined by people in that culture as having an origin from outside the culture.  *But they could well be wrong.*  It is very possible that the "definition" of that thing, what it means to them *symbolically* has to do with being Other, alien, separate from what they think of as their own central values (and history). So, the ancient Greeks said their wine god came from asia.  The modern Greeks say that sexy tsiftetelli came from Asia.  Maybe both are talking more about mythic history and symbolic origins, than about the real, mundane, historical origin of the dance.

I can't imagine Greece without the tsiftetelli . . .



Passion and Authenticity

(post to MED-dance, date?)

Here's how I see it: you work hard, with attention, push yourself, and try to get things that don't come naturally, for about 2/3 of your practice time.  And then, when you're all warmed up and in the groove, you cut loose and let fly with all the things that make you want and need to dance.  That passion is what lights up the stage, and it's what lights up your heart, even if you never perform at all.  But if you don't put in the work, if you keep doing the same old thing, you don't have the same fire lit under your passion.  When you cut loose, all you're doing is putting paper on the fire.  If you want to keep burning, you have to haul the logs in from the woodpile, and that ain't easy.

OK, Part two.  When you cut loose, explore, feel and express, you do whatever you want.  But in your explorations, you will find places you couldn't go because you didn't have the equipment.  (If you don't, you weren't exploring very hard.)  You wanted to go into a floor backbend but you weren't strong enough?  Well, use your practice time to build the strength.  You wanted to shimmy but you couldn't keep it up as powerfully as you wanted?  Well, study more, learn more about shimmies, and find that power.  You wanted to put in something modern-dancey or spanishy, and you didn't really know anything about the dance form?  Well, study it, or at least wach some videos!  If all you do is what you know how, you don't grow.  So when you detect an urge, help yourself fulfill it.  Put something of substance on the fire.

Part Three:  This dance means more and more to you.  It keeps your soul alive.  It keeps you warm at night.  Do you want to know it, for real?  Is it a real lover, the kind you can find out about, talk to, learn his secrets and fears and dreams?  Learn about his history and his family and what he thinks about the things you hold dear?  If you encounter a problem with him, are you willing to think about it and grow from understanding your difference?  Or is this dance like a poster of Brad Pitt pinned up on your wall, that you can stare at and fantasize about and put words of endearment in "Brad's" mouth so it's always your ideal, easy dream lover, but never your real one?  If you are committed to doing something real, you will study the dance's history, its different forms, its authentic culture, its own true techniques.  You do not have to follow them all, just as you don't have to share your lover's political views.  But you have to know them, if your relationship means anything.

Passion and authenticity -- now that's love.

On the Belly Dance Superstars

(written to the MED-Dance list Feb. 28 2006)

The belly dance world is definitely changing. The Belly Dance Superstars are a factor of that change as it is happening in the West. Young professional dancers are packaged (or are packaging themselves) to fit the current taste for beauty, and the successful ones have dance styles that fit the popular Western understanding of what dance ought to look like. As the dance grows, many of us who have been with it for a very long time are sad to see that the most widely touring dance show has so little of what is really deep and meaningful in the dance. And for those who are invested in the dance as a vehicle for women’s power, individually and together, it’s a little sad that only one type of woman is in demand for this well known show.

It’s like being a lifelong Democrat and your daughter becomes a fervent Republican (or vice versa). How could someone I worked so hard to bring up right be so opposite of how I meant her to be? How could something that in some way represents who I am to others, be so little about who I am? (It must be Miles Copeland’s fault!)

I have spent umpteen years telling my students that you can be fit and beautiful at any size, that dance is all about individuality and not at all about conformity, that your practice of the dance is as important as the performance aspect of it. But the culture as a whole continually selects for its viewing pleasure the dancers who most conform to their fantasies, and everyone knows it.

One thing that continually surprises me these days is how many good dancers there are. I can remember when it was hard to find a dancer in my part of the country who could even do a down accent. Not so now. So this is good, very good. On the other hand, it troubles me to find conformity at the upper level – I want to see not only individual personas but individual techniques. I don’t want everybody to do things the same way. It’s not what I like in the art.

All these problems are small considering what’s happening to belly dance in the East. There the new generation is not as interested in the same things that their parents were, and that includes the nightclub scene that supported the heyday of the biggest dance stars of Egypt. Failing interest in raqs in the East is a much bigger concern. But as a folk dance, raqs is firmly entrenched, so I think we’ll always have that.

As for Miles, well, I have nothing against him, more power to him for putting on a great show. But I think the heartsblood of this art is the women who only do it in class, or who take their dance to the civic festival or local hafla venue and dance their hearts out. That’s where it gets its meaning in the world. There are plenty of ways to be entertained for an evening, but there’s only one art with our unique combination of benefits for the woman’s soul (and the man’s, for men who take it up). I don’t want the women (and men) who do it as a practice to feel like their experience is any less legitimate than that of the young, pretty dancers who show up on stage – or that their goal should be to dance (or look!) that way.


On Tradition and Fusion

I began learning this dance at a time before videos, in a part of the world with hardly any Arab population and hardly any belly dancers who'd had more than a few lessons themselves, so it was more or less "everything goes" (North Caroline in the early 1970's).  I started young (16) and for me, this dance was all about expressing myself, especially the part of myself that was developing out of the tomboy and introvert I had always been.  I couldn't have cared less about

Arab audiences and what they thought - although, on the rare occasions when I encountered them, they were always very supportive, probably because I was cute, expressive, young and sincere, and they weren't getting much authentic from anywhere else ...

From there, over the course of the years, I've become in my own dance something of a traditionalist, in that the dance and music I appreciate most is the "classics" from the 1920's through 70's and the dancers from the old movies ... and Egyptian dancers, all the one's you'd expect.

All the same I still dance with a pronounced accent, because for me something about this dance is about reaching what is loving, primal, sacred and moving in my own world, and that will never be the world of a middle eastern person.  So however much I look to the classics for my inspiration, to be true to myself I will always dance something of a fusion, in that the gestures and interpretations that rise up in me are formed by my culture.

I am amazed at people like Shareen el Safy who dance "without accent"  -- what an amazing accomplishment, to absorb the dance so completely and in the heart and body, right from the source!

But I don't think it's bad to do what I do, either.  It speaks to a different part of the soul, perhaps - or to the same part, in a different tone or color.  And the fact is that - while I still seem to please Arab audiences - I rarely dance for them.   My dance probably speaks differently to people of different nationalities.  It probably speaks differently to people of different temperaments, too, or of different levels of cultural awareness, etc.  It's formed by my experience of life, and as is appropriate in this dance form, it is individual to me. 

Maybe the dance is essentially a fusion of the individual's experience and dance influences, whatever those may be.

As a traditionalist - more or less - I am not likely to really be drawn to dance that doesn't incorporate traditional techniques on some level.  I'm always ready to enter that state of tarab - enchantment - so a performer who has a consciousness of that dynamic in her soul is more likely to attract me than one who doesn't.

I'm likely to be attracted to a dancer who "listens" before she "speaks" - who understands things that may at first seem alien to her body, and finds her way into them, and makes a "fusion" of herself and them at a deep level.

I'm more likely to be drawn to a dancer who "reveals" than one who shows off.

"Fusion" happens naturally as cultures change, but it also happens in a forced and exploitative way.  As a cautionary tale - I saw, on a video of movies from the 40's - I think Tahia Carioca may have been the star - a chorus line of dancers doing ballet fusion.  Oh, dear, it was the most awful thing in the world, and I flinched while laughing at it.  An Eastern appropriation of a Western art!  Ballet will survive, over here in the West.  True ballet fans in the East would get nothing from that performance - they'd know the difference.  For the average Egyptian movie goer, maybe it was an interesting break from what they were used to.

Whatever bad fusion we see, true raqs will survive and grow on its own terms.  It's sad, if Western audiences never really see it.  It's sad, if they see people "showing off" rather than "revealing."   It's a pity if the fusion doesn't get closer to anyone's soul, and just stays out there, mixed up and confused.  It's wonderful if a fusion style, like American Tribal (a good fusion name) takes on its own strength as a Western dance form.

Just, whatever we do, let's please go deep with it, and take trouble to find a little truth - or even a big one.

Joy in dance,


Is This a Feminine Dance?

(A response to an online discussion about the role of women and men in belly dance.)

The question of men dancing is a big one, and you’re right to point to different places and times having different standards and expectations.

As far as I have been able to tell, throughout the historical period (i.e. times in which we have written records) men have shared at least part of the same dance vocabulary with women in the Middle East. Of course nothing can be completely certain, when you don’t have video, or documentary-type visual evidence, or even detailed written evidence. But judging by what few written records there are, and going on the conservatism of dance traditions, my best guess would be that men and women have danced “solo-improvised dance based on torso articulation” (SITA) for several millennia in the Middle East, North Africa, and around the Mediterranean.

At various times men have been noteworthy performers of dance – a couple of examples spring to mind. The Turkish troupes of boy dancers thoroughly documented by Metin And, and the male dancer Hassan el-Bilbaessi (I may have spelled that wrong) documented by Gustave Flaubert. Several recent documentaries have clips of males dancing in a SITA style as well. There’s plenty of evidence suggesting that it has been common for males to perform SITA in the past, and even that, though males aren’t today’s stars in the Middle East, plenty of Arab men do the dance and outside of the Middle East, have the freedom to become noted performers – Argentina’s Amir Thaleb and France’s Mayodi come to mind.

There remains the question, is there something about this dance that is particularly feminine, or expresses ideas and feelings that are particularly feminine, or is particularly vital to women in a way it isn’t to men. And to that I would say a resounding, “yes.” Looking at ancient evidence, the figures of dancers that are so prominent in the plastic art and the pottery paintings of the Egyptian Neolithic, show female solo dancers, not men. (See Yusuf Garfinkel’s _Dancing at the Dawn of Agriculture_ for references.) Western descriptions of SITA (from the Greek and Roman worlds) describe performance by females – though this is outside of the culture so they may select for females thought males also performed. And if you look at the Middle East today, you will find that the idea of dance is more important to women. As anthropologist William C. Young comments in an article on women’s dance performance as ritual, “Obviously dancing was considered something so important that it should be taught to every girl, yet it was also something so dangerous to personal and family reputation that ‘honorable’ girls should not be permitted to dance in certain – commercial – contexts.” He notes that its meanings as ritual action and its sheer importance as an element of life are much more important to women than to men.

There’s a way in which the dance is just about life. Men who do it aren’t dancing about women’s experience, but their own. Dance in this style is a celebratory dance, and everyone does it when joy needs an outlet. It’s human first and foremost.

But there is also something deep and feminine in the dance, that has to do with nurturing and containing and bringing to light, and that has to do with women’s community and what mothers give to their daughters and what women go through in a world whose dominant voices are masculine. It calls to women's experience as a path to understanding themselves and the world, and speaking to the world in a true voice.

The history you quoted that puts the “invention” of belly dance on women, is probably motivated by backlash against all the years we were told belly dance was the dance of harem girls to get the sultan to choose them. Fair enough -- we needed a new myth! But the dance didn't need to be "invented" -- it evolved, of course. As always, the real story is a lot more complicated, and we can only get a glimpse of those complications, and try to understand the subtleties when we encounter them.