Tuesday, 1 July 2008

Sensuous Shimmy Faces Jab and Jostle

Dance was an intrinsic part of the culture of the ancient Egyptians, with people of different social classes enjoying music and dancing.

By Ramadan Al Sherbini, Special to Weekend Review
Published: June 13, 2008

To the West, it is the belly dance. To Middle Easterners, it is raqs sharqi or the oriental dance. Whatever the name, the dance continues to be popular worldwide despite changes over the centuries in its form and perception.

There has been much debate as to when and where this form of art originated. Many researchers date it to Pharaonic Egypt, citing inscriptions on temples of dances performed during religious rituals.

Dance was an intrinsic part of the culture of the ancient Egyptians, with people of different social classes enjoying music and dancing.

Labourers worked in rhythmic motion to songs and percussion and street dancers entertained passers-by, historians say.

Some researchers, however, argue that the belly dance originated in Greece and came to Egypt when Alexander the Great (356-323BC) built the coastal city of Alexandria. Others trace it to northwestern India and Uzbekistan.

Apparently looking for a compromise, some other theorists say the belly dance has different origins, referring to its diversity of styles.

Because of this ambiguity, the dance has come to be scorned by some people and admired by others.

From the Middle East to the US and Australia, the belly dance has become a popular performing art as well as a mode of self-expression and entertainment.

Classes teaching the dance continue to be conducted in many parts of the globe.

In Egypt, where the belly dance has thrived over the years, it is popular among foreign visitors and locals alike. Egypt boasts the world’s best-known dancers.

“Despite restrictions triggered by a revival of Islamism in this predominantly Muslim country, the belly dance is still a major item and attraction in most wedding parties,” says Khalil Sadek, a folk-arts researcher. “This art is a form of self-expression and a way of exercising.”

In recent years, gymnasiums have sprung up in major Egyptian cities, offering classes for women interested in learning it.

“We have a high demand particularly in the summer, when girls do not go to schools and mothers have enough time,” says Hossna Jamil, an instructor at a gym in northern Cairo.

“Despite the scorn poured by Islamists and conservatives on the belly dance, it is still popular with the local women, who want to perform it for their husbands or on happy occasions such as weddings,” Jamil says. “It also helps them to be in good shape.”

She says the belly dance is beneficial to both the mind and the body.

“Dancing boosts mental health and helps increase flexibility and strength. It activates blood circulation and makes the body more supple and controllable. It also rids one of feelings of fatigue and depression.”

Many belly dance styles emphasise muscular “isolations”, and enhance the ability to move various muscles or muscle groups independently, experts say. Belly dancing, they add, tones the arms and improves flexibility.

As a form of exercise, it can burn as many calories as jogging, swimming or riding an exercise bike. “Belly dancing is less strenuous than lifting weights and more uplifting than working out on a bike at the gym,” said researcher Sadek.

There are two forms of belly dance. The first is raqs baladi (a local dance), which is generally performed during festive occasions such as weddings and other social gatherings for fun and celebration.

The second form — a more theatrical version — is called raqs sharqi (oriental dance). Like raqs baladi, raqs sharqi is performed by both male and female dancers.

According to the Wikipedia encyclopaedia, the exact origin of this dance form is actively debated among enthusiasts, especially because of the limited academic research on the topic.

Much of the research has been done by artistes attempting to understand their dance’s origins.

However, the often-overlooked fact that most dancing in the Middle East occurs in the social context rather than the more visible and glamorous context of professional nightclub dancers has led to widespread misunderstanding of the dance’s true nature and has given rise to many conflicting theories about its origins.

The best-known theory is that it descended from a religious dance. This idea is usually the one referred to in mainstream articles on the topic, and has enjoyed a large amount of publicity, according to Wikipedia.

In the West, raqs sharqi was popularised during the Romantic Movement of the 18th and 19th centuries, inspired by the Orientalist view of harem life in the Ottoman Empire (1288-1922).

Although there were performers of this type of dance at the 1876 Centennial in Philadelphia, it was not until the 1893 World Fair that it gained national attention.

At the fair, there were authentic dancers from Middle Eastern and north African countries, including Syria, Turkey and Algeria, but the dancers in the Egyptian Theatre of the Street in Cairo exhibit gained the most attention.

With belly dancing generating admiration bordering on a craze in the US, Thomas Alva Edison made several films focusing on the dancers in the 1890s.

The list included Turkish Dance and Ella Lola. One of the earliest films made on belly dancing was Fatima’s Dance, a short that drew criticism for its “immodest” dancing, and was eventually censored under public pressure.

Some Western women began to learn from and imitate the dances of the Middle East, which at the time was colonised by Western powers.

The famed US dancer Ruth St Denis (1877-1968) also engaged in Middle East-inspired dancing, but her approach was to put “oriental” dancing on the stage in the context of ballet, her goal being to lift all dances to a respectable art form.

Egyptian belly dancing was among the first styles to be witnessed by Westerners. During Napoleon Bonaparte’s 1798 invasion of Egypt, his troops encountered the ghawazee tribe.

The ghawazee (itinerant dancers) made their living as professional entertainers. At first, the French were repelled by their heavy jewellery and hair, and found their dancing “barbaric”, but were soon lured by the hypnotic nature of their movements, according to Wikipedia.

The classical belly dance is still popular in the West. Still, many dancers have created fusion forms such as the American tribal style, inspired by the folkloric dance styles of India, the Middle East and north Africa and even flamenco.

Dancers in the United States, while respecting the origins of the belly dance, apparently innovate to address their requirements.

In fact, many women in the US and Europe view belly dancing as a tool for empowerment and a boost for bodily, mental and spiritual faculties.

Issues of body image, self-esteem, healing from sexual violation and self-fulfilment are regularly tackled in belly dancing classes there.

The interest in belly dance has given rise to diverse names for the same simple movements and the need to have a “style” as instructors try to accentuate distinction and differences in their ways of teaching.

A recent movement in the US called the American Tribal Style Belly Dance (ATS), represents everything from folklore-inspired dances to the fusion of ancient dance techniques from north India, the Middle East and Africa.

Launched in the early 1990s by Carolena Nericcio, founder of FatChanceBellydance in San Francisco, ATS has a format consisting of a vocabulary of steps designed to be performed improvisationally in a lead-follow manner.

Pure ATS is performed in a group, typically with a chorus of dancers using zills, or finger cymbals, as accompaniment.

The music can be folkloric or modern and the costume is heavily layered, evoking traditions of one or all of its cultural influences.

Multicultural trends that have shaped Western and US belly dancing are still at work.

Constantly evolving, this dance keeps absorbing a blend of influences — modern fashion, film and television imagery, the world of rock and hip hop, underground subcultures, and many others.

Like the United States, Canada also has a thriving belly-dance community with many different styles ranging from raqs sharqi to gypsy.

Many schools teach the dance in Canada, which has produced some of the finest belly dancers in the world, including Yasmina Ramzy.

She is the driving force behind the International Belly Dance Conference of Canada, regarded as the country’s largest belly dance gathering.

Belly dancing is equally popular in other Western countries, including Britain and Australia.

While social dancing on certain occasions such as family functions is accepted and even encouraged, many people in Middle Eastern and North African societies frown upon the performances of professional dancers in revealing costumes and dismiss them as morally objectionable.

Some have even gone so far as to suggest that such performances should be banned altogether.

Last month, Dina, Egypt’s celebrated belly dancer, drew scathing criticism from members of parliament and the media for performing at a school prom.

The country’s official TV broadcaster stopped showing belly dance performances two decades ago.

Since the early 1980s, big-name belly dancers in Egypt have been quitting the profession, deciding to “repent”.

The list includes Sahar Hamadi, Hala Al Safi and Azza Sherif. Others, such as legendary Najwa Fouad, have either retired or shifted their sights to TV drama and cinema.

The heyday of this art form in Egypt was in the 1940s and 1950s.

The Emad Eddin Street, Egypt’s version of Broadway in those times, was famous for its nightclubs where top as well as not-so-well-known dancers performed.

During those years, King Farouk, Egypt’s last monarch, reportedly hired the Russian ballet instructor Ivanova to teach his daughters.

Ivanova later taught Egypt’s iconic belly dancer Samia Jamal how to use the veil to improve her arm carriage.

Most Egyptian dancers would use the veil as an opening prop, which they discarded within the first few minutes of their routines.

In Egypt, dancers also wear full, beaded dresses to do folkloric and baladi (local) performances. Such outfits are also used by the American and European artistes for folk dances.

However, in Egypt these dresses are designed according to the dance and the tradition. Western dancers have more freedom and may choose freely according to taste and imagination, experts say.

Tahya Karyouka, one of Egypt’s most talented dancers in the first half of the 20th century, is remembered for popularising baladi dance in her movies.

Soheir Zaki and Najwa Fouad dominated the belly dance scene in the 1960s and 1970s. Other dancers such as Fifi Abdou and Lucy rose to fame in Egypt and far beyond in the 1980s and 1990s. Now they devote most of their time to acting on TV.

In recent years, Dina has been the most famous name in Egyptian belly dancing, where the art form is now dominated by foreign performers from as far as Argentina, Mexico, Poland, Russia and Ukraine.

In an apparent reaction to protests from local dancers, Egypt imposed a ban on foreign belly dancers in 2003. The ban was, however, lifted a year later.

There are 150 licensed foreign belly dancers in Egypt, according to official figures. Insiders, nonetheless, confirm that the figure is far higher because of the low fees requested by the foreign performers compared with their Egyptian counterparts.

A famous Egyptian dancer would demand $10,000 a night compared with $500 by a foreigner.

Egyptian agents started to hire foreign belly dancers in the years following the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s.

Originally ballet dancers, the newcomers from Eastern Europe were quick to acquire the skills of raqs sharqi.

They soon proved to be serious rivals to the local performers in nightclubs and in programmes hosted at fashionable hotels in Cairo and thriving resort towns such as Hurghada.

Foreign dancers, such as Asmhan of Argentina, the Ukrainian Sally and the Brazilian Camellia, are now big names among Egypt’s raqs sharqi performers.

In an apparent bid to enhance their allure and renown, these foreign dancers have taken purely oriental names.

Belly dancing consists of movements that are executed throughout the body.

The focus of the dance is the pelvic and hip area. It is, fundamentally a solo improvisational dance with a unique dance vocabulary that is fluidly integrated with the music’s rhythm.

The most admired performers of raqs sharqi are those who can best project their emotions through dance, even if their dance is made up of simple movements.

To some experts, belly dancing is not an inaccurate term. They point out that all parts of the body are involved in the dance and the most important part is the hips.

The dancer’s aim, they argue, is to convey to the audience the emotion and rhythm of the music.

Egyptian-style raqs sharqi is based on baladi, a style honed by legends such as Samia Jamal and Tahya Karyouka in the 1940s until the 1960s, deemed to be golden era of the belly dance in Egypt.

Its popularity was enhanced through local musicals.
In Egypt, three main forms of the traditional dance are associated with the belly dance: baladi (local), sha’abi (folksy) and sharqi (oriental).

The Egyptian forms of belly dance are rivalled by the Syrian, Lebanese and the Turkish patterns.

Turkish belly dancing may have been influenced by the Roma people as much as by the Egyptian as well as the Syrian and Lebanese forms, having developed from the Ottoman dance to the oriental dance known today worldwide.

Turkish law does not impose restrictions on dancers’ movements and costumes, unlike Egypt, where dancers are barred from performing floor work and certain pelvic movements.

With the surge in Islamism and the foreigners’ invasion of the trade in Egypt and some other Arab countries, experts are worried about the future of the belly dance.

“Now everyone who has nothing to do can claim she is a dancer,” Fouad told the London-based Arabic newspaper Asharq Al Awsat.

“Russians and Poles are now dominating the scene as female singers take up dance as well.”

Earlier this year, Fouad was on the jury of Hezy Ya Nawam (Wiggle, Chick), a contest produced by the Lebanese TV channel LBC to spot new talent in belly dancing.

The producers said their key aim was to protect this genre from extinction. Ironically, the contest drew competitors from France and Ukraine.

Ramadan Al Sherbini is a journalist based in Cairo.

Source: Gulf News Archive

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