Language and Dance
by Keti Sharif
Cairo's streets are much like its dance
– streams of freestyle movement guided by intuition rather than
rules. There are no 'principles' as such in both circumstances
– it’s the organic-ness of Egyptian life that creates order in
chaos. On the Egyptian streets the mayhem of beeping horns and
no lanes or traffic lights would suggest total chaos due to lack
of formation. Yet, like pebbles in a moving river, cars jostle
and clang, donkey carts carry delicately balanced pyramids of
oranges and potatoes, but there are rarely accidents - and everyone
gets where they are going without too much stress.
too, at its core, is organic. Its roots are steeped in folklore
– the country, the land, the communication between people. It’s
the feeling that carries the dancer, and in the tempest of music
and tabla, the dancer finds balance and structure of the most
and music has always been a kind of carrier of sentiment between
people in Egypt. These arts in Cairo, in a way, grew like its
cousin 'the blues' in the west – Baladi rhythms – maqsoum, saiidi,
bambi - became the syntax of urban Egyptian music in the same
way the 12-bar blues defined the gospel-inspired style. Since
the earlier days of industrialization in Egypt, when farmers moved
to cities that promised work but couldn't offer support to the
worker's growing families, the music changed from the simple farming
'celebration of home' songs to the 'memory of home' ballads. Lost
love, an allegory for ‘lost home, lost heart’ is a familiar theme
in baladi songs. In Egypt, people are rarely isolated; they gather
at mosques, meet at community celebrations and invite neighbors
regularly to their homes. There is a sharing that takes place
at this community level, through food, conversation, music, song
and dance. All these interactions contain a rhythmic quality
that is unhurried and open-ended – from their language, to their
music. Conversations start slowly, become jovial, sometimes grow
heated, and resume into laughter before building up again – much
like the style of dance in Cairo, Luxor, Aswan and their surrounding
villages. Egyptian people even interact with strangers as though
they were old friends, and the gestures imply feeling rather than
Gospel and Baladi
styles of music run parallel. Inspired by religious devotion (one
of the most sincere communions with the higher source) each has
a purity and simplicity that is both naive and worldly at the
same time. Om Kothsoum,
Egypt's diva of soulful ballads, began as a singer in an Islamic
worship group. When the people release their grievances to God,
there is no room for the superfluous. Vocal tones are rich and
textured, but this richness comes from the heart, unlike the trained
voice that presents rehearsed, perfected modulation, aware of
an audience's judgment.
heart in Baladi, like the quavering crying and jubilation of
gospel, rests within its sincerity.
dance is by nature an organic, communicative, sincere expression.
Gestures tell stories and the eyes of the dancer light up as she
sways. The earthy tabla beating a steady pulse brings the body
into a rhythm, creating a natural form and structure. This structure
grows from the ground up. Being receptive to the nuance of music
- and often live music - the dancer's feet and hips feel the rhythm.
The oud and qanoon's vibrations and sensual quarter tones bring
their movement and mystery to her belly and hips. Arms surrender
and ride on the airwave of the flutes. The dancer is absorbed
into the music, and the music into her.
watching an Egyptian dancer move to baladi music, it is difficult
to separate the two. The melody sings of love, heartfelt surrender,
heartache, hearty humor...and the dancer brings her own heart
into this story. Heart, not mind. Feeling, not analysis. Her feet
have known these rhythms for a lifetime, and hence know exactly
when to help her turn, pivot or walk to the stealthy bass. The
rhythm is played in even, relaxed and predictable order - no rush,
no trickery, just perfect harmony between dancer and pulse. The
rhythm says "walk forward, now move back, this way with me,
that way with me...let me follow you while you follow me".
The rhythm is a friend and a support for the dancer - it manifests
in her feet and hips.
Story and gesture
are also qualities of baladi music and dance that give them more
meaning – a deeper kind of knowing. Coquettish lyrics sung in
a teasing sing-song rhythm extrapolated directly from everyday
life form the basis of a myriad of songs. Since the days of Egyptian
heartthrob Abdel Halim
Hafez’s romantic movie roles depicting a lovesick
dreamer crooning to baladi music, talking rhythmically, rather
than singing, has become the foundation of lyrical communication
in music. The many baladi rhythms by design reflect the actual
nature of Egyptian languages in terms of assonance, punctuation
and the rhythmic style that defines local colloquial ‘street language.’
Egyptian language marries rhythm and births a holistic dance expression
that manifests via complete cultural immersion. The dancer becomes
not only the music, but also the tonality of the voice; the subtlety
of her native language, delivered with coded nuance reveals itself.
This is the reason the Egyptian dancer dances with her entirety
– there is absolutely no trepidation because there are no grey
areas. Everything about communication is in the very core of her
being as a part of a rhythmic society that communicates with depth,
passion and at the same time, an incredible subtlety. Om Kolthsoum
once sang “Habibi” one hundred times to her audience, in one hundred
ways – each conveying a completely different emotive context.
Egypt the dancer becomes her language, her music, her rhythms,
her country – baladi, literally “from the native”. Have you
ever watched a really authentic Egyptian dancer? What did she
articulate through dance that even we, as dancers, find it difficult
to find words for?
Perhaps it is
her most subtle gesture that stays with you – a quick sweep up
and down of the dancer’s lashes – and then the “look” – lasting
a split second, but languid. Her eyes dance, her lips are relaxed
and mouth the lyrics once in a while. Her hands are confident
- they express the questioning in the music or lyrics with an
open palm. Or they flow and float with the suggestion of love.
They often cover the face with a coy modesty, knowing that it
is hard to cover the luminous beauty of the amar arbatasher
- the full moon. The hands, the eyes, the body all suggest they
have known this music since its creation. To the observer, the
dance is organic and balanced, soulful and feisty; it rides on
the pulse of the music and the music somehow becomes the dancer.
The Egyptian dancer harnesses the multitude of rhythms that create
the soundscape of her homeland. Deeply attuned, she moves with
a simplicity that has been likened to assel - flowing honey.
She is as Egyptian as the streets of Cairo, where amidst the chaos
the traffic merges into one.
Keti in her coming workshops in New York! See ad top right.
Keti will return in Aug '06 with a USA AstroBelly tour - 9 cities!
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11-16-05 Belly Dance Secrets for Fitness
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most important factor in sustaining an exercise program is the
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a Muslim-American Political Cartoonist Weighs-In,
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Try as I may, while reviewing the infamous Islam-o-phobic
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