presents... Changes Egyptian
Dance - Has It Crossed the Line? by Amina
June 2006 I had the dubious pleasure of experiencing both The
Nile Group Festival and Ahlan wa Sahlan in Egypt. Fortunately
they were very conveniently scheduled – back-to-back. The first
week was spent in a hotel in Giza (not Cairo proper) studying
with the Egyptian dancers of The Nile Group. After their closing
show I took a very short taxi ride and moved to yet another
hotel, also in Giza, to continue another week’s studying at
Raqia Hassan’s Ahlan wa Sahlan Festival.
festivals, held in Giza were isolated and insulated from
the people and the Cairo that I know and love.
is not going to be a critique on the dancers and teachers of
the festivals I attended, but rather a confirmation of an opinion
I had already made prior to attending the festivals. This was
confirmed again and again while in Egypt during both
of these dance festivals.
to go to Cairo during the festivals was simple. I hadn’t been
to Egypt for a few years and was beginning to wonder about
the changes in the dance and music that my students related
to me. Yes – I had videos of all the latest Egyptian dancers
and teachers and, yes, I had videos of all the past Ahlan wa
Sahlan festivals and videos of many of the instructors, most
of whom were associated with either Mahmoud Reda (of The Reda
Troupe) and/or Raqia Hassan (who had been a principal choreographer
for The Reda Troupe). I wanted to experience first hand what
my students had experienced…intensive dance classes with all
the major players in a dance festival environment. I
was beginning to feel I couldn’t really make comments about
changes in the dance today unless I, in person,
experienced what they had experienced. I already had my opinions,
but wanted to keep them to myself until I could make a judgment
with my own eyes. I felt that I couldn’t speak out until I
could validate my opinions.
– The Egyptian dancers now, for the most part, are turning
their backs on their own dance and are teaching watered down
theatricalized westernized folk ballet.
I must say
that with the exception of the taxi rides leaving the 5 star
hotels in Giza and going into Cairo proper to visit local clubs
and friends, or to study music independently of the prearranged
packaged festival curricula, I could have been taking the very
same workshop classes in a hotel ballroom at “anywhere” U.S.A.
Now, I feel
I need to tell you a little about myself. I have been dancing
all my memorable life. In 1965 I began my love affair with
belly dance – primarily Egyptian belly dance and the music
that makes it happen. I have danced professionally
in clubs over 40 years (and am still dancing), and have been teaching
for over 35 years (supporting myself dancing and teaching)
and have maintained a performing dance company for over 30
years. I am a member
of an Arabic band and an Arabic choir
and also am founder of The
Giza Club, (founded in 1990 dedicated
to researching all aspects of Middle Eastern culture, music
and dance) and The Giza
Academy of Middle Eastern Dance videos (now in its 11th year of honoring dancers and videographers
who have worked to preserve, maintain and further the art of
Middle Eastern Dance through film and video).
this peripheral information about me? Because I want you to
know that I am Serious about this dance. I am not a
vendor, big workshop producer or on the workshop circuit. I
am actually at home in San Francisco working on my art and
working hard at trying to preserve it. But
this does not mean that I am stuck in a time machine dancing
and teaching the dance of the 60’s or the 70’s or the 80’s
or the 90’s or …
do know that with time everything changes and we must change
with the times.
all love affairs – In order to make it a successful marriage,
both parties must grow together – paralleling each other. And
this love affair – me with the music and the dance – can only
survive as a successful marriage through nurturing, change,
knowledge and staying on the same page – changing but continuing
to love, honor and obey the love and traditions of when
we first met.
Zaki in the early 80s,
filmed by Edwina Nearing Yes it's dark and fuzzy, but it is also rare
affair has taken me to innumerable places including many trips
to the Middle East, but primarily, first and foremost, to Egypt.
My first visit to Egypt was in the early 80’s when I went two
years in a row with Morocco on
her whirlwind dance tours that she planned with Edwina
Nearing. “Back in the day,” we
could go to at least one club a night to see dancing
(this translates as each club usually had 2-3 top name dancers,
each with their own separate orchestra sized band, a folkloric
show, music for our own listening pleasure and a singer),
stay there until almost dawn, go to the hotel to take a nap,
awaken when the cocks crow (or was it the muezzin on the
loudspeaker), jump into a tour bus – see a requisite sight
(the pyramids, museums, etc.) with a personal guide, have a
free late afternoon to shop in the Khan el Khalili, wander
the streets, or be fitted for a costume, maybe take a dance
lesson, shower at the hotel and repeat the process again but
at another club or casino.
In the 80’s
it was possible to see Nagwa, Sohair, Fifi, Nadia,
Zizi, Shushu, Nelli, Aza and more – each in a different
5 star hotel or in various casinos and clubs on Shariaa al
something special and exciting about going out to the clubs
and experiencing the shows with the locals and vacationing
Arabs from other Middle Eastern countries. Maybe the smell
of DDT in the grilled pigeons, the boxes of Kleenex on the
table, the ear-deafening, distorted music and the rather hokey
shows (complete with magicians, or almost nude foreign jazz
dancers with netted middle sections) being introduced in Arabic
made the experience truly foreign.
shows somehow were more memorable and endearing than the
us in a sanitized hotel ballroom atmosphere with English
speaking M.C.s. at the two festivals I had attended in
completely understand and appreciate the dilemma of the
producers’ desires to impress and cater to the visiting
workshopees, but in doing so, something gets lost in the
tours (in which I opted to remain longer in Egypt beyond the
tours) were the beginning of my intensive introduction to Egyptian
culture. Because I had many Middle Eastern musician and dance
related friends, and had studied intensively with Egyptian
dancers on my own turf (mainly Fatma Akef, sister and
former dance partner of Naima Akef, Egyptian top dancing
actress of the ‘50’s and ’60 ‘s), I knew that the key
to understanding Middle Eastern and Egyptian dance was actually
immersing oneself in the culture and, if possible, this meant
living in the land of that culture.
was first, a wife and a mother, living in Egypt was not even
a consideration. This was not how I was raised – family comes
first! But in the 80’s life changed for me. My kids no longer
lived with me at home (they had become adults) and neither
did my husband.
I was finally
free to do for me. This meant I could finally pursue the study
of the dance by living in the culture from which it
emerged. Unfortunately, too many decades had been committed
to performing and teaching and this prevented me from moving
to Egypt to self-immerse.
my visits were just that – visits. But I lived with families
and in neighborhoods with the express purpose of studying,
not just the dance and the music, but also the people. This
was the key to making the dance complete and not just superficial
and going through the motions. This was learning to “walk
like an Egyptian!”
this brings me back to the present and the dilemma of the changing
face of Egyptian dance today. As I stated before, I had certain
observations and opinions – primarily of how I saw the dance, Egyptian
dance, changing. And, as I previously stated, that, although
I completely agree that “life changes,” and dance evolves,
I am also committed to trying to preserve the traditions of
Egyptian dance as we, I, know it. The dance of the Golden
Age of Egypt. The Golden Age that had already undergone
changes as it was influenced by Hollywood, South America, dancer
and theater owner Badia Masabni and the composers such
as Mohamed Abdul Wehab, Said Darwish (the father
of modern Egyptian music) and Farid el Atrache – all
of whom were lovers of and inspired by Western music and composers.
1937 poster announcing opening of Badia's Casino by the Nile
to me at least, that Egyptian dance has finally crossed that
thin line in the sand between Egyptian and -- something else.
Something not Egyptian. Something – Western. Did
our movies in the West inspire the East? Is it just the question
of which came first - the chicken or the egg?
I criticize the changes of the dance when the dance that
I know and love is actually a fusion, a bastardization of
Egyptian and other cultures and dance styles? Did not Naima
Akef tap dance? Did not Taheyya Carioca do the Carioca? Did
not Samia Gamal study and apply ballet to her dance? Did
not our beloved Mohamed Abdul Wehab lift Russian folk songs
(and only slightly change them) for our dance melodies and
for our mother Om Kalthoum’s songs?
So how can
I criticize the changes when the dance was already changed
when I met it? And it continues to change. Maybe it is because
in my lifetime I have witnessed the changes made to the family by
the invention of the television, the computer, and all the
phases that modern technology and the airplane have brought
us. We no longer seek the family for our world – our world
is beyond that – light years beyond it -- and it is escalating
at such a rapid rate (as witnessed in the Saudi Arabian peninsula
where a tribe has moved from the 10th century to
the 21st in just 20 short years). I am addressing
this change because I want to know why the Egyptians are now
studying ballet and other dance styles and turning their backs
on their own dance and culture.
their culture so much in the past – do they live in such
a globalized world – that they no longer retain the uniqueness
that we know as baladi? I don’t think so. Or I hope not!
Is it the dance that changed? Or is it changed for us – the
non-Middle Easterners. Do they think we want it changed?
Or is it changed because they are bored with it (or ashamed)
and want to give it yet another twist and don’t realize that
enough is enough. Is it that this new generation is exposed
to MTV and clips and has had its values changed.
Have I become
like the religious converts or born again Christians?
Am I so fanatic about my beliefs in preserving the traditions
of the dance that I am a zealot struggling to preserve
the dance that my Egyptian dancers abandon? Have I become just
one more fundamentalist on a soapbox preaching my religion,
What I saw
being taught, for the most part, was dance that seemed to have
adopted Western concepts of choreography, counting and change.
Gone, in the classes, was the beauty of the slightly changing
repetitious movements and their accompanying ever so subtle
accents. Although sometimes when they performed they would
still practice what they didn’t teach.
difficult to teach because it is a time-consuming task and
the teacher must assume the role of master with the student
following her/his every movement including movements in daily
life – not just superficial dance steps. The dance must come
I like to
refer to the movie “Drunken Master” starring Jackie
this movie, the student moves in with the master and is given
tasks to complete that do not seem to apply to learning “kung
fu”, but, in reality, these inane tasks are teaching the student
the essence of his art so that he can call upon them naturally
without thinking. The same is true in Egyptian dance. It is
not just a dance of steps; it is a dance that must emerge
from within. Most native Egyptians would just be able to call
upon their history but we non-natives must try harder.
As I mentioned
before, in order to learn (and maybe someday come close to
mastering) Egyptian dance, one must totally immerse oneself
in the land, the culture, the language and the music. It must
become a way of life.
A very few
Egyptian dancers still subscribe to this “old school” of teaching
which includes the follow the bouncing butt method of
teaching. But these dancers are very much the minority and it
– with the invention of the new style – modern Oriental
dance based on Moscow on the Nile ballets – how is it influencing
the new dancers of the world. So many are making pilgrimages
to the mother country to learn from the source of the
dance. But what are they learning? They are learning what is
coming out of Egypt today. First, somehow, they should learn
and experience the basis, the root of pure Egyptian dance.
But how can they, when the dance masters themselves teach fusion
it because this fusion dance can be taught quickly, is stylized
and is easier to learn and to count? After all most of this
fusion is actually Western, and therefore already very familiar
to us Westerners. And the method used to teach it is counting
– which is a foreign or anti-Oriental concept. Therefore; instant
new Egyptian dancers and dance teachers of today doing a disservice
to themselves and to the new dancers of today? Is it up to
us – the khawaga – the foreigners, to preserve the dance traditions
that our masters seem to forsake?
for more? 6-30-07 Chapter
5: Listen to the Music by Amina Goodyear Yousef wanted
us to look exotic, like we were from the Middle East, so he made us stay downstairs,
look available and wear sexy, skimpy pantaloon outfits or diaphanous caftans
when we were not dancing.
Dance; You Follow by Leila
As Westerners interested in an Eastern dance form, we might want to ask ourselves
if we are missing certain critical aspects of Raqs Sharki because we are not
open to Eastern teaching methods.