Along the Nile
Part One: Raqs
Reprinted with permission, from Bennu, Issue Vol.6
Serpent is proud to announce that we will be reprinting a multi-section
article, "Dances Along the Nile," from the publication
Bennu, courtesy of New York's Gamila El Masri. Formerly a
publication, Bennu was a labor of love that is now available
in pdf format on CD. This publication is a
we are pleased
to be able to offer our readers this sample and to
add this content to our archives. Our thanks to Gamila Al
for the republishing rights. For more imformation about ordering
Bennu on CD, please contact Gamila through the linked
One of the
richest experiences I have ever had was working with the Egyptian
American Folkloric Group under the direction of Dr.
Mohamed Elsaadany. As principal choreographer it
was my responsibility to create whatever dances were asked
of me. “Uncle
Mo”would show up for our meetings with a bag of video
tapes and a bag of audio cassettes. “I need a dance from
... “and I would get heaps of clips from old movies,
footage of all the folkloric troupes and dancers of Egypt
and various selections of music appropriate to the project
Kid in a candy store.
now I had to create my own dances -- and they'd better not
look like I took them off the video! The challenge was to isolate
the elements and the way they were used in each region; and
then design an original choreography that would pass muster
in the Egyptian cultural community. And, of course, I wanted
to infuse the work with my own manner of artistic presentation,
a kind of 'funky' and fun folkloric that would make dancers
want to perform them.
ceases to amaze me how much material there is to work with
or how richly diverse, yet constant, is Egyptian folkloric
dance. It is that vision of a journey on the Nile, portrayed
in the dozens of programs we performed, that has inspired me.
Even though it drove me magnoun at the time, nothing
has taught me more than those hours and hours upon hours of
videos of the dances along the Nile.
Ultimately the most popular of the Egyptian folkloric dances, the Egyptian
cane dance or raqs al assaya is the one most infused (and abused and misused
at times) into cabaret performances. Originating in Upper Egypt, it is a saidi
dance evolved from the men's combative tahteeb dance that utilizes large, heavy
bamboo stalks about 5' or so long. The word assaya does not mean 'cane' as
in the version we use with the curved crook end, but rather refers to the staff
used in the tahteeb, and also employed in raqs bil asa, (dance with stick).
assaya is literarily the “staff of life”in
the pastoral environment of the fellaheen (farmers and
shepherds), as well as the nomadic bedouin, used for walking,
plowing, herding animals and other daily tasks. It becomes
an extension of the people themselves, used naturally and
organically in the daily process of their lives. As such,
it should be emulated in the same fashion by contemporary
performers whether using it in folkloric or cabaret modes.
words, it is not a gimmicky prop you go have fun with willy-nilly.
No Charlie Chaplin, no Fred Astaire, no baton twirling drum
majorettes, and certainly no poking it at the audience ...
or (yes, it really did happen...) bending over flat back and
balancing it on your back, tooshie to the audience. Don't use
a cane in your show unless you know what you're doing with
it, lest, like the flat-backing young dancer, you show your
audience your ignorance.
no shortage of resources. First and foremost, get yourself
a copy of Arabesque magazine Vol III, Issues III and IV
(1977), for the most comprehensive articles on Raqs al
Assaya history, development and usage. Find a teacher whose
specialty is cane and take some workshops, and buy videos by
reputable Egyptian/style instructors and performers. Don't
rely on what you see your fellow performers doing.
particular poses and postures that are readily recognized
as belonging to raqs al assaya; certain ways of wielding the
points of balance and stylized movement that all have to
be learned in order to present a credible rendition. You don't
make it up as you go along. When you are proficient in skill
and understanding of the origins, then, and only then, do
have any hubris to lend it your own interpretations.
of the postures is holding the cane overhead with both hands.
The cane is not gripped in a white knuckled death hold however,
but is lightly held in the hollow between thumb and index finger,
with the fingers gracefully held aloft in the standard oriental
hand position. And the head of the cane always turns down.
staple is the cane held in the right hand, with the right arm
extended forward, and resting on the right shoulder (crook
down and to the back). The left arm bends at the elbow and
the hand is gracefully brought to the head with the index finger
touching the temple, the other fingers relaxed, not curled.
Add a little head bob and the movement is repeated bringing
the hand to and from the temple. Use with standing hip drops
or step-hip travel with it. Aiwa!
the cane is more than just keeping it on your head for awhile.
People in Egypt balance a heck of a lot more than a little
stick on their heads. Going shopping? Carry it all home on
your head. Out of water? Run on down to the Nile and walk back
with a jug full on your head. Dinner guests? Just pop that
4' tray on your head and serve six. Got a bale of sugarcane
that didn't fit in the donkey cart? Yep ... on your head. New
rug ... well, that's two heads, you bring a friend.
you have the cane balanced on your head, develop something
impressive to be doing while it's there. Try a series of slow
alternating hip drops lowering yourself into a “sitting
grande pliae”, then bring yourself back up to standing
position the same way. Huge staccato hip circles also look
really good under a head balanced cane. Best of all, try to
manage some of those little saidi hops while balancing the
cane on your head. Eshta!
balance point is the shoulder. A popular posture would be to
stand 3/4 to the audience so the balancing shoulder is towards
them. Then do shoulder isolations to the rhythm, and at one
point tilt your body towards the audience and add a tight shoulder
shimmy while still retaining the cane's balance. While doing
that, use the left arm to do the hand to temple hand gesture
on the hip has a great number of variations ... and lots of
help from costuming. Just tie yourself a big ol' knot in your
hip scarf and strategically place it so you can balance your
cane between your body and the knot; for cabaret you just tuck
in a pouffy pom pom scarf. Easy, right? But then you have to
dance with it. Hip drops work, especially with a tawalla posture
-- not necessarily in motion (Tawalla is the standing on one
leg with the other lifted and bent right angle at the knee
and propelling oneself forward keeping that position, you also
have a bit of an Egyptian “tilt”). A tawalla posture
going into a backbend (layout) while balancing the cane on
the hip is one of my faves. Then make small ankle circles to
jingle your khol kali (ankle bracelets). Come up for air.
but incredibly effective trick for cabaret performances is
to assume a slight tawalla posture and balance the cane on
the bare skin at the top of the thigh. Well, you will have
that teeny piece of double faced tape placed in the middle
of the cane anyway, right? What you do is find the balance
point for you and your cane, a very intimate thing for no two
are alike, while balancing it on your head. You then mark that
point with some double face tape, enough to make it secure
but not obvious. No shame and not cheating; your primary job
is to give your audience a great performance, it's insurance.
Besides, it can still fall off. This just helps you get the
cane to where it needs to be and adds a bit of traction --
it also gives a measure of security when the curtain rises
and timing is of the essence.
balance point is the chest. Use judiciously or it becomes too
burlesque (which I adore, but not here). Coquettishly (if not
downright demurely) lower the cane onto your chest. The trick
to this is to set your shoulders down in back and then recline
just the slightest bit -- too much and the jig is up and you
lose the audience -- then position your cane to rest at the
built up trimmed edge of your cabaret bra. Aha! That's how
they do it! Yes, indeed-y. But you still have to dance with
it. Your best bet is controlled tiny chest lift/drops with
rib cage slides back and forth and lateral rotations. One final
big pop up at the end and let the cane roll down your outstretched
arms into your hands. Then look 'em dead in the eye and smile.
onto twirling. Speed is not necessarily of the essence, control
and rhythmic execution are. You don't just stand there and
twirl, you transfer the rhythmic fluidity of your body movement
through the timing of your twirling cycle. Deep, huh? Now do
it synchronizing with a duet partner ... and double canes.
is strength in the cane twirl but not aggression, extreme
rapid twirling should be held as an additional sensational
feat, less is more. Have your body of twirling be moderate
so that you can vary from slow to climatic; always reflecting
the music, it's mood and tempo. Get down without getting
cane with confident strength forward for several revolutions,
then reverse it twirling back. Switch forward once again. Turn
with the cane twirling overhead and then crack the cane head
on the floor in accent to the rhythm as you come out of the
turn. Twirl it in a figure eight from side to side and then
go into a backbend. Take that backbend to the floor still twirling
the figure eight over your body. Glory in the moment and deep
inhale. Then raise your self back up to a kneeling position
-- still twirling that figure eight -- and turn a 360 on one
knee. Throw the cane up in the air and deftly catch it twice,
hold it with two hands in front of you as you rise up to standing
position and begin to spin, raising the cane from arms out
in front to overhead. Release one hand, twirl cane overhead
a few revolutions, crack the cane head to the floor, turn under
it and dramatically come to an abrupt halt facing front; cane
extended out ala the Statue of Liberty with the other arm complacently
placed behind you, back of hand to small of back. Was it as
good for you as it was for me?
this section with an excerpt from the aforementioned Arabesque
really create the proper folkloric atmosphere, the fortunate
oriental dancer of the Middle East often has her orchestral
ensemble (of 20 pieces or so) change their symphonic instruments
for native, village ones. Flutes and nays give way to mizmars,
mizwizs and salamayyas; more percussion is added with a
variety of duffs with and without cymbals on their rims;
drums like the deep tabl beledi join the derbecki (tabla);
and instruments like the ancient argool and bizuc also
contribute to the “beled”or country sound.
soft fluid motions of the oriental dance explode into bouncy,
folkloric steps and crisp, snapping hip work. Some dancers
open dramatically, while others begin on a subtler note
and build to a climax, much like seen in the male tahteeb,
or in many other folk dances. Different emotions are conveyed,
however, when the cane is performed by women. Depending
on the tableau created, the dancer can be coy and charming,
treating the cane sweetly and using it to embellish seductive
hip work in an alluring manner, or she can adopt the strong
twirling motions and crack the cane to the ground with
the beat of the music in a more powerful style often demonstrated
by the males. This more “masculine”adaptation
is slightly tongue-in-cheek, since it is in contrast to
the traditional aspects of Middle Eastern femininity.
dancer can carry this further in a slightly mocking display
of men in battle. Whatever her mood, the dancer can evoke
much jumping, whooping and hand clapping from the spectators.
are always subtle ...nor are the movements ever beyond the barriers of the
Middle Eastern code of feminine conduct. While the suggestion of sexuality
and voyeurism is there, or the movements are strong, there is never the aggressive
use of the cane as seen sometimes in U.S. nightclubs; poking the cane at
the audience for example.”
of this article comings soon, including- Raqs al Balas
(jug), Shamadan (candelabra), Tray, and Melaya
a comment? Send us a
Check the "Letters to the Editor"
for other possible viewpoints!
Assaya Instruction at Najia’s Studio
Demonstrated by Rawan El-Mouzayen (Arab-American, age
New Venue for Rakkasah Festival West by Susie Poulelis
retail, there is a saying that having an item sell out was a happy
problem to have. You want to keep your customers yearning for more,
making sure they won't hesitate to buy the next time they see something
Buy or Not to Buy –A Guide to Mass Market Belly
Dance Instructional DVDs by Yasmin
producers ask or hire others to write glowing reviews. You will
often see the same people reviewing a producer’s entire
line of product. Those are suspect. Look for the one-off comments.
They will give a better overview, along with anything less than
Career Path Less Traveled: Dancing in Movies and TV
in the'60s, An Interview with Tanya Lemani by John
Smart" I enjoyed working with Karen Steele and Don Adams.
They took some of my lines out and Don saw that I was upset.
Don insisted that they give some of them back to me.
at the Hoover featuring Morocco February 10, 2008,
Hoover Theatre in San Jose, CA Video and photos by
Smith on scene reporter, event produced by The San Francisco
Bay Area Chapter of MECDA