Gilded Serpent presents...
Dances Along the Nile
Part One: Raqs Al Assaya
by Gamila El Masri

Reprinted with permission, from Bennu, Issue Vol.6 #3,

Gilded 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 print publication, Bennu was a labor of love that is now available in pdf format on CD. This publication is a valuable resource for Oriental dancers and 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 Masri for the republishing rights. For more imformation about ordering Bennu on CD, please contact Gamila through the linked byline above.

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 at hand. Kid in a candy store.

Of course, 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.

It never 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.

Raqs Al Assaya
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).

The 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.

In other 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.

There is 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.

There are particular poses and postures that are readily recognized as belonging to raqs al assaya; certain ways of wielding the cane, 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 you have any hubris to lend it your own interpretations.

Most common 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.

Another 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!

Balancing 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.

authorSo, while 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!

Another 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 described earlier.

Balancing 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.

A simple 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.

The last 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. Coquettishly.

And now, 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.

There 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 crazy.

Twirl the 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?

I'll close this section with an excerpt from the aforementioned Arabesque articles:

“To 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.

The 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.

The 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. movements
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.”

More of this article comings soon, including- Raqs al Balas (jug), Shamadan (candelabra), Tray, and Melaya

Samia Gamal and Farid

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