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Photos of author by Andre Elbing

the dreaded mu-mu

Gilded Serpent presents...
Dances Along the Nile
Part Two: Raqs Al Balas
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.

Raqs al Balas
Ah, the poor balas (water jug). This is one of the most underestimated and ignored of the dances along the Nile. An absolute must in any Egyptian folk repertoire, you can usually find it in troupe work, but it does not seem to be utilized much by solo artists. Most renditions feature fellaheen of Lower Egypt styling in both music and costuming. The costuming for this type of balas is usually the deterrent; the dreaded mu-mu's. The galabiya fellahi (fellahi dresses) are like granny gowns, shirred at the yoke and full bodied. For performance costuming, the body of the dress is cut in A-line sections so it is not as bulky in the bodice and can be a full circle at the bottom. The movement of the dresses is actually an important part of the dance; held by the hem in one hand (while the other supports the balas on the shoulder) the dress is used in a swooshing movement in front of the body and away again following footwork usually incorporating a grapevine step variation with turns, directional twists and back stepping.

Based on the Reda Troupe and similar Egyptian folkloric company presentations, it is usually a tableau of village girls going to get water from the Nile.

Here they encounter a group of local lads who, in an attempt to charm them, steal the balas and toss it about amongst the boys -- with the girls forever trying to regain possession. Sort of a fellahi co-ed touch football. It is a perfect opportunity to utilize the rather long head veil (usually to the floor) for the coy veiling and unveiling of the face. The veil is pulled forward in front of the body to cover all but one eye, then the entire body turns -- holding this position -- towards the male and back again (the head veil is conveniently released while frolicking). Unfortunately, you don't always have a full complement of dancers (especially males), but the dance can also be performed as a male-female duet, or an all female group of any size. This variation when done as a solo can be a bit ... dull?

However, there are also fellaheen in Upper Egypt; that makes them saidi fellaheen, who also need to get water from the Nile and carry it home in a jug. That means you can use Metkal Kenawi music, and there just happens to be a Metkal Kenawi song (Etfaraj Al Halawa ) that includes references to the balas, how sweet you are (helwa), and all sorts of goodies that you can incorporate into the choreography. Get a translation! Since we're talking saidi music, we're talkin' saidi costuming; as in saidi coin dresses or net bead/paillette dresses or, heaven love me, assuit (tulle bi telli) or your favorite beledi dress. Lots of coins on your headpieces and definitely kohl kali (ankle bracelets) ... especially for this piece of music because there is a direct reference to them in the song lyrics.

The first time I performed balas to this music it was as a male-female duet with another (Egyptian) choreographer from the Egyptian American Folkloric Group.

When he returned to Egypt, I went on to perform it as a solo and played to the audience where I would have interacted with him.

There is a section in the song about his asking for a drink from the balas and the subsequent responses that was perfect for the audience interplay. What makes the balas interesting as a prop is that there are specific movements using it, such as moving the balas in a figure eight to indicate the water of the Nile. So you are not just carrying it around with you while you dance, you tell a story through it.

There are a few different styles of balas varying mostly in height, although the version I use has a smaller radius than the usual. There's the amphora shape with little “ear”handles, another with a tall neck and long handles, and the smaller type I use, for example. Some are terra cotta in color and some are gaily painted with flowers or geometric designs. When first performing the number I actually had to use a ceramic balas that weighed a ton, but it was what I was provided with. By the third performance I had made a paper mache replica ... there was a bruise on my head from where I carried the original one.

An added benefit to performing a saidi balas to the above mentioned song is that many Egyptian musicians already know and love it, and it is possible to work it into your cabaret act, just as you do your cane. The beladi (country rhythm) section of your cabaret show can be converted into a little folkloric presentation that will impress the heck out of your Egyptian audience, your fellow performers, your teachers and generally anyone who can't do/doesn't know what you do.

When working with live musicians, save yourself much grief and revise your choreography to fit their version, It's what you'll get the night of the performance no matter how many “rehearsals”you have. Just gotta love those guys.


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Ready for more?
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