Tribal Souk

Alnisa in 2008

Gilded Serpent presents...
Dance - Deeper than the Moves
by Keti Sharif
15 June 2008

The subtle language of dance and movement is called "Somatics". It is the totality of the dance that encompasses the intention behind the movement and the authenticity of the overall expression of the move, uniting mind, heart and soul. The term "somatic" is derived from the Greek "soma", meaning "living body", the human being expressed from the inside. The focus is on subjective experience, rather than the observable and measurable.

The native dances of many cultures place a higher value on the "feeling" the dance rouses, which includes celebrational or connective aspects of the dance rather than a focus on the technicalities of movement. In the west, it seems there has been a "rule" for some time that the movement must be completely technically sound in order to "present" the dance we know as Oriental, folkloric, Raqs Sharqi or bellydance. Whatever the name of the dance – its mechanism or technique has too often become a focus and measure of a dancer’s skill in many areas of Middle Eastern Dance.

As a developer of dance systems that use technique to learn about timing, transition, flow and rhythm – I certainly value the importance of the technical element. Yet I use it as a tool for harnessing something deeper – the soul of the dance. Technique, in my view, is the dancer’s tool to give her dance language syntax and structure.

What is “the soul of the dance”? For me it is the nuance of a deep non-verbal language of the human body and mind that communicates something of a rich, personal, authentic nature – either to the dancer herself/himself - or to others in a shared environment. There is both vulnerability and strength in dance when its essential ingredient is “communication from the heart”. Firstly, feeling takes precedence and technique becomes secondary, rather than the focus. In my systems, I teach balance, rhythm and the importance of footwork and floor plan, to create awareness of the perfection of geometry, shape and fractal timing that lies within the rhythm – so that the dancer can later “simply dance” and “forget the details”!

The body has a remarkable memory, and especially in terms of fractal timing and regularity in rhythm, the body can actually remember and recall steps once learnt – as a natural, rhythmic flow with little concentration required. But as the rhythm and footwork are so interconnected, learning technique provides a safe base – especially for the “western mind” or anyone schooled in the technical western system as a child. So rhythm, well…it translates to a synchronized style of movement that is comfortable, flowing and reflects the musical backbone.

A dancer who feels “safe” in the rhythm, footwork, technical movement feels grounded and secure as she dances. A grounded dancer will be less "in her head” and allow the authenticity of feeling to come through her body as a flowing, emotive movement that expresses the music and how she “feels” the music.

Egyptian dancers who close their eyes whilst listening and dancing to an Om Koltshoum composition are often dancing with incredible subtlety, with the tiniest yet deep belly undulation and light hand gesture – almost felt rather than seen – but the articulation is extremely powerful. Yet the Egyptian dancer has had years of “absorbing” the music and rhythms throughout her lifetime, so the structural essence is ingrained in her body memory. Feeling and sensing is vital to the real communication of dance, whether it be for an audience, a class or for one’s self. Farida Fahmy says “Exploring core qualities of Egyptian movement is subtle, yet unlocks dynamics and aesthetics within the framework of dance.”

The love of Middle Eastern music and the feeling it creates is usually the starting point for a dancer’s passion and enthusiasm. We don’t engage with a certain piece of music because we find it technically exciting! So the music creates an initial emotive response, seconded by an underlying structure that when respected, allows the dance to fully emerge. Melodies resonate with various moods (psycho-acoustics) and hence drive an emotive response that can be danced as a mood, inflection or story.

Character in Middle Eastern dance is important too, where the dancer shapes her persona according to the lyrical or instrumental conversation. In Egyptian Baladi – the solo dancer may be dancing to a Saiidi folk song, where the story depicts a maiden, a mother-in-law and a strong warrior. Through the progressive movement of the song, through lyrics and music, she will dance the “persona” of each character. So the core technical movement may be the same – for example let’s choose a baladi style hip drop (wahda we noss) but with nuance. The core technique will remain constant as the rhythm does, yet the overall nuance - gesture of hands, the turning of the body, the expression on the face, the confidence of the move – will all contribute to the essence of the character, and therefore each move will look and “feel” very different!

So in a nutshell, technique, timing and flow form a core essential to structural authenticity of the dance. But the essence of the dance shares emotion, story, and nuance and often carries cultural or geographic content. The dance is dynamically realized as a true mode of authentic communication when it is personalized and enriched by the dancer’s inner artist. The expressive possibilities are endless, the same song may rouse different, even conflicting feelings in different dancers, depending on the association. A thick, heavy maqsoum rhythm may take a dancer back to her first experience at a live downtown Cairo cabaret, which evokes everything she felt at that event. For another, she may have met her love while the rhythm or song was playing on a radio. There are associated memories that filter through with the dancer’s choice of music – that in turn affect her dance expression.

Middle Eastern dance requires grounding in technical skills. The mastery makes the dancer safe and confident. Yet the abandonment of counting, concentration on muscles or foot placement gives the body permission to do something very special – support your dance through body memory.

Allowing your body to take over and trusting it to remember to move and flow flawlessly through a beautiful dance will give you permission to play. This kind of confidence supports the dancer and allows the real artist – the star of the dance – to shine.


Somatics and the above topics are explored in Egypt at the Sphinx Festival themed “Essential Egypt”
with Farida Fahmy, Mahmoud Reda, Laiza Laziza and Keti Sharif at

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