Fire and Ice
What makes some
of our dance good, what makes some of it bad is puzzling to me. There
is always a dancer who comes along whom I find just terrible, but someone,
whose opinion I respect, will find wonderful. Tastes change. What I
once found abhorrent often grows on me as my appreciation of the subtleties
of the dance change, or according to my sense of humor at the time.
However, some things never look good, never feel good. What is this
about? Is our individual criterion for Middle Eastern dance so "individual"
that we cannot come to an agreement? Individuality is not an issue in
ballet, or in any art form with clearly understood parameters for quality,
but in belly dancing, it is a real dilemma. Should we apply different
artistic criteria to Middle Eastern dance than we apply to ballet, flamenco,
classical Indian dance or other forms of art? I'm not talking about
student recitals, informal haflas or private parties. I'm talking about
large venues for which we charge admission and lead the public to expect
a level of professional entertainment. If we are not concerned with
general acceptance of Middle Eastern dance as another form of art, but
we are content to confine ourselves to dancing for one another, then
it really doesn't matter.
can be strong enough to accept criticism and quit avoiding the unpleasant
reality that there is a lot of "real bad dancing" out
there, no one outside the dance community will take us seriously.
Likewise, when does what we present as Middle Eastern culture, or
dance move so far away that it becomes something else? How many
labels are we going to invent in our desire to be inclusive?
I recently viewed
a tape one of my students brought back from a weeklong dance camp she
attended. The quality of the tape, which was an amateur recording, was
surprisingly good. It featured dances by teachers at the camp and informal
performances by some of the participants. I sat though clip after clip
of camp attendees clad in the versions of Egyptian Chic: beads, gauntlets,
handkerchief hem skirts, and little wisps of veils discarded before
the introduction to the music was done. There were a number of very
polished dancers, but there wasn't much that was notable. However, I
am pretty fussy, and this was videotape. I don't dance Egyptian modern
styling, except as a novelty, and there are many, many dancers who do
it far better than I do. Much as I appreciate the form, I have my own
that's what I was looking for, dancers who could move within the
context of a genre but still express their own style. Most of the
dancing bored me because of its cookie-cutter consistency.
However, two performances
stood out like beacons in a sea of ennui.
The first was an
informal gathering where several of the guests had been
performing in full Madame Abla costumes. At a break in the parade
of dancers, a woman who had been sitting in a group of people on the
floor stood up and moved to the center of the circle. She was wearing
jeans, a tank top, and some sort of healthy looking shoes, slip-ons,
not conducive to dancing at all. She had obviously been overtaken by
great music. Who wouldn't be? As she proceeded to dance, it was obvious
she was or had been a professional dancer. She used small, tight, crisp,
hip movements, accented by a long rope of "mizumas" that someone
extemporaneously tied around her hips. She didn't move much, didn't
need much floor space, and was sparing in her use of hips drops and
locks, although she knew her music so well that she caught every stop,
every accent without a contrived, "polished" look. She let
the music dictate her moves. She
never pushed her movements at her audience. She vibrated through a chiftitelli,
her arms moving gracefully, her hips subtly accenting and turning. Her
dance was one of the more interesting and innovative taxims I have ever
seen, though very simple. She occasionally held her arms above her head,
but without a showgirl thrust and frame and sans the hard-edged smile
that sometimes seems to me to characterize many modern Egyptian style
There was nothing vulgar or pretentious about her dancing, just something
competent and soulful. It was mesmerizing. Responding to her obvious
expertise, the musicians came to life, and there developed a marvelous
synergy between them. She sang along as they played. I realized that
more than her dancing per se, it was her absolute understanding of what
this dance is all about that made this one performance
outstanding. She danced on and on, using simple, typical moves, finally
kicking off her shoes, to finish with a folk dance to zurna and davul,
hands straight down at her sides or straight out from the shoulders
in a folk stylization that was dictated, again, by the music. The people
in the circle watching her were pounding the floor and howling in approval,
and when she finally finished, everyone in the room jumped to his feet.
It is rare to be present at a situation like this, rare to see these
spontaneous performances that spring from the soul, and rarer still
to have something so profound come across on videotape.
I was in
tears at the end of this clip.
I can only think
of one other time I have been so moved by a film of a dancer. In live
performances I have been moved to tears many times, but only twice on
The second performance
was by an instructor and took place in a larger, more formal area. The
musicians, a much larger band that included clarinet, had obviously
been instructed to improvise. The performance, one must believe, was
also improvised. It could not have been further from the earthy, basic,
traditional style of the dancer in jeans. This was a highly stylized,
interpretive performance that left me wondering just
what it was I had seen. While I did not care for it at all, I found
it fascinating in a National Geographic sort of way.
The dancer was a
tall, thin woman with long black hair cut similarly to Xena the Warrior
Princess. She took the stage in a long heavy, bias cut skirt of something
that sparkled like the night sky and hung heavily in graceful folds
along her body. Her top was a short tank of chain mail, lending a rather
gothic look to the whole ensemble. She had a beautiful girdle of coins
that clung gracefully to her slim hips, with chains of coin hanging
down onto the folds of the skirt. She had impressive, voluminous veil
of dark silk sort of wound around her in disarray. Standing very still,
as the music began she slowly spun around in a widening circle of skirt,
veil, hair and arms. At the end of her spinning, she arched her back
and reached forward with one long leg in a movement reminiscent of Egyptian
dancers on the tomb walls. Then she did some more business with the
veil, seeming to have trouble disentangling herself from it. She stopped,
did a vibrating
shimmy with one leg slightly off to the side with her head bowed and
back to the audience.
I kept waiting
for her to begin, but realized after a few moments that she had
begun. I was seeing an artistic performance of interpretive dance
done to improvised Middle Eastern-ish music. I guess it isn't my
cup of tea, although it must be extraordinarily popular considering
that she is much in demand.
during this performance the dancer descended to the floor. The first
time, she struggled to rid herself of her veil, and having done so,
she flung it aside like so much laundry. She then rolled over time and
again on the floor. For a moment, I felt that I shouldn't be watching,
but I hung in there, fascinated. The music sounded like it had ended,
but it began again and so did she, with much arm waving, vibrating,
and then she was on the floor again! This time she seemed to be experiencing
some trauma as she flung herself about, wadded up her veil, and pounded
it on the floor, flinging her long hair forward and back wildly. Then
she was done. She stood up with her veil draped around her, her arms
crossed on her shoulders in a penitential pose, bowed deeply and left
What can I say? This was a performance that left me confused, wondering
if I was too unrefined to appreciate "true art", had missed
some part of the story, or if it was really just the story of the Emperor's
New Clothes. Her work seemed more appropriate for an avant-garde theater
in New York. Whether this is a plus or minus is purely a matter of individual
preference. She was so absorbed in her own desire to "create"
that she completely disconnected with audience.
of indulgent self-absorption seems more the antithesis of what I
understand is the spirit of Raqs Sharqi.
If you had come
to this performance expecting to see Middle Eastern dance or Belly dancing,
you would have left confused and disappointed. Of course, that is not
the case. People at the camp knew what to expect. I didn't.
In our zeal to be accepted as a legitimate art form, a legitimate dance,
we've begun to move in many directions. I think that when we move into
areas that are on the edge, unclear, we need to let our audience know
that this is not Middle Eastern dance. Does it belongs in our workshops
and festivals? I suppose it might, as long as we label it what it is
and let the audience make a decision about what they want to see and
experience. Performance Art, that great vast catch-all that allows anyone
to do almost anything and
make a claim to the title of "Art", is not what Middle Eastern
dance is about, not really. I wonder if
we aren't so bored by the constant mediocre parade of glitz or grub,
that we are willing to settle for anything that breaks up the boredom
and holds out the possibility of a connection.
as the roots of this dance may be, it has certainly been around
long enough to stand on its own. It doesn't need the trappings of
art, it doesn't need fixing, it doesn't need another "new"
Be wary of embracing
those who tell you they KNOW the deeper meaning of
this dance, are the "Keeper of its Truth". We all contain
precious parts of it, but none of us contains it all. As it changes,
it moves like the proverbial python, like the glaciers, and like life
itself, slowly, very slowly. It has fashions that come and go, but the
essence of it will always involve a dancer, a rhythm and an audience.
Remove one of these elements and it dies. However, I am a proponent
of the KISS technique….(Keep It Simple, Sweetie)! If it is odd, unusual,
profound AND connects with the audience, fine, fine. If not, then we
need to ask ourselves if we aren't asking too much from something that
was doing well long before we came along. However, if it stinks; it
stinks. Bad entertainment is bad entertainment; no excuses!
is Alive and Well in Oakland, California! by
During the auditions,
there was an ongoing dialogue among the panelists concerning guidelines
festival performances; cultural accuracy vs. artistic expression became
Festival West: Sunday Photos
by Susie Poulelis
Alexandria, Momo Kadous, Soraya, Leila Haddad, Elana, Suhaila, Jamila,
Festival, West: Saturday Photos
by Susie Poulelis
Shoshanna, more Dalia, Good Vibrations, Lunatique, Morocco, and
Festival, West: Friday Night
Photos by Susie Poulelis
Leila Haddad, Elena Lentini, Dalia Carella, Near Eastern Dance Company
and more. Saturday and Sunday coming soon.