one of the Superman movies staring Christopher Reeves,
Lois Lane is falling from a skyscraper and has fallen approximately
half-way down when Superman swoops into her fall and catches
her up in his muscled arms and assures her, “Don’t worry;
I’ve got you!” Lois pauses a moment, perplexed, and asks, “Well,
Superman, you’ve got me, but who’s got you?”
in the 1970s and ‘80s there was a lot of concern about the
lack of professionalism in dancers of Raks Sharqi and Beledi
(“Belly Dance” to those of you still living in blissful ignorance
of the deadly and ever-present Middle Eastern Dance controversies). One
of the many “improvements” that was suggested often was a
set of standards that had to be met in order to facilitate
proper ranking, and possibly, sidelining one’s competition
by posing standards that were specific to only one camp of
dance instruction. However, these so-called standards were
not so easy to define as one might have hoped, apparently
because there was scant agreement that, though dance should
appear to be open to all in the “sisterhood” of dancers,
in fact, the methods of teaching dance technique, performing
the technique, and the appropriate naming of each movement
or folk-step was completely chaotic.
myself, added to the early confusion by naming many of the
steps and movements, just as others were also naming them
something else! For instance, I recall deciding that a particular
hip shimmy that I had learned from Bert Balladine and then
again reviewed repeatedly in my Egyptian travels (which I
deemed “Fact-finding Reconnaissance Missions”) could reasonably
be likened to the workings of a combustion engine for the
sake of imagery, and I named it the “Piston Shimmy” and I
subsequently taught the Piston Shimmy to thousands of students
over the years. The dancer’s legs worked like piston rods
driving the pistons (the hips) up and down. I wanted the
dancer to image her legs doing the work and her hips rising
and falling straight up and down in a rapid, machine-like
motion directly beneath her armpits.
the time, I had not grasped the secret super-truth of
Raks Sharqi and Raks Beledi: that it is better and more
compelling when relaxed and imprecise.
took me another ten years or so of traveling to Egypt to
understand that the Middle Eastern mentality is often radically
different from ours in the West.) We were the ones
trying to standardize movements and name them
so that precise movement and specific styles could be transmitted
in a formal learning setting (classroom or studio) in order
to facilitate our teaching and make the instructor appear
more knowledgeable. After all, it is somewhat embarrassing
to explain to a new student that a specific angle of a
“hoosie-whats-it” muscle will never make her movement look
exactly like mine, and that she should not be trying to
emulate my specifics but my “intentions”.
later, well, just last year to be exact, my choice of image
came back to haunt me when I read the words of a new dance
teacher somewhere on the Internet talking about teaching
“Pistol Shimmies” the way her own teacher (whom I had taught
in a Rakkasah workshop) taught her. I remembered a master
teacher’s admonition from my years in the School of Education at
the University of Washington:
who do not understand the words you are using, often
convert them to words that they do know without
thought, guile, or interpretation. They simply hear
what they already understand so that they can build
on that “knowledge”
the punch line of the old joke: God asked me what kind
of nose I wanted, and I thought He said rose, so I answered,
“A really big red one! (Well, you should see that girl’s
teacher dance, I’ll bet she shimmies like a pistol… whatever that means.)
women are dance “officianadas” (especially those in Middle
Eastern dance) who are also “CEOs”, professors, and scientists
etc. In other words, many of them are highly (perhaps
overly) educated, and, finding the occupation of housekeeper,
mom and resplendent arm-piece for their men unfulfilling,
actively seek-out a form of self-expression that has an
undeniably questionable history, origin, and reputation.
of us who wallowed in the hallowed halls of the university,
lapping up ethnic diversity in Anthropology 101 with
nearly two thousand other students in the same lecture
hall, found it consoling to learn this dance form and
to be able to stun the public with our new (off the wall)
found it compelling to have been asked by a local parks
and recreation director to teach that which I had so recently
learned. I asked my teacher, Bert Balladine what I should
do about this “parks ‘n rec” offer, and his reply was to
encourage me to take on the project and roll forward with
what I knew rather than to wait until I became more qualified
by the rigors of true experience.
warned me that to wait was to miss an opportunity that
would never return, and I would have to admit, looking
back on the situation, that he was quite correct.
is how we did things in those days; we learned, we tried,
we consulted our mentors and we struggled to learn more
by travel and experience rather than begging our instructors
for some sort of “sanctification”. If Bert had told me
I wasn’t ready to teach because of a, b, and c, I would
have taken that into consideration, but I would not have,
for even a moment, considered his word to be my law.
law of the sixties and seventies was that there was no
law, no certificate, and no limits.
did have one student ask me for certification, although
the way she put it was, “Will you sanctify me to teach
so that I can apply to teach it at (X) College?”
answered unctuously, “Fer shure! Let me know if you need
help.” Would that I had known then where it would all
if not most, of today’s dance students seem fixated
on the acceptability and accreditability of it all,
even though many of them seek in Raks Sharqi a release
and relief from the limits and rules put upon most
dance forms requiring youth, fitness, beauty, and rigorous
bring to class with them, their stunning lack of creative
expression, preferring to blend acceptably into the crowd. Rather
than think on their own, many request teacher-composed
choreographies, crib notes, and readymade costumes. Most
often, before they even ask a teacher’s qualifications,
they are more concerned by the location of the class or
its cost and meeting time. How self-limiting; imagine
if we were to choose our future spouse by how close and
convenient his home is!
have heard it said often enough that the level of dance
today is superior to that of the early years. Would
that that were true! …But it is not true.
the level of competency might seem higher because
the music is now reproduced better, live musicians are
more accessible, the dancer has trained her hips to shimmy
longer than is necessary (or even interesting), and she
has (at an earlier stage in her dance development) a beautiful
hand-made professional quality costume, and “store-bought”
hair that is stunning, the level of performance is markedly
lower. I believe this has occurred because of the current
need to be correct, and within certain predictable standards
of competence rather than special, unique, outstanding,
unusual, memorable, or even (gasp!) emotion producing.
believe that one of the main reasons for needing certification
levels in dance is to avoid the need for a track record,
an audition, or a resume of actual achievement.
the dancer could carry and prize a fancy paper from an
instructor who has decided that she has become a needful
thing—someone in authority who can circumvent actual performance
creativity, and who can substitute for that experience
a written test and, perhaps, a test of endurance doing
some questionable technique that has never seen the light
of day anywhere in the Middle East.
dancers, where is your pride in individuality, your personal
development of your own methods and techniques?
would you seek out and settle for a “Because My Teacher
Said So Certificate”?
you verified by personal travel and research into dance
in general that the certifier has a technique worthy of
your investment in money and time? Is that dancer respected
as a true representative of Raks Sharqi or Raks Beledi
by Middle Easterners, or is she selling you a mixed bag
of interpretive Western inventions of her own? Has she
drilled you in a dance choreography, or has she actually
taught you the “why and how” (history and concepts) of
dance technique? Have you looked at what has kept your
Super-certifier airborne? She certifies you but who certified
her—and with what authority?
you want to learn to teach, enroll in a teaching college
that will teach you how to teach any subject you know well! Then
you will then be fearless in teaching your students how
to be interpretive, how to organize, and how to analyze
music and movement for intent and emotional content as
is required to be a creative dancer and, perhaps, they
will become a better dancer than you. You will
learn how to communicate through words and imagery as well
as how various people learn differently from each other. You
will become a real teacher rather than a purveyor of specific
steps, transitions, and choreographies.
just as Lois Lane asked,
“Well, Superman, you’ve got me, but who’s got
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Learning Constitute Copying? My Musings about Sharing Dance"
still feel her pain as she spoke...
4-27-02 Amera Wahyatak
Habibi: Music for Middle Eastern Dance CD Review
by Najia El-Mouzayen
production is meant to be "dancer-friendly" ...
Bellydance from Lebanon, The Enchanted Dance"Produced
and arranged by Emad Sayyah, Reviewed by Najia El-Mouzayen You
are going to have to strap on your dancin stiletto