Abhinaya, Personal Journey, What’s Missing?
by Yasmina Ramzy
posted May 11, 2009
I receive questions everyday by email from students both in and out of town or country, and if I do not have the answers, I usually find the appropriate expert who can answer the question. It is my hope to share these answers with as many readers as possible through this monthly column as I find many have the same questions. My 28 years performing in the Middle East, teaching around the globe, and directing a Middle Eastern Dance company, orchestra, school and conference has fostered a deep love and respect for this awe inspiring art form that I love to share. I hope to be inclusive of different styles of Bellydance and offer different points of view on controversial issues. If you have a question, please ask.
Question #1:I have taken countless classes and workshops. I am told my technique is “awesome”. I have infinite choreography combos from which to draw. I have studied Folklore. I know which steps belong where and I can balance a Shamadan. I can imitate Randa Kamel, Samia Gamal, Fifi Abdou and Dina but someone recently told me that I have much to learn and am not a Bellydancer yet. What’s wrong?
Answer:You might need to tap into the source. Listen to original live versions with the original vocals of artists such as Abdel Halim Hafiz, Farid Al Attrache, Mohamed Abdel Wahab, Sabah Fakri and most especially Oum Kalthoum. Listen to this music 24 hours a day for at least two years (try not to listen to anything else). In the beginning, you may find it irritating. After a while, it will become the air you breath, the water and wine you drink and indeed your sole form of sustenance without which you will wither and die. When this happens, your technique and choreography combinations will transform into pure magical dance art. This music is the source of all Arabic music. The music that created this dance we call Bellydance. Whether it was Samia or Nagwa, Fifi or Dina, it was the music that made them move the way they did. Tapping into the source will change the quality of your movement, your interpretation of the music and your emotional connection to the movement and the music.
Question #2: I read on your website that you have studied Abhinaya for Classical Indian dance. How would you say the concept of Abhinaya applies to Middle Eastern Dance? How would you define the concept of Abhinaya within Middle Eastern Dance? Would you consider it to be different or similar to Classical Indian dance?
Answer: Your questions read like the kind I have to answer in a grant application! No worries, I love an inquiring mind. First, for those who are not familiar with Abhinaya, the wikipedia definition is:
Abhinaya is a concept in Indian dance and drama derived from Bharata’s Natya Shastra. Although now, the word has come to mean ‘the art of expression’, etymologically it derives from Sanskrit abhi-‘towards’ + ni- take, so literally it means a ‘taking towards’ (the audience), or ‘transmission’. Aside from its clear impact on dramatic tradition, it is used as an integral part of all the Indian classical dance styles, which all feature some kind of mimetic aspect to certain compositions, for example in depictions of daily life or devotional pieces.
What I learned from my teacher Gunuseelan was Abhinaya for the eyes. Believe it or not, we would meet every week and sit at a desk across from each other and begin dance class never getting up from our chairs. I have a whole notebook full of instruction on the meaning of a multitude of eye movements. He would send me home with much to practise. He said even the expression with eye movements can be a lifelong practise.
There is a full page or two in one of Naguib Mahfouz‘s stories (Naquib Mahfouz was a beloved Egyptian author who won the Nobel Prize for literature) where he describes a veiled woman conducting an entire conversation with only her eyes and wins complete power over the one watching this.
I have often wondered: if Bellydance was once a temple dance in the same way many traditional Indian dances are, then perhaps at one time, there was a system of meaning and language in the movements like Abhinaya. Because the persecution of Bellydance over the centuries has been so diligent, it seems that if there ever was a system, it must have been lost. Of course, I hope someone lifts a rock and discovers the “lost scriptures”, but in the meantime, I thought I might find some insight by studying Abhinaya.
Although very sparse compared to Indian dance, I believe there is some obvious communication and storytelling we make when Bellydancing, sometimes even limited to our eyes saying, “hey, check out this hip accent, and now, this one”. As a general rule, I do not believe you can use the Indian tradition of Abhinaya with Bellydance. I see them as very different languages or ways of expression but we can learn how to search for our own Abhinaya through it or at least, how to be more aware of its existence.
Question #3: I have a question for the next column. How has your own relation to Bellydance changed throughout the years?
Answer: I think I have evolved from night club performer to teacher to choreographer and artistic director for a large dance and musical performing company. Over the years, I have passed in and out of these 3 incarnations. Somedays, I am all three. Maybe I can not see my own nose, but I feel that my relation to Bellydance has never changed. I still think it is the greatest dance – ever. I have always tried to be a huge advocate of Bellydance being recognized and respected as one of the high arts. Every step I have taken on my Bellydance path and every choice and decision made and has been towards this end. For the most part, I have felt as if I were swimming upstream. However sometimes, I see results, either precipitated by my own efforts or the efforts of others of like mind and it keeps me going.
It may seem that I started this work with the opening of a school or with the company and orchestra but even back in the early 80s when I danced solo in the Middle East, I inherited the common work standards of performing in 5 star hotel night clubs. I learned such rules as never accepting tips, never dancing on a tables, never socializing with the audience, always charging high professional prices, using live musicians as opposed to prerecorded music etc.
Now the real question is probably “why ?” …….Because I believe that when Bellydance is respected and held in high esteem, then more people will be open and receptive to its true blessing, meaning and healing powers.
Ready for more?
4-1-09 Where is the Goddess in a Vertical Drop and a Shimmy? Or How Can the Practice of Bellydance Lead the Dancer to a State of Grace or Enlightenment?
The most important practice of almost all mystical paths is meditation. It is universal and does not need a frame of reference from any particular theology.
- 3-4-09 Ask Yasmina #4
Dancers, who are willing to pay to be on stage, are perhaps not always ready to be there.
- 2-4-09 Ask Yasmina #3
Personally, I am all for any kind of creative expression (blood, snakes, flowers, even fake chicken heads and urine) as long as it comes from a place of inspiration and with the intention to move members of an audience to think about the world around themselves and their own relationship to the substance or reference of choice with a new and wider point of view (maybe an even more loving point of view).
- 5-5-09 One Hip in Each Camp, My Experience of Working in Both the Arabesque Dance Company and the Arabesque Orchestra
My dancing is fuelled by my understanding of the music and now, my playing is influenced by the emotions I experience when I dance. It is a cyclical experience which has been boosted by this incredible opportunity to work with some of the most talented Arabic musicians on the scene.
- 5-3-09 The Quintessential Performer: Attitudes for the Stage by Najia Marlyz
What can you rightfully expect of an audience of persons who are not, themselves, involved in performing (or related to you)?
- 4-30-09 Dancing with Legends: Interview of Freddie Elias, Part 4: Teamwork Among Musicians
You’ve got people in the audience who are paying you. If you’re dying, don’t come to work. But if you come to work, do your job. It does not matter what else is going on in your life.
- 4-28-09 Photos from the 2008 Tour of the Bellydance Superstars
Marin Civic Center, San Rafael, March 1 2008