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Ask Yasmina #12

Oum Kalthoum

Importance of Oum Kalthoum, Undercutting, and Kid Bellydancers.

by Yasmina Ramzy
posted March 7, 2010

Question #1: Why is Oum Kalthoum so important to Bellydancers?

Answer: Understanding the importance of Oum Kalthoum and her music offers profound insight into Arab culture, poetry, art, nuance and most importantly, the music that Bellydancers dance to. Almost every Bellydance CD on the market includes at least one or two of her songs. You have heard the melodies so often. Below is some information distilled from Wikipedia that sums up her importance musically.

“ Imagine a singer with the virtuosity of Joan Sutherland or Ella Fitzgerald, the public persona of Eleanor Roosevelt and the audience of Elvis and you have Oum Kalthoum, the most accomplished singer of her century in the Arab world. ”
— Virginia Danielson, Harvard Magazine

When the Egyptian singer Oum Kalthoum died in 1975, millions flooded the streets of Cairo in mourning. Her songs deal mostly with the universal themes of love, longing and loss. They are nothing short of epic in scale, with durations measured in hours rather than minutes. Oum Kalthoum has been a significant influence on a number of musicians, both in the Arab World and beyond. Among others, Jah Wobble has claimed her as a significant influence on his work. Bob Dylan has been quoted as saying, "She’s great. She really is. Really great." Jean-Paul Sartre, Marie Laforêt, Salvador Dalí, Nico, Bono, Farin Urlaub, and Led Zeppelin are also known to be admirers of Kalthoum’s music. She was referred to as "The Lady" by Charles de Gaulle, and is regarded as "The Incomparable Voice" by Maria Callas. Oum Kalthoum is remembered in Egypt, the Middle East, and the Arab world as one of the greatest singers and musicians to have ever lived. She is also notably popular in Israel among Jews and Arabs alike, and her records continue to sell about a million copies a year. Even today, she has retained a near-mythical status among young Egyptians.

The movements that Bellydancers express were passed down by Tahia Carioca, Samia Gamal, Sohair Zaki and Dina etc. Whether they are new, old or revamped, all of the movements were created as an emotional reaction to Arab music. The music and poetry of the songs of Oum Kalthoum is the pinnacle of Middle Eastern music. Until one makes the profound connection to her music and finds oneself blissfully lost in one of her hour long songs, one has not really felt or experienced the meaning of the movement. Since her songs speak of unrelenting love, one should also read the story of Majnun and Leila* to understand which is the love she is singing about and the love expressed in our dance.

Please see Ask Yasmina Column #1 for more practical details concerning dancing to the music of Oum Kalthoum.

*Majnun and Leila is the original love story told by word of mouth for generations by Arab Bedouins long before Romeo & Juliette or Tristan & Isolde. It was eventually written down by an Azerbaijani poet in Farsi. So much of Asia, North Africa and the Middle East claim this story their own. Every generation of young lovers relate to this story. It is an intimate part of all of these cultures from Morrocco to China.

Snake Question

Bum TeacherQuestion #2: What is the difference between undercutting and simply sharing the art at accessible rates?

Answer: Undercutting can get a few beads and coins twisted in a knot. There will probably always be those who feel they can close the deal with a cheaper price or those so eager to perform or teach, they will offer their skills for next to nothing which would put into question their actual skills. My philosophy is the following. For the most part, a client gets what they pay for and when someone says they can get another dance artist or teacher for less, this is what I tell them.

When a client hiring a performer or a student looking for a teacher is at a point where they want quality, they know they have to pay a fair price.

When placing a price on your own skills, know that you are charging for your years of training and experience, your expensive costume collection, your time and money spent marketing as well as the 30 minutes or so you will be performing or teaching and the time it takes to prepare. When a client asks for a break on the price because it is for charity, I choose to oblige for free because of the cause or not at all. Lowering the price only diminishes the value and I am all about giving value and respect to our art. It benefits everyone if Bellydancers continue to keep raising the prices, even if ever so slightly in increments. If everyone followed the thinking of the undercutter, we would soon have no value at all. I have always found it interesting that as soon as someone pays a higher price for something, they automaticlly value and appreciate it more whether it is acually worth it or not.

Snake Question

Asha and SophiaQuestion #3: Should children be Bellydancing or is it too sexual?

Answer: I have seen some awesome young dancers at ages from 7 to 13 in many countries in the world. In my own school, most of our young students are from proud Arab families. I love watching all ages dance. Yes, Bellydance is sensual and can be a sexual expression as well, but life is sensual and revolves around sexuality. Sensuality is so beautiful when it comes from a place of respect and honour. Stavros Stavrou, a wonderful Bellydancer and author of "Dancing, Fear and Desire" from Cypress has a great quote in this YouTube clip at the 29 second mark [see sidebar]. He was speaking on a panel called "Straddling Sexual Issues in Bellydance" at the 2008 IBCC.

I think if Bellydance is presented as a cultural folklore or an expression of pure sensuality, it can be a great empowerment tool for young teenage girls struggling with their sexual identity. They learn to own and value their body as a sexual vehicle and thus be less likely to be promiscuous.

Please note that not all Bellydancers whether Arab or not have held true to valuing the art. Some have chosen to undermine its art and beauty with degrading sexual exploitation. Hey, but this happens in many art forms. We just want to keep our children clear of this kind of behaviour whether it is Hip Hop, Lambada*, Jazz or Bellydance.

*Original Brazilian Lambada was a soft flowing dance mimicking the waves of the sea. It wasn’t until it was appropriated by other cultures that it began to take on the pelvic grinding with heavy sexual overtones. – Sound like a familiar story?

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