Gilded Serpent presents...

Not Last Year’s Saiidi

Zumarrad performs Hadia's saidi-styled choreography Talakik about 2004
Zumarrad performs Hadia‘s saidi-styled
choreography Talakik about 2004

by Brigid Kelly / Zumarrad
posted March 17, 2010

Recently, a belly dance community newsletter here in New Zealand ran an editorial in which the author remarked that the current generation of dancers still perform “traditional styles – Ghwazee, Khaleegy, Saiidi” but innovate with poi, fan veils and Isis wings in a sort of dance evolution that retains respect for the value of the old. “Stagnation awaits that which cannot change,” she continued, “The past is fixed, static, unchangeable, but the dance is not.”

New ZealandSomething about these quite valid and respectful statements did not sit right with me–and not just because I perform what the uninitiated might call “a traditional Belly dance". I began picking apart concepts of the old, the traditional, and (particularly) from the past. What is traditional anyway? Why might we assume that “traditional styles” are locked in a static past, pointless unless we enliven them with fan veils? Is the past truly incapable of flexibility?

I don’t think so. Here’s why:
I started belly dancing in New Zealand in 1998. (New Zealand, for those of you who haven’t been here, is a string of islands to the right of Australia and left of Chile.) Belly dance probably arrived here in the mid-70s. For a full 25 years, we had very few resources at our fingertips, but by 2000, when we began to use the Internet widely, things had progressed merely to the point where you saved all your dance dollars to spend at one festival, where you could buy music, zills, beaded fringe and hip scarves. If you wanted them at any other time, you were out of luck for the most part. There might be only one international teacher visiting in any one year. When you outgrew the MEDANZ festival’s dance offerings, you started looking at the one in Sydney, or the Brisbane Winter Warmup, just a three to four hour flight, a time zone shift and a stronger currency away. So, our access to resources and new developments had remained limited.

My teacher, Gendi, felt it was vital for any Oriental dancer to study folkloric dances. I can remember when she introduced Saiidi style to our class. Much of what I learned from her back then, 10 or 11 years ago, remains ingrained in my body memory of what it is one does to saiidi music. Certain Saiidi audio tracks take me back to my very earliest belly dance lessons. I can see the mirror reflections, the glowing wall heaters (it was autumn), and our scarved hips moving in unison.

The thing is, Saiidi has changed since then.

Gendi of New Zealand
Zumarrad’s first teacher Gendi,
who introduced her to saiidi dance.

Since those first lessons, which were very Mo Geddawi-influenced, I’ve studied Saiidi with Dr. Mo myself. I’ve seen and learned Saiidi dances by other Egyptian dancers with a greater or lesser degree of Reda background, and these dances are not the same as what we learned back then. They are more complex, they have more movement combinations, they seem lighter and they’re definitely more physically challenging. However, they are still “Saiidi.”

To many dancers whose first love is fusion belly dance, what I do this year as “Saiidi” is considered traditional because it’s danced to Middle Eastern music with a Saiidi rhythm, and canes are involved. However, to me and to other dancers who’ve studied folklore for years, it’s a new, fresh, vibrant take on the dance from the Saiid. That’s the same whether the dance is a recent choreography or an old Reda one we never had the opportunity to learn before. So, for us, the past is not static and neither are its dances.

When I wrote my thesis on belly dance in New Zealand in 2007-2008, I developed a concept of belly dance as globalised and contextual. As I tried to look past everything I knew to find the local, the things that made belly dance here in New Zealand unique, I realised that I was looking at it from the wrong perspective.

Belly dance here is not the tip of a branch from a distant root. Belly dance here in New Zealand is almost exactly the same as it is in every other country to which it is not native.

Kiwi belly dancers are participants in a portable, synthetic culture with its own myths, tensions, and traditions – a culture held together by lessons, haflas, costume sales, festivals, shows, DVD purchases, etc. What makes us different are the effects on globalised belly dance culture of our own wider social contexts. In New Zealand, that includes geographic isolation (but a culturally sanctioned willingness to travel internationally), a very small Middle Eastern population, and high technological uptake.

In places where belly dance is culturally normative, the elements of globalised belly dance are not integral to the belly dance experience, but that doesn’t mean they are unaffected by, or don’t affect, globalised belly dance. Egyptian dancers (and teachers in particular) have become actively involved, touring internationally, producing their own festivals and adapting their work to the needs of the globalised belly dance market. Most of these people are typical performing artists. They like to create and innovate. They like to dance to new songs. They like to "mix it up a little".

They need to differentiate their product, because what they have is a product being sold, and because they have the kind of visceral musical, cultural, and kinaesthetic understanding that I don’t, they can do it without losing the integrity of the form, in my view.

I know some dancers bemoan the influence of the workshop circuit on Egyptian master teachers (and, doubtless, Turkish master teachers and Tribal-style master teachers too), seeing it as diluting the essence of the original dance forms, but to me, the quest for authenticity will never be fully achieved if we continue to locate it solely in the past. Traditional belly dance and folklore are living, growing things and shouldn’t be condemned to the museum cabinet.

New Zealand dancers learning Cassandra Shore's saidi-styled choreography Nar at Oasis Dance Camp Aotearoa in 2007
New Zealand dancers learning Cassandra Shore’s saiidi-styled
choreography Nar at Oasis Dance Camp Aotearoa in 2007

However, even the museum cabinet is changing. Thanks to the Internet and, especially, YouTube, my vision of how belly dance existed in certain past time periods has changed, because I can now see so much more of it. Instead of that one Suhair Zaki dance in the blue assuit on the little round platforms, there are many Suhair Zaki dances to see. Suhair, the dancer and entertainer, is becoming more rounded and complex for me. She has become more than a series of chonks [moves] and a sweet smile. How can I think I “know” Oriental dance and be bored with it when there is so much more to learn within the Egyptian canon alone? It’s not static. I’m finding more and more new knowledge as I continue to mine the “traditional". I see reflections of older dancers in the very newest ones, and I think it is because they also return, periodically, to images, sounds, steps, shapes they see on TV or hear in music collections.

If young western rock bands today find freshness in the very sounds that seemed new to me and my friends 30 years ago, I can’t see why Egyptian dancers and musicians wouldn’t do the same. The past is always informing the present, or it should be.

When I hear "Salam Allay" and my mind and body flash back to those autumn evenings in my teacher’s studio, I feel the pleasure of that time and those movements, but simultaneously, I cannot separate the memory from the developments that have come since then. The past does change, and it will change again tomorrow. What we produce from it is not pure artifact but a synthesis of what we saw and did, and what we see and do. It is old and new at the same time.

Fan veils? They are merely whipped cream on the side–not an improved recipe for the cake.

Shaatmat
Left to right: Bernie. Perizada, Zumarrad and Linda dance Yurie’s choreography to Sha’at Mat in 2003.

more resouces:
Author’s bio page on Gilded SerpentBrigid will also be presenting at the International Bellydance Conference of Canada in April 2010
MEDANZ festival
Brisbane Winter Warmup
GS list of articles from around the planet

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