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New Baby Dance, Taqsim Shimmies, and Cane Music

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Ask Yasmina #16

by Yasmina Ramzy
posted July 12, 2011

Question #1: I would like to know some specific traditions relating Bellydance to the celebration of a new baby. What is the connection of birthing rites to Bellydance?

Answer: Interesting question! I think a lot of people would like this answered, including myself. In my 30 years of Bellydancing, I have yet to find any concrete evidence of any connection. I will tell you what I do know.

Having a Bellydancer perform at baptisms in the Middle East is very common. In fact, the highlight of the performance is when the Bellydancer holds and dances with the baby.

On a similar note, many a time, an Arab mother has hired me to perform the Zaffah (wedding procession) at her daughter’s wedding. She warns me that her daughter does not want a Bellydancer present because her daughter has been “Westernized” and as a result, the bride is embarrassed in front of her friends about aspects of her culture. I have never asked why it  would be so important to the mother that I perform, in fact, so important that she would initiate this undertaking against the bride’s wishes. However, I always got the feeling that these mothers were worried (or possibly superstitious) that it would be bad luck for the daughter if her wedding did not include a Bellydancer. Whether this is because of luck in love, love-making, fertility or all of the above, I am not sure. Perhaps, it was just to appease the aunts and uncles of the previous generation. Even so, why this important?

Sometimes, I have seen Bellydance classes advertised as beneficial for labor and childbirth. I have not had the honor and pleasure of giving birth to a child, but many of my students attest to the speed and ease with which they were able to deliver due to strong pelvic muscles.

However, there are many who had to resort to Cesarean after a long and arduous labor as well. It might be negligent to throw around such claims.

Bellydance makes you more agile and fit, more comfortable with your body and sexuality. These claims are definitely proven across the board. Therefore, post childbirth, Bellydance must be beneficial. Is it good for pregnant moms? I would like to see more doctors attest to this before we dancers continue claiming it.

One more thing: an Arab woman told me many, many years ago that the act of shimmying while in the presence of a woman giving birth helps the new mother to loosen the womb so the baby can come out easily. I have always thought that if you couple that with an undulation, you would have great birthing technique. I wish that I had had the chance to try it out. Well, that is all I can think of right now. I hope that helps.

Snake Question

Question #2: In a workshop in Texas, you said that while dancing during a taqsim, a dancer should resist the urge to shimmy, especially for instruments that are plucked.  I was wondering why you said that. Why no shimmy, and the significance and/or difference with the plucked instruments?

Answer:  I was referring to the fact that often dancers feel the urge to shimmy during taqsims with plucked instruments such as an oud or qanun. While shimmying is  an appropriate interpretation of these instruments, it should not be the only interpretation. It can be satisfying to follow the undulating ebb and flow of the melody as well with other circular, long or rippling movements.Additionally, there is Fifi Abdou who shimmies to everything! 

Fifi Abdou in 1986

Snake Question

Question #3: Is the song “Taht El Shebak” appropriate to use for dancing with the Cane?  I understand the assaya is only used with Saiidi music.

SemsemeyaAnswer: “Taht El Shebak is Beledi music. Of all the Beledi styles of dance, the Raqs Assaya (cane dance) is the most quintessential. One of the more popular recordings of Taht El Shebak is sung by Fatma Serhan who used to sing for Nagua Fouad, then for Dina, and now Fatma records her own CDs. Taht El Shebak is not a Saiidi song, but then the Raqs Assaya is not limited to the Saiid or Upper Egypt. There is an Alexandrian Assaya, Lebanese, etc. The assaya is used throughout Egypt and, in fact, throughout the Middle East, including Saudi Arabia. I have seen many night club performances in Cairo back in the ‘80s in which dance stars (including Fifi Abdou) entered with Milaya Liff, high- heeled shoes, short Alexandrian dress and picked up an assaya to twirl.

  1. Tahtiib sticks are particular to the Saiid. Some Saiidi musicians take classic melodies from Warda or Oum Kalthoum, play the melodies with a mizmar and a Saiidi rhythm and a dancer twirls a Tahtiib stick. (I saw this in Aswan.)
  2.  A dance term was coined in the Bellydance community about 15 years ago called “Urban Beledi” to accommodate music (similar to the style of some songs by Nancy Ajram) that had Saiidi rhythm and some Saiidi instrumentation but with pop sensibilities. This kind of music gave room for interpretation, thus Urban Beledi was born.
  3. Another example is Tamr Hosni’s Arab Habibiwhich uses the Semsemeya (a lyre-type instrument particular to Port Said) but is not real Port Said music. The song Shamundaraby Mohamed Mounir has a similar rhythm, scale, language and nuances to Nubian music, but it is hardly very traditional.

It is always wise to learn and understand first the original and traditional forms of music and dance. Then, one can know what he is doing when playing with hybrids and fusion. When teaching, it is important to pass on this knowledge so when an artist decides to interpret fusion or hybrid styles in the future, she is aware of that style with which she is working, and thus, the audience can relate to something that may be new but holds weight and still makes sense.

Tahtil Shibbak – Fatme Serhan


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  1. Morocco

    Jul 18, 2011 - 06:07:46

    2 things, least important first, both having to do with my age & opportunities denied later/ younger dancers/ researchers, having been IN this field for 50 years, since before most of you were born & having learned, worked  & researched totally “in culture”, “over here” since 1960 & “Over There” since 1963:
    1. FYI: *before* she worked for Negua Fouad, Fatma Serhan was with the Firqua Masr el Samer, the totally authentic truly FOLK troupe put together by Abderrahman es Shaffei & she also sang with the Musicians of the Nile, another Masr el Samer group that included Metkal Kenawi & Mohamed Mourad. She’s a great singer & has a killer sense of humor!
    2. There’s an awful lot of fantasy MISinformation about the Sharqi & childbirth connection, sadly too much of it based on misinterpretations & gross exaggerations of comments in my original 1964 article (published in a medical mag – there were NO ME publications then) re the ONLY 2 moves done with the abdominal muscles (so much for “belly” dance!) & which can be traced to imitations of the natural movements of childbirth. (Watch a cat give birth, if you don’t believe me!)
    In it, I recount what a 1/2 Saudi woman told me in 1960/ early ’61 that her “old country” grandmother told/taught her, when she was a child. I didn’t believe her at the time, because the “Westernized”, self-Orientalized (in the Edward Said sense) ME folks I was dealing with were from areas that had stopped or forgotten that connection – as also happened with many Hulas, one of which, the Ohelo Hula, was specifically to strengthen the muscles necessary for childbirth, though both sexes did it as exercise.
    Even in folklore & traditional things, they change or disappear over time… for many reasons.
    In my later article for Habibi, I describe the actual ritual I saw in Morocco in 1967, where the dancing was far more like Schikhatt than Sharqi. I also tell that it was the first time in many years it had been done in that remote village *&* it was the last time I heard of it being done there. (Then again, I don’t hear everything!)
    Again, FWIW, the dancing was WITH the pregnant woman, not entertainment FOR her & lots of other movements were also done.
    Re Sharqi at weddings: it many areas it is called “Happiness Dance” *&* it is incumbent upon the bride’s MOTHER to dance at her daughter’s wedding (NOT in bedla, btw!!!), to show how happy she is that her daughter is married & starting adult life.
    For much more detail, read my forthcoming book.

  2. Barbara Grant

    Jul 20, 2011 - 02:07:57

    Thank you, Yasmina, for bringing up the subject of “baby dance” and to Morocco, for commenting on the dubious “Sharqi-birth dance” connection.
    I can’t tell you how many times over the last 20 years I’ve heard this dance called the “birth dance,” “dance of life” (as in, bringing life into the world) etc., and all such “information” goes out to the general public as fact. Actually, one of the best things we can do as dancers to elevate our art form is to root out any misconceptions. If this is one of them, it really needs to be challenged front and center and thank you both for speaking up on this issue. If there is another point of view, however, I’d be happy to hear it discussed.

  3. Morocco

    Jul 20, 2011 - 03:07:55

    It isn’t a (no pun intended) misconception that *2* of the many, many movements of Raqs Sharqi were related to birth movements (lots of folk dances use movements from real life activities), but the whole dance is NOT about giving birth.
    I thought I made that clear in my article, but, as I wrote, *others* chose to take some portions out of context & hold them forth as the whole raison d’etre of the dance. Wrong raison. (pun intended)
    It’s also true that I *did* use that connection as a main point in my first article *because* of other Western/ colonialist/ orientalist misconceptions about Sharqi that were far more damaging to the reputation of the dance & dancers and huge obstacles to acceptance of Sharqi as the fab ethnic dance form that it is – remember, I wrote it in 1964 – and it certainly made many situp & take a second look, with clearer eyes.
    Gotta get back to the book.

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