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(Sing for me a little, a little)
Musings: Music Choices at BDUC 2011

by Hana Ali
posted August 15, 2011

I was excited and full of anticipation as I settled into my carefully chosen seat and admired the new BDUC 2011 venue, eagerly awaiting the Egyptian preliminary competition to commence. The previous year, it had occurred to me that the percentage of contestants choosing to dance to a mergenci seemed disproportionately high. I wondered what this year’s music choices would be.

Thirty-one contestants and thirty mergencies later, I had my answer.

I should clarify that the term “mergenci” means an Oriental dance opening instrumental, and it is a composition specific for dance entrances, not to be confused with plain instrumentals that could be a Samai or instrumental versions of an Umm Kulthoum or Abdel Wahab or other classic composition. For the purposes of this article and especially the interviews, I used the terms “instrumental” and “mergenci” interchangeably, and it appears that (given the context) most dancers will understand my intent. However, the more accurate choice would have been mergenci.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I admit that I have a strong preference for music with singing and tend not to find most mergencies particularly inspiring. Maybe that is why the strong predominance of said form struck me so. I can understand a segment of the population choosing to dance to an instrumental piece for the sheer love of it…but 97% of the contestants? I’m no statistician, but that seemed significant enough to me!

Thus I enlisted the help of our gamely editor, Lynette of Gilded Serpent, and set out to find out why. My “highly scientific” approach involved scanning the field for giant sparkling eyelashes, dashing over and inquiring whether owner of said eyelashes had competed in the Egyptian preliminaries and were they to respond in the affirmative, to proceed to badger them with questions about their musical choices. This was day two of the event, so I only managed to interview eight of the thirty-one contestants (25%), because a lot of the non-finalists were no longer around, and others were just hard to get hold of at the time.

I also interviewed the five estimable personalities that judged the Egyptian preliminaries this year, namely: Aisha Ali, Amina Goodyear, Angelika Nemeth, Jillina and Sahra Saeeda. My so-called research was rather impromptu, and though not exactly worthy of inclusion in a peer-reviewed journal, it did begin to answer some of the questions in my mind and helped me to anchor some thoughts that had been floating around in there. Below is a summary of the interviews, followed by my personal take on the whole thing.


The contestants’ responses (give or take) generally comprised of answers to the following series of questions:
What piece of music did the contestant choose for the Egyptian category?
What made him/her choose that particular piece?
Whether he/she usually prefers to dance to an instrumental piece versus a song (implying singing)?
(If applicable) Why so?
(If applicable) Follow-up questions, if the conversation called for it.

  • Mireyah Yamilet (Puerto Rico)
    Mireyah danced to a mergenci because she thought the piece was “exotic, sensual, and mystical.” She added that she generally prefers to dance to instrumental music. “It’s my favorite!” she declared.

  • Shereen (Czech Republic)
    Egyptian Champion BDUC 2011
    Taxim Champion BDUC 2011

    The music Shereen danced to was “definitely Sahra Saeeda‘s music,” chosen because she fancied it the most among all the tunes in her collection.
    “I picked an instrumental because I think that, mainly, people pick instrumental songs for the Egyptian category. It’s not a requirement, but for competition, I think it’s better to choose an instrumental piece of music because, with instrumentals, it allows for bolder technique and a bolder movement, but with a voice, it’s more about the emotion and the story in the song. It’s beautiful to tell a story by your dance, but I don’t think it’s the best thing for a competition.

    Competitions are not only about the technique of course. They’re also about the soul and stage presence.

    However, I think that emphasis is more on technique, and when you perform for a normal audience in a theatre, it’s not that much about the technique. That is not a priority, why everybody is going to the theatre. People are coming to see the emotions (the story), but in a competition, I think showing that you have good technique is one of the main objectives.”

  • Sa'diyyaSa’diyya (Texas, US)
    Universal Champion BDUC 2011
    Specialty Champion BDUC 2011
    2nd Runner-up Egyptian BDUC 2011

    Sa’diyya selected a mergenci from Asmahan‘s latest CD. Sa’diyya chose this piece because she found it charismatic, full of changes and well-orchestrated. She liked that the piece was energetic, with varying tempos and energy levels that she felt would help sustain the audience’s interest. She also thought that the variety of rhythms within her chosen piece of music would allow her to showcase commensurate variety in her dancing.
    “I prefer instrumentals. There is a lot of Belly dance music that is instrumental, that originally had lyrics with it, so we’re still supposed to know what the music means if we’re going to dance to it.

    However, I would say overall, just for a wider range of audience, most people are going to connect more to instrumental music, and you have more freedom to express yourself.

    I always prefer really energetic or robust music; it doesn’t matter about the mood. As for performing for a different kind of audience: yes, I might use this music in a restaurant…  That would be similar music.”

  • VenussaharaVenusahara (Arizona, US)
    Venusahara danced to a mergenci because:
    “The instrumentation of it was very beautiful, very complex…and it was a little above my level, but I wanted to strive for something just a little bit out of my grasp and push myself to another level.”
    She added that although vocals sometimes resonate with her, in this particular case, it just happened to be the instruments.
    “The instruments tell so much of a story. You hear them cry, and you hear them sing with joy, and I wanted to be able to try and portray that with my dance.”

  • TatianaTatiana Kuzmina (Russia)
    Tatiana chose a piece composed by Dr. Samy Farag because its tempo was quick and allowed her to “play” with her costume.

    Tatiana said that she usually prefers vocals over instrumentals, but chose an instrumental piece for the competition in compliance with BDUC rules.

    “Here, we can’t perform with song… In the Egyptian category, (there should be) no song … instrument … rules.”

  • Roxy (Washington, US)
    Roxy danced to a mergenci as well.
    “I don’t know what my song is titled. I got the it from Cassandra’s store. I took a workshop from her, and so I used the first piece of it. I was going to dance to a pop Turkish song, but I thought, because this is the Egyptian category, I picked that one…”
    “It’s an instrumental arrangement of a very traditional Egyptian song.” (author-I wondered what made it so traditional.)
    “I know it was Cassandra’s,” she said, “so I picked that song. It was supposed to be 38 min long, but we just have it for 2 minutes for that one.

  • Kenya (New York, US)
    Kenya danced to an instrumental piece by Mario Kirlis because she found it emotionally moving.
    “I usually listen for a piece that moves me and makes me feel good when I listen to it.

    They both (instrumentals and songs) move me, but if I don’t understand the music and the language that they’re speaking, I tend to stick with instrumentals.”

  • OlegOleg (Russia)
    (Translator: Natika)
    Fusion Champion BDUC 2011
    3rd Runner-up Egyptian BDUC 2011

    Oleg danced to a mergenci as well, although I was not able to gather any details about it. He said that his goal had been to try to show his emotions as well as to display his technique.
    “I like instrumental music more because the dancer should be like the orchestra and he should express every instrument.”

    He further opined, “Today I was surprised because America is behind Russia in technique and in music…and emotionality, too.”


In the interest of efficiency, we cornered four of the judges in pairs: Aisha Ali paired with Angelika Nemeth and Amina Goodyear with Jillina. Sahra proved to be the most elusive due to her judging and workshop schedule, and thus, was the last to be questioned (off the camera because, by this time, it was well past our illustrious editor’s bedtime and she was bravely using the last of her dwindling energy reserves to fight off a complete meltdown).

We briefly explained to the judges that I had been interviewing contestants about their music choices for the Egyptian category and that I was curious as to why it was predominantly instrumentals when in my view, there is so much more to Egyptian music than only mergencies.

 I posed the following question to the judges:
“If you were to advise a student on what music to pick to compete in the Egyptian category, to win, what would you recommend?”

  • Angelika Nemeth

    “(It should be) Egyptian, first of all, and I would say (that you should) choose something that’s produced by a really good orchestra in Egypt. So, you have to know a little bit about the musicians. So, (pick) something that (first of all) turns you on, because you have to listen to it many times and express the love, the joy, and the passion that the music calls forth in you. I think it should have variety. (It should have)…an exciting opening, some good taqsims; it should not be too long (because nowadays they tend to be rather short, attention span is short, and you don’t have a lot of time). (It should include) a good, short drum solo, followed by a nice finale that ties it all together. I like to hear at least three or four rhythm changes, just like a nice masmoudi, back to something folkloric, either saidi, bamboteya (in the chosen piece of music), so it shows the dancer has knowledge.”

    Angelika, while clarifying that vocals were permissible, issued a caution regarding their use: “You have to be careful when they have song, because you really have to know what’s being said, and you have to interpret that with gestures.”

    She agreed with Aisha Ali’s opinion that most dancers do not know what is being said and added, “unless they’re Egyptian–or unless it’s translated for them.”

  • Aisha Ali
    “I’m very much a traditionalist; so I would advise my students to choose what I love, which would be traditional Egyptian instrumentation played by about five musicians. Sometimes some of the new instruments do become Egyptian, like the trumpet did after 20 years and the accordion–and even the synthesizer. So, you could have some of those instruments if they’re really integrated with the music.

    Mainly, (the music should) have those instruments which elicit a virtuoso response from the dancer.”

    Aisha Ali was of the opinion that music containing lyrics require the dancer to understand the meaning of those lyrics and that most of the dancers “simply do not know…If they’re lip-syncing it, and they’re off, it’s embarrassing.”

  • Amina Goodyear

    Amina lamented that the contestants “showed more technique than themselves” and advised future contestants to select music that would allow for greater emotionality.

    “Choose about a 2 minute portion of an Oriental to just have the introduction for the ‘walk around’, and then, I would choose something emotional. If they don’t want singing, I would choose an emotional piece that, maybe, had singing but would be (predominantly) instrumental–such as an Umm Kulthum, Warda, or Abdel Halim Hafez that’s (been arranged as) an instrumental, so that I could see the emotion and the feeling behind the dance.”
    Agreeing with Jillina’s comment about including pop or shaabi and lightening the mood, Amina added, “ Then, a little bit of their personality would come out.”

  • Jillina
    Agreeing with Amina’s comments, Jillina said:

    “For me, watching thirty dancers all do Oriental instrumental pieces, the program got a little dry, so I was waiting for somebody to do a pop song maybe, to show a range of emotion.

    There was only one girl who did a little bit of Umm Kulthum with vocals that I loved. I was like, ‘Okay, this is pure Egyptian, and I actually really appreciate it.’ So I would try to do that; edit out a piece of music that has maybe a minute of entrance to get you on the stage, show (using some choreography) that you can travel, show an emotional range with some Umm Kulthum and maybe some pop, some shaabi, something fresh. (You need) something to lighten the mood, because it gets tense in the competition. We feel tense judging; they feel tense competing. Maybe (the music should have) a little bit of drum solo. However, with everybody doing the same thing, it made it hard to clean the palate.”

    She offered a related bit of advice to the dancers in the audience:
    “When you’re watching one of the other dancers, it’s really important to ask yourself:  ‘What am I feeling? Am I feeling sensitive? Hot? Am I laughing?’

    You have to make the audience, especially the judges, feel something, whatever it is. They can’t just say, ‘Okay, good technique, good dance, good choreography.’ What do I walk away feeling? What do I remember? That is the key.”

    Responding to my comment about having enjoyed the Fusion category the most, Jillina added,
    “I was surprised that I was actually judging fusion, and I got in there, and it was really exciting. I had a lot of fun. You’re right, people just brought out their best.”

  • Sahra Saeeda
    Sahra’s advice to future contestants was to use a piece of music with a grand beginning that would allow the dancer “to enter with flourish and command, followed by a section where she could do more internal stuff, and go inwards.” She suggested something with variety as a way to hedge one’s bets.

    “If you do something that’s all one piece or style then maybe I will love it, but another judge might hate it.”
    She did not think necessarily that instrumentals allowed for variety more than singing, but that a lot of the mergencies did possess that variety already. She was of the opinion that many audiences for whom most dancers perform, do not understand the music. Therefore, the lyrics and their meanings (their emotional content and the dancers’ emoting) tend to be lost on some audiences. “Also, a lot of the dancers, themselves, don’t understand the lyrics,” she commented.

SahraWhat did I walk away feeling? What do I remember? That is, indeed, the key!  At the conclusion of the Egyptian preliminaries, I felt mostly enervated. The dancers, their technique, choreography, costumes, all had been gorgeous and impressive. Yet, I could not shake the sense of boredom. The obvious cause of my vexation was the utter lack of variety in the music, of course. However, it goes beyond that alone.

Lack of variety in the music is frustrating enough, but even more so because it translates into lack of variety in the dancing.

When thirty people all dance to nothing but mergencies, it makes for thirty Oriental pieces infused with a heavy dose of ballet, jazz, or modern technique with limited room left for expression of emotional and cultural context, for a change in mood, or for that internalization that is so quintessentially Egyptian. Mergencies have their due place within the Egyptian show but are not the entire show. So why were they the predominant musical choice at the contest?

Apart from the occasional case of misconception that instrumentals are the standard for the Egyptian category (or possibly even a BDUC rule) I suspect that ease of use, and maybe in the case of some, a limited awareness of equally Egyptian alternatives, may play a role. Mergencies tend to have a lot of rhythmic variety built into the format, often with varying tempos and energy levels, so are ready-to-use versus the extra burden involved in devising one’s own cocktail or medley. 

Another possible reason seems to be the perception that competition equals technique equals mergenci–the belief that a mergenci allows for better display of technique, which, in turn, is the priority in a competition setting, even at the possible cost of feeling and story-telling (tarob).

I understand that technique is important, especially in a competition setting, but I do not understand why feeling and emotional expression should be thought of as something secondary to it. The two are not mutually exclusive. In fact, a good dancer is expected to display both concurrently. Is she not? So why the compartmentalization?

Finally, in my quest for answers, one of the most common refrains that I heard had to do with the language barrier.  Many dancers, as well as their audiences, do not typically understand Arabic lyrics or the cultural context behind much of the music. Instrumentals, therefore, offer greater freedom of expression to the dancers and make it easier to connect to an uninitiated audience.

I understand this status quo. What I do not understand is why it is acceptable for it to remain so. Why is it acceptable to disregard a beautiful song merely because the lyrics are not in one’s mother-tongue? I have yet to attend a Flamenco show where the dancers and musicians omitted the singing because I, as a member of the audience, did not understand Spanish. In fact, most serious Flamenco artistes make it a point to learn the language if they do not already know it. I feel that we “Egyptian-style dancers” should hold ourselves up to slightly higher standards. If a dancer is competing to claim authority in Egyptian style dance, it should be his/her obligation to understand or find translations of lyrics. Yes, it may not be his/her native language, but then neither is this dance style.

Dancers should be expected to give as much weight to understanding the language and cultural context as to learning how to execute a perfect Arabesque.  

Instead of brushing off the language barrier as an immutable fact of life, we should make a greater effort to educate, not only ourselves but, our audiences as well. The uninitiated will become initiated. I am not saying that all of us should, or even can, be fluent Arabic speakers, but at the very least, we should and can, mine the Internet for translations, pester our Middle Eastern friends and acquaintances for their help, train our ears to listen for key words and phrases, attempt to understand the cultural context of the music via movies, and yes, even YouTube! The resources available nowadays seem endless. Many dancers already do this and more. Unfortunately, many more do not. Rather than dismissal and disinterest, it would be nice to make the effort to understand and educate. What is the reward? …why, piles and piles of beautiful poetry to feed your dancing soul!

Here’s hoping for a better-mixed “cocktail” at BDUC 2012!

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  1. Shema

    Aug 16, 2011 - 11:08:05

    (Comment originally posted on Facebook)

    This is a really interesting article. I was particularly struck by this comment:
    Mergencies tend to have a lot of rhythmic variety built into the format, often with varying tempos and energy levels, so are ready-to-use versus the extra burden involved in devising one’s own cocktail or medley’.

    A good point well made, and I can’t help thinking, isn’t the ‘burden’ the whole point?!! In that actually, engaging with the music in a dynamic way should not BE a burden to a professional dancer, it should be part of our job, right? ‘Taleta wa bass’ – it’s a 3-way performance, inextricably linked and a constant flow between the 3 elements. I recently had a very interesting conversation with a Gnawa musician about ME dance/music and we came to the conclusion that the art is all about ‘poesie‘..poetry. The lyrics, music and dance are all expressions of this. Sad that so many choose to disregard it.

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