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Exploring the Essence

Dancing to Live Music

Zizi Mustafa joining us on the Camp Negum Cruise 2013 from Luxor to Aswan Egypt. Jan 23-28

by Safaa Farid
Translation by Leila Farid
posted November 4, 2013

When I was young and first started to sing, I was afraid to work with a band. It took months before I felt comfortable sharing my feelings, my interpretation of the song, with an audience. I had only heard the great singers like Abdel Halim and Om Kaltoum on TV or the radio. It was hard to recreate their renditions, much less relay the essence of what the songs made me feel! In front of a band I discovered I wasn’t as great a singer as I thought I was. I was fine singing for my friends in the street, but with a band I was lost. Luckily, I met a great oud player here in Egypt who helped me out. He said my voice was good but without feeling. He told me, among other things, that I should listen to the great songs and feel the words before I sang them. I should listen to the original recordings, then make them my own. He also taught me the following:

  • Find your own tonality – which is not necessarily what the original singer used. Make the song fit your voice. You shouldn’t have to strain to reach a note.
  • Develop a good rapport with the band. They must want to make you sound good.
  • You set the tempo, with your audience in mind, according to your interpretation of the song. If the guests are classic and expecting a song from Abdel Wahab, I will give them something close to the original version. But if the guests are young and dancing, I will push the tempo to make it more accessible for them.
  • Most importantly, convey a message or a story. The Greats share a life story – of the love who still loves them, the love who left them, the love they’re awaiting, or the one who took their love from them. They share this story with the people who witnessed their relationship, or to those who only knew them after the relationship ended. The story is also specific to the listener. Singing a song to your beloved is different than singing to a third party and asking them what they think about the situation. It will evoke different emotions as the audience compares it to their own lives. The Greats sang about common experiences, but not everyone could express them with such eloquence. This is the challenge: Enable the audience to deeply experience these all too common emotions.

Everyone knows what it feels like to be separated from a loved one. In 1940 So3ad Mohamed sang in the song “Wahastini” (I miss you), “As much as there are stars in the sky.” In the 1950’s Om Kalthoum sang “Ana Fintizarak” (I wait for you) describing the malaze she fell into while waiting forever for her lover. Still today, when a singer sings these songs, we flash to the time when we missed someone so much that waiting one more minute for their return was torture. It is not the words that matter, but the feelings they inspire.

The process I went through as a singer also applies to dancers. Watching a dancer perform to pre-recorded music does not evoke the same feelings as watching the same dancer perform with a live band.

CDs are only practice tools to prepare for performing with a band. Pre-recorded music is a first step. However, when a dancer jumps to performing with musicians, she must alter her technique and feeling. Working with musicians is different.

All the great dancers worked with live music because orchestras helped them reveal their deep-seated artistry.

Dancing to a CD only reveals maybe 50% of what a dancer can really do.

I want to thank all those who use CDs to teach, as they are the first step. Nevertheless, they should try to give their students opportunities to perform with a band. Then, like me, the student will find that what she learned with a CD will have to be adapted for a live band. She will be afraid and make many mistakes in the beginning. Then she will start to feel the music and become one with the musicians, singer and guests.

Leila dances to her band who watches her intently
Leila and the Band!

A dancer is like a doctor who learns from books – for many years – but then must spend many more years DOING what she learned on (or for) real patients. A good doctor not only has book knowledge, but experience in the field handling a myriad of situations. A dancer must do the same.

First of all, a dancer must respect the band and the band must respect her. Then she must project her personality on stage.

You must have your own style. You can copy steps from another dancer, but not her emotional interpretation. You must have your own. Do not copy the same movements for the same song. You don’t know what she was feeling or her circumstances when the performance was recorded. A dancer must start with her own style, then add things. She must understand what she is doing through good technique and knowledge of the music, culture and audience. When the musicians feel you understand all these things, they will respect you and will try to make you look good.

Just like a singer, the dancer must make the song suit her.

She can set the tempo – to match her mood, her style and the audience. I will never forget the one time I saw Tahiya Carioca dance live. It was the end of the 1990s (Tahia died in 1999 at age 80). I was singing with Zizi Mustafa and we were performing for Warda’s birthday party. As Zizi was dancing, we discovered Taheya Carioca was at the party. She was very fat at the time but everyone was happy to see her. Zizi told me to sing a song for Tahiya to dance to, as a gift for Warda. She requested “Walla ya Walla” (Boy my Boy) from Abdel Gani Sayeed. At this time, all the dancers were performing to this song, so we knew it. Taheya stood up, the guests began to clap and Zizi stepped aside. Tayeha stopped the band maybe 5 times during the song’s introduction to say we were playing too fast. When she finally began to dance, we were playing about ½ the tempo of when we started. She said she wanted to HEAR the music without the tabla making noise. She might have been old and out of shape, but when she danced she imparted her own emotions to the guests. She made the song her own and she was perfect.

A dancer must be free when she dances with live music. Many dancers come to me during festivals and ask me to play their music exactly like it is on the CD. But if the dancer would allow the band to improvise, maybe the tabla might add something better than what’s on the CD. The singer might repeat a verse or a chorus because the audience is happy with her performance. This is better than the CD. I do not agree with dancers who come to me with a beledi progression and want the band to play it exactly like it is on the CD. Why? Because the dancer should inspire the musicians to play what matches her style. Each musician has his own feeling for beledi. When the musician’s style meshes with the dancer’s, the beledi will succeed. She should not be rigid, that is not raqs sharki.

The singer and the band both try to bring the emotional content of a song to life. It is the dancer’s job to do the same. She will succeed if she incorporates her feelings into her performance. When Abd al Motereb sang for Naima Akef “Amel Maroof” (Make Something Good), they played back and forth off each other to convey the song’s message. “You are a gazzel, very good, your dancing eclipses Hollywood, your sweetness is the sweetest sugar.” You feel the words through their performances. This tableau succeeded. We still watch it today.

Abd al Motereb singing for Naima Akef “Amel Maroof” (Make Something Good)

As a dancer you must know what the words mean. That’s the key to understanding the song. I know this is hard for foreign dancers and I take my hat off to them for their technique and style. However, they must understand the words. You do not have to learn Arabic, but obtain a translation and interpret the general idea. Each song has a story, but you won’t be able to tell it until you know what it’s about. Your movements must match the song’s atmosphere. When I watch a dancer twirling, kicking and jumping while Om Kathoum laments “you were the best story of my entire life” it makes me sad. The song’s emotions are completely lost. The song in question, “Ansak” (To Forget You), is more than beautiful, but this frenetic dancer failed to project its power. Some songs may call for twirling, but not all! Raqs Sharki is not about making X number of movements at the same time. It’s about making a movement that translates the dancer’s feelings about the lyrics, the story. In fact, some songs do not require much movement at all. But they do require emotional engagement and facial expressions.

Live music is the foundation of raqs sharki. If a dancer has technique but cannot dance with a live band, she is only 50%. Put a dancer in front of a band and we will make her 100%. Remember Dina performing to “Hyart Elbi” (My Heart is Confused) in the stage play “Ala Banda” (Blah, Blah, Blah)? There was only an oud player and she didn’t travel more than 2 steps. She projected her emotions with simple movements; she acted the song with her body. The tabla followed her and the oud sang. I must say, this is raqs sharki.

Dina performing to “Hyart Elbi” (My Heart is Confused) in the stage play “Ala Banda” (Blah, Blah, Blah)

It took time for me to be able to stand on the stage with a live band without being afraid. It is the same for dancers. It takes time to learn to dance with live music. We are all artists. Throughout my artistic life, when I perform I listen to my audience and learn from them. I am constantly learning. It is a process I have great respect and awe for. It is an enormous honor to give people such a fleeting thing of beauty (with all our different instruments; the musicians, the singer with his voice and the dancer with her body). A song can stir the depths of our emotions, bring tears or warm the heart. This is our charge as artists, and our duty.

Camp Negum


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  1. Leyla Lanty

    Nov 23, 2013 - 10:11:00

    Thank you Safaa and Leila!!  Well spoken!!  All dancers should read this.

  2. Tamra Henna

    Jan 13, 2014 - 12:01:49

    Beautifully stated, and so true.  Thank you for your perspective, Safaa.

  3. Hallah Moustafa

    Feb 22, 2015 - 02:02:53

    Such a joy to read your words dear Safaa! And really great translation Leila! I am happy to see your success and send many blessings to you and your family.

  4. Nicole Hayal

    Feb 21, 2019 - 07:02:22

    Gracias !!!! Es tan importante todo esto, nunca morirá la danza oriental si lo hacemos desde nuestra alma

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