Gilded Serpent presents...

Zar: Trance Dancing with Yasmin

2014 Workshop at Amina’s in San Francisco

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Report by Janan (Jeanne Fogler)
posted April 17, 2014

Here in the Bay Area, so many excellent instructors make appearances that I always feel I need to choose carefully to make the most of my workshop budget. But when I heard that Yasmin Henkesh was coming to give a daylong workshop on zar, I knew right off that this was one I wouldn’t want to miss – how often do most of us get a chance for an in-depth look at this fascinating ritual?

Yasmin, whose career has included time as a performer in Europe and in Egypt and who is now based in the Washington, D.C. area, is the producer of the CD “Zar – Trance Music for Women.” She was on hand on February 23, 2014, at Amina Goodyear’s studio in San Francisco to share with a limited group of students her expertise on the zar ritual and trance dancing.

Her extensive presentation, filling an entire afternoon and part of an evening, touched on a wealth of topics – everything from ritual origins in Ethiopia and elsewhere, to the types of musicians who perform for the ritual, to relevant points in Islamic history.

But the day began with a detailed discussion of a subject not found in a typical dance workshop: brain science. In the context of explaining what a person experiences during trance dance. Yasmin talked at length about the various types of brain waves – beta waves for normal waking consciousness, alpha waves for when we go into a resting state, etc. – and what goes on in the brain when a person goes into trance.

Later she related that information to the process of inducing trance state through dance. She gave an overview of devotional practices of the Sufis and showed some video clips of zikr ceremonies in which groups of men aspire to a mystical state through chanting, repetitive movements, and sometimes the familiar spinning moves.

Only men can participate in the zikr, however, which brings us to the subject at hand. The zar is women’s trance dance outlet. But rather than being a prayer ritual, the zar has to do with interaction with the jinn. These are spirit entities that are believed to sometimes inhabit a person.

As Yasmin explained it, a jinn can enter a person and make its presence known by causing trouble such as physical pain. A woman might then take part in a zar ritual in which she enters a trance state and an attempt is made to contact the spirit and find out what it wants. Each of the many possible spirits is associated with a specific rhythm, so the musicians may play one rhythm after another until the identity of the spirit becomes known.

Besides this big-picture overview, we had a look at some specific details. One thing I found interesting was sagat, the finger cymbals of Egypt. To put it briefly, the Egyptian sagat are made in a different shape and have a different tone and ringtime than the Turkish zills more familiar to most American belly dancers (you can read a piece on this by Yasmin here). We got to test out a little of the playing style of the sagat, quite different from what most of us are accustomed to, and try a few rhythms.

Venturing farther into unfamiliar territory, Yasmin demonstrated use of the goat-hoof belt. She showed us a large, heavy belt (her smaller one for use during travel, she says) hung all over with goat hooves that rattle loudly with hip movements. This is used by a dance leader to create part of the soundscape during the zar ritual. (I was among those who ventured to try it out during the break – an amazing and very loud sound!)

To finish up the whole package, we adjourned to nearby Mobu Studio for some immersion experience. Yasmin started by teaching some of the movements common in trance dancing, including both some from zikr (I’m particularly remembering the “zikr twists” of twisting the upper body back and forth and letting the arms follow freely) and some that are more specific to zar. She also gave us some basic instruction in spinning technique. After we had our own session of trance dancing, Yasmin brought us back to ordinary reality with a calming guided meditation.

After taking all this in, I realized that much of what I’d heard in the past about the zar had been extremely superficial and largely inaccurate. For years I hadn’t much questioned the original description I had first heard: that the zar is an exorcism ceremony in which the women expel the unwanted spirits through movements of flinging their hair and flicking their fingertips. “Exorcism” is incorrect, since the aim of the process is to contact the spirit rather than to expel it, and that depiction of the movements isn’t quite right either. The moral: Trust that an unfamiliar subject is more complex than it may at first be painted, and get as much information about it as you can.

Yasmin's Zar Class by Amina

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   |       |    1 Comment

  1. No Gravatar
    Leila Farid

    May 27, 2014 - 12:05:36

    Yasmin Henkish taught this Zar workshop at our last Camp Negum (April 2014) here in Egypt.  It was everything Janan said.  I learned so much that I felt I had not really known anything about the Zar before her workshop (even though I have been to a few as an observer).  After her lecture we got up to try it.  She explained the movements very well and walked us through them so people could find their own movement that was the most powerful for them.  It was overwhelming (I guess that is the point) the strength of the feeling it produces.  Everyone loved the class and that night we got to get up and move with Mazaher at a Zar music performance at the Makan Cultural Center.  If you know Yasmin, then you know she never does anything half way.  Years of field and study research has gone into this workshop and it was amazing.

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