Description of Egypt: Notes and Views on Egypt and Nubia Made During the Years 1825-1828
by Edward William Lane, Jason Thompson
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An Account of the Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians
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The Gilded Serpent presents...
Sirat Al-Ghawazi

by Edwina Nearing
A similar form articles was originally published in
1985 in Habibi Magazine Vol 8, No 9 (Zalot era)

Begun in the mid-1970's , the early sections of "Sirat Al-Ghawazi" were first published under the title "The Mystery of the Ghawazi" in Habibi Magazine. The author, orientalist Edwina Nearing (writing under the nom de guerre "Qamar el-Mulouk"), intended the series to be an investigative report on what Lady Duff Gordon in 1865 called "the real dancing girls of Egypt." Now, in the decades since Nearing's Ghawazi series first appeared, it has itself become a part of history, its people, places and events almost as exotic and remote as those described in the 19th century works the author drew upon for background information. "The Mystery of the Ghawazi" was reprinted in 1984 by popular demand and updated in a 1993 article, "Ghawazi on the Edge of Extinction." Since then, most of Nearing's Ghawazi material has been out of print. Gilded Serpent is happy to be able to respond to the continued demand for these articles by making them available to our readers worldwide.

Part 5 of 9- 1976
Watching the ghaziyyas Khairiyya and Farida dance in the courtyard of Luxor's Radwan Hotel, I could not help but sigh a little as I recalled the 19th century lithographs of Ghawazi and other Middle Eastern dancers, depictions which had captured the imagination of the Western world and made "dancing girls" a symbol of the Exotic East.  There, in the volumes of Lane, Gerome and Roberts, the Ghawazi still enchant us after 150 years.  They seem not merely to walk, but glide; not to shimmy, but sway.  Like tall palm trees they bend forever in the silent wind of the printed page, embodying all of Classic grace, Romantic passion and languor.

Almeh by Gerome
Khairiyya and Farida did not bend, sway, glide, spin, writhe, twist, or pose.  Their repertoire in general excluded the elaborate, the stylized, the large and round, or the angular; rather were movements fast and light, dominated by the ceaseless flicker of the hips and the softer counterpoint of graceful arms.  Here was nothing sensuous or abandoned, no secretive smirk of the wound-be odalisque, but a relaxed decorum and looks warm, gay, or indifferent, as circumstances warranted.  The effect was most pleasing, but hardly breathtaking.  In accordance with that oft observed peculiarity of Egyptian dance, it seemed the ghaziyyas' purpose to interact with the audience to the extent that the audience was willing, rather than to impose their will upon it.

Any or all of several explanations might account for the disparate impression conveyed by the old Romantic prints and the flesh and blood Ghawazi of present-day Luxor:  Ghawazi dancing had changed over the years; the artists of the past had glamourized their subjects; or there was more than one style of Ghawazi dancing.  Trying to sort this out, I watched Khairiyya and Farida more analytically and another possibility suggested itself:  what I saw now was precisely what was represented in these paintings and lithographs, and I had simply been misled by the inherent difficulty of conveying rapid and unfamiliar motion in a flat and static medium, and also misled by the unexpected changes which modern fashion had brought about in Ghawazi costume.  The dancers in Edward Lane's famous 19th century engraving, for example, had always struck me as the cynosure of elegance, both in movement and dress, but now I recalled that researcher's statement on the page facing his illustration that Ghawazi dancing had "little of elegance; its chief peculiarity being a very rapid vibrating motion of the hips, from side to side."  Lane consistently used his formal training as an engraver to illustrate specific points in his text, and hence it is not at all unlikely that he attempted to depict that very side-to-side shimmy to which he alludes. 

Engraving by Lane
Upon close examination of the ghaziyya in the foreground of his engraving, I found that the unusual placement of feet and hips, the corresponding distribution of weight and the distinctive arm position were appropriate in every detail to the movement which figured most prominently in the present repertoire of Khairiyya and Farida:  a side-to-side shimmy movement.

This side-to-side shimmy was performed extensively during the very fast 4/4 section that comprised the longest part of all the Ghawazi dances I witnessed in Luxor on this visit, and was the basic movement to which the dancers returned again and again.

  In this step/movement, the feet are roughly parallel, about nine inches apart, the weight rather forward on the balls of the feet although the heels - recalling that Ghawazi presently dance in high, though not very high, heels - still rest upon the ground.  The knees are bent and the thighs and pelvic girdle pushed somewhat forward in order to free the pelvis to swing easily.  On the first beat of the 4/4 measure, one moves the right foot a little to the right, at the same time transferring the weight to that foot and thrusting the right hip out to the right.  The upper torso remains stationary.  Between the first and second beat, the pelvis is allowed to "rebound" part way to its original forward position, and on the second beat, the right hip is thrust more strongly to the right and swung back slightly, the momentum of this thrust pulling the left foot off the floor and a little to the right, that is, a little closer to the right foot.  This is the precise moment which Lane may have captured in his engraving.  The pelvic girdle still faces the same direction as it did at the outset and does so throughout the side-to-side shimmy, but the whole pelvis at this point is set to the right and slightly back of where it was originally.  Between the second and third beats, the pelvis is swung to its original forward position and continues through to the left, and on the third beat one transfers the weight towards and onto the left foot, the left hip at the same time sliding to the left.  Between the third and fourth beat the pelvis is allowed to rebound part way to its original forward position, and on the fourth beat the left hip is thrust more strongly to the left and slightly back, allowing the momentum of the thrust to pull the right foot from the floor in preparation for the small step to the right which begins each new measure.  Foot movement is inconspicuous.  There is no break between one measure and the next; the hip action is smooth and continuous, relaxed but precise, the pelvis, if viewed from a point directly above the head of the dancer, describing a very shallow, convex crescent.

It may be helpful to express this as:

One 4/4  Measure:
Beat 1  Beat 2    Beat 3   Beat 4
Right   and Right    and Left    and  Left     and . . .

Again, Edward Lane's engraving faithfully reflects the carriage and movement of the arms for the side-to-side shimmy.  The arms are disposed out to either side of the body, the shoulders relaxed so that the upper arms are slightly forward of the torso and seldom as high as shoulder level.  The elbows are broken considerably and the forearms carried a little forward of the upper arms, the hands generally floating at shoulder or face level, palms facing each other or turned outwards and slightly down.  The wrists and hands of a skilled ghaziyya, such as Khairiyya Mazin, are especially graceful and fluid, a characteristic which seems to have impressed Lane, Roberts and others greatly, judging from their illustrations. 

There are no dramatic or complicated movements, such as one sees in standard oriental dancing, but despite the rather static view given by the above description, the arms and hands, like wind-stirred branches, are never still.

Sometimes a hand flicks briefly to the hip or waist, or both sweep downwards across the body to one side.  So far this applies to the better sort of Luxor Ghawazi dancing in general; with regard to the side-to-side shimmy, however, the basic arm position is sometimes augmented by a gentle waving of the forearms from side to side, as may be seen in Lane's and Roberts' illustrations.  It should be noted that this is not necessarily synchronized with the beat of the music or the movement of the hips, which would lend a grotesquely metronomic or mechanical aspect to the proceedings; and often the declination of the forearms once to the right and once to the left over each measure runs slightly over a full measure of the music, and the level at which one or both arms is carried changes at uneven intervals.  Nor is there anything vigorous in this, as it is meant as a contrast to the shimmy, a complementary rather than an analogous color.  The delicacy of movement of the wrists and placement of the hands shows to greatest advantage here, in spite of the encumbrance of the finger cymbals with which the dancers generally accompany the shimmy in a running pattern of eight strokes to the measure.

Mid 19th century dancing girls, a lithograph by L. Hagne
after an illustration by David Roberts

A popular alternate arm position for the side-to-side shimmy and other movements commonly performed with it, such as hip thrusts to the side and pelvic half-circles, is to allow one forearm to drop parallel to the ground in front of the body at about breast level, while the forearm of the direction of travel (i.e., the right arm if one is moving to the right) is held up and out to the side at right angles to the upper arm, which is roughly parallel to the floor, so that the hand is at head level.  The palms are held relaxedly in and the cymbals played continuously.  Khairiyya would modify this slightly in order to frame the brief little head slides, done over one measure in time to the music, with which she sometimes followed her side-to-side shimmy with pelvic half-circle combination:  she would raise the one forearm from breast level to within a couple of inches of the chin, the hand drooping gracefully, palm downward, from the wrist and acting as a focal point or center line emphasizing the level movement of the head from side to side, while the other hand was drawn in somewhat closer to the head and raised above it.  Farida preferred to frame her head slides by the simpler expedient of raising both hands above the head, the palms down and knuckles almost touching, rather like a flamenco dancer with castanets; but whichever arm position was used as a frame, the cymbals did not cease.

Although the side-to-side shimmy was used to travel to the right or to the left with equal facility, depending on the foot with which the dancer led off, it was most typically used by the Banat Mazin in the "circle riff" which occurred so often in their dancing and which may be the figure illustrated in David Roberts'19th century lithograph.  This is performed by two or more dancers moving in unison.  The general idea seemed to be so well known that Farida, although an inferior dancer and not accustomed to performing with Khairiyya, was able to perform a number of permutations of it with Khairiyya, as were several of the spectators.  One may imagine a circle four to six feet in diameter traced upon the ground, one dancer standing on one side of it and the other facing her from the opposite side; e.g., if one dancer is at the northernmost point of the circle, the other is at the southernmost, both dancers facing inward.  They move sideways along the line of the circle, usually counterclockwise, ever facing each other and maintaining much the same distance from each other, like the two hands of a clock traveling at the same speed.

While the side-to-side shimmy was the most common movement executed during the "circle riff," it was often alternated with a series of hip thrusts in the direction of travel, four hip thrusts per measure.  Another common movement, which often followed a series of side-to-side shimmies and grew naturally from them, was a smooth, level, isolated swing of the pelvis from left to center-forward to right to center-forward to left, three or four times, in a convex crescent deeper and slower than that of the side-to-side shimmy.  This was the only movement in the Mazin store which had in it anything of the rounded or sensuous.  The pelvic half-circle might in turn be followed by a couple of quick head slides, as noted above, and a quarter pivot forward with four thrusts of the leading hip.

A variation of the "circle riff" performed by Khairiyya and Farida involved the use of a cane, with which Khairiyya danced briefly.  The two ghaziyyas faced each other the cane's length apart, and as they circled with the side-to-side shimmy, Khairiyya placed one end of the cane against her waist above the navel, dropped the other end against Farida's waist and removed her hand from the cane, so that as they continued to circle shimmying, the cane was held in place only by the equalized pressure of their torsos against either end.  I saw this with a shock of recognition, for it was somewhat similar to what I had seen years before in a "Ghawazi Dance"choreographed by Sami Yunis of Egypt's National Folk Arts Ensemble.  There three girls had also formed a circle moving counterclockwise, and each had balanced one end of her staff against her right shoulder and the other end against the left shoulder of her right-hand neighbor, all acting at the same moment and continuing their dancing without a pause in the circle's rotation and without touching the staves with their hands.

To encounter this stick balancing idea again was reassuring, as Professor Yunis had told me that his choreography of the Ensemble's Ghawazi material was based upon research done among the Banat Mazin.  But what, then, was the basis of the Ensemble's most recent "Ghawazi Dance," a flamboyant tour de force of writhings and whirlings and elaborate armwork which more resembled the great oriental dancers Samia Gamal and Nabawiyya Mustafa at their most inspired, than the simpler, lighter art of Farida and Khairiyya Mazin?

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Ready for more?
1-3-04 Khairiyya Mazin Struggles to Preserve Authentic Ghawazi Dance Tradition by Edwina Nearing
But when Khairiyya Mazin retires, one of the most distinctive traditions of Ghawazi dance may come to an end.

2-11-04 Sirat Al-Ghawazi, Part 1 by Edwina Nearing
Begun in the mid-1970's , the early sections of "Sirat Al-Ghawazi" were first published under the title "The Mystery of the Ghawazi." We are happy to be able to respond to the continued demand for these articles by making them available to our readers worldwide.
Part 2 -- 1976 posted 5-16-04
Part 3 - 1976
posted 8-8-04
Part 4 - 1976 posted 9-12-04
Part 5 - 1976
Posted 2-10-04
Part 6 - 1976 posted 7-5-05
Part 7 - 1976 posted 9-5-05
Part 8 - 1976 posted12-3-05
Part 9 - 1977
posted 1-?-06

2-3-05 From Rags to Rhinestones by Dolores
I am most proud of having taken up dance later in life and having become an acclaimed professional-level performer.

1-29-05 Photos from Sumaya’s Chicago South Side Hafla by Shira
Being new to the Midwest, I thought it would be fun to attend one of Sumaya’s haflas and meet other members of the greater Midwestern dance community.

1-25-05 Intruder, BEWARE! comic by Lynette
"How dare they pollute our pond!"







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