From Sex Education to Social Recreation
This is Part II in a series of articles written by Morocco from a paper entitled “Dance as Community Identity Among Selected Berber Nations of Morocco: From the Ethereal and Sublime to the Erotic and Sexual.” It was originally accepted for presentation at a joint conference of the Congress on Research in Dance and the Society of Dance History Scholars in New York, June 11-13, 1993. The conference was hosted by The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at the Lincoln Center. The name of the conference was “Of, By and For the People,” and it focused on “how dance proclaims political ideals, ethnicity, social class, age group identification, and regional pride.”
There are about two hundred different Berber tribes in Morocco, each with its distinctive dress (especially for the women), language, dance, and social customs. For each and every one of them, dance is an integral and constant affirmation of who and what they are, a form of self and group expression and pleasure. They dance throughout their entire lives.
Some tribes pray and send blessings by dance. Others celebrate plantings, harvests, holidays, seasonal changes and births with dance. During dance, many meet and court, challenge one another, show off and communicate, and seal marriages. Most city and many country women get their sex education via dance, and most tribes have their macho, warrior dances for the men. These rich dance traditions are assimilated in the normal course of family and tribal life, not studied formally nor taught in special schools or courses. It is not for a theater show or to play a part: it is their pride, a statement of their specific ethnicity, for each village, tribe, age, sex, and class has its own special dance with which it identifies and declares itself.
In Classical Arabic, the word “sheikha” is the feminine of “sheikh”: a person with knowledge, experience, wisdom. In Maghrebi (Moroccan Arabic), “sheikha” limits its meaning to specify a woman with carnal knowledge extensive enough to teach others.
Under prevailing interpretations of Islam and Sharia, both the bride and groom, but certainly and especially the bride, are expected to be virgins before their wedding. In many areas, to avoid any possibility of dishonoring a family via an illegitimate pregnancy, girls are married off even before puberty.
Before the marriage ceremony, at which, as custom demands, the young bride is conspicuous by her absence — she is represented by a male relative — there are many sex-segregated festivities and ceremonies. For at least three days, sometimes a week or more with wealthy city families, preceding the signing of the marriage contract and ritual carrying of the bride to the house of the groom’s family, day-long women’s parties are hosted in the home of the bride’s family to display her dowry, clothing and beauty.
She sits motionless on a “throne” set apart, eating nothing all day, leaving only to change her elaborate clothes at least three times a day, while the massed female relatives loudly discuss her flaws and attributes in front of her. Several times a day, she will be lifted in her chair by two or three women and carried around the room, to better show off the details of her finery. Fortunately, the family has hired a sheikha and her all-female group of schikhatt musicians and dancers to liven things up.
The sheikha, who usually knows all the local gossip and, therefore, everything about everybody at the party, begins by singing impromptu raucous verses poking fun at the foibles and defects of family and guests alike. Between the verses, her troupe vigorously dances the Schikhatt, exaggeratedly moving hips, stomach and breasts, for this is very definitely an erotic dance and the movements have to be visible in spite of the large, loose kaftans and d’finas they wear. The Schikhatt has nothing to do with Raks Sharki, despite the fact both consist mainly of control and articulation of torso muscles — versus limbs, as in Western dance. Lately, however, due to recent exposure to Lebanese and Egyptian movies and videotapes, Raks Sharki movement is showing up in the Schikhatts of sophisticated city-dwellers, in an effort to elevate it, make it more artistic.
Musical accompaniment can be as simple as bendirs, clapping and voices singing the refrain to the sheikha’s ribald improvised verses, or with a guimbry (stringed instrument, held horizontally, plucked and played like a banjo) or kemanjeh (violin, held vertically on the knee and bowed) added. More skilled Schikhatt dancers play sagat (finger cymbals), but only three — not four: two on the right hand, one on the left; some hold a small taarija (drum) in one hand, hitting the other hand with it as they dance; some play bendirs while executing the movements.
When she feels the time is proper and her “stage” has been set, the sheikha, herself, dances in front of the bride to be, singing verses about the pleasures of marital relations that await the bride after the ordeal of the wedding night and the loss of her virginity. With the Schikhatt movements, she demonstrates how the bride will be expected to move in the marriage bed.
(It is interesting to note that, in a culture where a woman’s public role is so circumscribed and her behavior so restricted vis-a-vis men, references to and discussion of matters sexual and physical are so much more frank, open and specific by women with and among other women and within the circle of the family.)
Both before and more so after the sheikha’s dance for the bride, all the women get up at one time or another to dance with the troupe and each other, until they are tired and ready to go home for the day. Depending on her finances and personal scruples, the sheikha will either go home or to the men’s party, to entertain them with much bawdier songs and behavior.
It is not socially acceptable for a “good” woman to be a professional Schikhatt dancer, but everyone dances the Schikhatt — at home and at parties. It is acceptable for a man to take a Schikhatt dancer as his second, or better yet, third wife, but she is forbidden to perform in public as long as the marriage lasts. Men do it too, but if they are professionals — and there are many — they dress in drag or, at the very least, wear a woman’s kaftan and d’fina, to acknowledge that it is a woman’s dance.
Family men come home from work for their main meal at midday, nap, then return to work until evening. The household women’s whole morning is taken in its preparation. Leftovers, breads and cheese suffice for dinner, so after the men go back to work, the afternoon is for a bit of diversion with one’s fellow females.
Typical, respectable Moroccan city women have no access to exercise centers, spas, dance classes, movie matinees. They must make their own amusements at home, within the family enclosure or visiting the other women in their homes. They do not “lunch.” What they do is dance the Schikhatt with and for each other, making up verses or repeating those they’ve heard and liked. They egg each other on and do their own steps and variations solo or duo. They add movements seen on television and at other women’s parties. City Schikhatts are far more “laid back” and varied than the schleuh (village) variety, which tend to be more direct and energetic.
Morocco has performed and taught seminars in the United States, Canada, Europe, Morocco, Israel, and Egypt. Her company, the Casbah Dance Experience, was created in New York City to present Mideastern and North African dance in concert and school settings, and has been awarded numerous choreographic and cultural services grants. She has spent thirty-two years researching on-site the music, steps and styles of each dance. www.casbahdance.org