Berber Dances

Berber Dances of Courtship and Marriage

By Morocco

This is Part III in a series of articles written by Morocco from a paper entitled “Dance as Community Identity Among Selected Berber Nations of Morocco,” which 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.


Dancing the Night Away

Ahouache is a group courtship “look each other over” dance which is danced all over southern Morocco, in the High Atlas, Dades Valley, Ouarzazate and Kelaa M’Gouna, as well as Imin Tanout. The distinctive dress of the women of each Berber tribe is often the only way to determine which is dancing. Imin Tanout is located half way between Marrakesh and Agadir.

Courtship Dance of Ahouache of Imin Tanout, Morocco

The musicians sit in a circle around the fire, heating their bendirs and getting ready for a long haul. The night air is still, then the bendirs and small drums start to thrum and reverberate. The “Rais,” or leader, prepares to direct the group’s formations and sequences, somewhat like a square dance caller, but in a more general, laissez-faire manner: closer to a traffic cop on a crowded urban street. He is there mostly to make sure the proprieties and distances are kept, for this is a dance in which only the unmarried can take part: it is their socially acceptable way to “check each other out” – all night.

Everyone wears his or her best: the men in long, loose, hooded white ‘dras over close-fitting white thobes, white head-wraps and with the requisite daggers on thick cord belts draped over their right shoulders, resting at their left hips, yellow babouches on their feet; the girls, some very young, in individual, multicolored kaftans and d’finas, over which all have tied white “skirts” made from lengths of wide fabric, folded over cords to form two tiers and gathered under their belts (no sewing needed, just fold to store away!). Fringed, patterned headscarves (red a predominant color) are held in place by two-rowed bands of silver coins attached with chains and hooks. Babouches are on their feet and, most important for this dance, around their necks each young girl has a many-tiered, large chestpiece of silver coins and semi-precious stones.

Standing in a line shoulder-to-shoulder, the (mostly) young men sing their paeans to the young women’s beauty. They clap rhythmically as the young women in a separate line of their own sing out their answer. This call and response alternates for a bit.

At a signal from the rais, the young girls run forward while keeping their line and holding hands. Stopping with both feet flat on the ground, they bob up and down to make their heavy chest pieces jingle loudly, their arms pumping with the beat. The sound of the coins becomes part of the music. They divide into two lines, with the rais at the center, and run towards each other. Forming a circle, they drop to one knee, join hands, and swing their arms back and forth to the beat, vibrating their chest pieces again. Jumping up, they form two lines again and drop to one knee, facing the young men as they repeat the arm swinging and coin vibrating. This continues for quite some time, since their main purpose is to show off for their possible future husbands: not only their beauty, but even more important in the harsh realities of the Berber world, their physical strength and endurance.

When it is the men’s turn, they sing, clap rhythmically, and lean from side to side in unison. They then run forward, stop, and stamp their feet furiously to the beat.

Which group does what and when is up to the rais, who usually alternates the men and women every fifteen minutes or so. The dancing is over at dawn. These Ahouaches are held at every appropriate holiday or public event, since this is the only way young people can get to know who is eligible outside of their immediate families: teen hang-outs, school dances and Western-style dating are totally unknown and unacceptable within this mainly traditional, agrarian culture.



Unbelievable Precision Amid the Scent of Roses

El Kelaa M’Gouna (sometimes called Kelaa des M’Gouna) is on the Kasbah Road, in the Dades Valley, 90 kms north of Ouarzazate and south of Tinghir. A place blessed with abundant water and fertile soil, it has a rich agricultural tradition. World famous for its vast, fragrant rose gardens, it holds an annual Rose Festival in May. It is believed that these rose fields are of Yemenite origin, but the houses of the Ait Atta, strangely resembling those of Nepal, and the high cheekbones and slanted eyes of the people point to more far eastern or Oriental origins.

Courtship dance of Kelaa des M'Gouna

Their dance is a type of Ahidous, very similar to the Ahouache, but a bit more “dignified,” with the rais in total control of the movement shapes and sequences. As with the Ahouache of Imin Tanout, only unmarried women can participate in the dance and it is the village’s socially acceptable venue for its young people to get close enough to look each other over and make (hopefully) lifetime matches.

Several years in a row, I noticed the same woman in the Kelaa at the Marrakesh Folk Festival, and realizing that only unmarried women can dance in the Kelaa I assumed she was a spinster, divorcee or widow. I later learned that she was the wife of the rais of the best Kelaa M’Gouna group and its lynchpin dancer. He temporarily divorced her each year before the Folk Festival, so she could participate, bringing honor to him and their village with her skill.

The men wear the same sort of white thobes and hooded dras as those of Imin Tanout, with one significant exception: in place of the daggers hanging on thick cords at the left hip, they have leather bags.

Over their kaftans and d’finas, the women’s dress is something else entirely: a floor-length piece of black cloth passes under the right arm, over the chest and back, caught at the left shoulder by a fibula, while a second piece of white cloth passes under the left arm, over the chest and back, caught at the right shoulder by the second fibula, a chain hanging from the bottom of both fibulae. Several red cords are tied around the waist, the ends left to dangle in bunches at the front. They wear decorated leather shoes with front and back pieces that come up over the ankle. Necklaces of large amber beads, interspersed with silver, adorn each neck, as do second necklaces of elaborately twisted strands of colored beads. They all have the same hairdo: very short, fluffy bangs and one big braid, doubled over at each ear. Their high headpieces, held in place with tiny gold chains circling their foreheads under the bangs, are covered in strands of colored wool with metal sequins dangling down all over. Hanging from the back of the headpiece is a black kerchief, fringed with short strands of the same colored wool.

All the men play bendirs while they dance, including the rais, who is there to direct the movements and make sure the men and women don’t get too close.

The women cross their arms in front and take a hand of the dancer on each side. The men, shoulder-to-shoulder, play their bendirs. They rush towards each other, almost meet, then return, moving backwards. Forward again, only to separate at the last moment into four sides of a square. The two male sides rush towards each other, swivel by one another in the middle and change sides. The women do likewise. Both figures are repeated several times, then both sides circle one another, going in opposite directions: men on the inside, women always on the outside — it wouldn’t be right for them to be surrounded by men. Forming a cross, they move with strides of varying length in order to keep its shape as they circle counter-clockwise. The precision of their patterns and movements, especially their rushing feet, is mind-boggling.


Pursuit, Persistence and Victory

Tissint is located in the south of the Anti Atlas, about 40 km from the Algerian border. The betrothal dance celebrated there involves the whole community. This danced ceremony predates Islam. It continues in spite of efforts by conservative religious elements and bureaucrats to convince the people of Tissint to abandon it as heretical and against the Hadith, and use only religious contracts, ceremonies and bureaucratic paperwork to legalize their unions. Fortunately, its continued inclusion in the Marrakesh Folk Festival by the Ministry of Culture keeps the anti-dance wolves in Tissint at bay for the present.

Tissint Betrothal Dance, Folklore de Marrakech

The women’s festival clothing is marvelous: a long, flowing black overrobe with multicolored zigzag embroidery at the shoulders and across the chest, tied at the waist with a multi-colored woven wool belt ending in tassels hanging almost to the feet. The black head veil is held in place by embroidered bands hung with silver coins and almost unbelieveably elaborate large silver jewelry, chains and ornaments. Very large silver hoop “earrings” hang from both sides of this headwear. Many necklaces of graduated size, made of silver coins, some interspersed with large amber, turquoise and coral beads, adorn the chest. Large silver bracelets circle each wrist.

The men wear flowing blue ghandouras over white kaftans, with black cloth wound into turbans on their heads: similar to, but not as big or elaborate as the dras and tagelmousses of the Blue Men. Each has a dagger at his left hip, its sheath attached to a braided cord hung over the right shoulder and across the chest. Some of their ghandouras have elaborate, thin-cord embroidered ornamentation on the chest and pocket.

The bendir players, clappers and chanters are from the community, and not professionals. They sit in a circle in the center of the dance space, not only musicians and accompanists for the festivities, but chaperones making sure the limits of propriety are adhered to.

After the group of mostly young men and women dance a while to a relatively lively tempo, one of the young women detaches herself from the group. One of the young men stands, holding overhead the corded belt from which his silver dagger dangles: he offers his protection. It is an official, public proposal of marriage, usually known about and agreed to in advance, but not always. Suprises do occur!

He dances after her, whirling and swooping, the dagger held high, swaying on its cord. She constantly flutters her shoulders like a frightened bird, hands palms up, elbows gracefully bent, while she flees from him for a while. She then approaches, coyly whirling and escaping at the last moment.

When done “for real,” this “mating dance” goes on for quite a while, to show that she is “hard to get” and he is undaunted in the face of resistance, because he truly wants her for his wife. Once she lingers in front of him long enough for him to slip the corded belt over her head, they are officially betrothed. He kneels before her beauty and acceptance of his proposal. Shoulders still fluttering, she makes a last circuit of the group, showing off his dagger around her neck: she is under his protection.

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.

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