Dancing with the Muse of Aisha Ali
by Eliza Buck
Aisha Ali was born in Pennsylvania of an Egyptian (Yes, her name really is Ali) father and an Italian mother. She started dancing when she moved to Los Angeles in 1957, and did her first performance when she was eighteen, dancing for the Arab Student Organization at U.C.L.A. She acquired the skills of a dance ethnologist-ethnomusicologist through her associations at U.C.L.A., and studied with Leona Wood who introduced her to field music recorded in Upper Egypt by Fumio Koizumi, Tiberiu Alexandru and Hans Hickman. Inspired by their work, she first traveled to Egypt, Lebanon, and Syria in 1971 to collect and observe fast disappearing music and dance traditions.
Over the next twenty years she made many subsequent trips to Egypt and North Africa. Being an experienced Oriental dancer of Arabic appearance, and with an understanding of the culture, she received special ingress to gatherings and events that would have been difficult for most ethnologists. Her American upbringing, however, made her interesting to Arabs and exempted her from some of the limitations usually imposed on native Arab women. Her dedication to preserving traditional music and dance forms earned her respect among the musicians for whom these traditions were a way of life.
Aware of differences in the way Arabic dances were interpreted in the U.S., as opposed to how they were performed in the Middle East, she introduced many of the more subtle and naturally dynamic nuances of Egyptian dance styling to dancers in America. A cross-cultural exchange has taken place since her first visits to Upper Egypt. When she returned in 1977, the Benat Maazin were wearing the kind of spangled tobe in which she had performed several years earlier; and the unique costume worn by the Maazin girls, until recently unfamiliar in Lower Egypt, is now worn even by dancers in the U.S.
Between 1979 and 1983, she wrote articles about her experiences in the Middle East that were published in Arabesque Magazine. Two of these articles on the Benat Maazin Ghawazee, and Ali’s recordings of their mizmar and tabel belady musicians aroused enough interest among tourists visiting Egypt to cause the Egyptian Ministry of Culture to re-evaluate the cultural value of the Ghawazee.
In Tunisia, she traveled through the countryside performing with Tunisian musicians and dancers as part of a cultural exchange program, and collecting materials for the Director of the Ministry of Culture in Tunis. She was honored there with two orchestras as the solo performer at the Municipal Theatre in Sfax. In Algeria, she stayed among members of the Ouled Naïl tribe, and traveled with them to observe tribal gatherings during various festivals.
Throughout her travels in Egypt, North Africa, and the Middle East she collected folkloric materials which were fast disappearing. Her efforts have produced four albums on the Discs ARAF label. In 1973, she released “Music of the Ghawazee,” the recording that first introduced the Benat Maazin family of Ghawazee to the American belly dance community. It was followed by “Music of the Ouled Naïl,” “Music of the Fellahin,” and “Music for the Oriental Dance.” In 1991 she released a video entitled “Dances of Egypt.” Her second video, “Dances of North Africa” will be out in 1995. It features archival footage of folk music and dance from Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco.
Now Aisha is an internationally acclaimed performer and scholar of North African and Egyptian folk dances. Her career spans four decades and her accomplishments read like the Middle Eastern dance “Who’s Who.” Aisha has appeared on national television, on talk shows and sitcoms, as well as M.T.V. She has performed in the best supper clubs in Los Angeles, London, Cairo and Luxor. She spent seven months at the Omar Khyaam in London in 1974 performing with her troupe of nine dancers seven nights a week from 8 p.m. to 4 a.m. They had the finest musicians from Egypt, Syria and Lebanon, as well as an Iranian santour player. Each of the dancers did a raks sharqi solo, and between the solos they did group numbers such as Ghawazee, Saidi, Tunisian, Persian, and Ouled Naïl. The audience was limited to millionaires and royalty with their entourages. Aisha has also taught and performed throughout the U.S., Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Tunisia, Lebanon and Syria.
Based in Los Angeles, Aisha directs and choreographs for her own folkloric dance group, the Aisha Ali Dance Company, which made its first appearance at the Los Angeles Music Center in 1973. Her company frequently performs at colleges and cultural festivals in California. Aisha continues to give workshops around the country and abroad, and appears at special performances in Middle Eastern supper clubs in Los Angeles.
I met Aisha in 1989 when I moved to Los Angeles to attend graduate school at UCLA. I attended class at her studio one Saturday afternoon. Upon arriving I found a courtyard lined with towering bamboo and shaded with a canopy of green. One immediately senses moving into another world — exotic, warm, and ornate. Aisha’s classes are informal, relaxed and familial. She approaches the dance and teaching in an unhurried manner, allowing things to unfold naturally. Getting to know Aisha is much the same process — a leisurely unveiling.
When Aisha speaks about her life, she seems to stand outside of herself. Looking inside, as if past events played upon a screen, her visual memory captures the moment complete, invoking all the senses. Aisha is a natural storyteller, replete with imitations of voice, gesture, and sounds.
And what stories she can tell! She recounts the time she went to film the Maazin girls at a village wedding on the West bank of Thebes and nearly caused a feudal war. “I had been invited to the wedding and knew it would be a good opportunity to film them, but I was dancing at the Winter Palace Casino, so I couldn’t leave for the wedding until after midnight. I thought I would feel safer if I were accompanied by several young men from Luxor with whom I was acquainted. The groom’s father received us cordially and gave us coveted seats close to the stage, or dikka, where the musicians and dancers were performing. As the night drew near dawn, one of my escorts had consumed more ara’q than he could handle and began to make himself highly visible by dancing with the Ghawazee and throwing extravagant amounts of money on them. Something he said to one of the dancers offended the groom’s brother, who began striking at him. The struggle that ensued incited my other escorts to rush to his defense, and the incident turned into a free-for-all. Realizing that things had gotten serious, I got help in pulling them away from the mob for a hasty retreat. On the way home, I learned that some of my escorts belonged to a rival clan that had a long-standing feud with the relatives of the wedding party.”
One of my favorite stories is of Mohammed, an Egyptian boy, teaching her how to walk like a village woman. (Of course, Aisha jumped up to demonstrate.) “His aunt had dressed me in one of her traditional long, black crepe khameesa with sleeves that covered the fingertips, because I wanted to observe a Moulid in the village of Nazlett in the Qurna Desert without drawing attention to myself. My forehead was tightly bound with a black mandil covered by a long black tarha. I thought I could blend in until Mohammed told me that others would know I was American by the way I walked. He coached me to stay behind him walking slowly, shifting my weight from side to side. When he was satisfied with my waddle, we started out toward the village square and I was introduced as his cousin from Upper Egypt. Covered from head to toe, I found that the tarha protected me from the sun and dust. It was the Moulid Al Nebbi, celebrating the Prophet’s birthday, and everyone was in a festive mood. The women walked proudly along the canal road decked out in their finest black tobes and wearing all of their gold. At the souk the sweet shops featured special cakes and biscuits and I was as happy as a child. I kept quiet and blended in with the crowd watching the performers. There were beautiful horses dancing to musicians playing mizmar and tabel belady. A father and son performed magic tricks and then ate fire and juggled burning hoops. In special tents decorated with colorful appliqué Islamic designs were more musicians and singers. When night fell there were parties for the couples who had chosen this auspicious day for their weddings. The musicians played belady al tett and there were dancers from Mohammed Ali Street performing on a dikka erected in the courtyard. They would stop every five minutes while the singer called out names of people and places to collect no’qta…” Listening to Aisha is an adventure much like wandering through a souk.
Aisha’s career in Middle Eastern dance is also a curious maze of events. When asked how she became a dancer, she recalls being slowly drawn into the dance through a series of timely events and chance meetings, all very lucky and seemingly out of her control. She stated simply, “opportunities just keep presenting themselves to me. It’s always been that way. There were always bookings. It was so natural.”
The value and importance of naturalness is a recurring theme in my conversations with Aisha. In fact, Aisha’s approach to the dance is an intuitive one. “But it took years,” she reflected. “I think when I started going to the Middle East, that was the turning point…The music was so good it drew out of me a spontaneous response. There is such a difference when you’re dancing to music you really love, when there is this meeting of music and dancer that fuses into one. Those are the experiences we live for.”
When I inquired about how she imparts this experience to her students she responded by saying, “I teach them to move and separate in the natural traditional Middle Eastern way. After getting through the basics, and going through the process of learning at least one choreography, for the form — everything is improvised. They follow me and I never know what I’m going to do. I lead them through a variety of dance experiences, and at these times, I’m no longer myself. I’m like a go-between. When I hear certain pieces of music, I project myself into the place and time where I saw a particular dancer. Then I become that performer.”
Aisha pointed out that there are benefits and drawbacks to this approach. “The pro is that once you are able to imitate without consciously thinking about it, you begin to really own it. For students who don’t have the opportunity to travel, it saves them a lot of time and expense. It’s a good stepping stone. Back in the ‘60’s Leona Wood did that for me, imitating the dancers she had watched over and over in Egyptian movies. On the other hand, if you’re not patient and committed it can be frustrating not always having every movement broken down in detail.”
Having studied with Aisha, I can attest to the value of her approach. Several times I witnessed pure dance, direct from the muse. In this state, Aisha frequently lost track of time and simply danced through a long, complex piece of music, from beginning to end. I remember being stunned by what Aisha calls “that dancerly quality.” She explained this term by saying, “Painters have something they refer to as ‘painterliness.’ Who is to say that a series of strokes on a canvas is art or just technique — or simply the application of colors? And there is a difference. If you look up close at the details in a Valasquez portrait, you will see many quick strokes. Yet when you stand back, the strokes mix in your eyes and the forms appear realistic, they catch the way light reveals things to us…the way we really see. This deft use of brush stroke can be referred to as “painterly.” When a dancer uses an inspired combination of movements that visually demonstrate the music — I call that ‘dancerly.’ The passages come out and you don’t try to control them. If you wanted to repeat them you never could in the same way, but they could have the same quality.”
Capturing the essence or the heart of the dance drives all of Aisha’s folkloric pieces. She strives to recreate the quality of the dances she loves so well, but finds all too often that folkloric performances fall short of her ideal — “the real thing.” After directing the Aisha Ali Dance Company for over twenty years, Aisha believes that the secret to a good folkloric performance is having the right elements. She defined these elements as 1) an audience that loves and respects the dance, 2) the performers that do it for a living and are comfortable with it, and 3) the music that inspires the movements. Granted, we rarely harness all of these elements simultaneously, but dedication, research, and commitment to presenting the tradition accurately will bring us closer.
Aisha commends the dancer who makes a concerted effort to research the sources of folkloric dances. She noted that with all the resources and materials available today, shoddy representations of traditional folk dances are inexcusable.
Shifting our conversation to Oriental dance, I asked Aisha what she would like to impart to American dancers. She replied, “I would like dancers to approach the dance in a more relaxed way, relaxed in the sense of not being so uptight about mastering the techniques and having the latest fads in costumes and choreography — things that seem to be of primary concern to them. Beautiful costumes, of course, are very important…but it’s not about having the latest thing. I feel that too many are eager to jump in and learn a formula…”
What makes her go “ahh” when she sees a dancer? Aisha answered very simply, “When she’s moving in pure response to the music and when she loves it.”
Aisha’s career demonstrates a true love for the dance, but perhaps more unique is her deep love of the folk traditions, the roots of the dance. She recalled one of the highlights of her career being the starry night she floated down the Nile on a barge recording music of the Ra’is Qinnawi mizmar group. Selections from this music included in the album “Music of the Fellahin” have become a staple in our folk music collections.
Perhaps Aisha’s greatest gift to us has been the production of four albums of the folk music of Egypt, Tunisia, and Algeria. To our good fortune, she plans to produce more albums and CD’s in the future. When asked what her plans for the future are, Aisha indicated that she’s moving toward learning video production using computer editing, so that she can put out quality videos of traditional music and dance. She is currently working on a new video, “Dances of North Africa,” and plans to produce a series of how-to videos. Doubtlessly, Aisha will continue to surprise us with jewels of traditional music and dances of the Middle East for years to come.
Author Eliza Buck is a folklorist and dance researcher. She received a master’s degree in Folklore and Mythology with an emphasis on music and dance from UCLA in 1991. She has presented papers at the Dance Ethnology Forum on different aspects of bellydance in the U.S. Eliza is currently working on a book about the bellydance sub-culture in the U.S.