The Transmission of “Oriental” Dance in the United States
A Case Study of Ibrahim Farrah as Teacher
by Michelle Forner
Contemporary Oriental dance has become popular with an estimated 10,000 to 25,000 Americans. The majority are non-Arab women who perform for personal enjoyment, commercial benefit and/or artistic expression. Although the transmission of Oriental dance in this country involves a complex web which includes many individuals, media, and performance events, the studio class has developed since the early 1970’s as the primary site for conveying the movement knowledge and technique of this dance form.
Oriental dance is often referred to as belly dance, Middle Eastern dance, danse Orientale in French or raks Sharqi in Arabic. People outside this dance genre may not be aware of the diversity of orientations to its performance nor recognize significant sylistic differences. Because of the variability inherent in the movements, music, and performance contexts, dancers create their own interpretations of Oriental dance. Students develop preferences for and create affinity groups around certain dancers and/or teachers because of personality, orientation, movement, aesthetics, performance contexts, and teaching technique. These relationships and other factors have led to the development of a number of dance leaders, some with local or regional spheres of influence, others with national or international reputations. This article focuses on one of the significant leaders in this dance subculture, Ibrahim Farrah. It explores his class event and his role as teacher to illustrate one aspect of the transmission process of Oriental dance in the United States.
When the current wave of interest in this idiom began in the 1960’s, classes in this form did not exist. The few professional American dancers such as Ibrahim Farrah trained through opportunistic observation, imitation, and creative practice. In the 1970’s, classes were formed in recreation centers and dance studios all over America. Starting in 1974, Farrah was one of the first to teach Oriental dance workshops and to tour throughout the country (Farrah 1991). He is part of a small group of pioneer dancer/teachers who developed a technique of teaching Oriental dance to westerners beyond the more informal “see-me-do-me” method in which the teacher performs and students follow. Aside from teaching classes several times a week in New York City, Farrah has been offering the resident week-long seminar, originally designed as a teacher’s course, since 1975. One dancer describes him this way:
(Farrah) took the dance…and put it somewhere totally different….He has the Middle Eastern feeling and knowledge but his instruction is American….He teaches feelings and expressions to the music that I don’t find with anyone else….He makes it all come together…how to stand, walk, where your arms should be….He makes dancing fun and…makes it mean something to you….He makes you feel beautiful (Turnage 1991).
After almost thirty years in the field, Farrah is internationally known as a performer, choreographer, teacher, and publisher of Arabesque magazine. These multiple roles reinforce his impact within this dance subculture. Farrah’s Oriental dance is one approach that appeals to a certain segment of dancers in the United States and abroad. His aesthetic is expressed in a particular style which is transmitted through his teaching technique.1 A look at the factors that comprise his orientation, aesthetic style, and teaching method demonstrates how this dance idiom has been mediated through a particular individual who shapes how and what is transmitted. Additional discussion about Farrah’s effect on students’ performing and teaching styles further illustrates his influence, which contributes to the perpetuation of the dance form.
Farrah’s breadth and longevity in the field indicate his ability to develop and evolve through time. He was born in 1939 in western Pennsylvania, a second-generation American of Lebanese descent. Dance and song were integral to the social life of the Lebanese-American community in which he grew up. After graduating from the Pennsylvania State University in 1961, Farrah went to work at the Library of Congress in Washington D.C., and spent part of his free time at the Port Said nightclub, where he was entranced with the music and dance entertainment. Several years later, Farrah began his professional career as an Oriental dancer with female partner Emar Gemal. During the time they spent traveling the national nightclub circuit, he took the opportunity to observe and participate in a variety of dance classes in the cities he visited. After moving to New York City in 1967, Farrah began teaching at the International School of Dance at Carnegie Hall, then opened his own School of Near Eastern Dance. Several extended trips to Lebanon and nearby countries furthered his exposure to and education about the Near Eastern culture in general and dance in particular.
In the 1950s and 1960s, Oriental dance in the United States was most often performed in nightclub and restaurant contexts. Farrah was one of the few who saw it as an art form that could expand to the theatre. In the early 1970’s he formed the Near East Dance Group, which performed his choreographies of various Near Eastern dance styles. They presented shows at Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, Town Hall and the Riverside Theater in New York City, as well as theaters in cities across the country. In 1975, to further the understanding of Middle Eastern dance and culture, Farrah began publishing Arabesque magazine, which is now in its eighteenth volume. Farrah won the Ruth St. Denis Award in Choreography in 1979 and was a charter inductee into the American Academy of Middle Eastern Dance Hall of Fame in 1991. Recent teaching engagements in Frankfurt, Jerusalem and Cairo, as well as the increasing number of foreign students at his New York seminars, demonstrate his growing international appeal.
Farrah’s “theatrical” orientation
The practice of Oriental dance in the United States is marked by a diversity of orientations to its performance (Forner 1993). That is, individuals seem to participate in Oriental dance activity guided by certain frameworks, often consisting of a number of overlapping orientations, that govern their dance activities and relationships. Although not clearly delineated, these orientations include “ethnic,” “theatrical,” “spiritual,” and “fantasy.” Since these dimensions are not necessarily mutually exclusive, most practitioners embody some configuration of orientations rather than aligning themselves completely with any single one.
While Farrah’s orientation configuration includes aspects of ethnic purity and at times Orientalist fantasy, his penchant for the theatrical defines his orientation to Oriental dance. Some kind of choreography — a planned dance piece set to music — serves as the foundation for all of his classes. By teaching a choreography meant to be danced in front of an audience, he considers the dance performance art. “I teach it with the same respect that is the basis of any art form” (Lahm 1980:20).
Farrah’s approach underscores his treatment of Oriental dance as both entertainment and art. He acknowledges that most audiences are “not drinking holy water;” yet “if they wanted to see someone dancing like they were in their living room, they would stay home.” He reminds students to create magic and illusion in their dance. An emphasis on projection, presentation dynamics, stage directions, and references to “the public” and “the musicians” permeate his remarks. Farrah implies that every time the class goes through a section or the whole choreography, it should be like a performance rehearsal, unless he specifically says to “mark it.” He has instructed, “be in place — get focused and in the mood so that when the music starts you can be in character. Always be in your character…and stay in it as you exit. That’s an artist!” (Forner 1991b) Adding to the “theatrical” orientation, veteran Broadway and Hollywood dancer Valerie Camille assists Farrah during the week-long seminars by coaching students on everything from feminine body attitudes and facial expressions to make-up and costuming for the stage.
The participants’ attitudes and demeanor reflect Farrah’s “theatrical” orientation. An air of professionalism permeates the classes. Energy is concentrated and focused. He demands quiet and attention. “He extols, cajoles, demands, even dares his students to exert the highest degree of energy, motion, and thought in their movements” (Lahm 1980:19). Although their experience and abilities vary, most students take their dancing very seriously. As one informant put it, “he’s tough — why else would you want to subject yourself to that much discipline?” (Nemeth 1991) Farrah says that today he gears his classes to those he calls the “advanced professional dancers” who are beyond the basics of the dance and usually earn money performing. (Farrah 1992).
Farrah’s style depends on the manipulation of dance elements which he shapes according to his aesthetic. Footwork, gestures, turns, Oriental and folk-inspired body movements and transitions comprise the majority of Farrah’s vocabulary, some of it shared through the genre. He focuses on what he calls body posture and placement, spatial and air design, emotional expression, movement quality, dynamics and timing, energy and breath, attitude, and focus. All interrelated, it is difficult to break them apart for description.
Body awareness and placement are fundamental according to Farrah. “(Farrah) was one of the major contributors to let us (in the United States) know the true body posture” said one informant (Nemeth 1991). He builds the posture on “the distinct dignity and carriage of Near Eastern natives”:
The spine is straight, yet seems to float majestically through space, out and above the body….Middle Eastern dance’s pulled-up feeling has a sense of breath to it. It allows for control while at the same time permitting the freedom to shift weight, an underlying principle of all Middle Eastern dance movements….everything from the waist down (houses) the physical part of the dance; everything from the waist to the neck (holds) the spiritual or emotive qualities; and the face and head (complete) the expressivity that brings a full dimension to any movement. (Farrah 1982:13).
In Farrah’s choreographies the dancer travels in various patterns on the stage and creates designs in the air around and above her. When teaching, he defines the focus of attention and energy: out to the audience, in to the self, up to the heavens, or down to the earth. He often describes the breath as the impetus and directional force of the energy flow; blocked energy or the lack of breath at the proper moment can destroy a movement.
Oriental dance is an expressive form, and Farrah pays particular attention to the emotional expressions and movement qualities necessary to choreographic interpretation. Others have noted his ability to convey the feelings of Middle Eastern people, such as dignity, humor, and verve, through the dance. Farrah has said, “the true serious artist must incorporate a wide range of the possible expressive sensibilities that are available in this art form’s vocabulary, without which one’s performance can become monochromatic and rather pointless.” (Farrah 1992:13). He may refer to the liquid, snake-like quality of an arm movement performed to a flute, which changes to a more expansive, elastic upper body articulation in response to a violin. When teaching, he describes the appropriate attitude of the dancer: refined, elegant, sweet, proud, sexy, earthy, and so on.
To Farrah, the music is the foundation of the choreography. The music provides the overriding theme; the movements and their expression create a visual manifestation of it. Many informants emphasized their attraction to Farrah’s approach to the music, and said that his particular movement choices seem to fit exactly and to express the message or quality of the vocals or instrumentation (Graves 1991; Meikle 1991; Nordgren 1992; Salimpour 1991). His timing decisions within the structure of the musical phrase, as well as the forcefulness or dynamic tension of some movements, create what he calls “an extra spark of power or finish” (Farrah 1993).
How does Farrah actually communicate his style as expressed in each dance? Within the structure of transmitting the choreography, he uses what I term a modified counting method, verbalizations, imagery, humor, parody, student examples, and technical breakdowns. Interspersed throughout is cultural information, anecdotes, advice and commentary. Although separated here for the sake of description, in practice these techniques are combined in a myriad of ways.
Farrah has a specific method for teaching the basics of choreography. This format, which may vary somewhat in each class, contributes to Farrah’s effectiveness with many students. Starting from the beginning of some part of the dance, he demonstrates a small section. As a group, the whole class tries it with him. Farrah then adds the music, and the class does the section again several times; he may watch. At the end of the section, as he is doing it with the class, he adds part of the next section. “Got it?” Farrah often asks, in a rhetorical fashion, although someone may ask a question. After developing a certain amount, he divides the class into groups; (and) each group performs the section, once with him, and perhaps another time without him, as he watches from the side. He may join a group during the newly-added section; after a few repetitions, he adds the next part with the last group. Farrah may call, “everybody on the floor” between groups to point out something he noticed wrong or to teach the next section. After repeating a now larger section several times, Farrah often calls on one dancer to perform it by herself. As a soloist or group demonstrates, the others who are postioned in the back or along the side, watch or mark the pattern. Repetition is the key. Through this process Farrah lays out the footwork, the floor pattern, the timing, and the body and arm movements. At some point, he begins to focus on details such as gesture, focus, attitude, quality, feeling, or specific movement mechanics.
Farrah uses a modified counting technique instead of counting in evenly numbered measures to capture more accurately the accents and flow of the dance as set to Near Eastern music. For instance, in a single three-step turn and side step combination to a 6/8 rhythm, rather than counting “one, two, three, four, five, six,” he describes it as “one and one, one, two, three,” the turn occurring on the first two accented “one” counts (James 1991).
Verbalizations and vocalizations are part of his teaching style. He makes students “say it out loud” as they review particular combinations; they repeat either the count or the words he used to describe those movements, such as “shimmy, shimmy, lock,” or “into the floor, over the floor.” Farrah also uses sounds that mimic the music to convey movements, such as “arrummm, tak, tak” for a sequence of torso contractions during a drum solo (Birnbaum 1991). Farrah also asks questions while he is teaching such as, “what arm is up?” “what foot is the weight on?” most likely to involve the students and keep them focused and thinking as they master the basic patterns. When Farrah is watching the dancers, he may shout positive or negative exclamations and interjections about what he sees.
Farrah uses a lot of imagery when he teaches, constantly conjuring up pictures to help students successfully perform particular movements and their associated qualities. He suggests performing small hip circles in the tightest evening gown you can find; turning on one leg as if climbing a stair; imagining the band playing as you dance to them, back to the audience, so that “when you turn to the public you are more powerful”(Birnbaum 1991).
A number of informants comment that Farrah does not break down steps into their smallest units, but stresses the feeling and quality of the actions. At this stage in his career, he does not usually teach fundamental Oriental movements because the majority of his students are not “rank beginners”(Farrah 1992). Yet if he sees that students do not understand a complex segment, or if someone asks a specific question, he will take some time to explain and demonstrate.
In a tense, concentrated environment such as Farrah’s Oriental dance class, a sense of humor aids him in controlling the room, keeping students’ attention, and communicating the choreography. As a performer, he is always “on.” He may make jokes based on himself or others in the class, or they may occur out of circumstance. Farrah frequently uses parody and satire to stress what not to do, what I call “negative display.” Taking actions he sees in the class, he will exaggerate them to get his point across, without pointing out any particular person’s mistakes. “Which way looks better,” he asks, “your way or my way?”
Farrah’s willingness to share both his knowledge of Middle Eastern dance and culture and his long-time experience as a performer, choreographer, and teacher adds another dimension to his classes. Farrah uses anecdotal information as another tool to communicate the nuances of the choreography or to support a point. He may give a small history lesson on some aspect of the development of Oriental dance. He may describe the importance of the eyes or the hair in Islamic society, and therefore their place in the dance. He may relate a story about Ruth St. Denis or La Meri (Forner 1991b; James 1991; Nemeth 1991). He is full of advice and admonishment, and many informants expressed appreciation for this information.
The chain of transmission
This process of transmission between Farrah and his students and, in turn, their students, has been occurring for at least twenty years. A few generations of dancers have passed through his classes, and several may be present on any occasion. A nucleus of New York-based dancers whom Farrah calls “my people” and several others around the country have gained national reputations as performers, teachers, and choreographers. A number of factors seem to determine what students learn from the classes and how this information is perpetuated. Depending on expectations, skill and ability levels, and familiarity with Farrah’s teaching method, dance style and personality, students report a number of tangible and intangible results.
For new students, the classes can be especially overwhelming in terms of technical demands and “theatrical” orientation. At this level, they seem to focus on technique, remembering a few specific steps, movements or gestures. They may be affected by a new way of feeling or hearing the music. The more experienced, professional dancers, many of whom also teach, often use his choreographies and patterns as class material, usually crediting Farrah. Several informants noted that they have taught pieces to others for performance purposes or used them themselves at festivals and other occasions where theatrical presentations of Oriental dance were possible (Meikle 1991; Turnage 1991). For example, Angelika Nemeth, who teaches at Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa, California, presents an annual concert that often includes choreographies she learned from Farrah (Nemeth 1991). These presentations often involve additional staging, choreography, costuming and lighting.
A number of informants who teach said that they have adapted aspects of his teaching method, such as repetition, parody, and use of choreography (Meikle 1991; Nemeth 1991). Although not reported as such, I believe that many also attempt to convey his aesthetic and style concepts, such as body posture, energy, breath and emotional expressions. Farrah himself noted that he sees movement patterns on videos and at performances, often “watered down,” that he believes he first transmitted from the Middle East to American dancers (Farrah 1993).
For most dancers, especially those who live outside New York City, Farrah is often one of several teachers with whom they study. Yet a number of informants noted Farrah’s profound effect on their personal development in their dancing. One dancer called his week-long seminar a “transformational experience;” another stressed that taking his classes “can make a difference in your life” (Nordgren 1992; Sanabria 1992). On the other hand, any number of dancers, especially those at local workshops, may leave with expectations unfulfilled. Some dislike the choreographic focus or other aspects of his personality or teaching style. One attendee complained in a newsletter review that she was not inspired, worked out, nor received “any new things to incorporate” in her dance (Diana 1991: 13-14)
Principally through the vehicle of the studio class, Farrah as an individual has shaped the Oriental dance experience of many dancers in North America and internationally. He represents one orientation configuration to Oriental dance, one voice in a field of individuals such as Aisha Ali, Cassandra, Dahlena, Delilah, Suzanna del Vecchio, Morocco, Jamila and Souhaila Salimpour, and Serena Wilson. These are just a few of the better-known dancers/teachers in the Oriental dance subculture in the United States. Each brings his or her personality, experience, and style to the dance public, and as a result creates a following. It follows that a certain kind of dancer is attracted to Farrah’s aesthetic, which shapes his dance style, which is articulated through his well-developed teaching method. They then pass aspects of those components to their students and audience. Thus Oriental dance, transformed and transmitted by artists such as Ibrahim Farrah, finds new expression in dancers such as myself.
1. For my thesis research I formally interviewed Farrah and fifteen of his students, from long-time New York-area associates to others from Tennessee, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and California. Their association with him ranges from twenty-five years to less than two years. As a student, I have spent over 200 hours in his classroom.
Birnbaum, Dee (videographer), 1991, Ibrahim Farrah’s June Teacher’s Course (videocassette). New York: Ibrahim Farrah. (VHS)
Diana,1991, “Ibrahim Farrah workshop.” Zaghareet 1(5):13-14. Salinas, California: C. Garbedian.
Farrah, Ibrahim (resource person),1993, Telephone interview by Michelle Forner; 31 January. Los Angeles.
Farrah, Ibrahim, 1992, Personal communication to Michelle Forner; 15 November. Woodland Hills, California
Farrah, Ibrahim, 1991, Personal communication to Michelle Forner; 17 October. Los Angeles.
Farrah, Ibrahim, 1992 “A dancer’s chronicle: the Lebanese chapters…’growing up in dance.’” Arabesque 17(6)12-13. NY: Ibrahim Farrah.
Farrah, Ibrahim, 1982, “Short takes: stretching for dimension.” Arabesque 7(6):13,17. New York: Ibrahim Farrah.
Forner, Michelle, 1993 The transmission of Oriental dance in the United States: From raqs Sharqi to “belly dance” (master’s thesis). Los Angeles: University of California, Dance Department.
Forner, Michelle, 1991a, Teacher’s course with Ibrahim Farrah in New York City (field notes); 17-23 June. Los Angeles: private collection.
Forner, Michelle, 1991b, Oriental dance workshops with Ibrahim Farrah in North Hollywood, California (field notes); 19-20 October. Los Angeles: private collection.
Graves, Jane (Naime), (resource person),1991, Interview taped by Michelle Forner, in Beverly Hills, California; 12 October. Los Angeles: private collection of Michelle Forner (audiocassette).
James, Ken (videographer), 1991 Master class taught by Ibrahim Farrah at UCLA Dance Department (video field recording of Farrah teaching); 17 October. Los Angeles: private collection,. (Two 2-hour VHS.)
Lahm, Adam, 1980, “Oriental dance: the technique of Ibrahim Farrah.” Dance teacher now 2(4): 18-22. Davis, California.
Meikle, Ellyn (Shahira) (resource person), 1991, Interview taped by Michelle Forner in Harbor City, California; 26 October. Los Angeles: private collection of Michelle Forner (audiocassette).
Nemeth, Angelika (resource person), 1991, Interview taped by Michelle Forner, in Irvine, California; 15 November. Los Angeles: private collection of Michelle Forner (audiocassette).
Nordgren, Kathy (Katia) (resource person), 1991, Interview taped by Michelle Forner, in New York City; 24 June. Los Angeles: private collection of Michelle Forner (audiocassette).
Salimpour, Souhaila (resource person) 1991, Interview taped by Michelle Forner, in Los Angeles, California; 29 October. Los Angeles: private collection of Michelle Forner (audiocassette)
Sanabria, Vickie (Yasmine) (resource person) 1992, Interview taped by Michelle Forner, in New York City; 24 June. Los Angeles: private collection of Michelle Forner (audiocassette).
Turnage, Cindy (Shahira) (resource person) 1991, Interview taped by Michelle Forner, in Woodland Hills, California; 20 October. Los Angeles: private collection of Michelle Forner (audiocassette).
Michelle Forner recently completed her Masters of Arts degree in Dance Ethnology at U.C.L.A. Her thesis was entitled The Transmission of Oriental Dance in the United States: From raqs Sharqi to “belly dance.” This year she won the “Egyptian Category” at the Southern California International Bellydance Competition. This article is derived from the work she did on her Masters thesis, and is reprinted by permission from the UCLA Journal of Dance Ethnology (Vol. 18: pp. 8-16 ,1994).