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Raqs Shaabi to Raqs Sharqi

From Raqs Shaabi to Raqs Sharqi

Traditional Forms and Modern Technology

by Aisha All

Today most belly dancers are familiar with the Arabic term Raqs Sharqi for Oriental Dance. Because oriental means eastern, it is generally assumed that the dance was named by Europeans, who include the Near and Middle East within the compass of the Orient. Another explanation for an Egyptian dance being called “oriental” may be because it borrows movements from countries east of Egypt, Turkey, Iran, Syria, Iraq and even India. Raqs Shaabi on the other hand is simply Arabic for Folk Dance.

Belly dance is the literal translation of danse du ventre, the name given it by Frenchmen who observed it in North Africa — in particular, Algeria. In general, this dance no longer literally resembles the dance that inspired its name, for it has been altered somewhat with borrowings from Western movements. At this point in time, what we know as belly dance is very close to what is known as Raqs Sharqi in the Middle East. Except for parts of the Middle East where new dress codes are being enforced, both are performed in a revealing costume, such as that worn in a “cabaret,” as opposed to the traditional native tobe or galabeya associated with rural or “beladi” performers and folk dancers.

Tunisian Dance - Zeina and Aziza

In 1971 when I first traveled to the Middle East to observe various regional dances and record their music, I was motivated by the desire to see belly dance movements in their traditional forms. I had been somewhat prepared for the task by Leona Wood and other friends from UCLA’s department of ethnomusicology. At that time I really had no idea how many different styles existed in the various regions of the Middle East and North Africa, although I was at least aware of the differences in the music and dance of Egyptian, Lebanese and Syrian dancing, since I began my career dancing in Greek and Turkish clubs before appearing at the Fez in Los Angeles, which featured dancing from Egypt, Lebanon and Syria.

I encountered various groups of entertainers that fell under the category of Ghawazee (see seven-part series in Arabesque Magazine, “Meetings in the Middle East,” Vol. V, No. 5, Jan.-Feb., 1979 through Vol VII, No. 3, Sept.-Oct. 1981) before actually finding the Banat Mazin, the specific group I was searching for. Many of the Ghawazee one sees in Cairo specialize in acrobatic dancing. I immediately took to the styling of Nesla Al Adel, a Ghaziyah from Monsoura whose specialty was performing isolated buttocks shimmies while doing a split and touching her toe to her ear. At Sahara City, a tent cabaret that used to be near the pyramids, there were Ghawazee from Sumbat, who lifted tables in their teeth while dancing. I have never been daring enough to attempt learning any of these special feats, but what I did learn was something all of these dancers have in common — a loose, uninhibited walking shimmy that lends itself to a variety of Arabic dances as well as Raqs Sharqi.

The driving energy of ghawazee dancing as performed by the Banat Mazin of Luxor charmed me even more, probably because I had already been dancing to Koizumi’s recordings of Saidi mizmar music for years. When I first danced with the Mazin girls, my interpretation of their vibrating shimmy was good enough to get by with, but lacked the control and focus of their style. At first I thought they were sometimes unmotivated because they didn’t appear to move that much, until I noticed how much farther their skirts were whipping around compared to mine. I was still in the “more must be better” phase of my career and would try to move my hips in wider arcs, or swing my arms with energy, until I really began to listen to the music and allowed my shimmies to be governed by its pulse. It was through learning this music and dance that I acquired the firm grounding in rhythm that was to be the foundation of all of my subsequent dancing.

Tunisian Raqs Shaabi, with it’s syncopated rhythmic patterns, controlled balance and dynamic twisting hips, was different from dances I had previously known. When performed with the proper costume and styling accompanied by traditional Tunisian music, this remarkable dance is unlike anything Egyptian; but out of context, the techniques lend themselves easily to Raqs Sharqi, giving it a new dimension that is bold and yet elegant.

The movements of the Algerian Ouled Naïl at first seemed limited and repetitious, and I was wide?eyed when I saw them bounce their bellies up and down with such abandon. It took a while before I was able to appreciate how their movements related to the music, and then I became fascinated by the style. After mastering some of the stomach muscle techniques I was able to incorporate them into my presentation of Raqs Sharqi, and now I feel that I should have been using them all along.

Reda Company in regional costume, Egypt. Mahmoud Reda photo.

The difference between Middle Eastern folk dances, tribal dances, or regional versions of a voluptuous dance either as a public performance or a social dance may not be obvious at first, but becomes more clear as one becomes better acquainted with the cultures. In the West people often mistake any rural group dance as “tribal.” Even dance companies in the Middle East make errors regarding traditional movements and costuming of dances from other regions. I realized that it was important for dancers and scholars to see the traditional dances taken directly from their sources in order to clear up some of the myths and mysteries, and to that end I filmed various tribes, rural performing groups, and social dances in their natural settings. For years I carted a heavy projector across the U.S. showing the original 8 mm footage at workshops. With each viewing I learned something I had missed before. Once I got into production technology, I wanted to make the footage available to everyone, and spent a considerable amount of time editing it for video (see Dances of Egypt, Dances of North Africa, and the soon to be released Dances of North Africa II). This is still a work in progress, with much raw material, both video and audio, being edited for videos and CD’s yet to be produced.

Presenting folk dances out of context on a stage is very challenging and there needs to be a combination of traditional movement, costuming, and musical instrumentation as well as an interactive audience to make it believable. In the U.S. there is not a great demand for Middle Eastern folk dance, except for Arab weddings and city or university sponsored international festivals, although during the seventies these festivals used to be so frequent that my company performed on an average of four times per month. However, at belly dance showcases, even out of context, a short folk dance can be an interesting break from a succession of Oriental dances. During the seventies and eighties, the trend was to adapt Middle Eastern dance to styling that conformed to dance as it is learned in the Western world. Today the trend towards modernization (at least where this dance is concerned) is in reverse, thanks to current technology — recording devices of all kinds, but especially the video camera and tapes — that make an acquaintance with these traditional dances possible for an ever wider audience.

Aisha Ali has contributed to the field of dance as a performer, teacher, documentary film maker, choreographer and recording producer. She has done independent research throughout Egypt and North Africa as well as parts of Syria and Lebanon. Ms. Ali tours internationally as a lecturer/performer, and directs the Aisha Ali Dance Company, based in Los Angeles. www.aisha-ali.com

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