Mythology and Symbolism in Middle Eastern Dance
by Andrea Deagon, Ph.D.
Presented as the keynote address to the International Conference on Middle Eastern Dance, Orange Coast College, Costa Mesa, CA, on May 17, 1997. The conclusion of her talk will be printed in the next issue of Habibi.
We have come to this conference as practitioners of a dance form which has existed for millennia, and in diverse cultures, as a meeting place for timeless truths and individual expression. This is the solo improvisational dance that arises from the feminine principle. This form of dance has taken on a particular artistry and profundity in its Middle Eastern manifestation. In recent years, the dance of the Middle East has emerged as a living, breathing art amongst practitioners in many parts of the world, from Japan to Germany to the United States. It has created an international community, a diverse group of individual women and men who pursue depth of knowledge and artistic integrity in this art which has called out to each of them.
Why has Middle Eastern dance made such an impact? How has it taken hold in countries where its music is unfamiliar, its subtlety often overlooked, its sensuality misunderstood? How has it motivated talented women and men to devote their hearts and even lives to it, in places where their artistic accomplishments are undervalued and their financial payback is, quite frankly, pathetic?
I believe that Middle Eastern dance inspires this love and dedication because in performing it, the dancer finds a unique ability to transcend time, place and her own limitations and touch something eternal — something even divine. She shares this with an audience in a relationship that can feel as close as a love affair, or a marriage. And the vision this dance brings is ultimately joyful, a joy filtered through the fragile wisdom of a well-lived life.
Anyone who knows this art will tell you, “This is an ancient dance.” Perhaps this is a strange thing to say about a dance which has undergone so much recent change, and which solidified into the theatrical form we know only in this century. But it is ancient, in that it is a viaduct to our deepest and most ancient human stories. It is a drink from an eternal river, a brand from an eternal fire.
Its combination of present vitality and ancient truth is a volatile mix for both performer and audience. It creates experiences of transcendent value. The compelling power of Middle Eastern dance, for both the performer who feels it in her body and for the audience who feels it through the performer, is the vital connection with a network of mythic and symbolic images that goes beyond time and place and into the eternal. What is vast and cosmic is made comprehensible by the dancer who imbues it with specific meanings, those that arise both from her individual life, and from the values of her culture.
So this morning I will talk about mythology and symbolism in Middle Eastern Dance. I will talk about how dance’s origin in the body and relationship to time and memory make it so well able to express eternal images. I will talk about some particularly evocative gestures we use as a matter of course in Middle Eastern dance. I will talk about feminine images for the dance’s creative power, and its role as a necessary counterbalance to hierarchy. But behind all of these comments is one basic assumption: For the power of the dance to show itself, for the eternal to come to life, we need real dancers, in a real time and a real place. So we need to be seekers of three kinds of truth: the specific, historical truths that characterize investigations into the anthropology and history of the dance; the great truths that speak across cultures and across generations to the heart; and the individual truths that arise from the lives we live. All of these must work in harmony to produce the authentic experience of the dance.
Dance and the Body
Dance is the art of the body. It is a common and I believe accurate idea that dance is the art closest to our earliest human instincts. As newborn babies, we experience and express everything through the body. We do not differentiate between our senses and how we respond to them. Feeling cold or hungry, we cry. Our first movements are instinctual explorations. As babies, we are literally not sure of the difference between ourselves and the world. Where is the end of me and the beginning of my mother? When I lie on the grass, where does it end and I begin? Years later, in our adult dances, we may consciously approach this mystical union of ourselves and the world around us. We probably had a long journey back to our awareness that the edges of being are unclear.
As we leave infancy, we learn two things that are particularly relevant to how we later dance. One is language. We learn to say exactly what we want, to ask for “juice” or “a story.” But when we gain this ability to be precise, we obscure the fact that our needs are really not precise. We may want a complex form of comfort, but only be able to ask for “juice.” Language gets you some things but loses you others. As dancers, we try to return to the more evocative and exploratory, but far less specific, language of the body, to express ideas too complex to be spoken in words.
The other thing we learn is body language, the communicative subtexture of our world. We absorb nuances of stance and gesture. We learn what gestures and attitudes are praised, and which ones elicit disapproval. When, as children, we learn these physical textures, before we even learn to dance, we have left our primal state and entered history. We are, for life, members of the culture we grow up in. When we dance, we dance the dances of our people. If, as adults, we learn dances we did not grow up with, we will begin from a different set of assumptions about how to physically be in the world. There will be a different sort of intersection of individual, cultural and eternal truth.
Dance in the Field of Time
All cultures have their own body languages, their own physical web of meaning. They also have their own ways of making dances. The act of dancing is defined differently by different peoples, and is of course valued differently, and put to different uses. But there are some universals in the human practice of dance, and one of them is time.
Dance ethnologist Joann Kealiinohomoku begins her definition of dance, “Dance is a transient mode of expression, performed in a given form and style by the human body moving in space.”1 The transience she begins with is vitally important to the historical, cultural and spiritual meanings of Middle Eastern dance. Dance happens in the field of time. It occurs in the present, and then it exists only in memory. A physical piece of art, or a written work, is there to be seen or read or touched again and again, to reveal new facets of itself. But dance vanishes from the material world. Any new facets of a dance performance can be uncovered only in our own unreliable memories. And although we are now, after millennia of dancing, able to capture performance on film, we preserve only the visual aspects of dances. All of us are painfully aware of how little of the experience of the dance a video conveys. The real dance is fragmented into as many different memories as people who shared it.
The ephemerality of dance has had a subtle and diverse impact on how it has been valued in culture. In the Western world, not surprisingly, its impermanence diminished its value. Susan Leigh Foster observes that in the early 19th century ballet, “dance took on a new role in relation to the other arts. It alone lacked the capability to inscribe itself. It alone endured only in one’s memory. Dance’s evanescence rendered it unique among the arts but also less powerful.” In the minds of nineteenth century Europeans, oriented to hierarchical and material modes of evaluating experience, dance “could seduce viewers momentarily but never change them.” Foster quotes the influential nineteenth century ballet critic Theophile Gautier, “‘After all, dancing has no other purpose but to display beautiful bodies in graceful poses and develop lines that are pleasing to the eye … Dancing is ill-suited for expressing metaphysical ideas; it expresses only the passions.’”2
Because dance could not be materially preserved, it was thought to lack depth. Dance was defined as impermanent, and therefore sensual, and therefore lacking real meaning. This Western construction of dance as inherently sexy and meaningless, which Middle Eastern dancers continually struggle with today, arose in part because dance happens and vanishes in the field of time.3
In complete contrast, some other traditions emphasize that the cyclical repetition of dance ensures the continuation of both divine and human worlds. For example, a Javanese court dance performed at the sultan’s palace at Yogykurta “commemorates the ritual marriage of the sultan’s ancestor to the deity known as the Queen of the Southern Sea.” The repetition of this dance confirms the permanence of the sultan’s rule. This one performance is united with all its other performances, just as its nine dancers move in synchronicity with one another. This unity over time is considered an aspect of an eternal and permanent principle, not the ephemerality of an individual dance lost once it has been performed.4 Likewise, in the sacred dance of India, the traditional dances performed in honor of the gods are as meaningful as daily prayers. Far from being thought of as evanescent, the dance is eternal, only varying in dancer and circumstance. But the here and now are important as well. The devadasi, or temple dancer, reveals in her performance of traditional dances her own deeply felt love of the god. Ritual repetition combines with emotional commitment, the eternal dance with the mortal dancer.5
In non-literate societies, dance is no more evanescent than anything else. Material art tends to be sacred or utilitarian rather than discrete aesthetic objects. Other arts exist in flux. Songs are sung a little differently by each singer, stories are told a little differently each time. Dances too are a part of this cycle of variation. Dance, song and story are not only performance arts. They are instead a part of the fabric of community, whether social or ritual. They bring pleasure, yet they hold deep meaning. And that meaning arises at the intersection of the temporal and the eternal.
This is the milieu in which Middle Eastern dance began its transformation into the performance art it has become. It has maintained a sense of this crucial intersection of worlds. In raqs sharqi, the individual expression glitters in the precious moment of action, then retreats into the shared but separate lives of dancer and audience, of family, friends and community. What provides the deep, sonorous undertone to the individual’s expression, is the evocation of the eternal dance. It is the sense of closeness to eternal images and sensations, the sense of contact with the past, present and future of self, community and world.
The fact that dance lives only in memory, that there is no going back to it, makes it a particularly personal and transformative variety of experience. Dance, like theater, inspires a shared emotional release less likely in the cooler contemplation of visual or written art forms. This is an incursion into liminal territory, the place in which one’s normal behaviors and assumptions may not apply, the place of emotional awareness of and vulnerability to the beyond, the place of instruction and transformation. In sharing an experience of the dance, the audience enters into what Victor Turner calls communitas, a sense of communal identity that goes beyond society’s hierarchies and into a place of shared sacred feelings.6 In fact Barbara Siegel provocatively suggests that in Egypt, the dance that most serves to reinforce national solidarity is raqs sharqi, and that one of the processes through which it accomplishes this is in the creation of a shared, controlled experience of chaos.7 Dance inspires both the self-loss of fitna, the man’s disruption in the presence of feminine beauty,8 and the bonds of communitas.
The shared emotion of the performance of raqs sharqi may have an important internal transformative quality as well, which arises from the very ephemerality of the single performance of a dance. In memory, the dance becomes an aspect of the self. Memories are notoriously fallible on material facts, vulnerable to suggestion, to rewriting, to complete erasure. Like dreams, memories exist in the electrical impulses of our brains, themselves liminal places. They emerge willfully, and they may resemble the real event more in the fashion of a Picasso, than as a photograph. A dance witnessed years before can emerge and re-emerge in myriad forms. It may be remembered as the feelings or insights it conveyed, or it may be encapsulated in brief physical memories that carry more emotional force than precision. An entire dance of Mona El Said’s, for example, rich in complexity and nuance, may be remembered by one observer only as a sense of joy superimposed on the image of her melting shimmies and graceful arms. A dance may be remembered in images that evoke ancient archetypal gestures and thus connect our lives to the river of human experience that flows throughout time. These remembered, re-invented images contain many layers of meaning: those of the dance itself, those that arise from within the one who remembers, and those that arise from the eternal images within us all, which reveal themselves as we live their meaning.
Dance becomes symbolic because it cannot remain material.
Visible Gesture and Expression
Visual art is a poor source for historical reconstruction of dance, yet it does reveal something of how a culture sees dance, and may provide us with images and insights for our own interpretations of raqs sharqi. While there are many ways of representing dancers’ presence and movement, one tradition I find particularly interesting. Throughout the ancient Mediterranean, in sculpture and painting, dancers are shown with their heads thrown back, or turned aside, away from the simple directional focus that characterizes other forms of movement (pages 8 and 9). The dancer is not looking where she is going. What does it mean that dancers are so often portrayed stepping in one direction while their eyes are turned back, or to the side, but in any case, do not serve clearly to lead the body straight? It means that the dancer is not entirely in this world, or else, she is both here and elsewhere, her eyes drawn to the unseen landscape.
While she is completely in her body, hyperaware of her physical nature, at the same time the dancer is participating in an internal vision. Hearing other music or seeing other terrains, her head turns to that direction. The dancer’s vision, or her failure to rely on ordinary vision, reinforces her liminal power. What is the nature of the threshold she crosses? Perhaps, like the dancers from the 18th dynasty tomb of Keruef in Thebes, she participates in the journey of the dead from the mortal world to the place of eternal life. Or, like the Maenad worshippers of Dionysos so often depicted in Athenian vase-paintings, she has turned away from her normal perceptions and embraces enthousiasmos, or possession by the god. Or, like the dancer in a Mughal miniature of 1588 (this page), she enters into a moment of timeless communication with the man for whom she dances, an eternity in the meeting of the eyes.
As dancers we may embrace this archetypal relaxation into the unseen, which takes many different forms in dance. We may seek the inward sensuality accessed in the dancing of young Fulani girls of Nigeria as they dance for men they may someday marry, or we may seek the physically-induced loss of self called up by zar dancers, or we may simply move with the hypnotic motion of the dance that seems to pull the dancer away from herself while leaving her more fully alive. It is the power of dance to become a vibrant gate between modes of experience, for the watcher and for the dancer herself. Dance — as ancient art reveals in its formal images — is about feeling and experiencing and expressing. It involves both a heightened perception of the world, and a withdrawal from the mundanities of that world. It is particularly physical, but it is also separate from pure physical reality, because it portrays more than what is simply there, by evoking what is eternal.
I have been speaking of “eternal images” and “archetypes,” but perhaps now it would be helpful to look more closely at how archetypes function. Carl Jung coined the term “archetype” to describe the images, stories and situations that recur again and again from society to society, and are universal in the human consciousness. Archetypes may be stories, such as the underworld journey, or figures, such as the wise old woman, or images, such as the tree of life. Archetypes are so fundamental that, reduced to simple descriptions, they become trite and dull. But tempered by individual experience and cultural perceptions, they provide the loom on which meaning weaves itself.9 In short, archetypes are open and fluid. The fluidity of meaning in dance, and the fact that so much is implied in our subtle gestural language, makes dance particularly effective in conveying the power of archetypal images. A dance gesture can invoke a range of meanings, a range of stories and feelings.
Raqs sharqiarises from an expressive rather than a narrative tradition. It may contain many implicit stories, but it is not specifically the narrative of a mythology. In the process of performing this expressive dance, the dancer moves through positions that have behind them a long history of symbolic purpose. One of these is the gesture of hand to head, which signifies intense emotion. Its meanings can be personal and dramatic, or it can be used in an evocative, culturally determined way. It can also look silly. I have heard it called the “Lebanese headache” position, because when it is done mechanically, without a sense of its implicit meanings, it becomes a parody of itself.
But it is a gesture symbolic of deep feeling, often of the breaking of the barrier between worlds. It comes naturally under the force of emotional blows. News photographs show it, raw and unstylized, in many different parts of the world. In the ancient Mediterranean and North Africa, where women performed ritual laments, it takes on a formal element, as one sees in illustrations of mourners both in Egyptian tomb paintings and in Greek vase paintings of the Geometric period. It is also used to cross between the worlds of sacred and mundane. In votive statues from Bronze Age Crete, worshippers lift their hands to their heads in prayer to the goddess.
In Middle Eastern dance, this position is so typical that it would be foolish to try to ascribe any particular meaning to it. It is an intensely emotional gesture at some times; at others it is simply where the hand rests. A hand at the back of the head, such a similar gesture, can evoke the deliberate sensuality of lifting the hair.10 This gesture can call forth, by nuance, a great range of references, all with their history, all with their emotional impact. But it does maintain its sense as a position that indicates the meeting of worlds, the internal and the external, the here and the beyond. That meeting place may manifest itself in joy the dancer keeps inward but allows her audience to share. Or it may be projected outward in an exuberant involvement of the audience in the dance. Or it may be used to focus on more serious, internal moments, or even deliberately to evoke the complexities of the archetypal pose. In today’s dance world, where we are open to so many powerful images of dance from so many different sources, these different possibilities of nuance in traditional movement have a deep impact on both our deliberate and our instinctual interpretations of the dance.
Some gestures are particularly likely to contain spiritual meaning. The gesture of lifting the arms is a particularly spiritually powerful one. A terra-cotta figure of a goddess from prehistoric Egypt, now in the Brooklyn Museum, lifts her arms in an open circle above her head (page 6). Her gesture is all-inclusive, all-encompassing, a statement of eternal presence and comfort and blessing. It is hard for a dancer to look at this figure without feeling a responsive, imitative movement in her own body. The goddess’s very slightly off-center pose seems to imply a motion through time, space and meaning that is both fluid and eternal.
Other deities share this form of representation. A Cretan goddess of healing and comfort holds her hands upraised in a more approachable, less celestial version of the gesture. Figurines of the Cretan “snake goddess” hold in their outstretched hands the snakes that symbolize her elemental power.11
In Egyptian art, the gesture of upraised arms is typical of the goddess who both protects and creates. In a painting from the tomb of Ramesses VI, Hathor holds a human in one hand, the sun disk in the other, showing her role in the creation and nurturance of both human and celestial worlds. The two positions, worshipper and deity, are cast in the same light, the same dynamic of generosity and respect. The lady Anhai is shown in her 20th dynasty Book of the Dead as having been judged worthy of eternal life. She carries the feathers of life in her hands, upraised in gratitude, both a triumph and a prayer.
This gesture occurs outside of the Mediterranean as well; it is virtually universal. For example, an African statuette represents one of the eight original ancestors of humans, known as nommo, among the Dogon of Mali. “[Its] gesture of upraised arms seems particularly symbolic, referring to an invocation for rain or to the sacrifice of the nommo ancestor.”12
This position is such a basic one in Middle Eastern dance that it is again absurd to try to give it a single archetypal meaning. It means a variety of things, but most of all, it means itself. Its manifestations change in the flow of the dance — that’s what archetypes do. It may be an aspect of confident self-presentation. It may radiate the power of pleasure in the moment. A photograph of Nadia Gamal, her arms raised, but with the added drama of her head thrown back, makes the liminal evocations of this pose passionate rather than contemplative (page 7).
In the performance of taqsim the archetypal images flow, taking form and vanishing into the experience of the moment. The dancer, in the movement of her taqsim, embodies the womanly completion we see in the primal goddess figurine. On stage we see a woman and her feelings in this one moment of time. But in her expression of present emotional reality, she evokes the eternal moment.
1. Joann Marie Wheeler Kealiinohomoku, Theory and Methods for an Anthropological Study of Dance. Ph.D. Thesis, Indiana University, 1976, p. 12.
2. Susan Leigh Foster, Choreography and Narrative: Ballet’s Staging of Story and Desire. Indiana University Press, 1996, 197-8.
3. The other commonly acknowledged factor in the development of this dismissive attitude toward dance is its location in the body, a tool for art considered by literate Western culture to be less fine and less capable of profundity than art thought to originate more directly in the mind, such as literature and the visual arts.
4. Gerald Jonas. Dancing: The Pleasure, Power and Art of Movement. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., in association with Thirteen/WNET, 1992, 88-90.
5. Judith Lynne Hanna, “Classical Indian Dance and Women’s Status,” in Helen Thomas, ed., Dance, Gender and Culture. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1993, 124-6.
6. Victor Turner, The Ritual Process. Cornell University Press, 1977, 131-145.
7. Barbara F. Siegel, “Belly Dance: The Enduring Embarrassment,” Arabesque 21.4 (Nov.- Dec. 1995), 12-13.
8. Siegel comments , “The dancer’s role in enabling personal expression in the audience is also a factor that makes the dance an enduring form of entertainment…This is why in some circles it is the mere presence and not the skill of the dancer that facilitates the release from inhibition and allows the audience to respond to the music. This applies equally to men and women. The effect is most obvious as a necessary part of the wedding celebration but can be seen in many more general situations. The role of the dancer as controlled fitna (chaos) must be examined” (12 n. 5). On fitna in relation to dance, see also Jonas 114-15.
9. Wendy Doniger O’Flaherty explains, “Archetypes may or may not have inherent meanings, but they find meanings; they provide a blank check on which people cannot help writing meaning, a mold into which people are irresistibly drawn to pour meaning.” Wendy Doniger O’Flaherty, Other People’s Myths. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1988, 35.
10. I am indebted to Ibrahim Farrah for this observation.
11. Often it is difficult to tell representations of worshippers from representations of the deities they are worshipping, since both types of images are found in sacred contexts, and since worshippers or priests and priestesses often take on the attributes of the deity they worship. The Cretan “snake goddess” figurines may also represent worshippers, and many of the animal-headed “gods” of Egyptian art are now thought to represent masked priests.
12. Douglas Newton and Lee Boltin, Masterpieces of Primitive Art. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1978, p. 141.
Foster, Susan Leigh. Choreography and Narrative: Ballet’s Staging of Story and Desire. Indiana University Press, 1996.
Hanna, Judith Lynne. “Classical Indian Dance and Women’s Status,” in Helen Thomas, ed., Dance, Gender and Culture. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1993, 119-135.
Jonas, Gerald. Dancing: The Pleasure, Power and Art of Movement. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., in association with Thirteen/WNET, 1992.
Kealiinohomoku, Joann Marie Wheeler.Theory and Methods for an Anthropological Study of Dance. Ph.D. Thesis, Indiana University, 1976.
Newton, Douglas and Lee Boltin. Masterpieces of Primitive Art. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1978.
O’Flaherty, Wendy Doniger, Other People’s Myths. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1988.
Siegel, Barbara F. “Belly Dance: The Enduring Embarrassment,” Arabesque 21.4 (Nov.- Dec. 1995) 11-13.
Turner, Victor. The Ritual Process. Cornell University Press, 1977.
Andrea Deagon received her Ph.D. in Classical Studies from Duke University in 1984. She is Associate Professor at the University of North Carolina in Wilmington, where she directs the Classical Studies Program and teaches Women’s Studies. She has been involved with Middle Eastern Dance for over 20 years, as student, teacher, performer and scholar. In addition to classwork with the foremost proponents of Middle Eastern Dance in America, she has also studied ballet, modern, African and Balinese dance. She is currently at work on a book, In the Corridors of Night: The Mythic Meanings of Insomnia, with grant and sabbataical support from UNC-W. (email:email@example.com)