Mythology and Symbolism
Mythology and Symbolism in Middle Eastern Dance
by Andrea Deagon, Ph.D.
The conclusion of the keynote address presented at the International Conference on Middle Eastern Dance, Orange Coast College, Costa Mesa, CA, on May 17, 1997. The first part of her talk was presented in the previous issue of Habibi. In that article, she discussed some of the visible gestures and expressions by which archetypal images are conveyed through the dance.
It is significant that these images rise up in a feminine art, through a feminine body. Although raqs sharqi can be performed by men as well as by women,1 it is an art that privileges the feminine principle, and centers on the kinds of physical and spiritual strengths that are particularly characteristic of women. Its non-narrative aspect, and the fact that it is particularly closely allied with archetypal image, are also perhaps principles that arise from its history as a primarily feminine form of expression.
It has been the habit of complex civilizations, both Eastern and Western, to divide the world into masculine and feminine oppositions: public and private, light and dark, reason and irrationality, action and receptivity. It has also been their practice to privilege the masculine and to hold the feminine qualities as necessary yet less desirable. Also, commonly, men are felt to have individual direction and ambition, while women are considered more important in their collective aspect as the wives and mothers that provide the background for the masculine drama.
Raqs sharqi has its origins in a world where the natures and destinies of men and women are perceived as particularly distinct, a world in which women are particularly associated with family rather than individual identity, and with private rather than public space. Yet raqs sharqi is a path to a vibrant form of feminine expression that has brought a liberating capability for self-discovery even to the supposedly freer societies of the West. And this expressive power—available to both women and to men who privilege the feminine—arises from the traditional role of women as private, hidden, Other, separate from the responsibilities of the public world, and without individual ambition. There are two traditional readings of women’s roles that have particular relevance in this dance. One is the definition of woman as intuitive, and the other is the ancient identification of woman as a vessel. In political contexts, these readings have been used to deny women full participation in public and intellectual life, or to undercut women’s value as individuals in the light of their role as vessels for bearing children. But in the way female dancers perceive their art, these images work to show feminine strength.
The oriental dancer Nelly Malzoum emphasizes women’s intuitive capability: “Sensuality,” she says, “is part and parcel of a woman’s sensitivity. She senses the world around her intuitively and creatively. She lives and moves at the very center of her dimurgical forces…Women are creatures imbued with insight and enrobed in sensitivity which make[s] them seem vulnerable. But soft does not mean weak.”2 The culturally weighted criticism that women are less rational than men finds its counterpoint in Ms. Malzoum’s privileging of non-rational and intuitive forms of wisdom. She accepts the notion that women are softer and more receptive than men, but argues that these are the precise strengths and abilities that enable women to express such meaning in dance.
Women, who give birth, who wash the bodies of the dead and lament them, who bleed every month, for whom love may dictate the greater part of their final destiny, and who are seen as more prone to the incursion of spiritual forces, have a liminal aspect which places them close to the eternal images that rise up in the emotional milieu of the dance. The feminine strength of receptivity allows the dancer to touch what is eternal. The ability to navigate liminal territory, and act as a guide for the audience’s emotional response, is a distinct kind of strength that arises from softness and vulnerability.
The image of women as vessels has been used to undermine feminine creativity. Lesley-Anne Sayers comments on the tendency of dance criticism to speak differently of male and female roles: “[I]n art, women become and embody, men create.” The woman is the object the man paints or sculpts, the ballerina is the canvas on which the choreographer creates.3 But the concept of embodiment is not in itself a derogatory one. It all depends on your point of view. If you understand the dancer as an emptiness to be filled with something not herself, of someone else’s choosing, then the image can turn exploitative.4 The dancer is an object in the viewer’s gaze. But if the dancer is the subject, the one who approaches the fountain from which she wishes to fill herself, the one who chooses what to bring her audience and in fact brings it to them—then this is a particularly feminine form of creative power. Embodying is one of the dancer’s most effective techniques for conveying meaning. It is an ideal way to present the complex, non-linear, personal-yet-eternal ideals of Middle Eastern dance. The very images of women that may be used to undermine their sources of worldly power appear as fountains of strength in the artistic expression of raqs sharqi.
I would like to add that when we talk about “masculine” and “feminine,” we are really talking about social constructs. Real men and women do not adhere to the constructs exactly. That is why I have defined this not as a women’s dance, but as a dance which privileges the feminine. Culture and perhaps biology orient women toward these ways of perceiving and being perceived. But this dance has both women and men who unfold their intuitive powers, who dance through emotional terrains, who serve as vessels for the eternal, and who attain this strength and clarity we recognize as feminine.
It is a great privilege to have this liminal power to contain both what is oneself and what is eternal. It requires remarkable strength. And participation in the archetypal idea of the feminine vessel requires the dancer to be even more herself. The practice of raqs sharqi almost invariably enhances the personhood of the woman or man who is devoted to it. Contact with the eternal images, open-mindedness to a variety of different cultural realities, and the commitment to share them with an audience through her own physical and emotional self, serves to bring the dancer more deeply to herself. Being a vessel for such a force does not drain her. Like the endless pitcher of fairy tale, the dancer keeps pouring out her wine, but is never empty, and in the end her plain clay may take on the gleam of burnished gold.
Dance and the Sacred
The images that emerge from our bodies in the dance are often sacred. Dancers committed to their art are well aware of this. Western practitioners of the art, who come from a theatrical tradition in which themes of dances are thoroughly discussed, often articulate these feelings, identifying some performances as “ritual” or “for the goddess,” or speaking of the spiritual and artistic feelings or intentions they have when they perform. I suspect that dancers within the Middle East are more inclined to leave the spirituality to speak through their dances, like the shaman who, when asked what his myths meant, said that they meant themselves.5 The dance, of course, means itself.
But if you listen to the way dancers talk, the way they understand what it is they are doing, there is a powerful spiritual undertone. Barbara Seigel observes, “When questioned men and women see this dance differently all over the Middle East. Women always bring up the spiritual component.”6 In a recent interview with Shareen El Safy, Mona El Said says of her talents, “This is from God.”7 Nagwa Fouad has said the same of her own dancing.8 Perhaps this is only a variation on a theme we all use when we thank god for our fortune. But if a dancer says that her dance comes from god, she acknowledges that dance is a proper place for god to take an interest. God honors and bestows the ability to express feeling and to embody beauty in Oriental dance. In a “National Geographic Explorer” interview, Lucy expresses the idea that the celebratory gift of pleasure she gives has the approval of God.9 God loves beauty, and dance is part of his creation. We dance with divine gifts, and to the delight of a deity who delights in what is beautiful and good.
The solo expressive dance, especially embodied in feminine form, has immense power to create emotional feeling. It is spiritual, even sacred, on a level that goes beyond our intellectual interpretations of what “sacred” or “spiritual” ought to mean. Consequently, something in raqs sharqi and in its artists may be perceived as threatening to the hierarchies of mainstream religion and mainstream culture. Much as it is loved in the Middle East, it is frequently discouraged. Fundamentalists object to it altogether. Even those who appreciate it do not want their daughters to perform it. Mona El Said herself experienced familial rejection when she followed her calling to perform.10
In the Judeo-Christian and Islamic worlds, religion emphasizes humble adherence to moral rules. Conventional religious thought tends to separate the body from the purer instincts of the soul. To a world that holds this view, and which is structured around hierarchies in which order, power and reason are primary, the gentle chaos of this dance can be terrifying. Here is a source of spiritual feeling that arises from the body, that is expressed through the body, that may even cause stirrings in the bodies of those who watch as they are drawn into the eternal movement. Here is a way to approach the liminal territory of escape from the here and now, an escape both into oneself and beyond one’s time and place. Such liminal experience is one of the great offerings of religion. It is also one of the great offerings of sex. And this dance form is a blending of these instincts, the spiritual and carnal, in a motion that transcends time, speaks individually and universally, and fragments into insubstantial yet vital memory.
No wonder dancers are so often misunderstood, their art dishonored. The ability of the dancer to speak so intently and so physically of these depths is a frightening thing. And no wonder the dance is so loved, since we need this release and this expression.
I would argue that dance is a part of an archetypal dialog within society, an opposition as fundamental as male and female, or nature and culture. What is feral, wild, of the body, the wisdom that comes from other-than-intellectual sources, arises in dance as a necessary challenge to the great cultural hierarchies that privilege reason over instincts, the mind over the body, order over chaos, male over female, perfection over imperfect beauty. Dance works on the countercultural assumption that evocation is more meaningful than argumentation, that excitement is more effective than persuasion. It is no wonder that this powerful reality should be scorned by those for whom this mode of expression, this mode of being, is threatening, or by those who wish to remain blind to its revelations. Dance is allied with the senses and speaks through them. Dance uses our most primitive and most nuanced vocabulary, the gestures of the body. Dance speaks truths too important to be defined in words, too pleasurable to be spoken except through the body. It is the great gift of Middle Eastern dance that it continues to offer our exhilarating insights into life, love and the divine despite misunderstanding and even disrespect.
Dance and History
I have spoken a great deal about what is archetypal and eternal, and about how meaning takes place at the intersection of individual and archetype, but I would like to conclude with the third element that confers meaning in dance: culture. As raqs sharqi finds a home in very different cultures outside the Middle East, will it change? Will it keep its integrity in the face of foreign influence? How will foreigners make the art their own?
The movement of Middle Eastern dance into the West has provided a powerful creative environment that reverberates back to the Middle East. Theatrical borrowing between Middle Eastern and Western dance has been going on for over a century, with mixed results. But the West has provided an atmosphere that has enabled elevation of the dance to a publicly acknowledged artistic status. The model of Western folkloric troupes enabled the establishment of the Reda troupe as a symbol of Egypt’s pride in its own dance heritage.11 Furthermore, dancers of Middle Eastern origin working in the West, such as Ibrahim Farrah in the United States and Suraya Hilal in England, have made significant contributions to defining the dance’s classic form. The West has returned something very meaningful to the East in the ongoing internationalization of Middle Eastern dance.
But for the international performers of raqs sharqi, the issues are more personal. This is far more than a folk dance. It is a means of expression and artistry that calls out now to women and men of different cultures. How are its Western practitioners to speak in their adopted form? We are shaped by our culture. Our body language, our understanding of gesture, and our physical relationship to the world are formed by the culture we grow up in. Our definition of sexuality, gender roles, and what happens between dancer and audience, are shaped by our culture. Among dancers in the West, the question arises of how to maintain faith with an ethnic dance form while still answering our own call. To phrase it more provocatively: Since raqs sharqi has found hearts and homes in the bodies and spirits of dancers all over the world, does it still need its basis in the historical circumstances and the cultural contexts that gave it its current form? Or has it become its own entity, only loosely based in a culture that many of its international performers have limited acquaintance with?
This is a controversial question. In one view, authenticity means adherence to the values and expectations of the Middle Eastern cultures that gave rise to the dance in its local forms. On the other extreme, some dancers feel that the framework of Middle Eastern dance has opened realms of expression that go beyond culture and do not any longer depend on the values, aesthetics, or even the music of the Middle East. Americans dancing for American audiences may seek to express the same eternal truths as an Egyptian dancer performing for her compatriots. But audience, body language, the whole culture, are different, and so the form of the dance is different. We dance our history. We dance in the bodies that were shaped by our culture. We dance as the individuals we are. What is authenticity, after all?
I cannot answer this question and frankly, I don’t believe anyone can. In an area where there are so many different and effective artistic truths, this will remain an ongoing debate. These vital issues hone us to new considerations of the meaning of our art. But I will offer some comment.
I would first argue that we cannot maintain our commitment to individuality and spiritual force in our dance, without also maintaining a commitment to the culture that produced the dance, and to the specifics of its history, as best we can understand it. Archetypes may provide the underpinnings of our dance, the deep waters we drink from, but the individual alone is not, finally, a sufficient mediation of the eternal forces. Removed from their context, archetypal images can lose their gloss and appear only as hardened artifacts. It is beautiful to recognize the permanence of the images that rise up through our bodies, or the stories that inform our experience. But this is our private dialog with the past. The culture and wisdom of the Middle East continue to give grounding to these images, one that provides the Western dancer with the sense of both recognition and otherness that confirms her approach to what is vital to her self.
I would also offer a comment from history. In the early years of this century, modern dancers in the United States and in Europe were influenced deeply by Eastern dance. This was a time in which dancers, often through solo female expressive performance, deliberately aimed themselves toward exploring archetypes, and their evocations of ritual power and spirituality. The very otherness of Eastern dance made it particularly capable of evoking the eternal. But modern dance, which once celebrated the ethos of woman’s solo and archetypal evocation, an ethos so close to our own — modern dance moved on. The female expressive solo became less common, and themes became more directly relevant to current concerns. As modern dance became incorporated into the mainstream of Western culture, the expressive dance of the female soloist became less central.
But the Middle East has had a dynamic for centuries that kept this form vital, of great importance to the culture. The female solo dancer, nonconformist, expressive, embodying both spirituality and sensuality, dancing from her own experience and from the nuances of her culture and as embodiment of eternal forces, has had a power that endures. The West has not privileged this form of expression. Women who have something to say in Western dance usually grow to say it in ways that are not the combination of eternal and individual that we achieve and find deep satisfaction in in our performance of raqs sharqi. The East can show the West how to keep this form of dance expression alive. As yet, we have only dipped our fingertips into the well.
In the end, I would say simply that knowledge leads to wisdom. Wise dancing comes from what we know. What we know deeply takes many forms. It may be our life experience, which becomes richer as we grow older. It may be knowledge of the body, both our own physical urges and capacity, and the empathy that comes from molding ourselves to other body languages that emerge from the Middle East. It may be knowledge of local customs, of the potential meanings of gesture and technique, or of the times and places in which dance performs its transformative magic. It may be knowledge of the archetypes, a consciousness of when you slip into an eternal image, or when you see one unfolding, in all its diversity, before you on the stage.
In the final reckoning, this is a dance of completion. It celebrates marriages, whether of man, woman and god, or of body, mind and spirit, or of eternal image, cultural perspective, and individual life. This is what we weave in our dance: a whole cloth, a brilliant tapestry. It takes each of us, and all of us, to do it.
1At least in the Western world. In the Middle East, men’s opportunities for performing solo interpretive dance are far more limited, and do not take place on the nightclub stage. Men are essentially restricted to folkloric dances in professional performance, making their impact on raqs sharqi primarily as teachers and choreographers.
2Nelly Malzoum, “Soft Does Not Mean Weak,” Arabesque 21.4 (Nov. – Dec. 1995), 8.
3Sayers, Lesley-Anne. “‘She might pirouette on a daisy and it would not bend: Images of Femininity and Dance Appreciation,” in Helen Thomas, ed., Dance, Gender and Culture. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1993, 176.
4Dancing the choreography of others is not the same as “being filled with something not oneself.” The dancer’s ability to portray truth through the body is different from the choreographer’s art of determining the physical form the portrayal will take. The common view of the dancer as secondary to the choreographer is a more subtle form of devaluing the art that is closest to the body.
7Shareen el Safy, “Mona El Said: Moving in Mysterious Ways,” Habibi 15.1 (1996), 3.
8Grace Pagano, “Nagwa Fouad: A Brand Apart,” Arabesque 6.5 (Jan.-Feb. 1981), 4.
9Karen Goodman and Kirk Simon, producers, “Cairo Unveiled,” National Geographic Explorer 1992.
10El Safy, 4.
11See the comments by Farida Fahmy in Sahra C. Kent, “One Flower in a Bouquet: Folkloric Pioneer Farida Fahmy,” Habibi 14.2 (1995) 4-5.
Goodman, Karen and Kirk Simon, producers, “Cairo Unveiled,” National Geographic Explorer 1992.
Kent, Sahra C. “One Flower in a Bouquet: Folkloric Pioneer Farida Fahmy,” Habibi 14.2 (1995) 2-5, 24-5.
Malzoum, Nelly. “Soft Does Not Mean Weak,” Arabesque 21.4 (Nov. – Dec. 1995), 8.
O’Flaherty, Wendy Doniger, Other People’s Myths. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1988.
Pagano, Grace. “Nagwa Fouad: A Brand Apart,” Arabesque 6.5 (Jan.-Feb. 1981), 4.
el Safy, Shareen. “Mona El Said: Moving in Mysterious Ways,” Habibi 15.1 (1996), 2-5, 31.
Sayers, Lesley-Anne. “‘She might pirouette on a daisy and it would not bend: Images of Femininity and Dance Appreciation,” in Helen Thomas, ed., Dance, Gender and Culture. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1993, 164-83.
Siegel, Barbara F. “Belly Dance: The Enduring Embarrassment,” Arabesque 21.4 (Nov.- Dec. 1995) 11-13.
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 twenty 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. (email:firstname.lastname@example.org)
Originally published in Habibi Magazine, Vol. 16, No. 3, Fall 1997, Santa Barbara, CA. Copyright Shareen El Safy, 1997.