What’s In a Name?
In the Direction of Adopting Standardized Terminology
Originally published in Habibi Magazine, Vol. 16, No. 3, Fall 1997.
“Don’t you have a name for what you are doing?” the studio manager asked me incredulously. I had arrived to teach a weekend workshop at London’s high-rise dance center, “The Place.” “Everyone who has come in has asked for a different thing—belly dance, Middle Eastern, baladi,” he continued, “and now you’re asking for the Egyptian dance class!” Not only do we not have a name for our dance form that we can all agree upon, we don’t have names for the movements we are doing.
Does it matter? Names help define the essential character that distinguishes one thing from another. When you don’t have a name you, in effect, don’t have an identity. If we lived in the Middle East, we could easily identify our dance form by the Arabic terms raks sharqi (East or Oriental) and raks shaabi (folkloric), because dance is a well-established part of that culture. However, dancers who live in Western society necessarily need to use terms that can be generally recognized, with a minimum of explanation. Alas, only one such term, “belly dance,“ has stuck in the public’s imagination. (In an odd twist, Middle Easterners are now sometimes referring to raks sharqi as “belly dance,” possibly because so many Westerners are interested in their indigenous form. Unfortunately, it also carries a disparaging undertone. The Egyptian Gazette frequently prints unsubstantiated reports about “belly dancers and others with diabolical ways” [November 23, 1997] who lead the virtuous astray.)
There’s a history to our particular dilemma. When we look at how Oriental dance developed in the West, particularly in America, we can better understand our present day situation—a dance form struggling to explain itself to the uninformed. Our dance has always been somewhat suspect, from Gustave Flaubert’s (1821 – 1880) heady description of almeh Kuchuck Hanem, to the use of the term “danse du ventre” (dance of the stomach) at the height of European romanticism, to the first appearance of authentic Middle Eastern dancers on American shores at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893 (and the subsequent fascination with the “Hoochy Koochy” which spawned Little Egypts and Salomes galore). Legitimate ethnic dance was perceived, typical of the prevailing Victorian climate, as lascivious, erotic and immoral.
Fortunately, a genuine connection to the Middle East was forged by the emerging subculture of immigrating families arriving to the large cities of America in the early 1900’s. These pockets of transplanted communities kept their cultural traditions, including music and dance, alive. Films imported in the thirties, forties and fifties of the great artists of the Middle East, such as Om Kalthoum, Farid Al-Atrache, Samia Gamal, and Tahia Carioca, nourished this link with the homeland.
In the fifties, sixties and seventies, ethnic nightclubs featuring foreign dancers and musicians from various Middle Eastern countries enjoyed increased popularity. In this atmosphere of multinational cultural expression, new forms such as the five-part routine were created from the rich mix which included Greek, Turkish, Armenian, Algerian, Egyptian, Syrian and Lebanese performers. There were a handful of American born dancers who also performed in the same venues, absorbing culturally embedded details of the art form from these powerful and skilled expatriates. Jamila Salimpour, Ibrahim Farrah, Serena, Morocco, Dahlena and others, were greatly influenced in their own artistic development, becoming knowledgeable proponents of the dance by adopting authentic movement, stylistic interpretation and emotional expression, while creating their own unique personas. There followed an extended period of almost a decade when ingressing Middle Eastern dancers were rarely granted “green card” working status here in the States, and nightclub owners relied on American artists instead.
In true pioneering spirit, this small group of individuals distilled their experiences and began performing at large public events, and teaching their craft to an ever-curious, mushrooming student body. Independently, schools of dance and studio classes were established, each developing their own technique and teaching methods. Interest burgeoned during the late sixties and seventies, creating a cadre of disciplined, accomplished dancers who sought to emulate their charismatic leaders. These first students have been performing and teaching for twenty and thirty years.
Our field now consists of hundreds of well-seasoned dancers who continue to learn, perform and teach as new generations come up the ranks. A number of American dancers have also performed in the Middle East, endorsing the cultural integrity of their Oriental style and technique. Europe also boasts a large teacher/student base, although active for just the past ten to fifteen years, with early efforts by Bert Balladine, followed by a number of Middle Eastern teachers residing there now, including Momo Kadous, Zaza Hassan, Nelly Mazloum, Leila Haddad, Soraya Hilal and Dr. Mo Geddawi.
The eighties and nineties have been distinguished by touring Middle Eastern dancers and choreographers bringing a plethora of dance information to an eager Western student body: Lala Hakim, Delila, Ahmed Jajour, Zenouba, Fatin Salama and Shouki Naim, Aza Sherif, Nagwa Fouad, Sohair Zeki, Nadia Gamal, Nahed Sabry, Mahmoud Reda, Mohammed Khalil, Nadia Hamdi, Raqia Hassan, Yousry Sharif, Mona El Said, Amani and many others. Communication between teacher and student has, in some instances, proven difficult when English was not the common language. Foreign instructors have taught their own terms for movements, or relied on the “follow me” method or on occasion, even used balletic terms. I am reminded of one teacher who knew only a few words of English, although she was a quick study. In class she continually punctuated her remarks with “Check! Check!” I learned much later that she had been saying “Shake! Shake!” These difficulties in communication, and the fact that visiting Middle Eastern teachers did not use the same terms, even in Arabic, contributed to the lack of development of common terminology here in the West.
Our dance community has grown up around the concentrated efforts of individuals working primarily on their own. But as our numbers have increased, so too have our collaborative efforts. Now we have begun to discover that we need common terms to facilitate communication between individuals and groups, especially those traveling regionally, nationally and internationally. Middle Eastern dance is no longer confined to its original geographic location. It has become a global phenomenon, adopted by dance practitioners from many nations, including those of North and South America, Europe, Asia and the Pacific Rim (a fact which delights many Middle Eastern artists, perhaps because it lends more credibility to the field). I even know of one dancer who lives at the North Pole! As an international community, we do not share a common language, although English may be most widely used, nor do we have common names for our dance steps. It is only now, at this point of our evolution as an international dance form, that we can easily conclude that adopting uniform (widely accepted) terminology would be a useful, if not necessary tool.
Preserving Oral Traditions
Why is there a need to organize a system of terms for a dance form that has thrived during thousands of years of popular usage?
In great part, the longevity of Middle Eastern dance is due to the function of dance within that culture—music and dance being present at the important occasions of births, weddings, birthdays, holidays, etc. These communal celebrations also serve as educational environments where younger members learn by imitating their elders.
Contrary to appearances, precise structure can be found in the folkloric dance traditions of the Middle East: movements can mean certain things and are sometimes used to produce specific effects. For example, the schikhatt and guedra of Morocco have prescribed forms, as do the dances of the Ghawazi of the Benat Mazin, and the Awalim tradition of Mohammed Ali Street, to name a few. These traditional dances (which can include innovative additions) are orally transmitted, but that does not preclude an organized system of movement.
Other indigenous dances such as Hawaiian, Balinese, African and flamenco are also no less stringent or legitimate because they are folk forms. Their methods, by nature, preserve tradition while embracing innovation within the context of the whole. For example, Hawaiian dance adheres to a well-established form of instruction based on proficiency levels that are mastered in sequence. Old movements and meanings that keep the past alive coexist with newer expressions, fluidly mirroring present day culture.
These time-honored methods work as long as the flow of information from teacher to student takes place within a cultural or at least subcultural context. However, as these forms move out into a diverse international community, where students study from a variety of teachers from other countries, and the dance no longer functions within its cultural setting, lineage of movement and preservation of traditional teaching methods are subject to dilution. Once outside of cultural constraints, the student/teacher/performer may be eclectic, enjoying invention for its own sake by employing ethnic elements in service of free expression, rather than duly respecting the integrity of a form and innovating from within that structure. As a result, the essential character of a dance form may be jeopardized while being disseminated to a wider audience. In addressing the issue of fusion, Andrea Deagon, Ph.D., (classical studies professor and keynote speaker at the International Conference on Middle Eastern Dance) suggested, “(L)et’s study and use whatever we want, but don’t lose sensitivity to what is unique and irreplaceable in our rapidly-changing world. It is one of the places beauty comes from.” (Internet communique on the med-dance list , 1998)
In 1985, I interviewed Mahmoud Reda, Director of the Egyptian Folklore Troupe, or “Reda” Troupe, interested in learning more about his experiences documenting the regional dances of Egypt. He has worked to theatricalize Egyptian dances, preserving their integrity and character, while making them stage-worthy. (Incidentally, in the course of conversation he mentioned that the women’s folkloric dances of Egypt are included in the vocabulary of Oriental dance, which is 75% folkloric in origin.) During our discussion he was enthusiastic about the subject of adopting standardized terms for Middle Eastern dance. “It’s a good idea for the art itself, because every art has its definitions. So if we name the movements, it will be good for the art itself. And it will be good for the class, for any class, even in my country, and in my class especially. Then I can talk instead of showing. I can say ‘this movement after this movement.’… And because Oriental dance is popular in many places now, it will be a good idea that we have the same names and talk the same language.”
While all dance forms primarily educate the student through oral instruction, some forms have a written syllabus such as East Indian dance and Western classical ballet. Treatises on East Indian forms were written as early as 300 CE., including the Natyashastra of Bha-rata, which continues to function as a traditional teaching tool today. Classical ballet began as a court dance during the reign of Louis the XIV (1638-1715) of France, who codified the first positions and performed especially created choreographies. His royal patronage fostered the development of standard terms that are, even now, employed worldwide, such as plié (bend), jeté (leap) and pirouette (full turn), which describe the movement. Interestingly, the Scottish highland dance, which existed many years without formalized terminology, adopted some terms from ballet to indicate basic positions. A textbook was created that documented all the standard positions for arms, feet and head, and described technique and step combinations used in historically correct dances.
Beyond the obvious advantages of preserving lineage, theory and practical teaching methods over long periods of history, a written syllabus may be universally applicable even though the dance is removed from its original geographic location.
Standardization, Creativity and Individuality
There was a time when I didn’t know what “adopting standardized terminology” might mean or entail. It sounded strict and boring, and I didn’t want to see a dance known for its fluid expressiveness become rigidified and controlled. Even now the question of safeguarding individual style and technique looms large when proposing this topic to others. One established artist and instructor in the U.S. voiced reluctance to participate in a discussion on standardization saying that she had worked several decades to establish herself as a unique dancer with a particular style. She was concerned that everything she had achieved over her long performing and teaching career would be threatened by employing terms which had been “standardized” for the movements she taught.
A definition of “standard” in Webster’s Dictionary is: a structure built for serving as a base or support. In my opinion, standardized, or uniform terminology would function to support creativity, not control or stifle. “Uniform” means “widely accepted,” not “regimented.” The “vocabulary,” or sum total or collection of movements that we use in dance, exists independent of the terminology that we use to describe it. Although the terminology may be in wide usage, the individuality of our dance vocabulary will depend on our own skill, knowledge, and creativity. In response to the concern that adopting uniform names might be counterproductive to the creation and furthering of individual style, and undermine independently developed teaching methods and philosophy, Reda said: “…We are not interfering in the basics of the class, or in the technique of teaching it… When I give a class, I give you my technique, but every movement that I am going to do has a name.” After all, a teacher’s unique style and special genius are what the student is there to absorb—artistic qualities that are not lost through the application of terms. He also suggested that we should look to classically based modern forms that have relied on adopted nomenclature to see if individual creativity has been hampered.
Many great dancers, past and present, have had classical training, and have worked within the standardized nomenclature of ballet. For example, choreographers Gene Kelly and Agnes DeMille elaborated on that form, bringing out fresh expressions in the American musical. (Incidentally, I had the opportunity to meet and speak briefly with DeMille, in the late 1980’s. I told her of my interest in standardized terminology for our dance form. “Marvelous!” she said of the project, agreeing to participate on a discussion panel. Alas, she has since passed away.) Innovative contemporary choreographers (Tharp, Baryshnikov, Taylor, etc.) have blended classical technique with their avant-garde approaches. I am also reminded of the gorgeously expressive Cirque De Soleil, whose corps is classically trained but tremendously inventive.
Nor have uniform terms hampered creativity in other Western forms as they have evolved. New terms came into usage when modern dance, unrelated to classical ballet, surfaced. Martha Graham’s “contraction-release” and Humphrey-Limon’s, “fall-recovery” and terms like “prances,” “falls,” and “triplets,” are now widely used descriptive terms in modern dance. Jazz and tap have also coined new phrases like “kick-ball-change” and “going nowhere,” which describe a series of movements. Even ballroom dancing has flexible terminology that embraces new names as steps are invented.
Standardized terminology will provide a structure upon which creativity and individuality can flourish, promoting the evolution of the dance form. When asked about the future of Oriental dance in 1994, Jamila Salimpour stated again, as she has for many years, “I am thinking in terms of preservation of an art form. Unless it’s catalogued and organized, and we have named our dance terminology, it’s not going anywhere. There has to be a foundation for the dance, or the dance has no future.”
Standardization, Culture and Feeling
Fostering spontaneity and expressiveness is a significant concern in any artistic genre. Middle Eastern dance is more complex in its expressiveness than many forms because encoded in the movement and gesture are meaning and feeling with deep cultural origins. In the process of systematizing and determining which standardized terms we use, we cannot ignore this important historical context.
During 1986 to 1991, I held a number of interviews with Mohammed Khalil, General Director of the other government supported troupe, the National Folkloric Troupe of Egypt. At that time Khalil had spent three decades researching, recording, analyzing and categorizing dances from the provinces of Egypt. He extrapolated and revived some folkloric movements in his choreography for Oriental dance. His research and documentation have led him to dusty archeological sites and musty archives in the Cairo Museum, where the historical place of Oriental dance in ancient times became apparent. In 1991, he spoke about a solo dance with ancient roots in Pharaonic times, when the “bee” dance was done in secret, sacred settings. Connected to these early pre-Islamic beginnings was the almeh/awalim tradition (“learned woman/women”) which continued during the Ottoman Empire through to the Mohammed Ali Street dancers. This tradition found its modern equivalent in Bedia Massabni’s Salat Badia, which opened in 1926 and featured singers and Oriental dancers, later including Samia Gamal and Tahia Carioca. Khalil continued the tradition twenty years ago with his choreography “Ali Loz,” a Mohammed Ali Street period piece for Nagwa Fouad.
In Egypt, as in other Middle Eastern countries, there is a substantial historic basis for Oriental movement and gesture, its social reference, underlying context and subtle innuendo. Can a foreigner ever really accurately represent the cultural depths of Oriental dance? Only time will tell. Here in the West, our dance form lacks a cultural milieu, and has suffered from misunderstanding as a result. Part of this is due to our own failure to create the necessary educational and professional environments that would promote Western acceptance. If our standardized terminology is inclusive of the historical context, some cultural depth and feeling can be communicated through the process of teaching.
Our field still “smarts” from the days, both in the distant and not so distant past, when “belly dance” was a fad, and anyone who wore a costume or spoke with a foreign accent could masquerade as an authority. If we establish the fundamentals, one would have a better reference point for judging competency. Standardization will lead to higher standards. According to John Chapman, chairman of the Dance Department of the University of California, Santa Barbara, standardizing terminology requires analyzing the component parts of a movement, and this can lead to “clarification, and professional regularizing.” “When you can name it, you can do it… Standards go up.” Other forms have benefited in this way by regularizing their terms.
Andrea Deagon’s 1997 discussion on the internet about resumes echoed this concern regarding professional standards. “The problem is, we are a ‘profession’ made up of amateurs. There are not certification programs and degrees… Perhaps someday we will be able to be certain that someone with X qualifications has X abilities… But we are a long way away.” The first step in determining competency is to establish what the fundamentals are, by establishing a standard nomenclature for the most basic movements.
The fact that we have no generally accepted standards in our field for excellence in study and performance means that we lack a basis to qualify and compare. We have contests and competitions, but no foundation on which to judge or be judged. Categories for costuming, showmanship, dance interpretation and choreography are meaningless unless there is a recognized foundation for dance movement—the mechanics, the gestures, the musical awareness.
When I was on a teaching tour of Europe in 1996, my husband and I were able to experience a dance form with a highly developed system and established standards. We attended the European Latin Formation Championship in Bremmerhaven, Germany, hosted by the International Dance Sport Federation. We were amazed by the level of technical and financial support given to these ballroom dance teams. The Stadthalle was filled with 2,500 fans rooting for teams made up of eight couples each from nineteen European countries. Big budget sponsorship was evident throughout the hall, with colorful posters, slick brochures and a large display of products and services. Following the competition we joined other journalists for a press conference with the winning teams and their trainers. (The third place winner was the Czech team who danced to the “Alladin” soundtrack, colorful in Arabian “fantasy” costumes studded with Czech rhinestones, of course!) To prepare for the event, they had rehearsed four to five times a week for three to four hours, practicing their routine for one to two years, and participated in a series of regional and national competitions. Each team had a sponsor who paid organizational fees and travel expenses. I am not sure if this is the direction we want to go in our form, but the level of public and corporate support was definitely strong. All of the pieces of this huge operation would not be possible if the participants were not operating on the basis of a shared system of knowledge that had expression in the judging system.
The process of developing a standardized terminology will necessarily involve a level of organization that has not been experienced before in our field. The process itself could lead to professionalism in other areas.
East and West
This may be an idea whose time has come. Expertise, awareness and maturity in our dance community in the West have grown. In personal discussions, exchanges on the internet, and at such forums as the International Conference on Middle Eastern Dance, there is an obvious felt need to legitimize, preserve, and systematize the dance. However, this discourse can have pitfalls if it becomes centralized only in the West. It is absolutely essential that any “study” of the Orient include the Orient: not only as the object of investigation, but also as the investigator.
In his seminal work, Orientalism, Edward Said pointed out how the study of a foreign culture can serve to distort and subjugate the culture being studied. Orientalist experts since the eighteenth century have not only distorted the reality of the Middle East, they have actually created an Orient that was past from one expert to the next. This “discourse” (a term coined by Michel Foucault) had a life of its own, forming the intellectual foundation for the Western domination of the Middle East. In Said’s words, “Orientalism can be discussed and analyzed as the corporate institution for dealing with the Orient—dealing with it by making statements about it, authorizing views of it, describing it, by teaching it, settling it, ruling over it: in short, Orientalism as a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority of the Orient.” (Edward Said, Orientalism, Vintage Books, NY, 1979, pg. 3)
From their position of superior knowledge, Orientalists viewed Orientals as inferior objects to be studied, incapable of studying or representing themselves (so easily we forget Middle Eastern contributions to astronomy, mathematics, and architecture, or the complex Arabic musical system!) As a result of this attitude, and the tremendous distortions of Orientalism, the Orient and Orientals appeared to be absent from the Orientalist discourse. Let us not make the same mistake in our endeavors to systematize Oriental dance. Any effort in the direction of adopting standardized terminology should necessarily include sensitive communication and respectful interaction with the sources of Middle Eastern dance (over twenty countries), research into historical and contemporary movements and trends, appropriate understanding of the complex musical forms, and collaboration with knowledgeable Middle Eastern proponents of the dance who have studied, performed, and taught in the Middle East. The Middle East is full of intelligent, educated and articulate (although not always in English!) experts in this field, who are certainly capable of being part of this effort to systematize their own traditions. Even though the process is yet to be initiated, Middle Eastern performers such as Nagwa Fouad (1986), Sohair Zeki (1988), Dina (1992), and Amani (1997) have expressed to me their interest in and support for naming the movements of Oriental dance.
Paradoxically, the West may play an important role in preserving forms which are threatened by extinction in their native settings. Some countries no longer wholeheartedly support their indigenous dance forms, and traditions are disappearing due to the crush of “modernity” and religious conservatism. In Egypt, for example, the Ghawazi of the Benat Mazin family lack steady employment as entertainers due to fundamentalist threats to create mayhem wherever they dance. Nadia Hamdi, who comes from a long line of Mohammed Ali Street performers, no longer dances publicly, due both to familial and societal pressures to remain “respectable.” Westerners, however, are eager to learn from these knowledgeable sources, creating opportunities for study both here and in the Middle East. Our interest “helps to preserve traditions which are being strangled now,” said Morocco. (1998) “We come with a positive attitude and respect that may not still be in the culture.”
Step by Step
To move forward, we need to go step by step (pun intended), and the effort must be sustained over time. Perhaps as a starting point, a core group of the most knowledgeable and experienced professionals in our international field could agree to convene for discussion sessions, ultimately selecting terms on an advisory basis for twenty or thirty basic movements that serve as a foundation for our dance. (Oriental dance would be more easily categorized than the full body of Middle Eastern dance, although folkloric terms used in Oriental dance would be applicable.) These optional terms could then be employed by teachers on a discretionary basis.
Adopting terms is a daunting task. When I interviewed Ibrahim Farrah (1985) on the topic he said, “I think it is needed. I don’t believe that it can come about very quickly…It will take a lot of time, energy and effort. And then the question, who is going to do it? We’ve got to have a very mixed group. Sometimes more is less, so you might get a group so large that we can’t come to a decision. We might get the conflicts of, well, for lack of a better word, egos….” The leaders of our field will need to have one-pointed focus, momentarily setting aside personal issues in service to the goal. Mutual effort must be made to avoid the withdrawal or exclusion of important figures in the dance world for personal or political reasons. As Bert Balladine so succinctly stated, “We musn’t fight.”
The choice of terms is also important. We may have become attached to certain names that are based in Orientalist fantasy, or that are completely unknown in the Middle East. Yet for this endeavor to work, names must be chosen which will be easily accepted by both those in the West and the Middle East. Some commonly applied names may need to be reconsidered, like the “camel.” “That poor animal has been greatly maligned,” commented Bert Balladine, while discussing the subject of terminology (1997). However, it is possible that this name may have already been applied by Middle Easterners themselves, as suggested in a recent comment by Algerian dancer Khedi Megetali (1998). She says that Algerian women’s dances often interpreted love poems which used such natural images as the undulations of the camel or the grace of a gazelle, and that corresponding names for the steps sometimes evolved from that. Research into cultural origins will be important. Some movements may take on the name of their inventor or honor the source of its inspiration, like Jamila Salimpour’s homage to Maya Medwar in her use of the term “Maya” to describe a vertical reverse figure eight hip movement. Another challenge is which language do we use? Would Arabic be appropriate, adopting terms that are currently in use like “rhassha” for shake or shimmy?
When we act cohesively, we will be able to manifest many wonderful things for our dance community. Mohammed Khalil was very enthusiastic about creating standardized terminology and a nonprofit educational organization to promote the dance, suggesting that we have offices in Washington D.C. As Ibrahim Farrah remarked, “Maybe some day we’ll see the value of having an educational institute rather than the commercial form it is now. Someday someone will say ‘Our greatest P.R. is our art,’ and
will do something to solidify and magnify what they have.” Some of us have dreamed of a videotape library for preserving choreography, support from grants and endowments, and an artist-in-residence program. Other indirect benefits to the dance community could result from this organizational effort, such as unionization: protecting performers from employer discrimination, settling pay disputes, providing group health coverage, etc.
It seems as if our dance form is experiencing a “coming of age” when many talented and qualified artists and scholars can succinctly define and demonstrate what makes this form unique. The success of the 1997 International Conference on Middle Eastern Dance, “Into the Next Millennium,” with its high caliber of panelists and performers, confirms that our field has reached a critical mass when sufficient numbers can speak with a communal voice, crystallizing our goals and envisioning together a future which benefits the whole.
We need to look to the past for our inspiration, and to the future with a vision of the possibilities.
A synopsis of this article was presented at the International Conference on Middle Eastern Dance, 1997.
Shareen El Safy is an award-winning instructor and choreographer who has performed and taught Egyptian dance in sixty major cities on five continents, including many states throughout America. She has made numerous trips to Egypt, researching dance, studying with renowned artists there, and leading her Dance Study Tours. As one of few westerners, Shareen performed raks sharqi in Cairo nightclubs during the 1988 to 1992 summer seasons. She has released a number of instructional DVD’s focusing on Oriental dance technique. Shareen presented at the 1999 World Congress of Sports and Dance, and taught and performed at the Ahlan Wa Sahlan Festival (2001), and the Nile Group Festivals (2009 and 2010) in Cairo. Shareen co-produced the First and Second International Conferences on Middle Eastern Dance in 1997 and 2001. She was Publisher and Editor of Habibi from 1992-2002 and Editor-in-Chief in 1993. www.shareenelsafy.com.
Copyright Shareen El Safy, 1997.