The Temple Dancer
Shahrazad’s Search for the Sacred
By Ron Iverson
The Indian temple dancer glides across the floor of the cave as if she were floating on air. Her arms move with incredible grace as her hands form intricate gestures. The ageless huge statue of the stone goddess seems to greet her and welcome her to the temple. Suddenly the dancer is transported to the palm of the goddess where she ends her dance.
Seven-year-old Ineke Huisman, later to be known as Shahrazad, watched “The Tiger of Ishnapoor” on her TV at home in Heerlen, Holland, and was captivated. She now says, “That ‘woke me up,’ and I thought that this was what I wanted to be.”
Shahrazad has now gained an international reputation as a dance performer, teacher and historian, particularly in the areas of Middle Eastern and Indian dance. Woven throughout her teaching, performances and dance productions is a thread of spiritual values derived from her many years of esoteric study and deep seeking. To fully appreciate the nature of Shahrazad’s creative output, one cannot ignore this more personal aspect of her development.
Even when she was younger, before she was so profoundly moved by “The Tiger of Ishnapoor”, Inkek loved the world of beautiful statues, incense, chanting, flower-decorations, processions, candles, stories about saints and miracles, and so on. She was influenced by a Roman Catholic upbringing and her years in a Catholic boarding school. Her childish imagination would combine images from different mythologies, such as a fluorescent image of Mother Mary as a mermaid (she later learned of a West African goddess called Mammywatta that looks like a mermaid). Two of her uncles, one of whom is Indonesian, had lived in Malaysia for many years, and told her fairy tales and stories about their culture. Her parents gave her a broad musical and cultural education, her father teaching her philosophy, psychology and religion. In secondary school, in addition to the normal program, she studied poetry, psychology, numerology, and Celtic mythology.
When she was nineteen Shahrazad traveled to the United States where she worked as an au pair in Boston for two years. There she studied Taoism, Christian mysticism, and Hinduism. Reading a book by Hazirat Inayat Khan on Sufism in 1972 peaked her interest on this subject.
After returning to Holland she spent six years of study at the Academy of Fine Arts in Maastricht. She became very interested in orthodox Buddhism (Hinayana) during this time.
In 1980, Shahrazad’s interests in spirituality and dance began to find common ground when she learned Dervish whirling techniques in Amsterdam from Myra Bai, who had been given this knowledge by a sheik in Konya, Turkey. This understanding of whirling was deepened when she went to Egypt for the first time in 1982, staying for four weeks in Cairo and Alexandria. Part of this time was during Ramadan, the traditional fasting month. When she first saw the whirling Dervishes in Cairo she was mesmerized and went back to see them perform several times.
Travels to Morocco have furthered Shahrazad’s Islamic studies, and it was there that she has had her deepest Sufi experiences. After her first trip to Morocco in 1985, she began intensive studies of Sufism at the Islamic center in Cologne, where she also did the Shahada. Shahrazad’s second trip to the south of Morocco lasted six weeks. During this time she was veiled at all times and lived as much as possible in accordance with the Islamic rules. “It was a mystical and spiritual travel into a realm that went beyond all that I had experienced before,” she said. It took her two more years of intensive reading and studying to fully understand these experiences. “Many Muslim friends from several countries patiently helped me, for which I was very thankful.”
In 1992, Shahrazad began studying Tibetan Buddhism (Vajrayana), the Indian chakra system, and mandala symbolism, I Ching, and American native traditions. She intensified her research into the roots of sacred dancing and its development, expanding her teaching activities into spiritual directions, teaching week-long workshops using a holistic approach, and creating a series of mythological dances.
In 1996 she met a Turkish Dervish teacher, from whom she learned further techniques, and a Moroccan Gnawa, Abdelmajid Domnati, with whom she studied and worked for a year. His special knowledge and experience with trance dance took her even further into the healing aspect of Sufism.
Early dance training
As a young girl Shahrazad had a great hunger to learn as much as she could about any form of dance. Her mother had been a ballet dancer in her youth, and she taught Shahrazad proper dance position and form. Her mother had traveled extensively and brought home folkloric dresses and music. Both of Shahrazad’s parents supported her love of dance. They took her to dance and variety shows, and her father shared with her his collection of ethnic music. In the Roman Catholic boarding school she attended until she was twelve, she took courses in acting, singing, and music, and she studied dance while in secondary school. Her Indonesian uncle taught her basic temple dance movements, such as head sliding and eye movements. At the age of sixteen she memorized a book about south Indian temple dancing.
It was during her six years of study at the Academy of Fine Arts in Maastricht, Holland that her dance studies became more concentrated. She started taking lessons in the discipline of Bharata Natyam with Dr. Ronald Sequeira from Bombay. In 1976, she spent four months traveling through Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India for the first time. She started learning Middle Eastern dance in 1978, a pivotal year in her dance career. Her first classes were from Samyra, and she continued her Oriental dance instruction with other professionals. The most important and influential of these was Prof. Hassan Khalil of Cairo and Kuwait.
When she first went to Egypt in 1982, she was very fortunate to meet musicians and singers from the Om Kalsoum Music Ensemble and dancers from the national ballet troupe. She met their families, enjoyed Cairo and its night life, and was introduced to some of the famous Oriental dancers. The dancers that impressed her most were Sohair Zaki, Nagwa Fouad, Fifi Abdo and Nadia Hamdi. Advanced studies and techniques from Egyptian choreographers enhanced her performances. At that time she started to perform whirling with a group of musicians from Syria, Jordan, Palestine and Iraq.
Performance and Teaching
In 1983 Shahrazad moved to Cologne, Germany, and began her international dance career in earnest. That year she began working with an Egyptian folklore group, directed by Magdy El-Leisy in Tunisia. She performed in thirty shows with them. Later that year she returned to dance at a large wedding.
Shahrazad continued her studies, learning Persian, Arabic and Turkish languages and studying those cultures. Nabil Barsoum, who now has his own studio “Al Ahram” in Vienna, taught her about Egyptian folklore.
Morocco holds a special place in Shahrazad’s heart. She has traveled there seven times since 1985. Apart from the culture and the rich Berber folklore, her interest grew in whirling. (There is a whirling wedding dance that is performed in Morocco by both a man and a woman.) She has also performed in Morocco, once in a large double wedding in Casablanca, and at a prestigious business party in Marrakech.
In 1986 Shahrazad began teaching whirling on a regular basis to a group of women in Düsseldorf, Germany, and later on taught whirling to hundreds of women in seminars. She began teaching other forms of Middle Eastern dance at this time as well, and founded two dance ensembles, Mashallah and Tut-Ankh-Amun. In 1991, she opened her dance studio, Mashallah, and founded another dance ensemble, Solomon’s Daughters. During this period, she taught and performed Middle Eastern dance in Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Great Britain, Germany, Holland, Spain, Canada, U.S.A., Egypt and Morocco. One of the highlights of her career was her performance for an audience of 5000 at Royal Albert Hall in London during the Persian New Year.
Shahrazad has traveled five more times to Egypt, and each time she had a different purpose for going there. Once she went to study the Pharaonic sites in Luxor. Another time she recorded a piece of Oriental music at Michel al Masri’s studio, a gift to her from the former Minister of Culture of Oman, Mr. Abdallah Saakhr El Aamri. She learned about the Arabic upper class culture from Mr. El Aamri, and it was at this occasion that she met several very famous musicians, including Mr. Mahmood Aafat, one of the greatest Egyptian flutists. This was truly a revelation for her to see these masters at work. Shahrazad has returned to the Middle East on numerous occasions to dance at weddings. The last time she was there she performed and taught at the International Festival for Middle Eastern Dance, organized in 1993 by Dietlinde “Bedauia” Karkutli.
While studying Indian dance and its background, Shahrazad became particularly interested in the development of sacred dancing from the fifth to the early thirteenth centuries in northern India. In 1979, her final year at the Maastricht Academy of Fine Arts, she came across a magnificent fourteenth-century Indonesian statue of a meditating female, Prajnaparamita. The figure represents transcendental wisdom, and next to her is a lotus flower upon which a book is placed, the Prajnaparamita-sutra. Shahrazad read everything she could find about her, and produced paintings based on her research, and eventually produced three-dimensional interpretations of her through dance. She also found other beautiful statues made between the eighth and twelfth centuries in India, and later in Indian-influenced Java, that reflect the beauty and wisdom of women, the vision of perfected woman. The dancers of the time, who served as models for the statues, had to learn 64 arts and sciences, dance being only one of them. Modeling for the very able artists, they were dressed as queens of the Pala region in northern India, where Gautama Buddha was born. Their performance of dance was designed to transform the audience, to reunite the spectators with their divine source.
Based on her research Shahrazad concluded that when Christians, Mongols and Muslims began to conquer India, they destroyed and/or chased away these cultural and religious values that had ripened over the centuries (comparable to the disappearing of pagan wisdom when Romans and Christians came to Europe). Some sacred dancers were killed, others fled to Indonesia over the Gulf of Bengal, to east Asia, or into the Himalayan states. Some were able to adapt themselves to the new rulers, their languages and religious rules, by changing their art to more abstract forms. As privileged court dancers they were sometimes offered as a gift to other rulers in the western areas, travelling comfortably under the protection of guards in well-equipped caravans. Along with their musicians and other fine artists, they played a great role in the cultural exchange and development of the courts that they visited. Others fled to the West independently and under cover, hiding their real identities for fear of their lives, travelling much more slowly on foot or with donkeys instead of camels and horses. These Gypsies arrived later in the western territories, influencing the folkloric styles of the countries that they passed through, all the while picking up elements from these countries to enrich their own styles. Thus, Muslim countries such as Persia, Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Egypt were influenced both at the court and the folk level by these displaced dancers. The court dancers and the Gypsies that traveled from this time and area to the Arabic countries to perform, pushed by Muslim conquerors and Mongolian invaders, carried a hidden treasure with them, which Shahrazad is now trying to recover. Her research has led her to believe that it was their dance that became known as raks sharqi, “dance from the East.”
Shahrazad believes that the Muslim influence in India caused essential spiritual elements to be lost in its dance traditions. For instance, a famous building called Panch Mahal in Fatehpur Sikri in India, which was built for the great Shah Akbar, a Muslim, had five stories. Each floor had meaning and symbolism attached to it, but Shahrazad feels that some of the most important elements have been left out. The bottom floor, with the lowest status, seated the concubines, who only had to be beautiful. The second floor was for dancers. The third floor was for the drummers, and the fourth was for the musicians that played melody instruments. The highest level, the one with the most status, was reserved for the singer. A dancer should thus:
1. be beautiful,
2. be able to dance,
3. dance correctly to the beat of the different rhythms,
4. dance with the appropriate feeling to the melody-instruments, and,
5. be able to understand and express inherent qualities of the human voice and poetry.
Based on her study of other buildings and systems of knowledge, Shahrazad would add to floors and values:
6. be able to transmit knowledge, and,
7. be aware of the divine itself dancing through her.
These missing elements are essential, in Shahrazad’s view, because they allow the dancer to serve as a mediator between the people and the divine. Shahrazad looked for this completeness in the Charya dances of Nepal, in the Indian and Indonesian temple dances, in Sufi traditions such as the Gnawa dances of Morocco and the whirling Dervishes, and in Oriental dances of Arab and other countries. “I found that the masters of no matter which dance tradition all have this completeness in some form or another…In my classes and on stage I work systematically to reach this high ideal of completeness, but I accept also that the completeness includes the making of mistakes sometimes! It stays a never-ending, dynamic process, full of changes, like the dance itself!”
Shahrazad’s research also led her to another ancient source of knowledge, the Natya Shastra, a comprehensive (5,600 verses in 36 chapters) review of fulfillment and success in dramatic production written by Bharata, the master of the science of theater and dance. She translated numerous verses from chapter 27 because they seemed particularly applicable today, bringing out the wisdom and spirituality in this ancient tradition of drama and dance. The following is an example:
I (Bharata) shall now explain the characteristic features of success since its production is aimed at achieving success in it. This success is based on sentiment and moods that are created by a performance. Success is of two kinds, divine and human…Human success is based on various degrees of understanding and expressed through words and physical action. Slight smile, smile, boisterous laughter, “well done!”, “how wonderful!”, “how pathetic!”, and swelling uproar are the signs of the success expressed vocally. Joy expressed in horripilation, the rising up from the seat and the giving away of clothes and of rings are signs of the success physically expressed…
The success in a dramatic production which includes an expressive display of enthusiasm and clear expression of emotions is to be taken by the spectators as divine. The success is remembered as divine if there is no commotion, noise or unusual calamities, phenomenon, and it is a case of “House full” in the auditorium. (The Natya Shastra, Sri Satguru Publications, Delhi, India, ISBN 81-7030-134-3)
Shahrazad started producing dance shows in 1992. These productions demonstrate her commitment to research, and represent a growing synthesis between her spiritual and artistic leanings.
Shaharazad’s first production was an African-Oriental show which included nine musicians and eleven dancers and took more than a year to bring to the stage. The concept for the show came to Shahrazad easily, since her husband and the father of her now seven-year-old son is from West Africa.
In 1993, Shahrazad was staring at a mandala-shaped ceiling decoration when the idea of “The Story of the Lotus” came to her. Both the Egyptian and Indian traditions have lotus flowers as powerful symbols for female values. The production was based on three levels: the Indian Chakra system; the spiritual development of women; and the spiritual development of mankind as reflected by the history of Oriental dance. There were seven tableaux: Pharaonic mythology, Indian temple culture, Mongolian power, Gypsies, Persian Court, Arabic Court, and New Age. Much larger than her first production, “The Story of the Lotus” included an Arabic orchestra of nine musicians, a dance ensemble of up to 21 dancers, and a number of actors. There were about 24 dances performed. The concert was staged in a number of large cities beginning in 1995, with audiences of 400 to over 1000 at each performance.
Since “The Story of the Lotus” was too difficult for some people to understand, Shahrazad decided that her next production would have a simpler format. “Dreams of Peace” was the result. It premiered in 1997 with the frame concept of a little girl that is taken to bed by her mother, and then dreams about fairy tales. Her dreams included scenes of kings (court dances), joyful dances (Oriental and Hispano-Arabic dances), dancing animals (drum solo, underwater scene with fish and mermaids), and light (Moroccan tray and Egyptian candelabra dance).
The final dance is called the “Dream of Peace”. Shahrazad spins in the dark, wearing a dark blue costume with stars. Above her head is a glowing planet earth. Then eight dancers, dressed in white and holding two electric torches each, spin around her. They shine their light beams on the globe and then on the audience, and then they pray for peace and freedom and eventually disappear. The little girl wakes up and dances around the globe with her own torch until she receives the earth. She starts spinning, holding the planet above her head. Twenty dancers come out of all corners, with candelabra on their heads and holding a white dove of peace. They form a protective ring around the girl and circle along with her. Shahrazad’s dance company had the great honor of performing this dance for Palestinian leader Arafat at a Unesco benefit, where two million Deutsch Marks were collected to help needy children.
Shahrazad’s latest production is “The World of Tara”, a work still in progress. Twelve of the planned twenty-one “pictures” premiered to an audience in 1998. This production differs from its predecessors in that in that the theme is Far Eastern rather then Middle Eastern. The main focus of this show is the Himalayan Tantric Buddhist deity Tara, a beautiful goddess who comes out of a lotus flower to help all suffering beings overcome fear and reach enlightenment. Splendid visualizations of the goddess and the mythological history are presented in this production.
Shahrazad had been interpreting Prajnaparamita in dance for years. In 1996 she was “grasped” by the tantric goddess Tara, and was moved to interpret her as well. In spite of much research, as with Prajnaparamita she found almost nothing on her dances. She knew they existed, however, from numerous statues, reliefs and paintings. Through a Tibetan exhibit in Bonn, Germany, she was able to make contact with a teacher in Kathmandu, Nepal, Prajwal Vajracharya, who is a master of Charya dances, ancient temple dances depicting all known deities of the Buddhist pantheon. In May, 1997, she flew to Nepal with her family to study. Charya dances are ritual dances that have grown for thousands of years, weaving Tibetan, Indian, Chinese, Nepali and Newari elements into a unique style. The dances are designed to make ancient texts visible, as they are sung, accompanied by finger cymbals, and enacted through dance. The dance lessons included warm-ups, balance exercises, postures, steps, poses, mudras (hand gestures), facial expressions, visualizations, explanations of mantras, step combinations and choreographies.
Prajwal Vajracharya is known for his impressive personal expressiveness in representing various deities, and has been given special distinction by King Birendra. Prajwal was a wealth of knowledge about artistic and religious tradition, and hosted Shahrazad and her family on a tour of the city’s countless temples, sanctuaries, stupas, places and pavilions from different epochs, bearing witness to the religious virtue of the people.
The Mandal Dance Troupe there showed her dances of Tara, Amoghasiddhi, Manjusri, the five meditation Buddhas, Annapurna (a harvest goddess), and a vajra–yogini solo dance. She taught the troupe Egyptian dance, and they produced a joint lecture demonstration and show together at the Goethe Institute. The performance was packed and produced a very successful and stimulating cultural exchange. As a result, sixteen articles were written about Shahrazad in the Nepalese newspapers.
It is clear from “The World of Tara” production that Shahrazad has been very thorough in her studies, but she also takes the artistic liberty of creating new forms, all the while respecting the iconographical rules, to make the essentially foreign ideas presentable and understandable for a mostly western audience. She was assisted in the project by Prajwal Vajracharya and his father, the tantric priest and former temple-dancer Ratna Kaji Vajracharya. The ideas from the Charya dances were adapted, and dances were choreographed for 24 Oriental dancers according to the themes she chose to display. The show uses fascinating musical compositions from different countries such as India, Tibet, Mongolia, Japan, Vietnam, Cambodia and even China.
This project required much more than the normal preparations for a standard Oriental dance show to make it work. Shahrazad performed dance archeology, digging into a historical period that has had a great influence on Oriental dance.
Shahrazad is continuing her Middle Eastern dance career by performing all over the world in many different venues, and she continues her investigations into all forms of sacred dance. She is particularly interested in a project involving the relationship between Tibetan mandalas and the Native American medicine wheels.
Shahrazad endeavors to play a part in bringing people of different nations and convictions closer to each other, in order to enhance worldwide mutual understanding and cooperation, respect and compassion. She is concerned with the education of women through art, and their healing through the joy and ecstasy of dance. It is ironic that as a child Shahrazad felt that she had to hide her interest in spirituality or she would be considered to be an outsider. It is that same spirituality as expressed through dance that now attracts audiences worldwide.
“I feel so strongly related to (ancient India) that I believe some of my ancestors came from there, and that it is my destiny to wake up my memories from that time, and to repair certain mistakes that were made then in order to create a new balance in present time in the male/female energy worldwide. It seems like all my studies and activities lead up to this task, and I feel that I am not alone in my thinking.
“I now search for and create dance forms that allow woman to develop her full potential, including her goddess consciousness as a root experience: that is, to beautify and master her body; to experience fulfilled sexuality and to understand its cosmic force; to strengthen her character in balance between modesty and respect, and perseverance and will power; to explore and express emotions; to communicate on all levels with all beings; to learn all there is to learn and keep an open mind; and to be one with the cosmic flow in meditation and ecstasy.”
Authored by staff editor Ron Iverson from interview notes compiled by Suzy Evans.
Ronald Lloyd Iverson, Ph.D., served as assistant editor and layout design for Habibi from 1992 to 2002, and continues to assist in the production of The Best of Habibi. He has Bachelors degrees in Sociology (Pomona College) and Religious Studies (UCSB), a Masters degree in Counseling Psychology (Cal Poly), and a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology (Pacifica Graduate Institute). He worked for 25 years as a child custody mediator and evaluator with the Superior Court in Santa Barbara, and is currently a psychotherapist in private practice. Email: email@example.com.
Suzy Evans is the creator and President of The International Academy of Middle Eastern Dance which produces the annual “The Awards of Bellydance”. She has been dancing since 1975, holds a Masters Degree in Business, and is the chief financial officer of a high tech company in the Los Angeles area. To contact Suzy Evans, see www.bellydance.org.
To contact Shahrazad, see www.shahrazad.org.