Bringing Middle Eastern Dance into the Mainstream
by Trisha “Ashana” Hanada-Rogers
How do we develop appreciation and understanding for Middle Eastern dance? How do we bring Middle Eastern dance into the mainstream through dance education? With the growing need for multicultural understanding, dance offers a powerful, yet non-threatening way to teach people how to understand and appreciate the history, identity, and values of another culture. As teachers and performers of Middle Eastern dance, it is important to educate and develop audiences by providing them with correct information and aesthetic values. Education is necessary before Middle Eastern dance can gain the respect and serious study it warrants in the mainstream as a viable and artistic dance form.
Common misconceptions about Middle Eastern dance often stem from a lack of knowledge and from stereotypic misrepresentations of this dance form in numerous commercial venues. From the countless “Little Egypts,” to the “Salomes” and “Cleopatras” of Hollywood film, danse Orientale, commonly referred to as “belly dance” in the United States, has often been depicted as exotic entertainment and mere spectacle, ranging from vaudeville to “hoochy-koochy,” to circus acrobatics. Even the 1993 Academy Award’s presentation of the Disney film Aladdin, staged by American jazz choreographer Debbie Allen, continued to perpetuate Hollywood’s version of the “Arabian Nights” motif, featuring fire-eaters, snake charmers, and contortionists, with a chorus of dancers twirling their veils non-stop.
Although these theatrical extravaganzas may hold entertainment value, they are not truly representative of Middle Eastern dance. Without proper understanding, the dance can easily become a superficial caricature or meaningless parody. Such antiquated stereotypes need to be challenged and replaced with accurate information. To ignore the cultural, historic, and social context of any ethnic or traditional dance form is to lose its true depth and significance.
As we bring Middle Eastern dance into the mainstream, what is our responsibility as dance teachers? How do we educate our audiences? Since the definition of “educate” is “to inform and enlighten,”3 this “enlightening” process involves more than simply teaching steps and choreography. Teaching Middle Eastern dance, therefore, must begin with (1) correcting misconceptions and stereotypes, (2) teaching both the dance technique and aesthetic, (3) promoting respect and understanding of the Middle Eastern culture, and ultimately (4) developing appreciation for Middle Eastern dance as an art form.
Pre-concert lectures, narratives, program notes, or lecture-demonstrations can be incorporated into dance presentations to teach audiences how to understand, and thereby appreciate, Middle Eastern dance. Dance conferences can also offer a forum for presenting research and workshops. As a presenter at regional, national, and international dance conferences, I have had the opportunity to teach workshops on Middle Eastern dance for educators in the fields of Health, Physical Education, Recreation, and Dance. In a one-hour session, the objective is not to teach participants how to perform a dance, but to encourage them to actively experience and appreciate an unfamiliar dance form. Through exposure and participation, initial curiosity and preconceived ideas are usually replaced by a new respect and appreciation for Middle Eastern dance.
It is important to remember that dance is primarily an active, participatory activity. The challenge of teaching a traditional dance form, when it is removed from its origins, is to preserve its cultural integrity and significance. The Dance Plenary Symposia Panel, “From Traditional Dance to Stage,” at the 38th World Congress of ICHPER-SD (International Council for Health, Physical Education, Recreation, Sport and Dance) addressed several of these issues and concerns: When we remove dance from its “home,” how can we avoid trivializing or stereotyping a culture? How can the unique cultural dynamics of a dance be preserved and still appeal to a diverse audience? As teachers and choreographers, it becomes our responsibility not to decontextualize, misinterpret, distort, or dilute the underlying purpose or meaning of the dance. Every attempt must be made to teach and present traditional dance forms within a proper social and cultural context.4 Therefore teaching Middle Eastern dance should include the following elements: (1) mastery of the dance technique, (2) understanding the relationship between the music and the dance, (3) understanding the cultural context and significance of the dance, and (4) preserving the Middle Eastern dance aesthetic.
Traditional dance forms tend to be much more subtle in execution, yet just as difficult in terms of style, technique, and performance as Western dance forms. Middle Eastern dance technique requires mastery of refined, yet complex body isolations, including intricate hip shimmies, layered with body undulations, fluid arm movements, and delicate articulation of the hands and wrists. Workshop participants are usually unaware of and surprised by the complexity of Middle Eastern dance technique, especially the subtlety of the rhythms and movement isolations.
Music and the Dance
Danse Orientale is a hybrid blend of the music and dance traditions from throughout the Mediterranean region. What is referred to as the Middle East today includes parts of North Africa and Asia, ranging hundreds of miles and covering numerous countries. Middle Eastern dance rhythms include not only the popular Egyptian maksoum or masmoudi saghir,6 but also Turkish karsilama7, the slow chiftitelli8, the improvisational taqsim9, and the syncopated and percussive drum solo. Understanding the relationship between the music and the dance is essential—the music determines the structure and dynamics of the dance. In danse Orientale, a good dancer communicates the rhythms, accents, melodic phrasing, mood, and intent of the music through the intricacy and dynamics of her body movements.
Dance expresses a culture’s values, identity, and history. Traditional dance forms are often tied to universal themes of creation, birth, death, courtships, rites of passage, healing rituals, and celebration. Separation or removal of a dance from its cultural context ignores its value and deeper meaning; movements and gestures can become a parody, lacking in depth and understanding. In the Middle East, dance is a fundamental form of communication and social interaction. It is important to understand the social significance and to create a context for dance. At workshops, participants should be encouraged to interact with one another when they perform the dance steps, hip drops, shoulder shimmies, and arm movements that they have learned.
Another important aspect of understanding Middle Eastern dance is learning to appreciate the danse Orientale aesthetics. While Western dance forms often emphasize exciting, athletic, and non?stop dance entertainment, danse Orientale’s beauty is in its refined simplicity.
It is important to acknowledge and respect the differences in aesthetic values between Middle Eastern dance and Western dance forms. In Middle Eastern dance, the emphasis is on the movements of the torso and hips, rather than the legs and feet. An accomplished tap dancer recalled being disappointed the first time he saw Middle Eastern dance because he couldn’t see the dancer’s legs and feet—and he thought he had missed most of the dancing.
Western observers often must learn how to appreciate Middle Eastern dance; what is considered beautiful in Western dance forms is often very different from what is considered beautiful, or even appropriate, in Middle Eastern dance. Western dance forms emphasize extended body lines with high leg extensions, multiple pirouettes, split leaps and jumps that travel through space. In danse Orientale, the dancer contains the space within her movements, gathering and pulling the energy inward, rather than scattering it outward. In danse Orientale, it is the subtlety and fluidity of the dancer’s movements that are considered beautiful, rather than the dancer’s flashy exhibition of dance technique, which would be considered “too busy” to an Arab audience.
Reference can be made to the study “An Anthropologist Looks at Ballet as a Form of Ethnic Dance,” by Joann Keali’inohomoku (see pages 20-29 this issue), who points out the inherent cultural inability of a person to observe the movement and gesture of another culture:
Just as the Nigerian dancer might see a ballet plie as only a bending of the knees, without noting the vertical alignment of the pelvis and torso and the sense of upward stretch, a ballet dancer might see a basic Nigerian movement as merely a wild thrashing around, without noting the hips and shoulders moving in rhythmic counterpoints.
Each dancer would probably be judged technically lacking by the “unpracticed” eye of the other. Not only does the popular cliché “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” hold true, but beauty is often only in the “practiced eye” of an informed or knowledgeable observer. The “un-practiced eye” of Western viewers may erroneously dismiss ethnic dance forms as simple or lacking in technique when, in actuality, the technique is only different and unfamiliar. For example, in my research and interviews, several dancers remembered being disappointed the first time they saw an Egyptian dancer perform: “she didn’t really do much; she just sort of stood there and shimmied.”14 One must learn how to develop the “educated eye” necessary to appreciate the subtleties and intricacies of Middle Eastern dance.
As we begin the new millennium, it is time for Middle Eastern dance to emerge into the mainstream. Recent dance conferences, panel symposiums, master’s theses, dissertations, and scholarly journals have helped to establish greater scholastic and artistic credibility for Middle Eastern dance. Popular dance publications, such as Arabesque and Habibi, have strived to present the dance from both an American and international perspective. Through increased awareness and education, American audiences can learn to “see,” and thereby appreciate, the subtlety, intricacy, and artistry of Middle Eastern dance. Through dance education, we can learn to respect and to appreciate both the diversity and the universality of the many cultures of the world.
1. Danse Orientale in Arabic is called raqs-al-sharqi, which literally translates to “dance of the East” or Oriental dance.
2. The term “ethnic dance” has commonly been used to denote the dance of non?Western cultures. However, the preferred term is now “traditional” or “world” dance.
3. As defined in Webster Dictionary.
4. As documented in the article, “From Traditional Dance to Stage,” ICHPER-SD Journal, 1996.
5. I am using the term “Western” to denote dance forms or values of Western Europe and the United States.
6. Egyptian dance rhythm masmoudi saghir translates to “small masmoudi,” half of the faster masmoudi rhythm. Maksoum is usually a slower version of this rhythm, popular in Egyptian music.
7. Turkish 9/8 rhythm, popular in Turkish gypsy music and dance.
8. Slow, hypnotic rhythm, often used in the taqsim section of the dance.
9. Arabic for “improvisation,” a solo instrumental improvisation, unmetered.
10. For more information on the danse Orientale aesthetic and works cited, see Trisha Hanada-Rogers, “The Technique and Aesthetic of [Middle Eastern] American Danse Orientale,” master’s thesis, U of California, Irvine, 1994.
11. Sahra, Egyptian dance workshop at Rakkasah, 1994. Also interview with author.
12. Quoted in Kathleen A. Kerr, “Analysis of Folk Dance with L.M.A.?based Tools,” Journal of Physical Education. Recreation & Dance, February 1993, 39. For complete article, see Keali’inohomoku, Joann. “An Anthropologist Looks at Ballet as a Form of Ethnic Dance,” What Is Dance? ed. Roger Copeland and Marshall Cohen (New York: Oxford U. 1983) 533549.
13. See Hanada-Rogers, master’s thesis.
14. See Hanada-Rogers, master’s thesis.
Bond, Chrystelle Trump. “An Aesthetic Framework for Dance.” Journal of Physical Education. Recreation & Dance [JOPERD]. Mar. 1987: 62?66.
Costanza, Nina. “Hossam Ramzy: On the Unifying Principle of World Music.” Arabesque, Jan.?Feb.1992: 16?18.
Farrah, Ibrahim. “A Dancer’s Chronicle: Growing up in Dance.” Arabesque, Mar.-April 1992: 12.
Farrah, Ibrahim. “Cairo on the Hudson; San Francisco on the Nile.” Arabesque, Nov.-Dec. 1984: 6-8, Jan.-Feb. 1985: 10-13, July-Aug. 1986: 8-9, 20.
Hanada-Rogers, Asha [Ashana]. “Hossam Ramzy and Aischa: Music and Dance Workshop.” Habibi, Spring 1995:35.
Hanada-Rogers, Trisha [Ashana]. “The Technique and Aesthetic of American [Middle Eastern] Danse Orientale” (master’s thesis), U of California, Irvine, 1994.
Kealiinohomoku, Joann. “An Anthropologist Looks at Ballet as a Form of Ethnic Dance,” What Is Dance? ed. Roger Copeland and Marshall Cohen (New York: Oxford U. 1983) 533-549. Originally published in Impulse, (1970): 24-33.
Kerr, Kathleen A., “Analysis of Folk Dance with LMA-based Tools.” Journal of Physical Education. Recreation & Dance, Feb. 1993, 38-40.
La Meri [Russell Meriwether Hughes]. Dance as an Art Form. New York: Brane, 1933.
La Meri. Total Education in Ethnic Dance. New York: Dekker, 1977.
Ramzy, Hossam. “Understanding Raqs al Baladi.” Habibi, Vol. 13, No. 1: 15.
Sahra [Carolee Kent] Workshops and Personal Interviews.
Smith, Karen Lynn with Trisha Hanada-Rogers [Ashana], Bess Koval, and Cheryl Stafford. “From Traditional Dance to Stage.” Journal of the International Council for Health. Physical Education. Recreation. Sport. and Dance, [ICHPER-SD] (1996): 13-15.
Wood, Leona and Anthony Shay. “Danse Du Ventre: A Fresh Appraisal.” Dance Research Journal [CORD] 8 (2): 18-30.
This paper was presented at the first International Conference on Middle Eastern Dance at Orange Coast college, May 1997.
Trisha “Asha” Hanada-Rogers (Ashana) is currently on the dance faculties at Rancho Santiago College, Cerritos College, Mt. San Antonio College and Long Beach City College. She is also the dance coordinator for the Brand Library Dance Series. Asha has her MFA in Dance from the University of California, Irvine, with her Master’s thesis focusing on the “Technique and Aesthetic of Middle Eastern Danse Orientale.” Asha’s extensive experience as a teacher, choreographer, performer, and writer encompasses a variety of dance types and techniques. She has had training in New York at the schools of Alvin Alley and Martha Graham, dancing with professional dance companies and had an equity principal role in A Chorus Line. firstname.lastname@example.org