Hawaiian and Egyptian Dance

The Cultural Roots of Hawaiian and Egyptian Dance

By Raeshma (Peggy Hazzard)

While touring Egypt, I was repeatedly struck by the similarity of audience response to Egyptian singers and dancers with that of Hawaiians. By Egyptian, I mean those people who were in the audience at “local” Cairo shows, and by Hawaiian, I mean audiences who attend “local” Hawaiian shows. This is not to include only those who are Egyptian or Hawaiian by nationality; rather it is also inclusive of those who are Egyptian or Hawaiian by virtue of cultural assimilation. By “local” shows, I mean those shows not prepared expressly for the consumption of tourists.

Raeshma ben Hassarh

In Hawaii, tourism is our primary and major industry, as it is in Egypt. Many “Polynesian Revues” are orchestrated for tourists who don’t necessarily understand Polynesian music and dance in its cultural context. These shows give the audience a smattering of music and dance from many of the lands that make up Polynesia, and do so in such a way that the Japanese, or Iowan, or Canadian tourist is kept entertained, never bored, and included in the show. The trade off here is that the dances and music often become sanitized of cultural wealth, and the earthiness and passion found in folkloric-based music and dance erased. Because these shows are not the subject of this article, I wanted to point them out so as to eliminate them.

During music and dance shows in Egypt, the audience was most obviously with the artist. They leaned over the balconies, stretching their arms out to the singer, singing the songs with him or her. They stood, zagareeting when the dancer first appeared, clapping when she came close. They danced with her when invited, debke men dancing on their knees for her. The music moved them, and they in turn could not sit still. They watched with rapt attention as the dancer performed, giving her their hearts, and in their minds, projecting themselves onto the dance floor. I didn’t see anyone touch the dancer or the singer; I did hear the dancer sing, and watch the audience’s energy rise to near ecstasy. It was obvious to me that the people knew the songs, and when they went home they would dance the dances. The music was theirs, and the dance was uplifting to their spirits.

In Hawaii, we have our beloved musicians and dancers who perpetuate the spirit of the land. They often don’t perform in Waikiki at all. When they do, hundreds or thousands can turn out to see them. In September, to open our annual Aloha Week, Honolulu hosts two block parties or Ho’olauleias. The music and entertainment at each are free with the purchase of an Aloha Week button. Hawaiian artists vie to perform their best, and two to three hundred thousand people flock to see them (parking is a nightmare!). When these artists perform, they summon their ancient past, and give that connection to their audience. The audience sings the songs with them. Often, you can see grandma or grandchild seated and dancing the dance with the dancer. The people revere their artists, and in fact, the learning and the playing of the dance and music is considered sacred here in Hawaii. That doesn’t mean there is no room for frivolity, for naughty hula, or for innovation! In fact, the audience loved the choreographer who had his male troupe “surf” their way off stage at the Merrie Monarch Hula Festival.

Both Egyptian and Hawaiian music and dance spring from a folkloric tradition. This means that the folk, the people, danced to express their lives. Like Egyptian dance, Hawaiian has both historic or ancient and modern or contemporary forms. Ancient hula, danced to chant and percussion, has been passed down through generations, in spite of having to go underground when the missionaries arrived. Hula was then branded as evil and pagan, and banished. It was kept alive by the “kumu,” the teachers, and it remerged, costumed differently, to difference music. This is what you see when you watch “Lovely Hula Hands,” a dance written in the 30s. Hula bore a bad reputation in the eyes of the American public, being viewed as quite risqué until the mid-fifties. This is the modern hula. Today, in all the festivals and competitions, there are two categories: ancient and modern.

There are old, historic dances from many regions of the Middle East that are still danced as they were one hundred years ago. There are many steps that are regional or specific to certain groups such as the Nubians or the Berbers, and those groups still do those steps as their ancestors did them. Many steps have been traded between regions, and today everyone does them. Today’s contemporary dance is influenced by many dances, notably western classical ballet. In a less structured or formal delineation than Hawaiian dance, Egyptian dance has ancient and modern factions.

Everyone who grows up in Hawaii learns some hula, if only by watching our beloved artists perform. Our teachers and our artists speak of our connection between the life of the dance and the spirit of the land. I am not sure if artists in Egypt discuss the connection as much as they feel it and convey that feeling to their people, as their dance and music are what perpetuate the spirit of the land in their hearts.

In Hawaii, we cherish our beloved performers, and support them and their art, for it is our art, our expression of our historic past that they sing and dance for us, acting out what we feel. I saw that same connection between Egyptian artists and their adoring audiences. Like Hawaiian artists, the Egyptian dancers and singers expressed for the people the depth of their connection with their history and their humanity.

Peg Hazard (Raeshma ben Hassarh) has been studying Raqs Sharqi and Baladi dance for 11 years, and teaching for four. Her original teacher, Taia, came from the Salimpour school. She has been most strongly influenced by Shareen el Safy and Horacio Cifuentes. She founded the Middle Eastern Dance Artists of Hawaii, and is the President of H.A.M.E.A., an organization dedicated to public education of Middle Eastern dance, art and music through video, performance and festival. She is the director and choreographer for the Arabesque Dancers, a troupe that performs annually at the Royal Hawaiian, the Mayor’s Office of Culture and Arts, the Arabic Cultural Festival, and for First Night Honolulu. She is currently a doctoral candidate in clinical psychology at Forest Institute of Professional Psychology.

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