A Brief Encounter with the Historical Ouled Nail

I was looking for something new to teach in my adult beginner bellydance class. A new piece of music to inspire a new piece of choreography that would keep my students curious about the range of styles available to us. After searching through all of my iTunes, I finally turned to my LPs and rediscovered my vinyl copy of Aisha Ali’s 1974 collection of Algerian dance music. The folk rhythms of the Mahgreb (Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria) are irresistible to me. The way the steps and the sounds go together “like a horse and carriage,” as the song goes, “You can’t have one without the other.” The rhythms drive you to dance. Although I have had workshops and classes in Moroccan and Tunisian styles, I don’t believe I have had an opportunity with Algerian (perhaps a brief introduction in one of Aisha Ali’s workshops). But I have the Internets and I know how to use ‘em!

When I began, I had intended only to produce a brief history of the Ouled Nail, but the deeper I looked the more my curiosity was peaked. So this blog will be a two parter. This first part is a history I have compiled from literary research. The second part will be an analysis of how I used written descriptions and YouTube videos to learn the Ouled Nail style.

Like the more well-known Ghawazi of Egypt, the Ouled Nail of Algeria are a tribe whose young women specialize in dance. Beginning at about age 12, girls leave their mountain homes to work as dancers and demimondaine (whores) in the oases and cities. The tourist quarter of Algiers, Bou Saada, was also known as the Ouled Nail quarter. The young girls lived here with older dancers who sheltered and trained them (though by 12 they were already trained by their mothers). After collecting a reasonable dowry, most girls returned to their home villages and married respectably. Or, finding she rather enjoys being financially independent and less socially constricted, she may chose to remain a working dancer.

The French colonists (remember those Legionnaires?) discovered these women in the mid-1800s and seemed, on the whole, to approve (or at least appreciate) them. The French must have been astonished at the sight of these young dancers. They wore layers of fully-covering, belted dresses over which were heavy layers of gold and silver coin jewelry. A high headdress dripped in coins, eyes blackened with khol, studded silver bracelets (said to be for self-protection) hands and feet decorated with henna, hair braided and oiled, faces tattooed with tribal designs. They danced suggestively, smoked tobacco and marijuana, and slept with whoever the hell they wanted. Wendy Bounaventura shared this descriptive proverb from her research: “The man who sleeps with an Ouled Nail will first lose his soul, afterwards his wealth, and finally his life.” They sound so fierce, don’t they. Even today, it is easy to romanticize women like that. In fact, it was a hard life: they were women, they were vulnerable, and wearing that much gold and silver sometimes cost them their lives.

After Algeria won its independence from France in 1962, the Ouled Nail were largely assimilated. Nonetheless, during her quest to record the dance music of Algeria in the 70s, Aisha Ali encountered some of these women performing in Bou Saada and at a tribal gathering in Chellala. But that was 30 years ago: I wonder if they are still dancing?

Coming soon: Part 2 on learning to dance Algerian-style via YouTube and written documents

Buonaventura, Wendy 1998 [1989] Serpent of the Nile: Women and Dance in the Arab World. Brooklyn, NY: Interlink Books

Buonaventura, Wendy 2003 Something in the Way She Moves. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press
{annotation: Read chapter entitled “Dance of the Seven Veils” for a full description of the life of the Ouled Nail in the late 19th-early 20th centuries.}

Carlton, Donna 1994 Looking For Little Egypt. Bloomington, IN: IDD Books

Wood, Leona 1974 cover notes on Aisha Ali’s Music of the Ouled Nail and Traditional Dance Music of Tunisia. LA, CA: Araf Discs

This entry was posted in Bellydance, Ethnographica and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to A Brief Encounter with the Historical Ouled Nail

  1. Pingback: A Brief Encounter with the Historical Ouled Nail « Dance Doc's … | algertoday

  2. Pingback: A Brief Encounter with the Historical Ouled Nail « Dance Doc's … | Headlines Today

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