When trying to recreate historical dance, we can turn to a variety of sources: written records, graphic depictions, and if we are lucky, real people who remember or continue to perform the dance. It is important to remember too, that dance is a lively art and reflects living peoples. We tend to think that “traditional” items are handed down in pure form between generations; that they somehow maintain continuity across long spans of time and great distances of space. It is actually quite rare that dance forms survive intact and unchanged over generations. Japanese bugaku is an example. Bugaku is considered the world’s oldest continuous tradition of court dance having been performed for over 1200 years in nearly unchanged form. But traditions can be deliberately invented to serve modern peoples, as was the case with Israeli folkdance. After the state of Israel was formed, its leaders and activists sought to invent dance forms that would represent the new nation and its people. No matter how “old” a tradition, it is always practiced in the here and now, in today’s settings, on today’s bodies. In a very real way, we are always reinventing traditions.
For the Ouled Nail-style dance that I invented, I drew primarily from a range of YouTube videos. Video research provides us with endless opportunities to steal steps—an ages-old tradition. It also feeds our need for endless variety—an American tradition. Folk dances typically lack variety, keeping steps simple and repetitive so everyone can participate. And typically, when they move from participatory to presentational dances, variety and virtuosity become the norm. For my choreography, I found myself sampling from several videos—a step here, a variation there—based on what I personally liked. As an American dancer, I sought to construct a dance with lots of variety. The more variety, the cleverer I feel, the more entertaining it is to the audience, and the more my students get to challenge themselves.
The most authentic videos of Ouled Nail style may be from Aisha Ali and one from OazaZg Channel (not sure what Oaza refers to—if you do, please let me know). These are simple dances, gracefully performed, and appear to be improvised. We know Ali danced with Ouled Nail and the OazaZg performance was from Algeria. But I was also intrigued by the playfulness of the duet choreographed by Kamira of Sword and Scarab Dance Troupe, Rochester, New York. This appears to be a modern elaboration on the style, with specific steps invented from the traditional material.
So, what was I actually doing when I choreographed and performed my version of an Ouled Nail dance, drawn almost exclusively from YouTube videos? What is it that I’m teaching to my students now? Is it in anyway true to the original dance? How far can contemporary dancers elaborate on traditional styles before we begin violating its authentic roots? I’m careful to say that what I am doing is “dance in the style of the Ouled Nail” so as to indicate the ambiguity of its authenticity. Besides, whether it is authentically pure or not, it’s a lot of fun and a good musical challenge. And intellectual debates cannot stop the evolution of dance in our highly connected, ethnically diverse, modern world.
For more on the dances of the Ouled Nail:
In my earlier post about the Ouled Nail, I outlined their history and cultural practices very briefly. Materials on their lives is difficult to find. Wendy Buonoventura’s description of their daily lives in the late 19th century reflects the most complete research. She extracted many small references from many sources to create this portrait. Wikipedia has good entries under Algeria and Ouled Nail as does the International Encyclopedia of Dance (the later written by Aisha Ali, Mardi Rollow, and Leona Wood). There is also a very nice, short documentary by Kathleen Woolrich on YouTube.