Karim Nagi’s 8th Annual Arab Dance Seminar: Raqs Egypt

Saturday night, November 5
I’m eating microwaved mac ‘n cheese and drinking milk straight from the carton. My knees ache, my shoulders ache, my hips ache, my back won’t straighten and my feet won’t bend. Still, whenever I stand up my hips drop into gentle, circular motions, the neuro-muscular remains of 10 hours of master classes with the faculty at Karim Nagi’s Arab Dance Seminar.

This year, with the recent Egyptian revolution on his mind, Nagi chose to devote his annual Arab Dance Seminar to Egyptian dance and music alone. To help him teach, he brought in some illustrious Egyptian dance teachers: Aisha Ali, Amina Goodyear, Debbie Smith, and Hala Fauzi. Every minute of the three day series was packed with lectures, panel discussions, video and film presentations, music class, and five master dance classes.

Saturday was studio day with five 2-hour dance classes each dedicated native Egyptian dance varieties. By days end, they were swimming through my body: Debbie’s graceful, feminine sharqi, Karim’s exuberant assaya, Hala’s haughty and vibrant Melaya, Aisha’s mesmerizing ghawazee, and Amina’s charming shaabi. Raqs al Shaabi (Dance of the People) is a simple dance performed at both formal and informal gatherings. Since it is a folk form, there is no specific “technique” to be taught. Instead, Amina just lead the way while we followed in a gooey, juicy, groovy dance. Aisha taught her ghawazee dances similarly, as is appropriate for both styles. This was Mazin-style ghawazee with its driving rhythm, continuous zhagat (finger cymbals), and characteristic side-to-side shimmies.

Hala taught us something quite different: the Melaya is a generic character dance created by Mahmoud Reda. In it, the dancer manipulates a heavy decorative cloth to characterize the flirty, outgoing women of Alexandria. The dance is based on Raqs al Baladi, a festive country dance no different in fact that Shaabi except that the later term is more favorably interpreted. (Hala provided us with the most thorough explanation of “baladi” I have ever found…and I’ve looked. I hope she will publish it so everyone can read it…hint, hint, Hala.) I loved the Melaya. Its my new favorite thing.

Karim taught a Saidi cane/stick dance, one of my other favorite things (I do love a prop). It’s a big and bouncy dance of joy, lively and energetic, leaving many of us exhausting. Luckily Debbie followed up with an elegant, feminine Raqs Sharqi, the modern fusion of Egyptian cabaret dance. These were small, refined movements with a sweetness of spirit that I found very appealing.

Oh dear. The numbing effects of all that adrenalin has worn off and the actual pain is rising to the surface. Time for a couple Aleve and a soft pillow. Wait wait. I’m sitting here, dead tired, and as I relax, my glutes are beating out at three-quarter time. How will I ever get to sleep if I can’t stop dancing!!

The panel discussions and presentations concerned the historical developments of Egyptian dance within Egypt as well as its response to pressures from the Western world. The causes and consequences of the Americanization of Egyptian dance—for better or worse—was also addressed. Among the many topics discussed (e.g., the invention of tradition by Mahmoud Reda or how Egypt’s internal caste/class system impacts dance) perhaps the most persistent concerned the removal and decontextualization of Arabic music and dance from its cultural source.

First, the dreaded term “belly dance.” As you may know, this term is the English translation of dans du ventre, the name the French colonists gave to the dances they saw in Algeria and Morocco. Those dancers did, to a certain degree, show off their bellies by throwing the pelvis up and dropping it. Hala told a story about her grandmother who, upon seeing ballet for the first time, called it “toe dancing” because visually the toes were prominent. The French responded to the same impulse: they saw bellies, they called it belly dance. As a consequence, though, 200 years later, the belly and its muscular abilities (rolling, fluttering, pulsing) have come to dominate a genre in which the sternum and hips are of greater importance. “Don’t,” warned Debbie, “call what I do ‘belly dance’.”

Both Hala and Karim reminded us that the continued use of the term “belly dance” linguistically decontextualizes the dance by substituting its Arabic descriptors (raqs beledi, dance of the country, or raqs misri, dance of Egypt, which reference places) with a single non-isometic term (dance of the belly, which references a body part). By ignoring its Arab roots, non-Arabs can make it into something it never was before. The forms are still there but they are now animated by other cultural influences. “Belly dance” recontextualizes the art.

The widespread use of non-Arabic music by Westerners is another powerful method of detaching the dance from its roots. Debbie, Karim, and Sausan (who joined us for the Sunday panel) spoke strongly to this point. In fact, the very first thing we did on Friday was learn seven of Egypt’s most famous rhythms: saidi, maqsum, masmudi, wahda kabira, wahda sonbati, bambi (no, that’s not a misspelling), and ayyoub. Karim led us through each one, first listening, then speaking, then speaking while clapping the rhythms. We combined the vocal and the kinesthetic with the auditory in order to drive the rhythmic message home.

We also learned to sing a song in Arabic, “Gana al Hawa,” to give us a deeper sense of the spirit of the music and to remind us that the lyrics are important to the character of the dance (and in fact we got lyric sheets from Debbie and Hala as well). Debbie emphasized this in her movement class instructing us to “get close to the music,” to be open to its inspiration. The movement should express the music, the voice, the lyrics.

Sausan and Debbie argue that American’s feel the music differently than Arabs, and for many good reasons. Early American dancers heard a mix-up of Middle Eastern music at the clubs they performed at. American born George Abdo, for example, Americanized the music to make it easier on our ears. (Let’s face it, even today the sound of a mizmar will drive most Americans from the room.) But he also removed its musical authenticity. In addition, before our easy recording technologies, American’s had little access to such exotic music. Even with it, Western dancers continue to trend away from Arabic music. Sadly, so do Egyptians, a situation Debbie finds tragic.

During our final Q&A, a student asked the panelists what they thought was the essential quality of Egyptian dance. Amina said “its in the marriage between the music and the dance”; Sausan said “its in the music and how we hear it”; Hala quoted Hossam Ramsay who said that the dancer is the three dimensional expression of the music.

 The status of dance in Egypt today is much diminished. Muhammad Ali Street—known for 200 years as the “Street of the Artists”—now trades in reproduction furniture. Gone are the musicians, dancers, and instrument makers. Today, the ancient art of hand-crafting instruments has given way to cheaper products imported from China. The dancers of the street have retired or left the trade and moved on.

Since the 2011 revolution in Egypt, dancing has nearly disappeared. The tourism that kept the art lively and profitable has dried up. Many of the clubs were burned or destroyed in the riots (Amina believes that the building that once housed Badia Masbni’s club was among them). Debbie reports that Raqia Hassan’s Ahlan Wa Sahlan Festival, which attracted 1,500 people in 2010, brought only 250 to the 2011 event. She also commented that she rarely sees soloists anywhere today, especially since the upper- and middle-classes turned away from live entertainment at weddings: now they use DJs. Amina also noted the absence of women in contemporary dance scenes. Ghawazi dancers still perform for country weddings and mulid’s but, again, their activities are greatly reduced. Even Egypt’s national folk dance companies are out of favor as young people turn to hip hop and salsa. Oriental dance is just not current.

Egyptian’s own love-hate sentiments towards dance combined with a growing conservatism has put Egypt’s precious dance arts in jeopardy. But they ain’t dead yet. Karim gave us a sneak peak at a film documentary about the modernization of teaching traditional dance. In this case, the tahtib, a Saidi men’s stick dance, once learned by sons from their fathers, is now being taught in formal studio settings. And, if Karim’s seminars are any indication, Arabic artistic traditions are being passed on to many aficionados outside of Arabic cultures. If we in the West increase our knowledge of the history of Egyptian dance, and show due respect for its origins, we may be instrumental in its preservation.

We certainly made a good start. After the faculty performed with Georges Lammam and his band, we all had a chance to show off what we learned and the building was rocking with Egyptian dance and music. Karim lead us in a short Zikr (Sufi meditation movements) and we finished on a quiet and grateful note.

Sunday night, November 6
I haven’t had such a satisfying dance experience since 1981 when I attended a similar event on the subject of early American modern dance. Both events satisfied the dancer and the scholar in me. I went prepared for both of them too…intellectual pursuits were as encouraged as artistic ones in my family. I’ve never really separated them. If I love a new dance, I have to know its history, the cultural context in which it was born. Karim’s seminar was the complete package and I feel privileged to have been there. But right now, all I want is sleep.

Sorry, no photos or recording equipment was allowed at the seminar. But I’ve collected some YouTube videos that you can watch on RenaisDance Channel.

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2 Responses to Karim Nagi’s 8th Annual Arab Dance Seminar: Raqs Egypt

  1. Susan Lin says:

    Renee, what a wonderfully detailed recounting of your experience as a participant at this Arab Dance Seminar! I’m quite ignorant of Arab dance and of dance in Egypt, so thank you for sharing this insightful post; I feel I now have a good primer under my belt.

    I especially enjoyed your discussion about the panel topic regarding dance and decontextualization. As a dancer of Chinese classical and ethnic minority styles, this is a topic I hold dear. One of my most favorite styles to watch and to perform is that of the Uighurs, a Turkic people in China’s far west. People have often asked me whether the dance I’ve just performed for them is “Arab” or “Indian”. It’s true that Uighur dance and music draws from Persian, Indian, and Chinese roots, but it is a unique blend of its own. Tajik, Kazakh, and sometimes Eastern European influences can be found.

    But, is it Uighur dance, or is it Chinese dance? The lines blur. I’ve heard arguments on both sides, but I admit that when it is depicted on state-run television, Uighur dance tends to be incredibly … sanitized. Through my research, I try to work on dances that don’t shy away from strong rhythms or are accompanied not by what I call “Han-ified” Uighur music. I’m far from expert, but it’s a journey.

    Here is an example of one particular style of Uighur dance, if you’re interested: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gJ8A-mEmN3o

    If you’re interested in further discussion about cultural influences on dance or about the Uighur dance style, I’d look forward to learning from you and sharing insights!

  2. Susan Lin says:

    I realized I left an incorrect link to my name – apologies and amending here!

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