Nagwa FouadGilded Serpent presents...
Becoming a Fanana of the Belly Dance
by Najia Marlyz

Many years ago (in the early 1980's) I wrote an article titled "Teaching Key" for the Habibi Magazine. In that article I outlined basic ways in which a dance teacher could engage her students with the music more closely and spend less energy in the pedantry involved in teaching specific combinations of steps or even entire choreographies. In that article I stated:

"A major teaching key is to awaken the student to structure and complexity in the music on more than a primal level. The primal level remains undiminished, however. It is the rhythmic construction and understanding of the rhythmic use. You do not have to be a professor of music to accomplish this step - you need only an understanding of basics and elements such as sound, pattern and variation. Once that is accomplished, one is free to search for tonality, harmony and emotional content of the arrangement. In short, it is the visualization of the auditory input."

At that point I began a dissertation on techniques for making the music visual, a technique to which my own teacher, Bert Balladine had referred, obliquely and frequently. Upon looking back at that article, I remember vividly my dissatisfaction with the field of belly dancers who were making a great hue and outcry about "dancing on the music". (Here one should actually read: "dancing on the beat of the rhythm" because that is what was being taught in those days, for the most part.)

Precious few dance instructors actually paid any attention to the melodic content of the music, stating that "belly dance is a dance of the hips" and that "the upper torso should be isolated and still".

Where did this stillness technique originate? We will probably never know, but that technique permanently disfigured the face of Belly Dance for some dancers. It may never have been obscured except for the marvel of the advent of video for home use. Can you imagine the lack of input we had as dance students only twenty-something years ago? We either had to lay down thousands of dollars to travel to the Middle East to research dance further - or, second best, run across the Bay Bridge to San Francisco to the "Arab movies". There in the movie-house, we would sit through a two-hour non-subtitled movie just to see five minutes of Samia Gamal or Tahia Karioka? Well, any port in a storm!

It wasn't until Bert Balladine treated me to my first exposure to live Raks Sharqui by a visiting dancer from Cairo in the late 1970's, that I understood just how fortunate I had been to study dancing with Bert. He taught passion and sensual movement above counting out the rhythms and doing set choreographies. Yet, I was stunned. I saw a dynamic technique of movement that evening which completely belied the typical Belly Dance movement du jour that was prevalent in America. I could say that that one dancer, whose name was unimportant to me at the time, inspired me to begin a quest for mastery of dance that went beyond just the game of body isolations and clever juxtaposition of steps.

Bert had been talking about "making your audience feel the music with you" but it was a mystery to us students as to how to proceed beyond just pouring oneself into the execution of the more sensual movements.

I began to realize that what made it possible for Bert to teach dancing in this fashion was his innate ability to give his students some image upon which to hang their movements. I decided to pick up this ball and run with it, and found that I could produce a more compelling dance simply by elongating the technique - which I called "making a Felini movie". This meant that I had to find voices and moods within the music, suggesting content. Sometimes it was the instrumentation, sometimes the interplay of instrumental "voices" to which I responded. This freed me from the tyranny of the percussion and allowed a more lyrical interpretation of the music.

I realized about that time that the old saw stating, "Your job as a dancer is to make the music visible for the audience" is only part of the story. Just this month I have received in the mail Saudi Arabia's centennial issue of Aramco World. In this issue there is an article about Saudi music and dance that states that the only critical criterion used was whether the performers had power to "move" the audience. I found this to be a familiar notion. During my relatively long involvement with Middle Eastern people, this has been a frequent comment I have heard. Once, I was with a group of Middle-easterners at a San Francisco restaurant called "Pasha" when the belly dancer for that evening invited herself to sit with us after her set. She proceeded to talk about her current studies in college and stated that, "I only dance to make money, but I really care about my nursing studies." After she left the table, the Arab men said she shouldn't be dancing if she only did it for money, and the women commented that that was probably why her dance, though perfect, was unremarkable.

After all is said and done, what would happen to you, the dancer, if you are "stuck" dancing with less than scintillating music? Would you not, then, be forced to dance as lack-luster as you perceive the music? No, no, no, my pretty!

Now, your dynamic personality must present itself and let the movie making begin! You will dance with your body as a finely tuned instrument - layering the movements and giving your audience some content in the movement that is actually missing in the plebeian music.

You will attempt to follow the tones up and down the scale, more or less, but then take the audience on a scenario with your mind. You are, for instance, a lonely young virgin looking into the Nile in the moonlight, longing for a far away love. Ohkey, dokey, let's get real. You are, in actuality, a corporate working woman who has worked hard all day, banging her head on the glass ceiling, and have come home to your faithful dog "Tut" who is at least willing to have you walk him around the block before dark. Still, your movie can be as exotic as you can imagine! This technique, if you can remain focused upon it, rather than the commonality of the music, or your true, if banal existence, can transport your face, causing it to be mobile, touching your audience with the thought that you have some hidden passion you are willing to share.

In order to accomplish your foray into "passion", you can use the music as a prompt or a "key", but to adhere it doggedly is to cheat yourself of the opportunity to become a true Raqsa Fanana (artist of the dance). When a theme repeats. You repeat. When it repeats six times in a row, it is time to dump the movements with which you have undertaken the first three or four repetitions and introduce some variation or - even - attach yourself to some other part of the music. Western dancers (and I do include Europe in that thought) appear to be compelled to have and do it all. They are emboldened to become absolute slaves to the music and their so-called vast knowledge of technique. They play finger cymbals while whirling the veil, shimmying an over-lay, and doing a "camel-walk" all at the same time, keeping up a furious pace that produces a frenetic movement that is truly astonishing. It is, indeed, "sound and fury signifying nothing". They tire the spirit.

In my studio, I have a reader board upon which I post my fees and other information. Somewhere in the middle of the reader board, I always post a dance quotation - usually from some long dead dancer, but not always. Last month, I quoted myself as follows and found that my own students had some trouble deciphering its meaning:

"A dancer dances to the music, but an artist makes choices. Never be a
slave to music; let it be your heart's voice." -- Najia El-Mouzayen

It is important to use the music as your guide to mood, sometimes letting it suggest the theme of the movements you make, and keeping your dance within a framework of time. However, if the dancer lets the music be the dance by becoming its visualization, then she is not free to interpret, to translate, and to suggest. She becomes its exotic slave, trying to do and be all of it.

Instead of a musical slave, I believe it is your calling as a dancer to interplay with the music. Let it speak to your heart, and let it call up from your experiences, your fantasies and your secret heart a meaning meant to touch your audience emotionally.

The ability to visualize within is why the dancer who considers himself a skilled entertainer must also care a great deal for people and their hidden agendas. Those dancers who are self-absorbed or who are besotted by their mastery of abstract form are never quite able to make the little hairs on the back of your neck quiver. Are you a good dancer, a good entertainer, or a true "Raqsa Fanana"?

Reference Source:

  • Aramco World Magazine, January/February 1999 issue, "Days of Song and Dance", by Kay Hardy Campbell, pp. 78-87


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