Fire and Ice

by Yasmela/ Shelley

What makes some of our dance good, what makes some of it bad is puzzling to me. There is always a dancer who comes along whom I find just terrible, but someone, whose opinion I respect, will find wonderful. Tastes change. What I once found abhorrent often grows on me as my appreciation of the subtleties of the dance change, or according to my sense of humor at the time. However, some things never look good, never feel good. What is this about? Is our individual criterion for Middle Eastern dance so "individual" that we cannot come to an agreement? Individuality is not an issue in ballet, or in any art form with clearly understood parameters for quality, but in belly dancing, it is a real dilemma. Should we apply different artistic criteria to Middle Eastern dance than we apply to ballet, flamenco, classical Indian dance or other forms of art? I'm not talking about student recitals, informal haflas or private parties. I'm talking about large venues for which we charge admission and lead the public to expect a level of professional entertainment. If we are not concerned with general acceptance of Middle Eastern dance as another form of art, but we are content to confine ourselves to dancing for one another, then it really doesn't matter.

Until we can be strong enough to accept criticism and quit avoiding the unpleasant reality that there is a lot of "real bad dancing" out there, no one outside the dance community will take us seriously. Likewise, when does what we present as Middle Eastern culture, or dance move so far away that it becomes something else? How many labels are we going to invent in our desire to be inclusive?

I recently viewed a tape one of my students brought back from a weeklong dance camp she attended. The quality of the tape, which was an amateur recording, was surprisingly good. It featured dances by teachers at the camp and informal performances by some of the participants. I sat though clip after clip of camp attendees clad in the versions of Egyptian Chic: beads, gauntlets, handkerchief hem skirts, and little wisps of veils discarded before the introduction to the music was done. There were a number of very polished dancers, but there wasn't much that was notable. However, I am pretty fussy, and this was videotape. I don't dance Egyptian modern styling, except as a novelty, and there are many, many dancers who do it far better than I do. Much as I appreciate the form, I have my own style.

I guess that's what I was looking for, dancers who could move within the context of a genre but still express their own style. Most of the dancing bored me because of its cookie-cutter consistency.

However, two performances stood out like beacons in a sea of ennui.

The first was an informal gathering where several of the guests had been performing in full Madame Abla costumes. At a break in the parade of dancers, a woman who had been sitting in a group of people on the floor stood up and moved to the center of the circle. She was wearing jeans, a tank top, and some sort of healthy looking shoes, slip-ons, not conducive to dancing at all. She had obviously been overtaken by the
great music. Who wouldn't be? As she proceeded to dance, it was obvious she was or had been a professional dancer. She used small, tight, crisp, hip movements, accented by a long rope of "mizumas" that someone extemporaneously tied around her hips. She didn't move much, didn't need much floor space, and was sparing in her use of hips drops and locks, although she knew her music so well that she caught every stop, every accent without a contrived, "polished" look. She let the music dictate her moves. She
never pushed her movements at her audience. She vibrated through a chiftitelli, her arms moving gracefully, her hips subtly accenting and turning. Her dance was one of the more interesting and innovative taxims I have ever seen, though very simple. She occasionally held her arms above her head, but without a showgirl thrust and frame and sans the hard-edged smile that sometimes seems to me to characterize many modern Egyptian style dancers.

There was nothing vulgar or pretentious about her dancing, just something competent and soulful. It was mesmerizing. Responding to her obvious expertise, the musicians came to life, and there developed a marvelous synergy between them. She sang along as they played. I realized that more than her dancing per se, it was her absolute understanding of what this dance is all about that made this one performance
outstanding. She danced on and on, using simple, typical moves, finally kicking off her shoes, to finish with a folk dance to zurna and davul, hands straight down at her sides or straight out from the shoulders in a folk stylization that was dictated, again, by the music. The people in the circle watching her were pounding the floor and howling in approval, and when she finally finished, everyone in the room jumped to his feet.
It is rare to be present at a situation like this, rare to see these spontaneous performances that spring from the soul, and rarer still to have something so profound come across on videotape.

I was in tears at the end of this clip.

I can only think of one other time I have been so moved by a film of a dancer. In live performances I have been moved to tears many times, but only twice on film!

The second performance was by an instructor and took place in a larger, more formal area. The musicians, a much larger band that included clarinet, had obviously been instructed to improvise. The performance, one must believe, was also improvised. It could not have been further from the earthy, basic, traditional style of the dancer in jeans. This was a highly stylized, interpretive performance that left me wondering just
what it was I had seen. While I did not care for it at all, I found it fascinating in a National Geographic sort of way.

The dancer was a tall, thin woman with long black hair cut similarly to Xena the Warrior Princess. She took the stage in a long heavy, bias cut skirt of something that sparkled like the night sky and hung heavily in graceful folds along her body. Her top was a short tank of chain mail, lending a rather gothic look to the whole ensemble. She had a beautiful girdle of coins that clung gracefully to her slim hips, with chains of coin hanging down onto the folds of the skirt. She had impressive, voluminous veil of dark silk sort of wound around her in disarray. Standing very still, as the music began she slowly spun around in a widening circle of skirt, veil, hair and arms. At the end of her spinning, she arched her back and reached forward with one long leg in a movement reminiscent of Egyptian dancers on the tomb walls. Then she did some more business with the veil, seeming to have trouble disentangling herself from it. She stopped, did a vibrating
shimmy with one leg slightly off to the side with her head bowed and back to the audience.

I kept waiting for her to begin, but realized after a few moments that she had begun. I was seeing an artistic performance of interpretive dance done to improvised Middle Eastern-ish music. I guess it isn't my cup of tea, although it must be extraordinarily popular considering that she is much in demand.

Twice during this performance the dancer descended to the floor. The first time, she struggled to rid herself of her veil, and having done so, she flung it aside like so much laundry. She then rolled over time and again on the floor. For a moment, I felt that I shouldn't be watching, but I hung in there, fascinated. The music sounded like it had ended, but it began again and so did she, with much arm waving, vibrating, and then she was on the floor again! This time she seemed to be experiencing some trauma as she flung herself about, wadded up her veil, and pounded it on the floor, flinging her long hair forward and back wildly. Then she was done. She stood up with her veil draped around her, her arms crossed on her shoulders in a penitential pose, bowed deeply and left the stage.

What can I say? This was a performance that left me confused, wondering if I was too unrefined to appreciate "true art", had missed some part of the story, or if it was really just the story of the Emperor's New Clothes. Her work seemed more appropriate for an avant-garde theater in New York. Whether this is a plus or minus is purely a matter of individual preference. She was so absorbed in her own desire to "create" that she completely disconnected with audience.

This sort of indulgent self-absorption seems more the antithesis of what I understand is the spirit of Raqs Sharqi.

If you had come to this performance expecting to see Middle Eastern dance or Belly dancing, you would have left confused and disappointed. Of course, that is not the case. People at the camp knew what to expect. I didn't.

In our zeal to be accepted as a legitimate art form, a legitimate dance, we've begun to move in many directions. I think that when we move into areas that are on the edge, unclear, we need to let our audience know that this is not Middle Eastern dance. Does it belongs in our workshops and festivals? I suppose it might, as long as we label it what it is and let the audience make a decision about what they want to see and experience. Performance Art, that great vast catch-all that allows anyone to do almost anything and
make a claim to the title of "Art", is not what Middle Eastern dance is about, not really. I wonder if
we aren't so bored by the constant mediocre parade of glitz or grub, that we are willing to settle for anything that breaks up the boredom and holds out the possibility of a connection.

As cheesy as the roots of this dance may be, it has certainly been around long enough to stand on its own. It doesn't need the trappings of art, it doesn't need fixing, it doesn't need another "new" technique.

Be wary of embracing those who tell you they KNOW the deeper meaning of this dance, are the "Keeper of its Truth". We all contain precious parts of it, but none of us contains it all. As it changes, it moves like the proverbial python, like the glaciers, and like life itself, slowly, very slowly. It has fashions that come and go, but the essence of it will always involve a dancer, a rhythm and an audience. Remove one of these elements and it dies. However, I am a proponent of the KISS technique….(Keep It Simple, Sweetie)! If it is odd, unusual, profound AND connects with the audience, fine, fine. If not, then we need to ask ourselves if we aren't asking too much from something that was doing well long before we came along. However, if it stinks; it stinks. Bad entertainment is bad entertainment; no excuses!

Ready for more?

Alice is Alive and Well in Oakland, California! by Bobbie Giarratana
During the auditions, there was an ongoing dialogue among the panelists concerning guidelines for
festival performances; cultural accuracy vs. artistic expression became an issue.

Rakkasah 2001 Festival West: Sunday Photos by Susie Poulelis
Alexandria, Momo Kadous, Soraya, Leila Haddad, Elana, Suhaila, Jamila, Dhyanis....

Rakkasah 2001 Festival, West: Saturday Photos by Susie Poulelis
Shoshanna, more Dalia, Good Vibrations, Lunatique, Morocco, and more

Rakkasah 2001 Festival, West: Friday Night Photos by Susie Poulelis
Leila Haddad, Elena Lentini, Dalia Carella, Near Eastern Dance Company and more. Saturday and Sunday coming soon.