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Certifying the Certifiers,
Chicken or the Egg?
Part Two

By Najia El-Mouzayen
June 11, 2002

When asked from whom she learned dancing, Nagwa Fouad has been quoted saying, “My dance came to me from God.”  Nonetheless, she has not opened a dance school even though she has made a long and successful dance career in Egyptian nightclubs, movies, and television.  Though you and I may not believe that unlearned dance was bestowed upon her overnight by Divine Inspiration, there is an element of truthfulness to her statement that is undeniably true for most artists anywhere:

artists and stars are born, not schooled.  You’ve either “got it, or you don’t”, 

“it” being a charisma, a captivating way, which cannot be taught to another person--though it can be released from its imprisonment by an inspired mentor.

In her early movies before she became a dance "fananna" (translation: artist), some of Ms. Fouad's dancing was gangly, angular, and a bit too wild for my taste, but she had a special "something". She had a special quality of personality and movement that, when applied to Middle Eastern dance, set her apart from the herd. Just as easily, she could have chosen another form of expression and could have made herself a leader or a star of some other entertainment form or business endeavor. However, she has a reputation as a miserable dance teacher. Her idea of instructing a master dance class is to sit and tell stories about dance or to dance herself and tell her would-be students, who have coerced her to teach, "Kiddaho!" (translation: "[Do it] like this!")

Some teachers, too, seem to have been born with a special need to share what they know and have experienced, and they usually have a unique way to make others understand something of their methods, technique, and the way they “get the job done”.  It is often of a practical nature, pragmatic.  Thus, when I tell you that I do not believe that teachers need to have certification specific to the teaching of Middle Eastern dance, but rather experience in teaching and/or a certificate in education, it is this elemental ground-rule to which I refer:

There are no certified teachers of Raks Sharqi in the Middle East, and the teachers that do exist there, teach without certification and do not bestow certification. A certificate to perform dance is issued by the Police Department.

For the most part, the few dance teachers who are women, have been performers but now are teaching because their figures, their age or their family reputations demand that they retire from public displays of their dance.  The situation is similar to that of ballet.  For example, “Madame Blotaslova”, who was a prima ballerina in her long-ago youth, is now arthritic and gnarly.  She sits in her chair, pounding her walking stick on the sprung flooring of the ballet school, muttering in Russian, “These girls have no talent; their parents should just send the money to my account and keep them at home chained in the closet!”  Her translator/assistant says, “ The Madame admonishes you to try harder to align your knee with your hip joint like this (demonstrating).”

There are some dance schools in Cairo… run by men.  Recently, very recently, a few old-time female dancers have started little schools, but it is a “foreign” (read Western) idea at best. In the general dance world it is the rule, not the exception that women do not teach until they have retired from performing. Only in the field of Raks Sharqi do young, barely stage worthy dancers go into instruction.  In retrospect, I regret that I spent time and effort teaching when I had not fully explored my own performance potential.  This is why it is often men who teach and open dance schools of Raks Sharqi—they are free from the taint of competing with their own students, before their antlers are broken and their tusks worn down by performance battles for position as “Alpha Beast” on the stage.  The men who teach are knowledgeable in one way or another, and usually teach and manage large troupes of dancers, but none of them are now, or ever have been, superstars of dance in the way in which the women have been “fannanas” (though some have appeared dancing in movies).  The dance men can run the schools because they have authority (simply from being men in the Middle East) and sometimes they have enough education so that they are able to write and speak well about the various methods and techniques of their dance.  Their students are people who desire to join their troupes, as a way of earning a living in a country where learning and obtaining a job in the arts of any sort, is rare.

So, we foreigners came along with our university educations and our advanced degrees in Etymology and the study of French literature of the Renaissance Era.  We perceived a vast wasteland, devoid of the jargon of formal education, yawning like a black hole in outer space! 

Where there is no jargon, there will be a “jargoneer” to supply it.

We can make up names to replace “Kiddaho!” and we can create a methodology, because we have historically been artistic imperialists the world over. Never mind that we, ourselves, somehow learned to dance without it! 

By producing levels of hoops through which our students might jump, we can place ourselves in a position of authority!  Since this is not easily accomplished in a subject with such a long background, and which is worse than a snake-haired Medusa in its ever-changing aspect, many have tried and a few have succeeded to convince themselves that they know more about the subject than those artists from whom the dance originated.  To teach the dance of Raks Sharqi truthfully, you have to first admit that there are no credentialed experts, and those same non-existing experts have also not written books of instructions to which Westerners (or anyone else, for that matter) may refer, although we certainly wasted no time producing a “Tribal Bible” for our fusion fantasy dance that is aptly named American Tribal Dance.  (Did you know that there is now a Berlin Tribal Dance and a Norwegian Tribal Dance and others?  …Talk about imperialism!  We have hijacked Raks Sharqi and morphed it into a new shape!) 

Ya, Allah!” (Oh, God!), the young Arab man exclaimed in a whisper into my ear.  “She dances as if she were a man!”
“What do you mean, exactly?” I asked with renewed interest. 
“She does not understand the dance must be ‘dallah’ (a quality of innocence and naïveté).  She is acting like she is going to attack the audience, and she is so busy; she is sweating like abuggle’ (mule)!” he answered with distaste contorting his handsome countenance. (You would probably recognize this dancer’s name.) 

When an instructor sets herself up to certify others to dance and to teach within her style, she inherently implies that her method of dance instruction, (though it may be uniquely hers) is absolutely accurate and catholic in its universality, when intrinsically it is not.  She has the right to do so, by all means, but let the buyer beware.

As I stated in part one of “Certifying the Certifiers”, many women come to Belly Dance, or Raks Sharqi, looking for a form of self expression that is steeped in questionable history, is of confused origin, and is unabashedly of ill repute in most countries of the world (even our own little corner).  This seems to offer some mystique that draws women out of their daily doldrums. To become a viable part of academia, or a “wheeler and dealer” in the business world, a woman often is forced to approach solutions more like a man would in order to “get the grade”, to “pass the tests” and be “accepted”.  For many of us women, it becomes unbearable and overwhelming, yet necessary, to approach all of life as if it were one big combination lock that may only be opened by one set of numbers in a set sequence.  It is this conundrum to which I refer when I say that women can become dissatisfied and unfulfilled by the set of predestined life roles with which she is supposed to live her life with gusto and graciousness.  Repeatedly, in my thirty plus years in dance performance and teaching, I have observed that women often search for release, something visceral, something with emotion, and that “something” is often Raks Sharqi!

If we Oriental Imperialists convert Middle Eastern dance into something that it is not—namely, a codified dance form, worthy of Olympic scrutiny like “Dance Sport” (formerly, Ballroom Dance), it will no longer be the charming beggar that it is in the Middle East, expressing allure and comfort to dance students worldwide.

I have learned, on my many travels to the Middle East that, above all other considerations each fannana must be different!  Each one dances as her own personality dictates, and each one is an interpreter of the music.  Each dancer has her specific style.  She is intimate with the music in a way that the we Westerners are not because she understands the rhythms and the forms, the themes, the instruments and the many quirks that are what make Raks Sharqi special and different. You cannot learn that in a school, and no teacher can teach you what your style ought to be.  Even the dancer who “dances like a man” needs to have her personal expression; however, I would hope to deny her any right to set standards and tests for other dancers.  It is against this background, then, that I judge the artistry and authority of any dancer: the measuring stick of individuality, emotionality, and personality.

These are not the most proud moments in our American history because we no longer appear to value rugged individualism for our children, preferring the soft slop of “feelings” and belonging to the “Group Think” generation.  Personal resourcefulness seems to fade into the past with reliance upon the instantaneous information that comes hot off of the Internet.  Rather than take lessons, travel, research, read, watch a documentary, or a combination of those, I have seen dancers write on the Internet asking each other overblown questions like, “How do you notate music?” (Lifetime studies and theories have been devoted to that subject!)  “What’s the difference between Arabic Belly Dance and Greek Belly Dance?”  (If you knew any history, read a book, or had traveled to Greece, you’d know.)

The actual relationship between a teacher and her student needs to be both intimate and unique in order to exchange the type of information that is able to free a creative and individualistic dancer.  When that relationship is formed, it is composed of the same qualities that we might seek in a spouse—honesty, appreciativeness, values, morals, trust, mutual interests, inspiration, emotional support, sharing without withholding, lack of possessiveness, and team spirit.

Being a mentor to another dancer goes well beyond a little lesson plan and a puny paycheck at the end of the day! 

That is why I caution dancers to chose their teachers by asking appropriate questions.  You should not ask teachers where they are located and how much they charge before you ask their philosophy regarding the dance they teach and what qualities they believe makes their dance special.  It is rather like dating in order to find a potential spouse—you look for the man’s personal qualities, values, and morals before you ask him his home address and if the parking is easy around his location. 

Choosing a dance teacher is a very pivotal moment in a dance student’s development!

The wrong choice in dance teachers can cause you pain something like the pain caused by a divorce: loss of self-esteem, unfulfilled dreams, waste of time, youth, and talent, financial waste, and even physical harm. Like a bad marriage though, a wrong choice can make you appreciative of a good experience when you finally make the right connection (or connections). There will not be any piece of fancy paper in the world in which your teacher can wrap herself that will make her personality resonate with yours; her certificate, if there is one, should be from a good teachers’ college or university for teaching general subjects and her resume should include agents and patrons for whom she has danced; the “School of Hard Knocks”.  These are her true teaching credentials.

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