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"Music and Style"
by Yasmela / Shelley Muzzy

In an interview with the eminent dancer/scholar, “Morocco” (Carolina Varga Dinicu), she told me repeatedly that Middle Eastern dance is a dance of the folk, a dance of the people. That seems logical to me. After spending many years watching dance, dancing myself, and asking questions, it seems obvious to me that Oriental dance, or Raqs Sharqi (which is called belly dance in the U.S.) evolved from village folk dancing and the spontaneous movement/response to music within the family structure. The popular form seen today encompasses a variety of regions, and includes various styles and rhythms. Certain rhythmic structures seem to have more affinity with certain areas. Rhythm structures such as 9’s 7’s and 5’s are associated with Greece, Turkey and Armenia; debkes from Lebanon, while Syria and Jordan use different combinations of 5. Solid maksoum and ayoub rhythms are used all over the Middle East but have a distinctive interpretation in Egypt. Complex drumming rhythms from North Africa, 10/8 and 12/14 from Tunisia and Algeria, and the trance-like Moroccan 6/8 reflect a blending of Arabic classical tradition that has African roots.

The merging of East and West is evident in the rhythms of Andalusian Spain. Central Asian 6’s reflect the rolling steppes and rhythmic connections with India and China. Public dancers who plied their art in the cities around the Mediterranean made contact with a variety of people and a variety of music. Exposure to travelers and traders from other areas of the Middle East, as well as Europe, inevitably led those dancers to pick up new steps from other countries. The musicians undoubtedly picked up a tune or two from several different areas in order to keep up with the requests of their changing clientele.

Migration, as well as the shifting political landscapes within the Moslem world, changed the dance. As it moved out of the village into the city, it was less and less a folkdance performed by an inclusive village, family or kinship group and became a dance of exhibition, molded by the familiar steps of the dancer’s origin.

She danced what she knew, adding steps and movements she learned from her exposure to a larger world. As far as technique goes, the dance has undergone almost constant change. There remains a small group of common movements, but the embellishments are individual.

The one constant has been the music. As the music traveled, it was reinterpreted but not drastically altered.

One simply has to listen to a selection of recordings from the early part of the 20th century to the present and notice that the same songs are played in Turkey, Lebanon, Egypt, Greece and Morocco. Each country placed their individual stamp on the tune, but the song is the same.

The same thing happened with the dance. It wasn’t many years ago that the center for dance was lodged firmly in the Levant—Lebanon’s cosmopolitan melting pot where East met West was the Mecca of modern music and dance. Beirut was known as the “Paris of the East.” With the advent of war, the near destruction of the Lebanese infrastructure and regional political unrest, the action shifted to Egypt. Egypt already had a prolific film industry. Its regional stability and established reputation as a center for learning and a progressive atmosphere contributed to its status as the new center for popular music and dance.

For dancers who are new to the form, or unfamiliar with the history of dance in our own country, the shifting styles and centers of action can create confusion. In lieu of the facts, or perhaps despite them, there has risen a variety of myths and misinformation.

Even pioneer American dancers, who embraced the early dancing they saw in the clubs of our own large cities, created a uniquely American style of Oriental dance. This tends to follow patterns established in the Middle East. In the 1960s, when the dance began moving out of the clubs and became intriguing to newly liberated women looking for creative outlets, we saw the rise of the convention and festival phenomena. Suddenly we were inundated with a plethora of teachers. Before this era, teachers were dancers whom one could corner and persuade to show you a step or two. The rest of your learning relied on observation and imitation. Just as much of the music of the Middle East is an “oral” tradition, the dance was passed on through family tradition and observation.

With America’s usual need to pigeonhole and classify, we have tried in vain to dissect this most malleable of art forms and pinpoint its exact point and style of origin. With our obsession for order, we westerners have sought, and still seek, ways to standardize and stabilize the steps. Impossible!

In the early ‘80s, an entirely new genre, American Tribal Style or ATS, was born. This style is pure fantasy. It relies only marginally on authentic movements and espouses an American vision of exoticism. Unfortunately, it creates its own mythology about origins and inadvertently perpetuates the cultural imperialism from which I thought mistakenly we were about to emerge. However, this change in the dance is not unlike the changes that took place in the countries of its origin. Based on selected movements, ATS combines oriental, flamenco, East Indian and a little Isadora Duncan/Ruth St. Denis style modern dance. The first three of these styles are all outgrowths of indigenous migrations and Islamic expansions, so the connections are logical. The grafting of Middle Eastern dance with the last two is uniquely western. Geared for a group experience, it relies on visual cues and transitions, attempting to create a common language of repetitious movement.

The emphasis is removed from the individual dancer and her interpretation of the music and is shifted to a more organic, almost spiritual joining, reflecting in an oblique and somewhat surprising way, the roots of the dance in village folkdance culture.

ATS is often performed to heavy, monotonous rhythms devoid of the elaborate melodic augmentation that is typical of classical and popular Middle Eastern music. It moves to a stripped down version of its complex mother. Employing exotic "tribal" costuming, it offers a mesmerizing visual feast and a highly interpretive though restricted performance style. One has only to look at the voluminous skirts, often worn in layers over full pantaloons to conclude that the use of these layers of skirts is to conceal legs and pelvis and is reminiscent of the exaggerated skirt designs of the Victorian age when polite society completely avoided references to women below the waist. In ATS the entire lower body area is rendered neutral or strictly controlled and our focus is pushed, once again, upward.

Village communal dance also involves simple repetitive movements conducive to group participation. Movement changes are initiated by a leader and in ATS, the leader changes as well in an attempt to create a leaderless, non-competitive, “non-group.” ATS, like village folkdance, is focused on the desire for unity and inclusion. There are some subtle differences, however. The ATS form is strictly regulated and not open to the casual group camaraderie that is involved in the cross-gender, cross-generational celebratory dance of village life. Despite its claims to the contrary, it has generated its own strictly regulated hierarchy and standards.

Unlike Middle Eastern solo dance, the emphasis is shifted away from musical interpretation to visual stimulation, group experience and exclusion of the audience. In fact, ATS has become its own audience.

On the surface, ATS seems to answer or satisfy some of the dichotomies proposed by the perception of the individual dancer as sex object. Western women have all sorts of mixed feelings about their sexuality; i.e. [I want][a need] to be perceived as attractive and desirable but not as a sex object. There is a definite separation between mind and body for the American woman. For some reason[,] Americans have a hard time reconciling sex and intelligence or sex and spirituality. We want healthy sex stripped of its messy connotations, or we don’t want to talk or think about it at all and certainly not exalt it in public through dance[!] Too much passion renders us out of control. From outside, ATS seems to fulfill our longing for the exotic while exempting us from certain distasteful or risky movements that could be interpreted as vulgar, i.e. sexy. By invoking a nameless or imaginary ancient Goddess cult through her sacred dance, women can dress up in pseudo-tribal finery and bond in some fantasy Amazon sisterhood that satisfies a chaste sexuality. The simplicity and repetition of the footwork, the focus on costume and staging, all exempt the participant from looking too deeply into her individual soul. She is sanctified and exempt and part of a great untouchable sisterhood. The movement in Tribal Style dance negates the earth-oriented grounding inherent in Raqs Sharqi. It completely avoids the conflict of what may happen in the area between our legs, the seat of passion and lower chakra sensuality. The dancer is not encouraged to connect with the audience, to flirt or play or display the secret knowledge that I find so fascinating in Middle Eastern dancers. There is no provocation here, no titillating invitation to partake in the mysteries. There is awe but little discomfort, the kind of discomfort or provocation one associates with artistic expression. We view the same tableau in a variety of body types, costumes and colors again and again, but the true performer is hidden from us. She is unlikely to be revealed.

I find it interesting to contemplate that the dance has come full circle in an odd and unintentional way. After moving away from the folksy unity of the village in the individual self-expression of raqs sharqi, ATS seems to be pushing Middle Eastern dance, at least in the U.S., back into that safe and sexless area, sans the real knowledge of true folk movement.

Unfortunately, despite the promoted bonds of sisterhood woven in the cues and transitions of ATS, women are still labeling one another, either overtly or by subtle implication. The Oriental dancer in her seductive, sometimes garish and revealing costume is still the “bad woman”. She flirts and pouts and beguiles her audience, issuing dangerous invitations to participate in her passion. Her movements can be disturbing, and on an inexperienced, improperly educated dancer, downright tasteless. The tribal dancer in her turban, billowing skirts and cumbersome regalia is the servant of the goddess, a sanctified priestess who allows the audience to observe her dance, disengaged and unconcerned, focused on communion with her sisters. This last attitude is the antithesis of the goals of the first. One is left to wonder what Middle Easterners make of our co-option of their dance. Seen in its older, more original if not authentic state, the dance is rather awkward and ungainly, full of playfully suggestive movements that leave no question about what is being said. This doesn’t seem to pose a problem for people who have grown up in the cultures that call this dance their own.

Much as I appreciate and applaud the evolution of art and celebrate innovation, I also lament some of the changes in a form that is unique and wonderful. I wish we could find some happy medium, but truly good dance and outstanding artistic performance is the antithesis of “medium”. Occasionally we see a dancer in an “ethnic” or “tribal” costume that moves an audience and connects with the music. Occasionally we see a dancer in beads and skintight Lycra who does more than phone it in, who really understands her role as a performer and interpreter, not an object of attention. More and more we see less options and individuality within either camp as we group and classify ourselves by costume. Both sides chase the illusion of understanding, using attitude and exclusivity in place of true feeling. Perhaps this is an American trait.

I think I finally get the point of ATS. It truly isn’t about engaging an audience but about engaging your sister dancers, and who is to say this is right or wrong? Certainly not me. It just isn’t my cup of tea, although when I was dancing, no one would have labeled me “cabaret” by today’s standards. I lurk in the shady areas, a limbo between two extremes, waiting for styles to change again, teaching basic technique, that “old fashioned” style, trying to inspire, not dictate. One of my students who has gone on to a professional career as a dancer and a scholar, has dubbed the style “ethno-cabaret.” That seems as good a term as any.

Oriental dance is not about muscular gymnastics in tartish Lycra and beads, nor is it about repetitious, aloof monotony in a pretty tableau. It is about soulful artistic interpretation and connection, urging and inviting the observer to bond with the music, moving them to another kind of joining.

IT ISN'T ABOUT YOU, collectively or individually! ATS may have had its roots in some distant village celebration and strives to create a modern tribe. It may be a safer, less disturbing interpretation of what some would call “T & A”, but as my friend would say, “It ain’t Oriental dance!”

Perhaps it isn’t trying to be.

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