The Gilded Serpent

The Gilded Serpent presents...
Dancing Inside Out
By Najia El-Mouzayen
September 17, 2003

"What will be the title of your workshop this year? asked the sponsor of the festival. "I'd like to put it on the flyer advertising our festival." 

"Ummm. Call it Restoring Sensuality to Oriental Dance," I proposed confidently. It wasn't until a few weeks later, when I began to make up my lesson plan, that I realized the size of the impossible task I had laid out for my little workshop. 

The state of Oriental Dance in America, as it is most often seen today in festivals and restaurants, is at a crossroads of change from which there will be no way to return. 

At the base of my mourning for the loss of sensual dancing is the absolute futility of trying to glean any enjoyment out of the slightly gymnastic, oddly disquieting incessant jiggling, and unpleasant over-sized accenting of already obviously accented music.

I am additionally alarmed by the lack of coherent imagery produced by the Oriental dancers who are undeniably beautiful, yet frenetically driven.

It is so sad to work with students who, before all else, "admire a good workout".  Do you want a challenging workout?  Go to Sweats or Curves gym!  Swim the English Channel.  Enter your dog team in the Iditarod!

For all our sakes, try not to impose your need for sweat-laden bodywork upon the softly impassioned quartertones of Arabic Music (or Greek and Turkish music either, for that matter). 

The types of movements to which I refer are most often shown as the longest, strongest, weirdest shimmies West of the Pecos River, irrelevant muscle twitching, and non-stop running about the stage or the room as if your dance were too small to fill the space in any other way.  If audiences wanted to see feats of body strength, they would be much happier attending the beautiful Cirque de Soleil than to endure the after hours gyrations of the checker at their local Wal-Mart, their dental hygienist, or the executive from the front office at XXX Inc. 

Yes! What I am trying to tell you is that nobody really wants to see you spin 55 times without upchucking your Spanakopita or Babaganoosh.

People come to see dance most often as music translated by movement, not just made visual by it, and to enjoy the character the dancer creates in her little drama set into the music by the composer.

So much old-style Middle Eastern music is sensual violins, shimmering kanoon, and the mellow lilt of the fretless Oud! Yet, as Westerners, we sometimes think that bigger is better, and louder is more effective, and that more jewelry, beads, and sequins enhance the dance.  Sometimes I wonder if it isn't the belt and bra the audience is supposed to watch, rather than the dancer, just because the costume and store-bought hair is so heavy and over-blown. Don't pretend you haven't noticed a few "costumes that dance by themselves" at some local festivals lately! 

While I am whining about over-blown, and bigger is not better, I would also like to call your attention to the damage being perpetrated upon Middle Eastern music by shoddy and insensitive re-mix jobs that bloat the drum and percussion section beyond my tolerance.  I started to demonstrate what was wrong with the disco type remixes of music recently at a workshop I was teaching but had to back away from my theme because my students had "fallen in love with the music" and demanded to know what was the CD title so they could buy it! Old Rule Number One: You cannot teach those who are not yet ready to hear.  First, I would have to set up a longer, slower, better teaching path for my students.

One way to begin is by attempting to define: What is "sensual" and what is "sensuality" as it relates to dance?  At first, I thought I could look at MTV and some recent rock concerts for some clues to what is wrong.  Though I did not find the easy fodder that I expected, I did come to the realization that these performers are sensual in their presentations and that the concerts are full to the brim with modern sensuality.  If you define sensual as something that fills and explores the five human senses of hearing, seeing, touching, tasting and smelling, you can see that the sheer showmanship of suggestive sexual movement, colorful surroundings filled with smokers, foggers, lights, objects de explosives, and such can cause one to imagine while watching that one is actually experiencing something of importance

I thought back to my early career employment in places that emanated loud, loud, music (usually Greek).  The decibels were enough to rattle your ribcage and render you deaf!  Did that make it more sensual?  "No, no," I hoped.  I watched as dancers spun and their sweat (yes, drops of sweat not dewy moisture) flew onto people's plates of food.  Surely that was not the "sensuality" that I was hoping to "restore" in my workshop lesson!  I have not recently smelled the pungent reek of Marijuana, Patchouli, and Jasmine oil nor heard the rustle of heavy brocades and silks that used to accompany many dancers onto stage.  No, I decided, I am not longing for the sixties to return in order that sensuality be restored.

However, there is some quality missing today that made all the Patchouli, and the loud music worth my attention back then.  Not all the dancers had "It" but those that did were magical! I believe that the missing factor lies within the soft subtle movements of the upper torso as it powers and gives heartfelt emotion to the more obvious and pervasively harsh hip movements most often featured by dancers today. 

Rather than placing emphasis on the torturously precise hip movements taught by so many western Oriental dance teachers, we need to look once more at the soft and graceful movements of Samia Gamal and even her counterpart, the more clunky, yet boisterous and beautiful young Tahia Karioca as they danced in the numerous black and white movies made for Egyptian audiences.  (I would suggest that you invest in the Hossam Ramzy series of movie dances called "The Stars of Egypt".) 

By watching carefully, you can see that:

  • The dancer enhances and highlights the music; she does not actually attempt to portray it or mime the lyrics.
  • The dancer's role is most often second banana to the singer or lead musician.
  • The dancers do not run about the stage hither and thither, but stay near the singer, the musician or the person for whom they are performing.
  • The dancers' upper torsos are not frozen while their hips, in some unbelievable feat of isolation, dance alone.
  • The dancers' faces are expressively mobile and not grimaced into a stage smile.
  • (.and number one of my top six favorite dance observations) The dancer dances from the inside out, with the movements beginning in her solar plexus and moving upward downward then outward through her extremities, her eyes, and her fingertips. Movements do not begin below the waist and remain in isolation, as some dancers have been led to believe.  Dancing from the inside outward is what gives the dance emotion, and emotion is what leads one into sensuous movement.

So that is what I finally taught at my most recent workshop: Dancing from the Inside Out.

Photos on this page were taken August 30th, 2003 at the San Leandro festival. For more photos from this event see
2nd Annual San Leandro Festival produced by Tatseena, photos by GS staff

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