Adversaries of Dance: From the Puritans to the Present
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Dance Emotion
Part II
by Najia El Mouzayen
(for Part I, click HERE)

Martha Graham's dance grew from "dance center" in the solar plexus radiating up and down through the spinal column. It was transferred, or projected into space by use of the extremities--the arms and hands, and the legs and feet. It became "dancing from the inside outward". I added into this mix the windows of the soul, the eyes and head, as yet another extremity. I re-invented that which probably had already been invented by others; namely, a way of thinking about projected space specifically for belly dancers. Energy of the dance movement had to be projected into two kinds of space by the antennae of the body--all of its extremities. The first kind of space, as I saw it, was a soft, amorphic space surrounding the body or "personal" space of the dancer. Its nature utilized the "Fascinators" (as I thought of them), the hands and arms in spare air-kneading motions led by a focus, a gaze into the space where the hands were to travel next. This would telegraph the intention of the dancer and direct the audience where to look for the content. This was the basis of the scheme I concocted for setting up the scenario much as the clowns in the circus learn in Clown College to set up their visual jokes.

Bert mentioned in class on a number of occasions back in the early 1970's, that one could do well learning from circus performers, since they were masters of visual audience communication.

The second type of projected space was not the finite space that one could touch, but the infinite space into which one could gesture and gaze. I saw this as stronger and more purposeful when one practiced as if projected space were geometrical and in a "box" shape utilizing straight up and down, forward and back, as well as all diagonals. The energy was to flow from dance center outward into this distant direction with a quick and subtle releasing gesture of the fingertips or toes, focus, or secondarily, by a gesture of the elbows, knees, shoulders, or any manipulatable part of the torso. It wasn't hard to do, and it wasn't difficult to state in imagery for the dance student. Best of all, it seemed to work.

Taking heart from this technique's success, I thought further about emotion. I meditated upon the way in which passions are conveyed to us from others. Watching the breath, life-motion, is so elemental, nevertheless it is over-looked by many Oriental dancers. I studied musical structure fleetingly several times in my youth, and those studies left me with a subliminal understanding of the ebb and flow of music that is emotional in content. The listener becomes aware of loudness and quietude, busyness and sustained notes, and other musical contrasts. When I taught veil dancing, I spoke constantly of the surges and suspensions in the music as "the breath" of the music. I suggested that the dancer could use her veil to enhance its affect by surging and sustaining with it rather than concentrating on the incessant rhythms of the percussion section of the orchestra.

I taught the veil as an extension of the hands and arms and tried to keep the cute "tricks" of veil movement to a minimum.

Because Bert Balladine was teaching veil dance at that time as a series of tableaux, I began to see it as moving sculpture, relating it to my studies in the field of art and art history. In the hands of an amateur performer, the veil can be a tiresome repetition of deadly cute tricks that never, please believe me, saw the light of day in any part of the Middle East. Veil manipulation, too, has to relate to some perceptible meaning.

My most profound discovery in the pursuit of emotional content in dance has been what I think of as "the re-integration of the Dance Center".

This means training the dancer not only to move from the upper torso, but also, to refer to the Dance Center with the hands frequently, but not invariably, when weight changes are made or when some change has occurred in the music. Back in the days when I was first teaching dance, I attended many dance lessons by teachers other than Bert Balladine so that I would have some idea what and how others were being taught belly dance. Over and over again I would hear one instructor after another claim that belly dance was a dance of "body part isolation" or "muscle group isolation". Though that may be true on one level of thought, what generally happened was as follows.The instructor, in her earnest attempt to help the student "break-down and isolate" the movement, never really took the opportunity to re-activate the upper torso into the layered movement, giving emotional depth to the dance. She probably never realized or felt any need to reintegrate the upper torso!

Many of the new dance teachers began their teaching still frozen in the upper torso--just as their teachers before them had taught in Beginning and Intermediate levels in order to reign-in the extraneous movements that yet unaccomplished dance students frequently make.

An extreme example of this phenomenon is the hands and arms constantly waving about in the space above the dancers head, useless to expression, framing, gesture, line, projection, release, or balance--all the things hands and arms must do to complete an idea of emotional content.

Not, long ago those hands and arms were "put in park" position and never re-integrated, never reclaimed! Like a bad rumor, the arms and hands were sent forever skyward, menacing the air, lost as powerful, expressive parts of the human form.

It does not take keen observation to note that the feet and hips are less expressive of emotions than they are carriers of the beat and rhythms contained in the music. Since mobility through space is part of our own folkdance culture, it is more easily accessible and accepted by our dance students than are the exotic torso movements accompanying the strange quarter tones of Arabic and other Middle Eastern music.

We tend to want to make it into a highly motile dance-form, progression from here to there by the weaving together of complex and simple dance steps with the feet, rather than standing in a relatively small space and dancing the music with the entire torso.

Danse Orientale is not learned by collecting steps and step combinations. Yet steps and combinations are overwhelmingly what is taught in whirly-gig dance workshops as round-and-round we go, picking up transitional tricks from this step to that. This is not figure skating, friends. The audience is not going to care, or even notice, that a dancer did a high-stepping Fandango Walking Step with an over-lay of a Soheir Zaki Head Tilt and a really fine cock-of-the-walk Feather Shimmy, followed by a nearly impossible One-foot Leftward Spin Backwards!

"The belly dance uses swirling, stationary movements and forms rather than glides across wide spaces..."
--Roman "Bert" Balladine

The dancer's mission should be choosing what to enhance for the audience in the way that graphic artists choose the essence of color, line, texture, and use of space to bring meaning to the viewer. The instrument is her body and her message is contained in her perception of the music.

Body parts have their own distinctive, sometimes subliminal, use in the portrayal of meaning. The lower torso, legs and feet are used for percussive movement through space, while the upper torso is free to express the emotion of the music through breath-like motion. All upper torso motions are possible and are similar to the hips movements, such as circles, slides, and percussive accents. The hands and arms, may complete line, making gesture, frame, fascinate, and act as antennae to release energy.

This is the basis of the western thought-process I have devised to communicate to western dancers how to extricate their bodies from culturally inculcated lack of mobility of the torso.

This is movement which, in Middle Eastern cultures, has not been denied to their women--perhaps preferring to control them by keeping them hidden under heavy, shapeless, material, covering their faces, sometimes eyes (remember the window to the soul?), behind screened windows, cloistered, covered, and fettered while claiming to honor them.

How then, can it be that Middle Eastern women also dance this sensuous dance? The "honorable, mature women" (Arabic noun: sitt) dance for each other for amusement, while the Raks Sharqui dancers are generally not considered worthy of any more respect than a village whore. That fact is the major obstacle westerners have to face when trying to turn belly dance into an academic, respectable pursuit. Western Oriental dancers need to remember that an Arab will usually go out of his way to tell you, the dancer, what you want to hear as that is his understanding of common courtesy. He will tell you that belly dance is a beautiful art form. However, out of earshot he will say your husband doesn't care about you because your husband allows you to dance, that nobody would want to marry a dancer if he had any self-respect, and that all dancers and westerners are morally corrupt. Now, go, and be spiritual with our dance discovery of this century--Raks Orientale!

Reference Sources:

  • "The Arab Mind", Raphael Patai, Charles Scribner's Sons, New York, 1976, 376 p.
  • "The Secrets of Belly Dancing", Roman "Bert" Balladine and Sula, Celestial Arts Publishing, Millbrae, California, 1962, 96 p.
  • "Martha, The Life and Work of Martha Graham", Agnes de Mille, Vintage Books--a Division of Random House, Ind., New York, 1992, 567 p.
  • "The Dance Notebook, an illustrated Journal with Quotes", Running Press, 1984.
  • "How to be a Belly Dancer," Troy Garrison, PAGEANT Magazine, Vol. 29, No. 4, Oct. 1973, pages 66-73.

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