The following is a reply of mine to a topic that came up on our Yahoo group that interested me. Someone posed the question asking what exactly are authentic Middle Eastern dance moves, and what are not. It very quickly escalated into a very heated discussion, and thought I’d chime in with my two cents. Here is my contribution….
I find this topic very intriguing. I have spent a lot of time watching and observing the differences in styles and technique throughout my years of being around this artform, including my time in Egypt. Since I’m into Egyptian style mostly, I’ll talk mostly to that.
I saw a program recently on Al Jazeera where they were showing excerpts from many old movies. There was one in particular I saw from the 1950’s or ‘60’s, and though I don’t know its name, I saw a young Zohair Zaki dancing with her band. Zohair Zaki is considered by many to be one of the most authentic dancers in Egyptian Raks Sharki history. What I realized by watching her, is that here in the West we tend to take Middle Eastern dance and interpret it with a lot more drama, making it much more complicated than it ever was. We (myself included) add so many elements of our own that we can sometimes loose some of the authenticity, and turn it into something new. I was blown away in realizing how simple Zohair Zaki kept her moves. She had such solid technique, such a good feel for music. You could clearly see she was dancing with her heart and she was not concerned with being overly dramatic or with trying too hard. Needless to say her hip locks were amazing! Her dancing seemed effortless, and even though she could be repetitive, she was facinating and so enjoyable to watch.
I was also blown away by the contact you could see between the dancer and the band. The musicians constantly watched the dancer and kept their eyes towards her at all times. You could see how their eyes would meet and clear communication happened easily with no words. Her dance was simple, but with amazing control and a beautiful earthiness. She would not do any fancy movements with her arms or hands, but the energy and the grace in them were so powerful. I also noticed that she undulated and did camels with her lower body only.
I can honestly say I have never witnessed such simplicity, such control and elegance, such intricate yet simply executed moves done by a western performer anywhere.
So, what makes a dancer authentic?
In my humble opinion, if I may.. if you want to lean towards an authentic style, dance with a live band. Rehearsing is ok, but no choreographing! Too much Ballet training can also ruin the authenticity and earthiness. Remember, Ballet started developing in the 16th century in the court of Louis 14th. That’s what, a couple of hundred years ago? Raks Sharki started developing 5000 years ago. Hello, what do they have to do with each other??
Listen to Middle-Eastern music (whichever is your favorite style) in your home, in your car; live and breath it, absorb it and let it soak into you. Learn as much as you can of the language, as even a basic knowledge can make a huge difference. Once you get familiar with the music and you know the songs, it will be much easier to dance to a live band.
Let your mood take you, and dance with it, because tomorrow you’ll feel differently. You may win the jackpot, you may lose a friend, or the hormones may kick into high gear, but whatever the case, you’ll dance differently. Personally speaking, this is why solo choreographies do not work for me. So don’t be afraid to feel what you feel TODAY and convey it through your body NOW to your audiences. I definitely feel that if I had to dance choreographed numbers night after night as they do in production shows, it could probably kill my creativity, my spontaneity, and my artistic soul.
Always work on your technique. You should be doing basic moves for a warm-up even if you have danced for 20 years. But then again, it goes without saying, no matter how strong your technique is, if you don’t put your heart and soul into your performance, your time spent on technique will be a waste of time. But if you enjoy what you do, your audience can sense it, and your little “technical problems” will be forgiven or perhaps not even noticed.
Learn to play zills. Watch as many movies and videos as you can, and learn from them. Learn what you should do, but also what you shouldn’t do. I know there are many that will disagree with me, but I always advise don’t compete! Don’t ever think “Oh, I have to dance better than the dancer before or after me”. If you dance with the intention of needing to be better than others, you’ll kill your uniqueness. You’ll be dancing for a trophy, rather than for your own heart’s enjoyment and fullfillment. Be yourself, think beautiful thoughts about yourself, and don’t ever compare yourself with anybody else. If you feel this way about yourself, that’s what be projected and what your audience will see. If you think “Oh, I probably suck, oh God, I screwed this step up so bad....” then that’s what an audience is going to see in you. It is that simple!
Improvisation is definitely my favorite style. I never say no to dancing with a live band, and I never get so high as with a live band. There is just something about the freedom of improvisation, the music can take me to the point that I want to cry. I let go of all my worries and let myself be trasported to another world. But I never get this same feeling when I dance to choreography.
I could go on and on. Please keep in mind, this is all simply my opinion, based on my knowledge, my dedication to and my experience with this beautiful art we share.
In this forum discussion, Aradia, who is one of the Las Vegas' most experienced and well-known dancers, also shared with us her thoughts on what she sees as authentic moves:
"Belly Rolls and flutters are American, and based on the Arabic undulation; we just use more abs and isolate. However in the 60's the Turkish dancers started using our version of the undulation, but the Arabic dancers never picked it up.
I would say that some "authentic" moves in Middle Eastern dance are:
Figure eights - both horizontal and vertical.
Undulations - lower body only. If the torso is included, it's more American.
Hip circles, big ones as well as what people call Omi's. Even though the
Polynesian dancers use this, it is still very Arabic.
The shimmy, knee shimmy, hip shimmy, and twisting shimmy is more Tunisian, but the
Oriental dancers do use it as well.
The shoulder shimmy, chest lifts and drops only, ribcage circles are American."
I also added hip locks to this list.
Now, all that said, the other side of this is that I also think American bellydance is revolutionary. I’m continually amazed at the quality and levels of creativity it has reached in this country. We now have Tribal Fusion, Urban, Gothic Tribal, you name it. Now and then I love to add a little fusion style, something jazzy, some humor, and sometimes even shocking or surprising elements into my choreographed pieces. I take Ballet and Yoga lessons on a regular basis to improve my body language, get stronger and better with turns, get better as a teacher, and to just keep the body “on fire”. I love it all, and as much as I value the authenticity, I also love the era of fusions we live in, with cultures melting together. There are reasons for everything. America has made history in Bellydance, and its numerous variations will be learned, taught and made into something else 5000 years from now.
Let’s just hope they remember the roots.
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“Dance Your Belly” 2-hour workshop for beginners.
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I would like to share some thoughts on the Middle Eastern Dance (the dance) with you. In May of 2004, you first introduced the dance to me at the Las Vegas Athletic Club (LVAC). I was a beginner, over fifty, and had been experiencing some low back pain after I competed in rodeo (barrel racing).
I loved the dance and the way you teach because you make sure everyone gets the basics. I then began taking lessons from Yolanda, at the other LVAC and from Donna at UNLV for two semesters. I have improved a little in the dance but the side effects have been extremely beneficial. Since last year, with the dance, yoga, and one chiropractic visit, I now have no back pain. Also, I believe the dance has taught me much about balance and grace. It has improved my riding so that I was able to win the American West Nevada State Barrel Racing Championship for the senior class. (The saddle is in my office.) I am currently the average winner in the Las Vegas Beauty and the Beast Series Rodeo.
Thank you for sharing this wonderful art with me.
- Lauren Dean
Director, Communication Services
University of Nevada, Las Vegas
I want to tell you how much I enjoyed your teaching workshop. I've been dabbling in belly dance for about a year, but still consider myself very much a beginner. Not only did I learn more in your class than some I have attended, but your sweet spirit and love for women and dance made all us beginners feel beautiful and graceful! I would not want to miss any opportunity to take a class from you in the future.
Also, my sister came for her very first class that day, and although you taught us so much in 2 hours, she said she didn't want the class to end! (Maybe we've hooked her!)
Please keep me on your email list, and I wish you all the luck and happiness in the world!
- Tracey McCullough
First of all let me thank you so much for all your hard work, your enthusiasm and a strong desire you possess to help ordinary women (like me) discover this mysterious and beautiful dance!
I am a beginner to a bellydance. Ever since I remember myself I always wanted to learn it, but never had a chance. Right now at the age 24, when I started taking bellydance classes, I surely had doubts about being able to "reproduce” all those moves. With you I learned that there's no prerequisites to start other than desire.
Besides that you are a beautiful dancer and a wonderful teacher, you have a great personality: u r a very warm and friendly person. During your workshop or classes you make everybody feel comfortable and confident about themselves. You are also very inspiring! I think so much more about myself now and the capabilities of my body.
I wish you good luck with your DVD and looking forward for new workshops!
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