First of all, my definition of Arabic Dance has all to do with Soul and Heart. I see it as a liberation of the body and of the soul and a precious tool to comunicate my deepest feelings, thoughts and sensations.
I was lucky to have learnt from the best teachers in the world but, as important as the teachers or even more important than them was the conviction that this was “MY” dance, that was already inside of me and my teachers only woke it up and made me remember something I already knew in my heart, in my soul and in my body.
As I grew as a dancer, I realized this was a great way to unite people through common life experiences and feelings that we can express through dance and this emotional comunication has always been the key of all my work in Oriental/Arabic Dance.
Oriental Dance has many designations and different definitions, depending on the perspective you explore.
Belly dance, Dance of the East, “Raks il Sharki” (the arabic term for “Dance of the East”) are different terms for the same ancient art form North Africa, having nothing to do with the Extreme Orient Dances (China, Japan,etc).
In further detail, the Oriental Dance we know in the West can be seen in different oriental countries such as Egypt, Turkey, Morocco, Lebanon, Syria and many other countries but the main historic sources let us believe that what we know nowadays by Oriental Dance was born in Egypt from ancient fertility cults dedicated to the GREAT MOTHER, the feminine deity, the Mother Earth!
Women were the human representation of this GODDESS, the creator and the destroier of life and only women took place at these ancient rituals where music and dance played a vital role as an exquisite way to comunicate directly with the SPIRIT of the MOTHER EARTH.
Since human beings started to develop their brains, they always used dance rituals as a way to free themselves from bad energies, tension, strong emotions and the inner need to unite the human soul with its divine origin.
We can find references to what may have been the origins of Oriental Dance before the 1st pharaonic dinasty, more than 5000 years B.C. and all the clues indicate that this dance was centered on the power – both physical and spiritual – women have to give life, litteraly speaking. The first movements that might have arose from this misterious dance may have developed from the mimic of birth moves and the contractions women do while pushing the new born baby out to life!
The first purpose of Oriental Dance was to re-unite human beings with their divine origin and that was made through dance and music! Women were seen as the human incarnation of the GREAT MOTHER power and their bodies were venered as precious vessels of the Goddess power to create and destroy life.
The fertiliy cults that women developed between themselves – to honour the Goddess and achieve fertility in their own bodies and crops – have some famous representations in statuettes that were found with abundant bellies, breasts and hips as a sign of fertility and prosperity.
The round shapes in women ´s bodies are still part of beauty concepts in the Middle East and many parts of Africa, traces of this ancient cults to fertility.
From these ancient times until our current days, Oriental dance as suffered several alterations to its original purpose and technique but its soul quality was never completely lost, although commercial interests, imagination and fantasies have altered this dance old knowledge and its immense beauty that comes from within.
Music and dance have had a strong presence in all pharaonic dinasties alterning from religious purposes to pure entertainment mixed with poetry, mimic and acrobatic coreographies.
Although Oriental Dance lost most of its initial religious goal, it has developed from these old times to the harems, the streets and parties all over Middle East and North Africa in some important periods that have shaped the dance we know today mixing its divine allure with the entertainmnt factor that became more proeminent with the passing of the centuries.
Gipsies have been called responsible for the spread of Oriental Dance since pharaonic times and we probably can find Oriental Dance in so many countries today thanks to their endeless journeys and treaps with no destination…
We suppose these same gipsies gathered influences from the different local dances and music of all the countries they passed by , turning Oriental Dance into a fusion dance where we can identify african, egyptian, persian and mediterranean elements mixed all together into an expressive dance suitable to express a wide range of moods, thoughts and feelings.
After the references we have from the use ancient egyptians may have done of this dance, we have the harems and all the phantasies westerners have created from what they imagined these secret places might have been.
The Oriental Dance we come to know nowadays is strongly influenced by the period of the harems prosperity that lasted, at least, until the beginning of the 20th century with several references of the first european travellers to the Middle East and North Africa.
Women from different countries gathered and lived most or all their lives together in these harems that were secluded parts of big sultan´s palaces where oly women and servants (usually eunuchs, usually african slaves that were castrated in order not to fall in temptation with their contact with the secluded women).
Harem/Haram is a word that has different meanings but all of them relate to something forbidden, hidden, apart and secret and that was all these house compartiments were, isolating women from the outside world and offering them, at the same time, the chance to exchange music and dance knowledge from their originary countries!
Oriental Dance has been enriched by this exchanging of cultures and we can still find – in Egypt, for instance – dancers that came from famous entertainment troupes of that time such as the egyptian dancers “gawazy” that were known for their “free ways” of presenting themselves in public – streets, public parties and events – and to foreigners, combining dance with prostitution for which they gained bad fame until our current times.
We also still find elements from the erudite performers called “Almeh´s” in Egypt and, as opposed to the gawazy dancers, we know that these troupes were organized and had a leader called “ustaza”, an older performer who taught and organized the performers to present themselves only in harems and private parties for women, never allowing themselves to be seen by men and foreigners. This class of performers knew music (they plaied musical instruments), dance and poetry and had a high education level that contributed to their respectful fame.
Oriental Dance developed in different countries of the Middle East and North Africa but no other country has praised, developed and lived this ancient dance as Egypt.
Until today, Egypt is the mother of Oriental Dance and it was in this country that this dance developed most in artistic and entertainment levels having the most famous dancers in the world known for their charisma, dance expertise, talent and ability to captivate audiences from all over the world that came to Cairo to watch them.
Dancers like Naima Akef, Tahia Carioca and Samia Gamal (from the thirties and forties of the 20th century) made famous appearances in the nightclub scene in Cairo and in cinema turning Oriental Dance into a public phenomenon full of “glamour” and artistic value, elements that we couldn´t find before them associated to arabic dance.
These dancers also responded to the entertainment factory demands by adding new technical elements to the dance turning it into a more suitable, dinamic and interesting dance form for the stage and the cinema audiences and the most noticeable changes can be identified in the ballet movements they added to the dance (specially Samia Gamal who also received training from a russian ballet teacher hired to develop her “arm work” that was very poor).
After these cinema divas, we can find several famous dancers that contributed to the Oriental Dance promotion in Egypt and in the world. Dancers like Souhair Zaki, Mona El Saied, Fifi Abdou, Nagwa Fouad, Nadia Hamdi, Zizi Moustafa, Nelly, Lucy and many others have recreated Oriental Dance, adding their own movements and talent to it and contributing to the dance art form we find today all over the world.
The youngest generation doesn´t count with many famous figures as dance is passing hard times in the Middle East thanks to may factors (social, political, economical and religious factors) but we can talk about Dina – the most popular dancer in Egypt, although not much appreciated by her dance but by her scandals, daring dance dresses and cinema appearances in popular roles – and Randa Kamel, an excellent dancer that can be seen in several nightclubs, hotels and weddings as well as a few foreigners that, like me, have developed or are developing carreers in the challenging, difficult world of Cairo night life. Asmahan – from Argentina – Souraya – from Brasil and Nour – from Russia are the names most dancers know and the ones that have worked in Egypt for a longer period of time.
Oriental Dance has lost most of its magic and has turned into an entertainment form that gathers contradictory points of view. Although egyptians can ´t live without arabic dance and music – being part of their daily lives at their homes, weddings and all kinds of celebrations and daily activities – they also have a negative regard towards the dancers that perform it professionally, in public! Promiscuity , corruption and prostitution are related with professional dancers until today and these artists suffer – some fairly and some unfairly – from segregation and disrespect due to their job and the bad qualities that are associated with it.
In a society where the female body has been more and more hidden (thanks to the extremist religious parties present in the government), dancers are seen almost as “streap teasers” who expose their bodies – not necessarily their art! – in public in exchange for money.
This environment turns the dance work more and more difficult and that´s why many of the real artists are choosing to quit working in dance, marry, have a family (a supposed “respectful” life) instead of performing in a society that sees them as disrespectful human beings, never being recognized by their art. I suffer from this current phenomenon and only one that lives it can evaluate how hard it is to keep on inspired and centered in her art, despite the agressive and ignorant environment.
Although this dance is living hard times in the arabic countries, it´s enjoying a great popularity all over the world and a proof ot that phenomenon is the thousand of dancers and students that travel to Egypt every year to participate in the Dance Festivals that occur around here.
As a professional dancer and an actual performer in Cairo, I can only do my best at my work – when I´m teaching and performing or simply talking about my love for this dance – to contribute to the better conditions of artist in Egypt an all over the world, hoping that this marvellous dance will be respected and appreciated as it deserves as soon as posible.
That´s the all point of my work in Egypt and in the world.
What´s Oriental Dance?
To define Oriental Dance is a difficult and , I think, unglorious task. Many things have been written about it and its history has been more or less efectively traced by different authors but, in fact, we have more doubts about its origin than certainties.
Besides the historical facts that define the development of this ancient dance through centuries – and thousands of years- there is the definition of what it really is, in the past as today.
Is it a form of art? A form of entertainment? An exotic and superficial way egyptians found to entertain and capture the attention of foreigners visiting the Middle East? A way of connection with God and finding oneselves through music and dance? A way to celebrate life and its joyous times? A little bit of all this or none of this definitions?
I remember that my idea and definition of this dance was , somehow, simple and pure when I first met with this art. I also know my own definition has changed with time as I grew from a simple student – like thousands all over the world – to be number one dancer in my own country and from Portugal to Egypt where I currently perform and work full time.
From that pure vision I had as a student when Oriental Dance was “only” my way of connecting with myself , relax and be in peace with me and the world to the actual moment, so many changes have happened and so my perspective has also changed not drastically but significantly.
I see myself nowadays feeling Oriental Dance as a demanding form of art and entertainment as I perform in the Mecca of this art and the market and it´s competition machine ask me for more and more and more…I´ve searched for different formulas and tried different audiences, western and arabic ones and the complexity of the theme grows each day while my “for sure facts” vanish and evapore in the complex air of Egypt and its performing circuit where I´m working in.
From the beginning until now, there are some notions that confirm themselves as I see Oriental Dance is , in fact, a very human, pure, organic and universal form of communication resting inside of every human being in this planet. This I know for sure.
But I also know now that it is part of an entertainment system with complexities and a difficult past that still lives until today in arabic countries.
Oriental Dance is , besides an art form, a very popular form of entertainment in arabic countries and a growing fashion in the world, building up and growing every year to the benefit of so many persons that enjoy its incredible gifts.
We already mentioned the Art form, the Entertainment form but there´s still that wonderful, mysterious richness inside of Arabic Dance that allows us to be ourselves, enjoy our bodies , personality and soul. This was the first thing that attracted me into Oriental Dance: the way it made me feel about myself and the world around me. It´s a therapeutical kind of dance and its benefits go far beyond the physical ones, it´s much more than that…you simply rediscover your body and the natural pleasure and joy of being in it, feeling it and expressing all your joys, anger, happiness, sadness and in-betweens through the music.
*/(a brief appointment of how things happened until today…)/*
As I previously mentioned, the origins of Oriental Dance are uncertain and impossible to declare with all certainty and facts because it´s too remote and the serious research already made about it is not clear enough, giving origin to different theories.
What seems to be more accurate is that Oriental Dance – refering to the Middle East Dance – was created as a way to communicate with God. There are registers of Oriental Dance being created from ancient fertility rituals performed by women in a time when society lived by a Matriarchal Divine worship. Women were seen as the personification of God and their fertile bodies as the materialization of the Divine power to give life and take it back (the phenomenon of giving birth and death).
Women joined together and must have created a simple, organic movement system consisting of some mimic of the giving birth process and perform them in a way that allow them to release themselves from their “just human” side and be part of the “Great Mother” power, the Divine Feminine Power that regulated Nature and its phenomenons, the tides, the moon phases and women´s natural rhythms of the body (menstruation cycles , fertile age and menopause age, etc). They would celebrate the crops, the births in the community and other natural significant events by dancing to the Goddess within themselves and that seems to be the point from where Oriental Dance was born.
Babylon and its famous culture must have been the birth place of Oriental Dance and it has developed from these rituals of communication with the Divine to a more or less spiritual form of entertainment in the pharaonic times. Here you can find scenes of dancing with drums, flutes and other kind of instruments in an environment that became not purely religious but entertainment focused too.
Although it was a very appreciated form of entertainment, Oriental Dance was misunderstood from the very beginning and the original context from which it was born got lost in between so many centuries and changes that it faced.
Since its origins, Oriental Dance has been used to join both human and divine spheres together in an Unique BEING but it has developed from its restricted rituals scenarios to the public eye, responding to this new demanding of an audience that had to be entertained.
Its history also counts on the Egyptian dancers of the 19^th century ahead that spread the dance all over the Arabic world and even Europe, leaving clear influences in some of the most significant European dances (like the Flamenco of Spain, for instance).
When foreigners start to visit Egypt and another East countries, they find the answear to all the fantasies they carried about this mysterious part of the world. They dreamt of mischievous and luxury concubines available at every corner, fatally seducing poor men who had no power toward their magical charms and their seductive dance.
In this time, we could find in Egypt the famous “Gawazy” (gipsy street dancers not respected by the locals or foreigners but, by far, the most famous performers of their time) and the “Almehs” (educated artists, often cultured and dominating music, instrument playing, poetry, literature, dancing) who only performed inside of harems where an exclusive feminine audience could be found.
Foreigners dreamt about a world of harems (and they DID exist but not in the terms they had imagined) full of odalisques laying down on rich Persian carpets, smoking their water pipes and dancing to men as a way of seducing them and oriental dancers came to answear them in the language they they wished to be talked to: seduction.
So Oriental Dance started to be connected with seducing methods and its movements and richness reduced to a series of mechanisms to grab men´s attention and sexual desire and make money out of touristic less than professional presentations.
Then the first World Exposition came in 1881 in Chicago (United States of America) and Oriental Dance was presented to the West through this big event, confirming the image foreigners already had about Oriental Dance as a seduction, exotic and simplistic dance form serving men´s fantasies and desires.
In the 20^th century, a big turn took place in Egypt with the cinema advent and the rising stars of Tahya Karioca, Samia Gamal, Naima Akef and many other names who took Oriental Dance to the big screens (still in a simplistic way and almost always playing the role of the seductive, low level dancer who destroys homes and respectful marriages with her shameful job, tempting men and leading them to disgrace!).
A dance who was seen only in the streets, at first, at private parties and in the night club circuit later was presented with a glamour coverage on the Egyptian cinema screens and the status of the dancers was considerably raised from that moment on.
From this period of flourishing in the oriental dance scene until now, we´ve seen many changes in the Oriental Dance history and the last generation of big Egyptian dancers is ending (with the Egyptian dancer Lucy), in my opinion.
Dancers like Souhair Zaki (that I was privileged to see dancing live in a festival), Mona El Said, Fifi Abdou, Nagwa Fouad, Lucy and so many other brilliant performers as well as the great musicians that joined them in their work seem to have vanished and left a hole in the Cairo dance scene that was not fulfilled until now.
As a dancer performing in Cairo, I have contact with Egyptian dancers of my generation and older ones that are on top right now (like Dina, Randa Kamel, to mention the two most important names in the scene) and I can say with all the property and certainty that this dance seems to be dying in Egypt at the same pace that is growing throughout the world.
Even dancers like Dina and Randa Kamel who perform in Egypt for about 15-20 years and enjoy now the most successful times of their career are benefiting of this world craze mood for Oriental Dance and, as dancers of the world, we thank God for it.
From the foreigners dancing in Egypt, I can only mention two names: Asmahan and Soraya (argentinian and brazilian , respectively). Asmahan is performing in Cairo for about 20 years and Soraya is doing it at least for ten years, as much as I know and both are examples of professionalism and admirable for the stamina, strength and intelligence needed to survive and build a career in the Meca of Oriental Dance, Cairo.
As a dancer performing in Cairo, I know by myself the hardships of building a name in Cairo (if you want to do it honestly and not through prostitution as it usually happens and it´s commonly accepted) and I owe my biggest respect to Asmahan who has never stopped to create and reinvent herself and her work. I don´t consider her the best dancer but the most professional, hard working performer in Cairo for a long time, always trying to innovate and do better, different things despite the lack of respect and appreciation we, as oriental dancers, have to face in Egypt.
I´m part of history of this dance and I´m very proud to be performing in Cairo so I can only hope history will prove me wrong and I can contribute – with another gifted, honest artists – for the reborn of the Egyptian respect for their own music and dance.