About New vs Traditional Raqs Sharqi

A recent post from a passionate artist in France, Sandra Danse, received a groundswell of response in agreement with her sentiments concerning the direction of Raqs Sharqi these days. Of course I agree with the sentiment also. In particular to her questions “where is your soul, where is your emotions, where is the dialogue of your body?”.  This is a very difficult and confusing topic to try to navigate. Indeed the spirit of the art is getting lost and trodden upon because of focus on steps and costumes which then creates yet another clone of choreographic style. Why and what to do about it is a vast subject concerning so many factors but I will try to express one of my views of relating to the soul, emotions and dialogue.

There has been a quiet murmur from those that some may label as “traditionalists” alarming a bell long before My Space, let alone Facebook. To a certain extent, I was one of them. As an example, I have always made it clear that I feel the competition (and red carpet) culture does not belong in this art form and will destroy its spirit, if it has not done so already. My first scare about the future of our art was after attending a performance of BDSS with all due respect to its artists with very good intentions. On one hand I was happy that this dance company was perhaps going to break new ground and turn the world (finally) onto the dance form I loved. On the other hand, what exactly were they presenting? Because for me at least, it did not resemble the spirit of the Raqs Sharqi I had come to know and love.

Before you get too pissed off at me, let me explain a couple of things…

First, I am a big supporter of experimentation and fusion and feel it can co-exist with “tradition”. The one we often call our god of Raqs Sharqi, the beloved Mahmoud Reda, was a genius innovator and fusion artist and he will be the first one to tell you that. Although he is too humble to refer to himself as a genius. He studied the steps, music, wardrobe, and daily culture of native people in different areas of Egypt as well as the meaning of all these factors in their dance arts. He spent time with the different cultures and peoples of Egypt trying to understand why their customs came to be and more importantly how they felt about them.

He then wanted to let the rest of Egypt and in fact the rest of the world experience what he saw and more importantly felt. A proscenium theatre seemed the best venue to offer this gift of experience. In order to do that, he used the medium of European and balletic sensibilities that were part of his mode of expression. It worked, and started a revolution in Egyptian dance art. Today, some call what he created a large part of “traditional” Raqs Sharqi. It worked because he was loyal to the spirit and emotions of the peoples he was trying to represent through his artistic vision.

When I sit with an audience of foreign (non-Arab) Bellydancers watching other Bellydancers, there is invariably applause when a hip shimmie, deep back bend, drop to the floor or the like is performed. When I sit in an Arab audience watching a Bellydancer, this never happens. In fact, I have never witnessed an Arab audience member applaud for any single step or physical movement. Instead, the response seems to be more about the overall artistic interpretation of the music of a particular section or in whole.

I started learning and performing this art form with only Arab audiences and only in the context of improvisation to live music. I had no idea there was a strong foreign community of non-Arab Bellydancers with festivals, workshops and performances to pre-recorded music until much later. I learned more from observing and internalizing the reactions of Arab audiences to Bellydancers than I did from watching the actual dancer. I wondered what rocked their world? This world that was full of an emotional drug I wanted to be on. It had nothing to do with steps. It had all to do with how the dancer made them feel.

How to describe or put that feeling into words eludes me (or is another blog one day), but I know it has to do with honesty.  Farida Fahmy asks the question “what are you telling your audience when you dance? Are you saying look at how pretty or sexy I am or look at my technique?”. She says Arabs are not interested in either. Suffice to say, that perhaps we need to look/feel beyond costumes and steps in order to appreciate and respect the richness of this art form. By doing this, hopefully its true spirit can live on.

Baby dancer Yasmina Ramzy circa 1984