A dancer in search of Tarab

This post is part book review, part essay, and part personal reflection.

This week, I finished reading the excellent “Making Music in the Arab World: The Culture and Artistry of Tarab” by A.J. Racy. This book has been on my ‘to read’ list for a long time, and I was finally spurred on to buy myself a copy by a discussion with one of my close friends on what makes singing emotionally moving, or makes it inspire a state we might describe as tarab.

Tarab (طرب) is a concept that has no exact translation in English, but which describes a state of enchantment, rapture or ‘musical ecstasy’, inspired by certain musical performances. Many bellydancers are aware of this concept, and many talk about achieving a state of tarab during performance, but I suspect that few (myself included) fully understand it. I have been deeply interested in the experience of tarab since first learning of it some years ago – I have always been fascinated by and drawn to ‘mystical’ experiences and other states of consciousness, a personality trait which I am told is common in dancers, although it doesn’t always sit comfortably with my own rationalist worldview.

Reading “Making Music in the Arab World”, I had several “Aha!” moments regarding the nature of tarab, and why certain music makes me ‘melt’ whilst other recordings leave me unmoved. But I was also left with the feeling that I was barely scratching the surface of an incredibly complex and nuanced musical world.

Eek, Maqamat!

Although I have a good working knowledge of Arabic rhythms (which I now know are called iqa’at (ايقاعات)), as is essential for a good dancer, I have only the faintest passing acquaintance with the Arabic modes, or maqamat (مقامات). This isn’t a problem as a dancer, per se (in fact, one teacher for whom I have a great deal of respect, and who shall remain nameless, once poked fun at me for over-analysing when I asked a question about maqamat in class).

Understanding maqamat would be unlikely to make any material difference to my dancing. But I now believe that not understanding them limits the level at which I am able to appreciate or enjoy classical Arabic music at the moment – and the more deeply I can feel and connect with music, the more that my dance is able to ‘flow’ without conscious input. Plus, dance aside, I would like to experience this music as fully as I’m able to, purely for my own enjoyment.

Oud (image credit: Wikipedia)

Oud (image credit: Wikipedia)

Racy explains that for both musicians and tarab listeners, a deeply internalised familiarity with the maqamat means that each maqam has its own feeling or ‘colour’, and its own distinct ability to create a feeling of tarab, or in the case of musicians, saltanah (سلطانه), which is a state of musical inspiration described by Racy as ‘modal ecstasy’, and which seems similar to what we might describe as a flow state. An educated listener (i.e. not me, at present…) can appreciate when a maqam is explored by the musician in a satisfying or clever way, when an unexpected note or phrase is used, or when the musician successfully modulates to another maqam – and can apparently thus derive great enjoyment and tarab from a good taqsim (solo improvisation).

In this area, I feel like I’m missing out on a lot. As it happens, I recently decided that my new challenge for this year was going to be to learn to play the oud (Arabic lute), since for a long time I played classical guitar, and I miss being able to create music as well as dancing to it. So now, my determination to do so is doubled, as I now see that learning to play and recognise maqamat will have many benefits for me, even if I never become a good, or even competent, oud player.

So what *is* tarab anyway? And how do we get there?

Well, as I said to begin with, I still don’t think that I fully understand what tarab is, and I doubt that I ever will – but here are some of the ideas from the book, on the characteristics of tarab and tarab music, that most stuck me, and resonated with my own listening experiences:

  • Conflicting emotions, such as love and separation, joy and sorrow, are brought together into a ‘bittersweet’ emotional state.
  • A stylised lyrical theme of love and longing is both something that most people can identify with, which creates the intense conflicting emotions described above, and a metaphor for a love of the music itself.
  • Musical looseness of timing (i.e. not rigidly following the underlying rhythm), especially on the part of the singer (who can choose to stretch out syllables, ornament melodies, and alter timing), creates a powerful tarab effect.
  • Everybody involved in creating music, including the poet who writes the lyrics, the composer, and the musicians and singer, should ideally have a strong emotional connection to it, which is then reflected in the music when it is performed.
  • Back-and-forth interaction between musicians and listeners, and a good atmosphere, are essential at a live musical event.

And as to the experience of tarab itself, I have no way to know how my own experiences compare to those of an Arab music lover, or how closely my emotional state when listening to music corresponds to theirs. That is essentially unknowable. But I do find that some pieces of music (or more precisely, some recordings or renditions, since not every version of the same piece has the same effect) have a powerful effect upon me at times. This is difficult to describe, but I will try [1]:

Bellydancer Rasha with live Arabic band

Rasha with a live Arabic band.

  • A general feeling of heightened emotion, with something of the bittersweet character described above, sometimes combined with a certain awe for the musician or singer who has created such beauty.
  • A sensation of ‘melting’ or being ‘in the music’, in which the music fills my awareness and it is difficult to pay attention to anything else – in this state, if I am dancing, dance often becomes natural and effortless.
  • Feeling the music within my body, as if my heart were rising and falling with the melody.

In the musical passages that tend to have this effect upon me, I can see many the elements of tarab that I mentioned earlier.

Almost all of my favourite Arabic songs have a theme of love, loneliness and (sometimes enjoyable) pain, which I find both moving and evocative. As a particularly unambiguous example, from ‘El Hawa Sultan‘ by George Wassouf, a song which I find very beautiful and never tire of listening to: “albi b3azabo kteer farhan” – “in her torture, my heart is joyful”. Or a more nuanced example of melancholy from Umm Kalthum’s powerful ‘El Hob Kolo’: “tariq hayati mashi qablak fi lail tawil; la qalb gambi ya7asibiya w la teyf gamil” “I walked the road of my life, before you, in an endless night; No heart beside me to feel me, nor any beautiful specter”.

Of course, having the right words isn’t enough, especially since I know very little Arabic and mainly rely on translations. The singer must also be able to imbue the lyrics with real emotion, which doesn’t rely upon the words to take effect.

Now I’m aware of it, I can also hear that the musical passages which tend to create a feeling of melting into the music are those where the singer or instrumental soloist works loosely around the rhythm, and stretches and embellishes the melody. I now know that this technique is known in Arabic as tatrib – the art of producing tarab. More effective still are the rhythmless mawawil (singular mawal), vocal improvisations which I have increasingly come to enjoy recently, although in most cases I do not dance to them or find them appropriate for dancing.

This also explains why I find some of the music recorded for dancers, especially some of that recorded by Western musicians or musicians with a somewhat Western aesthetic sense, feels rather flat, lifeless and emotionally empty – in these recordings, the playing is precise and the rhythm rigidly adhered to. And for some ineffable reason, that seems to cause tarab to melt away like a mirage, as if it was never there…

[1] Racy also describes an altered perception of the passage of time as a common part of the tarab experience. I can’t honestly say I have experienced this myself, but this is probably in part because I rarely have the chance to attend live concerts, where this is more likely to take place, and generally have to settle for recorded music.

Developing tastes, tuning ears

I’m aware that at least some of you reading this will probably be bellydance students who haven’t yet got that ‘into’ Arabic music (in which case, well done if you’ve made it this far!). So you might be feeling a bit overwhelmed or bewildered by the amount of information and specialist musical terms, or wondering why you don’t yet feel this special connection to the music that you hear in class or use for practise.

Appreciating Arabic music as a Western dancer is a rather gradual process, in my experience. It takes a lot of time and repeated exposure to get a good feeling for the rhythms and the unfamiliar melodic structure. To begin with, you will most likely feel more drawn to music with a simple structure or a lot of Western pop influence. The appeal of more complex music will gradually grow as the basic features of Arabic music become more familiar to you and start to seep into your subconscious. And with each step you take down that rabbit hole, the way ahead of you will be lit a little brighter, and the next step will become a little more inviting.

So it is that when I took my first bellydance class, I loved the Westernised fusion pop of Natacha Atlas, and when I first heard a recording of Umm Kalthum, I found it strange and inaccessible, and her voice austere and offputting. A little over five years later, after many small steps into the musically unfamiliar, and an hour-long live recording of Umm Kalthum can send shivers down my spine, although I still find it a little easier to lose myself in the deep, velvety voice of Abdel Halim Hafez. And poor Natacha now languishes, unlistened, on my CD shelf.

This is an continuing journey, of course, and there is still a lot ahead of me – a lot of music that is loved by tarab aficionados, which I do not yet ‘get’. I may never ‘get’ all of it. Learning about the maqamat is another step on the journey, as is listening to music that I can’t fully appreciate yet, knowing that in time its beauty may reveal itself to me.

I’m also pretty sure that some of this depends on your personality and natural response to music. In “Making Music in the Arab World”, Racy speaks of a widespread belief among Arabs that response to music is innate, and that some children naturally become fixated on music (and may go on to become musicians or music lovers) whilst others are indifferent. This fits with other things I have read on musical response – some people simply do not derive any pleasure from music at all (about one in twenty, apparently), whilst others may enjoy some aspects of music but not others, or respond with a more straightforward enjoyment of rhythm and melody rather than the complex trance-like/ecstatic state of tarab. So although this is a path of musical appreciation that I feel drawn to, you may find after some experimentation that your own musical direction or interest takes you elsewhere.

More about the book

This has been more of a rambling essay than a review so far, so to finish, here’s a little more on the book itself. Although it’s an academic work, I found it perfectly readable most of the time. There are some sections that go into a fair bit of technical detail on maqamat which you might want to skip if you have no knowledge of musical theory, but most of the content is remarkably accessible and clearly written.

I actually found this so interesting that I could hardly put it down, and would have read it all in one go had time allowed – as a dancer with a strong interest in music, it came as a series of revelations to me. The chapters cover the social context of tarab music, some of the technical details of how this music works and what aspects of it create the powerful effect it has upon listeners, a detailed look at the lyrical themes including many examples of lyrics and translations, and a fascinating overview of what defines tarab and tarab music. There are many invaluable insights from interviews with musicians and singers, as well as the author’s own experiences as a tarab musician, which give him a unique view of the subject.

So basically, if you love music, and are OK with books that are a bit academic in tone, I definitely recommend this. It’s going on my mental list of essential reading for the thoughtful bellydancer (along with Karin Nieuwkerk’s “A Trade Like Any Other”).

Further reading:

Bellydance and cultural ‘appreciation’

Bellydancer Rasha with live Arabic band

Rachael dancing to live Egyptian music

The great thing about learning an art form from another culture is that it can be a gateway to appreciating a culture other than your own. It can help you to see the world from other perspectives, and learn to see people from that culture as three-dimensional individuals, instead of through the stereotypes we grew up surrounded by. When this happens, and we break down our own barriers of misunderstanding and prejudice, I believe that in a small way, we make the world a better place.

Whenever discussions of cultural appropriation come up, in the bellydance world, “it’s not appropriation, it’s appreciation!” is one of the first defences dancers reach for. And if that’s true, that’s great. But as with anything, we shouldn’t just assume it’s all fine and continue on our merry way without looking any closer. When we say this, are we really deeply appreciating these cultures and developing understanding? Or just borrowing superficial things from other cultures because they look pretty, and then dressing it up as a noble act so we can feel good about ourselves?

The answer, of course, is “it depends”.

It depends on how we see the dance, how we engage with it, and how we engage with the culture it’s a part of.

So here are a few questions to think about…

  •  The dance itself – This might seem like a no-brainer, but do you enjoy watching Middle Eastern* dance, and seek opportunities to watch good dance? Not just your friends dancing at haflas, but professional-quality shows, DVDs, YouTube videos? Do you enjoy watching videos of dancers from the countries of origin? In other words, do you appreciate bellydance itself as an art? Or do you find it boring unless you’re participating?
  • The cultural connection – Do you see bellydance as a cultural dance rooted in certain parts of the world, that comes from the social and performance dances of real people in those places? I would argue that for bellydancing to be a form of cultural appreciation, this is essential. Do you think bellydance is any dance that uses a certain set of basic torso isolations? Or do you think it is more than that – including ways of interpreting music, of relating movements to each other, of communicating with your audience, that are all deeply entwined with the cultures the dance comes from?
  • The music – Do you genuinely love listening to Middle Eastern music, for its own sake, and not just because you feel you ‘have to’ listen to it as a bellydancer? Getting into a new type of music is rarely an instant or easy process. It takes time and it takes patience. And yet, so many bellydancers will say that they dance to Western music because Arabic music “just doesn’t speak to them”. Well, to be honest, Amr Diab and Nancy Ajram don’t speak to me, either, and nor do a lot of the ‘recorded for dancers’ instrumentals. A lot of pop music in any culture will be bland, but few Egyptians will take you seriously as an appreciator of their culture if you say you just don’t ‘get’ Umm Kalthum, for example. You need to be willing to dig deeper, persevere, and give things a second chance that you didn’t enjoy the first time round. I have written about this before, if you are interested 🙂
  • The history – How much do you know about the history of this dance form, and where did you learn it? Do you value reliable, first-hand sources and evidence, or are you happy to believe origin myths based on wishful thinking and Orientalist stereotypes? Shira wrote a great article on identifying reliable historical information, which I do suggest you read if you haven’t already seen it, as well as an article examining popular bellydance myths. If you want to appreciate Middle Eastern cultures, it’s important to look for the reality of those cultures, and how this dance developed as a part of them – and not let the real people who shaped the dance get lost in a cloud of romantic fantasies about the past.
  • The cultural background – Do you take an interest in aspects of Middle Eastern culture, language, history and current affairs that aren’t directly related to dance? Do you read books or blogs about Middle Eastern history, arts, pop culture, or daily life, or by Middle Eastern writers? Keep up to date with news from the region? Visit exhibitions of Islamic art when they happen locally, or go to concerts or cultural events even when they are not directly aimed at or organised by bellydancers? Watch films or documentaries? Or even take language classes? Of course, I don’t expect anyone to have the time and money to do all these things at once, but I’d expect anyone with a real appreciation of these cultures to have at least taken an interest in a few of them.

Now, I don’t know what your answers to those questions are. And I’m not judging you as a person or as a dancer if you answered ‘no’ to any of them. They are just for you to reflect upon, and work out where you stand (and where you’d like to stand).

It’s possible to be a beautiful, entertaining dancer without being very interested in Middle Eastern cultures – but if that’s the case, you do need to be aware that claiming to ‘appreciate’ those cultures purely by participating in bellydance may ring hollow. So when the question comes up of if/when it’s ethical for us to represent another culture, as inevitably it will, you will need to find your own way to square your involvement with the dance with respect for the original cultures and for the people who dance this dance because they grew up with it.

It’s not a question of Tribal vs. Oriental either, because I know dancers in both camps who are seriously knowledgeable about the dance’s origins, and also those who move beautifully but do not have much interest in the deeper roots or wider culture. In either case it’s up to you to think carefully about this stuff, and work out your own answers.

And of course, it’s normal for your level of cultural appreciation to change throughout your life as a dancer. Many of us come to the dance with little knowledge of the Middle East, and holding some questionable attitudes about people from that region that we’ve picked up from our popular culture. The wonderful thing is that the curiosity inspired by learning a cultural dance can change that. If you’ve only been dancing for a short time, please don’t feel put off by this post. It takes time to learn and develop your understanding, and it’s OK to learn at your own pace, as long as you’re interested and open to learning. Think of these questions as suggestions for your dance education outside of class (although a good teacher will also include some of these things in class).

To finish, here are a few great learning resources:

I could go on and list a load more books, since I’m a total nerd about this stuff, but I’ll leave you with those for now 🙂

* I’m using the term ‘Middle East’ here as shorthand for “Middle East, North Africa and the Eastern Mediterranean”, which is a very long phrase to type repeatedly. I’m not aware of any concise term that actually refers to all the regions from which this dance originates, unfortunately.

Bellydance vs. Ballet: Comparing Apples to Anteaters


Anteater (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Ballet. It’s a comparison that inevitably comes up when discussing any issue in the bellydance world. For a lot of people in the West, “dance” is ballet, and it’s the standard against which all other dances get compared. Unfortunately, in discussions on bellydance, I don’t believe that this comparison is very useful, because the two dance forms are so wildly different in so many ways. The ballet analogies are unavoidable, but I feel that they very rarely provide any meaningful insight. To borrow and misquote from someone else I can’t remember, it’s not even like comparing apples to oranges. It’s more like comparing apples to anteaters.

In these posts, I’ll be discussing the various comparisons that are frequently made between bellydance and ballet, and why in my view, there aren’t many true parallels. Since it is a subject which I have a lot to say about, I’ve had to split my post into several parts, of which this is the first…

Cultural roots – the dance of my people?

Fifi Abdou dances baladi

Egyptian bellydance has its roots in Raqs Baladi, the folk dance of ordinary Egyptian people. Raqs Baladi literally means “dance of my country” or “dance of my people”. It is a dance that ordinary people learn by copying their family and friends as children, and dance together at celebrations. Egyptian kids don’t get shipped off on a Saturday morning for Baladi classes, it’s just the dance they grow up with, and a part of who they are as much as the language they grow up speaking or the music they grow up listening to. Even those who go on to be top professional dancers often say they started out dancing at family gatherings, then copied the dancers they saw at weddings and on TV,  and although they may have gone on to have more formal training, that was not until they were already accomplished dancers.

English: A performance of The Nutcracker balle...

A performance of The Nutcracker ballet, 1981 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In contrast, it’s a very long time since ballet parted ways with any folk roots it once had. In all of my lifetime as a white British woman, I’ve never seen ballet danced among friends at a party (my own social circle mostly prefer variations on awkwardly shuffling from one foot to the other, apart from those family members who have taken up modern Jive), or met anyone who had picked up ballet from their family and friends without going to formal classes. As somebody who has never taken regular ballet classes and has only been to the ballet once (that’s fewer times than I’ve seen the Chinese state circus…), it is not really a part of my culture in any meaningful way. It is very disconnected from the cultural expressions of ordinary people anywhere. To learn ballet, children go to formal classes from a young age, and the child’s cultural background is mostly irrelevant to this training process.

If ballet ‘belongs’ to any group of people as a cultural expression, it’s to an upper middle class elite, spread across many countries and even continents, who may have more in common with each other than with the ordinary people of their respective countries. But even these people don’t actually learn ballet unless they go to classes, although they may watch it much more frequently than most people. There is nobody, anywhere, for whom ballet is truly “the dance of my people”.

Types of learning – speaking Latin?

Bellydancers often ask why our training isn’t more like ballet. More codification, more terminology, more rigour… I believe that the differences here also come from the differences between a folk dance and a classical dance.

To use the analogy of language learning, which I often find helpful when thinking about dance learning, Egyptians grow up with Raqs Baladi as their ‘mother tongue’ of dance movement. This means that for them, formal lessons play only a small role – they are able to learn by imitation of the people around them, the same way I learned to speak English. They will probably need training later on if they want to reach artistic greatness, just as a native English speaker would still need training to go from being just a fluent speaker to being a good novelist or poet, but the basics come from cultural immersion.

The work of a student of Arabic calligraphy

The work of a student of Arabic calligraphy (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A British or American dancer, on the other hand, hasn’t grown up with Raqs Baladi. Sadly, we often don’t even have our own equivalent, as social dancing of any type has declined miserably in many places, hence the awkward foot-to-foot shuffling. When we decide to learn bellydance, we are in the same sort of position as we would be as English speakers turning up to our first Arabic language class. Everything is unfamiliar, from the alphabet to the grammar. And as adults, we’re no longer able to effortlessly soak up information from our surroundings like children, and we don’t have easy access to that culture to immerse ourselves in anyway (unless we live somewhere that still has a thriving Arabic club scene), so apart from a few rare individuals, most of us will need formal lessons.

However, because of its social nature in its home environment, bellydance doesn’t come ‘ready made’ with a formal learning structure. The people who developed it didn’t need one. That leaves it up to dance teachers in the West to devise a learning structure that can replace the social learning for Western dancers, without losing the social, improvisational nature of the dance that is part of its unique appeal. As Western learners, we have to start from the very beginning, having to learn the alphabet all over again before we can even string sounds together into words, let alone compose our own poetry.

Latin inscription in the museum at Monteleone ...

Latin inscription (Photo credit: diffendale)

Sticking with the language analogy for a bit, ballet is like a language with no native speakers. Learning ballet is more akin to studying Latin than learning a modern language with an existing body of native speakers. Everyone who learns it is learning it as a ‘second language’. Some will have advantages, like having a native language that uses the Latin alphabet, or that is linguistically related to Latin (like Italian or French). In dance, this might translate as things like having familiarity with the structures of Western classical music, or coming from a culture where dance is expected to be primarily about movements of the limbs through space, or a culture where the physical body is seen as a thing to be transcended. But nobody comes to it as a native speaker. Everyone has to go through the formal learning process, which native Egyptians don’t usually need to dance Raqs Baladi. Ballet simply could not exist as a dance without the formal learning process.

Toy Poodle from 1915

Toy Poodle (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So, for bellydance, formal learning is an ‘added extra’ which allows cultural outsiders to participate, but which is somewhat alien to its folk roots. But for ballet, it’s an absolute necessity, without which the dance form could not exist. This is why a universal codified learning structure for bellydance is unlikely to ever exist as it does for ballet. The dance form does not need it to survive, and by strictly codifying bellydance, it would be removed further from the more organic nature of Raqs Baladi, possibly eventually being refined and redefined until it bore no more resemblance to it than a toy poodle does to its ancestor, the grey wolf.

Tango Kiss

(Photo credit: Pat McDonald)

This is not a totally unfounded concern on my part. It has been pointed out to me that a similar thing has already happened to dances like Argentine Tango and Salsa as they have been incorporated into ballroom dance and ‘dancesport’. The ballroom versions of these dances, as performed in competitions and widely taught around the world, are sanitised, homogenised and sometimes bear little resemblance to the original social dances they were based on. They have been taken from their original cultural context, and have lost a lot in the process (including their music) – people who dance the original versions simply don’t recognise the ballroom styles as their own dance. Do we want this to happen to bellydance in the West? To some extent, it already has.