Dance Infinities and the Secret to Seamless Transitions

Since I decided to call my new workshop series “Raqs to Infinity”, I wanted to elaborate on some of the concepts from the first workshop, and talk more about the concept of infinity and why it’s relevant to dance.

The chances are, when I say “infinity” you think of something huge. Infinite distance. The vast depths of outer space. Infinite time. The end of the universe. Things too huge to contemplate!

Infinite space?

Well that is one kind of infinity. The big, showy, impressive kind. But Raqs Sharqi isn’t a big showy dance, and our infinities aren’t the big showy kind of infinity either. There’s another sort, and you meet it every day…

How many numbers are there? If you kept counting forever, how many numbers would there be? Obviously the answer is infinity. That is the big infinity, the “end of the universe” infinity. But what if I asked you how many numbers there are in between 0 and 1? The answer is also infinity. And this is the infinity we can explore in dance.

Why are there infinite numbers in between 0 and 1, and not none, since 1 is the next number after 0? Well, in between 0 and 1 there’s 1/2. And there’s 1/3, and 2/3, and 1/4, and 3/4, and 1/5, 2/5, 3/5, 4/5… And you can go on forever, deeper and deeper, dividing that little space up smaller and smaller. And there’s another infinity between 1 and 2, and between 2 and 3… Some infinities are bigger than others, and these little ones are everywhere, hiding in plain sight. There are an infinite number of points in even the tiniest space, and an infinite number of moments in the shortest blink of an eyelid.

But what does this maths stuff this have to do with bellydance, I hear you ask?

Well, consider these questions. How many ways are there to do a hip drop? How many different movements are there that are somewhere in between a figure of 8 and an undulation? How many paths can your arms move through to get from one position to another? It’s that little “in between 0 and 1” infinity, every time.

Almost every movement in bellydance exists on a continuum – that is, a sort of sliding scale, with infinite different points on it. In fact, usually it will belong to many of these sliding scales at once. To illustrate, here’s a graph I made in MS Paint:

Just two of the sliding scales for hip drops…

I chose hip drops because they are a move that seems ‘simple’ – a move that every beginner learns in their first few classes. And yet… How many points are there on that graph? There are infinite gradations of strength or softness in between the softest and hardest hip drops you can possibly do, and there are infinite gradations of size in between the tiniest and most enormous. Put those together and you get… An even bigger infinity!

And of course, that isn’t the only way you can vary a hip drop – if I kept thinking about it I could come up with tens or even hundreds of these sliding scales, even for this very simple little movement, and I could draw many similar graphs for “all the hip drops” with different things written on the axes. How is your hip positioned relative to your upper body? How bent are your knees? Does your hip stop suddenly or rebound, and how much? Where are your arms? Is there a change of level, and if so how much? The possibilities are limitless, even within what seems like a very limited range – just one move, just an ‘easy’ move everyone knows.

The same is true of every one of your ‘basic’ movements, of course. Each one contains ranges of infinite possibility like this, if you have the skill to access them.

But that’s not all…

I just mentioned ‘basic movements’, and you may be used to thinking of bellydance moves as a set list of shapes (circle, eight, undulation…), which you can trace out with different parts of your body. That’s how this dance is usually taught. That’s how I would probably still teach new beginners.

But that’s a very simplified view. It’s the kind of simplification that’s very useful when you first learn and need a way to make sense of things, but limiting later on, if you can’t move beyond it. What we really have isn’t a neat list of moves, but rather, an infinite variety of paths that our hips, torsos and spines, and our limbs, can trace through space. But that’s kind of overwhelming to contemplate. Where do you even start?

That’s where the “basic shapes” are useful. They are our starting points.

Exploring the landscape of movement

It helps if we think of the infinity of ways we can move our bodies within the style of movement that’s recognisable as “bellydance” as a map. Our archetypal, classic moves are the most important landmarks on that map – the cities and towns. They are our bases to start exploring. There are some obvious paths between them, our “A roads” if you like, and there are also many less obvious routes – our little country lanes, bridleways, and wildly circuitous scenic routes… And a whole lot of landscape that’s off the beaten track, perhaps because it’s physically kind of difficult, but still nice to visit occasionally.

The basic moves aren’t just arbitrary choices, of course. They are the classic defining movements of this dance style for a reason. In this infinite map of movements, they are the ones that align with the natural planes of our bodies, and which are symmetrical. But once we understand this, we can expand each into a whole huge family of movements by starting to deviate slightly from those planes, and to slightly disrupt the symmetry…

Think of this, in our map analogy, as exploring the suburbs of the cities, and the countryside just outside. We’ll find a lot of interesting places and beautiful sights outside of the city limits.

If we wander too far though, we may find that we’re no longer in the same town at all – we may, imperceptibly have entered the outskirts of another as our 8 becomes more undulatey and eventually looks more like a slightly twisty undulation, or our shifting hip circle has begun to tilt and to shrink until it has imperceptibly turned into an interior pelvic circle. We have, as it were, started out exploring around Manchester but eventually ended up in Liverpool… And that, dear readers, is one of the secrets of seamless “transitions”. What is a transition, after all, but a path through our infintely detailed landscape of movements, whether it’s quick and efficient, or roundabout with lots of stops along the way to enjoy the journey?

Well, I think that’s quite enough for one blog post. I hope it gives you some ideas to explore in your dance practice, and if you are near Manchester and would like to get into this kind of thing in more depth, please do check out my “Raqs to Infinity” workshops 🙂

Demystifying Muwashshahat!

Bellydance show with a live band

Rachael dancing with the Mazaj ensemble

I’ve been geeking out about Arabic music a lot in the last year, including listening to a lot of different things, reading loads of books, and even learning to play the oud. And in that time, I’ve realised that there’s a bit of misunderstanding of muwashshahat (singular muwashshah) in the bellydance world.

What we learn in the bellydance world…

The standard view of muwashshahat in the bellydance world goes something like this:

Muwashshahat are songs that come from mediaeval Islamic Spain (Al-Andalus), and have survived to the present day. They use the 10/8 Samai Thaqil rhythm. Originally, court dances may have been done to them, but nobody really knows what these dances looked like. These dances were creatively reimagined in the 20th century by Mahmoud Reda and Farida Fahmy, and this is how we dance to muwashshahat today.

I’ve come to realise that this information is not exactly wrong as such, but it is very incomplete, and somewhat misleading.

So, what actually are muwashshahat?

Andalusian Roots

The term muwashshahat actually refers to a poetic form, which originally became popular in al-Andalus.

There are several musical traditions based on this poetic form. These include the North African ‘Andalusi Nuba’ tradition (which we don’t tend to dance to, and which I don’t know a great deal about), and the Syrian/Egyptian wasla tradition which incorporates muwashshah poems set to music, along with other instrumental and lyrical genres.

Musical tradition

The pieces we use for dance come from the Syrian/Egyptian tradition. Some of these use old poetry from al-Andalus, whilst some use more recently composed poems in the muwashshah form. However, the musical compositions themselves are not from al-Andalus. For example, Lamma Bada is the best known muwashshah. The lyrics are thought to be very old, but the melody used today was composed in Egypt in the 19th century (see 004 – Sama‘ – Lammā badā yatathanna – AMAR Foundation for Arab Music Archiving & Research for more info on this song, and some very early recordings). The compositional style was influenced by Turkish instrumental forms during the Ottoman period, particularly by the Turkish samai.

Lots of Egyptian muwashshahat were composed in the 19th century during the nahda or Egyptian rennaisance, and some in the early 20th century too. The great Egyptian composer Sayyed Darwish wrote several, for example. They are an important part of the Egyptian musical tradition, especially before the advent of the ughniyah or ‘long song’ format of Oum Kalthoum et al. Legendary singer and composer Mohammed Abdelwahab recorded many muwashshahat during his early career. More recently, a huge number of muwashshahat have been recorded by the Syrian singer Sabah Fakhri.

Rhythms

A variety of rhythms are used in muwashshahat – 10/8 samai thaqil is certainly popular, but it’s not the only one by any means. Other muwashshah rhythms include familiar favourites like masmoudi kebir, as well as many based on longer rhythmic cycles which are almost never used in dance. There’s a fairly exhaustive list of these rhythms here, including audio clips – Maqam World – Muwashshah Rhythms.

It’s also worth noting that they are not all slow, and some are actually very lively. Even Lamma Bada, which is often played very slowly in recent recordings, was originally far more upbeat!

So, what about the dancing?

As I mentioned previously, almost all bellydancers associate muwashshahat with the dance style created by Mahmoud Reda in the 1980s. This style is refined, elegant and balletic, with hypnotic spins and arabesques, and as with most of Reda’s dances, almost no movement of the torso. Farida Fahmy, principal dancer in the Reda troupe, wrote this about the Reda muwashshahat style:

In these dances he was not restricted to any specific temporal reference or dance tradition. This gave him a wider range of movement and choreographic possibilities. In his choreographies, Mahmoud Reda relied on his artistic imagination and how the music inspired him, as well as his expertise and rich repertoire of movement vocabulary that he had accumulated for many years.

We can therefore see that it is, essentially, a fusion style, albeit one developed in Egypt for an Egyptian audience.

However, muwashshahat were, at one point, the popular music of their day, and it’s reasonable to assume that dancers would have performed to them in the 19th century (although there were other types of music more associated with dance, e.g. light songs in dance rhythms, and the tahmila, a structured improvisational style). Egyptian films, especially when portraying 19th century scenes, sometimes show dancers performing to muwashshahat in styles not influenced by Reda.

For example, see the opening sequence of this 1960s film about the life of Bamba Kashar:

Or this scene in the 1960s film adaptation of Naguib Mahfouz’s novel ‘Palace Walk’ (Bayn al-Qasrayn), set in early 20th century Cairo, and showing a ‘sahra’ or musical gathering at the home of a professional entertainer/courtesan (the first song is a muwashshah in a 6/8 rhythm):


Or this clip of Leila Mourad singing the muwashshah ‘Mala al-Kasat’ with a chorus of oriental dancers in two-piece ‘bellydance’ costumes:

So, if you choose to dance to muwashshahat, it’s legitimate to use the Reda style, but it’s not mandatory. Reda’s interpretation was a fanciful re-imagining, rather than a historical reconstruction. There’s certainly precedent for dancers interpreting these beautiful pieces of music in their own styles, and so I think there’s also a place both for trying to recreate the style of the late 19th century, and for applying your own original interpretation using your knowledge of present-day Egyptian dance, as well as for the Reda style.

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.

On ‘modernity’ in bellydance

Just a little rant for a Tuesday morning, on a subject that just keeps coming up… 😉

Westernised fusion dance is not “more modern” than Middle Eastern bellydance. But I often see it described as being so in the dance community – ‘traditional’ bellydance vs. ‘modern’ fusion – as if dance in the Middle East was static and old-fashioned and needed Westerners to come in and ‘modernise’ it

This points to an underlying set of subconscious ideas about East vs. West being traditional, ancient, unchanging, vs. modern, enlightened and dynamic, or in other words, Orientalism. It’s not surprising that it’s present in the dance community, since it permeates our culture as a whole, but it’s still important to be aware of it and point it out and try to catch ourselves before we do it.

In fact, bellydance is a living art form in the Middle East. Modern Egyptian or Turkish or Lebanese bellydance is, well, modern. We don’t need to change or fuse it in order for it to be modern, because it already is. Rachel Brice, say, is no more modern than, say, Dina. And Safinaz is arguably more modern than either!

This isn’t to say fusion is bad, but please don’t fall into the trap of thinking fusion is the only part of the bellydance world that’s alive and evolving, because that couldn’t be further from the truth.

The only difference is that fusion dance evolves in the West, driven by Western dancers, whilst Middle Eastern bellydance evolves in the hands of the amazing dancers working in Cairo, Beirut and Istanbul. Those of us who dance a Middle Eastern style in the West have to accept that the dance of another culture can’t be all about us, by its very nature. Western dancers aren’t completely excluded from becoming innovators or trendsetters, but they generally have to become popular and successful in the home countries of the dance for this to happen – American dancers Leila Farid and Luna seem like they might fall into this category, for example, as might Scottish dancer Lorna. The Argentinian dancer Asmahan also springs to mind. It’s a high bar, for sure, but that’s to be expected when you are an outsider in another culture’s art form.

So when dancers say that fusion is ‘more modern’, or ‘evolving’, I think on some level what they really mean is that those styles are evolving in a way that they are in touch with and more likely to be able to influence. Which is fair enough. But it risks writing off the dance that I love as fuddy-duddy and boring, and I am not going to quietly accept that. So remember, just because you aren’t aware of or contributing to the latest developments in the Cairo dance scene, doesn’t mean they aren’t happening. Art evolves, yes. And it evolves in Egypt just as much as it does anywhere else!

Bellydance vs. Ballet: Comparing Apples to Anteaters

Anteater

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.