Music in Motion:
Women’s Dances of the Arab World

Helene Arab Dances
Since the Orientalist dance craze at the turn of the last century, sparked by such events as Wagner’s Salome, the exotic visions of dancers like Mata Hari and Maude Allen and the appearance of Arab and other dancers at the world expositions held in Paris and Chicago, the West has been obsessed with danse du ventre or belly dance. This enthusiasm has until recently almost totally eclipsed the view of other traditional dances of the Arab World. With this program we hope to introduce you to the rich, diverse world of traditional Arab women’s dance. From the prosperous Gulf region, to the teeming Metropolis of Cairo, up the Nile to the conservative regions of the Said, to the Tunisian island of Djerba and on into the Medinas of Morocco, this program will present a wide diversity of movements, sounds and spectacular traditional dresses.

Helene GhawaziDances of the Ghawazi from Upper Egypt

Ghawazi means “conquerors” and refers to the most traditional female dancers of Egypt. However in this case it is the hearts of men, which are to be conquered. The Ghawazi belong to the gypsy tribe of Nawar, who also inhabit Syria and Lebanon. The women of the Nawar were dancers and courtesans, while the men functioned as musicians and managers. The Ghawazi used to be found throughout Egypt, but in the 1830’s they were banned to Upper Egypt. There they fascinated many 19th century travelers such as Flaubert, who immortalized his lover Kutschuk Hanem in Voyage en Orient. When the Ghawazi performed at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, they caused an oriental dance fever, which has its repercussion even today. The art of the Ghawazi today is on the brink of extinction due to fundamentalist pressure. The dance is characterized by complicated hip isolations while the fast, uninterrupted, regular rhythm of the zagat (finger cymbals) of the dancers contrasts excitingly with the syncopated beat of the drums.

Sheikhat HeleneThe Dances of the Sheikhat of Morocco

The sheikhat are the professional dancing women of Morocco who are hired to entertain at weddings, circumcisions and other festivities. The root of their name is sheikh meaning a „wise elder man“. Sheikhat is the feminine plural of sheikh, but does not refer to wisdom of the scholarly type. Rather the women are considered to be experts on the responsibilities of a man and woman on their wedding night. Their dance is meant as education and inspiration and they perform for the women’s as well as the men’s gatherings. The music and dance of the cities of Morocco reflect the many cultural influences that meet in the Maghreb: Berber, Arab, African, and Mediterranean elements blend with the refined traditions of the refugees from medieval Arab-Andalusian Spain. Helene is wearing a taqshita, which is composed of a long coat dfina worn over a heavier kaftan and trousers called shalvar. This is the typical festive dress of traditional urban women in Morocco today. At festivities the women are always attired in such gowns, one more sumptuous than the other. The style of dance of the sheikhat is basically that of ordinary urban women at festivities, but more professional and virtuosic. One famous urban dance, performed by both male and female professional dancers throughout Morocco is the raqs al seneyya in which the dancer balances a tray with tea pot, glasses and candles her head. Helene has organized dance and cultural study seminars to Morocco since 1994 and has had ample opportunity to study the various dance traditions in Marrakech.

Helene KhalegiKhalegi: Dances of the Persian Gulf

Khalegi means „of the Gulf“ in Arabic and refers to the culture -- and here more specifically to the dances -- of the Gulf-states: Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, the Arab Emirates, etc. In these prosperous, oil-rich countries women dress in exquisite robes of transparent silks embroidered with gold. These thob nawal are very widely cut dresses often worn over the latest Parisian fashions and play a central role in the women’s dances of the Gulf region. During the dance the women toss their dresses in time to the music, wrap their bodies with the garment in different ways -- concealing one movement, underscoring another. The wide sleeves can also be pulled up to form a veil with which the women play coquettishly for one another. Traditionally this is a social dance, danced by women for women in the strictly gender segregated societies of the Gulf States. Another important element in the dance is the rhythmic swinging of the hair. The roots of these dance movements probably stem from trance rituals similar to the Zar or Hadra found throughout North Africa, the Arabian Peninsula and the Indo-Pakistani subcontinent.

samaiSama’i: Dance to Classical Arabic Music

The classical Arabic music form Sama’i is not meant as dance music. Helene’s dance to this highly refined classical music is therefore an innovation as is her costume. Helene’s intention is to make the complex structure of music visible through dance -- creating music in motion.

Notes on the Music:

1) A piece for oud (lute) and riqq (tambourine), which alternates between the syncopated 8/8 rhythm Wahda Kebira and the 10/8 rhythm Sama’i.

2) Ali Jihad Racy, a friend and colleague of Helene and professor for Ethnomusicology at the University of California, Los Angeles wrote this piece Sama’i Nahawand. Although this Sama’i is a contemporary piece of music it was written in a style typical for the Turkish-Arabic music of the Ottoman epoch (1326-1918). The composition form called Sama’i is based on a 10/8 rhythm, with a short section in 6/8, before it returns to 10/8 to complete the piece. The maqam of this composition is Nahawand, which is characterized as lovely or sweet and which is similar to the minor scale of Western music.

baladi heleneBaladi: Urban Folklore from Egypt

Baladi means „from the country“ and in the context of dance it refers to an urban style with „traditional“ or „country” character. Today the music for Baladi is played on the quartertone accordion, saxophone, keyboard and even trumpet. Traditionally Baladi is a solo dance. Baladi starts out quietly with taqsim improvisation and builds and releases tension through a series of dynamic climaxes. Dancing is focused within the body, with emphasis on movements of the hips, and is free of the theatrical elements, which Raqs Sharqi -- what we call Belly Dance -- later developed. Helene’s costume is made of the famous fabric called assuit or tulle belli. This exquisite net-like fabric is complexly ornamented by hand with flat silver wire.

tunisiaRaqs al Juzur: Dance from Tunisia

A characteristic of Tunisian dance is the horizontal forward and back movement of the hips, reminiscent of the Twist of the 1960’s. The costume of the dancers consists of a melia, a draped garment, which is held together by two silver fibulas (the ancestor of the safety pin). The melia belongs to the family of the most elementary kinds of clothing, in which a straight swath of cloth without tailoring or seams is draped around the body, as for example the Roman toga, the Indian sari or the Indonesian sarong. A specialty of the islands of Kerkennah and Djerba is Raq al Juzur in which the dancer, accompanied by the mizwid (bagpipe) and drums, balances a clay pot on her head while she follows the beat of the drum with her hips. A wool belt with large tassels at each side emphasizes the strong hip movements. Men also perform this dance, often balancing high towers of heavy clay pots on their heads. This dance has become a national symbol for Tunisia.