In the Heart of the Medina:
Dances of North Africa
Helene Magreb

The Medina, the walled city, is the centre of traditional urban life in North Africa today. The maze of confusing streets is the home to the souk or market where traditional crafts are still practised and offered for sale. Modern and traditional urban women mingle with peasants in from the countryside who have come to ply their wares and make special purchases. Continue on a winding narrow ravine-like street between the high walls of the flanking buildings and you will come past solid, wooden doors, decorated and protected with an amulet, offering the possibility of entry with a huge bronze knocker often shaped like a hand. But what one cannot see is the world which opens if one can only pass these doors, past a blind entryway, to where they open on magnificent tiled courtyards with gardens and a fountain, surrounded by rooms which all open to the central communal space and the distant sky. This is the domain of women, their work place and traditionally a place for their celebrations: births, circumcisions, marriages, sacrifices, trance-healing rituals and eventually death.

In North Africa, whether Arabic or Berber, whether in the tents of the nomads, in the village squares of the peasants, or in the tiled stylized gardens of the cities -- music and dance are the heartbeat of the people -- even today. The Maghreb is a fascinating blend of cultures: Berber, Phoenician, Roman, sub-Saharan African, Arab, Andalusian, Ottoman and most recently French elements blend into a myriad of expressive forms while Judaism, Christianity and most importantly Islam blend with more ancient beliefs. Welcome into the Medina. While the scent of mint tea and frankincense wafts over we hope you enjoy our program, which draws from folk and classical music and dance, from entertainment and ritual traditions. Sometimes meditative, sometimes fiery: The dances Helene will present come from Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, Mauritania and from the Arab-Andalusian refugee culture of medieval Spain.

Helene 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.

Helene NailiyatDances of the Nailiyat from Algeria

The Nailiyat or the women of the Ouled Nail (sons of Nail) tribe from the region of the Algerian oasis towns of Bou Saada and Biskra used to earn their dowries by dancing and working as courtesans in caravan crossroad towns. When they had earned enough money they returned to their tribe to marry. It is speculated that this tradition is the remnant of an antique Venus cult. The Nailiyat were particularly popular with the French Legionnaires, who called their dances danse du ventre (which translated became “belly dance”) probably because of the predominance of pelvic-drop movements in their dance. Travellers reported that the Nailiyat carried themselves with a remarkable cool aloofness and pride which gave them the air of queens of the desert. In the terror-filled political climate of Algeria today, these traditions seem to have died out. Helene was fortunate to work with Aisha Ali who conducted field research in the late 70’s among the Ouled Nail in Algeria.

Helene RaissatDances of the Raissat from Morocco

The Raissat are the female professional singers and dancers of the Berbers. A Rais is a chief, or leader. This dance style is from the Raissat of the Shloeh (a Berber tribe from southern Morocco) from the region of Agadir and Tiznit. Their movement style is very different from other dances of the urban Arab population. The most characteristic movement is a small, tight horizontal bounce reminiscent of the Croatian drmeš, yet absent in almost all forms of Arab dance. Elements of their costume, such as the peplum draped skirt, amulets and the horned crown-like headdress indicate a very ancient layer of culture.

Helene GuedraGuedra, Trance Dance of the Sahara

Guedra is a trance dance of the Tuareg or “blue people” from the southernmost Moroccan town of Goulimine and from the West Sahara. Similar dances are found in Mauritania and among the Sahraoui of the West Sahara, a people who speak an Arabic language called Hassania and now live in refugee camps in the stone desserts of eastern Algeria. The guedra is originally a cooking pot, covered with an animal skin to make a drum. This drum plays a central role in the ritual of guedra. The dancer, at first totally veiled, flicks her fingers with delicate but vigorous expressive hand movements. Slowly she unveils her head, revealing a myriad of tiny braids, some formed into a crown, and all decorated with shells, agates and other talismans. These come to life as she begins to toss her head to the beat of the drum, the clapping and the chanting of the other participants. The intensity increases until, engulfed in trance, she falls to the floor. Trance is a predominant factor in many celebrations in North Africa. From the Egyptian zar to the leilat of the Gnaoua of Morocco, to mention only a two, trance rituals are a means of releasing evil spirits, or bad energy and restoring the harmony of balance.

Helene AndalusianDance to Andalusian Music

The classical Andalusian music has its origins in 10th century Arabic Spain. After the fall of Granada in 1492 the traditions were continued in the various countries of North Africa (Libya, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco). Over the centuries each centre developed its own style and school. Today it is people still dance to andalusian music at private soirees or family festivities, especially amoung the upper class families in the large cities of the Mahgreb: Fez, Rabat, Tlemcen, Alger, Constantine and Tunis . The dance style is very graceful and the dancers wave brightly coloured sind scarves in arabesques, which follow the music. The song speaks of both earthly pleasures as well as a mystical love of God:

He appeared, slim, gracefully swaying to the rhythm.
He was so beautiful, as he inclined his slender body towards mine.
I asked him: come, let us get closer; but he said: wait until tomorrow...
My heart, do not grieve for what has been...
God brings the errant back to the straight and narrow path...
In the depths of night-black eyes, you gaze at one you know like no other.

Helene SheikhatDance of the Sheikhat from 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 transparent coat dfina worn over a heavier caftan 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 danse du plateau, which Helene will present here. 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.