The Education of a Belly Dance Troupe

Researching and Writing About Different Aspects of the Dance

Besides dancing, my former troupe Pearls of Rhythm also studied related subjects like Middle Eastern percussion, rhythms, and the diverse cultural origins of the art.
To deepen their dance education I gave my troupe members homework: write an article about different aspects of Middle Eastern Dance. The topics that Amy and Karen wrote about are interesting and their articles well-written so I'm happy to include them on my site. The articles are both about adopting a stage persona when portraying a dancer onstage. These articles should be of interest to any belly dancer who wants a deeper understanding of performing.

Being A Cabaret Dancer

by Amy Limbrick (Kiyaana)

"She was at the same time a lady and a femme fatale, a queen and a peasant girl.” – The Belly Dance Book

          Industry and technology, recorded music and motion pictures, railroads and steam ships – all these things contributed to the urbanization and Westernization of Egyptian style Middle Eastern dance. From the early 1900s, the influx of travelers from Europe and the United States, always seeking something new and unusual, to the Middle East brought a demand for entertainment. As the cities grew, the country people moved in, bringing their rural, specialized dances with them. They brought their tribal rhythms and costumes and realized the Western tourists enjoyed watching them perform. But perhaps the Westerners, who brought money and jobs with them, would like the show even more if it looked a little less “Middle East” and a little more “West”. . .

As the world became more connected, the artists of individual cultures began to influence each other. So it happened with Western culture and Middle Eastern dance. Oriental dance in its original form was quickly misunderstood by most Westerners, especially Americans, during the Victorian era when it was first introduced at the World’s Columbian Exhibition in Chicago in the late 1800s. A corseted, straight-backed, waltzing culture could hardly comprehend the artistry in the sinuous, curvy movements of the Oriental dancers. To the Victorians, it was “belly dance”, so obsessed were they with movement of the abdomen. Thus Middle Eastern dance was given a reputation as being “scandalous”. Many non-Oriental dancers took advantage of this scurrilous description and earned a buck or two by trying to copy the movements of the dance while incorporating the removal of clothing. Even today, many of us have experienced the odd looks and the physical withdrawal of our acquaintances when we finally use the term “belly dance” when describing our beloved dance activity. But, as we all know and are reminded by our fearless leader, “It’s not THAT kind of dance!”

Now enters Hollywood - for the first time, people around the world can view other cultures without leaving their own countries. Soon music, language, and color entered films to further bridge the cultural gaps. Dancers in Egypt could see what Hollywood wanted in dance, costume, and music. What Hollywood wanted, they did their best to deliver. By marrying the structure of ballet with the fluidity of Oriental dance, Cabaret style was born. The blend of dance styles from the country people and altering costume ideas to please the Westerners produced a tourist and Hollywood-pleasing dance while maintaining Middle Eastern concepts and execution.

With the popularity of musicals in the 1940s and 1950s, Egyptian dancers realized an opportunity was at hand and seized it. Badiaa Masabni, a Lebanese dancer, operated Cairo’s first professional dance theater. She brought entertainers from all over the world to put together glamorous stage shows. Raks Sharki became a cultural “melting pot” and continued to evolve. Many famous dancers started out on Badiaa’s stage including Tahiya Karioka, Samya Gamal, and Naima Akef. These women were selected to dance in several black and white movies of the time and thus began influencing the style of dancers all over the world and continue to affect Cabaret style as we know it today.

For the Cabaret dancers of the 40s and 50s it was all glamor, roses, and handsome suitors, right? Not quite. While the dancers did receive much attention and acclaim, there was still a stigma attached to being a professional dancer. Many Cabaret dancers had a common story – the poor and/or mistreated young girl loves to dance and becomes a star through her art. However, she is not “good enough” to marry. Not that this happened to all dancers, but it is a theme still present in Egypt today. Egyptians love to watch the dancer, but don’t want her to be their wife/daughter/sister.

So the Cabaret performer must rise above it all, believe in her craft and in herself, and persevere through stereotypes. She has had a tough life, but continues to smile for the audience. Whatever her personal life may hold, she puts on a good face for the people who love to watch her. She is expected to smile, so she smiles. She is expected to flirt and wink, so she flirts and winks. The Cabaret dancer, for her performance time at least, is the queen of the dance floor and exudes the confidence so appropriate for her regal status. She can change her expression from a shy grin to a demure smile, glide across the floor and then suddenly shimmy, all the while holding her head high to support her “crown”. Basically, the Cabaret performer must have Cabaret-Attitude.

Be smart. Be coy. Be confident. Be FABULOUS!


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The Gypsy Dance Persona

by Karen Sullivan  (Adara Janaani)

Any student of Middle Eastern dance quickly comes to realize that a group of people called Gypsies, or Roma, had a notable influence in what is known as American Belly Dance. They are thought to be the original vehicles behind the mingling and blending of music and dance in the Middle East, Africa, and Europe. This mixing, or fusion, has been largely expanded on today in America with evolving artistic dance expression. The intention here to give you a brief glimpse of the complex, illusive people who pioneered dance fusion. The very word, Gypsy, conjures up mystery and intrigue about a group of wandering nomads, true masters of adaptation and survival. The title of Gypsy came by erroneous assumptions that their homeland was Egypt. Gypsies actually migrated to Egypt from India and are thought to be descendants of the warrior Punjabi tribe.

As their travels spread them throughout the Middle East and into Europe, the Gypsy people suffered from stereotyping and oppression along the way. It is always easy to blame troubles on invading outsiders. Perhaps as outsiders showing up in a new village looking for ways to earn wages, they likely posed a threat to established village workers and tradesmen. It would not be the first time competition bred slander and intolerance. (Just monitor an American political race if you have any doubts about that fact.) That coupled with inventive ways to earn money and strange traditions (such as fortune-telling) may have perpetuated labeling them as swindlers and subsequent warnings of being "gypped" by the Gypsies. Please note that using the term "gypped" in any context is offensive to these people.

There are many accounts of their discrimination in the Middle East and Europe. German Nazis are believed to have killed hundred of thousands in an attempt of genocide. Some travelers were forced out of areas, and some were forced to stay where they did not want to live. As Indira Ghandi noted in an address to the second International Romani Festival "Their history is one of sorrow and suffering, but it is also the story of triumph of the human spirit over adversity." She also notes that they are "...assets to the countries to which they now belong, adding color, spontaneity and zest for life."

It would appear that despite stereotyping and related difficulties, they have become quite good at blending in today in many countries. However that should not be confused as assimilation. It is necessary to address the concept of marime' in order to gain a glimpse of understanding into their avoidance of mixing with non-Gypsy people. Marime' is the state of defilement and/or of being polluted which apparently originated during the caravan period when it was necessary for hygienic reasons. In it's basic form, picture the body as being separated at the waist. The upper body is clean and the lower body is marime'. Items that come into contact with the upper body can be washed together; however, items that come into contact with lower body are contaminated and must be separated. This basic reasoning helped keep diseases minimized during times of travel, but it has evolved into a powerful core belief that today often keeps them from integrating with other non-Gypsy people, or "gadje". Things being contaminated progressed to actions being contaminated to people be contaminated. Their idea that the gadje are unclean is          further reinforced by perhaps seeing someone using a fork that dropped on the floor, failing to wash their hands in restrooms, not sorting out underwear at the laundromat, etc. They also view the pursuit of money and materialism prioritized above family as corrupt and vile. Views of the gadje's uncleanliness and corruption mixed with the Gypsy's history of being rejected and persecuted serve to reinforce a barrier that keeps them aloof and detached.

Another interesting consideration of marime' for dancers is how it probably influenced dance costuming. In looking back to the Gypsies for inspiration, the long skirts that cover the lower body and legs are easily understood in this light. Remember that the upper body is not unclean, and, therefore, shame is not attached to a woman's breasts. Bet you can easily find pictures of dancers showing cleavage in what would otherwise be considered a very conservative costume. The Gypsy influence on American Tribal Style Belly Dance costuming is readily apparent. Revealing choli tops worn with full, long skirts over harem pants (the lower parts are definitely concealed in this costume choice).

Of course they influenced costuming in other ways as well. Bright colors offered variety in the Gypsy woman's wardrobe. Wages were converted to things like large earrings and other jewelry that could travel with them. Coins were used as adornments to clothing and hair. They invested in charms, amulets, and talismans for good luck, prevention of misfortune and healing sickness. Even today many do not have bank accounts or safe deposit boxes and feel safer keeping their valuables on their person.

The Gypsies are a hard group to analyze as they are guarded about giving information to the gadje. They are for the most part very private, family oriented people. With great pride in their heritage and ancestry, they have emerged with their dignity intact, survivors who do not take the moment at hand for granted. Most harbor a confidence and feeling of comfort in the knowledge that they can travel to a new location, set up "camp," and find a way through, over or around any obstacle along their path. This is freedom.

So, if you want to dance with a Gypsy persona, do justice to these unique people who have unmistakeably made their mark on Belly Dance as we know it today. Show defiant pride while building mystery and intrigue. As you dance and travel in time with the music, show that you are a master of being in the moment. Be resourceful and adaptive if needed, and let the gleam of confidence shine bright in your eyes.


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