Middle Eastern Dance

Middle Eastern Dance is also known as “Oriental Dance”, and” Raqs Sharqi” an arabic name meaning “dance of the east/orient. The Turkish name is “Oryantal”. The term “belly dance” was created by the group of people known as the “orientalists” who used the term to translate the French “danse du ventre.”

It would seem that this form of dance can be traced as far back as to Mesopotamia where temple engravings portraying dancers have been found. Similar engravings are found in Egypt dating back to 1000BC. This dance seems to have its’ origins in ritual dance for fertility and childbirth, concerns which are as relevant to-day as then. The priestesss were sometimes “sacred prostitutes” who performed dances for clients as they prayed to the Goddess. Here lies one of the reasons for the concept of women as whores and/or mothers.

Different classes of dancers existed. The Ghawazee and Gypsy dancers who were street performers and poorly educated. The Awalim by contrast were trained in the arts of dance and music. These two groups had very different dance styles.

For centuries the role of oriental dance in Middle Eastern society has been that of folk dance which people would do on joyous occassions such as a wedding, the birth of a child, community festivals, and other events. Dancing was for enjoyment and was not a performance with spectators.

The influence of Islam led to people living in segregated households. The dwelling was divided into an area for men an an area for women and children. A “harem” was simply the term for the women’s quarters which could not be visited by any man other than an immediate family relation.

Originally there were no special dance “costumes”. People danced in whatever they were wearing for the ocassion.
In the late nineteenth century this form of dance became popular in Europe where it was known as “Salome” dancing.

The interest was sparked partly by Mata Hari the spy, who circuated the story that she was a Middle Eastern dancer when she was in fact an exotic striptease artiste.The revealing modern dance costumes we know to-day owe their existence mainly to Hollywood and its never ceasing search for glamour. This style of costuming was then taken up by the Egyptians. In the 1920’s Egypt started making films featuring dancers. This marked the beginning of choreography in the Middle East. Prior to this dance was pure improvisation.

There is much dispute regarding the history and interpretation of one dance accessory – the veil. It seems to date to the 1940’s. It is no longer fashionable in Egypt though it is sometimes used in Turkey. Dancers in the US,
England and Europe are using veils in innovative ways.

In the 1950’s Folklore and Story dances were starting to die out and so were included in stage performances to keep them alive.

Mens’ dance and womens’ Middle Eastern dance do have common features but also considerable differences. There exists though an interesting minority tradition of men dressed as women dancing in public places. These groups include the Moroccan Shikhatt and the Turkish Kochek. A small number of men in North America and Europe perform Oriental dance.

Middle Eastern dance as such does not have a wide vocabulary of moves. There are foot, hip, stomach, torso, arm, head and other movements. The great beauty and fascination of this art form is based on how the moves are combined – and there are endless combinations.

Middle Eastern dance is accompanied by beautiful, complex music where there is much interaction between dancers and musicians. The drummer may be playing one rhythm, the violinist another, and the tambourine player a third, while the dancer keeps yet another on her finger cymbals.The Middle Eastern dancer moves to the music in a way which incorporates the different rhythms and expresses the emotion of the music. Improvisation and ornamentation as in jazz allow musicians to express their individuality through their various instruments.

The main instruments include:-

The Tabla, a drum shaped like a goblet.
Oud, A short necked, pear-shaped string instrument.
Violin. This is a recently introduced instrument.
Singers play a vital role due to the importance of the lyrics.
Sagat. Small finger cymbals.
Nai. A hollow reed flute.
Kanun. A stringed instrument similar to the zither.
Riq. The Middle Eastern tambourine.
Tar. A large frame drum.

Oriental dance is body-friendly in a way that is not necessarily true with other dance forms. Pure Middle Eastern dance does not require leaping, hyperextension of joints or abrupt movements.Like most forms of dance it can help to improve the circulation, reduce blood pressure, help keep the joints flexible and burn up calories. There are women who are convinced that it has helped in instances of back problems, hip prosthesis, rickets etc. However, anyone dancing for physical healing should avoid backbends and Turkish drops, Hair Tosses and floor work in general is very risky for people with knee problems.

Drug and talking therapies can be very effective but they seem to work best when they help patients to look within themselves to find avenues for healing. In Egypt, Sudan, Somalia, and Ethiopia there is a special healing ceremony called Zar which includes movement and dance. It is a healing and exorcism carried out on behalf of a person, usually a woman, who is considered to be possessed. Each spirit is believed to be associated with a specific drum rhythm. A critical part of the zar is establishig the rhythm needed to drive out a particular spirit.

There are some women who dance regularly who continue doing so uptil the day before giving birth. However, it should be borne in mind that hormones released during pregnancy loosen the ligaments. This can lead to hyperextension of a knee, to turning an ankle or even hip problems. These women say the dancing takes on a new dimension making them feel beautiful and confident as women and also helping the actual birth.Medical advice should always be sought.

If a woman wants to continue dancing she should take heed of the following:-

No overheating in the first three months of pregnancy.
Posture and movements should be kept even both sides to avoid sciatica.
No sustained stretches/cool downs lying on the back.

Balance may be affected (totally different center of gravity in later stages), so be careful on turns.
Listen to your body.

Middle Eastern Dance and music are alive and well and adapting and changing while remaining true to their glorious past.

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