The roots of all belly dance styles are firmly embedded in the folkloric dance traditions of the Middle-East, Mediterranean, and North Africa. Tava Nayin (CT) hosts a workshop on May 31st featuring two teachers of folkloric dance: Uza Mitra (Iraqi dance) and Nahara (North African Berber dance). (Tava will also teach a session on 9/8 musciality.)
Uza and Nahara graciously sat down and answered some of our questions about the history and style of the dances they will be teaching.
Uza Mitra on Iraqi raqs el kawliya
What exactly is Iraqi "raqs el kawliya"? How does it compare with other Middle-Eastern folkloric dances?
"Raqs El Kawliya" is an umbrella term that refers to a fusion of Iraqi dance styles performed by the Kawliya (Dom) dancers of Iraq. Traditionally "Kawliya" dance is closely associated with Southern Iraq and the "Hecha" dance style. However, nowadays the dance also includes vocabulary from other folk dances and musical styles of Iraq such as Choobi, Hewa, Basrawi (Khashaba), and Amarah.
Though raqs el kawliya incorporates elements of raqs sharqi, such as hip movements and shoulder shimmies, it is much earthier, and involves less isolation as the movements reverberate more throughout the body. There is a lot of foot work and a tendency to push and propel to and from the ground. Head slides and hairwork also also typical, but the dance doesn't come from the head, but rather travels from the feet up. Daggers (Khanjar) and finger cymbals (Chumpara) are also used as props from time to time.
What is traditional dress for raqs el kawliya?
Like everywhere else in the world, Iraqi fashions change over time. Back in the 50's you would often see Kawliya dancers wearing typical 1950's tailored waist swing dresses, and sometimes a traditional "Hashimi" (Iraqi thobe) over the dress. You might see a traditional or modern jalabiya, or even tight or loose fitting evening dresses, which can be plain or embellished. Though dresses are most common, in contemporary settings you will also see pants or jeans. All these can be worn with or without a hip scarf or beaded belt. Gold jewelry from India is also a favorite of the Kawliya performers in Iraq. The famous Iraqi dancer Malayeen sometimes even wears a raqs sharqi style two-piece similar to the modern Egyptian costumes. Ultimately, what a dancer wears has mostly to do with performance setting and their own personal style.
Learn more about Uza here.
Nahara on North African dance
First, some history to get you oriented:
North Africa (aka Maghreb, Tamazgha, Numidia) refers to the countries west of Egypt and extending into the northernmost part of the Sahara Desert: Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya. Traditionally these countries are Berber (Amazigh) territories, but due to many invasions by other cultures over thousands of years, the native Amazigh culture has been greatly influenced by outside groups. Amazigh language, dance, music, and food have all been affected, but the core of Amazigh culture remains. The dominant language spoken in North Africa today is Arabic but the Amazigh language (Tamazight) is often spoken at home and used in traditional music.
How common is the 6/8 is North African dance? What sort of technique does it require?
There are many different rhythms used throughout North Africa but the 6/8 rhythms are very common in the popular music of the people known as Chaabi (commonly spelled Shaabi in Egypt). In the workshop I will be teaching the Chaabi style of mainly Morocco, but time permitting I will also show some Tunisian and Algerian popular movements. As with belly dance, these dances are pelvic-centered, involving twisting and lifting/dropping movements of the hips.
Besides the 6/8, what movements or techniques characterize North African dance?
Many of the movements of belly dance have developed from these roots folk dances of North Africa. In fact, belly dancers would benefit greatly from studying North African dance, as it will strengthen their understanding of the core movements, ground their center, and loosen their hips for more powerful hip articulations such as shimmies. The main difference will be instead of doing the movement to a typical 4/4 rhythm of belly dance (such as beledi), the movements are done to a 6/8 rhythm, which the dancer will feel differently. What can make 6/8 rhythms especially challenging for dancers is the layers of rhythm and syncopation making it difficult for dancers to even know where the first beat of the rhythm is. However, with time the dancer gets an "ear" for the rhythm and then of course it works its way into their heart and hips.
We will be doing Berber (Amazigh) pop dance to the most commonly-used 6/8 rhythms. Berber pop dance has the same movement vocabulary as belly dance - hip lifts/drops, shimmies, shoulder shimmies, and belly lifts. The term belly dance probably arose because of North African dance. Some Moroccan and Algerian Amazigh dances have distinctive belly movements that most likely led to the term danse du ventre, especially with respect to the Ouled Nail dancers of Algeria. Later the term danse du ventre was translated as "belly dance" here in the West; however, belly dance here is more of a hip-centered dance than an abdominal dance of the Ouled Nail, which are a Berber (Amazigh) tribe.
Learn more about Nahara here.
Interview by Amy Smith
The 3 Early Girls present "A Weekend with Anjelica Scannura" in Syracuse, NY on May 23-24. In addition to belly dance, Anjelica is a flamenco dancer and actress. She was inducted into the Belly Dancer of the Universe Hall of Fame in 2013. Photos in this article are by Denise Grant.
Interviewed by Amy Smith
Ela Rogers is a belly dance artist, choreographer, and instructor, internationally known for her unique and dramatic musical interpretations, experimental fusion, her graceful and powerful technique, and her talents in the fine arts and costume design. Baseema and Mathura are hosting Ela in a workshop and show on Saturday, March 14 at the Dance Complex in Cambridge.
You started out learning/performing Egyptian style dance…how has this influenced your current style?
It’s funny...I was initially bitten by the belly dance bug after seeing Tribal Fusion style belly dance. Actually, it was when the Bellydance Superstars were in New York in 2005 for a guest spot on the TV morning show “Regis and Kelly”, showcasing a trio of the company’s multi-styled dancers. Being a novice to belly dance, I was unaware that there were different styles! I instantly connected to Tribal Style, after bearing witness to the jaw-dropping confidence, exquisite muscular control and articulation of the body, the earthy and (what I thought was) an almost rebellious image juxtaposed with the classic Egyptian and cabaret dancers. After all, I’ve always been a tomboy who has marched to the beat of my own drum, and to me, this style made me feel accepted and comfortable in my own skin. I could barely contain myself and wished to begin training right away, but soon discovered that there were no Tribal Style teachers in my area. I felt it was imperative to just enroll myself in the nearest classical belly dance class, which was Egyptian style.
Once enrolled, I soon realized the importance of learning the basic history and movements of this ancient dance, how it felt on my body, and where the components originated. Studying with the delectable Elena El Amar was just what my soul needed at that point in my life. She is an amazing teacher and woman, who dances within what seemed to be a magical white light, her heart and eyes just illuminated with passion, emotion, and playfulness that embodies the Egyptian-style dance that she dearly loves. To this day, those are the qualities that still influence my dance. Even though I am a fusion artist, I firmly believe in the importance of intelligent fusion that I define as “know the rules before you break them.” I always carry awareness and respect for everything in my movement repertoire, and meld with care and creativity. That is what it’s all about for me. One can always build atop a strong foundation.
You are self-taught in Tribal Style. Can you talk about your process?
Well, thank you! It’s something that I’ve worked hard for. Limitations are sometimes what we perceive; just because I didn’t have a Tribal Style belly dance teacher from which to take weekly classes didn’t mean that I could not work towards my goal of learning this style. Having backgrounds in classical ballet, jazz, modern dance, and martial arts surely gave me a platform for cultural dance. I had to become resourceful to seek out any forms of instruction. I placyed Fat Chance Belly Dance instructional DVDs daily in my home, along with other Tribal Fusion-style instructional videos for my practice.
Being honest, I also had some set-backs. Still being new at this point to belly dance, I would get overzealous imitating movements that I had seen in Tribal Style dance performances but that I hadn’t yet learned, and was inflicted with numerous injuries. The top two that took the cake were a sprained back and a pretty serious abdominal strain that finally resulted in a six-month leave from dance. After physical therapy and chiropractic care, I slowly restored my body, and was coached in anatomy, strengthening, and injury prevention along the way.
I must say that I learned so much from my injuries, ultimately becoming more acquainted with my body and habits of my dancing. Upon returning to dance, I set out on long car rides to take workshops from as many Tribal and Tribal Fusion-style belly dance teachers as possible and I asked many questions. Then, when I was ready, I began performing at my nearest city’s belly dance haflas and shows, recording my performances, and then studying them meticulously! (Your video camera is one of your best teachers!)
When not dancing, I filled my time with yoga, Pilates, and many hours of watching YouTube videos of belly dance performers of ALL LEVELS. To me, it was important to absorb it all, to discover for myself, how I envisioned perfecting my own dancing. One of my all-time favorite quotes by Claude Monet still keeps me motivated to this day: “It’s on the strength of observation and reflection that one finds a way. So we must dig and delve unceasingly.” Whether it’s honing your craft or seeking out inspiration…stay hungry and just keep digging!
What is your teaching style and approach? What are your primary goals for your students?
My approach in teaching is to invite my students to experience my movement material on their bodies in a safe environment, to have them relax, and then have them find emotion within themselves and to embody it in their own movement. This is what I found to be equally exciting and challenging when learning dance. When I’m the student, my intentions are to be receptive to the unfamiliar, but to remain open to explore. From there, you begin to perceive yourself in subtle nuances, further leading towards your feelings of identity. There is an emotional and spiritual side of dance within the mover, along with the anatomical side.
A lot of my students hear my speech of my “Spider-Man Policy”, based on Spider-Man’s well-known phrase: “With great power comes great responsibility.” It’s what I use to engage my students to encourage the mindset of truly honoring and respecting one’s body as a dancer and athlete. If becoming a strong and healthy dancer is what you desire, and if you wish to dance efficiently for an extended length of time, one must be responsible and maintain strength, flexibility, and have a devoted practice. Above all, I deeply enjoy sharing my passion with people and being part of teaching something that is SO much bigger than all of us. It is history. It is dance. It is art and the creative process.
Who are your top 3 dance influences?
I would have to say that my main three influences who truly affected my development when I began my journey in belly dance would be: my first belly dance teacher, Egyptian-style dancer Elena El Amar; innovator of American Tribal Style belly dance, Carolena Nericcio; and Rachel Brice, who continued the lineage of the dance into Tribal Fusion belly dance. These women represent three different dance forms, and I admire their hard work, fearless determination, and dedication to their art and sisterhood. Through the years, they constantly reminded me to step up my innovation, practice more, to become as educated as possible, and to continue to keep setting goals.
Currently, my inspirations change and flux all the time. I admire so many dancers and movers, outside of the belly dance genre, as well. Cyd Charisse is my current crush with her sinuous body lines and flow! Artwork - be it paintings, sculptures, or shapes and textures in nature - also heavily influence my dance.
And I wanted to share that with friends. So in the fall of 2012 I hosted the first Improv Roulette...and only six people came. But the six of us created magic that night. A belly dancer and a poi spinner shadowed each other and Berber walked across the dance studio. One dear friend brought a pogo stick as a prop and another used it as her slow dance partner. By the end of the evening I had tears streaming down my face and my sides ached from all of the laughter. From the moment it ended, I wanted to do it again.
October 19th - Tempest's Waking Persephone in Seattle, WA