Drive-by Interview: Fun Folkloric Facts with Nahara and Uza Mitra

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