After a career as a flamenco dancer, Marisa turned to belly dance in her retirement and loves sharing her knowledge of the art form.
Why Dance Folkloric?
The obvious answer to this question is, "Because I enjoy it". Great—that's your privilege! But lately, I'm detecting an attitude by some teachers that I'm somehow a "lesser" belly dancer because I have no interest in learning and performing the folkloric dances. Frankly, that has never made any sense to me.
Part of the reason for my confusion is the misconceptions that have grown up around "folkloric". For instance, I've been told that we study folkloric because "belly dance developed from these dances". I have yet to see a shred of evidence that supports that claim—but even if it were true, why is it relevant? I can't think of any other dance genre where dancers learn the dances from which theirs emerged. You don't see ballroom dancers learning gavottes and quadrilles, or ballet dancers learning the courtly dances of France.
Then there's the idea that learning other regional dances widens your repertoire of steps for use in belly dance. My response: If a folkloric step or rhythm has become part of modern belly dance, then it's become part of the standard lexicon of belly dance, and we can learn it as such.
For those who want to add folkloric steps to your practice—that's up to you, but then you're dancing fusion. Just because you're borrowing from a style that's also Middle Eastern doesn't make them less foreign. In Spain, if you suggested to a flamenco dancer that he should incorporate steps from the jota or the sardana, he'd be shocked. And let's imagine if Highland dance teachers took the same attitude. They would borrow steps from Irish dancing, Morris dancing, Long Sword and clogging. Does that make sense?
The Reda Troupe
So, perhaps you can see why I wasn't convinced by the arguments for learning folkloric. More recently, though, I've heard a justification that has some merit.
Many of the Egyptian "folkloric" dances are not true folk dances: they were created by Reda for his troupe in the 1960s. At first glance, that seems to support my argument: we don't regard the Golden Age dancers as being "lesser" belly dancers, just because the Melaya Lef or the muwashshah didn't exist as dances!
However, the Reda troupe is so iconic and had such a massive impact on belly dance in Egypt, that its choreographic legacy has become almost "traditional". In that sense, I get it—if you want to be a belly dancer in the Reda tradition, then I can see why knowing Reda's "folkloric" dances is important.
Also, Egyptian music does reference folkloric rhythms—and these days, an educated audience will expect you to reflect those rhythms in Reda folkloric style. However, as I said, those references have already become an integral part of modern belly dance. You can learn the rhythms, and you can learn the signature moves. For instance, I've learned the hagala walk in my regular belly dance class—I don't need to spend an entire term studying hagala to know how to do it. Likewise, if I learn to identify muwashshah, I can dance something with a Spanish flavour—but the interpretation of that style has become so wide, I can use my own variation.
In summary, I understand the need to understand the key elements of the folkloric styles—the elements that are incorporated into raqs sharqi—but I fail to see why I should devote hours to studying the totality of every dance.
A Word on Reda
I have heard people talk about how Reda travelled Egypt and researched all the regional dances, so therefore they must be genuine. That's not true. What he did was use the cultures he saw in his travels as inspiration for his own choreographies.
Reda had been to America, and was inspired by what American choreographers had done—bringing their culture on to stage and screen through dance, (e.g. Jerome Robbins portraying gang culture in dance in West Side Story, Agnes de Mille expressing the Wild West in the dances of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, or Gene Kelly showcasing American culture through his films).
I haven't researched all the styles, but here are some examples where Reda's "folkoric" dances are pure invention:
Fellahi: Quote from Shira.net: "When he [Reda] reached the Nile delta region, he discovered that the men had no special regional folk dance moves." Instead, he based his fellahi tableaux on the women bringing water from the river, to express the "flavour" of the culture. There is no traditional dance where men and women dance together.
Andalusian/Muwashah: Quote from Farida Fahmy: "Unlike the musical composer and arranger, Mahmoud Reda had no point of reference from which to choreograph. While it has been documented that there were many female poets, musicians and dancers absolutely no reference is available as how they danced."
Melaya Lef: This is not truly a separate dance style. Originally it was straightforward beledi choreography, with the addition of the melaya (heavy shawl), designed to show the character of the true Egyptian woman, the bint balad.
I can't discuss folkloric dance without discussing cultural appropriation—the allegation that white people are "stealing" belly dance from the Middle East.
I don't buy into that argument. People all over the world do dances from other cultures—flamenco is more popular in Japan than in Spain; there are Highland dancing schools all over Australia and the States. There's no reason belly dance should be special, particularly as it's not a folk dance—like flamenco, the style we dance in the West is mostly the post-1920 cabaret version, which became partly Westernized the moment it moved to the stage. In fact, the name raqs sharqi was coined by Badia Masabni to distinguish the style from traditional Egyptian dance.
However, I am less comfortable with the idea of Westerners presenting Egyptian folk dances—especially when it involves dressing up as cartoon Egyptian men with fake moustaches. To me, that does feel dangerously close to invading the culture of another people.
I've heard teachers say that learning the other dances of the region is "showing respect" for the culture from which belly dance arose. But I can see the other side of the coin.
Middle Easterners are accustomed to foreign women dancing raqs sharqi. But for white women to start dressing up and claiming to represent Egyptian culture? I'm not so sure. I can imagine some critics saying, "Not content with stealing belly dance; they have to steal our folk dances too!"
In that sense, perhaps it's Reda who saves us from that accusation—because most folkloric is not real traditional dance, it's a choreographed representation created in the 1960s. But that does not apply to all folkloric, so it still troubles me.
© 2020 Marisa Wright