Movement analysis of Egyptian raqs sharqi dancers from the 1930s to 1950s

Table 15 includes a comparison of the movements used by the three most famous dancers of the golden age.

Kinemes

All three use isolations of the hips, torso and shoulders and a clear movement vocabulary of raqs sharqi is already established at this stage.

Following Kaeppler (2001), these isolations constitute raqs sharqi kinemes, which are the ‘minimal units of movement recognized as contrastive’ (ibid, p. 51) by raqs sharqi practitioners.

Each kineme, for example, a hip drop, can be performed in various ways, giving rise to many allokines, another concept borrowed from Kaeppler’s (2001) dance analysis (4.6.1).

For example, a hip drop can be done standing straight or leaning back, as Tahia Carioca sometimes does.

Allokines

The use of allokines is very widespread in a dance genre such as raqs sharqi, in which the individual interpretation of the dancer is important and, already from this early stage, it is clear how every dancer has a clearly distinct style.

Motifs

Motifs are also created, which are ‘sequences of movement made up of kinemes and morphokines that produce short entities in themselves’ (Kaeppler, 2001, p. 51).

For example, the travelling steps and combinations created by Naima Akef, which were copied by successive generations of dancers, can be considered motifs (even though these motifs are then changed based on every dancer’s style rather than copied exactly as they were performed by Naima Akef).

In the analysis of the timeframes that follow, we will see how these kinemes, allokines and motifs develop and if new ones are created or if some go out of fashion over time.

Tables 12a and 12b summarise the main themes that have emerged from this timeframe.

There were many raqs sharqi dancers in the so-called golden age of Egyptian cinema, as well as choreographers and other people involved in the production and appreciation of this dance.

However, I have identified a few figures who, through their agency, are very influential in the development and transmission of this dance.

They are the dancers Samia Gamal, Tahia Carioca and Naima Akef and the choreographers Ibrahim Akef and Mahmoud Reda.

Movement Analysis Tables

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Laban raqs sharqi movements analysis
Table 15 – Movements analysis of 3 of the most famous Golden Age Dancers.

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Golden Era of Egyptian Cinema (1930s to 1950s) - Part 1 dance analysis
Table 16 – The Golden Era of Egyptian Cinema (1930s to 1950s) – Part 1

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Influences of heritage and dance
Table 17 – The Golden Era of Egyptian Cinema (1930s to 1950s) – Part 2

Identifying Traditions and Innovations Between Dancers

Already it is possible to identify a tension between traditions and innovations, with some dancers, particularly Tahia Carioca, being more connected to traditions in the way they move and others (Samia Gamal and Naima Akef) more modern and open to innovations.

Tahia Carioca vs Samia Gamal vs Naima Akef

Tahia Carioca and Samia Gamal also embody the baladi/afrangi dichotomy. Tahia is seen as the ‘bint al balad’ the working class, authentic and traditional baladi figure (although her stage name, Carioca, also reflects a transcultural dimension).

Samia represents the afrangi values, by embracing an international culture in the way she moves and presents herself.

Naima Akef is an innovator but also distinct from the other two, in that she is the one who experimented the most with a variety of new steps and combinations, which have been replicated by many dancers after her.

She choreographed her solo dances and sought to achieve very polished performances. In spite of the differences between these dancers, one common element is the softness and relaxed feeling of raqs sharqi.

Embodiment of Raqs Sharqi

These three dancers, in particular, are the first embodiments of the raqs sharqi heritage, as their performances were immortalised in several movies.

They embody heritage through the human’s body ability to be what Burkitt (1999, pp. 2, 3) describes as ‘productive bodies capable of activities that change the nature of their lives’ by being ‘communicative bodies . . . powerful bodies . . .. thinking bodies’, by virtue of their dance, which is embedded in traditions.

It seems, moreover, that dancers act as social agents in the field of cultural production (Bourdieu and Johnson, 1993) of raqs sharqi, by creating niches for themselves and building their capital.

As Bourdieu (1992, p. 99) stated, the agents can ‘increase or . . . conserve their capital . . . in conformity with the tacit rules of the game . . . but they can also . . . transform, partially or completely, the immanent rules of the game’.

It seems that innovators play the game by seeking to change the rules, while the traditionalists prefer to keep the rules as they are and use them to their own advantage.

Mahmoud Reda Movement Interpretations

Mahmoud Reda connected local traditions with innovation, as he observed and studied local folkloric dances and the embodied habitus of Egyptians (their dispositions, or way of moving in everyday life) and represented his own version on stage.

Mahmoud Reda’s folklore represents Egyptian heritage but also his own interpretation, which was influenced by his middle-class background, and by having travelled and appreciated western dance in American movies.

In this respect, Reda owned what Urry (2007, p. 197) refers to as ‘network capital’, which allowed him to travel and provided him with ‘means of networking’.

The way in which he tried to tone down sexually charged movements in dance, particularly in his version of raqs sharqi, reflects the taste and morals of a particular class at a specific moment in time.

The ruling class was trying to portray folkloric dances as part of Egyptian cultural heritage abroad, and, as Reed argues (1998, p. 512) ‘regulating purity and authenticity in folkloric dance in a patriarchal and protective mode is a common feature of state and elite interventions’.

Codification and Mahmoud Reda

Mahmoud Reda started a process of codification and refinement of raqs sharqi, which has heavily influenced its development, especially considering the fact that Mahmoud Reda went on to teach all his life to dancers from different cultures, nations and backgrounds.

Already at this stage, raqs sharqi takes shape as an ‘invented tradition’, which has its roots in local dances but is distinct from baladi social dance and from folkloric dances.

Raqs sharqi is transmitted, at this stage, by imitation and mimesis body to body.

However, this imitation happens not only in person (as it used to be the case traditionally), but also indirectly through the medium of cinema.

The movies that people could see in the 50s are the same that we can see today, so the invention of cinema (and later other technologies for recording dance) has deterritorialized and detemporalised heritage, since dancers no longer have to be in the presence of a teacher to learn.

This contradicts UNESCO’s (2003, p. 2) statement that intangible heritage is ‘transmitted generation to generation’ as indeed transmission can skip generations, through the use of technology.

Moreover, these old movies have become a tangible expression of raqs sharqi as ‘the audiovisual material that captures its sound or image’ (Skounti, 2008, p. 77), and they have also become heritage in their own rights as they are artifacts with their own artistic value.

Impact of Settings and Locations

In terms of locations and social occasions in which raqs sharqi takes place, in the movies we can see a variety of settings: from nightclubs and theatres to weddings and traditional celebrations.

Also, the most famous dancers, such as Tahia Carioca, dance for Egyptian royalty [1] and heads of state and they are seen as representing a part of Egyptian culture on the world stage.

As Zaki Osman (2011, para. 6) remarks, ‘Gamal . . . Tahiya Karioka and Naima Akef, had contributed to turning belly dancing into a cultural phenomenon’.

Impact of Artifacts on the Dance Traditions

Finally, artifacts also reflect the tension between tradition and innovation because, alongside the most traditional props such as finger cymbals and assaya, the veil appears as a prop used for the entrance on stage, and the most modern costumes of the time, in particular, those worn by Samia Gamal, are made with gracefully flowing chiffon.

As Samia Gamal once stated (Cifuentes, 1994, para. 7), ‘I loved to work with soft fabric, which gave an ethereal illusion’. In this respect, the veil is an instrument for the dancer to dilate ‘her being-in-the-world . . . by appropriating fresh instruments’ (Merleau-Ponty [1945] 1992, p. 166). Most dancers wore the bedlah, except for those dancing in Mahmoud Reda’s representations of raqs sharqi (see Figure 17) for which, Farida Fahmy (1987, p. 68) recalls:

Costumes . . . were designed to emphasize the shapeliness of the women’s figures . . . Bodices were usually long-waisted and close-fitting. . . . While the neck and arms remained bare, the midriff was always covered.

Farida Fahmy (1987)

Props such as the assaya represent a connection between ancient traditions and the developments of what, at the time, was a new, invented tradition (i.e. raqs sharqi).

The assaya, as we have seen in 5.2.2 (the birth of modern Raqs sharqi), was used by the Ghawazee dancers.

It was inspired by the stick used in a combat activity called tahtib from Upper Egypt. Mahmoud Reda created a dance for male dancers, influenced by tahtib which, as Fahmy (1987, p. 48) states, was ‘an individual, stylized, improvisational dance, that retains much of the defence and attack quality of movements found in tahtib’.

The way in which raqs sharqi dancers used the assaya was in a playful and flirty way, as it can be seen in a scene from the 1955 film Aziza, with Naima Akef (TheCaroVan, 2014i).

Raqs Sharqi, Cinema and 1950s Egypt

Overall, cinema and the political environment (promoting Egyptian culture after the 1952 revolution), seem to have been positive for the continuation of dance as a form of heritage between the 1930s and 50s in Egypt.

However, the adaptation of dance for the stage led to changes and the creation of a new invented tradition.

Also, the morals of the time seemed to stigmatize dance to a certain extent, as Mahmoud Reda felt the need to tone down the most sensual elements of dance for its representation on stage.

So, this meant that folkloric dances (or at least the staged representations of them) started to be seen as respectable, as opposed to raqs sharqi, towards which an ambivalent attitude developed.

This attitude can be explained by the fact that, while folkloric dance was tamed for the stage, that did not happen with raqs sharqi, because its playful and sensual nature resisted being inscribed in nationalistic discourses.

As Reed states (1998, p. 511) ‘the very aspects that make dances appealing and colourful . . . may be precisely the things that do not easily fit into the self-representation of the nation’.

This applies to raqs sharqi and may be the reason for the ambivalent attitude of Egyptians towards it, which persists to the present time.

The tangible and intangible living heritage (3.7) elements that can be identified for this time frame include the:

  • feeling of relaxation (at the level of perceptual mind-body unity) of Egyptian raqs sharqi as seen in the videos and identified in the discourse.
  • movement vocabulary being identified, which provides rules and resources for the practitioners.
  • agency of dancers and choreographers who use the allocative resources at their disposal (movements and artefacts such as props. and also movies) to continue the tradition and possibly innovate on it.
  • new props being appropriated as fresh instruments by dancers; the social background of practitioners that influences the dance/heritage.
  • field of cultural production of Egyptian raqs sharqi, influenced by the taste of social agents and in which practitioners have a capital at stake that they try to defend or increase. In addition to these elements, the continuous tension between traditions and innovation brings to the fore the relevance of the idea of fluid authenticity, whereby art continuously changes and adapts to new environments.

In this timeframe, some contrasts emerge from the results.

Results: Innovation Differences Between the 3 Raqs Sharqi Dancers

In particular, the different ways in which the three most famous dancers deal with the balance between innovation and tradition and their different dance styles.

There is no definite answer as to why this is the case, but this difference can be partially explained through three different and overlapping levels of analysis.

1st Level – The Phenomenological

The first level is phenomenological, connected with their personalities and their lived experiences.

For instance, Tahia Carioca comes across as down to earth and passionate, while Samia Gamal comes across as more affable and this can reflect in the qualities (in the Laban analysis sense) of their dance.

Of course, the discourse that was built later around these two women might have magnified certain aspects of their personalities, but this discourse must have been influenced by how Tahia and Samia came across in actual life.

2nd Level: Dancers’ Habitus and Dispositions

The second level is connected to the dancers’ habitus and dispositions, generated by their socio-cultural background.

Tahia was of baladi background, raised with the idea that in life it is important to be strong and so she adopted the persona of the bint el balad in performance.

Samia was also of modest background, so this socio-cultural level is difficult to assess in terms of how it shaped her attitude to dance; we should know more about their biography in order to attempt an analysis.

Naima Akef was brought up in a circus and she started as an acrobat, so this may have made her more prone to adopt a stricter approach to choreography and incorporate more athletic movements and experiment more.

3rd Level: The Agency/Structure Dialectic of the Dancer

The third level is about the agency/structure dialectic.

The performers, even if influenced by the rules and structures of society, the cinema industry and their art, still had agency to make choices and use resources.

So, they probably, to a certain extent, danced in a certain way because they liked it and made conscious choices as to what extent they wanted to innovate.

Moreover, based on Giddens’ (1991) idea of reflexive self-identity, their free choice to present their identity in a certain way was also linked to the structural expectations of society.

Since these dancers acted in movies, it is possible they were typecast throughout their careers to fit a specific character or personality as performers, so the audience could create a narrative around them and identify them.

Next Page >> The Internationalisation of Raqs Sharqi (1960s and Early 1970s).

Footnotes

1 – This happened in the 1940s, when Egypt was still a monarchy, before the 1953 coup in which Egypt became a republic (BBC News, 2017).

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Hi - I'm Dr Valeria Lo Iacono and I am a dance researcher with a PhD in dance as a form of living heritage. I also teach belly dance and love to travel to discover new dances around the world. I have worked also as an academic and in the UK and in Korea. Thank you for visiting my site.