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The Singing Waist | Oriental Dance as a Translation of Music

كتابةمعازف - February 12, 2018

Original Arabic article by Yaser Abdullah | 05/06/2016
Translated by Farah Zahra

While working on a documentary about Muhammad Abd Al-Wahab, I once asked a professor of music about the pieces Abd Al-Wahab had composed specifically for oriental dance. The professor avoided answering by telling me my question was pointless. Later, while filming a segment for that same documentary, I asked another guest about the subject. He told me that some of the introductions to Abd Al-Wahab’s songs had been used as dance music in nightclubs. He then cut himself off, interrupting the shoot, and asked that I omit his answer.

The subject remained taboo, shrouded in darkness, until Edward Said wrote about it in his article on Tahiyyah Carioca, included in Reflections on Exile and Other Essays. Said opened the door for other scholars to write about oriental dance from the perspective of sexuality, corporeality, and nationalism. However, the texts remain few and far between, and no scholar since has ever followed-up on the topic in any serious way. At the same time, journalistic writing on the subject has for the most part been limited to arts tabloids and is based on unverified accounts.

Oriental dance has rarely been treated as a translation of the music that accompanies it, whether vocal or instrumental, despite the fact that high caliber dancing and singing both featured prominently in Egyptian cinema during what is considered to have been its golden age, from the early 1940s to the early 1970s. The two went hand in hand, and, more often than not, the dancer’s waist occupied a role no less significant than that of the singer’s voice in transmitting the music to a large audience, functioning as a musical medium no less important than sound.

Before Recordings

Despite their obvious shortcomings, some nineteenth century orientalist writings do contain descriptions of ghawazi—nomadic female dancers belonging to the Dom ethnic group—such as a somewhat realistic description by Edward Lane and another, more exaggerated, found among Flaubert’s letters. With a few exceptions, such as some fanciful depictions of eastern dancers by westerners or Edward Lane’s depictions of ghawazi dress, we do not know of any detailed and accurate record of the character of ghawazi dance or the singing that accompanied it.

The earliest video of an eastern belly dancer was recorded by Edison in 1876. The film’s subject is a dancer who went by “Little Egypt”, a name clearly intended to stimulate the western imagination. Although her true national identity remained a mystery, the most famous accounts of her life state that “Fatima Djamile” made her debut at the Chicago World’s Fair, a famous nineteenth century orientalist venture in the pavilions of which a fictionalized east was put on display. In the words of Timothy Mitchell, what the pavilions of the World’s Fair represented “were not just exhibitions of the world, but the ordering up of the world itself as an endless exhibition.”

In this short silent film, a dancer carries out a number of rapid motions to music we cannot hear. Her dress resembles that of the nineteenth century ghawazi in Edward Lane’s depictions, while her dancing closely resembles both that of the ghawazi and of the belly dancers who used to perform at mawalid celebrations—annual celebrations of Muslim saints—in the Egyptian countryside.

In addition to Edison’s one silent film, record companies active in Egypt in the early years of the 20th century, in particular the company Odeon, made a number of recordings of the music to which famous dancers of the time performed. In comparing an early recording entitled “Shafiqah’s Dance,” by Aysha Nida, from the beginning of the 20th century, with a recording entitled “Badi’ah’s Dance,” from the 1920s, we can observe the difference between the music to which dancers originally performed and later music composed especially for nightclubs.

The singer Aysha Nida Alima Baladiyya was known for her mahsoul, a kind of popular folk song prevalent at the time and set to a simple orchestral accompaniment. We can hear on the recording the same traditional dance music introduction found on all other recordings of “Shafiqa’s Dance” and the same folk song, which Al-Alima concludes by repeating the phrase keep going, keep going, your beloved is coming today, and by showering the dancer, whom we cannot see but whose castanets was can hear, with popular expressions like light of my eyes and your mother’s eye.

On the recording of “Badi’ah’s Dance” (see video below), we hear an exquisitely composed orchestral segment beginning with an introduction on the maqam—or Arabic musical mode—known as al-bayati.  Next comes a mix of orchestra and castanets, with a violin performing a solo improvisation to the rhythm of the castanets. This form is the closest thing there is to the tahmila—a traditional musical form featuring extensive improvisation—but it makes reference to a traditional song called “Ya Ra’i Al-Dhiba” (“Oh Hunter of Gazelles”).

Expressionist Fusion

The club run by Badi’a Al-Masabni was a true melting pot where a fusion of numerous artistic styles and cultures flourished. In a discussion with Badi’ah on her talk show Nujum ‘ala al-Ard (Stars on Earth), Layla Rustem described Badi’ah as the “artists’ nanny,” adding “they are all considered to be your children.” Badi’ah claimed to have mastered not only dance, but all other art forms as well, from acting to singing to musical revue. She also announced that she had mixed the various dances with each other. “Before, there was only belly dance. I changed it, adding Spanish, Turkish, and Persian elements. I’m the one who fused Arabic and European music.” Badi’ah’s club was an institution where a large number of young composers from the expressionist school of Egyptian music—the school of Al-Qasabji, Al-Sunbati, and Al-Wahab—worked. This school had emerged after the death of Sayyed Darwish as a marriage of the traditional Arabic musical heritage with new European music, brought together through musical theater. “What Badi’ah directed was not merely a group of artists. Rather, she ran an entire institute, training artists and helping them refine their craft.” Just as Sayyed Darwish had been consecrated as the father of this expressionist school, so prevalent in Egyptian music at the time and standing in opposition to practitioners of tarab—a traditional form of Arabic art-music—so too was Badi’ah Masabni consecrated as the mother of the expressionist school of dance, which stood in opposition to the traditional school of the ghawazi, later to disband and disappear. To hear names such as Mahmoud Al-Sharif, Farid Al-Atrash, Farid Ghosn, Muhammad Fawzi, Ahmad Sabra, Abd Al-Ghani Al-Sayyid, Abd Al-Aziz Mahmoud, Tahya Carioca, or Samiyah Gamal, all of whom had the opportunity to work at Badi’a’s club at one time or another, is to be made aware of the hegemony enjoyed by adherents of Badi’ah’s expressionist school over musical cinema in the 1950s and 1960s.

Badi’ah recorded a considerable number of albums in her lifetime, ranging from low-brow, popular songs (called taqtuqa, plural: taqatiq) to comedic dialogues with her husband Al-Rihani, and from comedic monologues by Sayyed Sulayman to traditional tarab songs. On her records she even made fun of new dances that had not yet integrated into the local style. On the record “Al-Charleston” Badi’ah makes fun of the eponymous dance, saying, “In this dance, you can’t tell if the dancer is crazy or drunk.” She then makes clear her preference for oriental dance, saying, “Put tango and foxtrot aside. Hit the drum and I’ll respond.” In the early days of the sound film, Masabni filmed an advertisement for Badi’ah Casino.

In this short film can be observed several of the artistic characteristics of Badi’a’s school. The first of these is the fusion of song and dance. Here, she looks more like a professional singer than a solo dancer, driving the band that accompanies her with the rhythm of her castanets. We also see backup dancers playing the role of the chorus, repeating the sung refrain after her, an idea borrowed from the prevailing musical style at the time: a solo vocalist—who here takes the form of a revue dancer—accompanied by a chorus.

Toward the Formation of Oriental Dance

The name “Badi’ah’s Dance Club” imbued the place with a distinct oriental character. Oriental musical identity, as it was formed by the expressionist school that followed in the wake of Sayyed Darwish, drew upon a variety of sources, resulting in a mixture that was neither entirely Arabic, Ottoman, or European. This can be referred to as “oriental” in the most commonly used sense of the word even if, on the one hand, it is not entirely accurate, and on the other, the identity it denotes was artificially constructed to begin with. Recall what Badi’ah said in her interview with Layla Rustem: “I’m the one who fused Arabic and European music.” Her statement resonates with something Abd Al-Wahab once said: “If we mixed the sense of pleasure present in our oriental music with the science, rationality, and logic of the west, we would have on our hands a fabulous music.”

The term “oriental,” used here to refer to the distinct mixture of styles prevalent at the time, is also used to distinguish it from earlier styles, in particular the ghawazi school of dance that accompanied folk singing from the countryside. That style had begun to disappear with the emergence of Egyptian cinema in the 1940s, excepting a rare scene here or there, such as in the film The Second Wife (1967), which features an appearance by the ghawazi troupe “Mazen’s Daughters.” Such an appearance was possible only after the two styles had existed for years side by side and after the expressionist school and its conception of the orient had come out on top.

During the first decade of the Egyptian sound film, from 1932 to 1942, one can observe a pattern of scenes depicting decidedly unskilled oriental dance, scattered throughout the films of the likes of Ali Al-Kassar and Najib Al-Rihani, including two scenes featuring a young Tahiyyah Carioca, in the films Khabir Al-Darak (trans: The Police Station, 1935) and Al-Doktor Farhat (trans: Doctor Farhat, 1935). The scene in Al-Doktor Farhat is Carioca’s first cinematic appearance.

One such scene, from the film Si Omar (trans: Master Omar, 1941), features an appearance by Ijlal Zaki, who sings an expressionist melody with lyrics by Badi’ Khayri to a traditional orchestral accompaniment composed by Ibrahim Hussayn. At the same time two anonymous dancers perform in front of her, in a primitive manner and while wearing dancing suits in place of the traditional jalbaba dress of the ghawazi. The dancers do not deviate from traditional folk-dance practices, such as the cracking of the index fingers and the complete separation of the dancer’s movements from the rhythm of the melody.

The expressionist and ghawazi schools continued to exist side-by-side, however their interaction remained marginal and firmly under the control of the expressionist school, now led by Badi’ah’s protegees. In particular, ghawazi dance retained its connection to the color of rural and Bedouin folk song.

Nabawiyah Mustafa may have been the last representative of rural ghawazi dance in Egyptian cinema. Whether dancing alone to the music of Al-Kahlawi or with a chorus of dancers to that of Abd Al-Aziz Mahmoud in Ya Najaf Bi Nur, she performed the same motions with her feet and waist, repeating, sometimes for no apparent reason, the “floating hips” dance move for which she was famous. The beauty of her dancing aside, she remained content to repeat the movements expected of her, without consideration for the accompanying melody. Perhaps this is the reason her performance style did not catch on in Egyptian cinema and instead disappeared as soon as its most famous proponent had retired.

Harmony Versus Rhythm

Unlike many of Badi’ah’s other protegees, whose stars vanished as quickly as they had appeared—dancers such as Baba Ezz Al-Din, Huriyyah Muhammad, and Hikmat Fahmy—Tahiyyah Carioca and her contemporary Samiyah Gamal continued to perform oriental dance for two more decades, albeit with two distinct stylistic approaches. Tahiyyah endeavored to “reintroduce traditional oriental harmony into dance, a style upon which an entire school was built, standing in contrast to that of Samiyah Gamal, more oriented toward rhythm.” Badi’ah herself once said Carioca was the most “oriental” of all of the dancers to come out of her school. Over the course of a career spanning more than five decades, from the 1930s to the 1990s, Carioca practiced numerous art forms, mixing singing, dancing, and acting. In this regard, she, out of all of Badi’ah’s students, is considered to have remained the most faithful to her teacher in upholding the tradition of mixing art forms, whereas Gamal is considered the most faithful in upholding the tradition of mixing styles.

In Le’bat Al-Sitt (trans: The Woman’s Game, 1946), Carioca dances to a mawwal—a traditional form of vocal improvisationwith lyrics by Badi’ Khayri and music by Mahmoud Sharif, performed here by the singer Aziz Uthman. As she dances, Tahiyyah centers her circular motions around the singing Uthman, her expressionism made manifest in her translation of the improvisation of the ney—a traditional end-blown flute. Her hips take on the rhythm, shaking from right to left, and continuing in this way throughout the dance, remaining clear even when the mawwal picks up speed. Despite the fast tempo, Carioca remains steadfast and is not drawn into an attempt to translate the music through a nervous convulsion of the hips.

In contrast to the side-by-side mixing of different sources—Spanish, Turkish, Persian, and European—practiced by Samiyah Gamal in her revue performances with Farid Al-Atrash, such as the revue Al-Sharq wa Al-Gharb (trans: East and West) from the film Ahebbak Inta (trans: I Love You, 1949), Carioca did not practice the same mixing of styles, even if dancing in a revue with the same international theme. In the revue Sindbad, composed by Muhammad Fawzi for the film Gharam Raqisa (trans: A Dancer’s Love, 1950), Carioca plays the role of the beloved for whom Sindbad searches, remaining hidden until the end of the revue, when she appears in a scene set in a village in the countryside. This does not mean, however, that Carioca did not practice another kind of fusion. Early in her career, Carioca once asked the choreographer Isaac Dixon to create a dance just for her that would win her recognition and distinction. Inspired by the Brazilian Carioca dance, he created for her a new dance for which she would later be named. Carioca preferred to domesticate a given form before she incorporated it into her dancing, as an alternative to the dominant approach of side-by-side mixing as seen in the performances of Samiyah Gamal.

Carioca was also famous for her ability to dance within one square meter, a skill that brings to mind oriental harmony itself, which depends upon a vertical development of the melody through ornamentation and variation, as opposed to the horizontal development created by extending, disassembling, and reassembling musical phrases characteristic of European classical music. By using her body within such a narrow space, Tahiyyah substitutes for the individual improvised phrases of the vocalist—and his or her repetition of the same lyrical phrase with various modal colorings—individual phrases emanating from the hips, thereby revealing the beauty of the musical phrase and allowing herself to remain calm and free of the convulsions typical of the ghawazi or of lesser dancers.

In the film Shab ma’ Imra’a (trans: A Young Man with a Woman, 1956), Carioca dances to the singing of Muhammad Rushdi. It is a melody—composed by Rashiq Al-Najib Al-Salhadar with lyrics by Mustafa Al-Ta’ir—with an original shaabi-expressionist coloring, different from the baladi coloring that had been dominant before (translator’s note: shaabi and baladi are forms of Egyptian working class folk music, with the later shaabi having developed from the earlier baladi). Like oriental dance, this shaabi coloring had been invented by the expressionist school through a fusion of different musical forms in order to arrive at a style of singing both compatible with the expressionism prevalent at the time and palatable to the urban masses. Here, Carioca was not content merely to dance. Rather, she commented on forms of mawalid dance, saying, “Can you really call this dance? The dancer seems to have a stomachache.” In contrast to the nervousness associated with primitivism and baladi forms, the dance Carioca performs in the scene seems to absorb the melody and translate it calmly and free of convulsions. This calmness is what distinguishes the performance of a true master from the vulgar performance of an amateur mentioned by Edward Said in his essay.

As an alternative to translating the melody by dancing within a confined space, Samiyah Gamal practices a different expressionism, translating the melody using soft, understated, and even movements. Whereas Carioca excelled at using confined spaces by focusing on circular motions of the hips, Gamal excelled at using the entire stage through footsteps and arm movements. Whereas Carioca, for the most part, used her waist to translate, Gamal translated with her entire body.

This is evident in Kahramanah’s dance in the film Afritah Hanim (trans: The Playful Lady, 1949). Here, Gamal gives form to the development of the melody using footsteps, from the first musical phrase to the last phrase, when she returns to where she had begun. She was not content to make circles around a single point, despite the fact that Carioca may well have done so had she translated the same melody. Those small, even steps are what made Gamal the most skilled at dancing on stairs, as she does to the song “Safir ma’ As-Salama” (trans: “Safe Travels”) in the film Ma Tqoulsh Li Had (trans: Don’t Tell Anyone, 1952), where she descends down an entire staircase with soft, controlled footsteps. In her translation of a mawwal, she was content merely to move her shoulders and sway back and forth without circling the vocalist. Her mastery and ability to express herself calmly stand out when viewed alongside the complicated steps of the backup dancers.

The High Point of Expressionism and Fusion

Na’imah Akef was the last dancer to arrive on the expressionist oriental dance scene. Her late arrival enabled her to take the fusion and expressionism of the school to its logical conclusion without hesitating. Akef’s background was in acrobatics, having toured with the Akef Circus. Later, she became an actress, performing in comedies and revues, and an oriental dancer. She could sing as well as she could perform, and she mixed styles with great skill as a way of negotiating between the styles of everyone who had come before her. She had Tahiyyah Carioca’s ability to dance within confined spaces and Samiyah Gamal’s ability to dance softly and in an even rhythm. But what Akef truly excelled at, as she herself expressed, was translation.

Translation is a distinct aesthetic characteristic of traditional Arabic musical system in both the tarab and expressionist schools. For the tarab school, translation means that the instruments express melodically what the vocalist expresses with his or her voice. For the expressionist school, the melody must translate the meaning of the words. In dance, translation can have one of two meanings, depending on the abilities and artistic vision of the dancer. Carioca mostly translated the improvisation, while Gamal translated the musical phrase as it was composed. Akef practiced both kinds of translation without exhibiting a preference for one or the other.

Translation, as it is practiced in oriental dance, resembles the tahmilah found in instrumental music, however this is a personal opinion of the author with which some might disagree. In a tahmilah, each instrument interacts with the ensemble by performing an improvisation that fits into the general framework, meaning that each instrumentalist translates in accordance with his or her abilities. In dance, each dancer translates according to her abilities, at times translating the rhythm and at times the melody.

In the song “I’mil Ma’rouf,” from the film Al-Nimr (trans: The Tiger, 1952), with lyrics by Walim Basili and music by Muhammad Abd Al-Wahab, Akef expresses her desire to translate the layali of the vocalist Abd Al-Muttalib in a dance, which surprises him. But when she dances, she translates the layali using only her waist and with the skillfulness of the accordion itself. Just like Carioca, she stays perfectly in place. She translates the melodic phrase hubbak ‘ala feen (trans: where is your love going) with footsteps across the stage, just like Gamal. In her two approaches to translation, she fuses her hips with the melody, the words, and the singing. Inspired by Akef’s remarkable ability to translate, Abd Al-Wahab would later compose for her a piece entitled “Aziza” for the film of the same name (Aziza, 1954).  One need only to observe Akef’s hips translating the beat preceding the ney’s phrase, or her translation of the phrase “ya wala ya wala,” to see expressionism at its very best. Akef’s mature approach to translation developed quickly. In the dance “Ya Muzawwaq Ya Ward,” composed by Abd Al-Aziz Mahmoud for the film Sitt al-Bayt (trans: Lady of the House, 1949), she discards the unnecessary repetition of the whirl, which resembles the tannura (literally: “skirt”), a popular dance performed by whirling dervishes, instead using the whirl to replicate, through movement, the rhythm of the castanets, a rhythm often used during mawalid celebrations.

Lost in Translation

Egyptians use the word lost (pronounced loust) to express confusion and disorientation. For Egyptians, to be loust means something more than “to go astray” and less than “to be done for.” As with any other kind of translation, one sometimes speaks of a dancer becoming lost, meaning that she is unable to express any aspect of the melody, which has, so to say, gone lost in translation. What distinguishes a skilled dancer from a lesser one is her ability to produce a complete translation without any musical phrases getting lost in the process. This is what makes some dancers retreat as soon as they reach the end of their lexicon of movements or what makes them dance to the same music with the same movements time and again, all but ensuring that they will soon be forgotten.

Katy is an example of someone who got lost in translation. Her short artistic lifespan resembles that of Na’imah Akif, and her fusion dance style is consistent with the traditions of Badi’ah’s school, as represented by Samiyah Gamal. She was a light-hearted comedic actress with a pretty singing voice, but her failure to stand out among the other dancers of her generation can be traced back to her insufficient ability to translate melodies. We can observe this difference in action if we compare her dance to the piece “Layali Lubnan” (trans: “Lebanese Nights,” 1958)—composed by Muhammad Abd Al-Wahab—in the film Ismail Yassin fi Mustashfa al-Maganin (trans: Ismail Yassin in the Insane Asylum, 1958), with Gamal’s dance to the same piece. Katy translates the same musical phrase once with her shoulders and once with her feet, while Gamal relies on one translation of the phrase, which she is not afraid to repeat, using her waist more than her feet, a fact that belies her understanding of the difference between the styles of Abd Al-Wahab and Farid Al-Atrash.

Into the Setting Sun

The 1960s marked the beginning of the end of Egyptian musical cinema. Although there emerged a new generation of composers of the expressionist school, the most famous being Al-Moji, Al-Tawil, and Baligh, radio became the most widespread medium, especially after the cinemas, production companies, and distributors were all nationalized. As a result, musicians and composers turned to radio, now only way for their compositions to reach a wider audience.

As the production of musical cinema faded, there appeared new generation of dancers. The dancer Rafiqa Al-Maghni, who had performed in musical cinema, became a mere extra, or even a fantasy, according to a conversation in the film ‘Aylat Zizi (trans: Zizi’s Family, 1963), a comment on a question from Suad Husni about a dance by Suhair Zaki’s in a scene in a film being directed by her on-screen lover.

Suhair Zaki became famous in the 1960s for being the first person to dance to the songs of Umm Kulthoum. In fact, Tahiyyah Carioca had already done so. Moreover, Suhair didn’t exactly dance to Umm Kulthoum. Rather, she was content to dance to arrangements of the songs’ introductions, which Abd Al-Wahab had composed especially for her.

In the film Al-Shaqiqan (trans: The Two Brothers, 1965), Suhair Zaki dances to an improvisation on an accordion, accompanied by percussion, followed by the introduction to Umm Kulthoum’s “Inta Omri” (trans: “You Are My Life”). In her translation, Suhair focuses on movements of the arms, waist, and chest, while at the same time shaking her head and her long hair—for which she was famous—just as Huda Shams Ad-Din had done before her.

During the same era, Nagwa Fouad began her artistic career. Whereas Suhair Zaki danced primarily to music without a vocal accompaniment and rarely acted, Nagwa acted and danced to music with a vocal accompaniment, mixing sixties shaabi and oriental music into her dance.

In the film Shati’ Al-Marah (trans: The Beach of Happiness, 1970), Nagwa dances to the song “’al-Ramla” (trans: “On the Sand”) with lyrics by Muhammad Hamza and music by Baligh Hamdi. As she dances, she translates the intensity of the beat with quick movements, perhaps best described as violent, which contrast with the smooth and calm voice of Muhammad Rushdi. This combination of speed and a rapid succession of movements of the feet is a distinguishing feature of Nagwa’s dancing. It is well-suited for the relentless rhythm of some of the compositions of Baligh Hamdi and others from the time. One might find it interesting to know that Samiyah Gamal, in her conversation with Muna Jabar, suggested that Nagwa incorporate an oriental dimension into her dancing and that Suhair choose new music.

After Authenticity

First, radio contributed to the demise of musical cinema and of cinematic revues. Then came the era of the cassette, the video cassette, and cinematic realism, killing off for good whatever had remained, never to be brought back again. The beauty of its revues aside, musical cinema relied on primitive storytelling and repetitive plots. Its demise corresponded with that of the expressionist school of Egyptian singing, which disappeared without a trace, save for its mixing, which had taken every possible form. It was not only the opening up of Egypt and the musical “invasion” from the gulf that brought about the end of expressionist oriental dance, as nostalgics will claim, but also the fact that the art form reached its peak before the “globalization” of oriental dance.

This does not mean, however, that the aesthetics of oriental dance have disappeared. Expressionism has become necessary for the performance of oriental dance and whether or not a dancer incorporates it into her dance has become indicative of the extent of her mastery of the medium. Objections to the sexualization of oriental dance by Russian and Ukrainian dancers aside—it is a critique fails to take into account the reality that oriental dance is a hybrid form originating from the fusion of Arabic and European styles along with whatever else was available at the time—a quick comparison between Madihah Kamel’s dancing in the film Bawabat Iblis (trans: Satan’s Gate)and Alla Kushnir’s dancing, accompanied by Ahmad Shibah, reveals two very different aesthetic sensibilities. A contemporary viewer would likely describe one as a beautiful but not an erotic dance and the other as clearly erotic. Whereas Kamel performs a dance that reflects the sad lyrics of the song, Kushnir—despite the fact that her accompanist Shibah is the musical heir of the shaabi sadness of Hassan Al-Asmar—is not able to translate this sadness. Kushnir repeatedly turns her waist and buttocks—a dance move not found among adherents of the expressionist school throughout its history and which was popularized only later—along with a violent shaking of the chest without any potential for translation. At the end, the audience falls into the same cabaret dance found in all current films.

Oddly, Shibah’s song was the most popular song in Egypt this year. Even more oddly, if you were to ask listeners about Alla Kushnir’s dancing, you would likely receive similar answers, all with the same theme: “What has become of authentic oriental dance?” They would repeat this, unaware of the fact that for something to be authentic it must be the original and that something only becomes the original when it has ceased to exist.