What’s in a Name?
This article is based on an Email dialogue between Amera from Amera’s palace in Sydney and my self that took place early 2001, in between our busy live and her computer crashing.
I was inspired to write about our discussions because while Amera and I share the common ground of Middle Eastern dance, the way we dance and what influences us are very different, but between us there is a willingness to accept each other and our passion for what we do.
The topic of our conversation was, the confusion around the different names, who calls what what? Why? Predominately what the title Raqs Sharqi represents and perhaps some light on the subject.
I have included excerpts from our conversations and my own research and thoughts on the subject. We would love to hear what any one else has to say about this subject.
Amera was distressed when a girl came to the shop and asked her what the difference between Raqs Sharqi and Belly dance was and what did it all mean. The Style of dance the girl was referring to was ‘Hilal Raqs Sharqi’, the girl had been to a workshop with a Hilal Raqs Sharqi teacher. The girl was confused, and this is where it goes from here. . .
Amera told her “As long as you dance, love it and dance”
Amera wrote, “I call myself an Oriental dancer, in Arabic I’ll say Raks Sharqi, and if you still don’t know what Oriental is I’ll say Belly – what’s in a name, call it what you want, and do the best you can!”
I call myself an Egyptian dancer or Raqs Sharqi dancer. Because I believe more and more that I am possessed by the Spirit of an Egyptian gypsy with a big belly and my style has very traditional base.
I am very influenced by Hilal Raqs Sharqi. Of all the workshop I have attend the Hilal School Workshops are the ones that are closest to my heart as far as the style of dance goes, but I am not of the school. The school of Hilal Raqs Sharqi in the past has uses the Title Raqs Sharqi as if it is just their dance and that is part of where the confusion lies. It is more appropriate when they call it Hilal Raqs Sharqi or Hilal Technique or Hilal Art, as Suraya hilal does herself now.
A brief glossary
Raqs Sharqi:- Arabic term or Eastern or Oriental Dance nick name ‘Sharri’
Raqs Baladi:- The dance of the people (if in Egypt it is the dance of theEgyptian people if in Tunisia is the the Tunisian people etc.)
Raqs Sha’abi:- Folk Dance of the Country people; Popular dance – The Felahin and Saiddi (that is in Egypt). Shaabi os also what is popular today.
Oriental dance:- Many people like to use this title, Ibrahim Farrah used this title, but as Amera said sometimes people get it confused and associate oriental with Asia.
Middle Eastern Dance:– A very popular alternate title to Belly Dance.
Belly Dance:– This is the most common title known. Every one understands it, but sometimes what they understand is not what you want them to understand. In its purity, it is the style that marries all the styles of Middle Eastern dance and is largely influenced by America. It was originally called Le Dance du Ventre Meaning belly dance in French. One of the reason why the Hilal School of Raqs Sharqi disassociates itself from this name is because it does have so many connotations, and sometimes in the name of Belly Dance, the art has been bastardised and exploited for many reason, which in fact it has, (but that is another story).
Belly Dance can be so many things, depend on your influence and preferred style. It has grown changed evolved as has everything else.
I said to Amera “What I am interested in talking about with you, is the way you see the different styles. Like how who you define the style you dance and people who are you contemporaries, and how you would define the way I dance? and how do you see them fitting into the history of this dance.”
Amera said to me “I think that the different styles are just an extension of people and there personalities, then there is the pioneers of different styles, taking as far back as Samia Gamal, Nayima Akaif, Taheya Carioca, then going into the 70’s Nagua Fouad, and to many others like Mona Said, Zizi Mustapha,Aza Sherif, going into the 80s people like Aida Nour and Fifi Abdou, 90’s-Lucy, Dina, Then there are people outside Egypt, that have made a huge difference to the dance, like Suraya Hilal, that have put western knowledge into it – but have tried to separate it in teaching and give the students other things to think about, and give them room to judge it – why should it be like that why put a divide in it in this part of history ?
Already, religion and social status in the middle east, put women down because they become dancers or singers, why now do it in Western society, we can move ahead in other areas of our lives, we now have colour TV not black and white, we all use email, this is a part of moving forward.”
Amera talked about the pioneers of different styles. Those that she has mentioned, are the dancers of the mid 19 hundreds, because that is the style that she is influenced by. My influence is more of the Folk or Gypsy root that goes back even further. And the Earlier Baladi, which is where some of those stars like Fifi Abdo came from.
When Amera talks about the influence people have had outside of Egypt and mentions Suraya Hilal, what she is concerned about is not what they are teaching as far as teaching the dance. Hilal has done a lot to promote the roots of Egyptian Raqs Sharqi – predominately in her Shaabi and Baladi styles and marries very contemporary ways of teaching. The problem is the political content. That is reflected in anyone who comes into contact with the school. They love the style so much, and either become completely engrossed in the politics or very confused. If you become a student of Hilal raqs Sharqi you are required to relinquish contact and dissociate oneself from any other form of Middle Eastern dance, especially Belly Dance and I am speaking from experience. It is very confusing and sad for some one like myself. You find the dance style you are looking for and it has conditions attached to it, that have nothing the do with the dance its self.
Amera is right it is the year 2001, why create a divide. Perhaps what we need is more clarification. In this day and age why not find a way to support each other. The standard of all forms of MED has improved 100 fold. Lets promote integrity lets create room for better more contemporary ways of teaching and opened people minds. Alas there still is the archaic view of Belly Dancing, where ignorant people associate it with something sordid and sleazy and alas there is still the restaurant owner who wants to keep it that way because he thinks that is what the public want.
As I mentioned earlier, I call my dance Egyptian Dance or Raqs Sharqi. I prefer to make a distinction between what I dance and teach and Belly Dance. Not because I think it is a sin to be called a Belly Dancer, and many people do call me a Belly Dancer and i let them.
For me the reasons are practical;- as far as teaching goes, I have a very different approach to teaching than most Belly Dance teaches I know and am aware of. I like to promote my style of dance and explain it so that people come to know that there are many styles. I also don’t relate to what the general public’s definition of a belly dancer is. If someone rings me up looking for a Belly Dancer for a party I usually send someone else because when I ask them what they are looking for,I often don’t fit the bill.
One more reason is that I love the title ‘Raqs Sharqi’ it sounds good, it goes with ‘Flamenco’ and we don’t call Flamenco ‘Foot stomp dance’.
The other side and I have another side, is that ‘Belly Dancer’ is such a commonly used name and there is a public that just enjoys it for what it is, without a lot of drama. As I said many people refer to me as ‘Maria the Belly dancer’, sometimes I give them the Raqs Sharqi talk and sometimes I just let them go because I know that they just accept it as another valid dance form. In some circles it is a very valid art form, especially amongst artistic, spiritually seeking and creative people and teenagers. My daughters friend think it is great she has a mother who is a Belly Dancer.
As Amera says, call it what you like. As for me I will probably just keep calling it everything.
To finish this story –
Amera’s answer to me when I said that my dance chose me . . .
“I can understand this. Dance does choose who it wants to be a part of and vice a versa, dance is an expression of love, and life”
And I said “As far as appreciating watching a dancer. I enjoy people who dance from their hearts. I really enjoy watching you dance, because you are very sincere, like you are as a person”