Interpretive skill plays a particularly important role in Egyptian raqṣ šarqī, which is customarily improvised by a solo dancer to live musical accompaniment. The heterophonic structure of classical Egyptian music involves layering instruments, each of which simultaneously performs its own ornamentation on the melody, rather than adding harmonies.
As an intermediary between the music and the audience, the dancer has the ability to direct the audience’s attention to a particular instrument or embellishment by emulating its rhythm, pitch, and dynamics in movement. In so doing, the raqṣ šarqī dancer chooses not only what the audience will see, but also what they will hear.
The concept of muḥāsabah (analytical listening) illuminates how, by being a sammīʿa (skilled listener), the dancer can enhance the audience’s appreciation of the music, temporarily making them skilled listeners as well. Ultimately, raqṣ šarqī performance is a multisensorial practice that combines sounds, sights, and movements in order to heighten the audience’s aesthetic and emotional experience.
This according to Listening with the body: The raqs sharqi dancer as musical interpreter by Ainsley Hawthorn (St. Johns: Research Centre for the Study of Music, Media, & Place (MMaP), 2020).
Above, a raqṣ šarqī dancer in Cairo with her ensemble, photographed by Dan Lundberg; below, Dr. Hawthorn presents her research.
Belly dance is the English-language name for a complex of solo improvised dance styles of Middle Eastern and North African origin whose movements are based on articulations of the torso.
The expression danse du ventre—literally, dance of the belly—was initially popularized in France as an alternate title for the Orientalist artist Jean-Léon Gérôme’s 1863 painting La danse de l’almée (detail above) and ultimately became the standard designation for solo, and especially women’s, dances from the Middle East and North Africa.
The translation belly dance was introduced into English in 1889 in international media coverage of the Rue du Caire exhibit at the Parisian Exposition Universelle. A close examination of the historical sources demonstrates that the evolution of this terminology was influenced by contemporary art, commercial considerations, and popular stereotypes about Eastern societies.
This according to “Middle Eastern dance and what we call it” by Ainsley Hawthorn (Dance research XXXVII/1 [summer 2019] pp. 1–17).
Below, the legendary Fifi Abdou (فيفي عبده) in 1986.
Goth belly dance or raqs gothique—a term coined from the Arabic raqs sharqi (dance of the East)—fuses the already Westernized interpretative dance style of the Middle East with Goth subculture.
This new experimental dance involves different musics (from goth rock to world music), altered costuming, and new performance settings. Although rooted in belly dance and its ties to colonialism, Goth belly dance transforms Orientalism and embodies decolonization as process and product.
The role of the belly dancer at elite weddings in Cairo illuminates Egyptian attitudes toward sexuality.
The dancer plays on ambiguous evaluations, using the wit associated with baladī-class women to subvert patriarchal constructions of sexuality. Song lyrics, dance forms, and musical styles are all important aspects of raqṣ baladī.
Using wit, gestures, and the raqṣ baladī genre of dance and music, the performer Fifi Abdou entertains through an elaborate joke form in which she deconstructs and reconstructs sexualized assumptions about Egyptian dance and herself as a sexualized dancer.
This according to “‘Oh boy, you salt of the earth’: Outwitting patriarchy in raqs baladi” by Cassandra Lorius (Popular music XV/3 [October 1996] pp. 285–298). Above and below, historic performances by Ms. Abdou.
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