Exactly What Is Middle Eastern Dance?

[ This article appeared in volume 5 of the Letter of Dance. ]

by Lady Blodwen ferch Maergred, Tribe Zareefat

Seven and a half years ago, I joined the SCA and began my studies in Middle Eastern Dance. In all those years, I have rarely met two people who can agree on what Middle Eastern dance in period is, much less how it should be recreated within the SCA. This article represents where my research and that of my household has led us.

I have come to define Middle Eastern Dance by the following categories: Culture, Geographic Region, Time Period and Type or Style. All of these things have a bearing on what constitutes Middle Eastern Dance. For instance, many people equate Middle Eastern Dance with Belly Dance. They completely forget or are ignorant of the fact that Belly Dance is a post-period term that was applied by Western Europeans to only one type or style of Middle Eastern Dance. Belly Dance is the modern version of the women's solo, but does not encompass all the other types of dance such as line dancing, folk dancing, men's dance or ceremonial dance. I hope that this article will give the reader more information upon which to base their own recreation of Middle Eastern Dance.

When doing research on Middle Eastern Dance, considering the period can change everything. Pre-Islam is still within the SCA period, but the Middle Eastern world was vastly different!

Many of the dance moves done today can be found in Egyptian Hieroglyphs and ancient Indian Statuary. I would find it strange if the moves seen pre-period and currently done today suddenly disappeared during period. As well, there are many carvings, illuminations and pottery pieces from period where we see moves that are still being done today.

The main question is: were those moves strung together in the same fashion that we do in the current age? There is no definitive way to determine this without video. However, the same moves were and are used with many of the same musical instruments and props. The essence of the dance is preserved, but there are differences. The use or deletion of these differences is what creates SCA period Middle Eastern Dance.

Some of the differences are: costumes, dancing with or without shoes, props, setting, music and cultural acceptance and viewpoint. One of the main aspects to be careful of is the influence during the 1800's and 1900's of Western Dance and concepts on Middle Eastern Dance. Always be aware that there is a difference between what is traditional and what is period.

It is very helpful to study post-period dance and its influences as it allows the researcher to remove post-period influences. Always compare with period sources if possible and consider the culture and political influences as well. I admit that working backwards is not a desirable way to document subjects, however a comparison with Egyptian dance and modern cabaret can indicate trends if nothing else. Reject no method - only beware its limitations!

The second question is: what or where was the Middle East during the SCA period? In order to discuss Middle Eastern Dance, one has to know what geographic regions were under the political or religious influence of the Middle Eastern culture.

Many of these regions are not considered a part of the modern Middle Eastern world and I often meet gentles in the SCA who ask why I am studying a particular dance as it is not Middle Eastern! Within the SCA period, the Middle East ranged from Southern Spain to North India. This region bears the influence of Islam and has for thousand of years experienced cultural similarities as well as developed trade between regions.

Through my studies of Middle Eastern Dance, I have developed certain regions that have a strong bond of culture and dance styles. I divide the Middle East into the following regions: Central Asia, Egypt, Moorish Spain, North Africa, North India, Persia, The Arabian Peninsula and The Turkish Empire. Central Asia and North India were at different times part of both the Persian and the Turkish empires. Yet, they still retain their own individual regional differences.

These are my own regional divisions and even among my household members we argue certain borders! However, we have all found these region divisions to be very useful when doing our research.

More than anything else, culture plays the biggest part in Middle Eastern Dance. The following cultures have played a part in influencing the dance: Arabic, Egyptian, Gypsy, Indian, Persian and Turkish. The women's solo is mostly a blend of Egyptian and Indian dance. However, Arabic, Gypsy, Persian and Turkish have also affected the dance - very specifically in certain regions. The difference between tribal and village cultures has also influenced Middle Eastern Dance.

The largest effect, from our point of view, is the records left about the dance. Certain cultures, like India, Persia and Turkey, left more records of the dance than say the Arabic or North African cultures. Civilized centers have more records than tribal peoples, who are almost impossible to document! Culture is the greatest determiner of whether or not records survive. Not only with records of the period, but also with access to those records in the modern world!

Culture also determines how the dancers of the day were portrayed, if they were. Some cultures have a plethora of male citations and none at all of women. Also, you find that a Persian illuminator did the illumination of the North Indian dancer that you are looking at and of course he put her in Persian costume! Did she actually wear Persian dress or did he just paint her that way? Did she actually dance with that prop or is it a prop that was socially acceptable to Persians?

Finally we come to the question of style or type of dance. There are several types of dance in the modern Middle Eastern world: Circle, Line, Men's dance, women's solo and ceremonial dance. I have found references, of some type, for most of these forms of dance during period. They do not necessarily occur in the same region or during the same period, but at some point in time and at some place all these forms of Middle Eastern Dance existed during the SCA period.

Circle and line dances are danced by both men and women, though separately. Generally the sexes do not dance together although in some regions they do dance simultaneously. One example is dancing with a circle of women inside a circle of men or vice versa. These dances are very common in villages. Many of the same steps or moves seen in circle and line dancing are also found in the men's and women's solo dances. These dances vary widely from region to region and often the dancers sing while dancing. These are the types of dances most often called "folk dancing".

The men's dance consists of both religious(i.e. Sufi) and war or battle dances. These are done both in groups or in solo format. Men in period did not, to my knowledge, dance the women's solo unless they were dressed as women and pretending to be women. For example, troupes of young boys were well known in Turkey. They dressed as women even to the point of growing their hair very long and were often castrated to heighten the effect. Most men's dance tended to reflect a man's life during period, dealing with hunting and fighting movements. These dances are aggressive, agile and often repetitive in movement.

Ceremonial dance is dance done for a religious or ceremonial purpose. In pre-Islamic society, this often took the form of fertility, death or harvest ritual and occasionally "possession" dances where the dancer embodied a spirit or deity. As time went on, this form of dance moved from a public format to a private and more restrictive format. It continues on in India and several specific places in North Africa up until the current time, but died out or lost power in other areas.

Trance dancing is one form of ceremonial dance that has survived to the current time. It is almost impossible to document, (though if anyone reading this has such information, I would appreciate hearing about it!), as it still held much of its religious aspect and that religion was rarely Islam. Some examples of modern dances that embody this are the Guedra and the Zar of North Africa and Egypt. The Guedra is a blessing dance that the Tuareq people teach as Pre-Islamic and I have found an Egyptian Hieroglyph that looks like a woman perfuming the Guedra.

Last but not least is the woman's solo. This is the form of Middle Eastern Dance that is most familiar to the SCA. It is the form that is most often chosen for recreation. There are many stylistic differences within this form, but I will not attempt to discuss those differences within this article. The women's solo is characterized by a woman dancing alone in an improvisational format. This makes documenting this form very difficult though by no means impossible. Women, in general, were not public figures during period and therefore information on their activities is scarce. This dance was rarely intended to be sexual, but to be a display of a women's femininity and grace. My household name Zareefat means the graceful movement of a woman and this dance form truly expresses that. The technique, stamina and muscle power required to perform this dance is as demanding as most other forms of dance, Believe me it is not easy to do eight separate things at one time and still look like you are having a good time!!

It is to be hoped the reader now has a better idea of what makes up Middle Eastern Dance. Middle Eastern Dance is a beautiful art form which adds much to our society. It is as documentable as any other art form and like most others has its own unique limitations.

I was asked to write for this publication in order that the European community might have a better idea of the art form which I have chosen to recreate. If the reader has specific questions, please feel free to ask. I will do my best to answer them, though I make no claims to be the final authority.

Webbed by Gregory Blount of Isenfir (Greg Lindahl)