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PHOTO CREDIT: Above photo by John Rickman Photography, San Jose, California.

Belly Dance History: Balancing Trays in North American Belly Dance

 

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Table of Contents

 

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Introduction

Many North American belly dancers incorporate trays into their acts. Sometimes these trays contain tea sets, sometimes candles, and sometimes other decorations such as Christmas holiday themes. In one memorable performance, San Francisco dancer John Compton even topped an enormous tray with a scale model of New York City, complete with King Kong clinging to the Empire State building!

PHOTO CREDIT: Saqra dances with a tray in this photo by Michael Baxter, Santa Clara, California.

Saqra

 

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Moroccan Raqs al-Senniyya

For the most part, tray dances in North America have been inspired by the Moroccan raqs al-seniyya (tray dance), which involves balancing a tray with a tea set and candles.

A video sold by the dancer Morocco in New York City, Marrakesh Folk Festival and More, features a performance by the Moroccan dancer Lahsen, who in his day was one of the top male tray and schikhatt dancers in Morocco.

In her book You Asked Aunt Rocky, Morocco describes the Moroccan tea tray dance as follows:

Raqs al seniyya is traditional. Like the candelabrum dance, it was invented by an enterprising performer. Waiters did not dance around with trays on their heads in Moroccan coffee houses — just as shepherdesses never went dancing around the sheep with their canes....

I can attest to the fact that there were just as many women as men doing it professionally in Morocco....

Moroccans use candles, tea glasses, and a silver teapot in the center.... Floor work is involved.... A tray dance with just candles is another Western liberty taken with tradition. (1)

In other words, the Moroccan tray dance is not based on a historical ceremony or ritual, nor is it a natural outgrowth out of people's day-to-day lives. It was created by an entertainer to add excitement to a performance, and as its popularity rose, it became traditional.

Moroccan Tea Tray

 

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Sherbet Glasses and Candles in Egypt

Sahra Kent has observed the use of trays balanced on the head as part of wedding celebrations in the Sa'id and Nubia. Sahra reports:

In the 1835 book An Account Of The Manners And Customs Of The Modern Egyptians by Edward Lane, the author reported that female entertainers were balancing trays of henna and candles to escort the bride and her friends for the "Laylet al Henna" (henna party evening) the night before the zeffa.

As part of a wedding celebration, a female member of the celebrating family may balance glasses of sherbet on a tray at the party. In my field work in Upper Egypt, in both the Sa'id and Nubia, I have seen trays with henna and candles many times, but never a shamadan.

A man from the Nile Delta region told me that in his extended family, a woman from the neighborhood was good at balancing a tray. He said it was bad luck to drop it. He emphasized that she was not paid and she wasn't professional.

ABOUT THE PHOTO: This photograph taken by Sahra Kent shows a mural on the wall of a building in Luxor. It depicts a woman balancing a tray of sherbet glasses on her head while playing a tar (drum). Dr. George Sawa, an Egyptian ethnomusicologist who now lives in Toronto, Canada observed, "Her left hand is doing the proper folkloric sakka in the middle of the tar."

Mural in Luxor

 

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History In North America

In New York

New York dancer Sergio was inspired by the Moroccan male dancer Lahsen. Sergio worked with the dancer Morocco to learn the basics of the Moroccan tea tray dance, and became a very accomplished performer of it.

One of Morocco's videos, Riverside Festival, features a segment with Sergio performing raqs al seniyya.

ABOUT THE PHOTO: Morocco from New York City, New York.

Morocco

In California

In her article "From Many Tribes," Jamila Salimpour said:

In 1973, I completed research on the role of the male dancer in Middle Eastern dance, and the first Moroccan tray dancer was introduced to the United States in our show. The dance was inspired by stories, as well as the photo of the venerable, distinguished, calm and capable looking gentleman from the Time-Life book on Moroccan cooking. (2)

In the book The Tribal Bible by Kajira Djoumahna, John Compton describes his first tray dance with Bal Anat as follows:

It was before the 1974 Faire when Jamila said, "I want you to dance with a tray...." We went to a store that no longer exists over in Berkeley or Oakland.... And she said, "That one. Try that on." And I said, "Try it on?" And she said, "Put it on your head." So I put it on my head and she said, "Yeah. Now we need something in the center. Abdul... bring me that pot.... There were these little metal wine glasses, with the stem and everything. And she said, "Do you have six of those?" And he did. "Put them up there, John." And all I could do was stand still. I was petrified. And she said, "Well, we have a show in Fairfax next weekend. Do it there. Start getting used to it...." (3)

PHOTO CREDIT: Photo of John Compton by Rosemary Guglielmelli, aka fairefaces@aol.com, on Facebook as "Faire Faces by Rosemary".

Kajira asked John, "Was the tray patterned after the schikhatt dancers, or where did she get the idea?" He replied:

Well, she told me about this old guy in Morocco who used to dance down the aisle with a whole tea set up on his head. She said there were the acrobatic dancers who would dance around and pass the tray from their head to their feet and stuff. Which I could never do.... But you go to a Greek party, they put a glass on their head and dance around. You go to Turkish parties and they put something on their head and dance around. So she said, "There's a long line of males that would dance around with trays, props, or something on their heads, and I want you to be our traditional male Moroccan tray dancer." A traditional Moroccan tray dancer dancing to an Egyptian piece of music, but yeah. (4)

After a couple of years of performing the tray dance with Bal Anat, John left the group. Other men came along and learned to dance with trays, taking his place. As Bal Anat's popularity expanded outside of the San Francisco area across North America, so did this dance.

John Compton

 

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Tray Dancing in North America Today

Today, in North America, raqs al-seniyya is rarely connected to its Moroccan roots. Workshops teaching this dance usually focus on the technique of balancing the tray and showmanship techniques to use in connection with it. They don't cover the history, music recommendations, or costuming.

 

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Footnotes

  1. Morocco (C. Varga Dinicu), You Asked Aunt Rocky: Answers & Advice About Raqs Sharqi & Raqs Shaabi. (Self published, 2011.) Pages 28-29. Another resource for information about this dance is this article on Morocco's web site: http://www.casbahdance.org/moroccan-tea-tray-dance-raks-al-seniyya/
  2. Jamila Salimpour, "From Many Tribes: The Origins of Bal Anat". Presentation at the International Conference on Middle Eastern Dance, May 16, 1997, Orange Coast College, Costa Mesa. Available on the Internet at http://thebestofhabibi.com/vol-17-no-3-spring-1999/from-many-tribes/ (accessed May 26, 2016).
  3. Kajira Djoumahna, The Tribal Bible. (Self published, 2003.) Pages 39-40.
  4. Ibid.

 

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