Filler
Photo of Shira

 

 

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

Middle Eastern Dance:
The Spiritual Connection

by Shira

 

From ancient shamans to energetic gospel choirs, movement has long been integrated into spiritual practices. The Middle East has several traditions of movement for spiritual ends. Many modern-day dancers have incorporated movement into their own spiritual expressions. Some borrow from the traditional Middle Eastern forms, while others apply modern-day dance moves to creating their own new spiritual practices. People often refer to these as "trance dances", but "movement meditations" or "rituals" would be a more accurate description.

PHOTO CREDIT: Photo by Pixie Vision Productions, Glendale, California.

Shira

 

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In Praise of the Goddess? Probably Not!

Many belly dancers' web sites claim that belly dance is the oldest dance, dating back 5,000 or 6,000 years, done to worship a goddess, though they rarely say which goddess. I wince every time I hear this claim, because my research disagrees with it. To the right is one of the oldest images of dance known to us today. It appears in the tomb of Mehu at Saqqara, Egypt, and is believed to date back to 3,000 B.C.E.

Click on this image to see more detail - you'll see that the dance style it shows is very athletic, with high kicks. There is nothing in this image that resembles belly dancing.

The necropolis at Saqqara is the oldest collection of ancient ruins in Egypt. It shows images of dance, but those images do not resemble belly dance. Therefore, how can we say that belly dance is "the oldest dance"? The images at Saqqara seem to suggest that Rockette-style high kicks are "the oldest dance".

Although we might be able to find older images of dance in Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq), India, China, or the Americas, today I'm not aware of any such images of dance or written narratives describing how and why people in those regions danced. Until such evidence comes to light, these images from Egypt remain the oldest information we have about ancient dance and how it was done.

Dancers

This image appears at both the Luxor Temple and the Karnak Temple, both located in Luxor, Egypt. Both temples are much newer than the tombs of Saqqara, and therefore this image of a dancer that appears in both Luxor and Karnak temples is much newer than the above image. Historians believe Karnak Temple was begun during the 12th Dynasty which lasted from 1991-1785 B.C.E., with the Luxor Temple being newer.

I need to do further research to discover when the walls at these temples showing the image to the right were built, but it's clear to me that this particular image is at least 1,000 years newer than the above Saqqara one.

Also, note that the dance style shown in this image does not depict belly dancing either. Although modern-day artists outside of the Middle East might incorporate this sort of acrobatic display into their fusion pieces, it's not something that would be recognized as "a belly dance move", and it certainly is different from the hip-focused and torso-focused movement that people recognize as belly dancing.

Dancer

This papyrus painting appears as part of a mural on the walls of the tomb of an official named Nebamun who is believed to have lived around 1400-1500 B.C.E. This image is ambiguous. It might be construed as resembling belly dance, but could easily be interpreted other ways. In any event, it is clear that it is at least 1,500 years newer than the images at Saqqara and therefore couldn't be interpreted as representing "the oldest dance".

This image of the dancers appears in a banquet scene in which Nebamun, the deceased scribe, is feasting with his family and friends while enjoying music and dancing as entertainment. The scene definitely does not show priestesses honoring a goddess.

If belly dancing was truly done for the purpose of worshiping goddesses, then why have I not been able to find images of dancing priestesses on the walls of the Philae temple in Aswan, which is dedicated to Isis, or in other temples dedicated to other goddesses? If dance was an important element in the worship of goddesses, shouldn't we expect to see images of dance in the temples?

Based on my research, I believe that:

  • We cannot prove that belly dancing was the oldest dance. The oldest image I have found of dance involved high kicks, not hips in an attitude of movement.
  • Based on evidence found to date, we cannot prove that belly dancing was ever used as a ritual to worship a goddess, in either Mesopotamia, Turkey, or Egypt. Of course, archeological research is ongoing, and I'm always willing to learn from people who have made new discoveries.

If you can prove that belly dancing was the oldest dance, or if you can prove that belly dancing was used in ritual worship of an ancient goddess in the Middle East or northern Africa, please share your proof with me. I personally would be delighted to learn that belly dancing truly does have such a rich history. I do believe that belly dancing existed as a recreational activity in ancient Egypt, but not as a temple dance in honor of goddesses.

I have visited the necropolis at Saqqara, Egypt three times to gaze at the walls of the tombs there. I have visited the Luxor and Karnak temples at Luxor, Egypt four times, and Philae in Aswan, Egypt twice. I have been to the museum in Ankara, Turkey to view artifacts from the Hittite civilization. I have looked for ancient evidence of belly dancing, and found only other dance forms instead. I would be very interested in discovering ancient text that speaks of torso-oriented solo-improvised dance being used to honor Inanna, or seeing images from ancient Sumer that show a woman with a hip raised in dance. But so far, no one has been able to steer me to such evidence of ancient belly dance ritual goddess worship.

Dancers

 

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Movement Meditation Traditions

Although I don't believe that belly dance is an ancient goddess-worship ritual, other kinds of spiritual movement have taken many forms throughout the traditions of the Middle East and northern Africa. People in these regions continue to practice these rituals today.

 

Guedra

The Guedra ritual is performed in the country Morocco as a ritual of blessing. According to oral tradition, it is many thousands of years old, part of the culture of a sub-grouping of the nomadic Tuareg known as the Blue People because of the indigo powder they use to dye clothing. This powder also coats their skin as it comes off their apparel, thus literally turning their skin blue. Guedra is the classical Arabic word for the cauldron or cooking pot used by the Blue People. When they stretch a skin over the pot and beat it, it serves as a drum, also called a Guedra. Finally, the term Guedra also refers to both the blessing ritual and the woman who actually performs it.

The primary physical movements of the Guedra ritual are simple hand and finger flicks. Members of the extended family accompany her with drumming based on the rhythm of the human heartbeat, clapping, and chanting. The repetitive background sounds and movements lead the Guedra and often some of the participants into a trance.

As with many esoteric traditions, the Guedra ritual begins by acknowledging the four points of the compass. The Guedra also acknowledges fire (the sun), earth, wind, and water. As the ritual progresses, she may repeat these acknowledgements if she chooses. Most of the ritual involves sending out blessings and good wishes through these finger motions to all present, either in person or in spirit. Over time, the Guedra eventually sinks to her knees and performs the remainder of the ritual from there. When more than one woman intends to take a turn at being the Guedra, the one who has just finished may move out of the center of the circle to sit on the sidelines while the next takes her place. Once started, a Guedra ritual may go on for many hours.

Zar

The zar is a ritual from Africa used to perform a cathartic sort of emotional healing or "exorcism" on behalf of someone, usually a woman, who has been possessed. Although technically forbidden by Islam, it continues to be an essential part of some cultures. It appears mostly in Egypt, Sudan, Somalia, and Ethiopia. In Tunisia, it is called stambali.

The accompaniment to the zar consists of strong drum rhythms, each being specific to a certain spirit. A critical part of the zar consists of finding the rhythm required to drive out the particular spirit possessing the individual. Sometimes the zar leader sacrifices a chicken, pigeon, sheep, or other animal as part of the ritual.

Today, the zar is nearly extinct in Egypt.

 

Sufism

Whirling

The image of the whirling dervish has captured the imagination of people worldwide. The Mevlevi and Jerahi sects of Islam are two examples who use whirling as a devotional tool in a spiritual group event known as a Sema. The Mevlevi sect in Turkey was established by the famous poet Mevlana Jalaluddin Rumi. Whirling moves the practitioner into an enhanced state of awareness, a kind of ecstasy.

While whirling, the individual holds both arms outstretched to each side, with the right hand slightly above shoulder height and the left hand slightly below. The palm of the right hand faces toward the sky to receive the blessings of heaven, and the left palm faces toward the floor to channel them to earth. The eyes slip out of focus, which is what protects against dizziness or motion sickness.

The photo to the right shows a dervish ceremony that was performed in Turkey, in a caravanserai in a town near Konya, the town where Rumi's tomb resides.

PHOTO CREDIT: Photo by Shira.

Shira

Hadra

The Hadra ritual is part of a Sufi ceremony. In Egypt, it is used as a celebration for a gathering of men. They gather in someone's home, or perhaps in a meeting place such as a mosque. It's not unusual to bring food, since typically the main purpose of the Hadra is to serve as a joyful get-together. The participants begin with reading from the Quran, or by praising Allah and/or the Prophet Mohammed. The musicians for the ritual open with mawwal (improvisational vocals), and the participants begin to move slowly, first inclining their bodies slowly to the left, then to the right. With each movement, the participants chant "Allah hae!" which means "God is alive!"

The musicians add accompaniment on bendirs (frame drums with string stretched across for resonance), and the tarija, a very small drum. A ghaita (similar to an oboe) plays a melody line. As the musical accompaniment picks up speed the men's movements become correspondingly faster, continuing to chant "Allah hae!" over and over until they eventually move into a trance.

 

Other Ecstatic Practices

The book Dancing in the Streets by Barbara Ehrenreich explores the Dionysus cult, which scholars theorize originated either from Asia or from Ethiopia. This cult was characterized by ecstatic dancing by women known as the maenads. Ehrenreich's book traces how this evolved into the European tradition of "carnival", and describes why carnival mostly died out in Europe, leaving only faint traces in the form of Christmas celebrations, Fat Tuesday, etc. Ehrenreich explores how audiences at rock concerts and sporting events have begun to reintroduce some elements of the old carnival traditions of ecstatic experienece.

In her book Sacred Woman Sacred Dance, Iris Stewart mentions a theory held by some scholars that today's European folk dances based on lines and circle formations are remnants of old ecstatic dance traditions.

"Dancing is not getting up any time painlessly like a speck of dust blown around in the wind. Dancing is when you rise above both worlds, tearing your heart to pieces and giving up your soul."

— Mevlana Jalaluddin Rumi

 

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About Tarab

Tarab is an Arabic musical term which refers to the spiritual state that a person sometimes enters when performing or listening to music. The term applies to live music situations, when the musicians are completely connected with each other, similar to what jazz musicians in the U.S. refer to as being "in the zone" or flamenco artists refer to as duende. That sense of surrending to the music, letting it carry one away, and taking the audience along on the journey is the ultimate artistic fulfillment, a gift from God.

Although tarab is a musical term, and not a dance term, it is possible for dancers to experience tarab as well. This can happen when dancing to live music, when the dancer's rapport with the musicians is strong, and she immerses her attention / energy into becoming an extension of the music. She fully feels the music surrounding her, and letting it carry her movement along with it. For a dancer to experience tarab, she needs to dance improvisationally, not choreography, giving her soul freedom to take her body along with it on a journey.

I have personally felt this type of ecstasy when performing, which is why I embrace opportunities to dance with live musicians. I have also felt tarab when sitting in the audience, watching a show with live music.

PHOTO CREDIT: Photo by Pixie Vision Productions, Glendale, California.

Apart from tarab, which is specifically tied to the experience of live music, a dancer may occasionally experience a "moment" when using pre-recorded music in performance when she and the audience connect on a certain level. This could also happen in ensemble dancing, when a group feels a certain ecstatic energy rise up from their midst and carry them with it. These experiences don't meet the criteria for tarab, as it is understand in its homeland, but they are still a very rewarding experience that can occur while dancing.

Shira

 

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New Spiritual Connections

As people in the United States and other Western countries have embraced belly dance, many have found ways to integrate movement into their personal spiritual practices. Although some have embraced the traditional Middle Eastern and North African rituals described above, most have created their own ways of exploring their spiritual journeys within the dance.

For the most part, these 21st century implementations in the U.S. and Europe are not really belly dance. Instead, they may borrow some movement vocabulary from Oriental dance, but they often apply that movement to non-Middle Eastern music, and produce an energy or "message" which is quite different from that of raqs sharqi. For that reason, I would say that most of these are not belly dance. Instead, I would call them "sacred dance". Even though I wouldn't apply the term "belly dance" to many of these works, I respect these efforts highly, enjoy watching heartfelt performances, and celebrate the fact that increasing numbers of people are reuniting movement with spiritual practice.

"The Deadheads are doing the dance of life and this I would say is the answer to the atom bomb."

— Joseph Campbell (after attending a 1985 Grateful Dead concert)

Among Christians

Many Christian dancers look for ways to bring together their faith and their dance art because both of these things are very important to them. The Lutheran and Episcopalian denominations of Christianity have both been progressive in introducing liturgical dance to the altar at their church services. Although their liturgical dance workshops usually focus on ballet and modern dance movement vocabularies, some Middle Eastern dance artists have successfully introduced their congregations to liturgical dances based on the belly dance movement traditions. These performances differ from belly dance in several ways, in the form of costume choices, music used, and intention. Sometimes, instead of belly dancing movement, the dancer may choose debke, Israeli hora, or other dance formats from the Middle East.

Even more conservative Christian denominations have accepted dances from the Middle East as part of special events: parish talent shows, shepherdess portrayals in Christmas pageants, and celebratory dances in Palm Sunday services, to name a few. Biblical costumes and moods appropriate to the role being portrayed (such as joy for Palm Sunday) are often the key to earning the trust and respect of the congregation.

When I have performed for a Christian nursing home's Christmas party, I honored the Palestinian ties to the Christmas story (Bethlehem) by wearing a Palestinian dress (the one in the photo) and teaching debke to the staff and residents' family members. Response by audience and participants was very positive. Although this was not a liturgical situation, it offers some possible ideas for your own liturgical presentations.

PHOTO CREDIT: Photo by Pixie Vision, Glendale, California. The dress is an authentic Palestinian thobe from my collection.

Shira

Nepenthe's Pageant

Inspired by the Christmas pageants of her childhood, in 2010 Nepenthe Ahlam decided to create a Christmas pageant in Chelmsford, Massachusetts in which each scene would be depicted with folkloric dance. The end result combined live drumming (the little drummer boy), wings of Isis (for the Angel Gabriel), raqs assaya (shepherds) and a few other creative uses of dance. Nepenthe received favorable feedback from Protestants, Catholics and other religions alike.

Although some people felt uncomfortable with the show having a religious background, a number of the performers came from other religions. Rather than seeing it as a religious story, the dancers chose to see it as a universal story — of a woman with a great responsibility to bear, a family in need, and people who helped them. Several audience members told Nepenthe that they felt particularly moved by the Annunciation scene where Gabriel appears to Mary, as shown in the photo to the right. Click on the photo to see more detail.

Anunciation

One of the goals of the event was to show people the beauty of Middle Eastern dance arts within a comfortable setting. After all, the events of the Christmas story happened in the Middle East! The Bible speaks of dancing in many places, though it's impossible for us to know how closely the historical dances described in the Bible might resemble what we do today.

In order to respect the religious material, all of the costumes were modest, with a covered stomach. Most of the performers wore simple galabeyas. The celestial beings, the angel Gabriel and and Star of David, were allowed to wear a little more sparkle. The dancing involved plenty of hip work, especially when Bethlehem's resident tea seller came on the scene, balancing a tea tray on her head, or when the villagers rejoice in a drum circle around the Holy Family.

The event was so successful that plans are under way to present the show again in 2011 in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Cast

Haala's Pentecostal Performance

in 2010, Haala of Halo Bellydance did a liturgical dance performance at her Presbyterian church's Pentecost service in Cary, North Carolina. This particular dance wasn't really belly dance, since it didn't involve any hip work or undulating torso movements — but belly dancers would recognize the veil work as being based on that done by Turkish- and American-style belly dancers.

Delilah of Amarillo, Texas

In 2011, the dancer Delilah based in Amarillo, Texas was invited to do a performance at an Episcopalian church's Fat Tuesday party. Her husband, Chris Crowley, played the drum for her to do a drum solo. The crowd responded well, showing great interest in both the drum and the dance.

"Let them praise His name with dancing; Let them sing praises to Him with tambourine and lyre."

— Psalm 149:3, The Bible

 

Among Pagans

Many modern-day Pagans who have studied belly dancing have brought dancing into their personal spiritual practices. Some have studied the Middle Eastern rituals such as Guedra described above and brought modified versions of these rituals into their own lives. The group Goddess Dancing in the Boston area has advertised that it "belly blessings" among its list of services provided. Dhyanis, based in the San Francisco area, used to organize an annual production called "The Living Goddess" at the time of the Summer Solstice, which featured dance portrayals by a wide variety of dance artists, many of whom came from the local belly dancing community. Belly dancers often promote their services at metaphysical fairs.

Many dancers feel a deep sense of spirituality simply from the act of dancing, even when they are not consciously seeking it. A dancer named An. said, "I feel that the dance attracts more than just physical spectators. I call them Witnesses. I can almost feel these silent watchful archetypal beings gathering about the circle, called by the drums and the power of the moment. The people in the audience are archetypal as well. Here the Adolescent Man, there the Women Lovers, there the Tribal Elder, and here the Child. Even the Trickster shows as the crying baby or the heckling frat boy or even the toddler who decides a duet is really warranted. Maiden, Mother, and Crone always attend."

 

Outside of Any Specific Belief System

The majority of Western dancers who use belly dance for spiritual exploration today do so outside of any particular religion or belief system. Some of the modern day leaders in bringing together spirituality and dance include Yasmina Ramzy, Delilah, Z-Helene, and the Boston-area group Goddess Dancing.

According to Delilah, the spiritual side of dance has always been there for her. There was no "first" experience with it. She sees creativity itself as being deeply spiritual. "The need for a spiritual connection within belly dance is brought about by the individual's search and desire for deeper meanings. It directly contrasts the superficial notions that the dance is only physical culture or that it is something women do to placate men. This dance nourishes the body and the soul."

Delilah sees the traditional Middle Eastern forms of Guedra, zar, and the others as applications of movement to spiritual practice. It's not necessary to conform to one of these traditions in order to realize dance as a spiritual practice. Connection with spirituality is not something you have to seek out and put on. It's an everyday thing. Delilah's advice to those who want to explore a spiritual dimension to their dance: "Open your heart."

Delilah has developed a number of spiritual exercises that she uses in her workshops and retreats, including veil therapy, veil origami, and circle baladi, among others. She has sponsored retreats focused on the myth of Inanna's descent to the underworld, with a ritual applied to Inanna's passage through each of the seven gates.

PHOTO CREDIT: Delilah shared this photo of herself with me for use on my web site.

Delilah

Energy Modalities

People who engage in energy-oriented practices such as reiki, yoga, tai chi, or similar work will often bring that into their dance. It informs everything else they do, so it's logical that it would inform their dance as well.

Energy work can serve as a valuable tool for exploring musical interpretation and building connection to the audience.

PHOTO CREDIT: Photo of Shira by Kaylyn Hoskins, Solon, Iowa.

Shira

 

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Closing Thoughts

I believe that one of the reasons belly dance speaks to the hearts of so many people is because it can offer a communal connection outside of ourselves. For many, our dance really isn't "about" moving the body in a "the belly dance movement vocabulary". Rather, it's about a need to gather with others for a shared experience of dance, joy, and general feeling of festival. This human need has led cultures all over the world to create ecstatic movement traditions, though many such traditions were snuffed out through centuries of oppression. Such oppression did exist in the countries that belly dance comes from. For example, today the zar is almost extinct in Egypt.

Our challenge, as dancers, is to remind ourselves that this dance does come from somebody's culture, that of Arabs and Turkish people. When using the movements of this dance form for personal spiritual growth, liturgical purposes, or self-expression, it would be better for us to call it "sacred dance" than it would to call it "belly dance" because the motives for dancing, choice of music, and costuming aesthetic are typically different from what you'd see belly dancers wearing in the countries the dance comes from.

 

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About the Contributors

For more about the dancer Morocco, see www.casbahdance.org

For more about Delilah, see www.visionarydance.com

For more about Haala, see www.halobellydance.com

For more about Nepenthe Ahlam, see www.bellydancernepenthe.com, or for her nativity show, see raksnativity.bellydancernepenthe.com

 

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