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Dance and life lessons

Updated: Dec 18, 2020

In 2016, I had the opportunity to participate in a class where we were introduced to a couple of belly dance moves. That was my first experience of belly dance and I found that the movements had a liberating effect on my body and mind. Four years and many more belly dance workshops later, I got the opportunity to join an online workshop[1]led by an Egyptian woman, Nada El Masriya, a highly sought-after instructor and performer of belly dance with a long history of training, performing and representing culturally rich forms of belly dance. This workshop was titled, ‘Folklore vs Oriental & Reda style’.

True to the word, in the workshop Nada demonstrated specific postures and moves in folkloric style followed by modern or oriental style[2]. There were many overlaps in the folkloric and oriental style movements, as they both originally came from folkloric belly dance[3]. However, as the history indicates, oriental dance was ‘more urban’ and informed by modern dance forms.

While demonstrating the moves, Nada explained the postural differences and described the difference in energy of both the forms. The energy in oriental / modern dance was termed as ‘elegant, princess like, proper, and more upward energy’; where as that of folkloric style was termed as ‘raw, powerful, that of a country side woman confident and ready for anything, expressive, playful and energy more in the belly and hips, more grounded’.

This distinction was evident, especially when we followed her lead and learnt to embody the movements in the oriental style followed by exploring the movement in any of the folkloric styles, paying attention to the feeling and persona each of the movements evoked. Whoa! What a difference!

For me personally, both —the most raw and the most polished forms—felt new and yet familiar in a way; which speaks volumes in itself. Perhaps, growing up in a middle-class ‘civilised’ culture has ensured that everything is contained and kept under a leash. So much so, that it requires a specific space, time and opportunity to imagine or attempt to step into core primal or a majestic refined energy. In my experience, certain ways of life ensure keeping these energies at bay, almost believed to be undesirable and yet aspired for.

This experience led to the reflection that all civilized art forms and ways of living have a contrasting feel to the respective folk forms. For example, modern or classical music is characterized by polished head voice vis-à-vis folk music has a raw feel coming from the gut. These reflections took the form of a deepening circle of conversation with a few friends. It is well established that city life characterized by vertical structures and consumerism, often promotes a more individualistic streak vis-à-vis rural or tribal lifestyle which is marked by grounded, earthy, community based and interdependent practices. Perhaps, as society became more and more so called civilised, rules or the need to be contained and proper became more pronounced. Although, I’ve also heard of this distinction in stories from old shamanic traditions, where they say some followed the more masculine path of abstinence, methods and rules whereas the other path was more feminine relying on a spirit of acceptance and general principles. Then there are laws that exist in nature and yet there is a marked distinction between rules made by human beings and their effect vis-à-vis natural laws of life.

In the meanwhile, there was a parallel conversation brewing around the distinction between performance and community celebration of playing, singing or dancing together. Performance being marked by the distance between the audience and performer (a disconnection in the structure that the performer aspires to break through the form) and community celebration highlighting the spirit of togetherness, co-creation and emergence. Even the way one learns in community spaces and folk culture is remarkably different than the way one learns in the modern performance-oriented cultures.

The truth is that both these forms, styles and ways of life exist.

This experience, conversations and reflections brought up within me a need to notice where I was operating from and my reactions to these forms. The beauty, potential and opportunity lies in noticing the dance within (perhaps even preferences and patterns) as I embody these forms. Ultimately, there is a value in learning to navigate the form with a grounded spirit.

In my journey, I see the need to find my way to the relaxed, strong and powerful core inside and when needed or desired come into the elegant role more as a play. The primary step is to open up and it is essential to get in touch with the primal core. The contrast accentuates the characteristics of each form and invites me to embody each move fully – in posture, energy and character. Standing on the fence is not a choice anymore. This experience calls me to let go fully and play up fully, with all of my being.

Notes:

[1] As a part of MAYA International Virtual Belly Dance Festival 2020 organised by Junkeri BellyDance, a sister unit of Banjara School of Dance.

[2] Mahmoud Reda studied and pioneered the use of traditional Egyptian folk forms to create theatrical dance spectacle or dance as a form of entertainment in Egypt that later was called oriental belly dance. (Source: https://egyptianstreets.com/2020/07/10/legendary-egyptian-dancer-actor-mahmoud-reda-dies-aged-90/)

[3] The first belly dancers were a group of traveling dancers known as the ghawazee. These women were considered gypsies in Egypt in the 18th century, and were banished from Cairo during the 1830s, but went on to perform in Upper Egypt and later in the Middle East and Europe. From the ghawazee troupe, the raqs sharqi genre of belly dancing began to develop. More urban than the purest dance forms in earlier belly dancing history, it quickly became popular and took cues from not only the ghawazee but also various folk dance styles, ballet, Latin dance, and even American marching bands. (Source: https://dance.lovetoknow.com/belly-dancing-history)



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