Understanding the Spirit of Raks Al Sharki, Middle Eastern Dance


by Soraya

Before you watch this show, you might be interested in some facts and information about the art of Belly Dancing or in Arabic, Raks Al Sharki meaning “The Dance of the Orient.”

From her origins as a vital participant in rituals in the days of the Pharaohs, some 3,500 or more years ago, the belly dance was first brought to America in 1893 at the Chicago World's Fair. There, the dance was performed by a Syrian girl named “Little Egypt.” It caused quite a stir in the conservative Victorian society to see dancing in which you isolate the hips and waist and shake.

This dance is properly executed by only moving one part of the body in contrast to the other. If you move one part, the other part must remain still. For example, if you shake your hips, everything from the waist up must stay still in order to isolate correctly, and vice versa. Each part of the body does something opposite of the other all while following a complex beat and rhythm in the music. Each muscle in the body gets a complete workout. The most important thing for a Middle Eastern dancer to know is how to stand (posture), how to hold herself, how to distribute her weight and how to make gravity work for her. A dancer must have an imaginary “center of gravity” around which all movements evolve, flow, revolve and undulate. It is important to know how to dance as opposed to just wiggling around!

There are many popular misconceptions about this ancient dance. For instance, it is not sexual, it is more sensual, a celebration of life. Its appeal lies not in the sexual, but in its more earthy nature. The dance encompasses a full range of emotion: happiness, joy, faith, passion, loss, love, etc. It is the ultimate in human expression, and when the men in the Middle East perform it, is more masculine, still celebrating life. Men do it as well. They perform more of a folkloric dance as opposed to the Oriental cabaret style or Raks Al Sharki. This art is also archetypal. It honors the sacred and the mundane, much like life itself. It signifies and symbolizes the female archetype, the Goddess or the high Priestess.

Many things about the history of this art, its origins, and the way it has evolved might surprise you. The belly dance as the French first called it when they saw it performed in Egypt was Danse Du Venture, the dance of adventure. They were also the first to officially call it “dance of the abdomen” -- now we refer to it affectionately as “Belly Dance.” The French coined this term when they first saw the isolations, unusual snakelike undulations and fluid movements in the art that they had never seen before they came to the Middle East.

The dance originated as a birthing ritual and not as entertainment. In the early Middle East and the Mediterranean, the sisters in the villages of Morocco, Egypt, Israel, Syria, and Lebanon would execute gentle and subtle undulations of the back and spine to ease in the birthing process and to remind the woman in labor to use her abdominal muscles. The movements are very natural and this helped the woman in labor to relax and have an easier birth.

This often misunderstood art is the dance of the Goddess, celebrating the power, soul and spirit of women. It is the true spirit of the Priestess. It predates Islam and Christianity and it became more popular around the time of Judaism. Back then, the Matriarch or the woman was worshipped and celebrated, not hidden. This was before the Patriarchal mind set took over.

Through many historical anthropological and archeological finds, we see that the dance was most popular with the Hebrews from many centuries ago. The Sephardic (Middle Eastern) Jews or Hebrews, if you will, began to introduce it as a form of celebration. Early musicians would play music in the streets of the villages and the sisters would dance and have gold coins thrown at their feet. This tradition, of people throwing money to show their appreciation, dates back to early times. This practice of the movements as entertainment brought about the dance as we know it today. Arabic dancing is still the ultimate in sensual womanly expression.

It is important to educate people on facts to avoid misconception and ignorance. In the Middle East and the Mediterranean, the passions of birth, life and love are interwoven into every facet of the culture with a special earthy quality that transcends morality in the Western sense. Because of this, the Westerner has often misunderstood the dance, giving it his notoriety and sleazy striptease condescension.

Many ignorances come from just watching a woman moving! You cannot even compare it in any way to stripping, which is devoid of any art. The showgirl may well be seen as a paid sex object. By contrast, a woman having a good time within her body, sharing her delight in motor expression and art, cannot be exploited!

Even the music of this region reflects beauty and integrity. It is highly emotional, complex and very free rhythmically. Most Eastern music is played in quarter tones, not the European half step. There is magic in these parts of the world and it is reflected in thousands of years of regional customs, practices, celebrations, and art. This exciting and amazing cultural dance with its rich and ancient history is the oldest form of dance known to man ... er ... womankind.

Masalaama (peace).

Ana Rakassa Ya Soraya! Enjoy the show!

Soraya is an International Egyptian dancer, choreographer, and anthropologist.

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