Despite its prohibitions against dance and music, Islam has never succeeded in eliminating either from the culture of the middle east. The Sufis, a less conservative group, sought more direct contact with God and looked upon dance in a more tolerant way. Sufi theologian and scholar, al-Ghazzali, a theologian and scholar cited certain conditions under which it was acceptable. According to al-Ghazzali, "melodies which stir up gladness, joy and emotion, their manifestation through poetry, airs, dancing and movement are praiseworthy.". He points out that time, place, social usages, one's ability, and the circumstances should be taken into account. He even discusses the attitude of the mind of the dancer to the dancing, noting that only genuine ecstasy will make his movements light and brisk.
Sufi dancing is completely different in intent from a performance, which is meant to entertain the audience. In Sufi ceremonies, the participants seek to lose their individuality and approach mystic perfection in "oneness". During the dance, it is imperative that the Sufi follow the leader as closely as possible. When, for example the sheik begins his dance and allows his turban to fall to the ground, the rest of the dervishes must imitate him. The Mawlawis use flutes for their dances; other sects may also use drums. Some sects include women as well as men in the participants.
The secular dance most closely related to Islamic intent is the classical dance of the Persians. True Persian dancing has been almost completely lost; since it is not allowed in modern Iran. It did survive to modern times in the remote areas of Afghanistan, which was closed to the outside world until nearly the 19th century. During the time of the last Shah, an effort was made to revive old Persian culture, and a Persian National Folkloric troupe existed. There is also, fortunately, an Afghani Persian woman, Dr. Mahera Harouny, who teaches classical Persian in relation to Sufi philosophy living in Salt Lake City, Utah. By studying videotape made of their dance of the folkloric troupe, as well as study under Dr. Harouny, I have identified certain essentially "Persian" movements.
First, Persian movement originates from the shoulder. Being much higher on the body, it is inherently more delicate and more spiritual (Fig. 8). It uses much more of the space above the head, and uses the hips not at all. This style of armwork is the source for the original "Persian arms", i.e. "Snake arms", done by oriental dancers everywhere. When classical styling is done to very classical music it is possible to raise the arms very high; in more secular or lively, i.e. party type music the arms stay much closer to chest level. This is evident even when men and women dance for personal entertainment; they lead from the shoulder rather than from the hip as Egyptians do. Accepted dance props include long strips of silk, or wine vases, or a rose; all of these are handled with grace and delicacy.
Secondly, in classical Persian the dancer does not acknowledge the existence of her audience. She is supposedly in a higher or trance-like state of mind, communing with God. Her arm offerings upward are offerings to God. It is not officially "Islamic" dance, but it does use the imagery and intent of Persian classical poetry. In more lively party dances, the dancer might acknowledges her audience with occasional glances or brief little smiles. But there is no sense in which she approaches the frank sexuality of the traditional belly dance. The proponents of Islam believed that excitement was bad for the soul; but that serene music could bring one closer to God. Thus, the Classical Persian dancer portrayed the very concept of beauty, the soul reaching out towards God. This lovely dance was preserved by men and women in the privacy of their homes because of its mystic implications. It is completely different in execution and intent from the standard dances of courtesans and dancing boys.
Historically, Central Asia also had a tradition of dancing boys, called Batchas (meaning "child"). There was already a practice of dressing boys up as girls for their circumcision ceremony, that is, in baggy white drawers, tight at the ankles. One observer characterized the dance of the batchas as "a mixture of dance, gymnastics and song, beating of castanets, all mixed up and always of an obscene character." Some of these children may have been taken from their parents by force for their parent's indebtedness. But as Laurel Gray explains, while these dancing boys suffered from low social status, they were much sought after and maintained high standards of performance. Among the desirable traits were "a spontaneous vivacity, an absolute sense of rhythm...light in movement and well-proportioned. Physically he should have the strength to stand the long exercises...be unusually flexible and able to execute the turns and the swaying of the hips with great rapidity.
The Muslims in Persia also had their courtesans. According to Dr. Bettina Knapp, all dancers were courtesans, and indeed were so sought after and so powerful in the capital city of Isfahan, that they formed a corporation: fourteen thousand women, all of whom were registered and directed by a "superior". These beautiful and wealthy young women wore sumptuous clothing and jewelry and used their talents and their art for their own purposes. That they were also looked down upon is shown by the fact that no one referred to them by their stage names, but referred to them in keeping with the price range they charged their clients. They asked for "11 tomans, 10 tomans, or 8 tomans" (tomans = a Persian gold coin). These courtesans were a part of Isfahan society until the eighteenth-century when the Agha Mohammed Khan, a Shiite, came to power. He abolished all the rights and favors accorded the courtesans and severely punished all those who disobeyed his law: "a woman could not appear in public." and therefore, there were no more singers, no more dancers, and no more theater.
In modern Persia (Iran) music and dancing have been forbidden once again by Moslem fundamentalists. But amongst the gulf peoples there is one form of dance which is an interesting hybrid of Persian and Arabic dance; Bandari could even be called "Persian belly dance". The explanation is that in this area Persians and Arabs have traditionally intermarried and produced a unique blend of the two cultures. As performed by the National Folkloric troupe, the dance of the gulf ports (Bandari = port), Bandari is performed with separate lines of men and women. The men wear vests and short wrap skirts; the women wear headpieces, a traditional tunic over narrow Persian pants, and headscarves, as well as black masks. The dance involves a back-forward chest shimmy with one foot ahead of the other. Variations in the dance include waving the hands above the head, moving in a circle with hip movements, and sinking to the floor and tossing the head in a circle. It is a wild, celebratory dance which can be done as a group or as a solo.
Trance dancing is not merely dancing for entertainment; it is part of a religious ceremony intended to cure an illness caused by a demon. While it is possible, and very dramatic, to do a Zar type dance as entertainment, the true Zar is a religious ceremony. To make this more clear, the following explains what a Zar ceremony involves.
The use of acting-out or possession trances has a history going back to the cult of Dionysos and the Corybantes. What little we know of these cults strongly resembles the zar cult as practiced in modern Christian Ethiopia, as well as in the Sudan and throughout the middle east. This kind of trance is also related to the fire walking still practiced in Thrace, one of the homelands of Dionysos. The whirling dervishes of Konya in Turkey also enter a type of trance while dancing. Konya is also one of the ancestral homes of Phrygian Dionysos.
Zar cults involve groups with specific membership, generally women, which require an initiation process. The trancers impersonate various spirits and act out their roles, often in detail. Each Zar spirit has his or her characteristic whirl called gurri which includes a series of rapid turns. The intent of the ceremony is not to exorcise the demon, but to work out an accommodation with it. These societies provide women both entertainment and religious consolation. These cults thrive despite traditional Islamic beliefs. In fact, religious clerics in the Sudan consider the zayran (zar demons) to belong to the class of spirits known as jinn, whose existence the Quran substantiates. They are generally considered to be amoral, capricious, hedonistic and self-indulgent. Zar cults in the Sudan thrive in both city and country, although the city groups may be better organized. In Khartoum and Omdurman there are a number of full-time, professional zar practioners, male (homosexual and therefore sexually neutral), and female dancers (shaykha) who are paid for their services and attract large followings of the possessed.
The Zar ceremony is conducted in this way: When musicians and participants are assembled, the patient is brought in. The incense is lit, and the drumming begins. Appropriate chants and rhythms are played to summon the spirits. A number of women may be possessed by the same spirit and exhibit it simultaneously. When the patient is finally able to identify the spirit by which she is possessed, it is drawn into dialogue. Some sort of animal sacrifice is usually offered to the offending spirit. It may be placated with gifts and other offerings. Next morning the group will go in procession to the Nile (or local body of water) with remnants of the sacrificial meal, and the instruments and participants are cleanses in the river.
The Berbers, who are the original inhabitants of Morocco, do not identify themselves with the Muslims of Morocco. However, both Arab Berbers and Muslims believe in Jnum (spirits). What makes these dances worthy of study is that attaining a trance-like state seems to be a common goal in most Berber dances, even when not specifically a trance dance. The dance most pertinent to this discussion is the Guedra. Like other Moroccan dances, the use of repetition and the constant crescendo of both music and movements create a hypnotic effect on the dancer and spectator. An actual light-headedness or ecstatic feeling results, and eventually leads to total exhaustion. The abrupt collapse seen in the Guedra at the end is also characteristic in most of these ancient Moroccan dances. They believe if there is not a feeling of complete release at the end of the dance, ill health and bad luck will beset the dancer. The theory that the Guedra represents an expression of life from birth to death is a very general analogy frequently used to explain the concepts behind the dance. The following is a description and translation of this dance as performed in Tunisia compiled by Dr. Bettina Knapp:
"Danced bare chested until the end of the protectorate in 1956, the Guedra begins as the participants, men and women wearing blue indigo and black costumes, stand in a circle, chanting and clapping hands. The woman performer, in the center of the circle, begins by sitting on her heels or at times, by standing, as she slowly gets down on her knees, the lower part of her body never participating in her performance. As she moves about, she slowly and progressively emerges from the one or two veils which cover her face and body. In so doing, she extends or half-flexes her arms, held breast high, alternating them from left to right."
The Guedra is performed by Moroccan Berber tribespeople as well as the Chikhat, the name given to singers, dancers, prostitutes and professional musicians. These are usually lower-class and country women, widows or divorcees obliged to bring up one or more children. They learn to sing erotic and traditional love poetry, and often join official dance troupes for a time and perform at festive occasions such as marriage and circumcision ceremonies.
"All of this, however, is peripheral: what is of utmost significance and what makes this dance unique is the extraordinary nature of the hand work and most specifically the finger work. Each joint of each finger moves in accordance with a cadenced pattern, in keeping always with the rhythms and harmonies of the song of the moment. The syncopated movements of her shoulder and breast areas follow the rhythmic beats of the percussion instrument while her head sways laterally, and her hair, adorned with all sorts of shells and beads, enhances the beauty of the composite picture. As the rhythm intensifies, the dancer grows increasingly breathless, her facial contours seem tense and contorted, her eyes close, as her entire being suddenly seems to be under some kind of spell. Exhausted by the physical and emotional effort of the dance, she leaves the magic circle and another takes her place."
The Tunisians also have a true trance dance, the Stambali, performed by Tunisian blacks in relation to their patron saint, Sidi Saad. It is performed in sanctuaries and in the homes of those who need its therapeutic powers. The Stambali involves the sacrifice of an animal, as does the Zar.
The ancient art of oriental dance has a long and colorful history. It began with the many fertility cults of the ancient world, and in the temples of ancient India. The existence of various nomadic groups of professional entertainers, and groups specifically identified with Gypsies, provided for the cross-culturization and transmission of these dances. Although regional variations have always existed, the popularity of what is commonly know as "oriental dance" or "belly dance" continues in the modern middle east and through the world.
It has evolved in many different countries in many different ways, while still retaining the distinctive associations of oriental dance. It's origins are lost in the mysteries of ancient fertility cults, and that dance in the east continues to have religious associations. The survival of this ancient dance despite cultural and moral prejudices is a tribute to the appeal it has to the human spirit.
As Curt Sachs has noted, when people want to celebrate, they dance. Modern western dancers have no more relationship to these old cults than do children who hunt for Easter Eggs or people who hang greenery in their houses at Christmas; both of these are ancient pagan symbols. The women (and men) who dance today do so for very practical reasons: because it is enjoyable, it is excellent exercise for muscle-toning, and an opportunity for social involvement. In other words, for fun, fitness and friendship.
The fact that the dance has survived to this day, and continues to develop, testifies to its enduring appeal. In modern western culture female images are often presented negatively, destructively, and consistently exploited. By contrast, oriental dance presented in an appropriate atmosphere is a positive statement about the beauty, strength and grace of all that is feminine. It was a dance originally intended to be for women, by women. For Eastern women, oriental dance has a distinctively different message because it is generally performed in gatherings of women only; in these situations, it affirms the ability of a woman to maintain her beauty (and therefore her power over her husband), and hearkens back to the power of the ancient fertility cults. In the middle east today, the fertility of a woman is still a prime factor in calculating her value. A newly-wed bride has no status, but her husband's mother rules the home, and probably picked her son's bride.
Oriental dance as performed in nightclubs and stage situations in the United States, tends to be a solo performance; the costumes are very flashy, and sometimes very skimpy. Due to the fact that American culture is used to seeing women who are scantily-clad, this is not necessarily as titillating as it sounds. What is unfortunate is that it gives the impression that only those who are young and beautiful should dance, and that they do it only for the pleasure of the men in the audience. It is even more unfortunate that these situations also tend to involve audiences who are inebriated or rude, and do their best to demean the dancer. This is a case of confusing the art of the dance with the dancer's audience, for which he/she is not responsible.
Oriental dance in the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA) retains many of the positive values it has in eastern culture. Dancing tends to be improvisational, informal, and performed amongst friends. Costumes tend to be covered and ethnic, and less emphasis is placed on the beauty and youth of the dancer. Oriental dance done in the context of a communal event, like a SCA event, is much closer to the spirit of the dance than that done commercially in the United States. Oriental dance has seldom been taken seriously by classically trained Western dancers, and this has made it more difficult to gain respectability. In addition, its tradition of improvisational dance, as well as its sensual and erotic connections make it more difficult for these western dancers to understand. I heartily encourage more people to explore this most ancient of dance forms, so that they, too, can understand the power and joy which it expresses.