Raqs Roots: Awalim Recreation Project

For almost as long as I’ve been dancing, I’ve ruminated on the feeling of “what came before…?” After many years I finally had enough information, training and direction to put a long held idea of bringing late-Ottoman-era Egyptian entertainment to the stage.

Who were the entertainer’s of Egypt’s past?

The Awalim (sing. Almeh/Alma/Almee/Alima) are the professional female entertainers of Cairo and Lower Egypt’s urban areas. Throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries they were known to be skilled singers, poets, musicians and dancers who once performed only for private indoor events for the upper classes of Egypt, and in accordance with the protocol regarding gender segregation for the time period. During the mid 1800’s dancers of Cairo were forced south across the country where the Awalim and Ghawazee (Rural/public professional dancer-singers) became virtually indistinguishable from each other, both accepting whatever work there was to survive. The term Awalim became the common word for “dancer”. The ban was eventually lifted and as time went on these women began to perform in the salas or public entertainment halls and small theaters as dancers and singers to entertain the Egyptians of all classes as well as the occasional European adventurers. This period of time was the dawn of Raqs Sharqi “Dance of the East” being distinguishable by name from the European and popular Latin dances presented in the same venues. Dancers became known as “raqassa”, a term that is still in use today. What descended from this period has become world wide is known as “Belly Dance” or “Oriental Dance”.

The First Step of Recreation:

Dancing with A’isha Azar’s Baharat!! Dance Company, Helene Erikson’s ANAR DANA project and Mish Mish’s Caravan Dance Troupe, laid a groundwork for historical exploration (not to mention coming to Belly Dance through the avenue of historical reeactment-but that’s a story for another time). I was put to task many times over a period of 7 years presenting “Golden Era” (1950’s) Raqs Sharqi, 18th-19th century Ghawazee, 1970’s Banat Mazin Ghawazee and other vignettes of culture and history. When I took my ruminations about “what came before…?” and began to apply the to what I was learning, I realized this feeling I’d been searching for at first lay within the dancing of the Ghawazee, and later I felt it again watching Nadia Hamdi, a 1970-1990’s era Cairo almeh. So inspired by Nadia Hamdi was I that beginning in late 2015 I dove into the challenge of reproducing the feeling of 1980’s era Raqs al Shamadan “Dance of the Candleabra”, a nostalgic reference to a unique performance tradition originating around the turn of the 19th-20th century. I started to develop a new way of thinking about movement, and consumed any information I could find on the candelabra dance and those who performed it.

Later in 2016 I created an a mid 1800’s Awalim/Ghawazee “dance performance for the Farrah” (wedding celebration), my imagination wandering around what the costume and movement of a lower Egyptian rural dancer would look like in a time where Egypt transitions out of Ottoman control and influence. The costume is an experiment in representing the change from the Ottoman outfit (full pantaloons, ankle or knee length chemises with ankle or waist length overcoats, tarboosh (hat) with fabric wound around and a scarf at the hips) towards the early 1900’s professional dance costume (defined by a tight vest, short chemise, skirt and belt with several long ribbons and/or tassles attached in the front). I let the modern movement style of Cairo dancers along with the research on the modern Banat Mazin Ghawazee dancers inform my exploration of technique, in addition to referencing the old movie scenes with dancers from as early as the 1930’s.

The following summer, June 2017 I and two other Northwest artists Kate Soliel and Amira Jade, presented a group candelabra dance as “Firqit Hawanem”. Inspired by a photo from Nisaa of St. Louis’s personal collection with a late 1890’s candelabra dancer, using the movement style I’d been developing in my previous attempts we took a baby-step towards this ever-growing fantastic internal image I am carrying. We tried to keep the casual/relaxed persona of the Sumbati dancers from Morocco’s videos, with a mix of pre-determined phrases, cued lead-follow moments and our simultaneous own personal interpretations. I’ll have a million and a half changes for this dance in it’s next public exposition, but I am very happy with the start, to see what is possible and where we can go.

In the year following Firqit Hawanem’s debute, while I was preparing to teach some workshops and private lessons on the subject of Awalim Movement, I realized that there was a rather large difference in movement style between the Upper Egyptian Banat Mazin, and Lower Egypt’s Awalim and that, up to that moment I’d been blending the two unknowingly. With Nisaa’s help I was able to pin down a few specific changes and went on to present a 1910’s Awalim Dance with live music for the first time, by Spokane, WA based band Safar. I recorded a narrative to explain some of my choices and influences, and feel very inspired to find the next step in this process. I have a dream of something much larger coming to life, but there are many steps to take before I get there, and so much to learn!

I hope in future years that this project will transition to a full time performance and education company that will serve public and private institutes nationally (globally!) to promote cultural diversity, appreciation of the arts and a better understanding for the variety and historical development of dances from the Middle East, North Africa and Arabian Gulf. Project Photos

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2015, ANAR DANA International Dance Theater presents 1800’s Ghawazee dance, Seattle WA

"Spice! Dance of the African and Arabian Diaspora" Tacoma, WA 10/2016

Oct 2016, 1980’s era Raqs al Shamadan (Dance of the Candleabra) presented at “Spice! Dance of the African and Arabian Diaspora” Tacoma, WA

10/2016 "Arabesque" YMCA fundraiser, Kenneth J. Minneart Center for the Arts, Olympia, WA.

Oct 2016, 1980’s era Raqs al Shamadan (Dance of the Candleabra) presented at “Arabesque” YMCA fundraiser, Kenneth J. Minneart Center for the Arts, Olympia, WA.

Awalim near turn of 19th-20th century with candleabra, photo from private collection of Nisaa of St. Louis

Awalim near turn of 19th-20th century with candleabra, photo from private collection of Nisaa of St. Louis