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Roots of Oriental Dance

By Morocco (Carolina Varga Dinicu)

You often here that Oriental or belly dance is an ancient art form. What we recognize as Oriental dance as a performance art is a relatively new development, approximately 100 years old. However, the root dances that Oriental dance developed from, are believed to have a long history. Some say over 5000 years.

Two of the slower Oriental dance movements have been traced to dances imitating the movements of childbirth. And one theory is that the root dance served as a preparation for childbirth. Leading ethnologist Morocco (Carolina Varga Dinicu) witnessed a dance ritual during childbirth by tribeswomen of a small Moroccan village. The following excerpt is her account of those events.

"In 1963, the Moroccan Pavilion of the New York Worlds Fair opened. I was there for the first show on the first day. Because I sat through four shows that day, returned the next and the next and the next, the directors/promoters noticed me. Although I had met them briefly months before and would later perform at the pavilion myself, I had not yet met the folkloric performers or established the friendships there that would be so important to my subsequent research and development as a dance ethnologist, teacher, director & choreographer.

They were surprised and pleased at the extent of my seriousness about the dance and culture and began to supply me with information. Almost as a footnote to a conversation one day, one of them said that his wife had just gone back to Morocco, to go to a small village from which her cousins came. One of them was about to give birth for the first time and she went to help "dance the baby into the world." I told him I would give half my soul to see such a ceremony and he promised to help.

I thought my Moroccan friend had forgotten his promise, but in 1967 word came to me from Casablanca: get down here now if you still want to see what you asked about. Another cousin was about to give birth, and from the size of it, they thought it might be twins. I asked no further questions, grabbed my passport, borrowed some money from my mother (thanks, Ma!) and split to Casablanca. The wife met me at the airport and explained the situation on the way to the village, which was between Tisint and Tintasart. (Not exactly what you would call tourist towns.)

Since I couldn't speak Berber by any stretch of the imagination, nor Moroccan Arabic (we spoke in French and Spanish), but I could easily pass for a Moroccan physically, I was to pretend that I was deaf and dumb and would be introduced as a servant of my friend's wife. Anyone who knows me knows how difficult it would be for me to keep my mouth shut for five minutes, let alone a few days!

She filled me in on the background, what I would see and could expect, so that nothing would take me by surprise and produce a reaction that would give me away as a foreigner. It took three and a half long, hot, tiring days and nights to get to the village, but as soon as we got there we were whisked off to the local hammam (steam baths). Allah be praised!

A special tent had been erected at one end of the village, to which the cousin had gone the day before, after having been bathed by several of her friends at the hammam. Her husband was a big mogul in the tribe and a lot of partying was to accompany the event. She was sitting on a divan in the back section of the tent, but I noticed that a small hollow had been dug in the center of the tent. There was food and fruit and mint tea aplenty for the female guests. Males weren't allowed within 100 yards of the tent flap. They weren't sure of the exact day she would give birth, but it would be very soon.

More relatives were expected, and there was enough food for an army, should it decide to go on maneuvers. We passed the day singing, playing bendirs, dancing Schikhatt, drinking mint tea (which I served my "mistress" in a pretty passable manner, if I say so myself) and eating. Oh, yes, the VERY pregnant cousin got up and danced half the day herself, dressed in beautiful embroidered kaftan.

Later that night, when I was alone with my benefactress, I asked about the hollow in the ground. She said that it was there for the baby to fit into during the birth. Huh? Wait and see...

The next morning we were awakened earlier than expected by one of the cousin's servants: labor had started. We jumped out of bed, dressed, and ran like hell. She was dressed in a lighter kaftan and d'fina and was squatting over the hollow, sweating up a storm. The other women had formed a series of circles, three deep around her, but made way for us to get to the first circle. All the women were singing softly and undulating their abdomens, then sharply pulling them in several times. The movements were much slower and stronger than what dancers call the flutter, and can be seen in some Schikhatts. They repeated the movements while slowly moving the circles clockwise.

The cousin would get up and do the movements in place for a few minutes and then squat for a few minutes and bear down. She didn't seem particularly agitated or in any pain. The only sign of strain was the perspiration that soaked her hair and forehead. We stopped only for midday prayers. Thank heaven I'm a dancer and imitated the movements of Moslem ritual as if I were imitating a dance, or I would have blown it right there! We drank some mint tea that she poured for everyone of us and continued dancing.

Less than half an hour later, she gave a gasp and we heard a soft thud. She lifted her kaftan and there was a baby in the hollow. She held up her hand: it wasn't over yet. Approximately fifteen minutes later, another gasp and another soft thud. It was twin boys. They were cleaned with soft, white tufts of lambs wool dipped in cool tea, but the umbilical cords weren't cut until the afterbirth had been delivered. Then the cords were cut with a silver knife and the afterbirth was buried in the hollow that had received the newborn babies.

The women started zagareeting like crazy, the babies started crying (who wouldn't with all the noise!) and from the shouts outside, I gathered that the men realized what had happened and were carrying the news to the other side of town, where the father had been waiting it out with his friends. Fifteen minutes later, he appeared, exactly 100 yards from the birth tent, and the babies were carried out for him to see. Then they were returned to the mother and she put them to her breasts. She had, by this time, returned to the divan. The women kept up the singing and dancing until way past sundown. It was so moving that I couldn't help crying.

While I had been watching her give birth, I could see her abdomen moving underneath the kaftan in involuntary undulations, much the same as my cats' abdomens when they kittened. I asked my "mistress" later if she had still been dancing at that point, or if natural movement had taken over, and she said, "Nosotros hacemos una imitacion de los moviemientos naturales. Ella tenia que hacer esos moviemientos cuando dio a luz porque no pudo menos." ("We imitated the natural movements. She had to do these movements when she gave birth -- literally, 'gave to light' -- because she couldn't do otherwise.")