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"Texture" as a Concept in Raqs El-Sharghi

By A'isha Azar
(Published originally in Jareeda, April/May, 1998)

When listening to music meant to be accompanied by Egyptian belly dance, the thing that strikes the ear and the mind is the intricacy of the music. Rhythms and counter-rhythms, melodies and counter-melodies, become woven together like the most beautiful of hand-made fabrics. This music is lush with feeling and meaning on so may different levels. One's body might be beckoned by the most hard driven of earthy rhythms, and simultaneously the mind catches the softest continuous flute melody in the background, barely discernable to the ear. This music is permeated with TEXTURE!

The music is always relevant to the dance. There is no separation in performance. The job of the belly dancer is to interpret on emotional, physical and spiritual levels this complex music. The belly dancer is the physical manifestation and visual compliment to the music. If you will, another type of instrument.

As a part of the entire picture of the music, the dancer must bring the quality of texture to the dance in order to more fully interpret the music. Without texture the dancer cannot do her or his job. How is texture accomplished? Within the confines of Middle Eastern movement, the dancer should first master the skills necessary for proper movement, which reflects Middle Eastern music and culture. Agnes de Mille Said, "the truest expression of a people is its dances and its music", and that is true for this dance also. Once dancers have basic movements and skills, if they have an ability to express emotionally in response to the music, then texture is a matter of learning some relatively simple techniques.

First, if it is possible, and sometimes it is not if the dancer is performing to live music, listen to your music and fully hear it. Meditate on it; listen for nuances and sounds beneath the more obvious. Hear the "color" of the music. The Arabs call this "LOWN", a feeling of culture or influence in the music. Be aware of its flow and essence. A dancer cannot fully interpret what has not been heard.

Following this most important of techniques are the physical ones, which are utilized within the context of what the music is saying. These techniques not only give the dancer satisfaction in the quality and meaning of performance, but there is the extra added bonus of making the dance more interesting for the audience.

A simple tool for creating texture is angling the body so that the audience sees more than one view of the same movement. Changing the angle of the body often gives a movement a completely different look because it is seen from a new focal point.

Movements can be done with greater or lesser intensity. Make them bigger, smaller, sharper or softer, of course working within the flow and feeling of the music. Belly dancers are only using 10 movements and they should be exploited to the maximum!

Another good technique is to dance alternately to rhythm and melody. Call attention to the instrument of your choice for the audience and interpret its essence through movement, then do the same thing with another within the same measure of music. This can be done by using soft movements followed by sharp accents or vice-versa. The eyes and minds of the audience follow the movement and the ears hear the instrument called up by the dancer.

Layering is one technique that cannot be stressed enough as a tool for interpretation in Egyptian dance. Layering is an inherent quality of the music and layering vertical movement, one on the other, is a strong reflection of that quality.

Finally while much of Egyptian dance is focused on standing in one spot and emphasizing vertical movement, it is good to occasionally, when the music allows, use horizontal space. Traveling can bring new dimensions to movements. However, it is important to remember that part of what makes Middle Eastern dance a form unique from western forms is that traveling is not usually one of the most important aspects of dance.

These are just some of the techniques for creating texture within the dance. On the psychological level, it helps if the dancer thinks of her/himself as an extension of and part of the musical process. Techniques for texture are designed to help the dancer be a more finely tuned "instrument", more able to bring out the richness and the colors of the music, and to more fully express its emotional content in correlation with the dancer's response. In the depth of interpretation of the music lies deeper meaning for the dancer, and therefore, the dance.

A'isha Azar, 1997