Baladi – The Mother of Oriental Dance

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The sensual, undulating notes push, pull and breathe their way through the baffles as master accordion player Mr. Fadi Akiki inspires us to translate this eternal improvisation into the luscious and sinuous movements of the “Baladi Eshra” aka Taksim Baladi.. Listening and watching – I feel my torso replicating the baffles as they twist, turn, open, stretch and squeeze – sometimes slowly – waiting for the next note – sometimes lightly running and playing over the notes. This moment running into different moment is one of the reasons why I still dance. Living in the totally now of improvisation, becoming a movement the very second that the notes are created is perhaps one of the most challenging, sometimes frightening, but totally rewarding accomplishments of an oriental dancer. The Almost Lost Great Art of “BALADI” presents us with this challenge like no other component of oriental music can.

It is also one of the key components in my “Making the Most of you Music” workshop – two entire days encased within my 10 day professional dance training course. for this workshop, I bring in a singer and an entire orchestra of world class consummate master musicians with traditional oriental instruments so that the students can experience, interact with and learn how to interpret the best of oriental music, including the classics of Oum Kalthoum, classical and contemporary Sharki pieces and improvisation. Although this year was only the 2nd annual pro training, it is an obvious “The Best Workshop Ever” nominee according to the students.

I always enjoy sharing some of the history, cultural context, and background of the dances as I present the different aspects, rhythms, and interpretations to my students, which is what I’d like to share with you now.

To begin with, there seems to be quite a bit of confusion about what exactly the word Baladi refers to. This comes from the root word Balad, which the dictionary translates as “the country”. Baladi literally means “of the country”, but a more accurate translation would be “of the people”. So, essentially anything that is from the country or from the people can be referred to as Baladi. In the context of dance, “Raqs Baladi” refers to the urban, popular form of dance practiced by most Egyptian women, at henna evenings, weddings, parties, family gatherings, often times dancing with and for each other, as opposed to a professional Oriental or Sharki dancer who performs in public for an audience.

This style is typified by characteristic shoulder and arm movements, hand placements and gestures, hip movements, shimmies and undulations. The quality of these movements could best be described as grounded, loose, uncontrolled, fun, earthy, unabashed and very sensual. These qualities are perfectly embodied in the dances of Fifi Abdo, my all time favorite Queen of the Baladi style – even when she is dancing to Sharki music!

Although Baladi is often confused with folkloric dance, it differs from traditional folklore, in the fact that it is improvisation, requires no particular costume, has no specific steps or signature movements, costuming, rhythmical or musical accompaniment, nor represents any specific cultural phenomenon. However, many of it movements can be traced to many of Egypt’s folkloric traditions such as Hagallah, Saidi, Fellahin of the Nile delta, and even those of the original professional dancers known as the Ghawazee and Awalim. This can likely be explained, as in most predominantly agricultural rural nations, by the migration from the villages and country side into the cities, particularly Cairo, as the population grew and the economy shifted. As a result, Cairo became a melting pot of traditions from all parts of the country, including musical and dance styles. From this melting pot, Baladi began to emerge and evolve. Popular songs combined with the best loved rhythms such as maksoum, saidi and felahy in such charming pieces as Ashimtini sung by Sami Aly. Favorites such as Habibi ya Eini, Bint al Sultan and Baladi Awad (the Sheesha song) took on new life as they were transformed by the newly emerging stars of Egyptian nightclub scene.

The ancient tradition of the freeform style of singing known as Mawwal, (so brilliantly represented by such famous Egyptian singers as Metkal Kanawi and Fatme Serhan) had often be accompanied by a rabab or a nai, eventually found a new voice in the accordion.. However, the accordion and, even occasionally, a saxophone brilliantly uphold the tradition of “freedom” in rich and exciting improvisation.

The addition of the improvisational accordion is what transformed the Baladi style into the phenomenon known as Baladi Eshra or Taksim Baladi. The word “Eshra” can best be translated as a complicity and/or communication. This concept is imperative between the musicians and dancer in Baladi Eshra, because this component of the dance is completely improvised with no set melodies. In order for the artists to work together each must feel, communicate with and compliment the other at every moment so as to anticipate and interpret each change and variation. Taksim means improvisation, usually without rhythm. Directly after the taksim, we encounter another common element of Arabic music – the call and answer -known as “Sowal Gawab”. This was originally represented by a singer/story teller’s “call” which was answered by the reply of the group, but has been transformed into the accordion’s call and the tabla’s intricate reply. We occasionally still hear the tabla’s answer accompanied by a chorus a of sweet women’s voices.

After the accordion taksim improvisation and a series of 4 or 8 “call and answer” repetitions, the instruments and percussion finally meld into one wonderful and powerful marriage of Baladi (aka. Masmoudi Saghirah¬) rhythm, melody and movement. This strong, heavy and undeniable captivating beat announces one of the most exciting moments in an oriental dance routine and will surely grab the heartstrings of any Arab and seasoned oriental dancer in the audience, leaving them no choice but to get up and dance for joy. In fact, the name Baladi to describe this rhythm is a commonly accepted alternative for Masmoudi Saghira and came directly from the fact that it is the featured and the focal point of the Baladi section of the dance.

Sometimes this Baladi section will be accented or embellished by strategically placed, pauses called Efeya’at (which can be thought of like a response without a call), after which the musicians often return to another reunification “Baladi” segment. However, the inevitable “next” component is the Felahi or Maksoum Saghira. This playful up tempo section definitely takes us back to the countryside and the Egyptian farmers “fellahin” as their simple, driving rhythm inspired singing and dancing for hours on end. Today it gives us the perfect background for more exciting improvisation possibilities, between lead drummer, other musicians and dancer as one inspires the other right through to the end of the “Baladi” or right into a drum solo. The choices are many and they are all wonderful!

In closing I would like to say that I LOVE Orientale choreographies. I love to create them, to teach them and to perform them. They are such wonderful vehicles for translating the instruments, the phrasing, the rhythms, the maqams, the melodies of our beautiful music, as well as sharing these interpretations with our students. However, the experience of dancing to “live” improvised music at the same moment that it is being created AND to be able to accurately embody that music in your movements AS you are hearing it, really has to be the most challenging, magical and vital in a dancer’s career. If you would like to learn how to dance and not just to learn another dance, may I recommend the Mother of Oriental dance THE BALADI.


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