What IS that indefinable, intangible, not quite describable, “je ne sais pas quoi” that gives a handful of Egyptian dancers the power to instantly captivate, hypnotize and open the hearts of their audience?
What is it that draws us into their every movement and expression?
How do these ladies weave their spell?
I think that after more than 35 years I am still trying to figure that out. I may not have any concrete answers for you to such esoteric questions, but I do have some interesting theories and ponderings. To begin, I would like to share a little story and some perspectives about a very special lady who has been one of my constant inspirations and one of my absolutely all-time favourite dancers!
Time: October, 1987 Place: Amsterdam Discovery: Mona al Said
While en route to Brussels, Belgium, I stopped in Amsterdam to have a visit with two lovely American dancer friends who had been living there for several years. Amsterdam was a fabulous and charming city to explore and one of my dancer friends very graciously invited me to extend my visit and to stay at her home for a while before making my move to Brussels. I adored riding bikes all around town and through the picturesque countryside, checking out the markets, exploring the canals, cathedrals, museums especially Vincent Van Gogh’s! Although I loved accompanying my friends to their shows at Amsterdam’s Turkish venues, like most dancers at that time, we would spend endless hours diving into piles of videos of the big stars of dance!! One day my hostess tracked down a very special treat, popped it in the player and as I listened to the magnificent Egyptian orchestra playing the intro, the inimitable Mona appeared – indisputably the queen of the stage! I had been to Egypt on several occasions but this was the first time that I had seen her dance live or on video, as he had been living in England for many years during the time when most of those precious videos were in full production.
In spite of the small TV screen, Mona kept me mesmerized during every single moment of her performance. She filled up the entire room; I couldn’t get enough and would watch her again and again, day after day. Yet, each and every time that I watched her, she was as amazing as the last, and perhaps even more so!!! I admit it! I was a happy and willing Mona addict. In fact, after my hostess discovered that I could sleep right through any amount of household noise and was not what one would call “a morning person”, the quickest and most painless way to get me up in the morning was to turn on the Mona video. Before the second cymbal crash of the intro, I would be up, out of bed and in the living room; glued to the TV, eyes open wide!! In fact we were all raving Mona fans, and gave her the nickname of la crème de la crème (the absolutely best of the best) referring to the delicious Mona dairy products produced in Holland. As I memorized every step, gesture, angle, arm movement and nuance of her performances during those days, in retrospect I can say that one thing that I appreciated more that almost anything else was the total effortlessness with which she did everything. This complete lack of effort allowed her audience to fully sink into and be a part of every aspect of what she was doing, every second that she did it. There was time, precious time and this grand lady of the dance filled every millisecond of it, not with 1,001 movements, but with her breath, her essence and her soul. There is also that unique ability of the Egyptian dancer to truly believe with every cell of her body that every single little thing that she does; that every single moment that she is there in front of her audience, is purely and simply the most incredibly wonderful thing that has ever happened in the universe until that moment. Plus they let us know that they take complete delight in knowing this. These are the elements that create that unequivocal and unequaled stage presence that keeps us in the palms of the hands of these great dancers.
Many years later I was attending a phenomenal full weekend workshop with Mona, having the time of my life following every step and detail of her typical Egyptian “follow the bouncing bum” class. In her dance leotards in the middle of the afternoon, she was dancing with and for us in exactly the same way that she performed for royalty and the elite of the Arabic world. 250% Suddenly she stopped and said in her very deep voice “Dance is like love; when you dance it is the same like when you love! Then she took a long breath, looked around the room at all of us, opened her arms and said I LOVE you! This was not theater. This was not a performance. This was not a contrived strategy to elicit a reaction. This was Mona al Said in all her bare emotional honesty reaching out and sharing her secrets with us, a room full of fellow dancers who loved and appreciated her. The emotional depth and honesty that she and some other great artists are capable of is extremely powerful, profound and astounding. This is what separates an artist from a technician. This is what makes us love them, each and every time we have the honour of being able to watch them – even on VIDEO!!
Oriental dance is, in essence, an art form in which the artist shares her emotional experience with her audience. This availability to open herself to her audience is what gives these dancers their power, but this power is not the power of control, it is not the power of manipulation, it is the power of softness that invites us to meet them and join them in their intimate experience. And this is what weaves the spell.
So, I invite you to watch the inimitable Mona al Said dancing in some of my favourite clips
I would also like to let you know that one of her dances made such a strong impression upon me that many years later, when I finally found a very good rendition of her music, I created a choreography inspired by this performance. You can find this in my Raks Sharki Vol. 5, along with a really nice, earthy Saidi piece called “Yama Dagit” by Roah al Fouad plus a very cute drum solo.
In closing I would like to thank you for letting me share my deep love for Egyptian Oriental Dance with you (I am guessing that you figured this out already). I also hope that you welcomed in this Brand New Inspirational Year in the company of dear friends and loved ones and that you are ready for new and exciting possibilities, challenges and the realization of your dreams in 2013.