Game Changers The Folklore Issue

Shareefa Al Zayani is on a mission to preserve Khaleeji women folk dances

In order for Bahraini and Khaleeji dances not to die with the demise of many of the older generations who still practice them, Shareefa Al Zayani took it up on herself to research, learn and teach these dances.


By Sekka Editorial

Folk dance is an essential part of any country’s folklore, so essential that it is amongst the categories that form an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity at the UNESCO. In fact, several dances around the world have been successfully added to the representative list, including traditional male dances from the Gulf region such as al-ardah al-najdiyah from Saudi Arabia and al-razfa from Oman and the UAE.

However, what is notably missing from the list are Khaleeji female dances, or those that females traditionally partake in in the Gulf, despite the existence of many different types of folk dances across the region. While working as a DJ in her home-country of Bahrain, Shareefah Al Zayani noticed that young women in segregated weddings and celebrations did not know to dance these traditional dances, or simply would not dance at all. This worried the 40-year-old. In order for Bahraini and Khaleeji dances not to die with the demise of many of the older generations who still practiced them, Shareefah Al Zayani took it up on herself to research, learn and teach these dances. Today, alongside her job as a physical education teacher by day and a DJ by night, she instructs women on how to dance Khaleeji in locations like Bahrain’s Ballet Center, and she also shares instruction videos on her Instagram page.

We speak to Shareefa Al Zayani about her beginnings in dance, her career as a dance instructor and discuss the challenges she faces as one of the small number of Khaleeji instructors in the region to do this, and to do this relatively publicly in the region.

To start with, what is Khaleeji dance? What distinguishes it?

Shareefa Al Zayani: It is the dance of the people of the Arabian Gulf region, the people of the desert and the sea. Khaleeji dance shows the similarity between the dances of Bedouin Arabs and the Arabs of the sea. Examples of the former are the almarada dance, the al-samree dance and the al-khayl or al-faras dance. Examples of the latter are the al-laywa and al-tanboora dances, which developed due to influences from the African and Indian coasts. The al-basta dance arose from Iraqi influence, especially the influence of the people of Basra. I am interested in the dances of the women of the region, such as the al-samree and al-khammaree dances, which simultaneously showcase women’s modesty and sense of romance.

What inspired you to start teaching women Khaleeji dance?

Shareefa Al Zayani: I have enjoyed performing ever since I was in middle school, when I used to participate in national day celebrations, and my love for performance only grew with time and as I took part in more performances in high school. Being a P.E. teacher, my environment also encourages me to always be active, move around and dance. But my decision to teach women to dance really came about when I began working as a DJ. I noticed that young women don’t generally dance a lot in weddings and celebrations, and that [when they do] they prefer hip hop, zumba, mamba and salsa. With time, I realized that many either don’t like Khaleeji dance, or don’t know how to dance Khaleeji. Others still don’t dance because they believe it is aib (shameful), haram (forbidden), or immodest.

I am interested in the dances of the women of the regionwhich simultaneously showcase women’s modesty and sense of romance

Who taught you how to dance?

Shareefa Al Zayani: I learned by watching my aunts and other family members dance at weddings and other occasions when I was young. I also learned by watching dances on Bahrain TV, which I used to record, play and replay until I mastered them. Observing local bands perform, as well as watching the Kuwaiti operetta of the 1980s, also helped.

What are some of the dances you teach, and can you give us some background about each?

Shareefa Al Zayani: One of the dances I teach is the al-samree dance. It is a slow dance that expresses modesty, sadness and longing for the beloved. Women who perform it wear an abaya (cloak) or a Khaleeji thoub (dress). Another dance is the al-khayl or al-faras dance. It is a Bedouin dance that every tribe has a slightly different version of. However, it is generally characterized by the movement of the hands, the swinging of the hair and the paced movement of the dancer from one space to another. Women who perform it usually wear a niqab (face cover), shaila (headscarf), jalabiya (dress), sirwal (pants) and belt. Al-marada is another originally Bedouin dance that I teach. It literally means going back and forth, and is usually performed when many girls and women are gathered together on celebrations like Eid because it requires a relatively large number of females to be performed. I also teach al-basta, which is a very light and joyous dance that expresses happiness.

Who are your students? From what backgrounds do they hail, and what’s the most requested dance you are asked to teach?

Shareefa Al Zayani: Many of my students are Bahraini women who come in for classes before their family weddings. There are also Bahraini women who come in to perfect their performances, or to learn the al-samree dance. Then there are those who just want to learn how to dance Khaleeji for fun. I also have students who are non-Bahraini who’ve lived in Bahrain for years and so would like to get to know the country’s culture more. Others yet are professional dancers who have to learn all kinds of dances for their respective jobs.

“We live in a patriarchal and masculine society, thus anything creative, especially if it is done by a Khaleeji woman, is viewed with suspicion despite the fact that women used to dance in the past, sometimes even alongside men.”

What is your favorite dance?

Shareefa Al Zayani: Al-basta because it allows me to express my fun and cheerful personality, and it allows me to be active. I also love the al-samree dance because it showcases the Khaleeji woman’s modesty and emotions.

What are some of the reactions you have received from people when you tell them that you teach Khaleeji dance?

Shareefa Al Zayani: There are men and women who are encouraging when they find out, there are those who get shocked and then there are those who simply do not care. We live in a patriarchal and masculine society, thus anything creative, especially if it is done by a Khaleeji woman, is viewed with suspicion despite the fact that women used to dance in the past, sometimes even alongside men. However, it must be noted that is beginning to change, and I hope we will strike more of a balance between positive masculinity and positive femininity as a society.

When you first opened your Instagram dance account, you taught dance through it by giving written instructions, and then you took videos that mostly only show the movement of your feet. Tell us more about the reason behind that.

Shareefa Al Zayani: I believe in doing things slowly. Putting full videos of myself dancing would have shocked society. So, I did it that way in order to see how I felt about things based on people’s responses, and determine how I could move forward. In addition, women usually start practicing at home, and this way makes it easier for them to begin learning the basic steps, which can take a long time.

What are some of the challenges you face, and how do you deal with them?

Shareefa Al Zayani: As a researcher, I face the challenge of being unable to find a lot of information due to the dearth of resources out there. In addition, there are disagreements between artists about the kind of beat each dance should be danced to, or what it should be called. What I do when that arises is that I take the opinion of the majority, or I continue researching, or I come up with a name based on my observations. Another challenge stems from the fact that the number of female performers in the country that I could resort to is small. Luckily, some men from the local bands have been helpful due to their knowledge about women’s dances and by virtue of the women they know, and so has YouTube. The last challenge I face is being bullied on social media for my profession and for putting it out there on social media, which is something Khaleeji women don’t normally take up, or at least state publicly. When that happens, I just delete the negative comments or I don’t read them in the first place, and I tell myself “It’s none of my business.” However, I also got an attorney to resort to when necessary.

How does your work contribute to preserving Bahraini and Khaleeji folklore, especially in a globalized world? And why is it important to preserve our traditional dances?

Shareefa Al Zayani: Documenting our folklore through mediums like social media is important because of the cultural imperialism we’re facing on so many areas, not just dance, and so that the next generations will get to know their folklore and traditional dances. Translating our folklore is also important so that it reaches the West in an organized way, so that they may use it in their research.

What are you future plans?

Shareefa Al Zayani: One of my goals is to visit other Gulf countries to learn, document and eventually teach their female dances.

To find out more about Shareefa Al Zayani, visit her page on Instagram.

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