Opinion The Folklore Issue

Why we need to remove the stigma surrounding female dance in the Gulf

"If we do not practice our own folk dances, they will fade away into oblivion."

By Dana Al Rashid

Bedouin Woman Holding Sword for Sword Dance. Image: G. Eric and Edith Matson Photograph Collection, Library of Congress

Dance is an essential part of any culture’s folklore. “Folk” means the people, and “lore” is the body of knowledge, so dance is a crucial aspect of this formula both literally and metaphorically, as we store all those things we cannot articulate in the flesh.

However, dance seems to have been largely forgotten in the Gulf region. At best, it is pushed aside as some “secondary thing,” reserved for people perceived to have no dignified jobs or families. Historically, some of the entertainers who performed these folk dances were gypsies (also known as Kawliya or Romani). The gypsies originally migrated from India and settled mostly in Iraq, while some of them have moved to the Gulf States. There was also a population of Africans who were slaves but stayed later on and some worked as dancers, musicians and entertainers. Being poor, with dance as their main trade, dancing began to generally have an unfavorable link to lower classes and immorality in the minds of the public— a sad stereotype as many of the gypsies and Khaleejis of African origins are skilled dancers and talented musicians.

It seems that at some point, folk dance became hyper-masculine, practiced only by men to show their national pride and express their cultural identity. From the mid 1980s onwards, as conservatism became prominent in the region, we began to see less and less portrayal of women in the media and theaters dancing in their thoubs (national dresses). Oftentimes they were replaced by children (of both genders), or their dances by a more masculine, tribal dance. Female folk dances, both Khaleeji and Arabic, seem to have moved primarily into the category of commercial music video clips, which often portray a negative image both of women and dance. In the meantime, women were still dancing in private gatherings and segregated weddings in many parts of the Gulf.

Bedouin Sword Dance. Image: Library of Congress.

I find traditional male dances to be beautiful, with many examples existing from the Gulf region such as al-ardha and al-ayyala . Masculine dance is an essential expression of cultural identity, and I am happy to see the high standard of the dance reached in countries such as the UAE, where the weapon dance al-yowla has been taken to a whole new impressive level, revived and preserved through regularly held national competitions.

The question here is: Why is women dancing their traditional dances publicly considered a bad thing? Some may say that female dancing should be limited to homes and the traditionally segregated weddings to avoid provoking men. But who is viewing the dance and female body as provocative? It is only so according to the uncultivated male gaze.

So we argue fine, maybe one has a point if the female performer is wearing revealing clothes. However, this is not the case with most folk dances in the region, in which a long, flowing gown is the traditional dance costume, usually with a form of head cover as well. Yet again some say that it is not the clothing, but the movement itself that is provocative despite the movements being quite modest in the Gulf, oftentimes consisting mainly of head and hair movements, or dancing with the veil such as in the al-khammaree dance. Here I wonder, are we policing women’s every little move in fear of it becoming too suggestive? All the while men of virtually all Arab backgrounds are free to express themselves through dance as they please, from break dance to hip hop to traditional dances. I find this to be entirely unfair to women. The feminine body needs to be perceived from a broader, more encompassing lens; a lens free of scrutiny and judgment, in order for our dances to stay alive and evolve.

I remember the days when dance musicals used to be aired in Ramadan as part of the family friendly TV programs. These musicals, also known as fawazeer, were 30-episode shows that ran throughout the holy month, and which featured a puzzle or a question per episode for participants to answer and win valuable prizes. Egyptian performers Sherihan and Nelly are the most popular fawazeer idols, and are adored and appreciated by many people from different age groups and backgrounds. Najwa Fouad, who is a well-known belly dancer, also did her own version of the fawazeer in the past, and it was also considered quite acceptable and even enjoyable at the time.

These women portrayed international dances of the world in a fun and friendly way that was accessible to all. Again, some may argue that Egypt has always been more open than the Gulf in that sense. And I agree; that is true. But, in the past, we also had portrayal of women’s dance on national TV, especially in the Kuwaiti Operetta, in celebration of national and independence days, as well as respectful portrayals of traditional women’s dance in musical performances. Old dance forms, such as al-khammaree and al-samree are multilayered, and even have a spiritual aspect to them that is yet to be properly documented and explored.

Today, folk dance is being taught, performed and recognized worldwide, and it is even being documented as part of the intangible heritage by the UNESCO. If we do not practice our own folk dances, they will fade away into oblivion. And if we, the younger generation, shun our own folk dances as inferior and deeming western and contemporary styles as of a “higher class” by giving them priority in dance studios and performances, then we are partaking in our own orientalism. Until then, we as women, shall continue to dance in wedding celebrations, female gatherings and dance studios, until the world is ready for us.

Dana Al Rashid is a Kuwaiti writer and artist. She has a weekly column in Al Jarida Newspaper, and she also writes and illustrates for several independent magazines.

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