Musical Ecstasy in Oriental Dance

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A review of “Finding the Feeling” Through Movement and Music: An Exploration of Tarab in Oriental Dance, by Candace Bordelon.

Candace Bordelon’s dissertation “Finding the Feeling” Through Movement and Music: An Exploration of Tarab in Oriental Dance considers the dancer’s experience of tarab, or musical ecstasy, in the context of Oriental dance performance. Her work carefully navigates the fields of ethnochoreology, ethnomusicology, cultural studies, and dance studies. Bordelon’s research embodies the dancer’s voice as she roots her methodological approach in grounded theory. This dissertation comprises a preface, eight chapters, and an engaging appendix including her original interview questions. The organizational structure of the narrative is constructed following the sequence of an Oriental dance performance.

Critical to Bordelon’s analysis is the relationship between the dancer and the musician in performance and how this shared experience cultivates a state of tarab. She argues that “interconnected themes of community, dismantling barriers, memories and choice-making” (p. 77) provide a web of understanding between participants and performers that contributes to the physical sensations and emotional experiences of the dance performance. She interviewed eight dancers including Egyptian artists Aida Nour, Randa Kamel, Lubna Emam, and Nagwa Fouad, Americans Shareen El Safy and Tamra-henna, and Canadians Yasmina Ramzy and Hadia.  She weaves this narrative through participant-observation and choreographic analysis of dance practices alongside Arabic musicians.

In Chapter One, Bordelon introduces the dissertation through a beautifully written description of how notions of transcendence in the landscape of Arabic music seized her interest and led her to situate her study within ethnomusicology. The dance form is practiced alongside a “particular musical genre referred to as “new” or modern classical Arabic music, or musiqa al-gadid” (p. 5) that incorporates and blends diverse musical traditions “rooted in Arabic, North African, Persian, and Turkish” music. According to the author, while the religious or spiritual contexts of Sufi and zar ceremonies differ in context from that of Oriental dance in theatrical entertainment, the experience of ecstasy and transformation is shared in both settings through the intertwined play of music and dance to form what her interviewee’s called “the Feeling” (p. 5).

Bordelon also addresses the many debates and controversial usage of the name “Oriental Dance.” Her decision to use this in her identification of the genre, rather than referring to the terms “Belly Dance” or “Raks Sharki,” is reflected by the data she collected from interviews with dancers in Egypt. She states that the common usage of the movement practice was often referred to as “Oriental Dance.” The colonial dynamics of Orientalism and culture of self-exoticism are acknowledged as having played a role in the development of the performance presentation, yet Bordelon stays true to the word usage and interpretation of the Egyptian dancers in her interviews.

In Chapter Two, Bordelon outlines and provides the historical and contextual background for folkloric influences and the cultural transmission of the form through film and media. She examines the ambiguous relationship between dance and Islamic traditions in Egypt and the affect on social perspectives of professional dance performance. She asserts that “the complex relationship between dance and Islam has impacted every dancer interviewed for this study, and its influence is subtly woven throughout this research” (p. 40). Bordelon also traces the development of the modern Oriental dance performance beginning with the emergence of the social dance forms of Beledi to a presence in the nightclubs of Cairo, regional dances, and early Egyptian, European, and US films. By analyzing bodily postures, she proposes that a gradual shift in body weight from the heels to the toes led to a new movement vocabulary in contemporary Oriental dance.

Chapter Three, Bordelon’s methodological section, embraces an experiential perspective, weaving a narrative of the author’s own dance experiences as a performer and teacher of Oriental dance and Middle Eastern folkloric dance, with interviews, self inquiry and questioning. Through the lens of both a scholar and artist, her research blends her “own practice with the experience of others, using a methodology that explores lived experiences as rich sources of information where many voices are heard and valued” (p. 55). She outlines her multi-sited approach and makes extensive use of interviews with dancers who have achieved international recognition.

Chapter Four begins with a thoughtful conception of the relationship between Oriental dance and music as a “co-active” experience (p. 76). Bordelon examines the aesthetics of composition, the venue of the nightclub and the role of the audience in order to explain the inseparable and complex elements of the performance. Chapter Five suggests multiple relationships between the performative elements of costuming and emotional states of playful humor that work towards moving the viewer to an emotional state. Chapter Six illustrates the performance of the “Love Love Song” and makes a strong case for how music influences the dancer’s movement. This section speaks of transforming the performance into an active listening process. The experience of tarab is cultivated in the dancer’s process of listening to the music. In the author’s words, “the dancer, as a listener, responds to the music, directs the energy it produces, and nurtures the relationship that continues to develop between herself, the music, and her audience” (p. 162).

Chapter Seven engages in a productive dialogue with the theoretical work of composer and ethnomusicologist Ali Jihad Racy to illuminate different aspects of Arab musical experiences of tarab. Bordelon employs Racy’s study, Making Music in the Arab World: The Culture and Artistry of Tarab (2003), as a means to find commonalities and differences in locating tarab in the Oriental dance performance process. She argues that, like the emphasis on music and singing in Racy’s study of a Jalseh event, a dancer in Oriental dance settings “feeds a strong and deep current of feeling towards the audience” (p. 187). Bordelon discusses Racy’s term Sammī ‘a as a way to conceive of the dancer as a “sophisticated listener who feels the music in a way that is translated into movement that expresses her genuinely felt tarab sensations”  (p. 190). The author stresses the importance of the process of collaboration and the intricate relationship of the whole, the dance, the music, the audience and memory that ultimately evokes the state of tarab.

Through vivid description and rich language in the concluding chapter and the dissertation as a whole, Bordelon generates possibilities for dancing bodies to re-imagine questions of place, diaspora, and the experience of ecstasy in movement-based performance. Throughout “Finding the Feeling” Through Movement and Music: An Exploration of Tarab in Oriental Dance, the author delves into transcendent states of Oriental movement practices and elucidates a discussion around emotional and performative aesthetics. This project will be of particular interest to scholars of ethnomusicology, Islamic art history, and dance studies, as well as a broader audience interested in comparative performance aesthetics and general dance culture. While Bordelon is conversant with broader theoretical literature and large sweeping research in Islam, Sufism, and Islamic art, this work breaks new ground of its own by focusing on the experiential narrative of the dancer.

Kara Miller
Department of Theatre and Dance
University of Hawaii at Manoa
karamill@hawaii.edu

Primary Sources

Ethnographic participant observation of performances
Interviews with eight dance practitioners from Egypt, Canada and the United States
Archival Research
Choreographic analysis of dance practices and music

Dissertation Information

Texas Woman’s University. 2011. 247 pp. Primary Advisor: Penelope Hanstein.

Image: Randa Kamel Egyptian Dancer. Wikimedia Commons.

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