I must admit it is difficult to know the truth, because there is such conflicting information concerning our dance. I know of another incidence where a student dancer, after learning in class that Oriental dance is an integral part of Middle Eastern society and is performed at all celebrations by people of all ages and even sexes, got an unpleasant surprise when she told a woman at work that she was taking a “belly-dance class.”
Many misconceptions are distortions of the truth, and such is the case with the harem / slave myth and Oriental dance. Throughout history, rulers worldwide have had entertainers, including dancers, in their courts.
Arab / Islamic history is no different. However, the reality is always more complicated than the myth.From pre-Islamic times until the 800s, professional dancers, musicians, and singers in the Middle East belonged
to the slave caste. The majority of professional musicians, including singers, were female slaves, and they were often called “Qaina.” (Even in recent times, the majority of professional entertainers come from
the lower classes, and both of these facts are part of the reason why there is still a stigma today against being a professional entertainer in the Middle East.) The term “Qaina” originates from the legend that
music and dance were “invented” by a biblical character, one of Cain’s daughters. Although the Qaina are often referred to as “singing girls,” there are numerous historical references to them as musicians and
dancers as well.
The period starting in the 700s and extending to about the 1400s is often referred to as the “Golden Age” of the Islamic civilization. At this time, the Islamic Empire stretched from Iraq all the way across North Africa to Andalusia, in Southern Spain. During this period, it became popular for the Muslim rulers to have Qaina in their courts. The Qaina were so much in demand that schools for training them appeared all over the Islamic empire from Basra and Kufa (in today’s Iraq) to Mecca (where the most famous school was) all the way to Cordoba and Seville, Spain. Slave trading also became a very profitable business. Although a lot of money had to be invested to train, clothe, and feed the Qaina, they could be sold afterwards for a very high price.
That dance also developed at this time under the patronage of the Umayyad (Damascus and Spain) and Abbasid (Baghdad) Caliphs. Unfortunately, there are very few actual descriptions of how this dance was performed. Since there are accounts from pre-Islamic times of a dance resembling what we know today as raks sharki in the same region, it would be safe to assume that at least one of the dance forms in the Islamic Golden Age was similar to our raks sharki, or baladi.
Southern Spain, especially the region known as Andalusia, was the cultural capital of Arabic Empire for 800 years, as well as the cradle of flamenco. Although flamenco’s musical and dance roots can be initially traced to India, historical studies have found evidence that Arabic and even Jewish instruments, rhythms and singing all played a fundamental role in the development of this intriguing music. While I was living in Spain to study flamenco in the early 80’s, artists such as Lole and Manuel were among the first to explore the connections and contrasts of Arabic and Flamenco music. Lole, whose father is Egyptian, was the first to sing Oum Kalthoum classics accompanied by flamenco musicians. A flurry of innovative and creative music fusing these two musical forms followed. The relationship between these two dance forms has been my personal passion for the past 20 years. The past 10 years has seen an ever increasing interest in Spanish/Oriental Fusion in both dance and music on an international level.
With over 30 and 20 years of these dance forms behind me respectively, many of my oriental dance colleagues are curious about what they understand to be the influence of oriental dance elements in flamenco. Both are considered to be “seated” dance forms, but oriental dance posture is more of a gentle softening of the knees, which enable the natural release of the hip, than an actual seated position. The knees and the feet are also kept close together, except in a few movements such as the large hip circle and the horizontal figure 8. Contrarily, the flamenco “seat” is a deep plie, as in Indian dance, with the legs often in external rotation and the knees open, particularly during the slower stationary ‘marking’ movements and turns.
In much the same way that Middle Eastern Dance can refer to oriental dance, baladi, shaabi, and folkloric forms, the term Spanish dance includes a wide variety of forms, such as the “gypsy” flamenco, classical Spanish dance (as represented by such famous companies as Antonio Gades), regional folk dances and sometimes even Mexican and Latin dance. This article will focus primarily on oriental and flamenco.