This week I learned of the passing of Egyptian Raqs Sharqi dancer Mona El Said, a star performer in London and Cairo nightclubs, and, for period, on Egyptian TV. I loved watching her along with Soheir Zaki, Azza Serif - to name a few - and how they moved and expressed the music. Each had her own style. If I loved this dance before, I loved it more now. If that was “Belly Dance” in Egypt, what was I doing/learning? Those recordings were videos we could buy/rent and thus became educational tools for US dancers like myself. To see native dancers perform this art form in their native country was an eye opener to say the least!
Those 1980’s and 1990’s videos were staged performances for Egyptian Entertainment TV (an era before fundamentalist mores became more pronounced thus restricting dance on TV). Some of them were live performances in London nightclubs, Egyptian and Saudi Arabian Festivals. In some videos you could see the dancer and the musicians interact. And the music was different from many of the albums I had purchased - Eddie Kochak, George Abdo, etc. - music that was a blend of Arabic, Greek, and Turkish with some Western sensibilities. This started my education into Arabic music; composers (Mohamed Abdel Wahab, Farid Al Atrach…), musicians (Abboud Abdel Aal, Setrak Sarkissian…), and singers (Um Kalthum, Fairuz, Warda)…the list goes on.
In 1997, at the Los Angeles Conference of Middle Eastern Dance, I had the chance to see Mona perform to live music and the chance to take a workshop with her. She put on a piece of music and we were to follow along. She played the piece several times, and each time she made some changes in how she danced it. This was not my first experience with the Egyptian teaching style of follow along (or follow the dancing butt it became to be known), but how I viewed it. This workshop was not as a chance to learn new moves or tricks, but a window into how Egyptians hear the music - and that it held not one, but many possibilities for dance expression.
Around me I heard many dancers’ express frustration that she kept changing “her choreography”- they wanted a product they could take home and repeat. But I loved it! I was learning to dance with my ear as much as with my body. I didn’t want to go home and dance like Mona. She was one of my teachers who opened me to the possibilities the music creates. The dance is about the music, what you hear, and how it makes you feel at that moment.
Thank you, Mona, for displaying the rich and varied emotions this dance and music possess. And thank you for showing me there is no one way to dance it, except to be in the moment.
Mona El Said: Moving in Mysterious Ways by Shareen El Safy
Mona El Said Workshops and Performance in Dallas, TX, 2004 by Catherine Barros