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Originality & Tradition in Belly Dance: An Interview with Joana Saahirah of Cairo

Joana Intervie

 

I recently had the opportunity to interview Joana Saahirah, international performer and instructor. Joana’s dance career has taken her around the globe, including living and working in Egypt for 8 years, performing with her own orchestra. In this interview,  we discuss the different views of Raqs Sharqi she has encountered, originality within the confines of a traditional dance style and more.

Mahin: It’s a pleasure to be able to speak with you! You have such a broad and deep experience with oriental dance.

Joana: Thanks for the interview, first of all. It´s always a pleasure to share a bit of my love for oriental dance. Yes, I do – and a very peculiar one. It really gives me a special vision on the dance and the world surrounding it. But the road started way before I ever dreamt about Egyptian dance. I´ve been dancing since I started to walk, then Classical Ballet Conservatory from the age of 5, and other dance styles along the way. Later on, I studied as an actress as the Acting Conservatory. All that gave me the base for my career in Egyptian dance.

M: To start out, can you give us some of your reflections on how Oriental dance as an art form is viewed differently in the East and the West?

J: It´s hard to resume, in a short interview answer  but I´ll try to resume the most important points.

First, the East. Egypt specifically, which is what I know best.

Although Oriental dance – Raqs Sharqi or Egyptian dance – is an integral part of Egyptian culture and daily life, it´s not considered an art form. This happens for many reasons. One of them has to do with the fact that dancers, and any woman who exposes herself in public, is not respected. According to Islam, the dominant religion in the country for the last centuries, women should not expose themselves in public in front of men who are not their father, husband or close relatives. Women aren’t supposed to have a voice of their own, aside from their husband’s voice, or rule a group of men (the orchestra, technicians, assistant, etc), in the case of a dancer.

That’s the first reason why Oriental dance is not respected and treated as an art form. In fact, Oriental dance is under the tourism department in Egypt, not the cultural department.

Oriental dance has also been associated with prostitution and there´s a long story and justification for this. The current Cairo market is highly corrupt and it works mostly  through favours, prostitution and factors that have little to do with quality, professionalism or talent. This also doesn’t help the dance´s reputation. In the 8 years I´ve performed with my orchestra in Egypt, I had to find 1001 ways to go around the corruption and prostitution market in order to thrive. And deal with prejudice and disrespect in my daily life. Not easy!

Add to these factors the freedom element and you start having an idea of how Oriental dance and dancers are seen. An Oriental dancer is FREE, a woman who expresses herself in public totally and unapologetically – body, mind, heart and soul. No limits, no taboos, no fear. That´s revolutionary – in the East and, certainly, still in the West.

Egyptians love and hate their dance, simultaneously. They may come every night to watch their favourite dancer perform but they’d never accept her as a girlfriend, wife, part of the family. She may be a great dancer in their eyes but she’s also shameful, committing “haram” (something forbidden by God).

M: That’s interesting that Oriental dance is under tourism and not culture. When did that shift? Was Mahmoud Reda’s company under the cultural department?

 

J: Yes, under the tourism department. I was shocked when I realized this as I was shocked with many other things I’ve found out while working in Egypt, Lebanon and Qatar, the 3 countries where I performed, as a solo artist in the Middle East. Mahmoud Reda´s troupe was something completely apart from the Oriental dance scene.

It was, and is, Egyptian folklore. Not Raqs Sharqi. This makes a huge difference in Egyptian minds. It also worked with diplomatic relations, a way of presenting group dances that went according to Islam (not too much body exposure, limitation in movements that may be sexually suggestive and so forth) and it was wrapped in western influences – ballet, tap dance, acrobatics, all of Mahmoud´s influences. That, and the time it happened, a time of nationalism and particular pride in everything Egyptian helped the troupe.

The genius of Mahmoud, the dancers, the composers who worked with the troupe and overall vision were also essential to Mahmoud Reda´s success. He recovered the raw material – music, dance, dialect, clothing – from different parts of Egypt, folklore people had never seen on a stage, and transformed it into a stage language that communicated the soul and identity of Egypt’s diverse people. Such a feat! Only a genius with a vision and lucky circumstances could make it happen!

The troupe never claimed to present Raqs Sharqi, I repeat. I studied, privately, and worked with Mahmoud Reda during all my years of work in Egypt and it was always clear to me he did folklore, and I did it with him, and what I did was Raqs Sharqi. For him, as for most Egyptians, those are separate things. The folklore deserves respect, for many reasons, while Raqs Sharqi doesn´t.

M: That is an important distinction that is easy to blur from the western point of view. Perhaps because as students of Egyptian dance, we choose to study both Raqs Sharqi and folklore as part of our dance exploration. They are much closer to each other in our perception. Not so in the minds of Egyptians, as you noted.

Tell us how you have seen and experienced the western view of Raqs Sharqi/Oriental dance in your travels.

J: In the West, the scene is different but the prejudices also exist. We’re not free from prejudice. Even the most intelligent, well educated, travelled, open minded people will usually associate Oriental dance with odalisques, sultans and seduction. The idea of an art form, or the possibility of practicing Oriental dance as an art form and not as an exotic dance made of contortions and seductive poses, is still new to the mainstream audiences.

Nonetheless, the West has brought dignity, method, structure and professionalism to Oriental Dance. No doubt about it. We miss loads of important points regarding Egyptian dance and culture but there’s a serious, honest, loving effort to dignify the dance.

You can see that by observing all the amazing festivals happening around the world, inviting artists and teachers like me and other professionals from Egypt, really trying to make a difference.

There´s a trend I call “Clone Machine Factory” where people are trained to look, act, think and dance like their teachers – something that goes totally against Egyptian Dance – and there are trends that have little, or nothing, to do with the REAL thing but mostly, I’m optimistic. The West tries, at least tries, to elevate the dance. Each person I meet in my work trips – organizer, student, audience – loves and respects the dance. I´ve never met anyone in the West, especially in the international events circuit, who wasn´t doing their best to develop and dignify Oriental dance as an art form.

M: Do you think some of the West’s respect and willingness to view Raqs Sharqi as an art has benefitted the dance in Egypt in some way? If so, how?

J: In some way, perhaps. Nowadays, Egyptian dancers work more outside of Egypt than in Egypt. I don’t mean the lower class dancers who cannot get a lucky strike with the Oriental dance mafia in Cairo, but the ones who can. By working more outside of Egypt than there, they’re exposed to the West´s ideas about dance, professionalism and respect. I believe that influences those dancers but only until a certain point. How they act in Egypt and abroad may be quite different.

Otherwise, I don’t think the West´s respect for this dance has changed the dance in Egypt. It´s a world apart, with its own rules, spoken and unspoken prejudices and magic.

M: In dance, as in any art, there is a tendency to be influenced by what is popular or successful. Sometimes it’s a subtle style influence out of admiration, sometimes it’s so strong it feels like mimicry.  Can you give us your thoughts on individual style – where we stay in the realm of what is “real” Raqs Sharqi (if there is such a definition) and where a dancer’s personality can take them with their own expression?

J: There´s a compromise to be made and I refuse it. Adaptation, yes. Expansion/growth, for sure. Compromising what I know is authentic Egyptian dance for the current trends, NO! I´ll never do that. It would mean the end of my love for the dance. Discarding all I’ve learned in years of study in Egypt and, later, years of career and life in order to please current lobbies and tendencies-  no way!

It´s hard to keep the essence of the dance intact while being a commercially successful dancer in a market that knows little about the dance.

Being influenced by other dancers, teachers, people we admire – no problem. Working to be their copy – NO. That´s what´s happening these days. Some of the most commercially appealing dancers of the West know little about Egyptian dance. But somehow, it becomes established, I know know by whom, that´s Oriental Dance when it´s not. People follow it blindly. They lack the resources, real information and criteria to recognize what´s fake and what’s the real thing.

Individuality is at the CORE of Egyptian dance. Nonetheless, most teachers I know don’t develop it in their students.

Knowing the language of Egyptian Dance in depth – because it is a language! – is essential; gathering information, training, reliable education by the ones who actually know the craft. All that is super important. Nonetheless, all that exterior data must be combined/coordinated with personal exploration, perspective, individual input on the music and dance. Oriental dancers should be individuals – unique, with their own vision and sensibility -, not dolls who mimic other dolls. Real human beings, with a body, mind, heart and soul of their own, interpreting the music, using all the data they´ve gathered from teachers and other exterior sources WHILE DISCOVERING THEIR LANGUAGE WITHIN THE LANGUAGE OF EGYPTIAN DANCE.

Teachers have the obligation to educate and empower students to grow into their own selves. I believe in this with all my heart.It doesn’t serve my marketing, in the sense that I don´t allow my students to become Joana Saahirah´s copies; I train them to be free, independent from me, totally themselves. But it serves the Art. And I´m a servant of the Art.

Information without an individual voice isn’t Egyptian Dance. As a famous theatre teacher, Konstantin Stanislavzki, once said: “actors study technique so they can be free from technique; so they can forget technique.” The same applies to Oriental Dancers. We absorb information, train ourselves and work hard so we can be free from all that luggage and express, simply and totally, our full selves. It takes a Master Teacher to understand this and put it into practice.

M: The author Todd Henry, writes about creative development and its phases. It starts with discovery – generally becoming aware of a new interest or art. It proceeds to emulation – learning by copying the masters.Then divergence – being dissatisfied by being a copy and evolving your own style – making your unique contribution to your art.  Do you see the mimicry as a step, but one that many dancers have not moved past in their own development?

J: Yes. The problem is most dancers get stuck, forever and ever, at the second phase – the copying/emulating phase. They’re never invited to jump out of that box and find themselves. That´s the problem. Copying as part of the learning process is natural – we do so while learning how to read or write. But, then, if you wish to write your own stuff, you gotta give up those copies, put them behind, appreciate their influence and purpose but, ultimately, find your own voice.

Getting stuck into the copy phase and not being empowered to get out of there – that´s one of the biggest issues in today’s dance scene around the world. The teachers are to blame but there’s more: not everyone wants to get out of the box and find their own voice. Building your language within the language you learn from your teachers requires passion, consistent work, trials, errors and bliss and, the most scary part, the risk of exposing ourselves and not being accepted.

While you’re repeating your teacher´s moves, it´s THEIR moves, not yours. Your teacher, not you, is on the table. If people like it, it’s the teacher’s compliment; if they don’t, it’s the teacher’s fault. Not yours. There´s a lot of people who still prefer the safe shortcut which copying brings but my experience, in work around the world and in my online courses, is that more and more dancers are tired of being puppets and really want to find themselves in the dance. The result is gorgeous. I´m always amazed at the beauty, originality and soul that pours out of dancers when I guide them and empower them to find their own way within the dance. It’s beyond gorgeous and it makes me immensely proud of them. Human beings are so much more interesting, and unique, than we usually think.

M: In the interest of completeness to Todd Henry’s work – he also describes a fourth phase-  crisis. Where an artist finds themselves “protecting” the style they are known for and have had success with and not continuing to evolve their personal style. This leads to a new cycle of discovery. Can you identify with that fourth phase personally in your own work?

J: That crisis phase makes perfect sense. I can recognize myself in it and I guess everyone who’s been in the dance field for a consistent amount of time will find it continuously.

There´s a base, a core that I never changed from the moment I fully remembered it in Egypt. It happened with Souhair Zaki and a certain number of classes I took with her before I moved to Egypt. That core has never been shaken or changed inside of me – the conviction that Egyptian Dance is the language of the soul, movements pouring directly from the heart, freedom exercised with an open mind and the willingness to expand. This has never changed or went through a crisis. Even the darkest side of the dance, which I’ve witnessed, first hand in Egypt could not shake that core.

But we must evolve, question, expand, adapt our art to our own growth as human beings and the world around us. And trying new roads, new ways of doing things. For sure. Always.

Reinvention is essential for a long term relationship with this dance. Especially if you’re a professional.

The creation of my first published book – “The Secrets of Egypt – Dance, Life & Beyond” – and, now, my new school – Joana Saahirah´s Online Dance School operated by Powhow – were two obvious out of the box leaps of faith. Two challenging ways to share the core of Egyptian dance. But there are many other ways. And there´s also the crisis that throws us into the question: why am I still doing this? Why should I continue? Those questions/crisis modes are essential.

M: Can you suggest some ways that dancers can check in with themselves and their work about whether they are stuck in an emulation phase? Questions they can ask of themselves to be more self-aware?

J: Checking in, to make sure we’re in this for the right reasons, is essential.

One thing I can share – respect your teacher(s) while exploring yourself, your movements, your way to reacting to the music. I believe the meaning of what I just said will be obvious to every dancer. Go to your dance studio, or similar, and combine your teacher´s information with periods of self-exploration. There are many ways to do that. Once again, you´ll have to join one of my workshops, or online classes, to know why and how.

It´s not a question of getting to a point when you should be asking yourself certain questions. Students should be empowered to explore, and know themselves, from the beginning till the end of their education which,  by the way, never ends.

It´s a continuous work, not something you do from a certain point. Creating your own style may start to arise when you have gathered a considerable amount of information and practice but the training to do so starts in the first class, in the ABC. I believe in that. Even if I’m dealing with a beginner, I´ll suggest she/he reinvents a certain movement, explores a specific part of her/his body and so on. I know it will take time, and different phases, for this person to fly on her own but I prepare her/his wings from the beginning so, when the time comes, she/he won´t be afraid to jump.

M: Joana, thank you so much for your time and sharing your views on Egyptian dance and  what you’ve learned in your career. It’s been a pleasure!

J: You’re most welcome, dear. I hope the interview informs and inspires many dancers.

For more information…

About Joana Saahirah

Connect with Joana on Facebook

Joana Saahirah’s YouTube Channel

 

June 16, 2017 0 Comments

Does Your Brain Get it? Tips for Learning & Memorizing Belly Dance Choreography

Does Your Brain Get It- PIN

Does your brain get it?

Anyone who’s been in a class or workshop with me has probably heard me say this when checking in with students. Once I’ve presented and broken down a combo or section of choreography, I ask if their brain gets it before we move on. So what exactly do I mean by that?

In short, your body takes orders from your brain when dancing so if your brain doesn’t fully understand the instructions – what shape is your hip making, where is your arm and what foot are you supposed to be on – then the chances of getting an accurate result from your body are pretty slim. Of course, once your brain is clear on the instructions, the body does take some time to get it together and comply – that’s what drilling and practice repetition is for – but the brain has to get it first. This is an important step that I see dancers ignore. Being unclear, they fumble through an unclear movement or footsteps till they get to a part they are sure of. If you keep running through a combo with errors because you aren’t truly clear on what happens when, not only is it unlikely to resolve itself correctly, you may set and memorize patterns that are wrong. If it’s a group choreography, that is a real problem.

So how do you make sure your brain gets it?

In my experience, one of the best ways to thoroughly check your understanding of a movement sequence is to remove the pressure of the beat. Turn off the music and do a slow walk-through of the movements by yourself. Be patient. Don’t gloss over little ambiguities – those can get you in trouble. If you’re not sure why you wound up on your left foot when you’re supposed to be on your right foot for hip drops next, check it out. Did you take the right steps at the right time in the thing that came before it? Don’t just switch feet and move on. Track it back – was that supposed to be a 2 step pivot turn before the hip drops, but you took 3 steps? Well-written belly dance choreography is clear and uses logical and natural weight changes that set you up properly for the next movement. If a choreographer expects to keep dancers synchronized and looking clean together on stage, it’s a must.

Be proactive. Speak up.

If you find yourself with unclear gaps in your understanding of class material, ask specific questions. “I’m on the wrong foot for the hip drops and I can’t figure out why.” Sometimes I think students feel bad about asking questions. They apologize and for the life of me, I cannot understand why! When a student asks, I know they care about what they’re doing – they are really thinking about it. Almost always, the explanation benefits others in the class who just didn’t bother to ask.  I love questions. They also help me to improve as an instructor by pointing out where I could have explained something differently or more fully, or where students find something is trickier than I anticipated.

The bottom line is I am there to TEACH, not just to present something. Teaching is a two-way communication process and answering students’ questions effectively is an important part of the job.

The mental integration process.

Once you’ve done the tedious task of working through your understanding of the mechanics of assorted body parts, the next step is to get it organized in your brain for speedy recall. That’s the part we call “memorizing the dance”. It’s all in there, but can your brain access it at the pace of your music? You’ll need to be able to do that in order to build the muscle memory that will kick in later- brain before body, remember? Once muscle memory is in place, you can move on to beautifying your transitions and attending to the graceful details that will really polish your dance, but you have to bake the cake before you can decorate it!

Here are a few tools to help with belly dance memorization:

  • Train up. Make a reduced speed practice track using Audacity or other audio editing software. This is especially helpful if you’re working with fast music or choreography that has lots of quick, precise movement like in a drum solo. It’s your bridge between the take-your-time no music walk through I mentioned above and your final performance speed. Make a few speed versions if you need to take it in smaller steps. More on that here.
  • Let the music talk to you! There’s a reason we shimmy at certain times and travel in others. Yes, there’s lots of artistic license, but again – well-written choreography should reflect what the choreographer hears in the music. There’s usually more than one thing to choose from (I could go on for days on this point!) but there should be something musically that the movement relates to – the rhythm pattern, the melody line or texture of a sound. Find it and let the music remind you of why a movement is where it is.
  • Sing it! Although you may feel silly, singing cues to the steps is remarkably effective! The more senses we involve in the learning process, the better the results in my experience. Hum the melody line that hip circle reflects. Say “shimmmmmmmmmyyyy……pop! pop!”. Create cues that work for you.
  • Do the mental practice. When I need to memorize choreography (yes, the teacher still has to memorize what she’s written!) I run through it in my head when I lay down at night and upon waking up. Visualize the movement – you may even feel it in your body as you lay there. Hear the music in your brain. Note where the next step doesn’t come to mind right away.
  • Grease the groove. Do you have a stubborn spot where you repeatedly blank out about what comes next? Pinpoint it and take the last movement or two that you DO remember and the next one or two that you’re having trouble recalling reliably and drill that junction together over and over. Find a way to connect them – does the arm position or movement that came before create a frame for the next thing? Does it change direction? Find a way to relate your stubborn movement to the thing before it. Build the muscle memory for it with a targeted repeated drill of that specific spot.
  • Paint the big picture. Some dancers find creating a “story” out of the movements is useful as a memory device. Others find that having a spatial map helps them remember. For example, go forward, then back, then move in a circle. The description of the path can cue your brain to recall the steps for each section. “Big picture” constructs of that sort can help you organize the order of the movements.

One of the most useful things you learn over years in dance is to learn how YOU learn best as a student, and how your students learn if you are an instructor. When you find the tools and methods that are effective for you, put them to work consistently. You’ll take some of the frustration out of learning and teaching choreography and move along more quickly to the more fun parts!

June 2, 2017 1 Comment

The Belly Dance Lesson Scam: How To Spot It & Not Get Taken

Bad people are out there – and some of them have their sights set on the the bellydance community. In particular, I’m talking about scam artists. Recently, I’ve seen a lot of people posting about this on Facebook, asking if a request for services they have received is legitimate. I have been getting these for so many years, I was really surprised that so many dancers had never seen or heard of it before. So as a public service to the bellydance community – I thought I’d get this on the record so we can spread some education and awareness and be on our guard against those that would design to steal your money out from under you.

How To Spot The Belly Dance Scam

In general, the communication comes as an email, although in the past 3 months I have also had several come as text messages. The wording is almost identical, the most current version requests choreography and lessons for a “flashmob” bridesmaids’ performance. In years past, they were more often a request for dance lessons for a child visiting from abroad, usually several lessons per week for a few weeks. Here are some screen shots of ones I’ve received in the past few weeks.

scam 5

scam 3

 

 

 

 

 

One laughable giveaway is that they often ask  you to choreograph a John Legend song, “All of Me”. And exactly *why* are you coming to a bellydance teacher for that? Hmmm.

How Does This Belly Dance Scam Work?

It’s not immediately obvious just how this ruse works. They ask for a price for lessons for the bridesmaids and want to pay by credit card. The twist comes when they ask to add the driver’s fee to the charges, because this poor guy just can’t take credit cards. And you’re willing to help them out, right?

Once you’ve given the money to the driver, they reverse the card charge and – voila, they’ve got some of your money!  I have gotten that far in the discussion with one person. I knew already that it was a scam, but I was just curious to probe the situation to see what more I could learn about it. Here’s a shot of the email conversation where they bring up the driver’s fees.

scam 2

 

 

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What Should You Do?

So now you know. What should you do if you get one of these propositions? Belly dancers that have been fielding them for years have taken a variety of approaches.

  • The best tactic is not to reply. You can report it to the Federal Trade Commission here.  If the person sent it from a gmail account, you can report it here. Report scam emails from Yahoo addresses here. This violated the Terms of Use for both email services. 
  • You can have some fun stringing them along if you like. One dancer on Facebook said she demanded to be paid in birdseed, which made me laugh out loud – literally! I used to do this sometimes, but the entertainment value has long since dried up and I refuse to give them a second more of my precious time and attention. If you’ve got the itch to mess with them – go for it – but please also report it.

Here’s a fun response from Amity of Raq-On that she generously let me share with you!

scam 6

Be on the lookout for these. Tell a friend, share this post and help protect our community from scam artists and financial predators.

“Becoming a Belly Dancer: From Student to Stage” – A Book Review

"Becoming a Belly Dancer: From Student to Stage"

“Becoming a Belly Dancer: From Student to Stage”

“Becoming a Belly Dancer: From Student to Stage” is a collaboration by Sara Shrapnell, Dawn Devine, Alisha Westerfeld and Poppy Maya. All of these women are experienced belly dance performers and bring their own voice and experience to the content. This is one of the most unique things about this particular book – and one of it’s strengths, in my opinion. Reading it is like attending a panel discussion on entering the pro bellydance track. Through copious photographs to illustrate each point, useful checklists and illuminating sidebars and anecdotes, the reader gets to hear and see each of the author’s unique contributions and perspectives on being a working belly dancer on the scene.

I had the opportunity to sit down and chat with Dawn Devine and Sara Shrapnell in 2015 while this book was in the writing process, so I am thrilled to see it finished and out in the world  as a belly dance resource. You can watch that interview here.

This book addresses that tricky transition a serious belly dance student has to make if they want to start gigging and make a name for themselves on the professional circuit at any level – local, national or international. For many dancers, these are lessons learned the hard way – that is certainly how I learned most of them! Classes and workshops abound to teach us movement, choreography, specialty props and musicality, but how do you put your “open for business” shingle out there in the belly dance world?

 

Who should read this book?

“Becoming a Bellydance: From Student to Stage” does a very thorough job of answering the minutiae of that question in approachable, actionable and practical ways. Obviously, it’s target reader is the belly dance student contemplating going pro, but as a seasoned professional who trains up-and-coming dancers, I think it’s a valuable read to remind me of how overwhelming  the business facets of starting out can be – something I may have forgotten or taken for granted after being in the game a while.

A Reality Check

You need to know where you are before you can navigate to your destination. I like that this book begins with some honest self-assessment – it is time well spent for the blossoming student. It continues with advice on how to set clear goals and how to plan the intermediate steps to achieve them. This is key to using this book (or making progress in anything) and the best way to approach the treasure trove of actionable material in this handbook.

The Self-Made Bellydancer

We may not like to think of it this way, but a belly dancer for hire is a product for sale. And just like any product designer, considering their customers’ needs and how to fill them, the belly dancer embarking on the business track needs to decide who they are (and aren’t). The author crew walks through all the public-facing aspects of your persona – your “brand” – that signal to the customer who you are and what you do.  

Dawn Devine, a master costumer known to many in the belly dance world, does a thorough breakdown of the layers of costuming that build your overall look. And as I mentioned before, each author adds their perspective and experience. This book even includes 13 costuming projects from “no-sew” to relatively simple – all very handy additions to a dancer’s wardrobe.

Other pieces of the branding game include what to include in an effective website, creating marketing materials, and tips on photo shoots and getting flattering photos. “Becoming a Bellydancer” also includes guidelines on how to use social media to build your brand – a new skill that is very necessary for the current day dancer!

On With The Show

Performance opportunities run the gamut from short festival shows to full sets in a club with live music. Each one has it’s own set of considerations. What music is appropriate? How do you prepare it? Do you need a contract? And then there’s the “people” part of the equation – backstage etiquette, audience interaction, and the politics of the show lineup. These ladies cover all of these things beautifully because they have all been there and done that.

If you are a belly dance student with aspirations of someday going pro, whether as a paying hobby or if your dream is to be a full-time dancer, “Becoming a Belly Dancer: From Student to Stage” is a valuable reference that you would do well to turn to often to help direct yourself toward your goal. If you are a mentor to dancers in this phase of their training, this book will be just as valuable to you in assisting your students on their dance journey.

 

For more information on the authors, please visit:

Sara Shrapnell’s site

Dawn Devine’s site

Alisha Westerfeld

Poppy Maya

 

March 24, 2017 0 Comments

The Evolution of Finger Cymbals

This is a guest post by Dawn Devine – Davina. I am really honored to have her work shared here on my blog. I have such respect for her dedication to research and her ability to show us the depth of history in all aspects of our art. If you are as fascinated by this history of zills as I am, you will be very excited about what we’re doing over the next few days!  Learn more after you’ve enjoyed this short history of finger cymbals.

Scholars of dance love to theorize on the origins of our art form. We contemplate the regions that may have given rise to unique body motions or the cultures that developed different musical styles.  But there is one component of our dance that has been definitively proven to date back to pre-literate antiquity.  These are our much beloved favorite music instrument, the mighty finger cymbal.  

In this article, we’re going to take a trip through time and trace the evolution of finger cymbals from their popular precursors through today.  This is an overview of the technological advances that begins deep in prehistory and extends through our current, modern finger cymbal production. This is a story of the development of the metals used to produce the instruments we use today.

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Egyptian Wood and Bone Clappers 2000BCE – 500CE Louvre Exhibit, Alisha Westerfeld

Copper Age

Our journey begins back in the 4th millennium or 3000 BCE.  It’s a time when our ancestors were still making music with wooden clappers, skinned drums, and simple stringed instruments which rarely survive. The smallest, most portable, and easiest to make instruments were simple concussive idiophones. This is a category of musical instruments that produce resonant sound from the intrinsic property of the item. Our forbearers used materials such as wooden sticks, lengths of ivory or bone, and precious stones to produce pleasing resonant sounds to their ears.

 

The discovery of smelting ore, and humankind’s first practical metal, copper, allowed people to craft stronger and more practical work tools, kitchen utensils, and weapons. It also added a new material for making musical instruments.  Some of the earliest finger cymbals are made from copper or simple copper alloys.  Examples of these earliest instruments survive because of their value and importance in daily life. They have been found in the graves of wealthy and important individuals ranging from Anatolia (modern Turkey) around the Eastern Mediterranean to Egypt.  

Egyptian Finger Cymbals or Copper Alloys and Bronze, 1000 BCE - 500 CE Louvre Exhibit, Alisha Westerfeld

Egyptian Finger Cymbals of Copper Alloys and Bronze, 1000 BCE – 500 CE Louvre Exhibit, Alisha Westerfeld

Bronze Age

The next phase of technological development in metallurgy coincided with a rapid growth in civilization. At the dawn of the bronze age, writing developed, cities grew, and people began to live in larger groups defined by their mutual languages, religions, and social beliefs. As the population of the world blossomed, there were more people to make music, sing songs, and dance. This new material, bronze, an alloy of copper and tin, made a stronger and more durable metal.  It was used extensively to create musical instruments around the world including struck instruments like the gongs of China, jingling instruments like the sistrum of Egypt, and our favorite, finger cymbals. Archeologists have unearthed hundreds of sets of cymbals in sites around the Mediterranean that span the breadth of the bronze age.

 

 

Egyptian Finger Cymbals 1000 BCE - 500 CE Louvre Exhibit, Alisha Westerfeld

Egyptian Finger Cymbals 1000 BCE – 500 CE Louvre Exhibit, Alisha Westerfeld

 

Because the human hand hasn’t changed significantly in design and shape, ancient finger cymbals are about the same configuration as modern instruments. The length of the fingers determines the maximum and minimum size possible. Consequently finger cymbals of great antiquity closely resemble their modern descendants. Bronze zills also sounded much better than than earlier copper varieties. They are still coveted by performers today for their resonant sound and long sustaining ring.

Ceremony at Ned Sili,1801 by Luigi Mayer engraving based on aquatint.

Ceremony at Ned Sili,1801 by Luigi Mayer engraving based on aquatint.

Brass Instruments

Finger cymbals made from brass are a relatively new invention. Brass is an alloy of copper and zinc, and throughout the Middle Ages, zinc was difficult to find and was tricky to smelt.  It wasn’t until the early stages of the industrial revolution in Europe that large scale brass production was made possible.  By the late 18th century, brass was made in large rolling mills which created enough metal that a new class of wind instruments was invented. These brass instruments, includes flutes, French horns, and the mighty tuba.

Turkish Cengi, 1802 by Octavian Dalvimart from the book “Costume of Turkey.”

Turkish Cengi, 1802 by Octavian Dalvimart from the book “Costume of Turkey.”

Of course, as time passes and the technologies of print and industrial papermaking and bookbinding improve, we begin to find images of dancers making their way into texts on culture, costuming, and history of the world. Throughout the whole of the 19th century, the subject of the exotic east was so abundant, that they are now grouped and labelled as the Orientalists.  Our dancing ancestors move through these paintings and illustrations, often with props we would recognize and use today, including finger cymbals.

Dance of the Almeh, 1863 by Jean-Léon Gérôme at the Dayton Art Institute

Dance of the Almeh, 1863 by Jean-Léon Gérôme at the Dayton Art Institute

 

German Silver & Silver Toned Alloys

As metallurgy advanced during the industrial era, there was a search for an alloy that closely resembled silver.  A recipe was found after an 1823 contest in Germany.  This new “German Silver” is a nickel and copper alloy that had the appearance of silver, but without the tarnishing or the high cost.  Nickel or German silver retains the beautiful ringing tone of all of the “red metals” that include copper as the base. But unlike copper, brass, and bronze, this alloy has a beautiful silver toned finish. This is the same metal used by instrument makers for piccolos and french horns.  The ringing tone of nickel silver is brighter and higher, but unfortunately, this is a softer metal, so is prone to scratches and warping with heavy use.

Modern Finger Cymbals, Dawn Devine

Modern Finger Cymbals, Dawn Devine

Modern Finger Cymbals

Dancers are now able to buy finger cymbals made from a myriad of different metal alloys, finishes, and in in sounds from high toned trills, to deeply resonate rings. Today they are known by a wide variety of names depending on your location.  In Turkey, they are called Zil or Ziller.  In Egypt they are called sagat for smaller sizes and toura for larger orchestral instruments. Here in the US, we use any or all of these terms depending on our taste, style, and dance education.

Modern Zills by Dawn Devine - 1 - Decorative Enamel on mystery alloy , 2 - copper alloy, 3 - Brass cymbals, Turquoise International, 4 - German silver, Saroyan International, 5 - Cast Bronze, Sabian, 6 - Bronze stamped, Saroyan International.

Modern Zills by Dawn Devine – 1 – Decorative Enamel on mystery alloy , 2 – copper alloy, 3 – Brass cymbals, Turquoise International, 4 – German silver, Saroyan International, 5 – Cast Bronze, Sabian, 6 – Bronze stamped, Saroyan International.

 

So when you are selecting your next set of finger cymbals take a moment to consider the kind of metal you enjoy.  If you have the opportunity to hear how different metals sound and resonate,  take the opportunity to listen to copper, bronze, brass, and white metals. Many performers select their instruments based solely on how they sound. Pro dancers will often create a wardrobe of different metal toned instruments to coordinate with their wardrobe, choosing to play silver-toned sets with silvery costumes and brass with gold.  But always, buy the best quality you can afford and a ring that you enjoy. If you like the way your finger cymbals sound, you remove one obstacle from practice, and ultimately performance.   

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“ZILLS: Music on Your Fingertips”

 

Dawn Devine ~ Davina is a well known author, costume designer, and historian working in the field of belly dance.  She has published several books the meld her love of history and dance including her latest book Zills: Music on Your Fingertips with Illustrator George Goncalves and The Cloth of Egypt: All About Assiut with photographer Alisha Westerfeld.  She has a blog on her website, http://www.davina.us and is active on various social media platforms including:

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February 23, 2017 3 Comments
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