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Animated Edition - Issues 1996 - 2001
Rising above worlds
Animated, Winter 2001. 'Dancing is not rising to your feet painlessly like a speck of dust blown around in the wind. Dancing is when you rise above worlds ...' (1) Middle Eastern dance has survived centuries assimilating and sampling many global influences (2). Here in the UK it is regenerating into an innovative mix of traditional, folk and new. Philip Walker explores some of the issues with Iranian dancer Medea Mahdavi
What are the prevalent perceptions of Middle Eastern Dance in the UK? How and where do the majority of the populace engage with it? In a Lebanese restaurant, the sound of zills herald the entrance of a dancer as she entertains diners. At an Afghan wedding party, the men dancing at one end, the women, in colourful regional costumes, at the other, children running round laughing. In a Cornish village hall, a line of English women in bright costumes, waving veils, escaping their daily routine, burning calories and making friends.

It is stereotypical images in settings such as these that paradoxically represent a dilemma for Middle Eastern dancers in the UK who want to take the form into the mainstream. A sentiment echoed by artist and choreographer Medea Mahdavi: "The dance world here associates Middle Eastern dance with pure entertainment, and does not perceive it as a valid artform suitable for theatre contexts. At best, it is accepted as a 'traditional' form, and not as a contemporary and developing art."

In reality the form is one of the oldest in the world spanning centuries and embracing a rich mix of styles and influences which originate from the Maghreb in North Africa through the Egyptian and Arabian peninsula to Iran and the fringes of Central Asia. So how then do we define Middle Eastern dance? And what are its aspirations as an artform in the 21st century?

Historically, there has always been a certain mystique surrounding the Middle East. Today, however it is often viewed through the eyes of Western media as a place of violence, religious strife, and of the subjugation of women. Such negative messages tend to distort the perceptions of Middle Eastern arts in the West. In order to better understand Middle Eastern dance, more accurate information is needed. The amount of documentary evidence and primary research is still limited and although the internet can provide a valuable additional source it is important that it is authentic.

So how can we realistically challenge these notions of sensationalism and the negative connotations that prevail? It is our experience that when people come face to face with work that moves beyond 'the stereotypical', which is thought provoking and has relevance, there is a new found appreciation. An example of this is The World in our Woods, a multicultural programme, which uses the idea of trees and plants transplanted from the Middle East to England as a way of looking at ethnic diversity. Mahdavi who devised the project says: "I wanted to celebrate Persian culture with everyone in our neighbourhood including the schools and community centres. The children involved in the project worked with Persian stories and arts in a subtle and fun way" Visual artist Glen Eastman for example worked with the children to create a giant Persian carpet, inspired by traditional patterns, which was used as the 'stage' for the performance. Constructed from flower petals and other natural materials it transformed the barren tarmac of the playground. The children became wholeheartedly involved and created some wonderful poetry, visual arts, music, and dance inspired by Persian arts.

There is also a regeneration of material, of ideas outside the traditional enabling the form to evolve. Middle Eastern dance is often rooted in spiritual beliefs. The whirling dervishes from Konya in Turkey, for example, carry out their 'sema' ceremony in order to achieve spiritual purification and reconnection with the divine. Choreographers and dancers are developing aspects of the 'sema' and other spiritual and healing dances of the Middle East into a theatrical form to bring a new element onto the stage. These sacred rites, previously only seen in their original settings, are now being recreated as public performances in the West.

Intrinsic to the form is the use of music which like dance has assimilated many global influences. Typically, in Western dance, the musicians, if live music is used, are hidden off-stage or in the pit. This would be unthinkable in the Middle East where they are an integral part of the performance, on stage and in direct facial contact with the dancer, the two sides often improvising. The relationship between the dance and the music is fundamental. As dancer Morocco says: "The audiences' ears hear the music and their eyes see you being that music. Dance is the music made visible - you are the music."

This conjoining of music and dance represents a part of the approach to the arts in Middle Eastern culture. At its deepest, and particularly in Sufism (a mystic and ascetic form of Islam), poetry is the foundation from which the other arts, dance, music, calligraphy and architecture grow. "My grandmother was a poet", says Mahdavi, "she was my mentor, and influenced my artistic vision. Her poetry and the work of the classical Persian poets often inform my work. However I am also inspired by what is happening around me here in the UK; by the issues of today. The work I create combines different art forms, in the way that the arts did in my grandmother's day, but I take from Western culture as well. For example in my work Doves, I dance with (and play) the 'bamboozler' - a sound sculpture made for me by Will Menter, musician and instrument maker - from bamboo, which when lifted and rotated, creates aural images like doves in flight."

Mahdavi uses her dance language to express her own experiences, and by so doing, creates a link between her own culture and that of the audience in the UK. For example, in Can I dance, Can I play? she explores the theme of censorship in collaboration with composer and saxophonist Andy Sheppard. After the Iranian Revolution in 1979, most artistic activities were banned. This piece, focused on the creative process at work between a dancer and a musician, who could only meet in secret on a rooftop in Tehran.

An audience needs to begin to understand and be familiar with any new art form before it can be fully appreciated and enjoyed. The 'language' of Middle Eastern dance is often very subtle - gestures of hand, hip and face are small - there are no great leaps or lifts as one would find in classical or contemporary dance forms. The larzan or shimmy, for example, is a delicate movement, which often starts almost imperceptibly, and requires precise muscle control. In Iran, facial expressions, eye movements and lip shimmies are part of the dancers' repertoire.

Despite the lack of understanding, familiarity and respect, Middle Eastern dance is making great progress (although the role for Middle Eastern men is still undefined). A few dancers have performed at well-established venues and research into the dance form is growing. There is a flourishing Middle Eastern dance scene in community settings throughout the UK, and it is beginning to receive some support through the arts funding system. Mahdavi for example has been awarded a Year of the Artist bursary and also Regional Arts Lottery funding to create a new dance theatre piece. In fact in the South West, there are a number of committed and well- established dancers, who are benefiting from the enthusiastic support of the regional dance agencies.

Mahdavi has also been instrumental in establishing the first conference on Middle Eastern dance in the UK. Majma (meaning gathering) is run by Somerset Dance Connections and brings together dancers from across the UK to debate and deepen their understanding of Middle Eastern dance. It includes workshops and performances, but also crucially, seminars on the forms history and cultural significance." Whilst some of the barriers to appreciation of the artistic dimensions that Middle Eastern dance has to offer are being overcome there is still a long way to go before our dance is accepted and included universally. I look forward to the time when I do not have to constantly defend and explain Middle Eastern dance - when our dance is an integral part of the dance ecology in the UK."

Philip Walker, part-time dance administrator. He writes and researches articles on Middle Eastern dance and culture and has published Ghazala, currently the only directory of Middle Eastern dance for the UK.

Contact Philip Walker or Medea Mahdavi on +44 (0)117 963 3029

References
1 Rumi, Jalal ad-Din (Mevlana), Persian poet, born in what is now Afghanistan in 1207. He settled in Konya, (Turkey) where he died in 1273. The Mevlevi Sufi order was founded by his followers
2 shinkansen music and sound, Between the Worlds, Munich 2000

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Animated: Issues 1996 - 2001