World-renowned Cairo dancer Dina was teaching and performing in Chicago for the first time. And true to “Egyptian time,” her solo show had begun hours after its scheduled start, long after the show in which I had danced for the performer myself. I’d skipped the banquet dinner to save money and had been drinking the freely offered ice water as we waited for the prima donna to begin.
Hence our predicament. Since the show started 30 minutes before, a growing but insistent pressure on my bladder had been stealing my attention. Glancing around the room, I met the panic-stricken gaze of more than one dancer in the audience as we realized that there would not be an intermission. More than one of us desperately needed a break… And not one of us wanted to miss a minute of what was happening on stage.
Famous for her frequent and stunning costume changes, we knew that our only chance as an audience would be to coordinate our pee break with her next transformation—which heartbreakingly only gave us a few minutes. We later learned that her impossibly lightning-fast changes were only possible with the aid of multiple sets of hands backstage, quickly removing and replacing costume pieces amidst rapid-fire curses and prayers in Arabic.
Finally, when Dina dashed off stage, a handful of us jumped out of our seats as if on cue. We made a break for it. We ran full-tilt toward the nearest restroom, high heels muffled by the carpet underfoot, cocktail dresses flying.
As we hustled down the blandly appointed hallway, my face flushed with more than exertion. I kept reliving the fiasco of my performance earlier that evening. In front of Dina!! I kept reeling to myself.
A studio-owner friend had choreographed a sassy melaya leff for herself and a few of her most advanced students, and at the last minute, her right-hand dancer canceled. I’d agreed to sub for her and quickly picked up the choreo over a few late-night rehearsals.
The melaya leff is a theatrical dance named for the melaya, a large black shawl that the women of Alexandria used to cover from head to ankle at the time the dance was popularized, in the 1950s. Meant as a modesty wrap, the melaya could also be artfully hugged to her curves to advantage.
In truth, the way the dancers wrap and unwrap the melaya, exposing the short dress underneath, and even swinging the ends coquettishly, would never happen on the streets of Alexandria. If she chose to wear a melaya, she remained covered, and more likely than not, she would be wearing a full-length galebayya, or caftan, underneath.
Perhaps the inspiration for the melaya leff dance was sparked by a momentary readjustment of the shawl that might sizzle an onlooker’s desire: the way a woman would recover when a corner of her shawl would slip—flashing a glimpse of her brightly colored galebayya.
Or the way she might intentionally adjust and gather her melaya just so, following acceptable custom while also highlighting the sway and curve of her hips as she walked, lowering her lashes as she passed the target of her attention.
So, a certain amount of fantasy and flirtatiousness is allowed for with the melaya leff dance. There are limits to what is acceptable, however.
I was still early enough in my dance career not to have learned a cardinal rule of performance: don’t debut a costume on the night of the performance. Do a run-through in full costume. And for God’s sake, at least try it on before you show up to the gig.
I’d been so focused on learning the dance that the ruffled, stretchy dress had sat in the bag Monika handed to me at the first rehearsal.
So imagine my shock when I put it on, and the dress barely covered the essentials…! So short, it was more like a tunic than a dress. I had forgotten how much more slender the dancer I was replacing was than me. And had totally underestimated how my curvier hips and butt would change the fit of the dress.
My mind reeled. I can hardly walk in it and maintain my modesty; how will I dance in it??
I looked at the other ladies in my group, and all of their dresses reached nearly to knee, and for Monika, all the way to mid-calf! I was the only one with so much leg exposed.
Backstage, the shocked and judging looks from other dancers gathered from all over the country to celebrate Dina’s visit told me everything I needed to know. I had passed the limits of propriety.
All my body shame came right to the surface. At that time, I never exposed my thighs. Not at the beach, never. Years of sidelong glances and comments by my mother, whose slender legs stuck straight down from a tiny, flat butt. And growing up as the weird curvy anomaly compared to my much taller, slender siblings.
Thank Goddess, the costume included a netted mask. It would be harder to identify me among the audience members after the show, I tried to reassure myself.
As the saying goes, the show must go on, so I danced as best I could, as Dina watched mutely, her face impassive but for a slightly raised eyebrow.
In hindsight, I can see how my discomfort with the costume was more my story than anyone else’s. If anyone would be open to stretching the bounds of costume propriety, it would be Dina. In Egypt, raqs sharqi is highly regulated, down to what you can wear on stage. Actual roving teams of council members visit and review dancers’ performances to make sure that they aren’t being “immoral.” When Dina had built up enough clout in the industry that she could change up her costume to just within the bounds of what was permissible, it was more than an act to get attention; it was a political protest. She was thumbing her nose at the establishment, and their discriminatory treatment of dancers.
If anyone could handle a little extra thigh, it would be Dina!
Fast forward to Dina’s show and our flight to the bathroom. Out of order, a hastily printed sign on the door read. “You’ve got to be kidding me,” one of my beautiful compatriots panted.
“To the men’s room!” I crowed. This was an emergency. We needed to get back to the ballroom before we missed a minute more of Dina’s performance.
Until seeing her dance live in person, I’ll be honest: I wasn’t sure what all the fuss was about. Dina was clearly important within the dance form. People all over the world emulated her signature movements and costume styles. And, her costumes were fantastic.
But it wasn’t until that night, once I could focus and settle into what was happening on stage, that I understood her magic.
Earlier that day, taking workshops with her, I’d been surprised by her petite stature; she couldn’t have stood any taller than me, at 5’3”. She taught us a choreography that she seemed to be making up on the spot.
That evening, as I watched her dance number after number, I tried to identify the warmth that was washing over me, and finally, it dawned:
Love. I felt waves of love coming off of her as she danced.
I couldn’t pinpoint it to a move or expression. She wasn’t doing anything complex or overtly intricate. It was simply her being so fully present with us, offering her soul to us as she danced. With So. Much. Love.
The warmth felt like generosity. Like healing. It felt like an exchange older than time itself.
In Arabic music, there is this concept of tarab, or “ecstatic change.” It describes a building of energy or tension that is then released in a shift of the music. The best singers, musicians, and dancers, understand this concept in their bones and can shift the energy of the room through it.
How does one explain the release of emotion that is tarab?
How can one explain the waves of love from the dancer?
It is like a wave breaking apart on the shore, then gathering to break anew. Endless, rhythmic, infinite.
Like the most perfect resolution.
It is not unlike the climax in the act of lovemaking. It is an ecstatic transformation, the shift, release, and change into something new. When done right, it touches the very core of you.
It is a concept that is named in Arabic music, but that I feel also describes how we impact the world around us. How we are able to, by casting our energy, shift and change the very form of the things around us. It may seem like a miraculous or outrageous claim, and yet we know from quantum physics: our intention as we gaze upon an atom changes the way it behaves.
As I felt the waves of love rolling off Dina as she danced, I felt myself transformed. I understood at a level I hadn’t before the power of this dance to heal and change, not just the dancers (as I’d experienced), but the people we share it with.
I better understood my power, seeing it modeled by Dina. In an instant, my embarrassment and shame about my performance earlier that evening dissolved. What mattered wasn’t what my costume revealed; what mattered was how I felt. How the witnesses to my dance felt. What I intended to express.
Experiencing Dina perform was the first time I viscerally understood how love could be transmitted and amplified by the body, through dance… and how powerful and healing that transmission could be.
In a tiny village on an Egyptian hillside, there remains a scant handful of elderly women who remember the old dances, learned as children from their mothers, and their mothers’ mothers.
They perform these ancient rituals only on moonless nights, long after whatever moulid or festivity has settled down, and only the most devoted linger, hoping for the rare sight.
As onlookers shut down and pocket the ubiquitous phones, and the fire dies down to embers, a cloak of darkness falls around the gathered circle.
As if materializing from thin air, two white-haired men emerge from the shadows to pull a pair of stools close to the fading fire’s edge and sit with their drums. One balances a wide, shallow frame drum on his knee with one hand, while with the palm of the other, he sounds a limping, sonorous bass beat: Doum-tek-DOUM-tek… Doum-tek-DOUM-tek…
The other holds a dumbek across his knees, palm, and fingers of his right hand rolling across its snakeskin top. His left hand moves in and out of the drum’s ankh-shaped body, subtly lilting its tone up and down. He begins by echoing the larger drum’s rhythm, then improvising lightly around it: Prrrrrr, Chek-DOUM-chek, Prrrrr, chek-DOUM-chek.
As the drummers settle into the ceremonial rhythm, the elder women step forward. The dark burqas that drape them from head to toe whisper a hushed rustle. Their bare feet pad silently in the dust. They raise their arms and begin to dance, their undulating forms barely discernible against the deep darkness surrounding them.
As their hips twist and tremble, as one bends at the waist, and another sways, time rolls to a stop, its movement halted, and its illusory nature revealed.
The circle is transported, to a time when women’s bodies represented the sacred mystery of life, and the dancer priestess stood shoulder to shoulder with the shaman warrior as a guiding seer to her people.
Then, it was understood that her song and dance thinned the veils between worlds, allowing unseen wisdom and energy to be channeled through her body, healing and activating anyone within reach of the transmission.
The elders dance like this, covered in near pitch-blackness, as a protection for themselves and their audience. If officials get wind of the illegal display, any witnesses would be able to say to their interrogators, “I couldn’t say who was dancing, sir; they were covered, and it was a dark, moonless night.”
Of course, they know exactly which of the town’s elders hold the threads of ancient wisdom, preserving them through the present. Each woman’s burqa is individual and unique to her: the hem of Fat’ma’s is embroidered with little flowers, while Shahina’s veil has a gently scalloped edge.
Saayidah has been old for as long as anyone can remember; no one knows her true age. But when she moves on these nights, her body is like a young woman’s.
But to protect the sanctity of this ritual and the women who risk their freedom to perpetuate it, all tacitly agree to this farce.
One young man, standing a bit back from the small crowd, covers his eyes, unsure how to respond to the uninhibited pelvic circles of a woman old enough to be mother to his grandmother. He is confused, for his imam has drilled into him that a woman’s physical body is dangerous and distracting to his pious devotion to the Prophet, and yet, all that he feels rolling off the joyously dancing women is pure, unconditional love, in wave after pink-colored wave—so palpable he could swear that he tastes rose petals on his tongue, their unmistakable fragrance filling his nostrils. Humbled, he drops to his knees.
A young woman, holding a sleeping baby to her breast, begins to quietly weep; the grief over her mother’s passing, which had been held like a brittle leaf under a stone heavy on her chest, has suddenly, inexplicably given way. Her sister takes the now-fussy infant from her arms, so she can freely rock to and fro, now holding herself as her sobs break free in loud, open-throated wails.
Two men, one with the unmistakable salt-and-pepper of age, and the other with a few hairs of silver glinting in his beard, had attended the evening’s event carefully. Arriving separately and at staggered times, they avoided any but momentary eye contact as they purposely wove their paths not to cross.
As the women dance, however, under cover of the moonless dark, the men sidle toward each other inch by inch, their eyes never leaving the undulating forms. When finally, each feels the warmth of the other through the cloth of their sleeves, one rough cotton and the other fine silk, their fingers outstretch, curl, and intertwine.
Hand-in-hand, the lovers’ heads tilt toward each other. Together, they feel the energy of the dancers gently wash over them, releasing the shame that they had been taught to feel about their love, and overwhelming them with a sense of safety and belonging.
Another woman begins to stomp in rhythm with the wise elders, swaying forward and back as she slips into a trance. Several of the women near her close in around her in a protective circle, providing a screen of privacy, as well as their own encircling arms, so she doesn’t inadvertently fall or hurt herself.
Eyes closed dreamily, tears begin to fall, and the woman’s hands begin slapping a syncopated rhythm over her body: palm to upper arm, closed fist to torso, clapping down the length of her legs in a display that would have been considered shameful outside the circle of her family’s women. She feels a warm flush sweep over her body as blood circulates to joints that have been stiff and sore. They prickle and fizz as if the stars themselves have entered her bloodstream.
Later, she will have no memory of her instinctive dance, nor will any of the women who encircled her ever speak of it. The woman will notice that she is able once again to bend and kneel. During the next call to prayer, she is surprised that, as she lifts her shawl to drape over her head and around her shoulders, her elbow no longer twinges with pain.