Gypsy Dancers and the Belly Dance

The Gypsies

The Gypsies are an ethnic group of people, largely nomadic, also known as the Romany, many of whom were exiled from their homeland region of northern India, it is thought, during the 5th century AD.

The gypsies settled in the Middle East, from Persia, now Iran, to North Africa, and in many parts of central and eastern Europe, from the Balkans to Spain and beyond. In the 16th century England, Shakespeare mentioned them, where they are thought to have arrived from Egypt. I recall myself as a boy in England seeing the horse drawn Roma Caravan traveling down the village street or parked at the fairground.

The gypsies were not readily accepted into main stream society and were often persecuted, as is still happening in parts of Europe even today.  The Romany retain many of their tribal associations and have preserved many dialects of their ancient language of Indian and Hindu origin.

But here, we are especially interested in the gypsy dancers.

Gypsy tribes had a notable presence in Turkey and Egypt where they adopted many of the most ancient dance forms and dance rhythms of their new found lands. And in Egypt, the gypsy dancers known as the Ghawazee, said to mean “invaders of the heart”, were especially prominent, and for several reasons.

The ancient Oriental dance, the dance known in the western world since the end of the last century as the  “belly dance”, has long been, in the world of the Middle East, a dance performed on family occasions, at parties, anniversaries and such, usually within the confines of a private household or living quarters, an entertainment for young and old.  The dance was also performed in public by the Ghawazee gypsy dancers as a means of earning money.

A puzzling circumstance that might be worth raising here

Puzzling because the Oriental dance, as well as being the family activity mentioned above, can have another character. In a family setting,  I believe the dance is just a dance, I’m sure there are no shades of sensuousness that can be otherwise connected to it by some extreme interpretations. Neither would there be that connotation for the popular involvements of today in our western world where we attend dance classes for enjoyment and personal development. But the puzzle remains because of other representations of the belly dance that have prompted so many comments from witnesses who have described some dance performances in the most critical ways, especially discussing their lewdness and overt sexual movements, whatever those may be. Such observations are nothing new, it certainly has been commented on for two thousand years or more, from Roman times to the present day. I guess interpretation really is everything. Perhaps further remarks on this topic should be made elsewhere at another time and place. But everyone who reads this is welcome to comment.

Getting back to the gypsies: it is a long time since the arrival of the gypsies in Egypt and we have few records to tell us how things have changed over the intervening many years but the dances apparently have changed little and thus provide a link with the past.

For the hundreds of years before the age of travel and communication, much of the world was unknown and mysterious for the majority of living people. Slowly the veil was lifted, especially so starting in the latter part of the nineteenth century when artists and journalists eagerly sought out and visited the lands of the Middle East and beyond, from where they reported and recorded the exotic and colorful sights they saw and visited. The world became aware, things began to change.

In Cairo in the twentieth century, the café and nightclub entertainment scene was established with dancers and acts specially tailored to meet the tastes of overseas visitors, eager to see what they believed to be an exotic Egypt and Middle East. It wasn’t necessarily authentic but it had excitement. A little earlier, in the 1870’s, the American author Charles Leyland remarked that most travelers, if given the choice, would rather see the dancers than the pyramids.

The Almeh and Ghawazee, the Oriental dancers of Egypt

Long before there were nightclubs there were paid dancers, skilled in the Oriental dance, they would entertain at festivals, celebrations, family gatherings and such. There was also a form of public street dancing.

The Almeh

Not gypsies, but more than 200 years ago the Almeh, named from the Arabic, the singular form being Awalim, were important and highly regarded entertainers, singers and dancers, catering to an educated Egyptian society. They were themselves well educated and cultured. They lived as a separate group and as entertainers they were well paid, attending at festivals, celebrations, banquets and family gatherings. They were frequently welcomed into homes and sometimes into harems, the harem being the quarters and resting place of the female family members from which non-family males are excluded.

When Napoleon conquered Egypt, 1798 to 1801, many of the Awalim felt so mistreated and disrespected by the French troops, they left the city of Cairo and did not return until the occupation was over. And the gypsy dancers, the Ghawazee described below, were also treated badly by Napoleon’s soldiers, many of them were killed when, apparently, they were merely being a nuisance as camp followers.

The Ghawazee

Unlike the educated and welcomed Awalimfor the Ghawazee the situation was quite different, they were considered to be of a much lower class. The Ghawazee would not be involved with the higher standing members of Egyptian society. But there are always exceptions.

The Ghawazee were the gypsy dancers of Egypt whose families, even with hundreds of years of history of residence in the country were little accepted by the rest of the Egyptian population. They have remained as gypsies and usually stayed at the fringe, considered as outsiders and tending to live on the edge of their communities.

Apart from their dancing skills, they were often little respected and, in the main, carried with them an unsavory reputation, seen as living off their wits, often blamed as thieves. So they were usually not welcome in peoples houses, as were the Awalim, and even recently, a gypsy dancer lamented how no Egyptian family would allow their sons to marry her. But it should be added that not all gypsy families were poor or unreliable.

Before modern times, certainly a hundred years ago, Ghawazee would travel from place to place. Often superb dancers, they would be hired to entertain for many occasions, often in family teams, dancing the day away, accompanied by their musicians. But they were not normally invited inside homes but had to entertain from a courtyard or outside the building or perhaps in a public place.

The Ghawazee were sometimes hired for less reputable male gatherings with which the Awalim never associated. They also danced in the public streets for money and they have been accused at times of allowing their performances to become a little more risqué than necessary. The words “lascivious movements of the body” have been mentioned from time to time. And the final criticism is that they were, or some of them were, not averse to prostitution. It is probable too that some of the Awalim were prostitutes also.

But those were many years ago and times have changed, there is a whole new influence from the American and Hollywood style of belly dance and costuming, picked up by the Egyptians, copied and used in a successful movie industry and until fairly recently an active nightclub and entertainment scene that has helped build  star careers for many Egyptian dancers. And now they may be changing again, with the a greater impact from religious fundamentalism and also the economic conditions of 2009, there have been setbacks.

A final comment on a famous family of dancers

Living today in Luxor, Upper Egypt, there are still a few members of the famous Maazin dance family, four daughters, known as the Banat Maazin, daughters of Maazin. Their father often boasted he had four beautiful dancing daughters who would keep him in comfort. He is gone now, only one daughter still dances and that is not very often since she no longer holds a license to do so. And especially because of threats of violence by the religious authorities who have banned women from dancing at weddings. The wedding organizers are now afraid to hire dancers.

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