In all the years I’ve danced I never ever thought I’d be in the presence of a Ghawazi dancer. Let alone have a few historic events happen during the visit.
I began investigating belly dance about 20 years ago. I was taking lessons, loving it, and I was struggling to find the origins of the dance. It had been told to me that birthing practices and ancient feminism were the roots of the dance. These were very empowering concepts which served me and many very well. Quite possibly the movements from birthing and fertility groups really are some of the sources of movement in belly dance. There were some gaps in the story, though, when it came to matching the practices to the dance. I sought actual connections.
I was very compelled when I found writings from Edward Lane in the 1800’s who traveled to Egypt. He observed and wrote about what would be called Gypsy dancers in those days in Egypt – the Ghawazi. There were different families of Ghawazi from different areas who danced different styles but in Mr. Lane’s write up I could identify many descriptives that matched my dance. The vibrations sounded like our shimmies, the metal castinets had to be our Zagat finger cymbals, the depictions of the Ghawazi dress, vests, and hip sashes, and the khol make up on the eyes were very familiar as belly dance garb, and more. As I searched for the origins of belly dance, the Ghawazi were real women vs drawings or statues. For those interested, here is an excerpt from Mr. Lane’s writing:
“Egypt has long been celebrated for its public dancing-girls; the most famous of whom are of a distinct tribe, called “Ghawazee.” … “Their dancing has little of elegance; its chief peculiarity being a very rapid vibrating motion of the hips, from side to side. They commence with a degree of decorum; but soon, by more animated looks, by a more rapid collision of their castanets of brass, and by increased energy in every motion, they exhibit a spectacle exactly agreeing with the descriptions which Martial and Juvenal have given of the performance of the female dances of Gades. The dress in which they generally thus exhibit in public is similar to that which is worn by women of the middle classes in Egypt in private, that is, in the hareem; consisting of a yelek, or an ‘anteree, and the shintiyan, etc., of handsome materials [yelek– tight-fitting, floor-length, long-sleeved vest, worn over a qamis — wide-sleeved gauzy blouse and shintiyan, voluminous pantaloons tied around the hips. A red tarbush, or cap, was worn on the head with a bejeweled turban, and a convex filigree gold disk, the kurs, was worn on the cap. A shawl was tied around the hips. -ed.) They also wear various ornaments: their eyes are bordered with the kohl.and the tips of their fingers, the palms of theirs hands, and their toes and other parts of their feet, are usually stained with the red dye of the henna . . . In general, they are accompanied by mus icians (mostly of the same tribe), whose instruments are the kemengeh or the rabab [a sort of violin -ed.] with the tar [tambourine – ed.); or the darabukkeh [goblet drum — ed.] with the zummarah or the zemr (an oboe-like instrument-ed.] . . . They dance (with unveiled face) before the men, in the court, so that they may be seen also by the women from the windows of the hareem; or they perform in an apartment in which the men are assembled, or in the street, before the house, for the amusement only of the women [on the occasion of a wedding or birth -ed.] . . .
I need scarcely add that these women are the most abandoned of the courtesans of Egypt. Many of them are extremely handsome; and most of them are richly dressed. Upon the whole, I think they are the finest women in Egypt. Many of them have slightly aquiline noses; but in most respected they resemble the rest of the females of this country. Women, as well as men, take delight in witnessing their performances; but many persons among the higher classes, and the more religious, disapprove of them.”
I loved reading this information yet in hopes of finding more Ghawazi dance knowledge, I hired Katia, a true diva in New England who had traveled to Egypt many times and learned some Ghawazi dance from one of the families. Katia, as a guest teacher, taught my students and I a Ghawazi dance. In truth, the moves seemed so messy compared to what I was learning in my other classes that I was not sure I was getting “the real thing”. There was no youtube yet so I could not check up on Katia to see if the dance looked the same way on other dancers. But, with help from Shadia, another local star who is also a seamstress and costume mistress, we constructed and wore Ghawazi jackets and fashioned the taj crowns with decorations and performed a Ghawazi suite in one of my Ancient Art Studios’ recitals.
I even entitled my advanced level classes The Ghawazi Gals after that experience bc I wanted to honor these mysterious Egyptian dancers and pass along some real history to the students. That class focused on playing finger cymbals, layering shimmies over our isolations, and hip moves as I understood the Ghawazi performed these.
A few other sources of information were dancers outside of my region. Aisha Ali was dedicated to finding the roots of the dance, traveling alot, and writing. Another researching dancer named Morocco, in NYC, was very involved in field work. My teacher’s teacher, Bobby Farrah, seemed to be one of the pioneers in search of actual dance connections. He published what he learned in his Arabesque Magazines out of NYC.
Through one or more of these resources, I learned of the last performing Ghawazi family, The Banat Maazen family in Luxor, Egypt. It was very exciting for me to consider that there was a living family. As long as the Banat Mazen family existed there were real people whom we could connect our dance to – or at least our shimmies and zagat. But, the bad news was that the last family of Ghawazi was shrinking. There were 2 performing Banat Maazen, out of 5 sisters, left dancing. Then, in the last few years, Raja had health complications, a surgery and swelling in her legs, and she stopped dancing.
Only one, Kayyria Maazen, remained dancing. It was sad to hear this and, as I said at the start, for sure, I’d never see or meet a Ghawazi dancer. Egypt was very far away and the Banat Maazen family seemed friends of ethnologists like Aisha Ali, not Aurel.
I bless the day I met Sahra Saeeda. Our dance has had only a few trained dance ethnologists. Sahra is one of the best of the best. Sahra’s training at UCLA coupled with her years of dancing professionally and living in Egypt have produced a body of work that is truly fantastic. She had clarified so much of what we knew, added more, and she has paved the way for dancers to learn even more. Hosting her at Ancient Art Studios awoke my confidence and my will to study more of the cultural, historical, and ethnological sides of this art form. I’ve loved every minute of these studies. And with great thanks to her encouragement and her legwork, I’ve just come back from Egypt with a series of epic moments to cherish and some new friends.
Among the high points of my trip to Egypt is that I sat with a small group of women in a chat with, not just Kayyria Mazen, but also with her sister Raja (!), and a translator, and her musicians before they gave us a live ghawazi performance and a lesson. Is this my life? Apparently, yes.
Before I tell the details I have to say that if you love something and you work at it, opportunities come to you. This privileged position I have just returned from is due to following what I loved for a long time. Also, I thank my husband for being so unbelievably supportive of my opportunities and my interests. He learned that I was following and loving the work of Sahra Saeeda and that she packaged ethnologically based trips for the curious. Long story short, it took about 2.5 years to pull it off and tons of work, but there I was in Luxor, Egypt, with a great group of ladies including a few Ghawazi dancers!
Historic Moment One.
“What kind of Zagat (finger cymbals) do you play”, someone asked Kayyria. I sat transfixed and mostly silent at the interview before the performance and lesson. I think it was Shining, a new friend I’ve made who has a brilliant mind, who asked Kayyria about her childhood. This was where our eyes popped. Kayyria mentioned the Sombati Ghawazi – another line of Ghawazi than her own. Apparently her aunts, who taught Kayyria and her 4 sisters to dance, would go watch the Sombati Ghawazi when they performed! At that point in the discussion, we all saw Sahra Saeeda’s eye brows rise up in great surprise. This was very new information. To think that the Banat Maazen might be showing us some moves from the Sombati whom we cannot see since they are extinct, so to speak, was amazing. Then… it seemed Kayyria was actually indicating being related to these Sombati Ghawazi! More brows going up. Sahra Saeeda will certainly be following up on this new tidbit. We were all very excited bc nobody had ever heard the Sombati connection from the Banat Maazen stories before.
Historic Moment Two.
At the start of the performance after the chat, the goosebumps and tears were all cues up and popping out. There were 3 Rebaba in the band: 1 played drone, 1 lead, and I forget what the other plays but this is all standard apparently. There were 2 adult men and 1 amazing boy of about 9 years old – his feet were dangling from the chair but he played with the sincerity of any adult musician. There were three drummers; 2 adult men and one amazing boy who was about 6 years old and adorable! The oldest drummer had at least 6 fingers taped up. I can only imaging what that means in terms of finger joint pain or skin splits.
As this seasoned, wonderful rebaba band played, Kayyria came out and danced. We were all in heaven as we watched her work the palettes on her blue gown. Her feet were stomping and moving her hip from the ground up. Her finger cymbals were spot on from a life of playing. At one point she did a bit of a backbend using the Rebaba player for stability and it reminded me of a passage I’d read about how the sisters would back bend using each other. It was a thrill to see the last remaining Ghawazi dancer perform.
Historic Moment Three
Then, even more historic…. Out came Raja! She had been sitting in the corner in her purple-ish head cover watching her sister dance, clapping, and smiling. To our surprise, she stood up and walked to the dance floor to dance, once again, with her sister. We all began to cheer, clap, and most of us cried, for sure. Raja smiled and seemed to be having a great time. They even put their heads together in the mini-backbend I described reading about. It was a- ma- zing. This has not been seen or written about in recent history. I felt so fortunate to peek in on family connection between sisters but also to see, not just one, but TWO of the last ghawazi dancers perform together. In a studio with tent fabric for a roof shading us from the sun in Luxor, Egypt, I was smiling away in happiness and disbelief. I met the Banat Maazen sisters. And Raja danced!
PS Shining, enrolled in private lessons with Kayyria, brought back a few Ghawazi dresses made by the Maazen clan and I got one which I cherish. Yes, if you get to Luxor, you can take private lessons w Kayyria. Hurry.
(Thank you, Sahra Saeeda, for sharing your friends with us and showing us the roots of an amazing art form)