Friday, July 22, 2011

Writers on Dance: Edward Said on Tahia Carioca

My good friend Wah Ming Chang asked me to visit her writing class at Barnard to talk about Writing and Dance. In preparation, I looked up two of my favorite dance descriptions, Edward Said writing about his admiration for the famous Tahia Carioca (1919-1999) who comes in this essay, to represent the fluctuating politics and social mores of her beloved Egypt, and Federico Garcia Lorca's written introduction for "La Argentina."

I chose the following excerpt from Said's essay (which appears in his collection of essays Reflections on Exile) for obvious, pedagogical reasons. In these paragraphs, he begins with his eloquent definition of why her dance is specifically Egyptian ( "As in bullfighting, the essence of the classic belly dancer's art is not how much but how little she moves...") and then deftly transitions to a paragraph that concretely describes her movements with such clarity, a reader with some knowledge of the dance could enact the movement. Specificity and definition and context were, of course, fundamental in Said's quest to understand and avoid generalizing those with less power.

The essay, "Homage to a Belly Dancer," (which originally appeared in the London Review of Books) is a great find to anyone interested in belly dance, Tahia Carioca, or the process of writing about dance and the body. Here is an excerpt, starting with Said as a teenager infatuated with this woman who was for many, the essence of beauty and feminity:

"...We were about as far from the stage as it was possible to sit, but the shimmering, glistening blue costume she wore simply dazzled the eye, so bright were the sequins and spangles, so controlled was her quite lengthy immobility as she stood there with an entirely composed look about her. As in bullfighting, the essence of the classic Arab belly dancer's art is not how much but how little the artist moves: only the novices or the deplorable Greek and AMerican imitators, go in for the appalling wiggling and jumping around that passes for "sexiness" and harem hootchy-kootch. The point is to make an effect mainly (but by no means exclusively) through suggestiveness and--in the full-scale composition Tahia offered that night--to do so over a series of episodes kintted together in alternating, moods, recurring motifs.

"Her diaphonous veils were laid over the modified bikini that was basic to the outfit without ever becoming its main attraction. The beauty of her dance was its connectedness: thefeeling she communicated of the spectacularly lithe and well-shaped body undulating through a complex but decorative series of encumbrances made up of gauzes, veils, necklaces, strings of gold and silver chains, which her movements animated deliberately and at times almost theoretically. She would stand, for example, and slowly begin to move her right hip, which would in turn activate her silver leggings, tnad the beads draped over the right side of her waist. As she did all this, she would look down at the moving parts, so to speak, and fix our gaze on them too, as if we were all wathcing a separate little drama, thythmically very controlled, re-configuring her body so as to highlight her semi-detached right side. Tahia's dance was like an extended arabesque elaborated around [the seated singer who shared the stage]. She never jumped, or bobbed her breatsts, or went in for bumping and grinding. There was a majestic deliberateness to the whole thing that maintained itself right through even the quicker passages. Each of us knew tha we were experiencing an immensely exciting--because endlessly deferred--erotic experience, the likes of which we could never hope to match in real life. And that was precisely the point: this was sexuality as a public event, brilliantly planned and executed, yet totally unconsummated and unrealizable."