The echoing question of “What came before [modern Raqs Sharqi as we know it]?” has painted the walls of my mind since my earliest years studying Raqs Sharqi. The question led me to learn about the historical background of dance in Egypt and its many regional and class-based expressions and inspired me, for much of the last decade to create historical re-imaginations of Egypt’s urban and rural entertainers (the awalim and ghawazee) based on their descriptions from travel accounts and research compiled by authors like Kathleen Fraser and Heather Ward, in conjunction with the lessons I’d received on “ghawazee dance” from my teachers, some of whom had learned directly from the source or 2 nd hand from the American dancers who had gone to Egypt to learn as early as the 1960’s. Yet, with all this
information, the gaps in my knowledge and understanding of these particular dances started to eat at me.
When I asked my teachers, they seemed to have an intuitive understanding of the sounds they should look for when performing these dances but couldn’t be more specific about what separated “ghawazee music” from “saiidi music” or what types of songs would be in the repertoire of these performers. Every recreation of upper Egyptian ghawazee dance I saw used the same few tracks of music that had been recorded in the 1970’s and I struggled to find any other albums with similar sounding music to recommend to my students or to deepen my own exploration of the subject.
When I finally had my first opportunity to travel to Egypt in 2019, I already knew it was my goal to schedule some private lessons with a key traditional artist I knew we’d encounter, the last working dancer from the famous family of artists known as the Banat Mazin, whom A’isha Ali, Edwina Nearing, Morocco and so many others had sought out beginning in the 1960’s. After our group lesson with Khyria Mazin, I arranged two more one-on-one sessions to take place in her home. My entire understanding of “ghawazee dance” felt like a figment of imagination in those classes. Moving with Khyria was a completely new experience and I left with the need, the desire to learn from her more intensively. I was surprised and confused when a drum solo appeared in the music she played from her tape deck in our lessons, but I never had the chance to ask her what we were dancing to or how that music was different
from dancing with a live band and so many other things that didn’t occur to me until later.
When I left Egypt, the deep knowing that I needed to find a way back was present, but it was two years before I was able to return. Amidst the delays caused (in part) by the pandemic, a new powerful image coalesced in my mind, influenced by the endless questions which had formed since my lessons with Khyria, the research I had continued to do, and a shift towards online lesson streaming in Egypt. I wanted to make an online school, a website that would enable dancers from all around the world to learn directly from Khyria and provide resources to learn about the artistic lineage of her family. I wanted a consolidated list of Banat Mazin research to help make it easier and more engaging for students to learn. I wanted to make something that would give back to Khyria and her family as much as it was possible to do.
Initially I held out that someone with more resources and organizational skills than I, would start hosting online workshops with Khyria and other entertainers like her; and there were some livestreaming events which featured Khyria and the local band she worked with, but I wanted to see something more , I wanted the questions I felt had been unasked by the previous generation of researchers to be answered and eventually I knew it was something I would have to do myself.
The initial challenges revolved around the financial aspects of the project, I had no kind of grant funding and due to health issues am not able to work consistently, but thanks to the periodic online workshops I teach, and a few small donations from my students and colleagues, I had just enough to get started.
The other factor I had to be prepared to encounter was Khyria’s potential refusal of the project. I spoke with a handful of my colleagues about the budding idea and listened to each of their unique perspectives, experience and advice about researching and working with traditional entertainers in Egypt. In general, it seemed to be a solid idea but communication and business in Egypt can get complicated fast if you don’t allow yourself to be flexible, so I prepared my proposal, lined up my questions and arranged to meet Khyria when I finally arrived in Luxor. Since my previous time with her had been so brief I felt it was important—before proposing the project—to establish a base of understanding, not only of her technique, but of the elements she considered important for her students to learn, what makes the dance, how it connects with the music and how her family history has influenced that. We started by arranging a month of one-on-one sessions to take place in her home. As
we got to know each other I explained how the dream she expressed in Yasmina Ramzy’s interview series, about opening a dance school inspired the concept of the website I wanted to create which would host recorded lessons of her for students to learn from, interviews with her about dance and her family as well as music and other resources for dancers and researchers to gain a deeper understanding of the art she calls “raqs shaabi” (traditional dance). When I received her permission to start my project, I also began to arrange online workshops for her to connect with students internationally, many of whom were learning from her for the first time or would not be able to study with her otherwise. To date we've had 5+ workshops in English, Brazilian Portuguese, and Czech languages which directly
benefited Khyria in addition to helping fund the 30+ hours of interviews and filming I conducted with her by way of our team of translators Heba, Mariam and Fawaka.
The interviews began with the intent of tracking the artistic lineage of the Banat Mazin, a crucial element in establishing that base of understanding for myself, which became the unexpected core of our discussions over the 8 months I spent with Khyria. Previously I’d known about Khyria and her sisters, her cousins and an aunt they had apparently learned from, but today I am able to identify at least 25 members of the family over 4 generations who worked as either dancer-singers or musicians. Over 150 people, many of whom carry repeating family names have been established on the Mazin family tree I had to create to help track the people we discussed in our interviews! While sometimes I think elements
of research like this won’t matter to dancers, it’s something that helps me create context and smooth communication, and I have seen over my time with Khyria how it’s impacted her and her next older sister Raja to know that people are still curious about them and their family’s history. It’s also one of the ways that I have realized I am personally able to give back to artists of the culture—reminding them they are admired and valued—not being forgotten as new trends unfold. I suspect as time moves forward, being able to see the family lineage in front of their eyes may be a special gift I can grant the Mazins (once I figure out how to print such a complicated map!) or perhaps it will become a helpful point of research to Egyptian anthropologists someday?
Carrying these little dreams as I work towards manifesting the big goal has been a major component to my ability to see this project through, along with small achievable acts like preserving Khyria’s teaching music by digitizing her worn out cassettes and supplying her with updated equipment for playing the music (whether or not she chooses to use the new technology!); acts which ultimately led back to the goal and questions that created it. Two things happened in that moment: 1) Khyria now had a product she could earn additional income from when students visit her, 2) I had finally expanded access to music
that could be used for this style of dance!
So arose the next challenge: Identifying the music on those cassettes and learning to label and communicate how that relates to the dancer’s interpretation of it, from Khyria’s perspective. This took months and coming back to review the files over and over again as unrelated interviews, research footage and discussions helped make important connections to missing pieces of information. It’s a process that is still ongoing, and for which there may be some areas left without a satisfying answer to my western analytical hunger, but I’m starting to have a sense of what “ghawazee music” means now (at least for the Luxor area).
I’d been led to believe it was somehow separate from other Upper Egyptian music or that all the songs sung by the Banat Mazin were their unique compositions but what I can say now is, the music and songs of the Banat Mazin (and other Upper Egyptian ghawazee) are the popular songs of the people (aka “shaabi” music). The specific style of music danced to by the Banat Mazin can also be heard at weddings without dancers, during the horse dance and during Tahtib competitions or festivals. While the tunes played vary from context to context, the style of music (generally played on mizmar and tabl baladi or rebaba and darbuka) is in the “ashrah” format. A generally improvised structure that flows in and out of a base of known melodies (sometimes with specific meaning or association) or songs (which may be
sampled or played in full, with or without vocalization of the lyrics).
It may be that the musicians of this style of music are from the Romani or Domari branches in Upper Egypt, but it’s difficult to obtain a straight answer to this as identities may be hidden (marginalized communities such as this are often unlikely to expose themselves unless it’s to their benefit), communication may not be clear (finding the right or commonly known words and establishing they don’t have a secondary or unrelated meaning can be challenging) or outsiders (for instance classically trained musicians) simply may not know. Meta’l Qenawi would be the prime example of a musician of Domari heritage from Upper Egypt who achieved great fame. His music and the music of his extended family carries a specific flavor which differentiates it from the music of Mohammed Abu Haragy even though they both came from Jarajos/Garagos. The Banat Mazin at various times danced with both
ensembles among other local groups, sometimes comprised of musicians from their own family.
Upon reviewing the second of Khyria’s digitized teaching cassettes, "Mizmar & Rebaba"; by Okasha (a Luxor based ensemble), we established a handful of tunes as selections from popular music (some which seem to come from Upper Egyptian folk tradition and some which appeared in films or on the radio), along with at least one special composition credited by Khyria to Zakaria el-Hijawi (a well-known composer and writer in Cairo who was married to Khyria’s eldest sister Suad for a time). It is unclear whether the melody pre-dates the lyrics el-Hijawi set on them, but it’s a curiosity to me because the melody is what Khyria describes as a “Jihayni” tune (in which the dancers will generally perform the iconic “saiidi step” where one foot lifts and sweeps past the opposite shin and is repeated on the other
leg) in conjunction with the use of the assaya (staff/cane). I’ve been able to identify only one other Jihayni melody so far. It seems unusual to sing on either melody, however Khyria did share the lyrics to the first tune with me (see the excerpt of “Ah Ya Galby Ehtar” (“Oh My Confused Heart”) below:
اه يا قلبي احتار
يا ساقيني مرار
اه يا قلبي احتار
يا ساقيني مرار
لو طاوعت العين Ah ya galby ehta a sageeny marar Ah ya galby ehtar ya sageeny marar lakwek bennar law tawet el-ain Oh my confused heart! You feed me a bitter drink Oh my confused heart! You feed me a bitter drink I will burn you with fire if you follow the eye
The tape also contained sections of the tabla solo which had taken me by surprise in my lessons years before. To the best of my knowledge the ghawazee did not perform drum solos as seen in Raq Sharqi and while I can’t rule it out completely for the ghawazee of other regions, Khyria’s own commentary about this was something of displeasure on the choices of the drummer Jamal, and not her personal preference. In any conversation we had on the subject she referred to these drum solos as “Tabla Sharqi” and commented that she preferred “Tabla Shaabi” which she described in terms of maqsoum or another simple rhythm. I am still trying to get a clear definition on this, but my understanding is that the
nature of these tabla styles is opposing. While “Tabla Sharqi” can act as a stand-alone piece of music or integrated into a longer routine and consists of accenting structured around base rhythms, “Tabla Shaabi” seems to me, to be the integral way drums are played in the Upper Egyptian ashrah format, the integrated rhythms and embellishments that support the melodies or transitions.
We might signal times in the music where Khyria interacts with the large tabl baladi (as visible around the 11 minute mark of the “Khyria & Abdullah” performance video) or the darbouka player (as visible around the 8:30 minute mark in the “Khyria & Qureshi” performance video) [both viewable here: https://www.banatmazin.com/performances] as the times to label the music “Tabla Shaabi” but it may be more accurate to consider it part of the whole rather than a separable moment.
This kind of non-exactness or non-linear conceptualization has probably been the biggest hurdle in communication throughout the project and affects everything from how Khyria discusses her family to how she teaches dance. When we first started the online workshops, I wanted to model the way I had been introduced to her dancing by breaking down the movements for people, so they knew what to look for. However, a colleague reminded me that everyone interprets movement differently and that it is important to let Khyria speak for herself and to let students come to their own conclusions after her demonstrations. In building the website I strove for a balance between these approaches. I filmed Khyria
dancing as she naturally would to a variety of recorded or live music. I added a separate set of videos with explanations from my own perspective on her movements and the staging that affects them, hoping that the extra information will help guide students in picking up the details and mechanics of Khyria’s movement and musicality more aptly while instilling a respect for the fluid nature of the technique.
In the process of filming her performances with live music I was able to create an audio recording of the concerts which have been included on the website along with notes where available. The recordings are a new resource for students of Raqs Shaabi (“Traditional Dance” specifically “Ghawazee Dance”) to learn from, practice with, and use for performance. Their use helps promote this traditional art style and supports the artists involved in this project, and as with Khyria’s teaching music, is provided to the
musicians as a product which they can use to earn income from.
I started this project in September 2021, and after 8 months of lessons, interviews, filming, translating, editing, creating graphics and all the other elements that go into a project this massive, www.banatmazin.com was released at the beginning of May 2022. The project is by no means complete, and research will be back underway by the time this article is published. Last year’s work created more than 60 songs that will need to be translated, several 3-to-4-hour long discussions with Khyria and her next older sister Raja remain to be translated, and I still have more questions I’d like to ask of Khyria, her sisters and the local musicians.
While I am driven by the past and I once wanted to know how Raqs Shaabi supported and influenced the development of Raqs Sharqi, it’s become clear to me that Raqs Shaabi is its own living dance and deserves the depth of study dancers of our community afford to Raqs Sharqi. It’s not enough to take one class and start performing “Ghawazee Dance”. Take the time to learn the technique and how you improvise with it, learn about the music, learn about the historical, economic and cultural impacts on the development of the dance and the dancers, remind yourself all the time that this is a dance coming from a marginalized community, inside a marginalized community from a culture (most likely for the
majority of readers) you are not native to.
I hope this website will make it easier and more accessible for students around the world to learn deeply about Raqs Shaabi (or at least the Banat Mazin expression of it). There is a consolidated list of resources of every single film, article, album, or other material that I’ve been able to locate that includes information on the Banat Mazin. The site has 7 albums of music (including Khyria’s teaching music, 2 live concert recordings and one very special Mazin family party recording featuring Suad Mazin singing popular tunes) are available for streaming or download. New song translations are being added each month to the blog, as well as periodic posts about the costuming, music, musicians and more as funds
allow. A book compiling the 60+ songs I previously mentioned is forthcoming (still a ton of translation work ahead of us).
It is my sincere wish to make this website as accessible as possible, so I am always welcoming to anyone who wants to submit translations for sections of the website into their language, or other recommendations for improvement. I am visualizing a few new projects, but it only gets more difficult from here to branch away from someone used to working with foreign dancers and track down dancers living in harder to access villages. Wish me luck and follow along with my research and adventures in Egypt via Instagram!
Shining is a performer, instructor and researcher of Egyptian traditional dances, whose work reflects a strong emphasis of the cultural and historical influences on the medium of dance in and from Egypt. She is internationally recognized for her historical recreations of early Raqs Sharqi and the candelabra- balancing dance named Raqs el Shamadan.
Over the last 17 years Shining has studied dances from the Middle East, North Africa, Turkey and Central Asia with a variety of instructors foreign and native to these cultures, but in order to gain a deeper understanding of dance in the context of Egyptian society and conduct research on the disappearing traditional entertainment styles, she moved to Egypt in the summer of 2021.
Her first project in Egypt (www.banatmazin.com) was founded the following spring, in cooperation with Khyria Mazin (from the famous Banat Mazin family of entertainers) to create a website dedicated to the legacy of the Mazin family which includes recorded lessons, interviews, song translations, family bios, streamable music and more; enabling the international dance community to learn directly from Khyria now and far into the future.
Learn more about Shining at www.shiningbellydance.com, www.instagram.com/shiningpeacekeeper