Kuri DRJournal - Dances of the “Roma” Gypsy Trail From Rajastan to Spain

Vol 2 No 4 Spring/Summer 2006

Dances of the “Roma” Gypsy Trail From Rajastan to Spain:
The Egyptian "Ghawazi" Dance

by Miriam Peretz

"Life is a Ghaziya, she dances just briefly for each.” - Egyptian Proverb

Among the various groups of Domari, the Ghawazi are the most famous for their dancing and music. They have been credited as being the original source of Oriental/Cabaret dance popular today all over the world. Ghawazi (plural for Ghaziya) means "conquerors" and refers to the most traditional female dancers of Egypt. The Ghaziya is said to “conquer” the hearts of the audience that she performs for. Ghawazi dance in its original form has also become a popular folkloric style in the U.S. and internationally. Over one hundred years ago, professional female dancers of both Cairo and the countryside were called Ghawazi. Now the term Ghawazi is used in Egypt to describe the dancers of the countryside who still perform in the traditional manner. In other words, dancers that have not added anything to their repertoire from Ballet, Latin America, or modern Western dance as the Oriental dancers of Egyptian nightclubs have. Ghawazi once performed all over in Egypt but in the 1830's, they were banned to Upper Egypt. There they fascinated many 19th century European travelers who wrote about the dance, spreading its popularity. When a group of Ghawazi performed at the 1893 Chicago Worlds’ Fair, they sparked an Oriental dance fever, which is still in effect all over the world. There was a strange contradiction of this growing popularity with feelings of ambivalence and distaste for what the Western eyes saw as a “highly erotic” dance.

In Egypt as well as all of the Middle East, the public’s ambivalent attitudes towards professional dancers stems from the prohibitions of Islamic law for a woman to appear unveiled and immodest in public. Dancers were the only women who transgressed this law. Ironically, dancers play an essential role in all public and private celebrations enlivening the festivities and bringing good fortune. Some of the ancient beliefs of temple dancers possessing powers to bring good fortune clung to the Middle-Eastern communities, creating a greater need for the dancers’ performance. More recently, Islamic fundamentalism, economic pressures, and westernization have all contributed to the decline of the ancient Egyptian custom of employing Ghawazi to entertain at weddings and other celebrations in the villages.

Besides the issues around immodesty in Islamic countries, Middle-Eastern dance has also often been disrespected as a dance form and given a cheap, highly sexual, and erotic connotation by Western standards. Ironically, the dance form originated with women dancing for other women, as opposed to dancing for male audiences, which is apparent today as Middle-Eastern women frequently dance together at all women gatherings. This illuminates the importance of observing a dance form in its original cultural context. An unknown Egyptian woman early in this century writes inspiring words about the dance….." It is our poem of the mystery and pain of motherhood, which all true Asiatic men watch with reverence and humility, in the faraway corners of Asia where the destructive breath of the Occident has not yet penetrated. In this olden Asia which has kept the dance in its purity, it represents maternity, the mysterious conception of life…….Such is our Asiatic veneration of motherhood, that there are countries and tribes whose most binding oath is sworn upon the stomach, because it is from this sacred cup that humanity has issued. But the spirit of the Occident had touched this holy dance, and it became the horrible, danse du ventre…..”

There is some diversity within the ethnic origins of the upper Egyptian Ghawazi causing some differences in their styles. Many Ghawazi from Balyana to Aswan belong to ethnic minorities known as Nawar, Halab, and Bahlawan. The Nawar are Gypsies who refer to themselves as Domman and speak the Nawari language. Egypt's most famous family of Ghawazi, the Nawari Mazin, have their own unique dance style that has become well-known through their dance legacy. Yusef Mazin is the head of the Egyptian Gypsies, as well as the father to some of the best-known Ghawazi dancers. Their tribe, the Nawar, originated in Kurdistan and was driven out because they were considered troublemakers. There are also significant populations of Nawar in Syria and Lebanon. The Nawar have a very bad reputation and remain isolated from mainstream Egyptian society. The Mazin family traveled and spread throughout the countryside of Upper Egypt. In Luxor, many of the women became dancers and many of the men became musicians. The dancers maintain very low status in society and are looked down upon-no man would dare marry a Ghaziya.

The famous Mazin daughters; Samia, Fayza, Sanaa, and Khairiyah all began training to be dancers at very young ages; their father Yusef Mazin was their teacher. They make a living by dancing at hotels, weddings, and other private events. They like all other dancers, rely heavily on their profits coming from tips since their salaries are insufficient. Khairiyah Mazin, considered one of the best Ghawazi dancers, continues to perform and teach with thirty-five years of experience. Today the Mazin are famous internationally and have been filmed for several documentaries including the “Romani Trail- Part I.” Despite their fame they remain unrespectable women by mainstream Muslim society, and therefore unmarriageable. Muslim society, and therefore unmarriageable. One of the Maazin daughters reflects: daughters reflects:

" The only time I wish I wasn’t a dancer is when a man from another tribe falls in love with me or one of my sisters. His family would fight a war to stop him from marrying a ghaziya. 'How can you marry a daughter of Mazin? A dancer and singer who performs in front of others?' They call us by the name ghaziya. To them it’s an insult. But to us it means that we invade their hearts with our dancing.” (Romani Trail Documentary Film, 1992)

At most upper Egyptian Ghawazi dance parties held outdoors, the music consists of very loud drums--doumbek, dohola (a big two-headed drum) and mizmars (loud high-pitched horns.) The rebaba (violin type instrument) is also sometimes included, as well as vocals and finger cymbals played by the dancer or a musician. This instrumentation continues in their traditional performances, although many times when performing indoors the dohola is replaced by the quieter doumbek, and the mizmar by a ney (a reed instrument.)

Among the various music styles of the Gypsies, the once popular epic ballad of Upper Egypt is slowly dying out. The epic ballad involves the recitation and singing of stories accompanied by the playing of the rebaba. It is an oral tradition passed down from father to son through the generations. Metkal Kenawee came from this tradition, but left the poor countryside life and became a famous performer in the large cities. Not only is he well known throughout Egypt and the Middle East, he has also traveled the world and became one of the most famous Middle Eastern musicians.

During my two visits to the Middle-Eastern dance conference in Cairo (June 2000 and June 2003,) as well as at many other events and workshops, I have seen great authentic Ghawazi dance and music. On my first trip to Egypt, I saw several performances of Ghawazi dancers and musicians. On my second visit, I was lucky to have the experience of taking workshops with the famous Mazin daughters accompanied by several musicians from the well-known group "Musicians of the Nile." The workshop was very exciting and energetic since they had the actual musicians playing right there in the center of the dance floor. There was also one man who accompanied the two Mazin daughters, who interacted with everyone in a very playful way. He performed a great stick dance, showed us many gestures, and did several acrobatic floor movements that none of us attempted to do.

The vocabulary of movements that the Ghawazi showed us was not very large, although each movement was challenging in some way. The movements that they showed us I have also seen in performances by Ghawazi dancers all over as well as in video footage and in the documentaries "Latcho Drom," and "The Romani Trail." This suggests to me that there is not that much more to its vocabulary than what I have seen, and that as a dance form it is authentically preserved. The most common movement is the side-to-side hip shimmy that often involves a stamping of the foot into the ground. The hip shimmy in this style has something much more powerful than in any of the other Middle-Eastern dance styles that I have seen. Other popular movements centered on the hips include hip drops, hip sway to the back, and hip rotations. The upper body and the arms have very little articulation, but rather loosely follow the movement of the hips, or gestures, and playful eye movements, clapping of the hands, step-hip, and stomping of the feet. The dancer’s center of gravity is low with flat feet and bent knees. Sometimes the dancer will point her foot but more commonly, the foot is held loosely, unlike Western forms of dance. Sometimes dancers will go up on their toes, which can be a mocking gesture of the “city ladies” that wear high heels.

There is very little use of props other than sagat (finger-cymbals) and the cane. The cane was originally a man's dance but is now a very popular part of the woman's repertoire. The tahtib is a male stick dance that has a martial-art, warrior like quality. The female cane dance is a take off the male stick dance, and can be seen as having a phallic connotation. Authentic ghawazee dancers always play sagat, which is an integral part of the music. There are two main sections in Ghawazee music, the first being in a 4/4 rhythm- Saidi or Balladi where the sagat will play a triplet pattern. The second section is in a faster 2/4 rhythm- fellahi or malfuf where the sagat play steady singles (right, left, right, left...)

Early paintings of the Ghawazi dancers demonstrate a costuming that has for the most part died out. I found pictures of these costumes in the book "Serpent of the Nile," which also served as a source of knowledge about the dance style. The costume involved a very heavy skirt that was knee high and covered in beaded fringe. The skirt accentuated the hip swaying and shimmying of the dancer. The top was a vest made from the same type of fabric and a scarf worn on the head. Later costume styles changed since the older style was expensive to make, harder to come across, very heavy, and inconvenient to travel and perform in. This newer costume is worn today both by the Mazin daughters as well as dancers all over the world dancing this style. The costume is a long dress known in the Middle East as a jalebiyeh, with long sleeves and has beaded fringe all over it. It is much lighter than the older costume and still sparkles and shimmers with the movements of the dancer. They also wear hip belts and scarves on their heads.

The various coin embellishments worn in the costuming of Ghawazi as well as Gypsy dancers all over the Middle East, Turkey, the Balkans, and Russia, originated with the Gypsies tradition of “wearing their wealth.” Having no home or safe place to store their wealth, they found creative ways to wear it, by sewing it into their costumes or making it into jewelry that they wore at all times.

The Ghawazi choreographies that I have created are based off both Ghawazi and Saidi dance styles (from the Said region of Egypt.) There is quite a bit of cross over between these styles and it is not exactly clear to me what movements are specifically Saidi or Ghawazi. The Saidi style, I learned both in Egypt with master teachers such as Mahmoud Reda, (director of the National Folklore Ensemble of Egypt), Raqia Hassan, Lobna, as well as with many other teachers in the Bay Area and Israel. Mahmoud Reda has been a great influence on the development of the Saidi dance style, as well as all of the different Egyptian folk styles. He is respected both in Egypt, and internationally for taking Egyptian dance out of private celebrations and to the big stages and theatres.

Mahmoud Reda believes that in order to take folkloric dances and music out of their original setting and make them presentable to the theatre stage, some adaptations need to be made. If done in the correct way there should be no loss of authenticity. In his book Mahmoud Reda reflects on his experiences directing the first folkloric dance theatre company in Egypt. He states, “The original audience is indulgent, because it knows that it is seeing ordinary people and not professional artists. Therefore, it is always ready to be tolerant and to excuse many artistic faults. As for the audience of a theatre…it demands perfection from professional artists and expects originality. A theatrical audience is made up of experienced viewers who pay the price of a ticket in order to see the performance…”

Mahmoud Reda also uses music that has Western instrumentation accompanying the traditional music to add strength to the theatre presentation. His choreographies are truly masterpieces as he has taken the tradition and placed it on stage using Western concepts, without losing the authentic flavor of Egyptian culture. I have great respect for his work, and have also learned that in the process of staging performance pieces it is often necessary to have a larger repertoire of movements to keep Western audiences entertained. This is especially true when working as a soloist. Ghawazi dancers traditionally perform in pairs or with three or more dancers.

My work in the various Egyptian dance styles has been extensive, and I have had the pleasures of choreographing and staging my work for "Arabesque" dance company in Israel, and "Shuvani" in the Bay Area, both of which continue to perform these pieces. I have also presented my choreographies as a soloist with the Bay Area dance company, "Aywah," and at numerous venues and festivals in Israel including- the Jerusalem Theatre, Inbal Ethnic Dance Center, and Suzan Dalal. It is always my great preference to work with live musicians to produce the most energetic performances and workshops, although often times I have had to compromise and work with CD recordings. Among my favorite recordings of Ghawazee music are Musicians of the Nile, and Metkal Kenawee. “Music of the Ghawazi,” and “Music of the Fellahin” produced by Aisha Ali are also great authentic music sources.

The costumes I wear in performances are not traditional to Ghawazi style, but rather the Upper Egyptian dress known as the Asuit. This name comes from a large community in Upper Egypt, Assiout, located halfway between Cairo and Luxor. This was the center where the art of Egyptian net embroidery flourished. There were also villages throughout Upper Egypt that produced this fabric in various styles. Author Ibrahim Farrah notes that this fabric was largely produced by a minority group living in Assiout known as the “Copts,” who were well known for their textiles and tapestries. This dress, popularized by the black and white movies of the 1950's Egyptian stars Samia Gamal, Naima Akef, and Tahia Carioca, continue to be worn today by dancers all over the world. The fabric is a black netted type fabric, heavily embroidered with designs reminiscent of Egyptian hieroglyphics. The designs are created by pounding tiny pieces of silver into the fabric. The silver gives the fabric a beautiful shimmer to it, and is therefore perfect for accentuating the intricate movements of Middle-Eastern dance. Today these dresses are easily purchased in the large souk (or marketplace) in Cairo and throughout Egypt, although the quality of the fabric has gone down as less and less metal is used and the metal is no longer silver. While in Egypt, I designed my own asuit dresses and had them sewn by an Egyptian tailor.


1. A Party in Luxor by Habiba (Barbara Siegal), Volume XI, 1985
2. The Gypsies by Jean Paul Clebert Co.,1961(translated by Charles Duff)
3. Serpent of the Nile by Wendy Buonaventura Co. 1989
4. Latcho Drom, a film produced by Tony Gatlif
5. Romani Trail, Part I & II, a film produced by Jere Marre Co. 1992

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