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How Experimental Processes Become a Subject within Middle Eastern Dance

By (Amara) Laura Osweiler

2005 Dance Under Construction,
University of California Graduate Cultural Dance Studies Conference, Riverside, CA

In this paper, I will explore how experimentation moves from processes to a subject by examining a style, experimental Middle Eastern dance and a specific show, called “An Evening of Experimental Middle Eastern Dance (EEMED).” However, in order to understand this transition, I will first have to branch out and trace pathways into a different space, that of traditional Middle Eastern dance. I am fascinated with the relationship between traditional and experimental Middle Easter dance. Not only as a binary that helps construct the two, but also as a process that has opened a new space within Middle Eastern dance.

This paper comes out of my own personal experiences as a scholar and practitioner. It is also influenced by my long term and deep relationships with many EEMED core performers; a group of women who helped start EEMED: Anaheed, Cassandra, Djahari, Jean Duranti, Claudia Immerzeel, Sa’ Elayssa, and Tatianna. The information I receive comes from our friendships but also from extensive interviews over the past year. Another strong connection in my text is my relationship with other writers; in particular several French male writers: Gilles Deleuze, Félix Guattari, and Michel Foucault. My interactions with them are very different from the ones I have with the dancers; as there are no back and forth discussions and I tend to employ their ideas most often to confirm my own. My purpose in this text is not to focus on any of these dancers or writers in particular. I am not here to contest or deep read their ideas and actions. But, as several of these dancers would say, I use them to add flair, color, texture, and movement in my own work.

Foucault in his book, “The Archeology of Knowledge” discusses how discourse propagates and continues a subject through naming, formation and dispersion of rules, who supports it through systems like institutions and economics, and how it stabilizes. He is also interested in exploring the instability of discourse. Foucault does this by showing it is made up of continuities and discontinuities, the outside is part of the inside, and ruptures can lead to the formation of new discourses in which the “origin” is displaced by another.

As I will show through my text, Middle Eastern dance acts like a discourse. Its rules of dance are dispersed and stabilized by a broad reaching community. And that within Middle Eastern dance there are styles, which get emphasized, like tradition, or deemphasized, like experimental. I will present these two subjects as working to produce and destabilize each other. But within that process of interaction is a rupture, a new discourse within Middle Eastern dance.

In the vein of Foucault’s idea that a subject occupies several positions and functions within a discourse, I do want to note that I am viewing “traditional” Middle Eastern dance from my own practice; as an American who performs a variety of traditional dance forms as well as experimental. And that my knowledge does not include the experiences of someone who either is a stanch preservationist or exclusively does one form of Middle Eastern dance.

For this text, I use the subject, traditional Middle Eastern dance as a catchall term that accounts for many diverse styles including various belly dance forms, folk, ethnic, social, and religious movement ceremonies. Each “dance” has its own rules, structures, dispersion map, support systems, and stability that can distinguish it from other dances. To me this sounds more as if I am differentiating styles than defining traditional. However, I must add what several dancers like Claudia mentioned; that a dance has to be passed down “three or four generations at least” to be considered a tradition.

My concept of traditional Middle Eastern dance does not mean that it is stagnant or unchanging. As Cassandra points out, “within traditional Middle Eastern dance there are new things happening all the time. Even people getting bored with doing the same routine. So they’ll try to spice it up or try to draw in new influences.” Experiments and modifications occur within dance all the time as instability, fluidity, and change interact with continuity, structure, and permanence. Tradition has room for experimental processes, just as long as they can be resolved quickly into a traditional framework.

The majority of experimental Middle Eastern dance practitioners have an extensive history of training and performing in traditional dance space. But in a sort of countermove, they often express a sense of being restricted by the rules and expressions of traditional Middle Eastern dance. And though the actions of these artists are viewed by some traditionalists as anti-traditional, this is not how the practitioners view it. First of all, Sa’ Elayssa comments, that when she is watching EEMED “There’s always been something that I recognized as traditional Middle Eastern dance in it. Sometimes it was just a sort of random piece of costume or sometimes it was full choreography. But there it is.” Secondly, as Djahari notes, “I’m not trying to change who they are with what I’m doing. I’m trying to understand some of what they do in a way that makes me feel good and in a way that expresses myself.” Djahari takes a step further away from this idea of damage, because for her, “it helps the audience identify what might be traditional and pay more attention to it.” These dancers are more interested in creating a new space in which they can express themselves.

I need to clarify that in the Middle East, there is no such title as experimental Middle Eastern dance. However, there are experiments occurring under the term interpretive or modern dance. In the United States and spreading into Europe, over the past ten years, experimental Middle Eastern dance has started to take shape as a form. Its being named is one of the first moves to becoming a subject. However, it is interesting to note that even this is not very solid. Theatrical, alternative, new, interesting, and different are all words often used by audiences and dancers alike to describe experimental Middle Eastern dance. More and more practitioners are using the term experimental Middle Eastern dance because it allows them not only to recognize the root of the dance but also to acknowledge its changing processes.

Experimental Middle Eastern dancers are connecting into experimental processes, which are akin to Deleuze and Guattari’s rhizome. The rhizome is a system of flows that can connect and disconnect in infinite and unpredictable ways. These flows are in a continuous process that can either maintain a course or change by interacting with other flows. They are fluid, non-committal, and resist subject formation.

Several EEMED performers during our interviews talked about this connectivity not only as the base of their dance but also their philosophy or spirituality. Cassandra notes, “I basically, believe that all life is connected.” They often expressed, as Tatianna did, a sense of being within a connecting, networking system that has endless possibilities and choices. She says, “we try to pull things we like and combine it with things we’ve been taught to create something new.”

Participating in these experimental processes allow dancers to connect into non-Middle Eastern dances such as Modern, Post-Modern, Butoh, Bharatha Natyam, Jazz, Indonesian, Hula, Country Western, or even pedestrian moves. They may either look for common points with Middle Eastern dance and fuse them together or look for their differences. Dancers may also connect to non-dance elements such narrative, religion, gender issues, pop culture, and autobiography.

If I see experimental Middle Eastern dance as creating new things, than traditional Middle Eastern dance is about repeating what has come before. Deleuze in his book “Difference and Repetition” would say that general repetition can occur but no specific repetition can. He is interested in the difference that occurs in this space of not exact repetition. Difference is not necessarily in opposition to repetition but is part of a joint process. Within this interaction, like a rupture within a discourse, there can be contradictions that can lead to modification. These modifications then also repeat and form their own new differences and ruptures. It is within this process that the original becomes disguised, disappears, and then removed from the new repetition. Thus, there is always a continuous series of change.

For me, this is how experimental Middle Eastern dance as a style works. There are many elements for choreographers to play within traditional Middle Eastern dance’s repertoire of costume, movement, musical, and structural aspects. As Sa’ Elayssa notes, “I think that there are qualities to traditional Middle Eastern dance. Being experimental is changing them. Removing them. Stepping outside of them. Mixing them up. Making them different than their original form.” They start with these and focus precisely on where repetition becomes a difference. They may rupture and counter a specific rule while repeating and maintaining another. Which element and the extent of how far the element is altered can drastically be different from piece to piece. It depends on how far from tradition the choreographers reaches and how many elements are changed. The results are works that look and feel dramatically different from one another and create modifications that disconnect from the original tradition and begin to form their own series of repetition.

At this moment, I see two paths that experimental Middle Eastern dance could take. One is to become an umbrella term, a discourse if you would, in the manner as I have been using traditional Middle Eastern dance. Sa’ Elayssa comments, “Because [experimental Middle Eastern dance] is infinite, it’s hard to categorize all of them. So it’s easier to have this one catch all phrase for all of that.” This would encompass the many styles, locations, and applications of Middle Eastern dance that are occurring right now such as Tribal Fusion, Gothic Belly dance, Urban Tribal, and Cabtrib. These are very new forms; mainly developing within the past ten years. However, each dance has its own rules, structures, dispersion map, support systems, and stability that can be distinguished from other dances.

These styles connect into non-Middle Eastern dance cultures and play with the boundaries of traditional Middle Eastern dance. However, I do not think the practitioners of these other “experimental” forms see themselves as experimental Middle Eastern dancers but as fusionists. Several EEMED dancers note that these forms though they have experimental processes are not experimental Middle Eastern dance. Cassandra says, “It’s hard to say because some experimental Middle Eastern dance like at EEMED is all over the place. There’s no one style. There’s no one type of movement. And some of these groups are doing something that’s not traditional. And yet, there’s a look. There’s a type of music they’ll often use. A type of costume they’ll often use. And so in so in some ways, it seems like, as oppose to being it experimental, it’s own. They’ve created another genre. But it’s their own genre. It is what it is. It’s not reaching out of that.” Meaning, if one of us was to hire a gothic belly dancer, we would basically know what we are going to see. There are expectations about movements, costuming, and music. But if one of us was to hire an experimental Middle Eastern dancer, we would not be sure what we were going to see. The unexpected is part of being an experimental Middle Eastern dancer.

This takes me to the second pathway for experimental Middle Eastern dance, that of EEMED. The developments of experimental Middle Eastern dance as a form and EEMED over the past eight years has coincided to a certain degree. The term experimental Middle Eastern dance had been used before EEMED, but on rare occasions. For example, Anaheed used it in Perfume of Araby shows during the 1980s and 1990s to differentiate the traditional half from the non-traditional half. But the rise of interest in the show and the videos has lead to the awareness by others that this is a form of dance onto its own.

EEMED has helped promote the style of experimental Middle Eastern dance in several ways. It has dedicated a space exclusively to the form and its many conceptions and has brought a community of dancers together to support each other. Dancers are able develop themselves as artist within this form. In addition, the show pushes the style out into the Middle Eastern dance community and the larger dance world.

Since EEMED allows any version of experimental Middle Eastern dance to be presented, I have to look at its setting to see how the show makes the form a stronger subject. EEMED takes a form that can be found in a number of settings, like forests, cityscapes, people’s homes, and festivals and places it on proscenium stage. This venue, a small (less than 99 seats), black box theater, presents what I am now seeing is a theatrical version of experimental Middle Eastern dance.

I am going to venture briefly into the impact the proscenium stage has on structuring experimental Middle Eastern dance within EEMED. One of the first things practitioners note is that the proscenium stage encourages the audience’s full attention, by removing the dancer’s need to compete with other actions like eating, drinking, talking, and people walking in and out of their dance space. Jean notes, “we have complete control over our environment as well as our dance.” This is not to say that all audience members act this way in other venues. Many are completely attentive to the dancers. The theater setting also removes pressure from the dancers only to entertain in a light and uplifting manner: no one wants to see sad or angry dancer while they are at dinner or a party. EEMED not only allows dance as an entertainment form but also opens up space for works that are not so. Dances often challenge the audience and may take them to difficult and hard places. And EEMED allows dancers to be a little more “artsy fartsy” and thought provoking than they can be in traditional dance settings.

EEMED practitioners in their interviews also express a sense of freedom at EEMED. Tatianna notes, “it does give me a sense of freedom. Whether it’s the freedom to build something I want. Or freedom to let go of an emotion that I convey. Or the freedom of creating a new idea that can fit.” Even though they perform experimental Middle Eastern dance in other venues, there are always written or unwritten constraints. This issue could be explored further by examining why some pieces can successfully be performed at other shows and others are not appropriate. It is really a matter of knowing what kind of audience can handle what kind of piece. EEMED audience members are there to encounter anything and everything.

Besides content and audience focus, one of the most expressed admiration of EEMED is the ability for dancers to have lighting design. Sa’ Elayssa says, “Well I knew when I was giving the chance to performing in a venue that was a theater, I realized I could use lighting. Lighting is not something I ever think about in a traditional Middle Eastern dance, even in the larger shows that I have been in that are strictly regular Middle Eastern dance. I never felt like I had control over those things. So I would say lighting is a big thing.” In most stage concerts, dancers do not have a say about the lighting of their work and or for most traditional Middle Eastern dance, standard washes work fine. However, in EEMED, choreographers can conceive lighting as an interregnal part of the work. This alone has opened many doors for experimental Middle Eastern dancers to find new ways to express themselves.

EEMED practitioners are developing a new space, a kind of third space. Djahari comments, “I think with what I’m doing, I feel like I am now doing outside of it…And that doesn’t mean I stay out there. I think that there are times that I kind of dive back in…. And I don’t want to just leave that.” A space that is not just oppositional and contradictory for these two subjects, though it does allow them to act in this manner, but a space that creates new connections, new repetitions, and a new subject. The dancers are exploring what can develop within it. Though I have been focusing on the relationship between traditional and experimental, I do want to make the point that not all the pieces are about exploring the experimental, traditional relationship directly. It is part of their process but not always their purpose.

Experimental Middle Eastern dance also allows artists to express ideas, emotions, and positions not readily available within the frameworks, structures, and expectations of traditional styles of Middle Eastern dance. Sa’ Elayssa says, “At times I have an emotional concept I really want to get across. A very specific emotion that maybe was kind of going on under the surface in traditional Middle Eastern dance but this time I want to open that up. Which would be something I would not do normally.” This flexibility in purpose and focus allows choreographers not only to investigate Middle Eastern dance but also their own society. Many dancers explore, present, and challenge social concepts of gender, sexuality, politics, race, and power through their pieces. They also use this dance to express personal emotions in autobiographic works. It is through these explorations that these artists often dance outside traditional dance norms and expectations and sometimes even social norms.

The future of experimental Middle Eastern dance is continual unfolding. Cassandra notes, “I can see experimental dance could become a tradition or be established with rules. I mean even sense that that there’s this show, EEMED, every year. And it has its own rules and it has certain standards… I don’t think EEMED is supposed to be a finished product. I think there’s this sense it will continue, who knows for how long, but it will continue. And it is a process. It’s part of a process of trying to change what Middle Eastern dance is.” Whether this form will continue to shift and change or become a form of tradition and style of its own is yet to be seen. At least right now, the closest experimental Middle Eastern dance can get to tradition is as a tradition of experimenting. There is one thing for sure, that these artists will continue using materials around them to explore who they are as Middle Eastern dancers at this moment in time.


Anaheed. Personal Interview. 2006.

Cassandra. Personal Interview. 2006.

Deleuze, Gilles “Difference and Repetition” Trans. Paul Patton. New York: Columbia UP, 1994.

Deleuze, Gilles and Félix Guattari. “Introduction: Rhizome.” A Thousand Plateaus. Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Trans. Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1987. 3-25.

Djahari. Personal Interview. 2006.

Foucault, Michel. The Archaeology of Knowledge. Trans. A. M. Sheridan Smith. New York: Pantheon Books, 1972.

Sa’ Elayssa. Personal Interview. 2006.

Tandemonium (Jean Duranti and Claudia Immerzeel). Personal Interview. 2006.

Tatianna. Personal Interview. 2006.

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