The Chaoui - Itshawiyen - are a Berber people living mainly in the Aures Mountains of eastern Algeria which today form a natural boundary with Tunisia, and in ancient times guarded the Berber kingdom of Numidia. Still celebrated among the Itshawiyen is their seventh century queen Dahiya, also known as the Kahena, the Enchantress, who held out against the Arab invasion just as her ancestors had once resisted the Romans. So many legends are told about this real-life warrior princess that she seems almost to possess magical powers - and many of the tattoos still worn by the Chaoui are said to derive from amulets first devised by the Kahena to protect her people.
The dances of the Chaoui are also thought to be of ancient origin. They contain gestures of blessing and protection, welcome and rejection. They also include steps drawn from the movements and behaviour of birds and animals, particularly their prized horses, so honouring all living things who share their mountain home.
Nawarra dancing in London, Newport, Newcastle, Rotherham, and Salford. Costume: Beverley Smith (Baladi Bazaar). Photos: Jo Hirons
Raqs el Senniya - the tray dance - is a Moroccan speciality and - like that other Moroccan specialty cous-cous - the dancer can spice it any way she - or he - may choose.
In origin it seems to be a dance of blessing, much like the Egyptian shamadan or candelabra dance, in which lighted candles or heated coals were carried to every corner of the room to chase away the darkness before important celebrations could begin. Of course, since no Moroccan celebration could possibly begin without the sharing of tea - and hot mint tea at that - it wasn’t long before all sorts of things began to be balanced on top of the tray instead of candles.
If you are holidaying in Agadir you might see the dancer balance a tall Egyptian shisha - and stop to smoke it half way through! Glasses and glass bottles are also traditional - but today you’re more likely to see a pile of plastic bottles filled with Sidi Ali mineral water!
Beverley Smith dancing in London, Newport, Newcastle, Rotherham, and Salford. Photos: Jo Hirons / Cecil
Debke and similar line-and-circle dances are to be found all across the Middle East. Everyone recognises this dance as part of the national identity of Lebanon, made doubly so after civil war caused so many to find new homes in other countries. The debke of Palestine is a close cousin, but a very different dance with different moods and rhythms.
Debke steps are said to be derived from everyday activities wherein it was needful to come together and share labour. Here are steps drawn from threshing grain, treading grapes, walking behind the plough, making mud bricks, and making mud daub to seal the walls and roofs of houses. It also seems likely that these hand-in-hand dances traced well-worn paths and tribal boundaries on days of festival to tie up the land and its people into one beloved home.
So many of the dances on Funoon’s stage speak of home, and family, and of the earth beneath ones feet. There is a deep and unbreakable connection between our dancing feet and the land that receives them - and this is why debke is so deeply ingrained in the soul of the Palestinian people.
Members of the Company dancing in London, Newport, Newcastle, Rotherham, and Salford. Photos: Jo Hirons