From the time of the Ptolemies there are records of professional musicians and dancers in Egypt earning their living by performing at religious festivals, at wayside eating establishments, and at the homes, parties, and weddings of wealthy patrons. It is likely that this tradition continued in an unbroken line right up to the Arab conquest of Egypt and beyond, for as the old seasonal festivals shifted into saints' days, fairs, and moulids, the dancers are still to be found setting up their tents and striking their finger-cymbals. As Egypt prospered throughout the Middle Ages, various nomadic peoples came from east and found work as entertainers either travelling from fair to fair or settling in the larger towns and cities. Some came by the overland route, bringing music and dances from Iran, Iraq and the Levant; others followed the caravans and the Haj route from Muslim India, landing at Al-Qusayr on the Red Sea coast.
Over the next few centuries, and although they remained firmly outside respectable society, many of Egypt's most celebrated poets, musicians, and dancers came from these incoming tribes, often counted together under the term "ghawazi", or invaders. When Europeans first started coming to Egypt in large numbers, first on the Grand Tour, and then on sight-seeing excursions, one of the most important items to be ticked off the list was an Arabian Nights' entertainment from Ghawazi dancers, and their extravagant clothing and languid attitudes were widely copied in fashionable circles.
Credits: The ladies of the Kasbah Dance Company joined us in Salford with costumed inspired by 19th century descriptions of Ghawazi dancers. Photos: Jo Hirons
The Ghawazi or Gypsy Dancers of Luxor and Upper Egypt are well-known to lovers of traditional Middle Eastern dance. Less well known outside Egypt are the Ghawazi who hailed from the town of Sombat in the Delta region north of Cairo. They were the stars of the great Moulid, or annual October fair at Tanta and escaped many of the nineteenth century persecutions by claiming to be acrobats and circus performers rather than professional dancers. Today there are Sumbati rhythms, Sumbati bands, and Sumbati dancers, all performing in the exuberant, colourful style of Alexandria and the Delta.
Credits: This dance began as a solo for Nawarra in Liverpool, and then went on to become either a solo or duet for Jill and Nisha Lall throughout the rest of the tour. Choreography for Funoon by Khaled Mahmoud. Assiut (tulle-bi-telli) costumes by Baladi Bazaar (Beverley Smith). Photos: Jo Hirons
When putting together our ideas for the show Funoon wa-Alwane we wanted to include the tannoura dance of Egypt for what could better represent our world of many colours than the enormous cartwheel swirl of patterned skirts so familiar from folkloric shows in Cairo and beyond. As developments progressed, a Sufi poem from Northern India spoke to us of the importance of stillness, of the beauty of colours enhanced when glimpsed through shadow, and the blessings conferred when music and song are joined together by dance. It then became important for us to recognise that dance can be a form of meditation and prayer, and that the singular devotion of dance can in its repeated movement create a precious, sacred, and infinitely still point in the endlessly turning world.
Credits: Romy whirled for us in Leeds. Costume by Baladi Bazaar (Beverley Smith). Photos: Jo Hirons