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Lori Clark

The new traditional Kuwaiti Sword Dance”.

Clark, Lori: "The new traditional Kuwaiti sword dance", 17th International Congress on Dance Research, Naxos, 22-26/10, 2003.

1. Abstract

This paper analyzes a choreography that I made last year for the Embassy of Kuwait in Washington, D.C. It will discuss the various influences on this dance from my personal and professional experiences. The subject of authenticity and what makes a work authentic will be raised in this context. By exploring this work, I hope to reveal some of the difficulties and dilemmas of tracing dance history in general. A translation and a transliteration of the song used for the performance is included in the appendix.

2. Introduction

All my life, I have studied dance ranging from ballet to various traditional oriental forms. I have focused on a few, but have learned from exposure to many. I have also studied the languages and cultures of these dance forms, something which I feel cannot be separated from the art. Although collaboration and the mixing of various movement vocabularies are common these days, I have avoided such projects, preferring to keep these dances in their traditional forms. I do not believe it is wrong to integrate dance forms, but I have always felt that it should be done carefully so that the resulting work maintains the integrity of the core idea and technique.

This paper will discuss a choreography I have done of a "Kuwaiti Sword Dance". It will raise the difficult and possibly unanswerable question, "What makes a dance 'authentic'"? Maybe we cannot difinitively answer this question (and perhaps we should not), but the ensuing discussion will not only clarify some of my own thoughts, it will also raise new issues.My short and broad answer to the above question is this: Authenticity derives from rhythm, language, culture, and style, as well as the unavoidable admixture of these elements. These elements are essential components of the music and dance of every culture. Rhythm is one of the most distinct aspects defining any given music or dance. Each tradition around the world has a distinct way of marking rhythmic accents, such that a 4/4 beat in Western classical music will have a different feel from a 4/4 beat in Indian classical style. A characteristic sound is also made from the various musical instruments used, adding another dimension.

Language is part of culture, and no doubt it is also a part of style. Language can also be an important factor in the rhythmic make-up of a dance or song. The culture underlying a dance, including its specific meaning and movement motifs, as well as its presentation, is an integral determinant of a work's authenticity. Style includes the way movements are traditionally performed according to what is generally accepted by the public, and may also include various divisions or schools within a given form.Given the world's ever increasing closeness, with international satellites, rapid internet communication, immigration, and international travel, some of these distinctions are bound to blur or alter over time. This has always been the natural course of events for humankind and its arts. Technology, however, seems to be increasing the rate of cultural exchange.

3. The claim

What makes this work authentic? Actually, I cannot claim that it is an authentic Kuwaiti dance in the traditional sense. It is a part of my understanding and my experience. I am not Kuwaiti, and traditional Kuwaiti women's dances are very simple and even costumed differently. Sword dances throughout the Arabian Gulf are simple folk dances performed only by men. So it would seem that everything I did was the opposite of "authentic". I can claim, however, that the work captures the basic character of the sword dance from the larger Gulf region through the use of music which follows a typical traditional Gulf rhythm. It draws on movement from the gulf and from cultures that directly have influenced Kuwaiti culture. If we examineall the elements closely we find that it is difficult to draw strict boundaries. Had I performed a truly traditional Bedouin sword dance, my audience would have been bored quickly.

4. Background

To understand my choreographic process, it is necessary to explain my Middle Eastern Dance background. I was born and raised in Washington, DC (the metropolitan area includes the surrounding region of Virginia and Maryland). Washington is an international city, and while growing up, I was surrounded by people from all over the world. That helped to feed my interest in other languages and cultures from childhood. There was always a multitude of international cultural events in the form of theater, TV, radio as well as personal interaction at school, international markets and restaurants. From this exposure, I first realized my enthusiasm for Middle Eastern and Indian culture. Greek restaurants provided my first direct exposure to Middle Eastern dance.

As a teenager, I took my first Middle Eastern dance lessons privately from a local dancer who was married to an Iranian man. I realize now how fortunate I was to have always had private lessons in both Middle Eastern and Indian dance. This forged very personal relationships that inevitably taught much more than dance. The personal relationships that develop through this community charge the art with emotional feelings that cannot be separated from it. I also began to learn Flamenco at this time. Studying all of these forms may seem overwhelming, but what I saw was the connection between them in the form of Middle Eastern influence. Culturally, I felt very comfortable because the conservative values of these communities were in keeping with those of my strict parents. Not that I liked the conservatism, but it was normal for me. I also liked the fact that in the ballet and modern realm, this experience made me unique. So engrossed was I with this that I listened almost exclusively to Indian and Middle Eastern music.

I became close friends with a Syrian family in the area and at gatherings I would always be singled out to entertain. By the time I went to undergraduate school in New York, I had performed professionally on a number of occasions. My college was full of international students, including a large number from Cyprus. My roommate in college was an Indian/Irish girl who lived in Bahrain. I befriended a large extended Palestinian family who owned a nearby shop where I bought Arabic groceries and music. I would often dance for their events and stay at their house. We also visited Arabic nightclubs where one member of the family played drums. I also was hired to dance at the University and in the area on many occasions.By the time I graduated, my parents were building a house in a remote area. My Syrian friends called and asked me to live with them so I could be close to the city, and I accepted. Their parents did not speak English and that in turn helped me learn Arabic. We went out to an Arabic club one night and the owner asked me if I was a dancer and offered me a job(this is usually how it happens).Knowing the late hours would be hard on the Syrian family, I moved in with my new employer's large family. He was Egyptian (Muslim) married to a Lebanese(Christian). Lebanese culture was dominant, except when his mother visited from Egypt. She spoke no English, which helped me learn more Arabic.

Living with this family was a great experience. I was also able to spend seven nights a week in the club dancing, listening to the music, dealing with the musicians, and watching people from all over the Arab world. Their generosity was unbounded and a life-lesson in itself. It was here that the musicians chose my dancing name, Yasmina. During this time, I danced at a party for a Jewish Egyptian lady who had been a dancer when she was young. She then taught me at her house and improved my dancing a great deal. She never taught at a school or even made a habit of teaching. For me it was a lucky coincidental meeting.

I finally left on a scholarship to India where I studied Kathak dance and Hindi, taught ballet, and Belly danced for the Arabic embassies and Hotels. Rarely, if ever, did these worlds collide. During the summers, I would return to Washington to dance and live with my Egyptian/Lebanese family, who could never understand why I wanted to return to India of all places. My last year in India, I danced at a large event for the Egyptian Embassy which also featured their national folk dance troop. The rest of the year, I danced almost nightly for the Egyptian, Saudi, and Moroccan ambassadors, their wives and guests. I often suspected that the Saudi Ambassador's wife just wanted a dance partner for company. She also taught me how to perform Saudi dance(this style of dance encompasses the dances of the gulf region in general).

I decided that I wanted to further my education and moved back to Washington. I lived with my Egyptian/Lebanese family, although they had sold their club, and I continued to dance in other places. I enrolled at American University to study for a Masters Degree in dance, and eventually, I moved closer to the University. Most of my dancing jobs were with live-traditional music, but it was during this time period that it became increasingly necessary to use recorded music, something with which I was not initially comfortable. During the holidays I visited Israel, staying half the time with an Israeli friend and the other half with Palestinian friends who were musicians. Dancing was very much a part of this trip on both sides.

During my studies and while dancing I met a Saudi man whom I would later marry. It was toward the end of writing my thesis, after another research trip to India, that we decided to marry. During the previous two years that we were dating, I could not perform Middle Eastern dance professionally because of cultural restrictions. My fiance was a diplomat, so a combination of professional and societal pressures prevented my performing in public. Even the stigma of marrying a former dancer was intimidating to my husband. The benefit was that I had access to hard-to-find videos and Arabic satellite television which included numerous cultural and dance offerings. We also watched Egyptian movies almost nightly. I continued to perform ballet and flamenco until we moved to London, where even that proved to be out of the question. We often went out to Arabic clubs, but never danced except to gulf songs. Out of frustration, I would dance at home during the day. After less than a year, I was ready to leave, jobless and identity-less. My ballet company from Virginia called to offer me a role and a ticket home, which I readily accepted. After the ballet, I began Middle Eastern dancing again. This time I had a much greater appreciation for the dance than ever before. However, there were some changes in the music and the Arabic community in Washington.

Over time, a shift had occurred so that a majority of the musicians was now from Morocco and the audience was predominantly Moroccan and Khaliji (from the Arabian Gulf and Saudi Arabia). There had always been some members of these groups, but the greatest population had previously been from the Fertile Crescent. In addition there have been increases in the number of Sudanese, Yemenis, Somalis, and Ethiopians. (My neighborhood has a shopping mall that caters specifically to the needs of this community. Many of the shops are open till 12:00am and many of the cafes are open 24 hours a day. Most of the women are covered. Surveillance cameras have been posted in this area since September 11th.) There was also a major growth in the popularity and output of music from North Africa and especially the Gulf. The bands were no longer comprised of a lead singer/oud player, violin, and other traditional instruments, but were now dominated by the keyboard. Singing for the dancer has gone out of vogue. The traditional staple that remains now is the Tabla player, but even the drum is sometimes replaced by the drum machine, especially when monetary questions arise. There are times when economics are so bad that the dancer in a club setting is expendable. This was unheard of in the past. On the other hand, dancers perform at most events outside of clubs with recorded music.

However, I was fortunate to find a great deal of work. I took a greater interest in the new Gulf music and watched people dancing to it night after night. One club I worked in catered specifically to this population. It was famous for its "after hours" parties. It is illegal in that municipality to open after 2:00am, but this place would stay open until 6:00 or 7:00 every night. Invariably, somebody would pay for a private party and the doors would be locked to any unknowns. I was able to observe people dancing that I would never have seen elsewhere. Saudis and other Gulf Arabs are very private and are generally shy about being seen dancing or drinking in public, as there might be repercussions from their government or families. Here, however, they were uninhibited. Moroccan girls are also expert at dances from the Gulf and their relationship with the men of the Gulf is infamous. Never have I seen such a variety of individual styles in a dance that has so few steps or variation in rhythm. This culture is so unique to Washington that when singers come from New York to perform, they have difficulty because they are not familiar with Gulf or Moroccan music.

During this time, I worked almost every day and on weekends, I would perform six or seven times a night. Since September 11th that rate has dropped. The economy has weakened and there are fewer tourists and students from the Gulf.

5. Evolution of the idea

This dance was brewing in my mind for a long time. I had been thinking of doing a sword dance, but I wanted to use music from the Gulf rather than typical belly dancing music because I felt that dancing with the sword was a tradition that belonged very firmly to that region. Every tribe has their own version and the sword is a powerful symbol of identity and honor. I was inspired by a song from a creative young Kuwaiti group called "Miami" and I listened to this song repeatedly. I had a few ideas, but nothing concrete. I began searching for the sword I wanted, a long, arduous process. The first one I ordered was too heavy for my purpose, the second too large. The next two did not balance properly, the following one was too light. Several more came and went. Finally I happened upon just the right sword. After all that, I still procrastinated on the choreography. Then one day I received a call from a friend of a friend who saw me dancing at another friend's daughter's wedding. She wanted me to dance at an important function, hopefully with a sword, but I could not do it because of a trip to Greece for the CID conference. She promised to call again after a few months for another event. I began to think more seriously about the sword dance. She did call again in December and asked me to dance for the going away party for the British ambassador. Only then did I find out that she was the wife of the Kuwaiti Ambassador. I told her that coincidentally, the dance was to a Kuwaiti song. She was thrilled because she had wanted a conservative presentation without much of a belly dance feel. I immediately began choreographing in earnest. I practiced every day for a month. It was nerve wracking since so much depended on balance. We met and decided on a very modest costume to fit conservative Washington. This was a an Egyptian Assuit dress which covered the midriff. It was made more opaque by putting a skirt and camisole underneath and tying a belt on the hips. The night arrived and I performed what was announced as "The Traditional Kuwaiti Sword Dance". Fortunately, everything went as planned and they were ecstatic. I now regularly perform there.

6. The analysis

What I wanted to achieve was an expressive piece that evoked the meaning of the words through the movement, but not in a literal way. Expression in Arabic dance is rarely, if ever as literal as that of Indian dance. Even the poetry of this song is fairly abstract. At the same time, I wanted the piece to be virtuosic enough to entertain, especially for non-Arabic speakers. I wanted the transitions to be smooth, yet to serve a purpose to the overall effect or meaning. Analyzing the creation of any art work is difficult since so much is intuitive. Here, I have tried to describe how the movements originated.

This music appealed to me because it is traditional, yet the orchestration is modern. It has tone of mystery and a hint of danger. My first step was to divide the song into musical sections: Introduction, theme, chorus, verse, chorus, verse, musical break, chorus, verse, chorus, final verse, break, finale. I then studied the meaning of the poetry and began to piece it together with some movement motifs I had already felt were natural with the musical sections and the chorus. The title meshed perfectly with the idea of the sword: "She said, 'I am afraid.'" This love song depicts a man telling his friends(the chorus) about what his girlfriend said and how he replied. The sword becomes a symbol for the man protecting his girlfriend. It is also a symbol of their honor. Traditional sword dances are about displaying masculinity, strength, and tribal ties. Being a woman performing with the sword gives me more flexibility, and emotional range, but I wanted to keep a hint of that connection.

For the introduction, I needed a way to enter and focus the audience's attention on the sword. I chose to walk in backwards with the sword in its sheath raised above the head in a sort of ritual salute to the stage and sword. With the increase of the orchestration in the music, I begin to circle the stage as I remove the sword from the sheath. A quick slashing turn with the accent of the beat acknowledges the audience to the front and both sides and allows me to set down the sheath in the back. My back stays to the audience as the vocal theme of the music is presented. During this time, I circle my head in typical Khaliji fashion with the sword held above. When the lead singer takes over the theme, I turn with a flip of the sword. "Oh, help me gentleman ..." I begin with what is the most typical step of Gulf dancing and the most typical position for holding the sword while dancing. The step is a kind of shuffle and is used throughout the dance in addition to another typical step of alternating right flat foot with the left ball of the foot. The sword is held in the right hand with the point to the ceiling while the wrist rotates inward. It can also be held by both hands above the head.

"She said, 'I am afraid from my family and my situation.'", begins with the sword held at the forehead, brandished in an S shape, and into a turn typical of Khaliji dance. This continues into the first rhythmic refrain of the chorus: "Come on and listen, come on and listen to their story..." As this is a rhythmic repetition of the words, I used a quick forward spinning of the sword in the right hand as I bend lower and lower. The head also moves in a typical circular fashion. On the final beat of the phrase the sword is lowered for emphasis in a slashing motion, raised behind the back and twirled side to side. It is then circled around the body and over the head. This basic circling sequence is used repeatedly with some variation for this refrain: "Listen to their story, really, what a beautiful thing is their story." In each case, the last movement provides an entrance into the following verse. Here the sword is raised overhead and spun around in order to hit the opposing hand which halts the movement on the first word. It is a motion of emphasis. "I said, 'Listen to me. I will help you and more than that, I would even sacrifice my eyes for you.'" The sword is lowered and the is placed under each eye. "Believe me my beautiful gazelle." The sword is then balanced on the back of the hand, palm down and the other hand touches the heart. This gives the impression of one swearing an oath of honor. The sword is then tossed by the one hand in the air and caught to continue the rhythmic vocal refrain of "Come on listen..." This time the sword is twirled side to side as I hang in a back bend. For "Listen to their story..." I repeat the former phrase, but end it by taking the point of the sword in hand and maintaining its place while I twist into another back arch with the sword hanging down. The next verse starts as I come to a standing position having pulled the sword directly upon my head. The hands hold the tip of the sword in place partially obscuring my face in a triangular shape. The words are: "She said, 'Be strong, be patient, and optimistic.'" The sword resting on the head alludes to the patience needed(i.e. one needs patience to balance something) as well as to the burden of their problem hanging over their heads. Raising the sword in this fashion allows me to hold it with my hands until it feels secure. She continues, "Promise me you will send all your love and yearning when we are apart." As this is repeated, the sword is released into a balance. As the musical break begins, the shoulders are shimmied and I lower myself to the knees. The shoulder movement is an important element of the women's dances in the gulf. Once on my knees, I spin on them in a circle. This is a movement that I directly lifted from the North Indian classical dance, Kathak(Jaipur style). It provides a change of level and some technical virtuosity. It also reinforces the theme of patience. I feel that the Indian influence in the Gulf region is so strong that it cannot be ignored. Taking that influence into account, this type of movement feels natural. At this point in the music, one hears the influence of jazz in the orchestration. As the rhythmic vocal refrain begins, I remove the sword from the head and rise. "Come on and listen..." is performed with swooping turns in place. The next section of the refrain is done with the back to the audience, providing them with a different view of this movement. The last part of this is done with the sword circling around the body as the body circles.

The sword is then spun as a baton which provides a smooth transition for placing it on the head again in the same lengthwise balance as described before. "She said, 'Promise me you will deny our love in front of my family, but never forget the truth of the love between us.'" As the sword is placed on the head, I am moving in a large circle. In order to maintain the balance, it is necessary to keep a finger on the sword. As I move forward, the finger glides along the sword and out, almost as if pointing. This coincides with the command of: "Never forget..." This phrase is repeated as I touch my head in a gesture representative of profound emotion. I then lower myself to the floor with the arms gathering in and sweeping out continuing, with a snake like motion often seen in Middle Eastern dance. The rhythmic refrain ensues as I roll over, back up to the knees, and roll over again. I then push myself around to a sitting position that allows me to stand easily. This floor work is seen sometimes in belly dancing versions of sword dance and often with the candelabra dance. "God is the only one who knows how strong is the love that is in my heart for you. So strong, that it is impossible for me to ever think about anyone else." The sword and the free hand are raised to the heavens and I turn and strike my heart with the blade of the sword as I lean back and raise the sword again. I touch my forehead with the sword and circle to highlight the image of thinking. I throw in a quick tribute to Giselle by spinning while holding the sword down(my patron is a ballet lover). This also allows me to then raise the sword while spinning and land in a cross-armed position over my head.

The arms slide out and I can balance the sword cross-wise on my head. This ends the verse. I shake my hips while I balance and let go on the first word of the final chorus. I walk forward and back to secure the balance, then flip the sword to the lengthwise position and spin. At one point the singer says, "Faster." This give me a chance to push the sword and speed up my spin. I continue until the music ends and briefly twist the sword back into the side ways position, remove it and bow. This conclusion was one of the first things that I decided on. It seemed so natural as an ending with this music that it is difficult to analyze.

7. Conclusion

The movements seemed natural to me and I felt they conveyed the meaning effectively. The dance is a product of my years of experience in the culture and the dance of the Middle East. The music has a traditional Khaliji rhythm, but the melody line is cleverly blended with a base of Khaliji music overlaid with Jazz, African, and Indian influences. I myself would not claim that this dance was Traditional. I would simply say that it was my choreography of a Middle Eastern sword dance with a Gulf theme. However, it was claimed as traditional. So does that make it authentic or not? It is certainly not an American dance. Maybe one day a Kuwaiti choreographer will take an idea or two from this dance and use it. Over time, the idea might become embedded into the traditional and eventually no one will know the difference. This scenario has occurred countless times in dance history with Ruth St.Dennis, Katherine Dunham, Balanchine. Before the invention of moving pictures, it was impossible to know the exact evolution of a dance form. With the current technology, it is easier to trace dance movements, but still not foolproof.


This transliteration of the Arabic is intended to give the reader an idea of the rhythm and cadence of the poetry. I used my own system which is simplified. My objective was to give the sound of the language in the recording, so for example, I spelled "Galat" rather than the classically correct "Qalat". I however, did not spell "K" as "Ch" as one finds it pronounced in the Kuwaiti dialect, because it becomes more complicated and clumsy.

The following English translation is only meant to further the readers understanding and is for the most part, literal.

Galat ya khofi

Galat ya Khofi, ahli wa daroufi / Ay saadni ya waled al halal

Saadha ya waled al halal / Galat, galat ya khofi (awela), wa ahli wa daroufi (awela)

Saadni ya waled al halal / Yala ismaa, yala ismaa, yala ismaa, yala ismaa,

Allah aleihum allah, ismaa Hakihum wallah, allah aleihum allah (Chorus)

Gult ismaaini (awela) wa afdik biaani, hey, sadgini ya shib al ghazal (Chorus)

Galat, Galat tiHmal (awela) wa asbur tijamal (awela), hey, aahadini bishougak taal Aahadha bishogak taal (Chorus)

Hey, galat amana (awela) wa adfadh hawana, hey, la tinsa fi kul al aHwal (Chorus)

Ana gult allah adra (awela) fi galbi wa amra, hey, (awela) Tafkiri fi gherik moHal, ana fi gherik tafkiri moHal / Galat ya, ya khofi...

She said, "I am afraid"

She said, "I am afraid from my family and my situation. Oh help me, gentleman."Help her, oh gentleman.

She said, "I am afraid (Oh dear), help me gentleman."

Come on and listen to their story, really, what a beautiful thing is their story. (Chorus)

I said, "Listen to me. I will help you and more than that, I would even sacrifice my eyes for you. Believe me my beautiful gazelle."(Chorus)

She said, "Be strong, be patient, and optimistic. Promise me you will send me all your love and yearning when we are apart."(Chorus)

Oh, she said, "Promise me you will deny our love in front of my family, but never forget the truth of the love between us."(Chorus)

I said, "God is the only one who knows how strong is the love in my heart for you. So strong that it is impossible for me to ever think about anyone else."

She said, "Oh, I am afraid..."

Ms. Lori Clark


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