Eastern Arts home | Upcoming Events | Recent Activities | Past Events | Catalog | Contact | Links & Colleagues | IDT | Eastern Arts |

Enjoy examples of great jazz and diverse ethnic music on jazzscope.com

Middle Eastern Dance & Music Information
Persian (Iranian) Dance & Music  |   Afghan Dance & Music   |
Central Asian Dance & Music  |   Caucasus Dance & Music  |
Dance East & West  |   Dance, Music & Culture Bibliography  |



MOTIONAL QUALITIES - type of force of movement
ABSTRACTION - symbolic interpretation
SPECTATOR - one who witnesses
PARTICIPANT - one who is included
GESTURE - descriptive or symbolic movement
UDAY SHANKAR - Indian male dancer of the 1920's
XENIA ZARINA - European dancer and researcher of Eastern dance of the 1930's
LA MERI - American performer and dance researcher of the 1930's
ISADORA DUNCAN - American dancer of the early 1900's
RUTH ST. DENIS - sometimes called Mother of Modern Dance
TED SHAWN - noted American male dancer, married to St.Denis
DENISHAWN - first school of modern dance with Eastern motifs in the U.S.
MAXINE ADAMS MILLER - innovative dancer in California in the 1930's


The following concepts and vocabulary are useful in studying ethnic dance with the following as a guideline:

A. Basic elements of dance:
        1. Shape
               a. symmetrical - equal on each side
               b. asymmetrical - different on one side than the other
               c. solo vs. group - shape of combined bodies, juxtaposition
        2. Space
               a. line - most important; connected, disconnected
                      1. direction travelling
                      2. direction facing - focus
                      3. 1 and 2 combined
               b. levels - high, low, spatial placement of body
               c. spatial relationships - relative use of area
               d. volume - depth or intensity of space
        3. Time
               a. dance time - moving to dance phrase, counterpoint between dancers or dancer and music
               b. musical time - moving to rhythm
        4. Motional qualities
               a. burst - jumps, etc.
               b. restrained - as if moving against a force, tension
               c. sustained - no tension, lyrical
               d. undulating - vibratory movement
               5. Abstraction - almost interpretive meaning of the dance

B. Two general categories of dance:

        l. Spectator or exhibition dance
               This would include ballet, modern, tap, and some
               ballroom or staged dance for example.
        2. Participant dance
               This could also be called social dance, such as disco,
               folk dance, some ballroom dance for example.

C. Categories of ethnic dance

        1. Recreational or participatory
               This refers to dances usually done spontaneously at social gatherings.
        2. Staged folk dance - traditional folk dances reconstructed in a performance situation
        3. Theatrical or drama dances - dance dramas which usually depict some aspect of a culture through
               storytelling using some style of dance in the drama.
        4. Metaphysical
               This refers to dance which intentionally creates a spiritually elevating effect on artist and audience.
                      Not intended for an actual audience.

       This information will help us witness dance in genuine social context as well as those created for performance before any general audience. The similarities, differences, some crossovers or shared aspects should be observed.


       Dances of Eastern nations are essentially gesture dance. In many cultures, the human body became an instrument of gesture and symbolism, speaking for the spirit in worship of a god. While, in contrast, the ancient Greeks who idealized man, made the human body a crucible of energy. Thus, the dance in the West became an expression of action, whereas Eastern dance focuses mainly on contemplation. This can apply to the classical temple dances as well as the peasant or farmer dances since each originates with the purpose of pleasing a god, whether in pure worship or to encourage agricultural benefits.
       Western dance has become synonymous with entertainment, either in the social or theatrical arena, and is designed to show the causes of man's inner conflicts in relation to the world, but mainly as they reflect his being, therefore his dances are descriptive because they are dramatic. Eastern dances are descriptive because they are reflective, therefore they deal rationally with earthly conflicts and offer a stylized depiction of eternal and universal actions. Dance in the East has never unbound it's ties with sacred or religious rites and many include ceremonious rituals within or surrounding theatrical performances. Whereas dance in the West underwent a forced separation of drama and dance during the Middle Ages when the church split body from soul.
       The dances of Western man have been designed and shaped by individuals and so they include a particular stamp of personality. In a steady stream of innovations they have changed and have become representative of each new age, and often of a particular individual. The dances of the East, on the other hand, have been shaped collectively and sequentially by dance masters who avoided the stamp of their personality upon their art, and also avoided making current social statements. But rather they endeavored to preserve and perfect the conventions of an existing style. However, by perfecting their art, by preventing it from deteriorating or becoming sterile, they may well have contributed unrecognizable, subtle variations into the art. They have delighted in mastering their art, this alone has been their professional reward, free from personal aggrandizement.
       Differences in approach and technique are witnessed as predictable products of the two different worlds of East and West. While the West rewards individuals for their personal innovations and creativity, the East maintains traditional form with an innate controlling force. The love-sex aspect in Eastern dance for example, is always associated with a higher, sacred love. Human love, abstracted into stylized gesture and facial expression, symbolizes love for the divine. While in dance of the West this female-male relationship is shown fairly openly in a purely human and earthly sense.
       Western ballet history has developed with the idea of conquering space, at grand use of floor design, where dancers interact and the ground is not only a point of departure but also an active participant, most noticeably with the modern dancer's dominant use of the floor as a new dimension. In contrast to the Western active and aggressive approach, the Eastern dancer is not space-conscious; he does not conquer the ground but integrates it into his dance pattern. This concept seems contradictory or almost ironic to the Western observer of a dance so closely linked with spiritual purpose and elevation. With the tremendous emphasis on gesture and facial expression, the slightest change in movement language indicates a whole new world of emotions. To duplicate such a range of expression, the dancer in the West would require a more vast array of movements.
       Technically speaking, the Eastern dance generally appoints the role of interpretation to the upper part of the body. A central line, like a rod, runs through it, giving the trunk a rigid appearance and providing a base for character and style. Each country has it's own unique hand movements which are most often the foremost part of the dance or drama. Therefore, more than any other gesture, the use of the hands reveals the country of origin, with head and eye movement next in order of identification and importance.
       In most Eastern countries the dance has retained those links with religious faith that were once the mainspring of Western dance, but which have long since vanished. Union with the earth is resolute in Eastern dance as is the stylized use of torso, head, neck, hands, arms and fingers. In addition, for many Eastern cultures the stage assumes a symbolic aspect; representing the world and even the universe, as it becomes an area upon which the dance may be used to invoke the beneficent influences of heaven.. Within these technical and expressive gestures, and often simple and subtle staging, lies endless symbolism, whose aesthetic effect and untold beauties extend beyond the obvious.


       Dances of Eastern cultures have been introduced to the United States, and Western Europe, by many noted native experts. Following these experts are several American and European dance researcher who have added to the general exposure of various Eastern dances. The 1920's witnessed a sudden interest in "exotic" dances and at this time we see both traditional Eastern dances emerging in the West as well as the application of Eastern dance motifs in ballet and developing into the infancy of the modern dance genre. Therefore, many of these experts, both natives of the particular culture as well as the alien student / researchers did not always present the dances in the original format but also blended traditional and modern dance forms, oftentimes creating an entirely new product. According to Eastern tradition, those who maintained purely traditional forms did not always earn recognition and fame since their goal was not bringing innovations to the tradition, while those making major changes have often gained notoriety. We should keep in mind that in the East, fame and personal aggrandizement was not the goal; in fact, eliminating the ego (or nafs in Persian philosophy) would be of prime importance. Suggested reading regarding most of the persons noted here is available in the bibliography since this section offers a mere mention of their involvement.
       We have native dance masters and researchers such as Mei Lan-Fang and others to thank for saving the ancient dance forms from the world. To this list we add Uday Shankar who made a huge impact on the world of dance with his enormous skill creating masterpieces based on traditional Indian dance. Numerous Spanish dancers have encouraged the addition of Spanish characteristics seen in many ballets and this affection for blending the two genres was shared by European and American dancers thereafter
.        Among the most noted American dancers who yearned for the spiritual qualities of Eastern dance was Isadora Duncan, the barefoot dancer who in 1905 traveled to Russia and caused an aesthetic explosion. Her impact on Europe was monumental, and found her loved in Greece and Russia as well. She wanted to bury all tradition and erase the memory of the immediate past by going back to the simplicity of the ancient Greeks. Isadora's technique was purely her own creation based on inspiration gained from her own personal study and meditation. Her style, as seen in Eastern dance forms, was not so much a display of physical feats, but an expression of human emotion to which all could relate. In it's simplicity she held firm, and it may be her belief in her ideals which gained her so much acclaim. It has been said that Isadora's dancing was not of the body but of the soul.
       An American dancer who made a tremendous impact and is often called the Mother of modern dance, was Ruth St. Denis who began her theatrical career in the 1890's and inspired the future greats in modern dance through her courageous innovations. The story claims she was inspired by the image of the Egyptian goddess Isis pictured on a cigarette poster and this commonplace experience led her to an interest in Eastern art and philosophy. From then on she created oriental dances that she presented in a highly theatrical and westernized form. In time she partnered and married dancer Ted Shawn and together with their dance company and school became the ambassadors for Eastern flavor in Western dancing, creating major productions based on Eastern themes.
       Ted Shawn 1891-1972, a dedicated creative dancer, offered the public the male versions of the styles of dance in the East, but more than that Shawn was a master of emoting expression. He studied and taught the Delsarte concept of translating emotion into movement and included this while adding Eastern themes to modern dance.
       Xenia Zarina, born in Brussels, studied Eastern dance from 1936-1947 at the royal courts of many Far Eastern nations such as Thailand, India, Java, Bali, Cambodia and Japan. A former ballerina, Ms. Zarina dedicated herself to learning the true traditional dances, their histories, original motives and assorted aspects such as costuming, makeup, props, and of course spiritual applications. Her research has been invaluable in the effort to disseminate information, enhancing understanding of age old traditions.
       La Meri (Russell Meriwether Hughes), born in 1898 was famed for her contribution to Eastern dance styles, most notably in the field of Spanish dance. She has authored several books including her experiences in the field of ethnic dance. La Meri performed with other famous dancers of the time and combined her ballet and western dance knowledge with the popular and fascinating movements and themes of the East.
       As noted above, Isadora Duncan was one of the first American dancers who endeavored to recreated or represent dance of the ancient East. Ruth St. Denis also was enamored with Eastern dance and attempted to present the mood and soul of those art forms in her performances. But they were not the only ones. Among those who were fascinated with Eastern dance was Maxine Adams, a ballet dancer trained by Pavlova's partner, Michael Mordkin. Maxine Adams, who operated her own ballet academy, had attended school in Florence Italy and was the first debutante from the American West to be presented at the Court of Saint James. On May 25th, 1931, at the University of Southern California, Maxine and other USC students whom she trained, presented a program of dance to poetry recitation. On the program were items such as "Anklet Bells", "The Dancer in the Shrine", "The Greek Dance", "Indian Dancers", etc. The program, which represented a first of it's kind in the country, received favorable coverage in the Los Angeles Examiner. Of course, certain rhythmic lines by the Persian mystic poet Molavi have been used to accompany Sufi movements or dance for centuries in the Middle East, so the idea was not totally new. But Maxine used the novel concept of a chorus of reciters to accompany the dancers which included natives from India and Indonesia. In the Examiner article, Maxine is pictured in a long full dress with a veil shawl on her head, a costume which could be acceptable for Persian miniature dance today. In another photo, she is attired in an Indian sari, complete with a spot on her forehead. One dance which Maxine did was an interpretation of the piece, "In a Persian Market", which was a foreshadowing of her future when in 1958, along with her husband and children she went to live in Persian (Iran) for two years. Her husband, Sherman Miller, had been invited by the Iranian government to set up a college of business and met with the Shah. Maxine spent her time in Iran preparing a book on the country that later became a best seller and was used as a text book in several schools throughout the country. The Shah awarded her a medal of honor for the book which showed Iran in a positive light.
       As we see, it is evident that authentic Eastern dance has been correctly absorbed and understood by only a minute handful of Western performers such as Zarina. Most of what is titled Eastern and more particularly Middle Eastern dance has unfortunately become a shameful sham degrading to the people of the Middle East as well as those who misrepresent them. The case of Eastern music in America is not quite as grim. There have been some laudable attempts by American musicians to absorb and adopt Eastern music. This is partly due to a few centers affiliated with institutions of higher learning such as the Institute for Ethnomusicology at UCLA.
       During the 1960's, Eastern instrumental performance was taught to a large number of enthusiasts. Of the several skilled students of Eastern music, one of the pioneers in this field was Lloyd C. Miller who went to Iran in 1958 for a year then to Paris to study Iranian music with master Daryush Safvat and Vietnamese music and ethnomusicology with master Tran Van Khe. Miller returned to earn a BA in Asian studies from Brigham Young University in Utah and an MA in Middle East studies from University of Utah where he initiated performance classes in Eastern music. In 1970, he was awarded a Fullbright Scholarship to complete his doctoral dissertation in Iranian music. Miller stayed in Iran seven more years, totaling 13 years study overseas. He has mastered several instruments of various Eastern traditions as well as most jazz instruments in all jazz styles. Miller is dedicated to correctly representing Eastern musical traditions and is a firm believer in following a strict spiritual path which renders his performance skills totally authentic in form and spirit. In 1978 Miller was appointed by the Iranian National Television and master Safvat to return to America and set up a center similar to the Center in Iran established by Safvat at the television in Tehran in 1970. Miller chose Utah as a geographic center between various Eastern studies centers in America (including Hawaii). He then founded the Society for Preservation and Propagation of Eastern Arts known as Eastern Arts, which has been one of the only nationally active organizations which preserves and promotes authentic Eastern music and dance styles through concerts, workshops, publications, DVDs, DCs and other methods.


       Dedication to authenticity struggles with the power of consumerism, commercialism and lack of respect for tradition by way of the belly dance craze fad of the 1970's and earlier. It has been said by an American belly dance researcher, "The danse orientale, which has captured the imagination of so many people in the Western world and has motivated thousands of women to participate in dance classes, was born in the 1920's" and it should be added that this was in a handful of low class cabarets of the Near East, usually performed by women of questionable reputation to increase their number of ‘clients.’ Thus, it was performed as a type of vaudeville routine by women mostly seeking self validation through sexual sensationalism rather than a serious traditional dance form. Another noted researcher states, "This commercialism produced unqualified professionals to teach and merchants who sold a lot of junk." With the questionable and unsavory reputation of belly dance, Greek dance expert Ted Petrides has noted that the Greeks are quick to assert that it is not Greek but from the Turks, passing off the blame. Petrides also notes that belly dance was “performed before engaged or newly married couples to instruct them in the attitudes and movements appropriate to the art and act of love.” He adds that "prostitution was also instituted as an adjunct to the dancing.” Viviane Lievre in Dances du Maghreb d’une rive a l’autre describes belly dancers using terms such as “synonomous with prostitutes,” “pagan rites,” “sacred prostitution,” phallic cult,” and more. Belly dance expert Serena Wilson writes that “These are dancers who, standing in one place, perform highly sexual movements for the purpose of instructing the uninitiated in sexual matters.” La Meri agrees writing that “the famous (or should one say infamous?) ‘danse du ventre’ is a pantomme of sexual possession.” Middle East dance expert of past eras Armen Ohanian agrees writing “it became the horrible danse du ventre, the ‘hootchie-koochie.’ To me a nauseating revelation of unsuspected depths of human bestiality, to others it was - amusing. I heard lean Europeans chuckling. I saw lascivious smiles upon even the lips of Asiatics, and I fled.” It goes without saying that Islam, the main religion of the Middle East does in no way allow such activities and manner of dressing. In Reveal and Conceal Andrea Rugh quotes Sheikh Mawdoudi noting that “a truly devout woman will not display parts of her body in order to attract men.” All this demonstrates that belly dance does not represent the Middle East nor its people and thus should be shunned by any sensitive and respectful member of any society.
       Various myths surround the American belly dance craze, including its origins, some indicating childbirth rites. Such undulating movements have been recorded as used in pagan rites, such as those initiating fertility ritual, however the motive, attitude, costuming and surrounding aspects have been brutally distorted by commercialism and the greed of many unscrupulous performers. At the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago, "Middle Eastern" dance was witnessed as a Syrian woman who became associated with the name Little Egypt introduced unseemingly exagerated erotic movements. The performances had been perceived as indecent and were soon limited to a simple promenade of costumes. Such "muscle dancing", as it came to be called, was seen in the Cairo Theatre at the midwinter Exhibition in San Francisco and several Little Egypts appeared at Coney Island side shows and on tour in the Midwest. Everyone who wanted to appear sexy and enticing or who might choose to jump out of a cake to dance for stag parties or other such activities adopted the name Little Egypt. Unfortunately, strippers found the "Dance of the Seven Veils" routine an exotic and convenient shtick. All of this with no regard for the native Egyptian woman at all. It is doubtful that the native dancers from the various Middle Eastern countries who have brought their dances to America ever intended for us to see them in this light.
       Since that time, Middle Eastern dance has taken a wrong turn in America with the continuation of the myth that it must be represented by blatant and degrading exhibitionism. This fakery has nothing to do with real Middle Eastern dance if one is to consider the Asiatic origins of the style which was distributed among Arab countries during the period of Turkish domination. It has only been in the last few years that authentic Eastern dance in the form of classical and folk traditions of India, China, Persia, Central Asia etc., have become more widely appreciated in America. Fortunately, due to the efforts of modern dance researchers, anthropologists, ethnomusicologists and ethnochoreologists, we are able to distinguish what is tradition, alive and growing in its natural state, eschewing the unfortunate non-traditional conglomerates of ethnic elements tossed into raw sexual fantasy. At the same time, innovations in the field of modern dance which are based on ethnic inspiration are genuine assets to the world of creative dance, thereby enriching Western arts with Eastern influence, rather than forcing Westernization on the noble traditions of the East.

Eastern Arts home | Upcoming Events | Recent Activities | Past Events | Catalog | Contact | Links & Colleagues | IDT | Eastern Arts |