Cane Dance – Saidi, Baladi or Lebanese
The cane dance, also called “raqs al assaya”, dance of the stick/cane, is a folkloric dance very popular in an Arabic Oriental dancer’s set. Usually somewhere in the middle or towards the end of a performance, a cane dance will often include audience participation.
There are different types of cane dances. Many cultures in the Middle East traditionally used sticks for walking, herding and defense. Many of these same cultures have dance traditions using sticks.
One of the best known is the Saidi men’s martial art called the tahtib. Using a long staff men posture and show off their skill to intimidate their opponent as they fight. In tahtib the staff is used as a weapon and points are given for hitting sensitive spots. This martial art was theatricalized and made into a dance for stage by the famous Egyptian choreographer Mahmoud Reda. Women don’t traditionally do tahtib, so in the Reda troupe presentation the women did little more than just playfully borrow the man’s assaya and dance with it for just a few moments during the performance. Saidi women’s dancing is very grounded, but proud, you do not need an assaya to dance in the Saidi style.
There are also some movements referencing the trained dancing horses that Saidi culture is famous for. Sometimes you might even find some dancers dressed in a horse costume performing in conjuction with other dancers in a Saidi tableau.
The Said refers to the a region in Upper Egypt (Southern Egypt). The women traditionally wear a galabeya (long dress) and head scarves. The men also wear galebeyas, pants and robes, hats and turbans.
Traditional Saidi music is very distinctive. It often incorporates the mizmar, rebaba, nay, tabla, tabl baladi (aka tavul) and other traditional instruments. Rhythms used include Saidi and Fallahi. A lot of modern popular Arabic music uses a fast Saidi rhythm as a backbeat. So if you are looking for something more modern that is suitable for a Saidi assaya dance, I would look beyond just the rhythm alone and pay attention to the sound of the instrumentation, like the keyboard imitating the mizmar for example.
Many Oriental dancers have taken the use of the assaya in a Saidi tableau quite far, combining dance movements from the Saidi folkloric women’s dancing and skillfully manipulating an assaya in imitation of the men’s style tahtib. The Oriental dancer often uses a crooked cane or smaller sized stick than those used by the men for Tahtib. She can also use two or more assayat if she has the skill. The dance is often playful and flirtatious, mimicking the posturing of the men and having some fun with it.
If done in the middle of an Oriental set, it is okay to wear a normal Oriental dance bedlah. Some dancers like to wrap their veil or skirt to make it appear more galabeya like. In Egypt they often do a costume change into a folkloric costume for one portion of their show, sometimes in the women’s style, and also sometimes in the men’s style (ex. Fifi Abdo) often complete with a little hat, turban or tarboush. If the dancer chooses a galabeya they wear a scarf at the hips to accentuate the movement. They might also wear a specially designed costume with glitz as well as with Saidi references, such as Assuit fabric, a crescent moon necklace or belly drape, evil eye designs, a scarf on the head sometimes with flowers or pom poms. There are many possible variations including 2 piece costumes, vests and pants.
Baladi dancing with a cane or assaya does not necessarily always represent a Saidi tradition. The baladi dancer might incorporate a cane or stick into her performance just for fun. She would use it in whatever baladi song suits her, like a baladi taksim or another song, and in whatever manner she chooses; sometimes showing off her skill with the cane, sometimes just being flirty and fun. She might put on a man’s tarbush or she might tie a scarf around her hips. The baladi dancer would wear a galabeya or whatever clothing happens to be in fashion at the time and she would dance in the baladi style. There is a lot of similarity and overlap in the movements to those directly referencing more of a Saidi tradition, but I find the dfferent context and interpretation enough to be notable.
The Lebanese version of this dance is derived more from the Lebanese Dabkeh. It incorporates elements from Dabkeh dancing and has a little bit of a showoff quality to it. It is performed to music appropriate for Dabkeh as opposed to Saidi or Baladi music. Often the dancer will use a very slender crooked bamboo cane that she can spin really quickly or a crooked cane similar to the one used by Egyptians. The dancer often has a tabl balady (tavul) player follow her around and sometimes several more musicians as well. Since one of the most common rhythms in Dabkeh, Nawari, is very similar to Saidi, you will find that some bands when playing an assaya number for the dancer will mix some Nawari & Saidi songs and play them interchangably. One example of this is the famous song “Shashkin” aka “Ya Ein Mouletain”, which is traditionally a Nawari rhythm, but is often played in a medly with songs like “Ala Nar” which is traditionally played with a Saidi rhythm.
All three styles, Saidi, Baladi and Lebanese will use similar movement patterns, but they each have their own unique elements as well. The ghawazee in Egypt also dance with canes in their own unique way, and you may come across other men’s or women’s dances done with sticks or staffs in the Middle East. As an Oriental dancer, it is important to at least be familiar with Saidi, Baladi and Lebanese approaches to dancing with an assaya.