TRIBAL ROOTS part 3- Amazigh, Amazons, La Kahina and Kabyle dance

     In the dark cold of Winter, sustained shimmies and reading have been keeping me warm, body and soul. I've been re-reading a classic book on the subject of women's dances from the Arab world, Serpent of the Nile by Wendy Bounaventura and rediscovering many jewels like the following quote-
   "The dance is a showing rather than a showing off, a showing of the physical self in the best setting of all, an atmosphere of encouragement and appreciation. It is assumed that all of us, rather than the specially gifted few, are dancers; that everyone can do something, even if it's only two or three movements, and that there is no need for a girl to feel embarrassed or inferior if she is not as skilled as her friends".
    Wendy Bounaventura is talking about how women grow up dancing together traditionally in the Arab world, much like how in many cultures everyone sings whether you are a 'singer' or not. Singing and dancing together are ways we can connect as a community or tribe.

     I've been especially loving Berber dances of Algeria and have been learning new things.  

Berbers (also called Amazigh, "free men", pl. Imazighen) are an ethnic group found natively in the countries of Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia in North Africa, and also found as immigrants in many countries, especially France. The Imazighen (pl. of Amazigh) lived in North Africa long before the arrival of Arabs, and their culture probably dates back more than 4,000 years. If you looked at the history of Ancient Greece, Rome or the Phoenicians, you'd see that the Imazighen played an important role in all of them. Berbers usually speak the Berber language. Berbers were both nomadic and land owners according to the region they live in. Most Berbers are Muslims, but many are not.

- from Wikipedia, more info and links at the bottom of this post

"Like the ghawaee, 'Ouled Nail' came to be used as a term for dancers in general, irrespective of their particular tribe".
 - from Serpent of the Nile

There are many distinct tribes among the Imazighen of Algeria, two of which are Ouled Nail and Kabyle, both from the Northern, mountainous part of the country. Ouled Nail from Algeria like Ghawazee dancers from Egypt shared the tradition of growing up into a life of dance not just in a 'women's only' or 'family' setting but out in the world. Apparently the Ouled Nail dancers would often leave home for a life of performing and then return many years later with financial independence and secure good marriages. I don't think we should idealize this life though, although they had more freedom than most women in the Arab world, they also had a low standing in society. There are many descriptions of Ouled Nail dances from the 19th C which start fully dressed end topless. I have also come across many topless photographs from late 19th c. and early 20th C. of none too pleased looking Amazigh women. It's likely that this kind of activity was more prevalent in the 19th C when the French invaded Algeria. Not long after, it seems this traditional life of dancing as a profession died out.

a movie about the Ouled Nail, a bit idealistic but interesting

filmed in Algeria, 1938 (silent)

Ouled Nail and Kabyle traditional costume is quite amazing and ornate with; elaborate head dresses, an abundance of jewelry often spiky and fierce looking, dark eye make-up, facial tattoos... One can definitely see the influence on contemporary ATS and tribal fusion belly dance! These heavy spiky adornments almost look like armour and could have acted as improvised weapons used for protection. Also, Imazighen women commonly went unveiled in public when most women in North Africa covered up more. 

   Many Western painters in the 19th century favored exotic subjects and were particularly fascinated by these 'exotic' women. These paintings make me think of the popular idea of an 'Amazon', strong warrior woman.

portrait of a Kabyle- 1875 Dridgman Fredrick-Arthur
    The connection with Amazigh and the popular idea of 'Amazon' women warriors is interesting, although I have not found anything definative about the origins of the term 'Amazon'. There seems to be a long tradition of strong women from this part of the world. In Algeria La Kahina, a 7th century warrior woman known as 'Queen of the Berbers' is a national heroine. One of my favorite albums by Algerian born, global fusion DJ Cheb i Sabbah, named his album 'La Kahena' after her.
A statue of Kahina, 7th century female Berber religious and military leader

A video about La Kahina, the Warrior Queen of Algeria

   I was first introduced to Kabyle dance studying with dance ethnographer Helene Eriksen. One of the seven dances we learned and performed in the 2009/2010 Seattle training project was a Kablye dance. I came to love and appreciate this dance style characterized by constant, precise, intricate shimmies, with very relaxed casual upper body, soft hand undulations, with waving and spinning scarves accompanied by clapping and zagareets. I think like many art forms, a good dancer makes it look easy but the subtleties and nuances are another matter. Here are a couple videos of Kabyle dance, enjoy!

Wow hips!

Kabyle dance at a wedding in France
More about Imazighen people aka 'Berbers'-