( Originally Published 1924 )
From a race of artists Mohammed took away the freedom to paint or model representations of living things. Yet the prohibition was a seed from which sprang a garden of expression more graphic than paint, a school of symbolism perhaps the most highly wrought the world has seen.
Artist the Arab is, whether measured by tests of his command over abstract symbol or—in such media as his religion permits—vivid portrayal of nature. Of concrete things and occurrences he has the alert observation of a reporter. Upon what he sees he ponders; intensely religious, he sees the hand of Allah in many things, draws morals, and seeks meanings.
His nomad forefathers mastered the geography of the stars, in search of a celestial message. Though the message be still unread, mathematical problems that vex the learned in academies amused the Arab when the race was young. Written numerals he invented, occult relations he sees in their functions. And, underlying all, he has a passion for intellectual order.
Geometry is the educated Arab's plaything; from long practice he can project its figures upon the wall of imagination, free of the need of pencil. Owing to this practice, perhaps, his thoughts express themselves in the form of images. His literature is crowded with them, vivid sketches thrown before the mind's eye; each a symbol more eloquent than description, a metaphor more compelling than logic.
As astronomy was born of the search for meanings in the stars, so the search for mystic functions among the figures of geometry evolved a school of decoration that drowns the eye in pleasure, baffles the mind to ex-plain. From square and compass spring the best of the interlaced ornament of the palace of Alhambra—the ornament that raises material things to a plane almost exempt from material limitations. And not the de-signer alone gleaned from the geomancer's play with line. Experiments profitless to the magician yielded of their magic to the architect, to the end that he was able to make of a gateway a song of thanksgiving, of a square tower a hymn of aspiration—and these, if it suited him, by the magic of proportion alone, without the aid of any adornment whatever.
Such a race, if it could have painted and drawn, would have produced artists superlative in more than one direction. Clear observation and the wit to discern significances would have made satirists and commentators of the most subtle kind. - In picture, the Arab metaphor would have been better expressed, even, than in words, which often seem a weak translation of a graphic symbol in the Arab story-teller's mind. As to decoration, it seems inevitable that with knowledge of the figure and freedom to use it, the Moors that adorned Alhambra's inner walls could have painted such designs as are not even dreamed of; for their designing—so far as its field extended—was to Occidental designing in general as evolved musical composition is to arrangement by guess work.
Yet despite the injunction depriving him of life as material for picture and sculpture, and indeed because of it, he has evolved an art in which painting and sculpture unite to express the human emotions through the medium of the human form. That art, of course, is dancing. He has dignified it with his accumulated knowledge of decoration, imbued it with the mystic symbolism of his speculative mind. In light mood it narrates the passing occurrence or the amusing anecdote. And not the least of the wonders of the Arab dancing is the emphasis it places upon the beauty of womankind. Instead of movement, as in most European dancing, its essential interest is in a series of pictures, charged with significance and rich in harmony of line. The eye has time to dwell upon a posture, to revel in the sensuous grace into which it casts body and limb. To complete the task of sculptural composition, the Arabic dancer studies to a rare completeness the art of eliminating the many natural crudities of position that prevent arms, legs and body from showing to the utmost advantage their physical perfection. Though the material body does not—in the work of a genuine artist —distract attention from sculptural nobility of pose, neither is physical attractiveness lost sight of in the beauties of the abstract.
That the treasure-house of Arabian choreography never has been really opened to Occidental eyes is probably due, as much as to anything else, to the Arab's inability to contribute any explanation to a thing which, by his way of thinking, explains itself. He has seen no dancing except that of his own race. To him Arabian dancing is not Arabian; it is just dancing. In his eyes the mimetic symbols are as descriptive as spoken words. Except he could see them with Occidental eyes, he would see nothing about them to explain.
Europe has seen the Arabic work, and enjoyed it for its ocular beauty. Gerome, Constant, Bargue and others have painted its sinuous elegance with admirable results. But no insight into its motives has become general, nor has any key to its meaning heretofore been printed, so far as can be ascertained, in any European language.
America still further than Europe has been excluded from satisfactory acquaintance with the Oriental, be-cause it has been so rarely presented here except in a manner to defame it. At the World's Fair in Chicago, where we saw it first, its sinuous body-movement caused a shock. Along that, line opportunist managers saw profit. Sex an institution whose existence is frankly admitted by every civilisation except our own—was, under managerial inspiration, insisted upon to the exclusion of every other motive of the dance; and insisted upon in such a manner as to make it repulsive. Ruth St. Denis has gone far in removing the resulting stigma from the art of India and Egypt. That the prejudice is not going to persist in the face of a national common-sense and love of beauty is further indicated in the reception met by the work of Fatma a couple of seasons ago in The Garden of Allah; a Moroccan woman, doing work unreservedly typical of her country, always received with delight by the audience, and never regarded from the wrong point of view.
The mission of calling Western attention to that which lies below the surface of Arabic dancing, how-ever, appears to have remained for Zourna, the Tunisian. To her it is possible, by virtue of a point of view resulting from a dual education, Mohammedan and European.
Zourna is the daughter of an Arab father and a French mother, who lived in Tunis. In childhood she was taught the Arab girl's accomplishments, dancing included; but an occasional visit to France enabled her at all times to see her African way of living somewhat as it would appear to the European. In the natural course of events she married; destined, however, to a short time of enjoyment of the dreamy dancing of the sheltered harem. The death of her husband and loss of fortune drove her to dance in cafes. That genus of work she had time to learn well before Fate gain intervened. A chain of circumstances brought her an opportunity to study ballet in the French Academy. It was not her medium of expression, but it gave her a clear measure of the difference between the Oriental and Occidental philosophies of the dance.
Of formulated dances the Arab has few, and those no more set than are the words of our stories: the point must not be missed, but we may choose our own vocabulary. In terms of the dance, the Arab entertainer tells stories; in the case of known and popular stories she follows the accepted narrative, but improvises the movements and poses that express it, exactly as though they were spoken words instead of pantomime. Somewhat less freedom necessarily obtains in the narration of dance-poems than in the recital of trifling incident; but within the necessary limits, originality is prized. In the mimetic vocabulary are certain phrases that are depended upon to convey their definite meanings. New word-equivalents, however, are always in order, if they can stand the searching test of eyes educated in beauty and minds trained to exact thinking.
Nearly unlimited as it is in scope, delightful as it unfailingly is to those who know it, Arabic dancing suits occasions of a variety of which the dances of Europe never dreamed. In the cafe it diverts and sometimes demoralises. In his house the master watches the dancing of his slaves, dreaming under the narcotic spell of rhythm. On those rare occasions when the demands of diplomacy or business compel him to bring a guest into his house, the dancing of slaves is depended upon to entertain. His wives dance before him to please his eye, and to cajole him into conformity with their desires.
Even the news of the day is danced, since the doctrines of Mohammed depress the printing of almost everything except the Koran. Reports of current events reach the male population in the market and the cafe. At home men talk little of outside affairs, and women do not get out except to visit others of their kind, as isolated from the world as themselves. But they get all the news that is likely to interest them, none the less; at least the happenings in the world of Mohammedan-ism.
As venders of information of passing events, there are women that wander in pairs from city to city, from harem to harem, like bards of the early North. As women they are admitted to women's apartments. There, while one rhythmically pantomimes deeds of war to the cloistered ones that never saw a soldier, or graphically imitates the punishment of a malefactor in the market-place, her companion chants, with falsetto whines, a descriptive and rhythmic accompaniment.
Thus is the harem protected against the risk of narrowness.
In the daily life of the harem, dancing is one of the favoured pastimes. Women dance to amuse themselves and to entertain one another. In the dance, as in music and embroidery, there is endless interest, and a spirit of emulation usually friendly.
One of the comparatively formalised mimetic expressions is the Dance of Greeting, the function of which is to honour a guest when occasion brings him into the house. Let it be imagined that coffee and cigarettes have been served to two grave gentlemen; that one has expressed bewilderment at the magnificence of the establishment, and his opinion that too great honour has, been done him in permitting him to enter it; that the host has duly made reply that his grandchildren will tell with pride of the day when this poor house was so far honoured that such a one set his foot within it. After which a sherbet, more coffee and cigarettes. When the time seems propitious, the host suggests to the guest t hat if in his great kindness he will look at her, he—the host—would like permission to order a slave to try to entertain with a dance.
The musicians, squatting against the wall, begin the wailing of the flute, the hypnotic throb of "darabukkeh." She who is designated to dance the Greeting enters holding before her a long scarf that half conceals her; the expression on her face is surprise, as though honour had .fallen to her beyond her merits or expectation. Upon. reaching her place she extends her arms forward, then slowly moves them, and with them the scarf, to one side, until she is revealed. When a nod confirms the command to dance, she quickly drops the scarf to the floor, advances to a place before the guest and near him, and honour, him with a slave's salutation. Then arising she proceeds to her silent greeting.
"You are implanted in your house," says a movement [see photographs]. "Here is food, here may you sleep well. When you go forth, go you East, West, North, South [indicating quarter-circles by pointing the toe], yet you are here. May Allah's blessings descend upon you. May the breezes blow upon you, may the rain refresh you, may abundance be showered upon you; yet may you remember that here you are in your house, and that here is your slave."
That is the lifeless skeleton of the story, without grace, or the animation of movement, or the embellishment of expression. To try to force words into an equivalent of the semi-ritualistic splendour of the dance would be attempting to build a Moorish palace of dry grains of sand.
In Occidental entertainment, when a performer has gained the sanctuary of the platform, he is practically immune from interruption until his "number" is finished—unless exception be made of "amateur night" in vaudeville houses, where offenders are forcibly removed with a hook, or suddenly enveloped in darkness. With that probably unique exception, however, the audience confronted by an indifferent performer can only summon patience. The Orient offers no such security, to the dancer at least. At the first sign of failure to interest, a signal, perhaps no more noticeable than the raise of an eyelid, commands the dancer to cease. Not later, but instantly.
To interrupt a dance of movement without regard to its argument would be worse than interrupting a story.
It would not only undo the preceding work; it would be very likely to arrest the artist in a transitional position, in itself weak. At all events, such an interruption would painfully mar an entertainment programme. But the Arabian dance is not a dance of movement; it is a dance of pictures, to which movement is wholly, sub-ordinate. Each bar of the music accompanies a picture complete in itself. Within the measure of each bar the dancer has time for the movements leading from one picture to the next, and to hold the picture for the instant necessary to give emphasis. At whatever:
she may be stopped, therefore, she is within' less than a second of a pose so balanced and sculptural that it appears as a natural termination of the dance. The Oriental's general indifference to the forces of accumulation and climax are consistent with such a capricious ending. In his dance, each phrase is complete in it ; it may be likened to one of those serial stories in our magazines, in which each instalment of the story is self sufficient.
To the Occidental unused to Oriental art, the absence of crescendo and climax, and the substituted iteration carried on endlessly, is uninteresting. Nevertheless, a few days of life among Oriental conditions suffice to throw many a scoffer into attunement with the Oriental art idea. Which is to soothe, not to stimulate. Moorish ornament is an indefinitely repeated series of marvellously designed units, each complete in itself, yet inextricably interwoven with its neighbours. In music the beats continue unchanging through bar after' bar, phrase after phrase. The rhythmic repetition of the tile-designs on the wall, the decorative repetition of the beats of music, produce a spell of dreamy visioning comparable only to the effect of some potent but harmless narcotic.
To the foregoing generality exception must again be made of the dancing in cafes. While it conforms to the structure of a picture-complete-in-each-bar, its treatment is more or less at variance with the idea of soothing. But the symbolism is likely to lack nothing of picturesqueness. The Handkerchief Dance is characteristic of the type.
Of the two handkerchiefs used in this dance one rep-resents the girl herself, the other her soon-to-be-selected lover. She first takes a corner of each handkerchief into her teeth, warming them into life. She lays them parallel on the floor and indifferently dances around and between them, to state her power to cross the line and return free from entanglements of lover's claims. Into the waistband of her trousers she tucks opposite corners of both handkerchiefs so that they hang as panniers: the hands pushed through show the panniers empty; she would receive gifts. To show, too, that she can give, a flourishing gesture releases a corner of each, to spill the imagined contents. Interest progresses until as a climax she kisses one of the fluttering cloths, slowly passes it downward over heart and body, and throws it in a wad to the elected one. The token is his passport to her; and its return at any later time is announcement that she no longer interests him.
One dance the Arabs have that is not associated with the idea of symbolism, but is rather a vehicle for the display of technical skill for skill's own sake. It is the Flour Dance. On the floor a design is drawn in an even layer of flour—a favourite figure is the square imposed on a circle, familiar in Saracenic ornament. The dancer's first journey over the figure establishes a series of footprints; a successful performance consists in planting the feet in the same tracks during subsequent rounds. Difficulties can be added by crossings of the feet, turns and other involutions, and multiplied by increasing speed. This dance was mentioned in connection with the ancient Greek Dance of the Spilled Meal, of which it may reasonably be supposed to be either a direct descendant or a surviving ancestor.
There are a number of little dances popular in light entertainment. In one, a woman in the act of eaves-dropping is startled by a lizard dropping on her back. Her efforts to get rid of it attract her husband from his [imagined] conversation on the other side of the curtain. She must now explain why she was standing at the curtain, and above all she must appear calm. The comedy opportunity lies in her efforts not to squirm away from the [imagined] lizard.
Another of these one-character sketches tells of the lazy washerwoman. She enters steadying on her head an imaginary basket of linen. Arriving at the edge of the stream she puts down the basket, kneels, and indolently begins mauling and scrubbing the garments over the half-submerged rocks. (And she turns the movements into poetry!) But her attention wanders from uncongenial work. Whose hasn't? one sympathetically asks oneself as one watches. She looks up the stream, and down; her eye sees beauties, and her mind finds subjects to wonder about. She falls a-dreaming, and then asleep—still kneeling.
When she wakens, the other women have finished their work and gone, and it is late. Not stopping to wring out the clothes that she hurriedly collects from the pool, she throws them into the basket. Humour is put into the artist's mimicry of the poor woman's efforts to avoid the dripping water, while carrying the weight of a basket of wet clothes balanced on her head. Em-bodying as it does both dream-sentiment and comedy, the little pantomime is a pretty vehicle for versatility.
A serious story is that of the Mohammedan woman who, against her father's wishes, has married a Jew. The representation opens with the woman's entrance to the room where her father lies dying. Her hair falls loose in token of mourning or penitence. She kneels beside the death-bed, and strips off her many jewels. Her vow to re-enter the fold of Islam she shows by drawing a strand of her hair across her mouth, suggesting the face-covering of the women of Mohammedan faith. The father offers his hand to be kissed. Grateful, she slowly rises, crosses the room, closes and bolts the door, in token of shutting out all but the paternal faith.
The dance of mourning for the dead is a fixed composition only to the extent of including certain accepted postures; their sequence is not prescribed. "Here he lies dead; Allah takes him. I am as a fallen tree; I am alone. He held me in his arms; we played together; and he was my protector." In such manner runs the widow's lament for her departed husband. Pulsing through all is the solemn beat of "darabukkeh" under-toning the wails of mourners.
The Bedoui of the desert celebrate marriage, peace-compacts, declarations of war and other happy occasions with a gun-dance, which is known as a Fantasia or Fantaisie. It in no way conforms to the fundamentals of Arabic dancing, and in fact it is a dance in name only. But it is joyous exceedingly. Approximately rhythmic rifle-firing is continuous from beginning to end. Performers both mounted and afoot leap and whirl in maniac confusion, shooting up, down and all around in merry abandon. Dust, howls and powder-smoke attack ears, eyes and throat in unison, and the only unhappy ones in the gay assemblage are those that Allah wills to have been shot, stepped on by horses, or both.
Tangier is the setting of an occasional savage celebration of religious fanaticism; and these celebrations, too, fall into a category of quasi-dancing. They are demonstrations of a sect styled the Hamadsha. To a deafening accompaniment of fifes and drums, a few leaders start a crude hopping dance in the market-place. The number of participants grows rapidly; excitement increases with the number, until, at a point of frenzy, the leaping fanatics begin hacking their heads with axes. The example is so contagious that small boys dash into the melee and snatch axes from the hands of men, to inflict the same castigation. Christian spectators frequently faint at the spectacle, but fascination holds them at their windows until they are overcome. During the four hours or more that the blood-spilling continues, as well as during a period before and after, the street is a dangerous place for the unbeliever.
Ostrander, the traveller, while in Constantinople, found himself unaccountably in the midst of a celebration differing in character from those of the Hamadsha of Tangier only in the respect of being held at night. The resemblance in all essentials indicates the existence of Mohammedan undercurrents completely unknown to the Western world.
Egypt, notwithstanding centuries of Arab domination, preserves—or re-creates—in her dancing the style shown in the carvings of the Pharaoh dynasties. In contrast to the softly curving Arab movements, the Egyptian's definitely incline to straight lines. Gestures change their direction in angles, rather than curves. Poses of perfect symmetry are sought. Even when symmetry is absent, the serpentine, plastic character of Arab movement is pertinently avoided. The sentiment of architecture is cultivated; the head is not turned on the shoulders, nor the torse on the hips, except as such relaxation is required in the interest of pantomime. In movement and position the Egyptian seeks verticals, horizontals and right angles. To the beauty of the work the severely geometrical treatment adds an architectural quality almost startling in its surety and majesty.
Egyptian form "toes out" the artist's feet, so that they are seen without perspective when the performer is facing the spectator.
Whether the dances of the Valley of the Nile established the conventions of early relief carvings, or whether, on the other hand, the carvings determined the character of the dances, is a question neither possible nor necessary to decide. Both arts certainly were the expression of rigid religious ceremonialism, and likely are twins. To-day the records in granite are the subject of conscious study on the part of dancers. In the past, too, they undoubtedly have been chart and compass to the sculpture of ephemeral flesh and blood, that unguided might have perished in any one of the thousands of generations of its existence.
In type of subject and motive the dances of Egypt resemble those of the Barbary States, as above described. Mourning, homage and incident are narrated in about the same vocabulary, the dissimilarity of technique being comparable to a dialectic difference of pronunciation of a language. On their commercial side the two are identical. In tourist-ridden cafes of Cairo and Port Said, as in those of Tangier and Algiers, girls dance what the tourist expects and wishes. In the Coptic town of Esneh, dwelling in the ruined temples, is a community of people known as Almees. They are literally a tribe of dancers, removed by a khedive in former times from Cairo on grounds of impropriety. Dancing as they do in the temples of five thousand years ago, they form a curious link with antiquity. Their work, however, is said to be shaped to the tourist demand.
Such dances, however, despite the insistence with which they are pushed upon the attention of tourists, are not of the kind with which the name of Egypt de-serves to he associated. The mystic still dwells along the shores of the Nile; but its votaries do not commercialise it, nor is it a commodity that lends itself to sale and purchase, even were there a disposition so to de-grade it. One of the dances illustrated by Zourna symbolises in terms as delicate as the most ethereal imaginings, the awakening of the soul.
The body's initial lack of the spiritual spark is represented by the crossed hands, as bodies are carved on sepulchres. An imperceptible glide through a series of poses so subtly distinguished from one another ' that movement, from one moment to the next, is unseen, creates an atmosphere mysterious and almost chill in its twilight gloom. Gropingly the arms rise to the position that symbolises prayer for the divine light—the hand below the chin emphasising the upturn of the face, the upper hand suggesting the flame. With awe the new intelligence gazes upon the world, open-eyed; then it must draw aside the veil of the future. Fulness of life is seen awaiting, which the dancer expresses by a gesture representing roundness, the accepted Oriental representation of completeness and richness. But wait! she will grow old, and with bent back will walk stumbling at the heels of a camel. But a defiance to age and the future! Now she is young; her body is straight and her limbs round. A defiant expression of the joy of life follows, yet undertoned withal with unforgettable sadness; movements of happiness, a face of tragedy.
The sombre majesty of the pictures, especially those of the search into the future; the reverence-compelling mystery of the somnambulistic movements—a hundred things about this dance raise it to the very uppermost plane of its kind of art. So far beyond mere skill are its movements, so completely alien to anything in Occidental knowledge, that to Occidental eyes they are as unearthly as they are imposing. Reason fails, chloroformed by beauty; the real becomes the unreal, the unreal the real!. Imagination is released from the tentacles of fact and time. The future? It could be seen for the trouble of turning the head to look; but what profit fore-knowledge either of cuts or caresses? Curiosity is for the very young. Better and wiser the lot of ignorance. . . .
Hypnotism of a kind? Granted. Finely rendered, this dance represents the utmost development of the co-ordination of rhythm, sentiment, and appropriateness of movement. That combination in its turn is undoubtedly the essence of the Oriental magic that, since the world was young, has enabled men to dream dreams and see visions. Among the newer civilisations the emotional power of rhythm is as unknown as it is untried.
The Egyptian's passion for decoration is served by the dance, no less ably than is his love of the metaphysical. In the homes of the rich there is said to be a form of decorative choreography, like a ballet in structure, that duplicates and animates a painted or sculptured frieze on the walls of the room. The dancers enter one at a time, taking their positions in turn under the figures of the frieze, copying each in pose as they come into place under it. The intervals between poses are of course enriched by carefully related movements, so that the line of dancers, advancing together from figure to figure, shall move as a harmonised unit. The scheme creates a manifold interest: the line of dancers represents an animated version of the frieze; though ,it is seen to move, its figures remain in a sense unchanged; yet to watch any one performer is to see her change constantly. The human line and the mural frieze collectively form a background for the work of a leading dancer, who flits from place and duplicates the poses of such figures as she may choose.
In another entertainment, descriptions tell of huge vases carried in and placed back of the dancing space, as though they were decorative adjuncts forgotten until the last moment. They are placed, and the servants retire, just before the first dancer opens the programme. A spectator unfamiliar with the diversion would notice that the vases were elaborately ornamented with carved figures. These one by one relax their archaic severity of pose and. very slowly come to life. Keeping the col-our of the stone and without wholly losing its unbending character, each dances her allotted number and returns to her pose on the vase.
The, foregoing is by no means a complete list of Egypt's dances of decorative interest or occult significance. Dance representations of subjects of every-day interest are also popular; there is one that sketches a series of incidents connected with a hunt with a falcon. But, as stated in another place, the choreographic taste of Egypt has many points of similarity with that of the Arabs of all the southern coast of the Mediterranean. Egyptian technique is distinct, its interpretation of the abstract is marvellously developed, its union of the dance with architecture is its own. But its taste in pantomimes of light motive is already characterised without the addition of further examples.
Following Oriental dancing eastward toward India, its probable birthplace, it is found to preserve with approximate consistency certain general characteristics. The combined pantomimic and decorative use of the arms, subject to regional ideas as to what comprises decorative quality, runs through it all. The apparent freedom of chest, abdomen and hips from any restricting inter-relationships, is an attribute of it emphasised in some localities more than others; it decreases toward the north, generally speaking. The women of Turkey compare with those of the Barbary States in phenomenal flexibility and control of the abdominal muscle—resulting in capability for a species of contortion not at all agreeable when exaggerated.
A principle of all Oriental dancing is its frank acknowledgment of avoirdupois. It employs none of the devices by which lightness is achieved, choosing as its aim, rather, the representation of a plastic quality that exploits rather than denies the meatiness of flesh texture. The heel is not often raised high from the ground, and indeed the foot is often planted flat. A mannerism in-tensely characteristic of the Oriental use of the foot is a trick of quickly changing its direction after it is set on the floor but before the weight of the body is shifted to it; the twist may leave the heel stationary as a pivot, or the ball. The effect is as though the dancer were making a feint to deceive the spectator as to the direction of the next turn, and doubtless such contribution to interest is the intent. It at least adds intricacy, and directs attention to a ,pretty foot. Of the latter adornment, whether covered with little Turkish slipper with turned-up toe, or bare, possessors. are impartially proud.
Mystery of movement in certain parts is a further characteristic distinguishing the Oriental work from anything to be found in the Occident, with the exception of certain tricks of the Spanish Gipsy—tricks which, after all, furnish no exception, since they are Moorish absolutely. The Oriental covers little space in her work. A space large enough to kneel on would admit all that her art requires. She has no leaps to make, nor open leg-movements. Much of the time she has both feet on the floor, is active chiefly in arms and body. Much more of the time her feet are engaged in steps hardly noticeable.
The foregoing observations on Oriental work apply more particularly to the low latitudes than to lands farther removed from the equator. China and Japan have a choreography like that of the Southern regions in some respects; but their custom of bundling the dancer up in clothes is the cause also of differences so pronounced that they had best be considered as of a different category. Purely as a convenience, therefore, let it be understood that Japanese and Chinese dancing shall be referred to by those names; and that the word Oriental shall be understood to signify the dances of the sinuous-body type, to which pertain those of the Arabs of North Africa and elsewhere, the Persians, Turks and some others.
To the dancing of men, where any is done, generalities as to the style of Oriental dancing fail to fit in many cases. Exceptions are not numerous, however; because, if for no other reason, far the greater part of Oriental dancing is done by women. Of the few exceptions some are dances of religion, others of war.
An intoxicating Sword Dance is practiced in Turkey. Like almost everything else that is danced (or sung or acted) its merit of course depends in great degree on the quality of its interpretation. Well done, this Turkish Sword Dance shows itself a composition of rare individuality and a fine, wild beauty; for good measure, it is a sword combat of a reality that threatens the spectator with heart failure. The two combatants advance and retreat, accenting the music with clashes of sword on shield; the interest is that of a barbarously beautiful dance as long as they continue to face each other. Not-withstanding rapidity, the chances are against a mishap. But when of a sudden both launch themselves on a series of lightning road de jambe pirouettes) the scimitars sweeping around fast enough to cut a man in two if he should fail to parry, the affair becomes a sporting event, and that of a kind to harrow the nerves.
Turkey also is the place, or one of the places, where Whirling Dervishes are educated for their curious calling. Mr. H. C. Ostrander is authority for the statement that an apprenticeship of a thousand days is considered a necessary preparation for proper performance of this apparently simple act of devotion. Since nothing whatever is attempted in step beyond that which the ballet-dancers call "Italian turns," it must be supposed that the art of the Whirling Dervish has qualities that do not appear on the surface. It is taught in monasteries scattered through the mountainous regions.
The Caucasus, that land less known than fabled, has dances of a fame as persistent as it is vague. Its map is dotted with names immortalised in the Arabian Nights. It is the setting of Scheherazade and Sumurun; a region whose inhabitants declare their intention never to become Occidentalised, and whom no power is likely to push in any direction. Being under the Czar's dominion, most of its few visitors are Russians; they alone among Occidentals possess any definite knowledge of its choreography. Princess Chirinski-Chichmatoff, at present making it an object of special study, writes the following in reply to an inquiry from the authors:
"Lezginka, the Oriental Dance of the Caucasus, was born in the mountains of a beautiful country whose nature is wild and grandiose; among a people courageous and energetic, who have preserved much of the savagery and temperament of the Oriental races.
"The men of these people . . . have the custom of never parting from the poniard. They pass the greater part of their time horseback, always prepared to meet an enemy and to defend the happiness and honour of the family. To this day they retain the custom of answering for every spilling of blood with a revenge; each victim has his victim. There still exists the custom of abducting the fiancee from the paternal house and carrying her away to one's own. The women have all the timidity of beings who live under the strongest of despotism. They have preserved all the softness and grace of daughters of the Orient, with body accustomed to careful attention and not to any physical work; who seek only to rest, to look at themselves, and to enjoy the gifts by which they are favoured by nature and usage. Under this exterior the woman keeps covered many passions which sleep until the first moment of provocation, when they break forth like the eruption of a volcano—surrounding her with fire that sweeps with it any imprudent one that happens to be near. Passion is the principal theme in the life of an Oriental woman, and that sentiment she can vary like a virtuoso. . . .
"You see her quiet, beautiful, relaxed, in the calm of a great fatigue, with softness enveloping face and movements. Suddenly one detects an unusual sound, a look cast, a movement—she is fired, she becomes fierce and wild like all the Nature around her. You see before you a tigress, beautiful, live and strong, ready to spring on the prey, playing and attracting, making mischief and exhausting herself at the same time. After which her movements become few, slow, tired and melancholy.
"Thus is Oriental dancing built on contrasts; sentiments and moods change unexpectedly. Gentle, relaxed and melancholy, of a sudden it is brusque, animated, fiery. It has much coquetry, passion, and often tragedy."
In India dancing is sharply divided into the classes of sacred and profane. In the latter division are to be found dances of ceremony, pantomimic representations of wide variety, and eccentricities that almost trespass on the domain of sleight-of-hand. The best known is a Dance of Eggs. The performer, as she starts whirling, takes eggs one by one from a basket that she carries, and sets them into slip-nooses at the several ends of cords that hang from her belt. Centrifugal motion pulls each cord taut as soon as it receives the weight of an egg. Finally all the cords, numbering from a dozen to twenty, are extended, each bearing its insecurely fastened egg. The dance is completed by collecting the eggs and returning them unbroken to the basket.
Another diversion is the Cobra Dance popularised in America by Miss Ruth St. Denis—assisted by numerous imitators. One hand is held in a shape to suggest the form of a cobra's head, and huge jewels add a striking resemblance to the creature's eyes. The performer of the cobra representation sits cross-legged. The hand suggesting the snake's head glides over the body, with frequent sudden pauses to reconnoitre; the arm following it—in the case of Miss St. Denis so amazingly supple and so skilfully made to seem jointless that it suggests the snake's body almost to reality—takes the appropriate sinuous movements around shoulders and neck. The free hand completes that which at times is almost an illusion by stroking and semi-guiding the head. Miss St. Denis herself watches the hand with just the alertness and caution to convey an impression of latent danger of which she, the snake charmer, is mot afraid, but which she must anticipate with keen attention. Withal she never for an instant slips from her high key of grace, rhythm and style.
Europe owe the greater part of their impressions of the dancing of the Far East. She has given the subject years of study; with the object, far more comprehensive than an imitation or reproduction of specific dances, of interpreting the Oriental spirit. To this end Miss St. Denis uses the structural facts of the various dances as a basis for an embodiment of their character in such form that ii: shall be comprehensible to Western eyes and among Western surroundings. The loss inseparable from the adaptation of such a creation to the conventions of the stage, she compensates—perhaps more than compensates—by a concerted use of lights, colour and music, co-operating to produce a sense of dreamy wonder, and to unite in the expression of a certain significance.
Her Nautch Dance, with its whirling fountain of golden tissue, she sets in the palace of a rajah, where it serves a social purpose similar to that of the Dance of Greeting already described. The Spirit of Incense is an interpretation of the contemplative spirit that ac-companies Euddhistic thought and worship. The Temple—with which Miss St. Denis remains an inseparable part, in the mind of every one who has seen it—throws the spectator into an attitude of something like awe at the rise of the curtain, so perfectly considered is an in-definable relationship of magnificence and semi-gloom in the setting. An idol occupies a shrine in the centre of the stage. After a stately ritual executed by priests, the idol (Radha) descends and performs a Dance of the Five Senses, glorifying physical enjoyment. Inter-woven with increasing manifestations of pleasure in the senses is a counter-expression of increasing despair. The opposed sentiments reach their climaxes simultaneously. Radha resumes her shrine, and the attitude of endless contemplation, in token that peace of spirit lies only in denial of sensual claims.
The technical character with which Miss St. Denis invests the Indian representations is, first, the elimination of any movement that might detract from a feeling of continuity. Every action proceeds in waves; a ripple slowly undulates down the body, and even seems to continue on its way into the earth; like a wave running the length of a cord, a ripple glides from body through the extended arms and fingers, to go on indefinitely through the air. Rapid movements are employed only enough to meet the demands of variety. Long gesture, long line, deliberate action and even colour quality are held in an indescribable rapport with the insistent tempo with which the whole is bound together; there is no escape from acceptance of the resultant multiple rhythm; it is inevitable. A simple, rapid movement, therefore, introduced with due consideration of all the parts of the complex, magic mechanism, has the dramatic power literally ,to startle.
The success of the composition as a whole, in its purpose of conveying an impression of the very essence of an aspect of India, is asserted most emphatically by those to whom that mysterious land is best known. To regard the production as an exposition of Indian dancing would be quite beside the point. The dances, though wholly consistent with their originals in point of character, are only a part of a whole. Nor do they pretend to exploit the complete range of Indian choreography; Miss St. Denis herself would be the first to disclaim any such intention. As she explains her work, she uses the dancing of a people as a basis on which to compose a translation of that people's point of view and habit of thought.
To exactly the same process Bizet subjected the music of Spain to produce the score of Carmen; Le Sage to construct Gil Blas. Than the latter there is nothing in Spain that could more quickly acquaint a foreigner with certain aspects of "Espanolism."
A link with antiquity is furnished by multitudinous carvings of dancers on Hindu and Buddhistic temples in India and Java. The temple in Java, some of whose sculpture is here reproduced, was recently rediscovered after several centuries of burial in a jungle. It is known to be at least eight hundred years old. A comparison between the style of the dancers there represented, that of the little Javanese present-day dancer shown in a photograph, and that which is indicated in line drawings (from photographs of temples in India) hints at indefinite age back of Oriental dancing as we know it, as to style, technique and spirit. The photo-graphs, including those from which the line drawings were made, are from the collection of Mr. H. C. Ostrander.
With variations, the India type of movement and pantomime, with the practice of striking a significant pose at regular intervals, continues eastward as far as the Hawaiian Islands. The Hula-Hula of the graceful Hawaiians has been well exemplified recently in an interpolation in The Bird of Paradise. Essentially, the Hula-Hula is a dance of coquetry; its thematic position, which recurs like a refrain, is that shown in one of the accompanying drawings.
Any effort to trace the path of Oriental dancing farther east than the Hawaiian Islands leads to the shoals of unsubstantial speculation. Aztec ruins are said (on authority not vouched for) to bear carvings that show the early existence of the India type of dancing in Mexico. There are said to be traces of India influences in the dancing of Mexican Indians of to-day. But the interest of such fact—even if it is a fact—is more closely related to ethnology than choreography; because it is pretty certain that any trace of India dancing that may exist will be an almost unrecognisable corruption. The study of dances on grounds of oddity, ethnological curiosity or legendary association leads away from the study of dancing for its own sake, and that of its inherent beauty. It is in the endeavour to keep within the lines of reasonably pure choreography that this book has been restrained from digressions into the quasi-dancing of American Indians, African negroes, various South Sea Islanders and many other interesting folk.
Dancing has an immense importance in religious worship of most of the many denominations of India. Priestesses are trained to it; corps de ballet into which they are organised are maintained in the temples under a system like that of ancient Egypt. Their rites are unknown—or practically so—to those outside of their own faith. In other cults the rites are performed, in part, by laymen. The latter ceremonies include a not-to-bedescribed orgy periodically celebrated in certain Hindu temples, by women, with the motives of propitiating Vishnu.
China has a school of rhythmic pantomime, the movement of which hardly justifies its consideration as a branch of real dancing so far as known to the authors. An annual religious spectacle is to be noted: in it are employed animals' heads, recalling the Snake Dance of the Hopi Indians.
Japan, by means of sundry additions to the older Chinese school of mimetic posturing, has converted it into an organism to which the name of dancing is quite appropriate, and which constitutes by far the greater portion of her national choreography.
It appears that the dances of occasional merry-makers, priestesses, and the much-misunderstood Geishas have a common characteristic of slow, even movement, small steps, and a highly abstract pantomime. Of a style distinct from these are certain dances of men, including a stirring dance of warriors; in which group is seen vigourous action, a good proportion of open movement, and genuine steps. The accepted classification of the Japanese, as No, or sacred dancing, and profane, doubtless has its merits; but the division previously indicated, distinguishing between dances of posture and those of movement, which is the one established by the eye, is at least convenient.
With choral posture and gesture the Japanese celebrate auspicious conditions of nature or happy events in the family. The coming of spring; the cherry blossoms; the season of fishing with cormorants; flowers in general; rice-harvest—in honour of a thousand occurrences may be imagined groups of gaily coloured kimonos enveloping little figures, softly and rhythmically swaying over the green, from each kimono protruding a fan or a bouquet held in a cloth-enshrouded hand. In the tea-house the Geisha (who is a skilled professional entertainer, no more and no less) pantomimes, in delicate symbol, the falling of the petals of flowers, the hearing of distant music—any motive is suitable, apparently, so long as it is pretty, dainty, fanciful. Movement con-forms to the same manner of thinking; much of it barely disturbs the silken folds of the kimono. A thou-sand meanings are hidden in little turns and twists of the fan ; but, when explained, the connection of act and meaning is often so tenuous that it seems less mysterious, or suggestive, than merely vague. Nevertheless, taking it on its own premise as a demonstration of Japanese-doll prettiness, which is not concerned with any but the lightest emotions, this type of dancing is pleasing. Its virtue is its gossamer frailty.
The dances of war fall into a distinct class.. Some of the drawings of Hokkai represent them : combats between swordsmen, or between a swordsman and a spear-man. The (lances themselves are charged with a vigourous spirit and executed with big, noble movement of flourished weapons. The poses follow the indefinable angularity which, through the very consistency of its use, is an agreeable element in the more virile school of Japanese drawing; and the spicy effect of sharpness so produced combines to admiration with the crab-like de-sign of old Japanese armour.
Other men's dances, equally vigourous, are recorded in drawings. But any exact study of these or any other dances of Japan is almost hopelessly handicapped by a scarcity of individuals who possess the desirable combination of definite knowledge and personal reliability.
The Japanese theatrical dancing, so called, leads into a labyrinth of pantomime both subtle and involved, and movement so slight that a troop of dancers can continue in action four consecutive hours, without relays. That is almost too much for real dancing, under existing human limitations of heart and muscle. The ballet dancer is entitled to a rest after a solo of four minutes; to the ballet, therefore, it would be well to return, for the certainty that the discussion is safe again on the solid ground of reality.