From her Algerian family’s living room to the dance stage

2. Algerian dancing
The dancer and teacher Esraa Warda in London on Sept. 30, 2022. Warda, who grew up in Brooklyn, takes the North African dances she learned as a child and brings them to the stage and dance studio. (Photo: NYTimes)
When Esraa Warda participated in a residency in Algeria earlier this year, she was told she should not perform in the final show in the town of Taghit. A representative from the Algerian Ministry of Culture warned that her dancing might be “too controversial for a public audience”, Warda said. Others told her she would not be safe under the spotlights — that the crowd might throw things.اضافة اعلان

Warda specializes in dancing to raï, a popular, grassroots form of Algerian music, historically associated with social protest. Movement is initiated by the feet, hips swaying in quick, precise arcs from side to side with each step; the upper body twists slightly, the arms light in the air.

Although raï (pronounced rye) is an important part of Algerian culture — officials there are recommending that it be added to UNESCO’s World Heritage List — the genre’s subversive messaging still means that some consider it distasteful. The same applies to the accompanying dances, which are usually performed at private gatherings.

Warda went ahead and performed that night in Taghit, proving the Ministry of Culture wrong: Many in the audience cheered her on, she said, dancing along with her. Even toning down her movement for the occasion, “people went wild, people were passing out”, she said. “It ended up being a rock ’n’ roll moment, even though I wasn’t doing anything crazy.”

Elenna Canlas, a keyboardist who played alongside Warda, said: “Everybody was watching with the understanding that women don’t usually dance in the presence of men there. It was profound that something as simple as dancing could be such a political statement.”

As both an artist and a teacher, Warda, who is Algerian American, takes the North African dances she learned as a child and brings them to the stage and dance studio. Highlighting the musicality and endurance that are required for these styles, Warda shows they are legitimate art forms, with specific techniques that change from one region and musical genre to the next.

Many of the dances Warda performs involve movement of the hips. She is adamant, though, that they are not to be confused with belly dancing — a technique with Egyptian roots that is more lifted and with broader movements of the upper body and arms.

“Because we’re all lumped into the same category, we also get lumped into the same stereotypes,” Warda said of Middle Eastern and North African dancers. “We’re somehow these colonial objects of desire.”

Warda was referring to the clichés of this region’s dance found in Western literature, paintings and photographs. After the French invasion of Algeria in 1830 (Tunisia followed in 1881, Morocco in 1907), an industry developed around female dancers, with European photographers paying them to strike suggestive poses that had nothing to do with their art.

They were used to create a “phantasm of the Oriental female”, Malek Alloula writes in “The Colonial Harem” (1981) — unskilled, uncultured, and sexually available.
I created a dance system and code along the way, based on my own references… based on what I’d learned dancing with my family.
This legacy of exploitation surrounding dance remained even after Algeria won independence, in 1962, making it stigmatized in many circles. “My dancing is about trying to overcome the reasons I’ve been told I shouldn’t dance, to overcome that internalized shame a lot of women grow up with,” Warda said.

Although there are some regional dance troupes, raï and hundreds of other dance styles are considered part of everyday culture, used more to celebrate family occasions than to promote a national heritage.

In Bay Ridge, a neighborhood in the New York City borough of Brooklyn, where Warda grew up, her profession as a dance artist and educator receives mixed reactions from her family’s Algerian-American community. “Some Algerians are like, ‘Are you kidding?’” she said. “‘Is raï being taught in a dance class? That’s ridiculous.’”

Warda, 29, did not grow up believing she could perform and teach these dances, since no one else was doing it at the time. Her father, who immigrated in the 1990s, worked as a food vendor on 53rd Street and Lexington, and her mother was a caretaker; both encouraged her to pursue traditional career paths. Yet, whenever she visited family in Algeria, she spent time in her relatives’ living rooms, learning dance styles through patient observation.

In her early 20s, Warda managed a traditional arts program for students at Arab-American cultural centers. Hiring other artists got her thinking about the dances she loved — and why they were not valued as an art form. She started teaching workshops for free in Brooklyn.

“I created a dance system and code along the way, based on my own references,” she said of her teaching method, “based on what I’d learned dancing with my family.”

The largest North African immigrant population is in France, but the concentration on conservatory diplomas and certificates makes it difficult for those specializing in regional North African styles to work in dance.

Raïssa Leï, who is French Moroccan and directs the Kif-Kif Bledi company in Paris, said her dancers cannot obtain the special artistic status that would allow them to freelance, and they struggle to book studios and other spaces. She sees Warda’s work in the United States as important for keeping “the chain of transmission” going strong.

When Warda began to teach, she sought out “chikhats”, or elders: North African female musicians and dancers who have undergone extensive training. Traveling to Algeria, Morocco, and France, she wanted to understand dance as these professionals did.

“It’s about giving back,” Warda said. “These are people who spent their whole lives dedicated to a tradition, spent 30, 40, 50 years under the leadership of somebody else.”

By dancing with chikhats — notably raï singer Cheikha Rabia, based in Paris — Warda is bringing visibility to an aspect of traditional performance. Before the form became more widespread in the 1980s, raï singers such as Cheikha Djenia and Cheikha Rimitti would surround themselves with female dancers, who gave body to the rhythms of the songs and expressed longing through movement.

For someone used to watching Western styles, the raï dances and other North African styles might seem monotonous. Yet, in their intricate foot patterns and unflagging dedication to the rhythm — “simple, subtle things repeated consistently in cyclical movements”, as Warda described them — they give expression to the fight for survival and the solidarity needed to do so.

While bringing North African dancing to a wider audience, Warda still returns to the living room, pointing out that outsiders have underestimated the agency women find in this practice. “The traditions are still very much propelling forward in these private spaces — and they always will be,” she said.

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