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Finding “the Feeling” Through Movement, Music, and Memory: Oriental Dance, Tarab, and Umm Kulthūm

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  05 December 2013


In the tradition of Arab music, artists aspire to generate tarab, an experiential quality described by ethnomusicologist A. J. Racy as a merger between music and emotional transformation. Although there is no exact equivalent in Western language, the most common English words used to capture the meaning of tarab are “ecstasy,” “transcendence,” and “enchantment.” Music frequently identified as being tarab music includes that of Egyptian singer Umm Kulthūm, a towering figure in twentieth century Arab music. Oriental dance (the name used in Egypt, but commonly referred to as belly dance) is customarily performed to this genre of music, which dancers acknowledge as an inseparable part of the dance. This study unravels how the Oriental dancer, in tandem with the music of Umm Kulthūm, engages with the audience to create the experience of tarab—a deeply emotional state generated by the invocation of personal, cultural, and public memories that is often collectively experienced by dancer, musicians, and audience. This study is based on interviews with four Egyptian dancers and four North American dancers who performed extensively in the Middle East. This research, while both building on and theorizing from the current ethnomusicological research on tarab music, foregrounds the dancer's voice and her experiences while embodying and performing to this music, offering a new analysis that brings the dancer into the discourse and expands our understanding of Oriental dance as a performance and aesthetic experience apart from the traditional notions of Orientalism.

Research Article
Copyright © Candace Bordelon 2012 

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