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Algerian folk dance takes centre stage in London

Raïsing spirits in the city: Algerian folk dance takes centre stage in London
6 min read
20 October, 2022
A vital expression of free-thinking, folk dance has long been a staple of Algerian national identity. Now Esraa Warda's famed Algerian dance workshops have taken London by storm, introducing the metropolis to the rhythms of the Maghreb.

A profusion of bright scarves – floral, sheer, tasselled and coined – twirl in the air, as hips twist and feet thump the floor to the sounds of Algerian Raï. 

Tucked away in East London’s Brick Lane is a compact studio where dozens of women are gathered for an exclusive Esraa Warda dance workshop as part of London’s DZ Festival 2022; celebrating all things Algerian.

The day kicks off with an Assimi dance workshop, which the Brooklyn-born dancer calls “the national party rhythm." Attendees pop their heads and listen attentively to the dance educator unravelling the history of Algerian folk dance. 

Algeria’s dancescape is much more than a career choice or object of study for Esraa. As a preteen visiting Algeria she was inducted into the world of folk dance at weddings as “the epicentre of cultural exchange and transmission,” Esraa explained.

She conceives of the wedding as the academy where she – like other women – learned dance, and the female matriarchs in her family acted as her mentors. 

In these informal settings, a young Esraa learned the authentic foundational moves that she would nurture in later years as part of a crusade to protect and revive indigenous knowledge.

Esraa Warda, New York's emerging North African dancer and educator [photo credit: Nazli Tarzi]

The workshop for Chaouie dance – a genre rooted in eastern Algeria – proved the most popular. It stirs fond memories for Esraa as a 12-year-old witnessing her aunts dance Chaouie for the first time, overcome by awe and joy. She jokingly calls it the Kirsh (belly) dance in which the tummy ricochets up and down, using less-than-subtle pelvic thrusts. 

Away from the femme fatal stereotype, Chaouie champions authentic female bodies that are too commonly shunned or kept out of sight. It exudes, in her words, the “maternal energy of the womb," and is associated commonly with springtime merrymaking in Berber communities. 

Though the need for an authentic representation of native dance is essential to Esraa's working method, it has not been without difficulties due to the organicity of the craft. 

The main concern, as she recalled, was how art forms which she learned informally, could be adapted to fit into formal classroom settings. The risk she highlights is that when dance is delivered outside of the “space, place, time and environment” where it originated, it can feel “inorganic”.

Esraa naturally gravitated towards community collaborations. She teamed up with tradition bearers, people of age; true cultural gatekeepers, such as the unequivocal Raï icon, Cheikha Rabia, as part of her own self-education.

Back in Brooklyn, Esraa invites community musicians to participate in her dance classes to provide live musical accompaniment to create a semblance of the environment back in Algeria in which these dances are performed. In doing so, she creates an inherently communal space that is female-friendly, and cathartic, and quenches the diaspora’s appetite for connectedness. 

Time spent in Algeria is another core pillar of Esraa Warda working method. It colours and inspires intergenerational transmission of culture and ensures historical continuity. 

The Brooklynite emphasises the transcendent value of the communal circle in dance rituals. At cultural celebrations, weddings, and festivities in Algeria and elsewhere in the Middle East, the circle always makes an appearance, as is the case with Dabke and its countless permutations. 

The circle was a key feature of Esraa Warda workshop. Every class concluded with a “party” segment, an opportunity for some to put newly learned moves into practice, while others relished the moment to peacock. Still, everyone danced uninhibitedly and unabashedly; freestyle. 

A new group of Algerian folk dance enthusiasts practice at a dance studio in Brick Lane, East London [photo credit: Nazli Tarzi]

Another popular choice of the day was the Raï workshop. As Esraa turned on the music, the room pulsated with the heavy beats of Algerian Raï as the ladies watched Warda swivel her hips with elegance, and march her feet intuitively in step with the rhythms of Raï.

The word Raï, Warda explained, translates into opinion in Arabic but describes more accurately the sorrowful mood and plaintive words sung by the Cheb or Cheba, Sheikh or Sheikha. The genre is synonymous with the blues of loss, dislocation and migration (ghurba), furtive love, lament and melancholy. 

Esraa's affinity to Raï derives from its reputation as a rebellious and subversive music style. Even the infamous Le Monde du Raï album produced outside of Algeria came to be associated with France’s anti-racism movement.

The genre is perhaps Algeria’s single most recognisable export, and since it migrated from the countryside to urban centres, it underwent various transformations today the northwest coastal city of Wahran (Oran) is known as Algeria’s elected Raï capital.

The importance of the unison between music and dance; the way they conjoin and interlink, and inspire dance, was apparent during the workshop and in conversation with Esraa.

The body is Esraa's instrument, and the ancestral sounds of Gorbahi, Berwali and Raï are her maestro. “The lyrics, story, rhythms, and melodies, are all part of a holistic Algerian identity that speaks to colonial trauma,” Esraa told The New Arab.

She describes Algeria, particularly in light of its colonial experience, as “a place of extraction and exploitation, with people taking and never giving."

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By centring these authentic folkloric dances and their pioneers, Esraa Warda's approach indirectly counters the violent separation of art from its historical and cultural context. She dubs it the “bastardising of culture," ruling that it is not uncommon to see Arabic and Maghrebi arts forms taught in the west,  in isolation from their political and historical past.

“You can’t dance Chaouie without knowing Chaouie music and knowing its rhythms and the way they’re counted; where the groove is; where the accent is," she told The New Arab.

“My goal is to bring students back to their roots."

Trailblazing her own path, where few have walked, Warda’s choice of weapon – dance – demonstrates not only defiance against moral social codes that discourage female public dancing, it also shows the world that dance can help grieving communities to heal, unite and learn. 

Nazli Tarzi is an independent journalist, whose writings and films focus on Iraq's ancient history and contemporary political scene.

Follow her on Twitter: @NazliTarzi