A vital expression of free thought, folk dance has long been a staple of Algerian national identity. Today, the famous Algerian dance workshops of Esraa Warda have taken London by storm, introducing the metropolis to the rhythms of the Maghreb.
A profusion of luminous scarves – floral, sheer, tasselled and invented – twirl through the air, while hips twist and feet hit the ground to the sound of Algerian raï.
Tucked away in Brick Lane in east London is a compact studio where dozens of women gather for an exclusive Esraa Warda dance workshop as part of London’s DZ-Festival 2022; celebrating all things Algerian.
The day begins with an Assimi dance workshop, which the Brooklyn-born dancer calls “National Day Rhythm.” Participants stick their heads out and listen intently as the dance teacher unravels the history of Algerian folk dance.
“The body is Warda’s instrument, and the ancestral sounds of Gorbahi, Berwali and Raï are its master. The lyrics, story, rhythms and melodies are all part of a holistic Algerian identity that speaks to colonial trauma “
The landscape of Algerian dance is much more than a career choice or an object of study for Esraa. As a pre-teen visiting Algeria, she was inducted into the world of folk dance at weddings as an “epicenter of cultural exchange and transmission,” Esraa explained.
She conceives of marriage as the academy where she – like other women – learned dance, and the female matriarchs of her family acted as her mentors.
In these informal settings, a young Esraa learned about authentic founding movements that she would later nurture as part of a crusade to protect and revive indigenous knowledge.
The Chaouie dance workshop – a genre rooted in eastern Algeria – proved to be the most popular. It brings back fond memories for Esraa as a 12-year-old girl watched her aunts dance Chaouie for the first time, overcome with fear and joy. She jokingly calls it the Kirsh (belly) dance in which the belly ricochets up and down, using less than subtle pelvic thrusts.
Far from the stereotype of the femme fatale, Chaouie defends authentic female bodies that are too often shunned or hidden. It exudes, in her words, “maternal energy from the womb” and is commonly associated with springtime festivities in Berber communities.
While the need for authentic representation of indigenous dance is central to Esraa’s method of working, it has not been without challenges due to the organicity of the craftsmanship.
The main concern, as she recalled, was how the art forms she learned informally could be adapted to fit into formal classrooms. The risk she points out is that when the dance is delivered outside the “space, place, time and environment” from which it originated, it can seem “inorganic”.
Esraa naturally turned to community collaborations. She teamed up with tradition bearers, people of age; true cultural guardians, like the unequivocal icon of Rai, Cheikha Rabia, as part of her own self-education.
Back in Brooklyn, Esraa invites musicians from the community to participate in her dance lessons 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.
The time spent in Algeria is another central pillar of Esraa Warda’s working method. It colors and inspires the intergenerational transmission of culture and ensures historical continuity.
The Brooklynite emphasizes the transcendent value of the community 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 part of Esraa Warda’s workshop. Each class ended with a “party” segment, an opportunity for some to practice the newly learned moves, while others savored the peacock moment. Yet everyone danced uninhibited and shameless; free style.
Another popular choice of the day was the Raï workshop. As Esraa turned on the music, the room vibrated with the heavy rhythms of Algerian raï as the ladies watched Warda swing her hips gracefully and walk intuitively in time to the rhythms of raï.
The word Raï, Warda explained, translates to opinion in Arabic but more accurately describes the sad mood and plaintive lyrics sung by the Cheb or Cheba, Sheikh or Sheikha. The genre is synonymous with blues of loss, dislocation and migration (ghurba), furtive love, lamentation and melancholy.
Esraa’s affinity with Rai stems from its reputation as a rebellious and subversive musical style. Even the infamous Le Monde du Raï album produced outside Algeria has come to be associated with the French anti-racist movement.
The genre is perhaps Algeria’s most recognizable export, and since migrating from the countryside to urban centers it has undergone various transformations today, the northwestern coastal town of Wahran (Oran) is known as the elected capital of Raï in Algeria.
The importance of unison between music and dance; how they come together and interpenetrate, and inspire dance, was evident during the workshop and in the conversation with Esraa.
The body is Esraa’s instrument, and the ancestral sounds of Gorbahi, Berwali and Raï are its maestro. “The lyrics, story, beats and melodies are all part of a holistic Algerian identity that speaks to colonial trauma,” Esraa said. The New Arab.
She describes Algeria, particularly in light of its colonial experience, as “a place of extraction and exploitation, where people take and never give”.
By centering these authentic folk dances and their pioneers, Esraa Warda’s approach indirectly opposes the violent separation of art from its historical and cultural context. She calls it “the bastardization of culture”, believing that it is not uncommon to see Arab and North African art forms taught in the West, isolated from their political and historical past.
“You cannot dance the Chaouie without knowing the music of the Chaouie and knowing its rhythms and the way they are counted; where is the groove; where’s the accent,” she said The New Arab.
“My goal is to bring students back to their roots.”
Pioneering her own path, where few have trod, Warda’s choice of weapon – dance – not only demonstrates a challenge to moral social codes that discourage female public dancing, but also shows the world that dance can help communities grieving to heal, unite and learn.
Nazli Tarzi is a freelance journalist, whose writings and films focus on Iraq’s ancient history and the contemporary political scene.
Follow her on Twitter: @NazliTarzi