Raqs al-Seniyya: The Tea Tray Dance

 

Written by Angelina in September 2017, this article first appeared in the Middle Eastern Dance Association of British Columbia’s quarterly newsletter. We wanted to share it with everyone here, too!

Raqs al-Seniyya is the Tea Tray Dance. It is most often associated with Moroccan dance and music, particularily the dances of the Shikhatt. It has existed for well over a century, although in the 1970’s it gained wide recognition in North America when the traditional version of the dance inspired Jamila Salimpour to create a fusion of Middle Eastern, North African, and fantasy elements to represent the Tray Dancer in her troupe, Bal Anat.

Some dancers use tray balancing as part of their larger nightclub-style sets, while others choreograph large group dances with trays. Dancers have been known to use full tea sets, candles, flowers, wine glasses, and other items on their trays over the years.

Indeed, the Tray Dance is no stranger to innovation – in fact, without the imagination of enterprising dancers always looking to wow their audience, the Tray Dance would likely not be considered a tradition today.

Many dancers might assume that Raqs al-Seniyya is folkloric because it doesn’t have much to do with the classic stage-styles that we are so familiar with, and the costuming is certainly more in line with what we might think of when we imagine folk dances, as opposed to Raqs Sharqi. Instead of a sparkly bedlah and a mermaid skirt, you will see a tunic and trousers, a full-coverage kaftan, etc.

In reality, the Tray Dance is a product of enterprising dancers using objects in their immediate surroundings to provide another level of entertainment to their audience.

Tray Dance

Knowing more about the history behind the Tray Dance is important, as is understanding the difference between folklore and tradition, which is an important distinction to make when thinking about Raqs al-Seniyya.

To put it simply – folkloric dance is something that represents the societal fabric of the culture it comes from, whether it be a representation of religion (though ritual dances are considered religious, rather than folklore), marriage, morality, community, or survival. The Moroccan Ahwach gatherings for community, courtship, and eventually betrothal, are an excellent example of this. Tradition, on the other hand, is simply associated with or even expected at certain occasions or in certain dances, but that tradition may not have the same significance, history, or cultural weight of folklorc dances.

There are better writers and historians than myself who can help illustrate these important points further, so I highly recommend Morocco’s article on Moroccan Tea Tray Balancing, as well as Shira’s “Belly Dance History: Balancing Trays in North American Belly Dance” as a start.

The major point that both of those writers make in the articles I have recommended above is that the Tea Tray Dance is not in fact folkloric, but a traditional or expected part of a show for entertainment purposes. It is a demonstration of grace, strength, musicality, and showmanship. Of course, as traditions carry on for decades or even a century or two, there are stories and associations that naturally begin to form around them.

One story I was told back in my baby belly dancer days was that the amount of time it takes to do the Tray Dance is the perfect amount of time it takes to brew a pot of sweet mint tea. Since serving tea to guests is a huge part of Moroccan hospitality, the Tray Dance was “meant” to follow a certain format (according to the storyteller):

  • The Dancer enters carrying the tray. In the centre is a Teapot full of hot water, surrounded by glass teacups and lit candles.
  • The Dancer places the tray on the table or floor in front of the guests, removing the lid of the teapot so that the steam from the water is visible. At this point, he or she may add a few extra mint leaves to illustrate that she is in fact brewing tea.
  • The dancer picks up the tray, and places it on his/her head, to the delight of the guests.
  • The Dance begins, with the dancer demonstrating steadiness, balance, and skill by using hip, torso, and arm movements. He or she may begin standing, and eventually there will be a demonstration of floor work. The dance can be as slow or as fast as the occasion calls for.
  • After demonstrating his or her most impressive skills, the tray is carefully removed from the head of the dancer, placed in front of the guests, and a perfectly steeped cup of tea is poured from the teapot, right before their eyes, and served with a welcoming smile.

Tea Tray Dance

This, of course, is just a story. But the story shows us how something as simple as entertainment can eventually take on a lore of its own, earning a place in history simply through the appeciation and expectation of the people who watch it, and the people who perform it. 
A tradition can become significant in its own way, and may even have a chance at becoming part of folklore eventually, depending on how important it becomes to the people, and how it represents who they are.

In the world of what we call “belly dance”, there are many of these new stories and legends being passed on which may or may not be rooted in reality.

In a way, the story I have told above is not without a grain of truth – I am certain that someone, at some time, has involved the tradition of the impressive Tea Tray Dance with the actual serving of tea to guests. Dancing with a full tea set on the head is connected to the culture by virtue of it’s demonstration of traditional hospitality, so certainly a loose connection can be made if we are looking for one. But is it an ancient dance that is part of the Moroccan cultural fabric? No.

Does it have to demonstrate strength, grace, steadiness, and flexibility? Absolutely – these are the hallmarks of the tradition, the reason why people still want to see it done today. Raqs al-Seniyya commonly shows off earth-shaking shimmies, fluid arm and hand gestures, level changes, and floor work such as laybacks, backbends, splits, rolls, and drops. It requires a strong core, quadriceps, a healthy neck, and a great sense of balance. It is not as easy as plunking a tray on your head!

Tea Tray Dance

In the 19th Century, Shafiqa al-Koptiyya used to balance trays of drinks on her belly during deep backbends in order to wow her audiences. She is also credited by some historians with being the first to balance a candleabrum on her forehead (not quite the same tradition as Raqs al-Shamadan, which replaced the lantern that used to lead a newly married couple in their zeffat). Shafiqa was eventually known as the dancer whose horses drank champagne, so she clearly knew how to build a reputation as a crowd-pleasing star of the stage!

These days, if you travel to Morocco and are lucky enough to find a restaurant or hotel with dance shows, or attend a gathering where there are Sheikha performing (Shikhatt is a subject large enough for a series of articles on it’s own!), you have a great possibility of seeing Raqs al-Seniyya.

If you won’t be traveling to Morocco any time soon, you can find wonderful representations of the dance on YouTube by artists like Lee Ali, Hannah Romanowsky, and any number of the wonderful Sheikha who have been filmed doing what they do best, and whose dances have been uploaded to YouTube.

In exploring the traditions that have popped up under the belly dance umbrella over the years, you’ll find no shortage of threads & stories to follow – some that lead you back to beginnings that you couldn’t have imagined, and some that stop abruptly and seem to have been birthed out of nowhere. I hope that this short introduction to Raqs al-Siniyya leads you towards learning even more about Moroccan music & dance traditions!

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