What is Zar, exactly? And what does it have to do with bellydance? Let’s take this apart and figure it out.
Zar is not a dance
Zar, or zaar, is not a dance style at all. It is a trance ritual that predates Islam. The zar ritual still takes place today in many Middle Eastern and North African countries, including Morocco, Algeria, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Iran even though it is frowned on by Islam. Many sources say it originated in the Sudan.
Depending on the region and individual, women participate in zar to communicate with and appease a Djinn (spirit), to diagnose a Djinn possession, to achieve a trance state, or for emotional release. (In some places men also participate in zar. )
The Egyptian dancer Lucy has said “I used to love it when the old women got together for a zar. A zar was called when someone was possessed by evil spirits. If you were mad, or sad, or upset, that’s how you would get it out. As a young girl, when I went to the zar, I was always very affected by it. I would get so exhausted that I would collapse and fall. I realized that the music took me over. The beat can get inside of you and make you crazy. The rhythm gets you. You know, like when you’re listening to Western rock music, you get hysterical. You have to get up and dance. You can’t stop moving.”
I once participated in a zar ritual presented by Amel Tafsout. Amel is an Amazigh woman originally from Algeria, and she is an expert on trance rituals. She tells us that in Algeria, the women might gather as often as once a week to share the release and trance experience of the zar.
My own experience at Amel’s zar ritual can certainly be described as a release, although my Western upbringing makes it hard for me to call it a trance.
As Lucy said, it felt like being at a rock concert, moving with abandon to hypnotic rhythms until I lost myself in a meditative state.
I suspect Amel would call what I experienced a trance. Unlike me, she grew up feeling very comfortable with that word and considers it a part of everyday experience.
Why do bellydancers learn about zar?
It comes up in our music. Many drum solos and some melodic pieces of Middle Eastern music contain a slow rhythm called ayoub (sometimes spelled ayub or ayyub) which is one of the rhythms associated with zar rituals. To a Middle Eastern audience (or an educated group of Middle Eastern dancers) this rhythm is so strongly associated with the zar trance ritual that it would seem very strange to watch a dancer who didn’t recognize the rhythm or its association.
But zar is NOT a dance! (Did I mention that already? It bears repeating.) Women who participate in a zar ritual are not performing a dance for each other. They are engaging together in a trance ritual.
When we perform zar on stage, we are using the movements in one of two ways:
- Referencing the ritual, but in a sylized way that creates a dance performance
- Creating a staged version of a zar ritual for educational purposes.
Trance rituals are not a spectator sport. As dancers, we’re not trying to induce a trance state onstage — Instead, we create dances that reference zar movements to interpret the slow ayoub rhythm. These dances are still created to be pleasing to our audiences, with interesting and well-executed movement.
Another reason dancers learn about Zar is becaus you will see these movements when you’re watching performances. A student might see these movements in a show, think they’re just cool bellydance movements, and use them inappropriately. It’s always best to be educated about the movements you’re using, even if you choose to use them nontraditionally.
This clip from the film Hizz Ya Wiz from Amina Goodyear gives you a fabulous glimpse of an authentic zar ritual, followed by a dance performance interpretation.
The iconic movement for a woman accessing the trance state at a zar ritual is tossing of the head and upper body. It’s very important to note that this movement comes from the waist and ribcage and travels through a relaxed neck to the head. Trying to toss the head using the neck muscles can be dangerous.
Sometimes there are arm movements as well, letting energy move out through the arms and fingertips (though these are more associated with another North African ritual dance, called Guedra). These movements may be performed standing or kneeling. Typically a zar participant might begin standing, then drop to her knees at some point during the ritual.
Dancers will imitate these head tosses and arm movements but in a planned, stylized way. They may also circle the head completely around while standing, kneeling, or slowly spinning.
Similar head tosses and circles are seen in Khaleegy and Kawleeya dance, so it’s important to learn the differences between the styles. They have a completely different feeling and intention, and they are danced to different music.
Here is an example of a typical dance interpretation of zar as you might see it in a western context. In this example, the rhythm is being played according to the Rule of 4 (3 times the same, 4th time different). DUN ka DUN TEK, DUN ka DUN TEK, DUN ka DUN TEK, DUN kateka DUN TEK.
The dancer swings her head side to side, then circles on the fourth measure.
Note that her movements are coming from her ribcage, not her neck. As the rhythm builds speed the dancer spins her head continuously. This move is more closely associated with Kawleeya dance than zar, but dancers who have this move in their repertoire sometimes include it in their zar representation. That’s the dancer’s perogative since any zar done on a stage is the artist’s interpretation — but for students seeing the performance, it can lead to confusion.
Also note that after the rhythm speeds up the dancer lets go of the zar-style movements and simply belly dances to it. Only the slow Ayoub is associated with zar. When it’s being played fast, it’s just another 2-beat rhythm for bellydance.
Here’s a wonderful mini-documentary on the zar ritual from Yasmin Henkesh at Serpentine Productions. If you only watch one clip from this page, this is the one! (embedding is disabled, it will open in a new window):
What does it look like on stage?
In the first clip on this page, you saw legendary Egyptian dancer Shoo Shoo Amin interpreting zar onstage. Note that this is apparently part of a longer set. She’s wearing her regular bellydance costume rather than trying to look like a woman at a zar, and she doesn’t cover her head.
In the clip from Hizz Ya WIizz, you saw Amina Goodyear’s group creating a whole tableau, or scene, with characters and costumes and acting out a stylized version of the zar. This acting out of a zar ritual is another way to present the dance onstage.
Here are some more examples of each type of performance.
Bellydancing with some Zar movement vocabulary
The slow ayoub rhythm often comes up in drum solos and occasionally in other peices of music (The song Warda from the original Bellydance Superstars DVD, for example). In those cases, the dancer simply uses movements to reference the zar ritual rather than acting it out.
Here is South American dancer Fatima. Her music goes into a zar rhythm around the 2:45 mark and her movements clearly reference zar traditions. Note that she’s still giving a dance performance — she’s not reenacting a ritual or trying to experience a trance onstage.
Here is Argentinian dancer Saida. Her ayub rhythm begins around the 2:30 mark and she demonstrates an entire repertoire of zar movement in a wild, jaw-dropping style. Saida continues to use head tosses and circles even when the music becomes very fast — that’s her artistic choice. Most dancers only keep to zar movements for a slow, trancelike ayoub. Fast ayoub is usually used for traveling or shimmies.
Finally, here is Jillina’s iconic “Pink Snake” drum solo from the very first Bellydance Superstars production. Her drummers reference a bit of Khaleegy rhythm around the 3:08 mark (Saida’s drum solo above had some khaleegy, too) then drop into a nice ayoub at 6:27.
Acting out a zar trance ritual onstage
Here are some stunning examples of dancers using artistic license to create interpretive dances that invoke the full meditative and ritual quality of the zar.
Here is Yasmin’s CD of authentic zar music, which features an EXTENSIVE booklet of liner notes worth its weight in gold. Yasmin is the producer of the zar documentary video clip above and author of the book Trance Dancing with the Jinn.
Uncle Mafufo’s brilliant CD, with each rhythm spelled out in the liner notes, is my favorite rhythm resource. There’s a nice long Ayoub track here, along with most every other rhythm you need to know as a dancer.
Books and DVDs
Yasmin Henkesh’s book is Trance Dancing with the Jinn
Zar: Spirit Possession, Music, and Healing Rituals is a newer book by Hager El Hadidi
The Romany Trail, parts 1 and 2, is one of the most fascinating documentaries I’ve ever seen. Part 1 is of special interest to bellydancers — it has interviews with the Maazin ghawazee family and footage from one of the strangest zar rituals you will ever see.
Amel Tafsout is a Bedouin (Amazigh) dancer from Algeria who now lives in the Western United States. She teaches a brilliant zar workshop that actually leads participants in the ritual.
Sahra C. Kent teaches about zar ritual in her Journey Through Egypt programs, and her Journey Through Egypt 3 tour of Cairo includes a concert of live zar music.
Yasmin Henkesh teaches zar workshops as well. I haven’t personally experienced her zar instruction, but the resources she’s produced are top-notch so I feel very comfortable recommending her.
Zar is not really a dance, it is a trance ritual from the Middle East and Arab world that predates Islam. Participants (usually women) rock and sway to rhythms meant to induce a trance state. They do this for release, healing, or spiritual purposes. Some dancers create stage performances based on the ritual, but the zar is not a dance.
Ayoub is a 2-beat rhythm that sounds like DUN-ka-DUN-tek. When it’s played slowly, the dancer will usually choose moves that reference the zar ritual. Played fast, it’s used for traveling moves or shimmies.
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