Folk Dances of the UAE

By Reem Mahmoud

The modern renaissance of the United Arab Emirates has introduced many positive changes for its people. An unfortunate aspect of progress, however, is that it can undermine tradition. The heritage of each nation is a special treasure which can be easily corroded by the rapid globalisation of culture.

The Emirates possesses a rich history of both bedu and townspeople. The most authentic and popular cultural expression for both has always been the traditional dances which were a special feature of festivals, national holidays, weddings and even casual gatherings of friends. This unique art form weaves together dance and poetry and is a celebration of the national spirit.

Lest these traditions be forgotten during rapid social change, the national government and the local authorities are encouraging their preservation. For example, the Ministry of National Heritage sponsors an organisation called the National Folk Arts Group. This patriotic group performs at national festivities and also represents the Emirates internationally. The heritage ministries also conduct research into the history and significance of indigenous dances and poetry.

Preserving the national culture is not just the domain of the government. Many local groups practice with great spontaneity the dances which represent an essential element of their tribal identity.

The Aarda is the most typical of the dances of the Gulf Arab peoples, and is practised with variations throughout the Arabian Peninsula. In the Emirates, the local version is called the Iyala. To this day the dramatic performances of the Iyala preserve poems which originated in the Najd, the great plateau which overlaps the borders of the Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

The name of the dance originates from the expression of an imminent danger. The word Iyaly signified an attacker in the local dialect, becoming lyala in its plural form. The alarm of an approaching threat would be sounded with drums and shouts, which would rouse the menfolk to rush to defend the camp. If the attackers were repelled, the dance would be performed by the tribe to celebrate the victory.

The Iyala is still organised to represent a battle, and is usually performed in groups of no less than 25 people. The battle formation can be expanded considerably, however, with up to 200 enthusiastic dancers participating. The more the number of dancers, the better, as the Iyala should ideally present quite a spectacle.

The dance is organised with formations of men facing each other, who take turns reciting stirring poetry while brandishing swords. Pacing the dance and the songs are traditional drums and tambourines. The formation of participants can also include a separate section of women who in their turn recite and dance to praise the victory. The colourful dresses of these Naasha add beauty and glamour to the event.

Research into the origins of this dramatic dance has revealed that it migrated to the Emirates from the Najd during the 19th century. The Iyala evolved into its current form by the gradual mixture of the Aarda format with common Omani dances among the Bedu known as the Lal, the Razza, and the Dabka.

Another variation of the Aarda in the Emirates is the Harbiya. While this dance is also performed by two lines of men confronting each other, the recitation is based on the repetition of unaccompanied melodic phrases. The punctuation to the enthusiastic performance is provided by rifles!

This dance is now commonly performed at weddings, and its warlike traditions provide the context for love poems. Is there a lesson to be learned from this odd juxtaposition about the nature of love?

The Harbiya is performed by two rows of dancers which alternate approaches in unison towards the facing line. A line of rifle carriers are between the two rows. If the number of dancers increases, the rows begin to divide into ranks. Very often the Naashat participate along with the "warriors" in this ritual of confrontation.

Another local folk dance based on a more indigenous tradition is the Haban, also known as the Khamiri, or the Khayali. The name refers to the stringed musical instrument which dominates the dance. Persians refer to this same instrument as the Korba, or the local variation, Al Jorba. There are many popular musical groups which perform this special dance across the UAE, particularly at weddings in Dubai, Sharjah and Fujeirah.

The performance is organised with three groups. The first section is comprised of men, numbering between six to eight, the second of the same number of women, and the third made up of nine or ten musicians. The conductor of the performance is essentially the player of the Haban, or Jorba, who is accompanied by drums of different dimensions and other rhythm instruments. The male and female dancers move on a two-step steady rhythm forwards and backwards, which is paced by the musicians who play between the rows.

Another popular dance performed by tribes in both Abu Dhabi and Dubai is the Mated, a name derived from the word "mawlid," the birthday of the Prophet Mohammed. This dance is different than the other folk performances of the Emirates because of its relation to a religious occasion. Researchers have traced the Mated back to Sufi traditions.

The performance is enacted in two different sections. The first is known as the Mated al Sira, which consists of readings about the life of the Prophet. The second is the Mated al Samaa, which is the movement of the piece. Thirty people are divided into two rows facing each other. The first group is called the Ahl al Samaa, the "hearing people," who recite while several of them beat tambourines to pace the group with a steady rhythm. The second row is known as Al Radida, the 'chorus,' which repeats key phrases from the recitation of the first group.

A typical example of the Mated performance would be started off by the recitation of the famous Barda poem which praises the Prophet. The first row picks up notable phrases from the recitation, while the second row would then repeat those phrases.

A quite different dance performed in the Emirates is the Liwa. This tradition was brought to the region by Omani merchants who were colonising Zanzibar and much of the coast of East Africa. The energetic ritual is performed at weddings and other special occasions, such as the return from a long sea voyage and the successful end of the pearl-diving season.

A large number of male participants arrange themselves into a circle, which is anchored by one or several drum players. A man paces in the middle of the group playing a simple reed instrument whose plaintive sharp sound reminds the listener of an oboe. The circle claps and dances in place, while individuals join a line which rhythmically paces around the inside of the circle. The Liwa is a more casual dance than the others, and can be performed with great spirit and banter from the young men who usually take part.

The last dance which we shall examine is quite unusual and is called the Nuban. It is basically a ritual designed to expel Jinn, who are spirits who can invade humans and control their minds. Like the Liwa, the tradition originated in East Africa.

The Nuban performers are summoned when a man has been possessed by an evil spirit. The objective is to placate the Jinn and to drive it from the victim. Members of the family and friends form a circle to surround the poor soul and chant special religious verses. Deep-throated drums set a hypnotic rhythm. Incense is burned. An elder, experienced in the ritual, chants and energetically gestures to drive the spirit away and free its victim.

The variety of traditional dances in the United Arab Emirates demonstrates that the country possesses a great richness of heritage. The rapid modernization of the nation does indeed threaten its traditions, but anyone who has witnessed the spontaneous and spirited traditional dances at local gatherings will know that the unique cultural heritage of the Emirates will be preserved by its proud custodians.