by Valeria Lo Iacono
Shikhat is the name given in Morocco to the performers of this type of dance. In standard Arabic Shikha means ‘the wise one’ and shikhat is the plural for shikha. According to some, this name is due to the fact that shikhat are considered ‘women of the world’, experienced people who are usually invited to perform in rituals and celebrations in Morocco. However, in Moroccan Darija dialect, Schikkatt are singers/performers/entertainers who sing about life, love, sadness, nostalgia all aspects of life, so nothing to do with wisdom.
Shikat are essential in traditional Moroccan wedding celebrations and other festivities. According to some sources, in particular the book ‘You asked Aunt Rocky: Answers & Advice About Raqs Sharqi and Raqs Shaabi’, on pages 24 to 28, by the American dancer Morocco (Carolina Varga Dinucu), their pelvic movements are supposed to be a sort of ‘sexual education’ for the young bride. However, according to the Moroccan dancer Nawarra (based in Leeds, UK), who has an MBA in arts and drama and studied in Casablanca University with local professors and with great singers like Hajib, Schikkatt’s movements have nothing to do with sexual education but their hip movements are rooted in African dance tradition, so they are just dance movements like any other with no reference to sexual education.
Deborah A. Kapchan, Associate Professor of Performance Studies in the Tisch School of the Arts in New York University, has written an insightful article about Moroccan Shikhat (Kapchan, 1994). She spent time in Morocco and she interviewed several shikhat, to understand their role in Moroccan society and how this reflects the attitude towards women in that country.
According to Kapchan, Shikhat, in Moroccan society, are central to celebrations and part of the national culture but their role is an ambivalent one. They usually come from a poor background and they are often independent women, who earn their own living through their art and they are often unmarried. In a conservative society, this means that they are seen with suspicion. Shikhat mix socially with men, smoke and drink, all things that are considered unacceptable for women in traditional Moroccan circles. The middle classes in big cities now are more accepting of women working outside the house, socialising with men and smoking. However, in addition to this, shikhat dance in public for money, which contributes largely to attract a stigma on them.
Kapchan, towards the end of her article, tells us how the most successful shikhat have ‘redeemed’ themselves in the eye of society through the use of technology. The best shikhat have recorded their performances on video, which has raised their profile as it has helped highlight the artistic and cultural value of their dance. This has resulted in improving their financial situations and also in making the government aware of the role of shikhat as part of Moroccan cultural heritage. Nowadays, while the attitude towards shikhat is still ambivalent, they are also seen as embodiments of Moroccan culture and their dance is often displayed at cultural events and for tourists.
In the video above, you can see an example of shikhat dance.
There are different styles of Shikhat dance, according to the different regions of Morocco. However, this dance genre is generally characterised by fast and energetic hip movements, belly drops, shimmies and rotations of the head that let the dancers’ long hair flow freely. Shikat usually perform in small groups of three or four and they are usually accompanied by a singer (male or female, but often the shikhat herself sings) and musicians (often male) who play Moroccan traditional instruments, including drums and violins (kemanjeh). Some shikhat play finger cymbals, called mooukas, while dancing, or a tambourine called taarija.
The dancers sometimes dance together and sometimes alternate each other in solo performances. In the solo part, the dance starts slowly but it then increases in intensity, with isolated movements of the hips that go faster and faster and bouncy little steps. Dancers never dance on their foot balls, but on flat feet with rather shuffling steps. At some point the dancer will start spinning on herself at times and also rotating her head, in order to let her long hair move freely. These hair moves are done to enhance the trance mood because, according to Nawarra, all Moroccan dance styles are trance dances. There is some floor work involved as the dancer kneels on the ground, while still moving her head up and down and side to side.
Shikhat usually wear long caftans, with long bell shaped sleeves and embroidery and a belt around their waist. The styles change across Morocco, but this is the basic feature. Also, dancers wear a hip belt around their hips. A thick but not wide belt, usually made of threaded wool with incorporated sequins. Also, dancers wear jewellery, which can be more or less elaborated.
There are not many dance teachers I know who teach shikhat outside Morocco but, if you know of someone, please do post your comments below.
The two dancers I know of, who teach and perform shikhat outside Morocco, are:
Another dance teacher from the UK who organises trips to Morocco for dancers is Anne Kingston. Her trips are not about teaching shikhat, rather more about healing and experiencing the desert (an amazing experience in itself), there is some dance involved, albeit not shikhat. Her trips include African/Middle Eastern dance, African drumming, Shamanic Reiki healing, Sound healing, camel riding, Berber culture, camp-fires, star watching and are located in the Sahara desert in Morocco near M’Hamid. They travel from Marrakech through the High and Anti Atlas Mountains and down the beautiful Draa Valley to their desert home and then back to Marrakech at the end of the trip for souk shopping, hammam and a traditional bellydance show.
Bookings and Further information on Desert Dance Healing Facebook page on her website www.annekingston.com
Nawarra has been organising trips to Morocco for dancers for over 14 years at the moment of writing. She was granted the Guide Tour badge by the Moroccan Tourism Ministry in 2011, so she is an official tour guide. Nawarra’s trips include teaching shikhat but they are not limited to it as they are aimed at making participants experience as much as possible of the Moroccan culture. Nawarra teaches other types of Moroccan traditional dances as well. She has recently started a pure folkloric dance camp in Morocco, which had about 30 participants, including Shira and Saqra from the USA (well known figures in the belly dance scene). Nawarra’s trips are ideal for those who want to discover the fascinating country of Morocco and its dance and cultural traditions. I have been to one of her trips, the Funoon Dance Camp and I thoroughly enjoyed it. It was a week packed with dance, entertainment, culture and fun. You can read more in details about my experience in Fez by clicking here. For information on her upcoming trips, you can find Nawarra on Facebook under the name ‘Nawarra dancer’.