Saturday,23 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1364, (12 - 18 October 2017)
Saturday,23 February, 2019
Issue 1364, (12 - 18 October 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Wings to fly and plants to water

Egyptian women are finding new ways of dancing away their woes thanks to a series of innovative therapeutic workshops, reports Dina Ezzat

Egyptian women
Egyptian women

“Just let your body move freely. Move your body the way you want. Don’t observe any rules. Just move it freely, again and again,” says a Nubian young woman standing in the middle of a crowd of women aged from 20 to 60.

 Asmaa Halim, a dance therapist, is addressing a group of women who have responded to an invitation put out by Nooun, a women’s online magazine, to join a group therapy dance session at a downtown Cairo studio.

“This part of the work we do for Nooun, an online magazine that writes about women for women and that organises workshops and events. The objective is to create a space online in which women can speak freely about whatever they have on their minds and try to deal with the problems they have or simply accommodate them,” comments Sandra Suleiman Wadie, a Nooun project manager.

On this summer evening, Wadie, who has been working with Nooun for four years reading often moving articles and personal accounts about women’s body issues, is not at all surprised by the attention that the Halim dance therapy sessions have received.

Over the past four years, Wadie, in her 20s, has come to see that it is not unusual for women to have issues “related one way or another to their bodies — either their perception of their bodies as beautiful or not, or their perception of their bodies as something to love and enjoy or something to be ashamed of,” she says.

“For the most part, women are brought up to be worried about their bodies. This is a socio-economic and cultural element of the bringing up of many women. We are hardly ever brought up to be at ease with our bodies,” Wadie says.

Breaking the barrier between women and their bodies is one objective of the dance therapy that Halim has been working on for two years in what is part of a larger trend.

A top objective of Halim’s therapy programme, which she conducts at her own studio in Mokattam, is to help women liberate their minds from the psychological “weight” of their bodies.

“Women sometimes don’t like their bodies not because they think they have unattractive figures but precisely because of the opposite. They think they have attractive bodies and they worry as they are told at a very young age that their bodies could become a curse as they could attract unwanted attention,” Halim said.

“But when women take to the dance floor, especially to belly dancing in what I think is one of the utmost exercises of their feminine selves, they reconcile themselves with their bodies. They reach a certain point at which they refuse to be coerced because of their bodies,” she added.

Halim has always had faith in the power of dance to bring joy and dispel sadness. As a psychologist, she was introduced to the trend of dance therapy at a conference on therapeutic art hosted in Cairo.

The trend is not entirely new, as Halim had known about it from studying the works of Marian Chase, a dance therapy pioneer who in 1966 founded the American Dance Therapy Association.

Like Chase, Halim is committed to the concept of therapeutic movement, and she has seen it working well. In one of her programmes, Halim had a lady who was approaching her 60th birthday and whose body was overweight due to a health condition. In the span of the eight weeks of the therapeutic dance classes, Halim said this lady “was able to overcome her physical ailments, and in the final class she managed to dance like a butterfly”.

The thing about therapeutic dance, Halim explained, is that it is not “exactly designed to teach women how to dance, but it does help them to find their way to dancing”.

This was the experience that Wadie herself had when she attended Halim’s classes over a year ago. Unlike other women friends, Wadie had never found her way to dancing. “I had always wanted to, but I never managed to do it. There was always a barrier between what I thought my body could do and what I actually allowed it to do until I attended the Halim classes,” she said.

Wadie took the classes as part of a larger search to overcome identity issues related to what she was expected to do by virtue of her upbringing in the upper middle class and her business degree from the American University in Cairo and what she actually wanted to “be and not just to do.”

She entered the class “with the stiff body of a nun that I was born in and went out of it with the body of a joyful dancer who dances away her pain and disappointment”. This was how Wadie described her experience of body liberation in a chapter of a book that came out last year called Kul Al-Banat Helween (“All Girls are Beautiful”) from Dar Al-Shorouk in Cairo.

The book brings together some 60 accounts by women writing about “coming to terms with their bodies”. Some pursued belly dancing and others tango; some pursued new looks and others pursued an affinity to their images in the mirror.

Some decided to take up therapeutic drawing, and others opted for therapeutic drama. Many chose to write about their own experiences, like participant Radwa Osama.

Osama decided to put down the pain and shame of an unplanned divorce on paper in order to share it with other women in her book An Tanbot Laky Agnehah (“Growing Wings: Managing Divorce”). This details the experience of coming through the shock of an unexpected end to an ongoing but not exactly happy marriage into independence and then a happy and fulfilling new marriage.

In her book, put out last year by Dar Al-Shorouk, Osama uses her own experience as a model for surviving. She offers useful tips, like buying a pet or having a plant to water every day, for dealing with the daily agonies of being a newly divorced and effectively a newly independent woman who still wants to feel wanted despite the rejection she has faced, leaving her with a poor perception of her body and intellect.

To expand its mandate of “sharing and getting support”, Nooun has been organising monthly workshops in three governorates — Cairo, Alexandria and Tanta — to allow women who are not prepared to either pursue dancing or swimming activities or write about their worries to just talk about their problems.

“I think that the narration workshops have been doing well because they give women the space to talk freely about their problems and to listen to other women sharing similar problems with no sense of shame or fear of judgement,” Wadie said.

A similar success, she said, had been seen in the psychodrama workshops in which participating women join each other in acting out their problems.

According to Halim, there is a growing awareness of the need for art therapy in Egypt, and it may not be too long before this trend finds its way to larger numbers of people who could use it to help cope with the pressures in their lives and maybe also to free themselves from the fears and traumas that have been burdening them.

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