A two part series by Beatrice Parvin & Amel Tafsout

Part 1 - DANCING FEET - Beatrice Parvin
Feet are perhaps one of the most neglected parts of our anatomy when learning Arabic dance yet they are one of the most important.

I first went to a class in Arabic and Maghreb dance taught by Amel Tafsout, and was surprised at the emphasis she made on the placing of my feet. I did not realise then the complex role feet have in this dance ó assuming like many outsiders to this art form that the vital and maybe only important focus is the torso and hips. How mistaken this view is, I later began to discover and that, rather than an after thought, the feet are actually key players. They are in fact the foundations of the movements and control the balance and shift of weight in the upper part of the body.

Unlike other forms of dance the feet are not the obvious visual focus. The hands, arms, head, chest and hips take centre stage, eclipsing the gentle steps and glide of the feet. They are, if you like, the directors of the body or hidden conductors, as they are never allowed to take the applause. They orchestrate the muscular choreography of the dancer in a subtle and supportive way that differs from other dance forms.

In two other related dance forms, Flamenco and Kathak, the feet are not only used as a percussive accompaniment, but also serve as a visual focus in the performance. One of the first images you have of these dances is that of the black heeled crossbar shoes of the Flamenco dancer hammering into the floor or a Kathak dancersí layers of ankle bells creating a stream of sound in perfect time to the rhythms of the tabla.

In Arabic and Maghreb dance, the eye is drawn to the colourful coins and scarves strewn around the dancersí hips. The feet are often hidden by a long skirt or are just in sight at the end of a pair of voluminous trousers. They may be adorned with henna patterns or a few slim ankle bells may rest there, but these are not essential.

The intricate subtleties of each foot can be seen with a movement such as the camel. I had great difficulties at first with this. It is much easier for instance, to move your feet in a waltz where it is just a matter of putting your feet in particular places around the dance floor in time with the rhythm. The feet have no responsibility for the rest of the body. The body is just taken whither and thither as the feet make patterns with swirling steps.

The camel movement, which can be done on the spot or can be used to move the dancer to another, demands a lot more of the feet. Not only do they have the job of moving the body geographically they also have to co-ordinate the muscular waves in the pelvis and torso. The arms also have to work with the feet to create balance, and the whole movement must be seen to be effortless and constant with no jerks or pauses along the way. Before this movement becomes second nature it takes a great deal of effort and control which is mostly focused on the feet. If you step on the whole of the sole, or only on the toes; or with both feet on tip-toe or only one, you change the movements in the upper body.

Amel teaches us to step lightly with the front foot with the toes and shift the weight to the back foot. This shift of weight indeed increases the curve of the torso. Putting the weight on the front foot tends to make the movement heavier and loses the lilting sway of the camel. There are, Iím sure, many other ways to perceive the camel and this is only one movement where the intricacies of the feet and their vital importance can be seen.

Through learning this dance I was able to see feet differently. My own pair, which had never seemed particularly interesting, became a world unto themselves as I started a course in Reflexology.

In Reflexology, different parts of the feet are associated with different parts of the body - the feet show the bodyís complex arrangement of tissues in microcosm. During a treatment, if a reflex point in the foot is slightly painful it could indicate an imbalance in the related area of the body. Reflexology is particularly beneficial for those suffering from stress, and the myriad of complaints that spring from this contemporary problem. Throughout the treatment each and every organ will be treated so that equilibrium can be restored to the body, helping circulation, detoxifying and re-energising the bodyís systems.

Feet are, according to Greek legend, the symbol of the soul. There are many allusions in ancient scriptures and illustrations to feet as important areas of spiritual and physical healing throughout the world. One of the earliest and most quoted examples is from a wall in an ancient Egyptian tomb of Ankhmahor dating back to 2330 BC. It depicts a man receiving a treatment from another with hieroglyphics translating as "Do not let it be painful", and the practitioner replying, "I do as you please".

There is almost nothing more satisfying in the world than lying back and having your feet massaged. Furthermore a treatment can help restore well being and renew the mind and body leaving you feeling calm and relaxed.

Touching another personís feet can sometimes expose the receiverís sensitivity and allow them to free painful emotions. In our country feet are mostly covered up and neglected and you can feel quite vulnerable while having them massaged and given attention for the first time. The giver also can receive benefits. The act of giving in such a symbolic and humble way with slow languorous strokes is rewarding and positive.

I have found there are many parallels between Arabic dance and Reflexology. They both encourage healing by seeing the body as a whole. There is no part ignored by the dance, from your fingertips to your toes ó each has their role to play.

The spine in Reflexology is located along the inside of the foot from the base of the big toe to below the anklebone. As your fingers follow the curve of your foot you can almost count the corresponding 33 vertebrae in your spine. From there radiate all the nerves to our major organs, so this is a very important area to give attention to and it is the easiest to do by yourself. Similarly with the dance all movement radiates out from this central axis. The more you are aware of this the better your balance and fluidity of movement will be.

At the beginning or end of a session a reflexologist will press on your solar plexus. This is a powerful point that encourages immediate relaxation. On the foot it is located between the second and third toe below the ball of the foot. This corresponds with the nerve centre below the centre of your chest behind your diaphragm. It is a very common area to store tension. When we dance it is important that this area is open and giving and free of defensive emotions as from here radiate the movements of the arms which should turn from the body in a soft continuous flow. Our feet connect us to the earth. As we dance barefoot we are unconsciously massaging each and every part of ourselves through our feet.

The resulting feeling of Ďonenessí is similar after both a massage and an intensive dance session. Both can be relaxing and stimulating without risking any damage or involving invasive methods. So, I urge you please to value and look after your feet, as this is where all movement and healing begins.

On to Part II


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