Guerda Dance of Morocco

by Jasmin Jahal, December 2001 (back)


Morocco is a country with diverse folklore, customs and traditions.  Of the many tribal and folklore expressions, one of the most unusual is the ancient dance known as the Guedra.  It is a ritual performed to trance music. Its origins are speculative.

The Guedra is associated with the village of Goulimine, in the southwest desert area of Morocco.  The nomads there are known as the Blue People of the Tuareg Berber.  They are so called because they wear distinctive robes of a very deep blue color, and the dye impregnates their skin, making them appear blue!

The Guedra takes its name from the drum played to keep its rhythms.  The word guedra means, "pot" in Arabic.  The drum is made of a common kitchen pot with goatskin stretched over the top.  This drum is a hybrid of the percussive drums used in Africa and the Near East.  No other instrument is played.  The dance is performed to the beat of one drum and the chanting and hand clapping of onlookers.  The rhythm is an unornamented 6, steady and hypnotic.

The purpose of the ritual is to serve as a blessing for friends or married people or to the community, or to submit the self to God.  This is very unlike the placating of spirits or exorcism found in the Zar dance.  Some say the Guedra has the power to attract a mate from miles away, drawn by the mystical rhythm of the drum.  The character of the dance is quite esoteric.  It starts with the woman looking like a shapeless black mass, representing the night, chaos, lake of understanding or cosmic energy.  The mass moves to the rhythm, becoming turbulent, representing the exaltation of an organized universe.  The hand movements speak of passion, drama, beauty, joy and sorrow, a full gamut of emotion.  Then a sudden silence restores the energy to its pre-creation void.

Usually one woman dances, surrounded by a circle of people. The dancer is on her knees with a black veil, called a haik, covering her completely.  Her hands emerge from this black "night".  In the firelight, her fingers and hands move, flicking, tapping, vibrating, sending out energy.  The movements are done with purpose, to the four directions, to the elements (heaven, earth, wind and water), and to represent time (past, present and future).  The index finger is separate from the other fingers, as it is believed the essence of one"s soul emanates this finger.

Momentum builds and the dancer moves her body side to side in a sharp, accented manner.  It is by no means delicate ad soft.  Her braids sway. She may walk or shuffle upon her knees, but keeps all movement in the upper body.  She undulates, rotates, leans forward, straightens and backbends so that her head touches the ground.  The haik falls and the dancer appears with her eyes closed.  The rhythm accelerates.  All the spectators are frenzied, and they call out in encouragement.  The dancer throws all her energy into the exhilarating movement.  Just when the rhythm rises to a crescendo, there is an abrupt silence as the dancer collapses to the ground in a faint.  She is then replaced with another dancer.  Performing the dance may induce a hypnotic state, though this is not the real goal.

The traditional costume is essential to the dance.  This dance should never be done in any version of the belly dancer"s bra and belt!  The haik is formed from one very large piece of material.  It is held in front by two pins with a long chain draped between.  The headdress is decorated with shells, and artificial braids hand from it.  The dancer interweaves her hair with the fake braids to hold the headpiece in place, which is decorated wire framework.  The headpiece leaves airspace above the head, practical for one in the hot desert, and also shows off the braids and the head swings.  The hennaed hands are emphasized in this costume, as most of the body is covered.

The wealth of Moroccan folk dancing may be easy to appreciate in its superficial form, and difficult to comprehend its deeper mysteries.  Valuable film footage can be found in the video, "Rare Glimpses" produced by Ibrahim Farrah.  On this video, one can see an actual Guedra dance performed in Morocco in the 1950"s.  There is also footage from 1975 of Jajouka of New York performing a Guedra choreography by Mr. Farrah.  There is also fabulous footage captured on Aisha Ali"s video "Dance of North Africa". 

If you are interested in learning more about the Guerda, Morocco of New York is an excellent instructor, writer and expert researcher.  You will find that doing Guerda is fun, invigorating and deeply moving.

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©2001 Jasmin Jahal