THE OULED NAIL OF ALGERIA

by Jasmin Jahal, June 1999 (back)


All too often as we study belly dance, we come across terms that are not clearly explained. The world of oriental dance is so great and encompasses so much tradition and folklore that it is hard to learn it all. Of course, initially we are usually drawn to the dance for the glamorous "cabaret" style we see on TV or in the movies or at a party or nightclub or restaurant. As lovely as it is, "cabaret" style is far from traditional folkloric. When we finally peek into that realm, we are easily overwhelmed. Often, I have wished there was an all-inclusive dictionary written just for belly dancers, so that one could look up any term, read a simple explanation and see a beautiful photograph depicting exactly what one is looking for. (If anyone knows of such a dictionary, please let me know!) In the meantime, here we are, examining just one of those elusive terms.

Ouled Nail is a dance term that falls entirely in the realm of tradition and folklore. (It is pronounced "oooled nile".) Actually, they are a Berber tribe whose territory extends from Biskra to Jelfa in Algeria. They are said to have originated in the "Montes des Ouled", and are quite prosperous due to the manner in which the women of the tribe earn their living: by dancing and prostitution. Yes, Habibi, we have to face the facts, and the facts clearly point out that some of our belly dance history and tradition includes the SHHH word: prostitution!

Little girls are trained from an early age in the art of dancing and lovemaking. They leave their desert town between the ages of nine and twelve to go into the cafes and practice their trade. If they do not decide to stay in the oasis towns of the Sahara to guide younger incoming Ouled Nails, they return to their desert homes about fifteen years later and get married. The quality of the marriage depends greatly on the type of dowry they have saved for themselves. The Ouled Nails have to obtain sufficient wealth to secure a good marriage. After the marriage, an Ouled Nail settles down to being a good wife and mother.

The costumes of the Ouled Nail are always magnificent, but in an unusual way. They are heavily made up, eyes darkened with kohl, faces tattooed and adorned with heavy jewelry. Their black hair is oiled and worn in braids on both sides of the face, looped up and held in place by big earrings. They have always gone unveiled even when almost all the women in North Africa wore veils.

The costume focuses on a profusion of jewelry, bracelets, earrings and necklaces. They are known to wear huge bracelets with studs and spikes an inch or two long projecting from them in order to protect themselves from "handy" gentlemen. They wear a spangled veil held in place by gold fillets. Their skirts are voluminous.

They wear the money they earn in various ways over their dresses. One common way is in long necklaces. Another is to hold the skirts and shawls together with coins. A third way is to ornament their beautiful headdresses. Sometimes these elaborate headdresses are even topped with ostrich tips!

The dancing style of the Ouled Nail is heavy, intricately symbolic, and quite earthy. After several dances in costume, the dancers would retire behind a screen, and then reappear completely nude, except for headdress and jewelry, to continue their performance. Shoulder shimmies, undulations, and snake arms are common upper body movements. Twisting movements in the hips were also usual.

Ted Shawn, the famous American dancer and husband of Ruth St. Denis, witnessed the dance of the Ouled Nail in the early 1900's and is quoted to say: "It is not a suggestive dance for the simple reason that it leaves nothing to the imagination, and because of this unashamed animality, revolts the average white tourist to the point of being unable to admire the phenomenal mastery which these women have of parts of the body over which have no voluntary control at all."

The Ouled Nail serve the main oases of the Sahara, and some of the towns became notorious resorts because of their business there, and are still notorious to this day.

In 1893, a man named Sol Bloom brought the first glimpses of belly dance to America by sponsoring various groups from the Middle East and North Africa to perform in the Chicago World's Fair. The Ouled Nail were among these tribes. Their music uses traditional instruments and can be found today on a wonderful recording by Aisha Ali, entitled "Music of the Ouled Nail".

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©1999 Jasmin Jahal