Academic journal article Ethnology

Zarraf, a Tuareg Women's Wedding Dance

Academic journal article Ethnology

Zarraf, a Tuareg Women's Wedding Dance

Article excerpt

One evening, during wedding celebrations among the Kel Ewey Tuareg, Amina, a renowned singer who had just completed songs accompanying men's dancing, took me aside and gestured for me to follow her. Still at the festival grounds, but off to one side and away from the crowd, Amina and a group of about ten other women spontaneously formed a small circle, facing each other. They held their robes high, enveloping their circle, tentlike. Dancing in place and looking downwards, the women shook their hair, shoulders, and torsos. They sang no lyrics, but pronounced guttural sounds in the throat. This dance lasted only about five minutes; it concluded as quickly and informally as it had begun, and the group disbanded, returning to the general festivities. There followed more drumming, female choral singing, and male dancing. Men circulated about the dance space, and couples wandered off together into the shadows.

Zarraf is a special dance performed by a group of young women at evening wedding festivals. It is brief, spontaneous, unaccompanied by any instruments, following men's more prolonged dancing called tende n tagbast, accompanied by drumming and choral singing. Unlike other wedding dances, this dance is not performed at every celebration. Rather, it appears to occupy a place as something extra, optional, as if an encore to the more standard dances. No one formally requests it, and its mixed-sex, mixed-class audience, while present, does not gather around it as closely or attentively, or mark it off so publicly as performance as at other dances. Spectators keep their distance, more like bystanders than audience. I saw zarraf performed on several occasions, after midnight, at festivals during the seven-day wedding ritual. At the informal instigation of one woman, a small group of young women of diverse social origins, but predominantly matrilineally related noblewomen (sisters and cousins of the bride) quickly form a small tight circle, and dance in place facing each other, faces looking toward the ground, shaking their torsos and shoulders, and holding their robes high, which has the effect of a veil or tent, enveloping and closing their circle off from the outside. The guttural vocables (called t-hum-a-hum), associated with the spirits, are usually made by men in the audience during spirit-possession exorcism rituals held for women (Rasmussen 1994a, 1994b).

Zarraf provoked some cryptic responses, suggesting it is erotic. Women performers laughingly but firmly ejected a small boy who innocently entered their circle. Men friends told me later that zarraf was an obscene dance; women described it enigmatically as having to do with spirits. Amina, normally open and articulate in her explanations of local practices, was reticent about zarraf. She would only give a mischievous smile and say, "Zarraf is a woman's dance," and repeatedly mention a single word: "Spirits, spirits!" (eljenan or Kel Essuf in Tamacheq, often used interchangeably). Yet this dance, unlike the dance during rituals held for those possessed by the Kel Essuf spirits or "people of solitude" (Rasmussen 1994a, 1994b), does not feature trance nor does it coincide with spirit-possession exorcism rituals. Tuareg do not consider women performing it to be possessed and the dancers themselves define it not as possession but as a distinct kind of dance (agabas), entirely separate from female spirit possession. In its imagery and performance context, zarraf evokes more generalized beliefs about connections between dance, music, sexuality, and gender.

Women in Tuareg society enjoy high social prestige and own property.(2) In local cosmology and mythology, women are believed to be closer to the spirits. In cosmology and ritual, spirits and Iblis (the Devil) are identified with sexuality, love, and reproduction. These figures are believed to walk about at night, and attend festivals held after daytime rites of passage. The form and performance context of this dance and its evocative qualities are addressed in this article. …

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