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PHOTO CREDIT: Above photo by John Rickman Photography, San Jose, California.

Mejance: the Egyptian-Style Raqs Sharqi Entrance Music

(Mergence, Magence, Majenci, Merjance, Majensi, or...?)

 

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Table of Contents

 

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Introduction

"When a great dancer first makes her entrance, she parades around the stage to greet the audience. When a really great dancer makes her entrance, she does it twice."

— Bert Balladine

Bert Balladine

In the Egyptian style of raqs sharqi (belly dance), it is common for the dancer to make her entrance to a style of music that has become known as a mejance. There is much confusion about this musical style, how to spell the name of it, and why it's called that.

Various spellings I have seen dancers use for it include, in alphabetical order:

Starting with "Mad"

  • madjensie
  • madsjensi

Starting with "Mag"

  • magence
  • magenci
  • magency
  • magense
  • magensy

Starting with "Maj"

  • majenci
  • majence
  • majency
  • majensi

Starting with "Me"

  • mecanse (I usually see this spelling from people who speak Turkish because of how the letter "c" is prounced in Turkish)
  • meganse
  • magansee
  • meghansee
  • mejansi
  • merjance
  • mergence
  • merjance
  • meyancé (I usually see this spelling from people who speak Spanish.)

I personally believe that the most appropriate spelling for people who speak English is mejance, because (as explained below) of the origin of the term, as explained by Farida Fahmy.

PHOTO CREDIT: Photo by Lina Jang, New York City.

Shira

 

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What Is a Mejance?

A mejance is an Egyptian style of musical composition created specifically for a dancer to make her grand entrance. It opens a full-length dance show. The song is typically instrumental, and takes advantage of an Egyptian orchestra containing violins, accordions, qanouns, ouds, riqqs (tamourines), tablas (doumbeks), and sagat (finger cymbals).

The mejance format resembles that of an overture. It offers a preview of diverse melodies and musical styles that the audience can expect to appear later in the show. Depending on the needs of the dancer and the intentions of the composer, the song may range from 5-30 minutes in length. Today, it is most likely less than 10 minutes in length.

The structure of a mejance as performed by dancers in the 1980's generally included:

  • Opening fanfare. The dancer would remain offstage.
  • Brief taqsim. The dancer would remain offstage.
  • High-energy, rapid music. Typically, a malfouf or ayyoub rhythm would be used for this. This was when the dancer entered the stage and introduced herself to the audience, often using traveling steps to create a large, circular floor pattern. She might insert occasional pauses to do a few moves in place, then return to the traveling steps. It was common to switch directions between clockwise and counter-clockwise. It was popular for dancers to carry a tarha (veil) approximately three yards in length, inserting occasional flourishes, then discard it and keep dancing. Dancers with star power such as Fifi Abdo might simply walk back and forth across the stage to wave at audience members and establish their space, without doing the circular floor pattern.
  • Shifts from one melody line, rhythm, and energy level to another. The details of this will vary according to the composer's individual artistic choices. Examples of musical styles that this could incorporate include:
    • One or more brief taqasim (solo musical instrument improvisations)
    • Brief drum solo bits
    • Saidi music played on mizmar or rebaba
    • Khaliji rhythm
    • Brief melody segment from a baladi progression, played on accordion
    • Melody bits from a baladi or shaabi style of song

Sometimes, instead of using a mejance composition, a dancer will opt to begin her show with an instrumental arrangement of a well-known song popularized by a prominent singer, such as Oum Kalthoum or Abdel Halim Hafez.

Both classically-styled Egyptian songs and composed-for-dance pieces are legitimate options for Egyptian-style entrance pieces. However, only one composed specifically to be used for opening a raqs sharqi show would be called a mejance.

PHOTO CREDIT: Photo by PixieVision, Glendale, California.

Shira

 

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History of the Mejance

In Egypt, a typical Oriental dance show performed in a nightclub will last about an hour. It consists of an entrance song, a folkloric piece, and other popular Egyptian songs, ending with a finalé. There are costume changes in between these various segments. During these costume changes, a singer would often take the stage, accompanied by the band.

According to Shareen el-Safy's article in the March 2001 issue of Habibi Magazine titled "An Uncommon Woman: Nagwa Fouad, Queen of Oriental Dance", Nagwa Fouad introduced the idea of commissioning a composition specifically to use as the opening of her raqs sharqi show. In 1976, Fouad hired prominent composer Mohamed Abdel Wahab to create a piece for her. The result was "Amar Arbatashar" ("Amar 14").

Soon other headliner dancers in Cairo were hiring composers to create signature music for them as well.

When this made-for-dance music became part of an Oriental dance show in the 1980's, the dancer would usually enter after the opening fanfare and taqsim, use traveling steps to make a large circular floor pattern, dance in place using some stationary moves, then travel in another large circular floor pattern, etc. Following this entrance, the dancer would exit the stage to change costumes.

More recently, some foreign dancers have produced albums of music for raqs sharqi, and have hired composers to create new mejance material specifically for their albums. Examples of dancers who have done this include Leyla Lanty, Outi, and Leila Farid.

ABOUT THE PHOTO: In 2016, this orchestra was playing music for Dina in her show at the Fairmont in Cairo.

Orchestra

 

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Where the Word "Mejance" Came From

Dancers who worked in Egypt during the 1980's report that the word mejance did not exist at that time. Their musicians and the dancers themselves referred to their music at the beginning of their shows as "entrance pieces", "opening numbers", "overtures", "introductions", etc.

The term "mejance" was introduced in the 1990's. Jalilah Zamora reports that when she produced her first two music albums in Egypt in 1991 and 1994, she had never heard the term.

Later, in 1995, Jalilah heard the term from Semasam, a Swedish dancer who worked in Egypt from 1989 through 2004. An interview with Samasem in Habibi Magazine that appeared in 1995 also mentioned this word, spelled as "magenci". So far, that is the earliest documented mention of it that I have been able to find.

Farida Fahmy's Eyewitness Account

Keti Sharif, who has worked extensively with Mahmoud Reda and Farida Fahmy, reported that Farida was an eyewitness to the word being coined in the early 1990's. According to Keti, Farida described this origin for the term:

Although many Egyptian teachers of raqs sharqi don't speak French, they often use French ballet terms when instructing students to give Egyptian dance a bit of extra pomp. Reda Troupe had often worked with Russian ballet masters for training their members, and therefore used ballet terminology. Many Egyptian choreographers and dancers who were part of the Reda lineage as either students or troupe members continue to use ballet terminology today.

The term mejance was unintentionally coined by mispronouncing the French word manèges (pronounced ma-nehj) which means "carousel" in English. In classical ballet, manèges describes traveling in a circular pattern around the stage, usually using a repeated series of one or two main gliding steps. An Egyptian raqs sharqi teacher was working with students in Russia, and intended to use the French word manèges to describe the circular floor pattern used for raqs sharqi stage entry.

However, this instructor could not pronounce manèges properly. Rather than appearing ignorant, she decided to ad lib, changing the word to mejance. This new term filled a void, finally giving this very important part of the raqs sharqi dancer's repertoire a name. It was repeated by teachers and students worldwide, eventually becoming the defining word for a raqs sharqi entrance piece for the stage.

Interestingly, although the word mejance was originally a by-product of mispronunciation in the early 1990's, it has become quite integrated into Middle Eastern dance language, and is used by many prominent teachers and musicians, both in Egypt and abroad. The word in its many forms has made a grand tour around the belly dance globe.

ABOUT THE PHOTO: Farida Fahmy poses for a publicity photo with a melaya leff in a publicity photo for Reda Troupe.

Farida Fahmy

Where Did the "Mise en Scène" Theory Come From?

One theory that was repeated many times on social media is that mejance may have been a mispronunciation of the French term mise en scène, which refers to the visual setting of a stage or telling a story for a theatrical production.

It's likely that this interpretation came from Jalilah Zamora's posts on social media in which she told this anecdote about her conversation with a musician she was working with:

When working with Ihsan al Mounizer to record my album Stars of the Casino Opera in 1998, I told him I'd like him to record a mejance for me and he asked, "A what?"

When I explained what it was, he said he had never heard this term before. He conjectured that perhaps because many Egyptians can't pronounce French, they might have meant "mise en scène". Even though Ihsan had already composed and recorded a number of mejances before he worked with me, he'd never heard the term.

According to Jalilah, Mohktar al Said and Hossam Shakir never used this term either, when they were working with her on her earlier albums.

So, one possible root of the mise en scène origin story could have been a result of Jalilah talking about her colleague's guesses.

Separately from Jalilah, another dancer named Tuija Rinne first heard the term from Egyptian musicians in 2002. They pronounced it mizansé, which led Tuija to believe its roots came from mise en scène.

ABOUT THE PHOTOS: The upper photo shows Jalilah Zamora in 1990 in the recording studio, working with Mokhtar Al Said to record volume 1 of her classic series of music albums Jalilah's Raks Sharki. The lower photo is the cover for Jalilah's Stars of the Casino Opera album. It is the one she was working on with Ihsan al Mounizer when the conversation reported above took place.

What About the Émergence Theory?

Over the years, as dancers in Internet forums discussed the term mejance and attempted to explain the origin of it, a theory arose that perhaps it was a mispronunciation of the French word émergence. Some dancers began spelling the word mejance with an "r" because of this belief, and this spelling has appeared on the track listing for some music albums produced by dancers.

One of the meanings for the French word émergence refers to something that was previously concealed coming into view. This definition is what attracted belly dancers to embrace it as a possible root for the term mejance: at the beginning of the show, where this song would be used, the dancer emerges from backstage and begins her performance.

This émergence theory was speculation, based on attempts to find a French word whose spelling and definition might match up with the term mejance. Although it was an interesting guess, and certainly very plausible, my personal conclusion is that Farida Fahmy's explanation is the most credible one I've heard.

Jalilah Zamora

Jalilah CD Cover

 

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Examples of Mejance Music

These are some of the many mejance compositions that are commercially available to raqs sharqi performers.

Song Title
Composer
Who Composed For
Found on Album
Comments
"Set el Hosn" Mohamed Sultan Nagwa Fouad   Click the song title for more information about the song.
"Princess of Cairo" Hamouda Ali Nagwa Fouad Princess of Cairo  
"Amar 14" Mohamed Abdel Wahab Nagwa Fouad

Jalilah's Raks Sharki 2: Amar 14

Debuted in 1976.
"Hani" Hani Mehanna Nagwa Fouad

Egyptian Cabaret Music by Judy Jihan Reda (song is titled "Hani")

 
"Mishaal" or "Mashaal" Hani Mehanna Nagwa Fouad
  • Jalilah's Raks Sharki 1: Classic Egyptian Dance Music
  • 10 Songs Every Bellydancer Should Know
Debuted in the mid-1970's.
"Maharajan Al Raqs" Ahmed Fouad Hassan Nagwa Fouad    
"Arousti" Mohamed Sultan Nagwa Fouad    
"Sheherezade" Mohamed el-Mougy Nagwa Fouad    
"Ali Loz" Mustapha Hamido Nagwa Fouad    
"Omar Khariat" Khalid El Amir Nagwa Fouad    
"Ayoum" Dr. Gamal Salema Nagwa Fouad    
"El Gades" Farouk Salamah Nagwa Fouad    
"Al Ahwa" Farouk Salamah Nagwa Fouad    
"Layali El Mawled" Sayyed Meqqawi Nagwa Fouad    
"Leyla's Music" Hassan abu Seoud Leyla Lanty Golden Days, Enchanting Nights Later used by Dina.
"Nawaem" Bassam Bishara Yasmina Ramzy Asala II Live  
"Helm el Raqs" Mounir Abdel Aziz Outi Helm el Raqs  
"Al Ammoura" Reda Saad Outi Al Ammoura  
"Raks Layalina" Mohamed Ali   Wash Ya Wash Volume 7  
"Raks Verona" Mounir Abdel Aziz   Wash Ya Wash Volume 7  
"Rihlat el Ghawzia" Hossam Shaker   Jalilah's Raks Sharki 3: Journey of the Gipsy Dancer Debuted on Jalilah's Raks Sharki CD. Hossam offered it to Jalilah for her album. Was not commissioned by a dancer.
"Tales of the Sahara" Ihsan al-Mounzer Dani Boustros
  • Jalilah's Raks Sharki 6: In a Beirut Mood
  • Bellydance Superstars Volume 3
 
"Al Houriyah" Ihsan al-Mounzer   Jalilah's Raks Sharki 6: In a Beirut Mood Debuted on Jalilah's Raks Sharki CD. Ihsan had not previously released it, and offered it to Jalilah for the album. Was not commissioned by a dancer.
"Maalima" Mario Kirlis   Musica Arabe Instrumental Volume 02: Junto a Saida  
"Meyanse Saba" Mario Kirlis   Musica Arabe Instrumental Volume 02: Junto a Saida  
"Leila Music Oriental" Reda Saad Leila Farid Helwa  
"Mergence"   Azza Sherif Om al-Dunya  
"Hymn to Hathor"     Hymn to Hathor  

 

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Closing Thoughts

The mejance is an important musical style for Egyptian-style dancers to learn about; both in terms of how to dance to it, and also in terms of its role in raqs sharqi history.

There has been much debate among dancers on how to spell the word, and I expect that will always continue. I personally find Farida Fahmy's origin story to be the most credible one, which is why I personally choose to use the spelling mejance. Your personal belief about its spelling and etymology may vary.

The one thing we know for sure is that the actual musical style existed before the term, by at least two decades.

Shira

 

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