Following a series of workshops in Morocco with the UK based Moroccan dancer Nawarra, I have become aware of a genre of Moroccan dance, the performers of which are called shikhat (singular shikha). Nawarra, who has an M.A. in drama and arts from the University of Hassan II in Casablanca, has studied a variety of Moroccan traditional dances and she told her students how this dance form is in danger of disappearing in Morocco. However, the figure of the shikha is integral part of the cultural heritage of Morocco, still the shikha dance may be a type of intangible heritage that is in danger of being lost.
The word shikha (singular for shikhat), literally in Arabic means ‘the wise one’ and it can be also transliterated (particularly in French language) as chicka and chickhat. Shikhat traditionally perform at private ceremonies, such as weddings and circumcisions, and during big public festivals; for example, they dance (or used to dance) on the streets during Eid. They do not tend to dance in public venues or clubs. This is why it is hard for tourists to see them, unless they know Moroccan people who invite them at a special event. Shikhat are entertainers who do not only dance, but can also sing and play musical instruments, often improvising and using humorous lyrics. They usually perform as groups of shikhat, and they take turns to dance solos during their group performances. Shikhat are women, but they are often accompanied by groups of male musicians. There are exceptions though and sometimes men can be seen dancing shikhat but dressed as women. In particular, men dancing dressed as women do so in public spaces, rather than private parties, such as the famous square of Djema el Fna in Marrakech where they can be commonly seen. Although, it could be argued that they are not authentic shikhat and their dance is not the authentic style, but a variation.
According to Nawarra, authentic shikha dances are Arabic, not Berber. Therefore, those who are labelled Berber shikhat, are possibly dancers of different genres of Moroccan dance, who are mistakenly called shikhat. The shikha dance, according to Nawarra, originates from the areas around Rabat and Casablanca. Shikhat are professional performers who, according to Kapchan (1994) and Ciucci (2008), are an important part of Moroccan rituals and celebrations, but at the same time their activity is frowned upon, not only because they are independent women who work and spend time in the company of men, but also because they perform in public, using their body for money. Indeed, many shikhat are poor and choose this career as an option to make a living.
The items or clothing worn by shikhat are not costumes, but they are the traditional clothes of common people. They wear long and wide tunics, which are mainly of two types: the djellaba, which is a traditional Moroccan tunic with a hood, and the tackchita, a tunic without hood. Usually they wear a scarf tied around their hips when wearing a tackchita. The hip scarf is plain, without sequins or coins and it is tied at the back, so that the parts dangling, by moving, accentuate the movement of the hips. At their feet they wear traditional Moroccan babouches, a sort of slippers that influence the way they move. Because babouches are worn with the back open, it is hard to lift the feet and step. Hence, people wearing them use shuffling steps, which are also employed when dancing.
The music that accompanies shikhat dance is Moroccan shaabi (or chaabi). Shaabi in Arabic means of the people, thus shaabi music means pop music. This is the type of music that Moroccan people dance socially at parties and celebrations. In terms of movement vocabulary and dance style, Moroccan shikhat is very grounded and movements grow in intensity from the start to the end of the performance. The steps are shuffling, mostly on flat feet but sometimes on the toes and there are hip isolations, which are also quite big and grounded. The hips can move side to side, rock back and forward or shimmy in a way that is specific to this dance genre. There are also chest vibrations and shimmies, as well as very fast head movements, that remind of trance dances, of which there are several in Morocco. Shikhat wear long and loose hair, which is tossed and spins in the air as the head moves. Shikhat also involves some floor work on the knees, whilst moving the head.
As mentioned at the beginning, this dance genre (at least in its professional form) may be in danger of disappearing. One of the reasons may be the ambivalent role that the shikha has in Moroccan society: essential part of celebrations on one hand, but also despised as a loose woman on the other. It may also have to do with modernisation, which causes old traditions to disappear. Indeed, during one of my travels to Morocco, when I was in Marrakech, when I asked Moroccan people if they knew of any shikhat performing, they said that shikhat is not proper dance, not very good to watch and only done in seedy clubs. Hence, there may be little knowledge of this dance among young Moroccans. However, even if this dance is criticised, many Moroccans, according to Ciucci (2008), still seem fascinated by it and many women can dance it in private or socially with their friends. Indeed, today there are still some very popular shikhat, such as ‘Shikha Tsunami’ who, according to Nawarra, is the most popular in Morocco today and who is paid very well for her performances.
Another dimension of this dance, which is of interest for its survival but that can also cause it to change, is the way in which it is represented outside of Morocco, by practitioners such as Nawarra. The first time I came across shikhat it was indeed outside of Morocco. It was when I attended a workshop about shikhat in the UK, with the American dancer Carolina Varga Dinucu, whose stage name is Morocco and who has travelled extensively in Northern Africa and the Middle East since the 1960s, to discover local dances. She has written a book in which a small section is dedicated to shikhat (Varga Dinicu, 2011, pp. 24-28). The second time it was when I saw an adaptation for the stage that Nawarra did at a dance festival in the UK. Finally, as I went to Morocco with Nawarra for two of her dance camps, I had the opportunity to attend workshops in shikhat run by her. This is an example of how dance heritage can cross geographical boundaries through travel, diaspora and internationalisation of culture . This can help a form of heritage to survive, but it can also put it in danger of losing its authenticity and being mis-represented, as it is transmitted outside of its original context.
Ciucci, A. (2008). “Una panoramica sulle musiciste professioniste in Marocco”. Mondi Migranti 2: 133-154.
Ciucci, A. (2012). “The Study of Women and Music in Morocco”. International Journal of Middle East Studies 44(4): 787-789.
Kapchan, D. A. (1994). “Moroccan Female Performers Defining the Social Body.” The Journal of American Folklore 107(423): 82-105.
Varga Dinicu, C. (2011). You Asked Auntie Rocky: Answers & Advice About Raqs Sharqi & Raqs Shaabi. RDI Publications, Virginia Beach.