Trailblazing the Tannoura

Mai Samih , Tuesday 26 Apr 2022

Egypt’s first female Tannoura dancer Hanaa Mustafa speaks about the innovations she has brought to this traditionally male-dominated job

Hanaa Mustafa
photo: Engy Eleslamboly


Tannoura, an Arabic word meaning “skirt” in English, is a traditional folkloric dance in which a dancer spins continuously accompanied by secular or religious songs known as tawasheeh, typically a mix of Quranic verses and classical poetry.

Tannoura is common in many Islamic countries, especially Egypt and Turkey, and traditionally it has always been performed by men, often members of religious Sufi orders. According to historians, the Tannoura was first introduced by renowned 13th-century Sufi scholar and poet Jalal Al-Din Al-Rumi, who is believed to have been the first to dance it during the Fatimid era. It was introduced into Egypt in the 14th century.

Hanaa Mustafa, 36, known as Hana Show, is Egypt’s first female Tannoura dancer. “I have been working in the field for about 18 years. When I was six, I began work in the oriental dance troupe of the Balloon Theatre, a state theatre. I would see Tannoura performances that I really liked, and since I like to do different things I decided to dance it myself,” she says, adding that at that time she never saw a single woman dance the Tannoura.

“At first, I thought that only men were physically qualified to dance it, but I discovered that there was nothing physical that would prevent a woman from doing so. I decided to try dancing it myself and discovered that it was not a tough activity,” she said.

Mustafa started dancing the Tannoura after she got married, and her husband, a dancer himself, encouraged her. “At first, I did not find anyone who would encourage me until I met my husband, Sherif Chico, also a Tannoura dancer, who encouraged me when he knew that I had a passion for it. He helped me to fulfill my dream and do what I wanted. He is the one who gave me the first push. There were people who objected to my dancing the Tannoura, but that just made me more determined to do it – not only to become a Tannoura dancer, but also to become better than the male dancers,” she said.  

Tannoura dancers have to exercise to meet the standards of the job, Mustafa said. “To be a successful Tannoura dancer, you need to eliminate the feeling of dizziness that comes from spinning around. You have to practise spinning for one hour a day for two weeks to a month, depending on your physical abilities, until you are able to spin for a long time without becoming dizzy,” she said.

“The first time I danced the Tannoura, I performed for one whole hour without feeling dizzy,” she added. Mustafa does not exercise on a daily basis since she performs on a daily basis, which is exercise enough for her. “If you don’t work on a daily basis, then daily exercise is necessary. But if you work on a daily basis, you don’t have to practise daily,” she added.

“The most important thing is that a Tannoura dancer overcomes dizziness by training on a daily basis until the body adjusts itself to such movements. A Tannoura dancer must stand in one place using her left heel while twirling; this ensures that she doesn’t move while performing. The dancer should not go backwards and forwards during the performance,” Mustafa said.

She has also acquired many skills over the years of dancing the Tannoura. “At first, I was not able to see the faces of the audience properly while I was spinning, but after many years of experience I am now able to see them better,” she said.

She has performed in most governorates and in tourist areas, on Nile cruises, in hotels, and in places where there is a demand for dancing of this sort, including many Arab and foreign countries.

“There is no particular diet for a Tannoura dancer to follow,” Mustafa said. “However, if I am performing, I usually do not eat before a performance. It is common to feel sick when spinning, but that is not a problem for me since I don’t eat much anyway,” she said.  

She is happy at the encouragement she has received from audiences used to seeing male dancers. “At first, I was afraid that people would not like a woman to dance the Tannoura, that they would say, ‘why is she doing a man’s job?’ But I believe that anyone who likes anything enough will find no difficulty in doing it,” she said, adding that she has often seen women working in construction abroad.

“I see no problem since I like the field I am working in. I see no difference between a man working in the field and a woman. I have never heard any negative comments, only good ones that have encouraged me to go on,” she said, adding that she was encouraged because of the positive feedback she received during her very first performance.

“Foreigners are particularly interested in the Tannoura because they have often studied it and know what I am doing. Some are curious to know what I am doing, and in some cases, they stop me to know why I am doing this or that motion or to understand more what I am doing,” she said. “People are often amazed by the art of Tannoura, and they become more amazed when it is a woman dancing.”

Technically speaking, there is no difference between a male Tannoura dance and a female one, she said. “There may be a difference in feeling, but there is no difference in the skirt since it is the same weight for men and women. When I first started to dance the Tannoura, I would use my husband’s skirt,” she added. Today, she often dances with her husband and her son Mohamed.

“As a woman, I have always had the determination to prove that I am able to work in a male-dominated field. It is a type of stubbornness to show others that you are good at the work you are doing, helping you to get over any barriers you face,” she said. “I would like to see more women dancing the Tannoura, and in the future I would like to form a Mawlawiyah (group) of female Tannoura dancers and musicians,” she commented.

Mustafa has been given many merit certificates from Egypt and other countries for her performances. “The tip I would give a person who wants to be a professional Tannoura dancer is that they must love it deeply. Do not do it for fame or money; do it for the love of the art. When you work with passion, it will be a pathway to your dreams,” she concluded.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 28 April, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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