LAST YEAR, in search of dance and music for the Smithsonian Institution's annual Folklife Festival, Richard Kennedy found himself in the city of Suhar, on the north coast of Oman, watching taxicab after nondescript taxicab pull up. "I thought it was a little strange that all the performers were coming in taxicabs," says Kennedy, who is deputy director of the museum's Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. "Then I realized all the performers were taxicab drivers." The men wore traditional full-length robes called dishdashas, and some had khanjars (ceremonial daggers) strapped to their waists. There, in a parking lot on the city's outskirts, two hours from Oman's capital of Muscat, they performed for Kennedy and his colleagues.
Not much larger than the state of Kansas and nestled on the eastern coast of the Arabian Peninsula, Oman looks out to India, Africa and its Arab neighbors. And Omani dance and music draw inspiration from each, part of a cultural tradition that has always been of, by and for the people, whether Bedouin or businessman, taxi driver or tax collector.
And now the people of Washington are witnessing this rich amalgamation of Indian, African and Arab traditions. As part of the Smithsonian's 39th annual Folklife Festival -- the first to prominently feature an Arab nation -- more than 60 Omani musicians and dancers are performing on the Mall through Monday, as well as from Thursday through July 4.
"Oman: Desert, Oasis and Sea" includes artisans and craftspeople demonstrating traditional art forms such as Islamic calligraphy, silk and wool weaving, camel saddle-making and perfume preparation. And with the help of two camels shipped in from Valley Mills, Tex., -- Ibrahim and Richard -- visitors will be able to glimpse nomadic desert life and see its connection to Omani music, dance and folk arts.
Omani dance traditions vary from region to region among ethnic groups, but almost all the dance Kennedy found is performed by large ensembles. Sometimes these are male-only or female-only groups, while at other times both sexes dance together, often in two facing lines that advance and retreat. Steps are simple, frequently performed barefoot and characteristic of folk dances throughout the world -- hops, jumps, syncopated shuffles -- and yet the movements are striking. The upper body, with its distinctive sway, is particularly interesting; it rocks to and fro like the rolling waves of the ocean or the ever-shifting landscape of desert sands.
Also of note is Oman's national dance, the Razha, performed by men only, featuring stylized swordplay and flashy displays of strength and dexterity. "Sword dances are integral to Omani tradition," Kennedy says. "They were warrior dances in the past, while now they are very much looked at as dances to honor people or official occasions."
As concerned as he was to authentically present an Arab culture here in Washington, Kennedy was not unmindful of the present political climate. "We are finding a fine line between what represents the heart and soul of a culture and also being aware of what may reinforce stereotypes about people, especially at this time," he says.
But for Kennedy, the Omani arrival, and indeed the Folklife Festival itself, represents a unique opportunity to transcend cultural barriers. "All this needs to be studied. It's still very distant for us," he insists. "The surprising elements will be the complexity of the music and dance and their connections outside the Arabian Peninsula." But most important for Kennedy, and more so for Omanis themselves: "There is no music without dance. All traditional music in Oman is connected to dance."
"OMAN: DESERT, OASIS AND SEA" -- Through Monday, and Thursday through July 4. Smithsonian Folklife Festival on the Mall. Free. For information, call 202-633-1000 or visit www.folklife.si.edu.