Wednesday, April 13, 2011


PART 1: American Cabaret, Egyptian, and Turkish Style

If there’s one thing that all belly dancers have in common, it’s that we are an international collective of intelligent and adventurous women. Whether it’s a student just taking classes for fun, or a serious professional, belly dancers are uniformly curious about all aspects of the beautiful art form we practice. Though there are many theories on the subject of exactly where Oriental Dance came from, its origins remain very unclear, and though many have researched this subject intensely much belly dance history is subject not only to speculation, but to assumption, and can lead to hours of heated discussions.

To many a casual observer, the unique movements of each indigenous type of belly dance seem very similar; however, the differentiation in styles of belly dance is a little less esoteric. I’ve frequently been asked to explain the differences and/or similarities in the many styles of movement (not to mention costuming and props) that fall under the Big Belly Dance Umbrella. To an audience member, or to a student just entering the belly dance world, seeing and actually understanding the hallmarks of what makes a style “Lebanese” or “Tribal” might be difficult at first…and that’s BEFORE explaining how certain things we belly dancers take for granted -like Isis Wings, fan veils and darling microscopic top hats- all fit into the picture!

In no way do I consider the following to be a “definitive view” of belly dance in it’s myriad forms…but I do hope this series of articles can provide a thumbnail-sketch frame of reference for belly dance fans, students, and also function as a jumping off point for dance fans and curious dancers of all styles.

Under the descriptions of each genre, I have also listed the names of well-known dancers (and in many cases, legends) so that you, dear reader, can do more research yourself, or just spend a few hours getting lost on Youtube, seeing these amazing performers who practice all aspects of belly dance, in action.

AMERICAN CABARET: Until the late Eighties and Early Nineties, American Cabaret was probably the most common style of belly dancing in the USA- hence the name. Typically seen in restaurants, nightclubs and at parties, American Cabaret is basically a pastiche of movements from various North African and Middle Eastern nations like Egypt, Greece, Turkey, Lebanon and Syria ( to name a few) as well technique and/ or gestures appropriated from Indian Armenian, Eastern European and Balkan folk dances, all incorporated into a style made palatable to the Western “idea” of belly dancing.

Ethnic clubs proliferated on New York’s Eighth Avenue in the Fifties and early Sixties and dancers working there or in other ethnically populated areas learned from immigrants, but there was also a good degree of supposition, fantasy and creative artistic license involved. Many of our pioneering Western dance sisters didn’t have access to study the authentic or indigenous dance forms, and therefore occasionally invented the dance as they went along, taking cues from everything from Ruth St. Denis to Hollywood’s early motion pictures to Orientalist paintings.

Due to these influences, a good dash of showmanship, and the required long sets performed by night club dancers “back in the day”, who were usually accompanied by a multi-ethnic live band and singers, the eclectic mix ‘n’ match aspect was then honed into a professional five-part routine. The basic premise for the standard routine was becoming “the industry standard” and usually went something like this: a dynamic entrance song with finger cymbals, a slow taqsim, (often incorporating veil work and floor work) another upbeat or folkloric- type song, a beledy progression, drum solo and exit. Sometimes there was also audience participation or a specialty act ( debke, raks assaya, khaleegi, a scimitar dance, etc.) thrown into the mix as well.

American Cabaret is the type of belly dancing you might see in a nightclub scene in sixties or seventies movie, or portrayed in a James Bond flick. Belly dancing was hugely popular during the late sixties and early seventies, and filmmakers directing movies and television show picked up on the nation-wide trend, which was also popularized as a commercial fad. There were many instructional books and records on belly dancing made during this time, including the LPs “How To Belly Dance For Your Husband” and “Turn Your Husband Into A Sultan”. There were also many records produced featuring Middle Eastern music, such as those by Mohammad Bakkar, The Sultans, and Eddie “The Sheik” Kochack.

Additionally, many earlier American Cabaret dancers used to hand sew their own coined costumes and chiffon veils; and often wore harem pants, Turkish vests, gauntlets on their arms and sometimes tiny Turkish-style pill-box hats decorated with beads. Again, the hand-crafted costumes came about because decades ago, there was there was no access to the genuine article.

This style of performance never really disappeared, though it began waning in popularity with the rise of Egyptian style belly dance in the late eighties and early nineties. Still, many performers adhered to the five-part routine and audiences gobbled up shows featuring extensive veil work and use of finger cymbals. When Egyptian style became popular, the art of floor work was almost lost, as it’s absent in most forms of Egyptian dance.

Today, American Cabaret style is once again experiencing a huge resurgence in popularity. Dancers still wear coined or beaded costumes, ( and often search out vintage “fringe monster” costumes as well!) and use veils or even double veils, finger cymbals, and/or other props in their routines, as well as incorporating floor work, and working withmany rhythms, including 4/4, 9/8, and 6/8. Just a few famous American Cabaret performers include Helena Vlahos, Suhaila Salimpour, Aziza, Fahtiem, Delilah, Sadie, and Dahlena.

: Within Egyptian-style raks sharqi (in Arabic: “dance of the east” or “Dance of the Orient”- hence the English term “Oriental Dance”) there are many sub-genres. Whether raqs sharqi is performed to classic orchestrated music, or more modern Egyptian pop, this style has many distinct hallmarks, including stepping on the downbeat, and the fact that the dancer is almost always elevated onto the balls of her feet, with the weight slightly forward and the knees soft and never locked. Some other trademarks of the Egyptian style: intricate hip articulations, both traveling and stationary shimmies, intricate abdominal work, and full-body poses. Internal as well as external muscle movements are incorporated, and some of the resulting technique is so subtle that the casual observer or layperson may not even realize it is going on. Technique also includes isolations, distinct hand gestures and surprising speed changes.

A dance performed to classical Egyptian music, like an Om Kalthoum or Mohammed Abdel Wahab song may seem to be a bit more emotive or visually “demure” than Modern Cairo style, which has become extremely athletic in recent times, due to innovations from newer performers like Dina and Randa Kamel. Still, most performances include a flirtatious, ultra-feminine attitude.

A “Modern Cairo” style dancer performing to Egyptian music might incorporate bits and pieces of ballet, jazz and even hip-hop, while still maintaining the dance’s Oriental style.

Egyptian folk dance is another sub-genre, with too many variations to even mention here. Though much Egyptian folkloric styles were traditionally performed flat-footed, brilliant, legendary choreographer Mahmoud Reda changed that by incorporating ballet when he adapted regional folkloric styles for The Reda Troupe’s staged performances.

The Egyptian-style Oriental dancer used to wear lavishly beaded couture costumes- and for years, in Egypt it was mandated that the midriff be covered, usually with a net body suit. The trend today in Egyptian costuming is more towards minimalism and clingy Lycra.

Egyptian style dancers rarely play finger cymbals, though this is usually because in Egypt, the dancer performs with a band or large orchestra, and it is not necessary…it does NOT mean that the performer doesn’t know how to play them OR that playing them is incorrect!

Egyptian style Oriental dancers do not perform floor work (it is actually against the law in Egypt) and typically the dancer only uses a veil only during her entrance, or “magency” (spelled phonetically in various ways). Some legendary Egyptian dancers: Samia Gamal, Tahiyya Carioca and Naima Akef, all from the 1930’s-1950’s; Nagwa Foud, Soheir Zaki, Fifi Abdou, (1960’s-1980’s) Mona El Said, Aida Nour, Lucy, Dina, Randa Kamel. Internationally acclaimed Egyptian oriental choreographer Raqia Hassan was Reda-trained, and though she never performed raqs sharqi herself, is known for coaching the greats both in Egypt and around the world in that style. Some American performers known for Egyptian Style are Sahra Saeeda, Ranya Renee, Cassandra Shore and Roxxanne Shelaby. Many cite Jillina as an Egyptian performer, while others argue that her style is too jazz and ballet-influenced.

TURKISH: More lively and athletic than Egyptian style, much of Turkish “Oryantal” dance is based upon Rom or Romany (colloquially and incorrectly called Gypsy) dancing, still practiced in the Sulukele Quarter of Istanbul.

Turkish cabaret-style dancers usually wear costumes that sit higher on the hip than Egyptian costumes, with full chiffon skirts that show a lot of leg and fly during the quick turns, whirls, spins and hops that are the hallmarks of this style, as are deep backbends and floor work. Turkish costumes have remained exquisitely embellished with fringe and stones even today, whereas their Egyptian-made counterparts have been more sleek and minimalist. With the rise of the Internet and global awareness, many dancers prefer the intricately made Turkish costumes, such as those made by the ateliers of Bella and Legend.

Some of the Turkish-style gestures may seem almost aggressive, such as fists pounding onto the dancer’s hips, or the straighter, almost sharp arm positions used. Larger full-body moves are also showcased: earthy, pelvic-drop shimmies; quick torso-snaps and isolations, and spirited hair tossing. Floor work is also performed, and quite athletically. Finger cymbals are usually played in quick 3/4 or 9/8 time signature, veils are used extensively, and the dancer may or may not wear heels in performance. This style of dancing really influenced American Cabaret in the Sixties and Seventies.

And after a heavy swing in the USA towards Egyptian style dancing, Turkish belly dance is now experiencing a resurgence of interest and practice among a younger generation of dancers, such as Portland, Oregon’s Ruby Beh. Some famous Turkish dancers: Tulay Karaca, Ozel Turkbas, Nesrin Topkapi, Princess Benu, Bergul Berai… and Didem Kenali is currently very well-known for her performances on Turkish television. Dilek, a beautiful dancer with many awards to her name, is Turkish but currently lives in California. Male dancer and choreographer Ozgen (formerly of Istanbul, now of UK) performs globally, both in the Oryantal and Rom styles. Venerated American dancers who specialize in Turkish style are Eva Cernik and Artemis Mourat; and there are many other American dancers who perform either straight Turkish or Turkish-influenced dancing such as Michelle Joyce, Sarah Skinner and Sandra.

Stay tuned to this site for Part Two!


  1. Love this series, can't wait for more!

  2. I can't wait to see more and finally get a better understanding of how the dance form has evolved in America `;~)


  3. i love this article. thanks for sharing your wealth of knowledge, cannot wait for more, the sword site you recommended in the last article is great. soon i will buy one from them, and your dvd. i reread your articles over and over. your fan,gypsy.

  4. Love this series! So interesting- thank you!

  5. Perfect as a quick reference guide- I foresee lots of forum links to this post!

  6. Thank you for posting this. I'm aware that there are many different kinds of belly dance out there; this is useful to distinguish between them.

  7. Great series!! Really interesting! Thanks so much doing it - so much work and lovely writing as always.

  8. Thanks all of you!!! : ) More to come!

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