Sunday, April 24, 2011


This is Part 3 in a series of articles I am writing on identifying the many styles of belly dance. As with the past two pieces, I will offer the disclaimer that in no way is this intended to be a comprehensive view of oriental dance in it's myriad styles...just a thumbnail sketch. It is my intention merely to provide a frame of reference for beginning students, and also a jumping off point for curious dancers of all styles. At the end of this article, I have mentioned many dancers who are specialists ( and/or authorities) in the various styles discussed, so you can do more research on the subject if you choose to. Please note that in this article (as with previous articles) many of the performers names, as well of the names of the dances themselves can be spelled with many variations, due to phonetic pronunciation and varied translations.

FOLKLORIC DANCE: To put it plainly, folkloric style dancing generally refers to simple and traditional folk dancing performed by and for the people, in their country of origin. A folkloric dance usually stems from a tradition that has been handed down from generation to generation, as opposed to a dance that has been than created artistically by a choreographer or professional performer.

The steps of folkloric dancing are usually pretty basic and repetitious, and done in a straightforward manner, thereby making them easy to perform for people of all ages and skill-levels. Folkloric dances are usually- but not always- done in groups; they are also sometimes performed in pairs or by an individual. Folkloric dance is the type of dance you would see at family functions or social occasions, done for fun by people with little or no formal dance training… but it can also be seen at theaters, pageants and festivals, presented by professional or semi-professional troupes and solo artists.

As for folkloric dances performed alongside belly dance, or done by belly dancers in the context of an oriental dance show, there are so many traditional dances from all the countries of origin, it would be a huge task to list- not to mention describe-them all!

In the Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia, men and women do many folkloric dances together, like the Turkish Kasic Oyunu (wooden spoon dance), the lively Egyptian Hagallah, or some styles of Levantine Dabke, while others dances are segregated by sex, like Raks Khaligi, the women’s social dance of the Arabian Gulf, or the Gawazee-style dances of Egypt. Occasionally, it is traditional- and socially accepted- for male dancers to dress up and perform as women, like India’s celebrated Goti Pua dancers.

Many traditional folkloric dances are done in lines, like the Greek Kalamatiano, or the fiery Dabke, which loosely means “stomping the feet”. Dabke is a dance with many variations from The Levant- Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine and Syria. Other types of folk dances are done in circles or semi circles, like the Hora, (the actual word means “circle”) a traditional Romanian dance that is the National Dance of Israel, and is almost always enthusiastically performed by crowds at Jewish weddings the world over.

Some folk dances portray a story relevant to the culture of its country of origin; others act out a display of strength and prowess or even a mock battle, such as the Egyptian Saidi dance Tahtib, where men skillfully manipulate large sticks or canes; the Turkish Kilic Kalkan, which is an Ottoman Empire- era sword and shield dance, and the Saudi Arabian Ardha, where lines of men face each other wielding swords and twirling rifles.

Other dances may depict an every day activity, like harvesting crops; or fetching water from a well, such as the Egyptian fellaheen (country people) jug dance Raks Al Balass, which is typically performed by groups of women. Another water jug dance is the Tunisian Raks Al Jazur. In this dance, men and/or women balance a water jug on top of the head, while dancing quickly with Tunisian-style hip-twists. The Moroccan Raks Al Saniyya is also balancing dance done by men or women, wherein the dancer performs while balancing items-sometimes an entire tea set complete with glasses and a tea pot- on top of tray, which is perched on the head of the dancer, while floor work and other feats of acrobatic skill are executed.

Celebrating an individual’s masculinity or feminine allure is also a popular theme in many folkloric dances, such as the Persian Raks Al Bezak, which features female dancers miming the act of a woman putting on make-up. A traditional Turkish Roman (Romany or “gypsy” style) dance is performed by a single male, who primps and preens and concludes the piece by actually putting his shoe in his belt-line and doing a series of pelvic shimmies, accentuating his macho attitude…among other things! The Persian dance Baba Karam is also a playful display of masculinity. In the West, women in male drag often perform this cheeky character dance. A co-ed flirtatious dance is the Egyptian/Libyan Hagallah, where a young woman dances while a line of kneeling or standing men clap and sing, celebrating the coming of age.

After all this posturing and flirtation takes place, you can bet there’ll be a wedding in the near future, and of course it goes without saying that many folkloric dances are traditionally done at weddings. There are quite a few North African folk dances celebrating nuptials. Raks Al Shamadan, a traditional Egyptian dance where the shamadan (a large candelabra balanced on the head) crowns the heads of dancers illuminating the happy couple during the zeffah ( bridal procession) for their first appearance as husband and wife. The Moroccan Schikhatt is done by women-usually hired performers- at weddings. Lead by a Sheikha, the Schikhatt dancers sing and dance, artfully re-creating the sort of movements the bride will expected to perform in her matrimonial bed later in the evening. Even today, many Arabic weddings the world feature a belly dancer. There are many beliefs surrounding this custom: that it’s good luck, that it functions as a fertility ritual, or just the mere fact that it’s an entertainment tradition that nobody really thinks twice about. In the Middle East, well-off families often hire the most famous belly dancer they can afford to perform at weddings, as a type of status symbol. Household names like Dina, Nawa Fouad, Lucy, and Fifi Abdou ( among many others) have all performed at many private weddings.

Folkloric costuming for dancing is as varied as the countries it comes from. Obviously, people doing a celebratory folk dance at a party would not be wearing a costume, per se, though if you happened to drop in on a house party in an Upper Egyptian village, and the revelers were dressed in their every day gallibiyyas, it might seem as though they were costumed.

In general, folkloric costuming is usually traditional dress, from the dance’s country of origin. For one example, female Tunisian folkloric dancers wear a draped, toga-like garment called a malia, which is fastened with embellished silver pins called fibulas, and tied at the hips by a rope or woven belt, decorated with mozuna discs, which look like big metal sequins. For another example, Egypt’s Melaya Leff, dance depicts a modern day coquette from the Mediterranean port of Alexandria, looking for a husband among the sailors and fishermen. As the dance progresses, the dancer lets her melaya (wrap) artfully slip on and off, revealing herself to the men, “by accident” because although she wants to flirt, she wants to be seen as a good girl and wife material. Under her melaya, the dancer wears a short, colorful, ruffled, nearly Western style dress and slip-on heeled shoes colloquially called “ship-ship”. Compared to this tarty get-up, Saudi Arabian folkloric costumes are preternaturally elegant: traditional thobes are diaphanous, heavily embellished, usually made of silk or feather-light chiffon, and so long that they actually drag on the floor. Meanwhile, an Uzbek dancer in the Ferghana style wears a costume composed of an A-line calf-length tunic worn over a simple long dress, pantaloons, a small embroidered cap with an attached flowing veil or scarf sitting pertly on top of her long, braided hair, and a very heavy necklace, almost like a breast-plate. Comparing any of these historic costumes to each other is impossible because they are all so different. The only similarity is that they have is that they are all considered to be folkloric dress!

Folkloric dance for the stage is usually replicated as faithfully and authentically as possible, but sometimes, when performed inaccurately, or when elements of pure fantasy are thrown in, I have heard people refer to it as “fake-lore”! When folkloric dancing is reproduced but altered for modern stage presentation, whether by adding a set choreography and interesting staging, or by using modernized or flashy costumes, it becomes known as “theatrical” folk dance.

A terrific example of theatrical folkloric dance is The Reda Troupe. In 1959, the legendary Mahmoud Reda debuted his troupe. He had combed his native Egypt, looking for folk dances to preserve and replicate for the stage. In order to make the simple dances hold the attention of audiences, he added in many elements of Western style dance and, especially noticeable in the carriage of the dancers, in the performer’s arm work (much more stylized than the original folk versions) including an elevated as opposed to flat-footed stance, and by using arabesques. Some of the Reda Troupe dances were traditional, but others, like the Malaya Leff, were dances Reda choreographed himself, to represent the flavor of a certain region of Egypt, in this case, Alexandria. Though now considered by many to be traditional, the Malaya Leff was originally choreographed by Mahmoud Reda for the Reda troupe’s star dancer, Farida Fahmy, who was also his sister-in-law.

The Reda Troupe was endorsed by the Egyptian Ministry Of Culture in 1961, and for years traveled the globe extensively. With his innovative, groundbreaking choreographic work and direction, Mahmoud Reda influenced not just folkloric styles, but also oriental dance in general. As of this writing, he is still actively teaching all over the world.

Folkloric dance is also often incorporated into cabaret-type belly dance show, in the Middle East and North Africa, as well as in Western countries. Because of the nature of nightclub shows, many troupes use modernized, abbreviated or sparkly versions of the original costumes. An oriental soloist may also perform a traditional dance such as Raks Assaya or Raks Shamadan, but due to logistical reasons (such as limited time for costume changes) might perform the dance to the traditional music but wearing a two-piece cabaret-style costume, as opposed to folkloric dress.

Many amazing artists working today specialize in folk dances of the orient. For Egyptian folkloric dancing, you cannot go wrong with watching vintage clips of The Reda Troupe; they set the standard for everyone who has followed in their pioneering footsteps.

American Egyptian-American performer Karim Nagy, in addition to being an unparalled drummer, also performs many types of Egyptian folk dances. Egyptian dancer Mohamed Shahin is terrific, proficient in many of the folk dances of Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and Tito of Egypt is also incredible- especially in his lively Saidi Raks Assaya and Tahtib styling. More noted Egyptian folkloric stylists include Dr. Mo Gedawwy, Atef Farag and Magda Ibrahim; Hassan Khalil, Nabil Mabrouk, Medhat Fahmy, Ibrahim El Suesy, Ahmad Shalaby, and Hoda Ibrahim…to name just a few!

Some American authorities on North African folkloric dances are Morocco, Aisha Ali and Sahra Saeeda- all of whom have done extensive fieldwork and made visual and/or acoustic recordings of indigenous dances.

Meera and the identical twin sisters Veena and Neena Bidasha are well-known Indian- American dancers who specialize in performing many types of Indian folk and classical dances, in addition to belly dancing. For a real treat, check out Queen Harish, “The Whirling Desert Drag Queen”. Born in Rajasthan, he starred in the award-winning film ”Gypsy Caravan” and performs all over the world.

Tayyar Akdeniz is a much-respected Turkish folk dancer and instructor, and Artemis Mourat is an American dancer incredibly well versed in Turkish Romany style.

Laurel Victoria Gray and Caroline Krueger are both American authorities on Silk Road (Uzbek, Tajik, Persian, etc.) dances and widely respected. Iranian- born Mohammed Khordadian worked extensively in the USA performing and teaching Persian folk dancing and Dr. Robyn Friend is also an authority on the genre.

Top: Sahra Saeeda and male dancers posed for Hagallah from Mersa Matruh, Egypt
Bottom: The legendary Mahmoud Reda


  1. Belly dancing is natural to a woman's bone and muscle structure with movements emanating from the torso rather than in the legs and feet. The dance often focuses upon isolating different parts of the body, moving them independently in sensuous patterns, weaving together the entire feminine form.
    Belly dancing costumes are often colorful, flowing garments, accented with flowing scarves and veils.

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