Friday, June 19, 2015



 Through mere osmosis, belly dancers absorb a lot of Arabic and Turkish words. Just by listening to our favorite songs, we know that “habibi” means sweetheart, and “ana bahebek” means “I love you”.
 But do you know the difference between a taxim and a chiftetelli? What the heck is a mergence?  Here is  list is a  short compendium of some  basic, often-heard  Arabic terms relating to music and dance.  Some of these words are commonly used  by belly dancers, others, not as often.  Though I’ve included names of some popular rhythms (definitely not all of them!)  I’ve left out the names of instruments, because there are so many, it could be a blog post on its own.

 BALADI (variously spelled BELEDY, BALADY) In Egyptian Arabic, this word   means “of the country”. For example, “bint al baladi” roughly translates to “country girl”, and in Egypt,  “baladi bread” is what they call home made pita.  But baladi also refers to the name of a rhythm, as well as dance and musical traditions that developed when Egyptians from the countryside migrated to urban areas like Cairo and Alexandria in the first half of the 20th Century.  Raks Al Baladi refers to the social dance of every day people, while Raks Sharqi  (“Dance of The East”) is the refined - and often staged- version of women’s solo dancing.

 BALADI PROGRESSION This is an improvisational interlude stemming from folkloric Egyptian musical traditions. The structure of a typical baladi progression usually begins with an improvised solo-or series of solos by several instruments. Usually, the baladi progression begins without percussion, and as it progresses along the rest of the band, including the drum  (tabla or doumbek) is added in, gradually building to a climax that often culminates in a full-blown drum solo. There are patterns in the music such as a call and response between the tabla and whatever instrument(s) is soloing, so that each and every version can be identified as a baladi progression.

CHIFTETELLI   A Greco-Turkish rhythm, often used in context with a taxim.
Doum tek tek-a-tek-doum-doum-tek

HAFLA The original meaning of this word describes informal dance party where guests get up to cut a rug. Nowadays, within the belly dance world, this word basically means the same thing, but with dancers performing in costume, to live or recorded music. Also, it can refer to an event where admission might be charged.

MAKSOUM An Arabic time signature similar to baladi,  even though  many dancers refer to  maksoum as “baladi”.
 Doum Doum Tek A Tek Doum Tek A Tek

MAQAM  (plural- MAQAMAT) There are many different maqamat or Arabic musical scales, which are or melodic modes arranged in quarter tones as opposed to the Western version which uses half-tones.  The word “maqam” in Arabic means “place”, or position or location.

MAWAL (or MAWWAL) A traditional vocal prequel to a song, wherein the singer will demonstrate and highlight his or her prowess and talent through a series of non-metrical improvised calisthenics using the voice alone.  This is usually performed in colloquial (as opposed to classical) Arabic language (kind of like American Blues music) and has roots in the historical traditions and Arabic poetry.
MERGENCE (variously spelled MAGENCEY, MAGENCIE) A complex, dynamic multi-rhythmic Oriental opening piece, meant to display a belly dancer’s skills. A mergence is often written specifically for a dancer, such as “Set Al Hossen”, which was composed for Nagwa Fouad by composer Mohamed Sultan. Some other examples of   the mergence:  “ Ma’shaal”, “Alf Layla Wa Layla”, “Sahra Saeeda”(written for Sahra by Ashraf Zakariah)  “Amar El Laily”, written especially for Russian star dancer Katia, who lives in Cairo.  Though many classical Arabic compositions are multi-layered and have many parts, such as “Enta Omri” by Om Kalthoum, they are not necessarily a mergence, because they are usually too slow or moody to be used as an opening piece.

RAKASSAH (variously spelled RAQQASA, RAKASA, RAQESSA, etc.) A female professional dancer.  The male version of the word leaves the “a” at the end off, spelled “rakass”…or any of the other ways.

SAIDI is a term relating to Upper Egypt. Saidi is an Arabic rhythm as well as a folkloric style of music. Saidi dancing often-but doesn’t always- include raks assaya, or dancing with a cane?

SAGAT is the Arabic word for finger cymbals, known in Turkish as ZILLS

SHAA’BI Modern street music, often an urbanized version of older or more traditional songs. Often, the lyrics are way more overtly political or sexual than standard Arabic pop songs.

 TAKHT A small orchestra or ensemble of musicians. The word itself means “bench” or bed, and in the old days, musicians often sat on benches as they played together.

TARAB The transporting sense of pleasure, elation or ecstasy that manifests in listeners while hearing soulful Arabic music…the term tarab can also be applied to dance, singing, or other forms of art.

TAXIM (variously spelled TAXEEM, TAKASIM TAQSIM) Many dancers think a taxim is a song- but it is not- it is an improvised presentation of the Arabic maqam or scale, performed by a solo musician. Though many taxims are recorded (giving the impression that they are, in fact a song) when played live, the taxim is an improvisation, and in the context of a live performance, the dancer and musician improvise together, presenting a seamless representation of the music. Though it may seem so, the improvisation being played isn’t really free form; it follows the rules of Arabic musical theory, with an emphasis on the player’s emotion and expression. A taxim can be played by a solo instrument (an oud, nai, accordion, kanoun, organ, violin, etc.) and is usually never played on any percussion instrument, such as a tabla or riqq.  Sometimes the solo instrument is backed by a drone, or even with soft percussion, usually set to the maksoum beat, making it a “balady taqsim”. A taxim is also popularly set to a chiftetelli beat; but many dancers use the terms “taxim” and chiftetelli interchangeably, even though they are not.  A taxim can be a chiftetelli, but a chiftetelli cannot be a taxim- chiftetelli is the name of a certain rhythm.


 Get a signed copy of The Belly Dance Handbook here: 


Photo and Graphics by Maharet Hughes

1 comment:

  1. I really loved reading your blog. It was very well authored and easy to understand. Unlike other blogs I have read which are really not that good.Thanks alot!
    belly dance music