Styles of Middle Eastern Dance

by Soraya

The richness and variety of the tradition of Middle Eastern Dance is something that surprises many people. People who are not aware of the tradition of the dance often mistakenly believe that “belly dance” is just one single way of dancing, when in fact, it encompasses a variety of styles, each having a different meaning and a different effect. A performance becomes twice as fascinating to watch when you start to look for the different approaches of the various dance styles that you are likely to see.

Classical Egyptian Cabaret/RAKS SHARKI

(The Dance Of The Orient)

This is my favorite style of “Raks Sharki.” This style of dance was pioneered by the beloved Egyptian dancer Tahia Cariocca. She danced in Cairo in the 1930's. Then Madame Nagwa Foaud took over where she left off. Classical Egyptian Cabaret is an elegant, strong, graceful and highly choreographed style. The use of a large stage space is best, and the dancer wearing the most elaborate Madame Abla gown or full costume makes this a truly beautiful experience. She is always accompanied by a large orchestra. Many great Egyptian dancers such as Fifi Abdul, Mona Saaid, Nelli Fouad, Hanan, and Lucy use this formula to begin a long concert.

Cabaret is a “City Style,” very Cairo, Beirut, Casablanca, etc. It is a very strong, showy and large dance style and is very elegant. I use it upon entering my dance space, as my eye catching opener. I then proceed to go into other styles and rhythms with the orchestra. Basically a dancer has only five to ten minutes to “capture” her audience and keep them mesmerized.


Saaidi, The Country Style

(Folkloric Dance)

This dance is an earthy, heavy, and highly exciting style, in which the dancer, male or female, uses a stick or a cane. It is from the farm areas, the countryside, and when men perform this routine, it is done as to simulate a battle. It is a form of martial art. When the men dance, a big, large stick is used and it ends with a “mock fight.” The Mizmar instrument is synonymous with saaidi style. It is a long, small, horn with an extremely high pitched sound. The attire is a long white, cotton robe or “Gala Baya.”

The women do this routine either in their oriental belly dance costume or they change into a dress, called a “Beledi Dress”. This can range from a beautifully beaded gown with a long fringed belt and a head scarf to a cotton galabaya a robe like the men. Fifi Abdul wears only a robe with no belt. She is a very earthy, performer, who comes actually from the Saaid (farm). I saw her dance in a play “Hazimni Ya,” which means, the act of dancing around, playfully in a dress, and tying a hip scarf around the hips while in movement. (Wow! That was a long sentence!)

The ladies dance with a cane, not a stick. They twirl the cane in one hand while dancing. It takes a highly skilled dancer to do this correctly. It is too rare in the U.S. To capture the essence of a folk dance is imperative. Just going through the motions is not enough to show what the dance is about.

Cane dance from Upper Egypt

Balady/Beledi Style

The fabulous Egyptian dancer Zohair Zaki always performed Raks Sharki this way. She is my favorite performer. I have never seen an American dance this way. She was magical and breathtaking. Her style is also earthy like Fifi Abdo, but she utilized a small space best. She did intricate moves within her space and preferred heavy, strong, yet simple percussion, much like myself. She always wore a Beledi dress. Zohair Zaki is a beledi woman who was always in control of either quick hip locks or her band, very elegant and classy. She was a rare entertainer! Her energy, control and strong stage presence is a combination I have never witnessed being done by an American performer.

Women, many times in the Arabic world, dance for themselves, only. They play music and each lady gets up and does a “little something” for her sisters or friends without men watching and acting stupid. In Islam, woman lean toward being very modest, and “let go” in the private company of other woman. Islamic females dance for each other for the Spirituality of female power, and the Beledi woman feels freedom and beautiful in her personal self-expression.

Raks Sharki

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