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Where did belly dance come from? Who are the most famous belly dancers? What are the different styles of belly dance? This podcast will answer so many of your questions, and you’ll love it.
We made it! This is the final episode in the four part series on the history of belly dance. Show #19 focused on the history of belly dance up to the 1900s. We sat in the women’s quarters together imagining what it would be like to be entertained by Ghawazee, Awalim, Ouled Naïl, and Roma dancers in Egypt in the 1800s.
In show #23, we reminisced about Egyptian nightclubs and movie theaters of the first half of the 20th century.
In show #28, we rocketed it into the 1970s AmCab five-part routines and the birth of Tribal on the West Coast in the US. In this show, we’ll take the grand tour of the theaters, tents, and temples of belly dance history. Zooming out for a big picture perspective of the dance form family that we love.
This show will break away from the regular format for a little lighter, The Danceable Ritual, Damn Sexy Dance Move, and Lighten My Body Food parts were all in episode #28. We’re going to really just focus on describing the different dance styles of belly dance that we see now, as well as the history behind them.
Before we begin, I’d like to thank SuperSue2000 for writing a review for the show on iTunes. She gave me five stars. Thank you. SuperSue wrote, “I was initially disappointed the episodes were so short, but the magazine style segments really pack in the info and deliver a fun twist to the usual podcast format. Alicia is an excellent interviewer and allows the interviewees to tell their stories without constantly peppering in her agenda like bad interviewers do.” Thank you, SuperSue. I’m sorry you think the episodes are too short, but I’m really glad you want more. I actually added a lot more to this episode after reading your review Sue.
Your time is really valuable to me. I’m honored that you all share it with me. Each one of these episodes is like a custom costume that I have handmade for you to dance in. I draw the pattern. I do all the back research and thinking. I collect the fabric and the thread, and I cut away what’s not needed. Then I embellish it with what helps you feel beautiful and confident when you dance, and you walk away with a finished costume. I do all the legwork.
Other belly dance podcasts have hour long interviews with interesting parts that can definitely be entertaining and fun, but I pack in the info because I want every second of this podcast to entertain, relax, and feed you. And more amazing interviews will pop up in your podcast feed if you are subscribed.
I just sat down with the mama of Tribal Fusion, Jill Parker, last week and recorded a killer interview you are going to love. Coming soon.
Okay. Are you ready to go on a wild history ride? I put all of this on one flowing visual so that you could get the big picture. I’m going to walk you through all that. Go to aliciafree.com and find this visual. It is a belly dance history snapshot, and it encompasses a lot of the styles that we’ve heard the names of, but we don’t quite know what they are. This offers us easy to words to pair with them until we’re really comfortable with what these dance styles are, and where this history comes from.
Let’s start from the very beginning with a disputed history of belly dance coming from ancient Egyptian temples and processions, and the gypsies of Rajasthan in their desert camps.
Picture the drawings of women on temple walls carrying frame drums and string instruments, and others walking, possibly dancing. And scenes from the modern era film Latcho Drom with performers traveling with their wagons through the desert to a full moon ceremony where they will perform. And a little girl practicing her dance barefoot in the sand to the rhythm of the family hammering to forge tools beside her.
Now let’s move into the 14th to 20th century into the Ottoman Empire where belly dance was done in harems and on holidays in North Africa, in the Middle East, the Mediterranean, Persia, Andalucía. Imagine seated musicians and colorfully and modestly clothed dancers entertaining festival crowds. A turbaned Sultan seated on a patterned carpet watches from his tent.
There are many reasons for dancing, of course, one for healing. In the 1900s, we have records of Zar Trance Dancing used for healing, and it still is today. If you want to picture the Zar, imagine a private room with a group of women wearing loose galabeya dresses and headscarves. Some of the women are playing repetitive trance-inducing rhythms on frame drums, and a woman or two are throwing their hair or covered head around as if a demon is holding onto the top of their head, and the woman is trying to get it to let go and go somewhere else. Zar is definitely quite different from belly dance, but it’s a dance that’s done by many of the same people, and I think it’s worth including here.
For partying. Now think about the 1800s traditional Raqs Baladi these diverse rural folk dances done throughout the Middle East and Northern Africa. These were celebratory dances done in social situations. And last, there’s dance for money and or fame. So you’ve got the 1800s Ghawazee in Egypt and the Turkish Roma who are born dancers and who have been paid as dancers throughout history. Ghawazee women in long fitted coats that part generously around their chest and just below their belly button.
Later in history, you see images of Ghawazee dancers with vests that are almost like bras without cups, with shirts underneath them and skirts or harem pants. These social dances from all over that area continue Dabke, Greek Tsifteteli, Khaleeji dance, etcetera. These dances that are done for celebrations and everyday life, and of course there are forms of them that are more polished that are performed.
Debke, line dances done side-by-side following a leader and weaving through space.
Khaleeji, dance from the gulf where sometimes women hold the front of their loose thobe dresses out like a tray in front of them, and then they throw their hair around in circles, figure eights, and side to side.
Greek Tsifteteli, where a smiling woman in evening wear, casually gets pulled up to dance elegantly and simply in front of the band.
Okay. So now we’ve, in the 1920s at Raqs Sharqi, grown in Egyptian nightclubs, and it took folk dance to the stage. Egypt is a relatively progressive center for the arts in the Middle East and has been for a very long time. Imagine the birth of the two-piece belly dance costume just starting to be covered in glass beads and sequins. Folk dance hips fused with Russian ballet legs and Asian arms and hands and occasional South American rhythms. The dancers gaze was often cast down, shoulders leaning back ever so slightly. There were hours spent relaxing and smoking nightclubs sometimes referred to as casinos, and an amazing band coaxing a dancer onto the stage. The audience calls her back.
This dream evolved as it was captured on film decades later up to the 1940s and 1960s into the golden era of Egyptian film. When soon to be movie stars went to Egypt to find their fame. They were from Lebanon, Syria, and other places near Egypt. And there were also films in Turkey, and they were also films in Greece that had amazing dancers in them. As well as clubs where you could go to see belly dancers. Whether or not people were going to see the music and there was a belly dancer, or they were going to see a belly dancer and there was music, I don’t know.
So now we’re at the 1960s, we’re talking about flights and women’s rights. Flights in terms of airplane travel, flights in terms of immigration, and women’s rights movements and feminism. In the 1960s, tourism was growing in Turkey, and there was a lack of religious restrictions, unlike other countries over in the Middle East. So the belly dance industry in Turkey grew from tourism and the lack of religious restrictions, and a lot of these dancers were Rom, Roma, gypsy, if you will. And a lot of these dancers wore very revealing costumes, and they did floor work when you couldn’t do for work over in Egypt without getting arrested or shut down or having their performers license, that they need to dance in Egypt, taken away.
Imagine you’re in Turkey. Picture dancers almost aggressively dancing to songs in 9/8 rhythms with a V cut into the middle of their fringe laden dance belt, big hair, headbands, legs exposed. An article titled What Makes Turkish Belly Dance Different From Egyptian on bellydance.eu.net clarified it a bit for me by stating that “while Egyptian style dancers are taking audiences on an emotional journey, Turkish dancers strive to blow their audiences away with fast and furious spins and shimmies, sharp isolations, and evocative floor work.” Some Turkish Rom dancers chose this as well, and others stuck with a more conservative layered costumes and Rom specific movements including soft punches and other gestures often layered on top of pelvic tucks. And of course, others danced in blue jeans or whatever else they were wearing.
In the 1960s through the 80s, there was Vintage Oriental or American Cabaret where floor work was legal and done as part of five-part part routines. And dancers were dancing with sabers, which is something that wasn’t really done in the Middle East, maybe in Tunisia, but these Americans and these immigrants were blending their dance from movies and from other immigrants that were from Egypt and Greece and Turkey and Lebanon and so on.
The Vintage Oriental or American Cabaret costume and dance moves and feeling were often drawing a lot on Turkish style. The Turkish style I just described, and it was possibly more of an East Coast thing in the US to do AmCab. The music that was danced to came from many places and many music styles.
And the 1960s, Jamila Salimpour left her mark on our dance world with structured teaching where she’d label dance moves, and she created these ethnic Ren Faire performances with her circus background that are really stunning.
I’m on Suhaila Salimpour’s listserv. Suhaila Salimpour keeps this alive, keeps her mother’s teaching alive. And those performances of Bal Anat at the Renaissance festival are so stunning to me. They just have this flavor of other worlds. But again, they were created for performance in the US in California in the 60s. They’re brilliant. Bal Anat’s costuming included face tattoos, Egyptian Assuit – that gorgeous black fishnet with tiny strips of metal pinched into patterns throughout, often darker colors and more tribal looking fabrics, and less sparkle than the American Cabaret costumes. More coins than sequins.
The dancers also played percussion, and props included snakes and sabers and pots. And the music often sounded more folkloric with the reeded instruments and drums dominating. These instruments that could be heard by crowds in an unamplified performance space. And I believe that live music that’s unamplified creates a very different dynamic and feel as well. So that’s part of this dance style too.
And in the 1960s, you start to see the Saidi Stick Dance, the sassy stick dance performed on stages, not just in a folkloric context. Saidi music often includes a mizmār or another loud reeded instrument, and it feels very folkloric. Saidi rhythm is earthy with a double doom in the center, right. Saidi’s center. Double doom is in the center: doom, tek, doom-doom, tek-teka
Dt DD tkt
Saidi refers to upper Egypt, and there seems to be a strong and rural thing almost similar to cowboys in the US when men danced with the stick in the style, it’s like martial arts. They’re fighting. When women dance with the cane, the stick, they’re often playfully mocking masculinity while also looking really strong and sexy. Mona Said is one of my favorite dancers to watch dance with a cane.
Also starting the 1960s with Egypt’s Reda Troupe focused on folkloric and modern dance elements in films and in shows delivering very theatrical performances. And this troupe was seen by many as both innovative and respectful of Egyptian folkloric traditions. The Reda Troupe continued into the 1980s. You can still see reunion videos now. They’re fabulous. The very famous Egyptian dancer, Dina had been in the Reda Troupe. Her 1980s costumes often involved a lot of cleavage. She’s quite memorable and apparently she shocked Egypt in the 90s when her costumes came closer to bikinis and she sported mini skirts sometimes.
Now we’ll go into the 1970s where we see these waves of fundamentalism and economic downturns that stifled belly dance in different areas and countries at different time periods. And this continues to happen today. And you look at the 1970s when Shaabi became a thing. When the blue collar and lower-class Egyptians were dancing in street weddings. Sha’abi, music of the people, music that addresses political and social concerns, not just all about love, but also has a lot of messages that come from working class people in Egypt.
On aswandancers.org, there’s a whole Shaabi history and a timeline that’s really helpful. In 1975, probably the most respected female vocalists in Egyptian history, Umm Kulthūm dies. Abdel Halim Hafez also dies. That happened a couple of years later. So this whole golden era of orchestral Egyptian music is gone, and there’s a space where music that is not orchestral and that is much more poignant in terms of regular life for people in Egypt arises with cassette tapes disseminated throughout Egypt.
And on this timeline, they mentioned 1984 belly dance clubs torched and in 1977, belly dance clubs attacked in Cairo. I don’t know what was going on, but that sounds pretty serious. Shaabi continues to this day.
On shira.net there’s an article titled Egyptian Shaabi Music and song that states that Shaabi music was first recorded in the early 1900. It’s closer to the music of the streets than the orchestral pieces that were being played in many concert halls, maybe the singers are more raw and honest and less trained than pop singers and those who perform in concert halls, less poetic, I don’t know. And the dancing is more like how you would dance for your husband at home. I’ve heard that from another dancer once, just throwing it all out there. I’d love to interview a Shaabi expert and gain more perspective on this. Most of what I’ve read says Shaabi emerged in the 1970s.
I haven’t figured out how to identify Shaabi music, but I do notice that a lot of the times dancers, if they’re performing to Shaabi music, will be wearing a baladi dress or a galabeya, just a straight longer dress with slits up the side, and they’ll often tie a rectangular scarf, not a triangular scarf, but a rectangular scarf, around their hips. Sometimes they even tie it on while they’re performing, and I’ve seen it done in short skirts as well. Other dresses that have short skirts. But that rectangular scarf, there’s something there. Women will use it more as a prop where they’re kind of rubbing it on their butts and make a little but sling out of it.
The galabeya, the baladi dress, those have folk roots, and they predate the 1970s. Performers doing cane dances to Shaabi music, they’re often wearing a galabeya as well.
And the 1980s, the dance exercise craze, when we started to think about belly dance as a way to burn calories instead of a way to express yourself and dance with friends and family as it was originally.
In the 1980s, Carolena Nericcio created ATS, American Tribal Style. So this is cued group improv and that changed the way that belly dance was done and seen in a lot of places as well.
ATS costumes are easy to spot because they involve wearing cholis, a short sleeve or long sleeve, half shirt, if you will, that ends under the bust line under a dance bra. So cholis under a dance bra, and there are clusters of big flowers in the dancers hair, and their hair is pinned up instead of down and loose, most of the time. And they often were very full-tiered skirts that are like 25 yards. They’re huge. And their music can be very folkloric or even Indian classical or electronica or anything they want really.
And then out of that movement came Jill Parker’s Tribal Fusion. The style created by Jill Parker is more focused on sensuality and no longer cued group improv. Still some choreography, but also bringing it back to feeling the music. I’m not saying that you can’t feel the music in ATS, but you don’t have your own agency to move however you like in ATS. You follow the leader, and leadership is shared. Different people take turns leading in the front of the group. They rotate out, and you have this beautiful community of people who know this vocabulary that you can dance with all over the world. I think that’s amazing.
Jill Parker’s costume style often includes draping fabrics and antique coins, and she often dances to a lot of really good electronic music with Middle Eastern elements. I really love what all of these dancers I’m talking about have contributed.
Up into the 1990s when recorded music definitively became more common than live music. When restaurants and clubs no longer had that house band that played every weekend. Soon it was a keyboard and the maqam ajem, which is a maqam that sounds more Western because it has no half, half flats, the semitones that cannot be played are on a Western keyboard. It’s often used for military marches, those kinds of things, and then it was a bunch of canned music.
Now let’s talk a little bit about American Cabaret five-part routines. This was again from the 1960s to the 1980s where there were 15 to 45 minute sets for dancing, not a five minute set or a five minute piece that you perform now when you’re dancing and a lot of these places. So on visionarydance.com Delilah of Seattle wrote that, “Today our world has gone through many changes and our attention span has brought us to an often soundbite mentality. Thus most dancers only get the opportunity to do a five to 10 minute dance performance. There’s a difference in the psychic state the dance performer gets into and takes her audience when she dances a longer set.” Well said. This really encapsulates how many of us humans have changed since the 1970s as well.
More obsessed with a series of quick, cheap thrills, and then onto the next distraction. Especially now. People who want to learn dance are enticed by so many shiny dance forms that are much more accessible than belly dance. Forms that you can just go to a weekend class, get a certificate in exchange for your time and your money, and declare yourself a master. Quality belly dance requires really listening to the music for years. Really loving the music. Being emotionally moved by the music, and communicating that through your dance. It’s not just a tool to get our butts shaking. Not like in the exercise dance revolution here.
Music is everything, and taking risks to get to that sweet spot where the music flows through you is so important. Being humbled by the immense wealth of teachers and styles and stories and emotions and moves and melodies and rhythms now undulating beneath the belly dance umbrella on this planet. And then add props and costumes on top, and it’s really incredible.
On Helenavlahos.com, she talks about the disappearance of good places for dancers to perform, and about how this is a “cultural tragedy. One club after another has closed. And a simple clean dressing room separate from customer restrooms is very hard to find.” A stage with an adequate floor where you can go to the edge of losing control. It’s hard to find. Lighting that makes us look good. Accomplished Middle Eastern musicians. I love how Helena Vlahos wrote this. So many things were lost. One of the last quasi-performer families, the Banat Mazins stopped performing together in the 90s. They had been famous in the 70s and 80s. I’ve heard there’s still one dancer in the family left named Khairiyya Mazin. Sorry for the mispronunciation. You can dance with her if you go to Sarha Sayeeda’s Journey to Egypt trip, I heard. I haven’t verified that, but it might be true.
Go up into the 2000s, where Belly Dance Superstars starts touring the world, and dancers such as Rachel Brice and Mardi Love emerge as these stars. And these huge stage productions showcase different styles of belly dance, including Egyptian, Turkish, AmCab, and ATS and Tribal Fusion. And belly dance spreads to Asia and South America and classes flourish in those other parts of the world.
And the 2000s, we’ve got Eastern Europeans and dancers from the Americas performing along with Middle Easterners in Egyptian hotels and nightclubs. I’m sure the belly dancing and Turkey and other countries is incredible. And I’ve heard a lot of professional dancers talk about how Egypt is not a fun place to work anymore, but Egypt is still the historic holy land of belly dance. Even with the morals police in Egypt cracking down on dancers even recently for not wearing the right underpants. I mean, they don’t know if she was wearing any underpants, but it made that particular dancer quite famous. I think she got paid a lot more for weddings after that kind of news. And also of course the morals police watching to make sure that there was no floor work, that there was a body stocking with a zipper in the back, and that these dancers were within the rules that were set by the government.
Could you imagine the American government making rules about our dancers? It’s such a different concept. Even with this great influx of dancers from other countries that did not grow up listening to Middle Eastern music, there is still the grace and glamour of performing in Egypt that has drawn people from all over, especially from Eastern Europe right now. There’s definitely a lot of not glamorous or unglamorous paid belly dancing that happens in Egypt too. Don’t get me wrong. Check out the documentary They Dance at Night, which I talked about more in the last episode. It focuses are on a current era family of dancers in Egypt, and it’s pretty rough.
I’m sure I’m missing many things and possibly misinterpreting many things, but I’m going to end with Amy Sigil’s Improvisational Tribal Style, ITS, which is more of a hip hop group experience, and that was in the 2000s as well. Some people look at it, and they don’t even see belly dance in there. They see hip hop music video that could be on MTV. It’s a lot of cute improvisation with a hip hop and street dance flare. And I haven’t seen sparkly costumes in ITS and Amy’s troupe UNMATA. It’s more like sport’s bras or slightly embellished dance bras and yoga pants or looser pants that would be worn by break dancers, and black is the dominant color. Lots of music with drum machines. It’s very different than belly dance, but again, it shares a lot of the same core moves. All of these styles share core movements.
I want to include what Dana Al Rashid, a Kuwaiti writer wrote about Western belly dance from an Arab perspective. She wrote, “I believe the Western world has done so much goodness to belly dance. It has elevated the dance, stripping away from it vulgarity for the most part, and turning it into a fine art, breaking down the movements, naming them and creating endless classes to drill them properly as opposed to the Middle Eastern format of simply following along with the instructor really took the dance to a new level. I am also very grateful for the instructional DVDs and videos that you can stream online nowadays as they provided much needed structure that I don’t normally find in Arabia. In the Middle East, especially in the more conservative regions, the instructors don’t take themselves seriously because belly dancing is done as a casual class for fun, as the majority of the girls wouldn’t want to perform or God forbid, make it a career. Most girls are content with their instinctive knowledge of the dance, which they use dance in segregated weddings and gatherings. In addition, many girls live in very conservative households that limit their choices and whereabouts. So online training is a wonderful and effective alternative for them.”
She also writes that Americans do American born styles best. Makes sense. And Abigail Keys wrote something to the effect of if you’re not committed to really learning this dance, go hoop, or do another dance form that doesn’t carry responsibility with it like belly dance does.
So I really want to thank belly dance historians who have done so much work: Aisha Ali, Jamila and Suhaila Salimpour, Morocco, Artemis, Abigail Keys, Alia Thabit, and others that have really studied belly dance and been academic about it. I’m not being academic about belly dance here. I’m presenting to you what I’ve discovered online and from various sources, and hoping that that has cleared up something for you.
So did something in this episode become more clear, something that you had been confused about, and have you found a style or a dancer that you want to learn more about? Because those are the goals of this episode, and I’m hoping that I did that for you. I’m hoping I brought you there. Let’s get real.
Forgive me for focusing on these American names. I know that there are so many famous dancers coming out of Egypt and Turkey and Lebanon for these decades, from the 1970s up to now. And there were just so many I didn’t know who to highlight.
Forgive me for these omissions and write on our Facebook page which dancers you love. If you are familiar with the famous dancers from these eras from other countries.
Go to aliciafree.com, click on that Facebook icon, and post. I have dreaded putting this show together. The sheer amount of opinions on what has happened in belly dance is immense, let alone the global scale and tricky terminology and abundance of more concrete facts and things that appear to be facts. So hopefully you got something solid out of this episode, and this whole series, that you can use to enrich your dance and honor those who came before us.
Did you like this podcast? Did you get a lot out of it? Please just take a couple minutes and write me a review on iTunes. Just help other people realize that this podcast has a lot to offer and that they want to have a listen. Thank you so much. I really appreciate it. Honestly, three minutes writing a view will make a big difference.
(The Politics of Bellydancing in Cairo by Shannon Arvizu in a 2004 edition of the The Arab Studies Journal. https://www.jstor.org/stable/27933913 )
The rise of American styles
The decline of the Ghawazee http://babayagamusic.com/Encyclopedic-Dictionary-Ethnic-Arts/ghawazee.htm
The decline of the dance venue
End of Banat Mazin in 1990s http://www.gildedserpent.com/cms/2012/02/17/edwina-nearing-end-of-banat-mazin/#axzz3A3qIuO65
Kuwaiti writer Dana Al Rashid wrote an intriguing article called Western Belly Dance: An Arab Perspective.