Different Styles of Oriental Dance
Dance is a living and evolving art form. It evolves as cultures evolve and as it is adopted by new cultures. Because of this there are many different styles of “belly dance”. The following is a primer to help you recognize some of the different styles and where they came from.
Egyptian Style Oriental DanceEgyptian Style as the title indicates originates in Egypt. The stars of Egyptian dance gained fame by differentiating themselves from their peers, so there is a wide variety of dance that can come under this heading. There are certain elements that seem to give Egyptian dance a consistent feel. Often Egyptians will dance more to the rhythm of a piece than the melody, although there are a few dancers who do dance quite melodically at times. Also Egyptians often carry their energy low in their body, so their dancing seems very grounded, even when they are dancing in rélevé. Floor work (dancing seated or lying on the floor) was made illegal in Egypt for most of the 20th century, so you only see it rarely, usually in a vignette, character dance or candelabrum dance. As with all Oriental dance, Egyptian Oriental is heavily steeped in the folkloric music and dance of Egypt. For example, Saidi rhythms and elements are very common.
Many separate Golden Era Egyptian Style with more modern stylings. Golden Era refers to the stars of Egyptian dance from the 1920-1950s. Some of the most famous names of that time included Samia Gamal, Tahiya Karioka and Naima Akef. Golden Era can be stretched to include the following generation who started their careers at the tail end of the Golden Era: Souhair Zaki, Nagwa Fouad, Fifi Abdo, Mona Said and Aza Sharif reached the height of their popularity between 1960-1980s. Modern Egyptian refers to more current trends in Egyptian Oriental Dance, some of which includes Ballet and Modern dance elements. Big names in modern Egyptian dance are Dina, Tito and Randa Kamal. There are also many non-Egyptians who have adopted Egyptian styling in their own dancing as well as worked and built their reputations in Egypt. A few names worth knowing include Sahra Kent – USA, Yasmin – USA, Leila – USA, Nour – Russia, Asmahan – Argentina, Soraya – Brazil and Orit – Israel. For more online information on Egyptian Oriental Dance I recommend Jalilah’s article “About Raks Sharki” and Yasmin’s biographies of “Egypt’s Belly Dance Superstars”.
Shems’s Egyptian Style Oriental Dance Sampler
I’ve put in this playlist just one of my favorite clips from each dancer mentioned above, plus several other well known Egyptian dance stars.
Lebanese Style Oriental DanceOriental Dance in Lebanon shares some similarity to Egyptian Style Oriental relying on much of the same Arabic dance music and cultural references, although it often draws on Lebanese ethnic and folkloric dances such as Debkeh for example as opposed to having such a close connection with Egyptian folkloris and ethnic dance. Lebanese dancing can often include intricate floor patterns and very elegant arms, intricate abdominal and hip movements particularly in the classic styling that has similarity to Golden Era Egyptian Oriental. You will see floorwork in Lebanese Oriental dance. More modern Lebanese styling was heavily influenced by the dancer Nadia Jamal who experimented with some modern fusions, incorporating western dance elements into her later dancing in particular. After her, many Lebanese dancers chose to wear high heels when they performed and incorporated more of a jazzy and outward energy. Some names worth knowing in Lebanese Oriental dance include Kawakib, a classic performer, Suha Azar, a contemporary dancer who teaches and performs in the classic style, Nadia Jamal a pioneer of a lot of theatrical fusion in Lebanese Belly Dance, and more contemporary representatives Amani, Samara, Dina Jamal and Maya Abi Saad.
Shems’s Lebanese Oriental Dance YouTube Playlist
Turkish Style Oriental Dance
There is a shared dance vocabulary between Turkish style Oriental Dance and Arabic styles of Oriental Dance, however, Turkish style Oriental is influenced by the various folkloric dances of Turkey as well as the folkloric dances of the Roman people (often referred to by the derogatory term “Gypsies”) living in Turkey. Many popular dance performers in the past and present are Roman and they add their own flavor to the dance.
In Turkish Oriental there are popular rhythms with a limping count, like a 5,7 or 9 count in addition to 4 and 8 count rhythms you find most commonly in Arabic Oriental. Classic Turkish styling 1920-1960s has many similarities to classic and golden era Egyptian and Lebanese dance. Classic Turkish dancer also used many Arabic pieces of music. There was a lot of cultural crossover at the time via the Ottoman empire. The most obvious exception being when a Roman 9/8 rhythm was included in the show.
More modern Turkish dancers continue to draw upon Arabic music and dance for inspiriation mixed as well as Turkish Roman and folkdance, however, the modern Turkish dancer’s approach is much more jazzy and aggressive. Turkish dance also includes floor work and more extensive use of the veil than Egyptian or Lebanese Oriental dance. Some names worth knowing in Turkish Style Oriental Dance include Nejla Ates, Nesrin Topkapi, Princess Banu, Tulay Karaca, Sema Yildiz, Birgul Beray, Tanyeli, Asena, Didem, Reyhan and Hale Sultan. Some non-native names worth knowing dedicated to Turkish style dancing are Artemis – USA, Eva Cernik – USA. To learn more about Turkish Style Oriental I recommend Artemis’ article “Turkish Dance, American Cabaret and Vintage Orientale” and Kristina Melike’s article “An Introduction to the History of Turkish Oriental Bellydance”
Shems’s Turkish Style Oriental Dance YouTube Playlist
This playlist is a short selection of favorite clips from each of the dancers above plus a few other famous Turkish belly dancers.
Vintage Oriental Style Dance (American Cabaret)
Throughout the 20th century there were Middle Eastern immigrant nightclubs where various Middle Easterners would gather to enjoy Middle Eastern music and dancing. Often they would be a mixed group with Arabs, Armenians, Turks, Greeks and Persians gathering. The music would be a mix of popular tunes from all these different cultures. The dancers were sometimes immigrants themselves and later Americans that fell in love with their exposure to Middle Eastern culture, music and dance. They learned from immigrants, films, postcards, paintings and whatever else they could get their hands on and a unique style of Oriental dance emerged that mixed influences from many different Middle Eastern countries and the imagination.
A few distinctive attributes of Vintage Oriental in addition to a liberal mix of elements from several Middle Eastern cultures are extensive use of finger cymbals, extended veil dances, sword dancing and dancing with snakes. Some names to know include Ozel Turkbas, Semra, Morocco, Serena Wilson, Ibrahim Farrah, Bert Balladine, Jamila Salimpour, Nakish this is just a small selection, of course. Of the newer generation Ansuya and Piper are great representatives of Vintage Oriental style. To learn more about Vintage Style Oriental I recommend Artemis’ article “Turkish Dance, American Cabaret and Vintage Orientale”, also the “Reflections on North Beach” series on Guilded Serpent.
Shems’s Vintage Oriental Dance YouTube Playlist
Contemporary American Oriental Dance
Many contemporary American and other belly dancers around the world continue in the eclectic tradition of Vintage Oriental Style Dance, liberally fusing various elements of different Middle Eastern Cultures. Many have also taken it further incorporating elements Jazz, Ballet, Modern Dance, Latin Dance, Spanish and Flamenco, Rroma dancing , Hip hop, Indian dances, etc. as well as returning to the Middle East to learn what is happening now in Egypt, Lebanon and Turkey’s dance communities.
As long as the dancer continues to have a strong base of Arabic or Turkish Oriental movement vocabulary in their repertoire, a fairly large variety of creative license is accepted under the title of “belly dance”. There is also a trend towards more large theatrical style presentations.
I created this category to help identify some modern trends, particularly in our dance form in America, but there is a lot of crossover between styles and a lot of nuance. Several dancers I would put in this category, might also be a close fit to to another style. For one example, Jillina, lead choreographer for the Bellydance Super Stars, puts a great deal of fusion into her group choreographies in particular, but as a solo dancer will often perform what many dancers consider closer to a Modern Egyptian style.
A few notable dancers and troupes I would say really represent trends in Contemporary American Oriental Dance include: Suhaila Salimpour, Belly Dance Super Stars, Bellyqueen, Dalia Carrella (for her Dunyavi Gypsy), Elena Lentini and Tamalyn Dahlal (for their theatrical presentations) just to name a small sampling.
Shems’s Contemporary American Oriental Dance YouTube Playlist
American Tribal Style Belly Dance
Carolena Nericcio, originally a student of Masha Archer who was a student of Jamila Salimpour, started a troupe in San Francisco called FatChanceBellyDance. Carolena and FCBD’s unique stylizations, alternative aesthetic and the development of a coded system of group improvisation set them apart as a unique new form that quickly gained popularity worldwide. North African, Indian and Turkish and Arabic Bedouin music was used, also costuming elements from India, Turkey, Afghanistan and North Africa were fused with movements from Vintage Oriental Style Dance, Flamenco and Indian dances. Tattoos are also very popular among many American Tribal Style (ATS) dancers. Many dancers differentiate between pure FatChance ATS and other group improvisational offshoots by calling those Improvisational Tribal Style (ITS) or Tribal Belly Dance. Notable ATS, ITS or Tribal Belly Dancers include Carolena Nericcio of FatChanceBellyDance, Kajira Djoumahna of BlackSheep BellyDance and Paulette Rees-Denis of Gypsy Caravan. To learn more about American Tribal Style Belly Dance, please see “About FatChanceBellyDance”.
Shems’s American Tribal Style Belly Dance YouTube Playlist
Tribal Fusion Belly Dance
Offshoots from American Tribal Style Belly Dance include Tribal Fusion and Modern Tribal Belly Dance. They adhere to a lot of the ATS aesthetic, however, instead of maintaining a group improvisational base, they are often choreographed. They often will fuse even further with other dance forms such as break dance, hip hop, Indian, Polynesian, West African and others and they will use diverse contemporary music including but not limited to breakcore and ethno-rock. This style is also heavily influenced by yoga, as many Tribal Fusion dancers are yoga practitioners as well. Some names to be aware of include Rachel Brice and the Indigo, Zafira Dance Company, Unmata, Jill Parker and Ultra Gypsy and Asharah. To learn more about Tribal Fusion see Sharon Moore’s article “The Elusive Definition of Tribal Bellydance”.
Shems’s Tribal Fusion Belly Dance YouTube Playlist.
Folkloric Dances, Ethnic Dances and Rituals of the Middle East
There are many ethnic and folkloric dances and rituals throughout the Middle East that act as the foundation of Oriental dance. However, they are worth distinguishing as unique dance forms in their own right.
Ethnic dances and rituals are specific dances and rituals performed by an ethnic group sometimes for specific purposes, like religious worship, courtship or celebration. Sometimes in their most native forms these can be repetitive and are more entertaining if you are participating as opposed to watching. The Zaar ritual in Egypt is one example of this and the Hagallah, a Libyan courtship dance. Turkish Romani dance and the Ouled Na’il dances of Algeria are two more examples.
Folkloric dances are ethnic dances or rituals or even cultural characteristics that are put on a performance stage and theatricalized. Mahmood Reda of Egypt is famous for traveling around Egypt and doing just that. He has created choreographed stage versions of both the Zaar and the Hagallah, for example, taking them from their roots and changing them to make them interesting for stage. Reda had ballet training and was heavily influenced by the jazz dancing in early American films as well, so you will often find these elements in his folkloric interpretations of ethnic dances.
There are so many folkloric and ethnic dances throughout the middle east it would be difficult to compile a comprehensive list, however every good professional dancer I’ve ever seen has knowledge of and incorporated folkloric or ethnic dances into their dance routines. I consider it very important for any serious practitioner of Oriental Dance to have familiarity with folkloric and ethnic dances and rituals that have close relationships to their chosen dance styles. Here is a list of a just a few examples:
- Khaliji including the Thobe Nasha’al, Men’s Sword Dance
- Yemeni Dagger Dance
- Saidi including Raqs Assaya, Tahtib, Horse Dance
- Alexandrian including the Meleya Leff
- Zeffa wedding procession
- Raqs Shamidan (Candelabrum Dance)
- Bambuteya (Port Said) / Simsimeya (Suez Canal)
- Sinai Dabke
- Bedouin Dances
- Greek Tsiftetelli
- Qawliya (Kawliya) or Iraqi gypsy dance
- Iraqi Line Dances
- Yemenite dances
Levant (Syria, Lebanon, Palestine)
Maghreb (Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya)
- Tunisian Woman’s Dance
- Raqs al Juzur (Tunisan pot dance)
- Moroccan Dances including the Schikhatt, the Guedra ritual, Tea Tray
- Algerian Dances including the Ouled Na’il
- Berber Dances
- Libyan Hagallah
- Turkish Rrom
- Turkish Folkloric/Line Dances
- Whirling Dirvish
I wanted to include Andalusian Muwashshahat in my folkloric dances category, but it was pointed out to me that though there is documentation of the traditions of Muwashshahat poetry and some of the music, the dance traditions were forgotten and then later reinvented by Mahmoud Reda. So it is more imagination than folklore. For that matter Meleya Leff dances are also very imaginative character pieces only loosely based on regional Egyptian traditions. If you’d like to learn more about Muwashshahat, I highly recommend Farida Fahmy’s article on the subject: Muwashshahat Raqisah
There is such a rich heritage of dance in the Middle East that it would take several lifetimes to become really well versed. To help you get started in familiarizing yourself with these various dances and rituals, I’ll continually be putting playlists together on my youtube site. Feel free to email me with any great examples you might find as well.
You may find some good general descriptions in Salome’s Article “A Professional – Style/Terminology”.
There are many, many great dancers I haven’t mentioned in this styles primer, either for the sake of room or because they dance multiple styles. I thought it might be confusing to mention Hadia for example as a great Egyptian style dancer, because she also does a really great Turkish style as well (and a mean Flamenco for that matter). I tried to stick with dancers who, for the most part, have dedicated themselves wholly to the styles discussed above. Hopefully over time you will become familiar with more of the many wonderful dancers not mentioned in the styles primer.
I want to thank Outi for her feedback on a few of my articles and recommend both the many wonderful and informative articles she has on her website and the music she has produced. She is a great resource for our dance communities: Outi of Cairo