By Me'ira a.k.a. JOYFUL DANCER

[Ed. note: This article was published in Shimmy Chronicles (Jan 96) and was written by Me'ira (previously known as Cala) during the course of the research that produced her list of middle eastern dance names. She explicitly released this article for use, publication, or internet posting on Jan 19th, 1996 via the med-dance mailing list (see med-dance archives 960119.1439 & 960119.1544 for original postings). -- Stefan]
"On Doomsday you will be called by your names and the names of your fathers - so choose beautiful [graceful] names!" -- The Prophet Muhammed
Recently I was gifted with a new name and I began thinking about the importance of names and how they affect us as artists. Audiences have different expectations about belly dancers; like rock stars they seem to expect us to have some sort of exotic name, even if we are American belly dancers doing our own flavor of an Eastern dance.

Dancers in the middle east often took professional names for practical reasons: because dance was not considered a respectable profession and they wished to avoid shaming their families. That's no longer a concern in modern culture, but having a dance name can afford some protection from overzealous fans.

In Eastern cultures it is very important to have a name which has a significant meaning. A name is like a blessing; it is a gift that gives you permission to express more fully another aspect of your personality. Moulana Hathurani expresses the Muslim point of view in his book on naming Musim Children, "Psychologists now apprehend the wisdom of the effect a person's name has on his life. But Muhammed .. teaching to his followers was that children should be given good names, and that meaningless names and those having unsavoury connotations should be avoided..." Or if you prefer a quotation from the bible, Ecclesiates, Ch. 7, V. 1, says "A good name is better than precious ointment".

There are actually several parts to a formal Islamic name, but the one we are primarily concerned with is the "ism", which can consist of an adjective in a variety of conjunctive grammatical forms. The full name can consist of: the "Kunya" which means "father of" or "Mother of" such-and-such a person. The prefix "Umm" which means "Mother of" is very familiar to dancers because of the very famous "Umm Kulthum", which originally meant merely the daughters of the Prophet Muhammed. This might also be followed by: 1) a "laqab", i.e. "Al din..." plus a descriptive word, 2) a "nasab" which tells one's native place, nation, or religious allegiance, and 3) the "laqab", or nickname. The laqab tended to develop into family or clan names. Schimmel relates the story of the man who, upon learning that his future wife's name was "Amat al-jami' Juwayriya Jawahir Jasmine" asked if this was a name or a perscription for some exotic drug!

Here are some of the traditional ideas for naming women in the east:
  1. ANIMALS. You will all have heard of names referring to the gracefullness of the gazelle (Ghazalla). And who could forget the loveliness of a nightengale's song (Bulbula and Hazar (Persian), Anadil (Arabic).

  2. FLOWERS. The quintessential flower is, of course, the Rose. It exists in endless variations, sometimes meaning a flower in general: Gulbadan, Gulbahar, Gulbarg, Guldali, Gulfiliz, Gulirana (Arabic/Persian), or Shoshanna (Hebrew). Then there's the one which combines both the delicacy of a fairy (Perizada, i.e. born of the fairies) with the rose: Gulperi. Other familiar names include: Yasmine (Jasmine), Azhar (flowers), Melantha (dark flower), Zahra (flower).

  3. Women are also supposed to be DREAMLIKE, thus the names: Hulya (dream), Sarab (mirage). On a paradoxical note, since women also are considered to correlate to the material world (vs. the spiritual), names like "Dunya" (world) are also common.

  4. The quality of LIGHT. Light, in both its radiant form and in the spiritual sense is a wonderful choice. "Me'ira" the name which I was gifted with, is a Hebrew word for light, with the connotation of sharing one's light with others. In the Arabic, the ever-popular "Nur" appears in many forms with other worlds for light: Nurten, Binnur, Ilknur, Yurdanur (Turkish). The idea of light also extends to more descriptive words like Shula (bright, flaming), Ziva (bright, radiant).

  5. The light of various CELESTIAL BODIES is also a popular choice. The light of the Sun in Mihr (Persian), Shamsa (Arabic), Shamsha (India). And of course, stars, as in "Najma (Arabic), Parvin, Akhtar (Persian), and Yildiz or Thaqiba (Turkish). The moon is also popular as in: Kamra, Mahin, Mahsati/Mahasti, Mahtab and Selena. Combining both ideas is the lovely "Mihrimah" (sun/moon) from the Persian. Flying about the various celestial bodies, one also encounters the ANGELS: Malak/Melek, Firishta (Arabic/Persian), or Arella (Hebrew).

  6. Until recently, naming girls after PRECIOUS STONES was considered appropriate only for slaves. Now the names "Almas" (diamond), Gauhar (jewel or pearl) Safira (Sapphire) and "Durrishahwar" are common among free women.

  7. By conversion of male names: Many names are simply conversions from the masculine. Consider the lovely "Yosefa", which appears to be a feminine form of "Joseph" or "Yosef". Many Arabic names are convered to the feminine by adding "-a" or "-e" to the male ending. In India there is a tendency to convert any word to the feminine by adding "-i". Even the words for woman or lady are popular: Mihrbanu, Mahbanu (banu = Persian lady) or the Arabic form Sitti as in Mahsitti (moon lady), Zarsitti (gold lady).

  8. CHARACTER. Women may also be given the name of desirable attributes: Mahira (energetic), Karima (generous), Neimah (pleasant), Shirin (sweet/sugar), Amina (trustworthy, faithful, honest). RELIGIOUS names come under this category, and would seem to be an obvious name to avoid for dancers. Examples of inapropriate names could include: Hanifa (true believer) or Saaleha (Pious). But many names are only "religious" if you take them as metaphor: Huriye (Houri-like) and the names meaning Angel have always meant an attractive woman. Gulzaar/Gulshan (garden) is a metaphor for the Eastern idea of Paradise.
Sometimes women would be given unfortunate names such as "Seddena", which translates from the Bedouin as "May we be done (with the girls!)", when the father had only girls and no sons. Fortunately, we are able to choose something much more felicitious! There is always a problem with cross-translations. A good example is the name Sara, which is a lovely name in most languages, but which means "epilepsy" in Turkish. There are also cultural mistranslations as in "Samina" which generally means "healthy" or "fertile" but can also have the connotation of "fat/plump". In an agricultural society the concept of largeness has an entirely different meaning than in our diet-conscious society.

Do you have to have a "dance name"? No, absolutely not. Many of our favorite dancers use their own names: Suzanna DelVecchio and Eva Cernik to name a couple. Suhaila Salimpour, incidentally, really does have a Persian father and it's her real name. You might also consider a more exotic spelling of your own name.

Dancer Andrea Deagon explains her preference for using her own name as it is: "I have hoped for a full integration of my life -- the academic side, the personal side, and the dance side. I want people who see me on stage to know that I am a complete person, not a figment of their fantasies, though.... After all my modern dance teacher wouldn't be introduced at his showcase as just 'Mark'!"


There are many wonderful books about names from other cultures. Here are some which seem to be good candidates for dancer's names:

Hathurani, Moulana Ahmad Muhammad. NAMES FOR MUSLIM
CHILDREN. Los Angeles, CA, Dawah book shop (4711 S. Crenshaw
Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90043). . 1980? 80 p. Names in Arabic and
transliterated Arabic. Charming guide for the pious Muslim family on
correct behavior and naming practices for children.

THEIR HISTORY. Schocken books, New York. Mostly surnames,
history of naming practices amongst Jews.

Kolatch, Alfred J. THE NAME DICTIONARY; Modern English and
Hebrew Names. New York, J. David 1967. 418 pp. (First published in
1948 as "These are the Names")

Kolatch, Alfred J. TODAY'S BEST BABY NAMES. New York, Putnam,
1986. 205 p. Some names and introductory material taken from the
author's Jonathan David Dictionary of first names.

Lansky, Bruce. 35,000 + BABY NAMES. Meadowbrook Press/Simon &
Schuster, New York. 1995. Some good Arabic, Hebrew, Greek and
African-flavored names.

NuMan, Muhammad Armiya. MUSLIM NAMES AND THEIR
MEANINGS. Jersey City, N.J. New Mind Publications, 1984. 20 p. A
listing of more than 400 names with meanings; no arabic, transliterations
only. ( Contact New Mind Productions, P.O. Box 5185, Jersey City, N.J.

Qazi, M.A. WHAT'S IN A MUSLIM NAME. Pakistan, 1974. Lists
arabic form and english phonetic spellings as well as meanings with a
pronunciation guide. These names appear to be more Iranian/Muslim. For
info contact either: Dr. Ahman H. Sakr, PO Box 140, Glen Ellyn, Illinois;
or M. A. Qazi, 1260 S. Elmhurst Road, Mt. Prospect, ILL 60056.

Schimmel, Annemarie. ISLAMIC NAMES. Edinburgh Univ Press,
Edinburgh. 1989. Indexed by personal names, places, ethnic groups and
languages. Not a dictionary, but some good information on naming

Stewart, Julia. AFRICAN NAMES (Names from the African continent for
children and adults..) Citadel Press by Carol Publishing, 1994. 171 pp. For
purchase contact: Carol Publishing Group, 120 Enterprise Ave. Secaucus,
NJ 07094.

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This page last updated February 7, 1996 by Stefan (