Male Dancers

Yes, men have and still do Middle Eastern dance. There are various different categories of the kinds of dance that I know of and which have been discussed on the list. They are discussed in more detail below, but in summary male dancing tends to break down into informal dancing at parties, etc., traditional men's dances like the Tahtib, historical accounts of men dancing in drag, and the western innovation of men's cabaret style dancing.

Table of Contents:

Informal Dancing

As in many cultures, Middle Eastern men do dance at celebrations and clubs. Men get up and dance at parties, weddings, in restaurants with the main dancer (sometimes to the consternation of the Western dancer who isn't familiar with the cultural custom), in the audience at a show, with their friends on the stage between the main dancer's sets, etc. They're doing the same general ME dance moves that women dancers also do, and they're dressed in their street clothes.

"...The only [male] dancers I saw in Egypt were young men/boys dancing in their gallibeyahs, but doing the same moves we do." --Kari

"I've also seen men in gallebeyahs & thobes dancing, including having a scarf tied around their hips. They really weren't moving too much differently than they would in [other] men's clothes on the dance floor. Perhaps the moves are more recognizable as ones we do because they're wearing clothes that have skirting." --Joumana

"I meant to send a posting about the Middle East Studies Association conference, but it is the end of the semester...anyway, I caught the end of a paper by Dwight F. Reynolds who showed a video clip at the end of men dancing-I think it was a zar (?) , or religious ceremony. Two men danced together and did a lot of the same moves I would expect of a woman. It seemed like the men were expected to get up and dance as there was room set aside by the musicians and men were urging each other (even the little boys) to get up and dance. (There were no women visible on the video) The name of the paper was 'Musical Culture and the Suez Canal: The Rise of Simsimiyya Music in Port Said'. Dr. Reynolds is at UC, Santa Barbara/RRALL. Perhaps someone could ask him for a copy of his paper? I don't know anything about Simsimiyya music myself." --Jen

"In one of the old video clips of Naima Akef, there are shots of various members of the audience dancing during her show -- the camera dwells very affectionatelyon a rather portly middle aged man and a young boy, both of whom are moving in their own very individual way, but clearly doing moves that are of the sane sort as what she's doing on stage." --Andrea Deagon

"A co-student of mine (in NYC) was Lebanese, very macho in the American sense of the word, very married to a gorgeous American, and could overlay a shimmy and a hip swing as well as any female I've seen. His mother-in-law, his brothers, friends, and everyone else thought he was fabulous, and the only problem was creating a situation in which he HAD to dance. And he danced in jeans and a plaid shirt." --Cartesio

"However, re men dancing: while I replied about boys/men dancing in drag, non-gay/fem men also dance over "there", although *currently* they aren't hired as perfomers of Oriental dance. They do, however, dance Oriental in discos, coffee houses, at weddings & circumcision parties, etc., dressed in slacks or dungarees or business suits or gallabiyas with a scarf around their hips.

"One January, in Luxor, there were alot of Egyptian University students on mid-semester break, vacationing there & when the (bad) Oriental dancer at the Winter Palace went to change her costume & the band played on, several young men in the audience got up & danced Oriental (wouldn't be proper for a young girl to do it in so public a venue). One of them was so good, the others eventually stopped & just clapped & watched him. He got one heck of an ovation from the audience....

"Real men DO dance Oriental. I got the videos to prove it." --Morocco

Traditional Men's Dances

These include dances like the Tahtib (stick) dance, Whirling Dervish performances, and Moroccan tray dances, among others.

"The Saudi Arabia Quarterly Magazine has had a couple of articles on folk music/dance which includes men's stuff. I wrote one for them in 1988, and another one came out in the last year. Try contacting the embassy for back copies.

"There are many dance traditions from the Arabian Peninsula, varying with tribe, town and sub-culture. There are music/dance subcultures of bedouin, trading cities/towns, pearl divers, and those of African descent. Each subculture has its own music/dance. The most famous dance you usually see 'official' troupes doing is the al-Ardha, a men's group sword dance of solidarity. It is in slow motion and in a way mimics men in battle on horseback. The rhythm is most often a stately 3/4, but there are many variations. It is originally a bedouin dance, but now that most bedouin are settled, it's done in all the cities and towns. But there are lots of regional and local variations.

"At the moment there is no 'overview' of them in a true scholarly fashion (aside from the introductory articles), but if you can read arabic the Qatari folklore center publishes a magazine called "Al-Ma'thurat al-Sha'abiyyah" which features an occasional article on dance (they usually call it 'folklore').

"The dances are really fun to watch, many of them are quite hypnotic. There is one, I believe it is the Sawt, in which pairs of men walk in slow motion mimicking eachother, and suddently one of them will squat down and then jump high in the air, then land and do a really fast shoulder shimmy! Then immediately they go back to the slow-mo walking. Anyway, just a few obervations for you." --Kay Hardy Campbell


This is a traditional men's dance, however women in the west have taken to performing it as well, dressed as men (in drag, as it were). Sometimes there just aren't any/many men in one's dance troupe...

"Egyptian men have always carried a long staff for herding, walking and protection. Their dance, called 'tahtib' is a mock battle set to music. The men strut and posture showing off their strength, then attack and parry in time with the music. The women's version of the dance is all about femininity. They make the movements cute and flirty and omit the fighting. The women flaunt effortless control of their much smaller stick or crooked cane. They use it unabashedly as a frame for the body movements. Some of the women's movements echo the 'tahtib' and sometimes the men imitate the woman's style." --Yasmeena

"There is an Egyptian men's dance called the 'Tahtib' dance which is a mock battle dance that shows their skill with the stick or *tahtib*. Yousry Sharif is an Egyptian dancer-teacher now living in NY who is masterful at this dance. There is an old Fifi Abdu video and an old folkloric (BIG Video) that show this dance, also." --Zulaika

"The 2-stick version is the stage/theater 'folk' solo or men's group *dance* version, as versus really 'playing' Tahtiyb (2 guys "duking it out" with sticks), but it depends on the thrusting, swinging, parrying & protecting movements of the 'real thing' + a whole lot of ballet bravado & bravura moves. I won't blow the whistle on you, if you do that version - it's valid theater. Yours in dance & dementia, Morocco"

"Actual men's tahtiyb dress (not costume - they do it in their everyday clothes):

  1. 1 or 2 (yes 2!) Saidi gallabiyas. If 2, they are contrasting, solid colors like dark blue & grey, one worn over the other. Round neck, full, loose sleeves, long & very full body;
  2. If 1 gallabiya, you might want to have the "sudeiri" or vest underneath - not a requirement;
  3. Turban, wound close to the skull - not the high "Pasha"-style getup;
  4. Muffler, loosely hung around the neck & thrown over 1 shoulder;
  5. Really wanna go "whole hog authentic"? OK. Long, "union suit" white underwear underneath. (Have I lied to you yet?) & ankle high boots.........
"Not - I repeat - NOT done barefoot. No glitz....... Easy on the pocketbook costuming. Whoopee!

"Oh- don't forget the big stick. NOT a 'Raks al Assaya' glitzy cane with a crook at the end - a big, straight 5-6 foot hunk of bamboo or cane! Be careful out there - it's a real weapon...."

"If anybody in the U.S. has gallabiyas in stock, it's Scheherezade. If she doesn't have'em yet, order them & you'll have 'em by end of Nov. (we'll be in Cairo in Nov.) 804/749-3480 e-mail:

"If anybody has patterns, it's Atira: 206/767-3357 e-mail:

"Both gallabiyas are the same size in real life. For stage practicality (cooler & quicker to get into), false 'underskirt' & 'undersleeves' can be sewn a couple of feet above the hemline & a few inches above the sleeve end, to stick out an inch or so beyond the 'overgallabiya'........."

"Alot of men 'over there' line their eyes with kohl to protect them from the sun - like football players put that glob of black grease under their eyes, on top of their cheekbones, to keep glare out. (& they have such beautiful eyes.......sigh.......)

"So, for tahtiyb onstage, of course makeup: eyeliner, base, 'natural' lipstick & glue on a moustache. They all have 'em. It'll tickle like hell :-D" --Morocco

Whirling Dervishes

This is a traditional spiritual dance/practice. A variant of it is sometimes used in public performance, but only by men. The version I've seen, involved a dancer continuously spinning, while pulling various skirt-like layers (which he wore over pants, shirt and a vest) up and overhead, including one double-layer that opened up like a lantern, for varying effects. It was quite impressive and the dancer also stopped on a dime, with no problem.

"I spent the last year researching Sufism, the mystical extension of Islam from which the 'whirling dervishes' come. I was in Turkey for several months and found that aside from public performances of the sema, some Sufi groups (not just Mevlevi) do it privately. The Jarrahi-Helveti order of dervishes claim to have received the "license" to do the dance from their founder, who was a student of the Mevlevi order. In their tekke, located in the section of Istanbul known as Karagumruk, they actually do the sema every Monday night, and it's not for tourists. They will allow you to watch if you are genuinely curious about Sufism but have turned tourists away because gawking, whispering, and camera activities upset the dancers and detract from the spiritual nature of the performance.

"Although the Mevlevi order of dervishes (the group founded by Rumi) currently has no agreed upon "master" (and many different factions), there are groups of Mevlevis who do the sema privately. Most interesting is that there are liberal Mevlevis who have both men and women dancing the sema; it is traditionally performed only by men. Needless to say, other groups of Mevlevis disagree with women's participation in this dance.

"The Sufi orders had to go underground for their 'religious orientation', as you say, and because their practices might appear unorthodox and primitive to the West, whom Ataturk aspired to imitate. But in the 70s and 80s things have gotten a lot more open. One of the things I was studying was societal response to Sufism, including how Sufism was perceived by secularists and fundamentalists. " --Rachel Newcomb

"Okay whirling is a practice attributed to sufi ecstatic Jellaudin Rumi whose exquisite poetry is easily available these days thanks to the beautiful translations of Coleman Barks. The Mevlevi sufi order, of which Rumi is the 'father', has passed down, in a continuos line, the pratice of whirling as an experiential metaphor for alignment with the planetary and cosmic motion which is circular and revolutionary. The practice IS a metaphor but it is also a direct power. When a human being whirls she/he is in the same movement place as the planets and stars and is thereby in communion with them. This is something which you only have to do to know...

"The tradition of whirling is to turn counterclockwise. This is very specific and I have not yet heard a compelling explanation. I am passing on to you, however, that that is the direction that the dervishes turn and, co-incidentally, that the kathak tradition turns as well. The theory about how it coincides with the rotation of the earth is debatable. I have wondered however if it has more to do with the assymetry of the body - the heart being on the left side, liver on the right and therefor the turning one way or the other having different effects on the body...

"If you whirling is for ten minutes, allow a half hour for the total work. Be careful if you have to drive anywhere afterwards.

"The whirling can be done as long as you like but be aware that it is a strong practice. It will change your state.

"Blessings and peace,

Moroccan Tray Dances

"I went to Morocco with our fearless leader, Morocco, and saw a Moroccan tray dance performed by a man who balanced candles on a tray and did incredible acrobatics while balancing himself and the tray of candles in ways unimaginable!" --Dianne

"...I have an old Moroccan post card of a man performing a tray dance (coffee pot and cups, no candles I think). The man is kneeling/crouching down, but not on the floor." --Lanora

"...anyhow, Tarik Abd El Malik, Rocky's protege, and a good seminar instructor in his own right, does a great [tray dance]. So does Kamaal. And the best I ever saw live was from Sergio; I think Rocky has video of him doing this. Superb! Tarik wears the traditional costume for it, so video of him would be good too. And John Compton does a great version of tray; I've only seen him on video..." --Shakira

"I've not only been seeing the Moroccan 'Danse du Plateau' (Tea tray dance) for over 33 years OVER THERE, done by both men & women. They balance a tea tray, laden with candles, glasses, often a teapot, too.

"My 'Marrakesh Folk Festival + more' video has one of the best male Shaaba dancers of the '60s, '70s & '80s, Lahsen, doing both a male Schikhatt & also a Tea Tray dance, with wonderful floorwork & acrobatics, filmed in the teahouse where he danced regularly for many years in Tangiers. Unless they've changed the map on me, that's in Morocco, Bozo (the country, NOT me!)...

"There is also much written about boy/male dancers in the tea houses of Central Asia & Turkic areas dancing with tea trays on their heads....

"P.S. I have a postcard that's almost 100 years old, showing a male tea tray dancer & another, just a sold, showing a female tea tray dancer." --Morocco

Men in Drag

"There is a long & varied tradition of men (esp. young boys) dancing in drag in tea houses, theaters & other venues throughout N. Africa & the Turkic countries, although it's nowhere near as widespread or open as it used to be.

"At least 3x in the current history of Turkey & Persia, it was against the law for women to perform in public, so guess who got to wear all the great dresses & makeup?.........

"Then there were the "batchas" of the tea houses of Central Asia (Uzbekistan, Tadjikistan, Khirghizia, Azerbaijan, Turkmenia, Kazakhstan, Circassia, Turkey..........)

"That's just the tip of the iceberg & I don't have time right now to go into more detail... Is it real or is it Memorex?" --Morocco

"There is a description of the female impersonator-type dancers called 'Khawals' in the Dover book An Account of the Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians (by Edward William Lane, first published in 1836):

...but the number of these male performers, who are mostly young men, and who are called 'Khawals' is very small. They are Muslims, and natives of Egypt. As they personate women, their dances are exactly of the same description as those of the Ghawazee; and are, in like manner, accompanied by the sounds of castanets: but, as if to prevent their being thought to be really females, their dress is suited to their unnatural profession; being partly male, and partly female: it chiefly consists of a tight vest, a girdle, and a kind of petticoat. Their general appearance, however, is more feminine than masculine: they suffer the hair of the head to grow long, and generally braid it, in the manner of the women; the hair on the face, when it begins to grow, they pluck out; they imitate the women also in applying kohl and henna to their eyes and hands. In the streets, when not engaged in dancing, they often even veil their faces; not from shame, but merely to affect the manners of women. They are often employed, in preference to the Ghawazee, to dance before a house, or in its court, on the occasion of a marriage-fete, or the birth of a child, or a circumcision; and frequently perform at public festivals." pages 381-2
(it goes on to mention 'Ginks', similar but not of Egyptian blood)..." --

"I lived in Istanbul for awhile also and there were a LOT of cross-dressing singers and talk-show hosts. One Turkish friend of mine said that a satisfactory New Year's television program had to consist of good belly dancers and transvestites. And it was true-- I watched t.v. on New Year's Eve and saw a lot of belly dancers and cross dressers. Maybe someone else who has lived there could say something more about this." --Rachel Newcomb

"Two of the most beloved & best singers in Turkey are Zeki Muren (recently deceased, I've been told) & Bulent Ersoy, both perform in full drag & live as women..... The "star" Oriyantal at the Gar in July was a transsexual." --Morocco

Cabaret Style and Attitudes Towards Male Belly Dancers

A Western addition to the dance, male cabaret dancing borrows from the female cabaret style, using flashier costuming, beaded belts, etc. This is not a style done by men in the Middle East. Discussion of audience reaction to male belly dancers is mixed in, in this thread.

"However, it seems that ME men really hate watching male belly dancers as it is done in this country in the vest/coin/harem pants/turban/cape style costume. Does anybody recall Qasim? He danced here in Seattle for some time and then disappeared to the East coast I think. He was small, muscular, black, a very athletic and wonderful dancer. While the other belly dancers loved him, the ME audience members seemed insulted by his presence. He did sword and floor work, all that stuff. I don't recall the ME women's reactions, maybe they were not very visible, but the men hated it!

"Once at The Folklife Festival (an annual event in Seattle on Memorial Day weekend) a troupe was performing an eclectic mixture which included a man with a tray of lit candles on his head doing floor work. A man from the audience came up in front of the stage and shouted to the audience "This is a fantasy! This is not reality! Men never do this dance! Please understand this!" and he left. The dancer was in shock, but finished his piece; a few people left. The dancer got a rousing applause when he was done I think mainly to support him in this difficult situation, not because people disagreed with the protester. This expressed vividly the unhappiness of people who feel their cultures are misrepresented in a venue which is supposed to be as close to "authentic/ traditional" as possible. A failure of the jurying process perhaps.

"Any thoughts about why male belly dancing is SO offensive? Would ME people be more or less offended by a man in drag or would this be closer to culturally accurate? The only dancers I saw in Egypt were young men/boys dancing in their gallibeyahs, but doing the same moves we do." --Kari

"I happened to be sitting next to Matt/Ishmael at this [Folklife Festival, mentioned above] performance. Ish does a Moroccan Tray Dance very similar to the one protested against, and he said the reason the man was so ticked was that the performer (while good) was doing a 'very feminine style' and wearing a beaded, fringed, feminine hip belt. Ishmael's version of the Tray Dance is thoroughly researched and as authentic as Americans can get, he says." --Sara

"Others can answer why ME people find male dancers so offensive far better than I can, but I have to say that, in my experience, this is true. I once completly freaked out a fellow at a local ME resturant by _asking_ if he knew of any dance instructers in the area! (it's a funny story, but I have to tell it, not write it, so ask me if you ever see me -- and remember, I'm the 6'4" black guy dancing...)

"But, seriously, there is a long tradtion of men in the ME dancing, doing much the same moves that the women do, without incident or disapproval, so far as I know. Alisha Ali's _Dances of Egypt_ documentry is very revealing in this regard. I esp. recall the young man at the end who sang and danced his heart out in front of the camera; none of those moves would look amiss on a female." --Asim

"We have a male ME dancer in Portland (Ed) who is very good, and opts to go for a more comedic approach to his dance performances (he once did a "snake dance"...dressed as a was great!). He has danced in drag many times. The more American-type audience gets a real hoot out of it...especially if the audience is full of fellow dancers. The ME-type audience either is irritated, disgusted, or just doesn't get the humor." --Joumana

"Well, anybody who's been to a hafla knows that it's Ok for men to do social dancing that uses the 'belly dance' vocabulary. But when we get into performance dancing, we see more restraints. The galabiyas and dress shoes for the manly tahtib, for example . . . ;-) ;-) I've seen young men dancing in galabiyas but doing more b-d type movements, on film. And in cairo I saw a hilarious disco-like production number with male dancers -- I figured it was supposed to be western, well of course it was, but the eight guys doing their little disco set together was actually very incongruous to western eyes. So why does it look good to middle easterners to have the 8 guys doing their synchronized disco choreography together? You wouldn't have had a whole piece like that without females in it, in the west. A very interesting phenomenon to me.

"I saw Ibrahim Farrah dance in street clothes at a gala performance in New York. There were a lot of Arabs in the audience and my impression was that they loves it -- that they really appreciated what he was doing as they would have appreciated a similarly expressive dance from a woman. But Bobby is from the culture, he is older, he was not dressed in a glamorous way or one that could be seen as effiminate. But he was accepted doing a dance that, under many other circumstances, is considered repugnant to the Middle Eastern male.

"Bobby was not at all flirtatious, though. And I have seen very few other male dancers who didn't have a high flirt quotient in their dance. Maybe it's because I've seen them at dance events, where the audience is largely female, and it's a natural stance. It may well be that the flirtatious aspect is what is disconcerting. Women are supposed to be coy, men are supposed to be the aggressors. If a male seems to be flirting, he is either (a) inviting female aggression, which is not how things ougth to be, or (b) inviting male attention, which is even worse.

"Bobby's dance was sensual, as our dance tends to be, but it was a mature nd wise sensuality -- a delicious experience of life, not an invitation to taste the delights. So maybe this was more appropriate in the eyes of the middle easterners watching.

"Mahmoud Reda was quite impressed with Horacio Cifuentes, and they spoke at length about dance when Reda visited San Francisco maybe 5 years ago, right before H. left. I remember that one of the things they talked about was that there wasn't a place for what H. did in the middle east -- but I also think that one thing Reda liked about him was his seriousness and theatricality. Horacio, in his restaurant days, was often flirtatious in a 'take this' kinda way ;-), and from what I've seen of his theater performances, there's still a lot of that intemixed. But there was the seriousness and the artistry to give Mahmoud Reda in interest in this variation on [ME dance].

"A book I found very helpful in understanding what was going on with the kawal was *The Spirit and the Flesh*, which is about men who live as women in native american cultures. The mix of masculine and feminine is very much like what Lane describes in Manners and CUstoms . . . I think some of the cultural elements of the acceptability of this role, may also apply."

--Andrea Deagon, NC, USA

"I first took lessons last year when I was living in Rabat, Morocco, from a man who'd lived in Cairo and had learned to dance there. The exercise clubs there were segregated-- different days for men and women, and as far as I could tell, employed no male instructors for the women except for the oriental dance teacher, Said. He was very effeminate and it was obvious the exercise club had no problems with him teaching these women, who came to class in various types of dress they'd never wear on the street (jog bras with miniskirts, shorts, whatever). My male Moroccan friends all knew about the guy and were uncomfortable with the idea that he was both a dancer and had an 'unclear' gender role. When I'd go to discos with my male friends, they were very good dancers. One of our favorite discos had "Arabic Music Night," where they'd play nothing but dance songs-- disco and belly dance music. I asked one of my friends why the guys always spoke disparagingly of Said despite the fact that they liked to dance, too. He said Said (ha,ha) didn't dance in venues that were traditionally 'acceptable' places for men to dance, and also mentioned that Said danced like a woman. For this friend of mine, Said's cabaret-style dancing was closely linked to his sexual orientation, which, culturally, my friend wasn't totally comfortable with." --Rachel Newcomb

Men's Dance Classes

Opinions differ a little in the west on whether to teach male students along with female, or have separate men's classes. Some men may feel more comfortable in an all male group, however you many not have enough students to justify a separate class. No one has reported problems teaching men and women together; though men may initially be a tad uncomfortable surrounded by mostly female students, most students adjust pretty quickly.
Last Modified: 15 Jun 1997
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