[Ed note: The following article was posted by author Soher Azar <SWLOON01@ULKYVM.LOUISVILLE.EDU> on 961111.1102 to the med-dance mailing list. Some minor editing was done (at her request) to reflect later comments on med-dance.]

A Primer on Middle Eastern Dance Styles
by Soher Azar

Beginners are often confused about the many dance styles in Middle Eastern dance. Our dance comes from many countries, so there is great variety. The wide range of choices is one of the charms. There are general characteristics in each style, however, which differentiate them.

Modern Egyptian cabaret dancing is very controlled, elegant, refined and often includes some ballet. Muscular control is emphasized and movements are small and internalized. "Less is More" seems to be the working philosophy. Egyptians must by law wear stomach covers, so many followers of the style do that also. An American dancer who dances this style is Shareen El Safy. Morocco dances Old Style Egyptian cabaret, eschewing the Russian balletic influences in favor of the original Egyptian dance.

At the opposite end of the spectrum is Turkish style cabaret. "Anything Goes" seems to be more of the working philosophy. Dancers are often very flamboyant, with large, earthy movements. Leaps and many pelvic movements are very common. The Karshilama is Turkish and is rarely danced in Egypt, where it was outlawed after the Ottoman Turks were ousted. Turkish dancers are often very scantily clad, but that's not a requirement of the style. Eva Cernik dances in the Turkish style.

Lebanese cabaret dance is somewhere between the Egyptian and Turkish styles. Ibrahim "Bobby" Farrah is Lebanese and teaches a very dramatic, elegant style with many poses, direction changes, and ballet influences. Leila Gamal dances in a style influenced by Bobby.

Of course, when we get into the folkloric basis of the dance, there are many more dance styles than countries. The videos "Dances of Egypt" and "Dances of North Africa" give a good starting point for understanding these dances, the movements of which have been polished and refined for stage performance.

Beledi is the dance of the Egyptian countryside; it is also the music. When taken to the stage it becomes an "Urban Beledi" with more glitzy costumes. The usual costume is a fitted caftan slit up one or both sides called a beledi dress. A triangular headscarf is also commonly worn. Many Egyptian folk dances such as cane and basket dances are performed in beledi. Tahtib is the men's martial arts dance of Egypt, performed with the long canes which were historically used in combat.

Gypsy dance is another style which is widely danced in the U.S.Gypsies originally came from India and travelled thorough out the Middle East and Europe bringing their dances with them. The Ghawazhees were originally Egyptian Gypsy street dancers. Aisha Ali is an authority on Ghawazhee dance. Eva Cernik specializes in Turkish Gypsy style and Laurel Grey in Russian Gypsy style. Dalia Carella dances a combination of Gypsy stylings she terms "Dunyavi" or World Gypsy Style.

Khaleeji dance is the dance of the Persian Gulf States and Saudi Arabia. The dancers wear a very full, often highly embroidered caftan called a thobe nashal. Most movements are centered in the shoulders and there is a distinctive hair toss. Kay Hardy Campbell is an authority on this style dance.

Persian dancing is quite different from the dance of most Middle Eastern countries in that there are few abdominal movements and undulations. The graceful arm movements, shoulder shimmies, and twirls are similar. Robyn Friend is an authority on classical Persian dance.

There are various trance dances and dances to cast out demons; these are often religious dances. Examples of some of the most well known dances include: Certain Sufi sects perform "Whirling Dervish" twirling dances as part of their religious ceremonies. The Zar is "the trance ceremony of North Africa and the middle east", a dance used to placate demons/djinns; it is characterized by violent head tosses. The Guedra is a blessing dance of the Tureg of Morocco.

Most U.S. dances do not dance any pure form of the dance, but a amalgam-- American Style Bellydance. Some people add other influences such as jazz, ballet, and Spanish. Suhaila Salimpour adds a lot of jazz movements to her dance. Amaya adds many Spanish influences. Some dancers are very experimental and avante garde in their creation of new dance forms: Z-Helene combines modern dance with Middle Eastern and Indian to create her Blue Wave style. Tribal is an American mixture of ethnic stylings with Fat Chance Belly Dance being a prime example.

This brief overview is not comprehensive at all, but it does give some idea of the wide variety and many styles of Middle Eastern dance. The broad spectrum is what makes the dance open to all and universally appealing.There is a style for everyone in our dance.

Soher Azar - November 10, 1996 - Louisville, KY, U.S.A.

Please send questions / comments to author Soher Azar (SWLOON01@ULKYVM.LOUISVILLE.EDU)
This page last edited March 16, 1997 by Stefan (dduncan@efn.org)