Tuesday, August 23, 2005

A Belly Dance History

by Pleasant "Princess Farhana" Gehman

Belly dance, which is formally referred to as Oriental dance, is probably the oldest dance form on earth. Though its origins are shrouded inmystery, for thousands of years the sensuous and elegant movements have been practiced throughout the Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia, handed down from generation to generation. Today, people all over the globe enjoy belly dance in many ways: as a cultural art form, as a part of Women's Studies in University curriculum, as pure entertainment, and as a way to keep fit.

The term "Oriental Dance" may sound like an odd term if left unexplained. In Arabic, the women's solo dance is known as raqs al sharqi, or "dance of the east", which implies that nobody really knows exactly where the dance comes from.

Some scholars believe that Oriental dance stems from pre-Islamic fertility rites and is connected to goddess worship, though one of the most popular theories is that it originated in the temples of Northern India, and was spread by the Roma people through their travels. It is easy to follow the "Gypsy Trail" as it is sometimes called, south from India through Afghanistan and Persia along the silk routes, and into Turkey. There, the trail splits, one branch snaking through Eastern Europe, the other meandering through the Middle East and North Africa.

All along this path, indigenous folk dances carry the unique hallmarks of Oriental dance: supple movements of the torso, quick hip articulations, head-slides, wrist circles and similar footwork. Supporting this theory is that in rural Egypt, the term for dancers is ghaziya, which is singular for ghawazee, meaning "invader" or "outsider". Still not convinced? Have a close look at Uzbek dance, or even Spanish Flamenco (remembering that the Moors invaded Spain in the Middle Ages) and the similarities are obvious. Along with the nomadic Roma, many traveling professional dancers doubled as prostitutes or thieves and others learned their craft after having been enslaved in harems as courtesans. This added a rather unsavory but nevertheless titillating aspect to the reputation of the dancers and the dance itself.

During the 17th and 18th centuries, European travelers got a first hand look at the famous dancing women of the Near East, and glorified both the women and the dance in countless essays and paintings, leading to a huge curiosity in this beautiful and exotic dance form. The Orientalists were astounded by the complexity of the dancer's abdominal movements, and began referring to the style in French as "danse du ventre", which loosely translates as "belly dance".

In 1893, on the Midway Plaisance of the Chicago World's Fair, Oriental Dance made its American debut. Though the Midway featured exhibits from Holland, Japan, Italy, Ireland, and many other countries, the attractions which routinely drew the largest crowds were those featuring the famous eastern dancing girls: the Turkish, Algerian, Tunisian, and Egyptian exhibits. To the uneducated eyes of the crowd, the dancer's movements, considered highly skilled in their native countries, were considered obscene. Hawked by promoter Sol Bloom as "scandalous", perhaps the most famous dancer of all, Fatima Mazar, aka "Little Egypt" thrilled and excited the Victorian rubes to no end, and for years spawned hundreds of imitators on the vaudeville and burlesque circuit, but also begat over a hundred years of misconceptions and bad press.

This was only heightened by the late 1970s belly dance boom, where enthusiastic but misinformed housewives and career women took short-term beginner¹s courses at rec centers across America, before donning veils in hopes of turning their husbands and boyfriends into "Sultans". At that time, Oriental dance was considered racy and slightly tacky, relegated to the occasional mention in Istanbul and Cairo tourism pamphlets, bachelor party entertainment, Halloween costumes and cheesecake status in James Bond movies.

Meanwhile, in the Middle East, famous Oriental dancers were revered, enjoying the status of true artists. Its stars, Middle Eastern dancers like Sohair Zaki, Samia Gamal, Tahia Carioca, Naima Akef, Nagwa Fouad, and Fifi Abdou performed for Royalty and dignitaries, starred in films and on television, and became household words, on par with world class entertainers of all genres.

Recently, there has been renewed fascination in this ancient art, for many reasons. Due to communications advances like world wide web, there is a wealth of information on the subject. American Oriental dancers, from the legendary Ruth St. Denis in the beginning of the Twentieth Century to living legends like Jamilla Salimpour and Aisha Ali, further legitimized this often-marginalized art form. Scholarly work by New York native Morocco, and the UK's Wendy Buonaventura have expounded extensively on the subject and rought it into theaters.

Previously misunderstood, belly dance is now researched, studied, practiced and performed by women of all walks of life from all over the world. There has been increasing interest in traditional ethnic and modernized World Beat music, and many musicians and singers, like Hakim, Alabina, Amr Diab and Shakira have been blending classical Middle Eastern music with pop, hip-hop, Spanish and East Indian music. Similar experimentation taking place within the realm of dance have resulted in two new, popular sub-genres, Fusion and Tribal style belly dance, both of which retain a base in traditional Oriental movement vocabulary, while taking it into the future.

As the dance itself endures changes, modifications and new presentation, there is still one undeniable fact: it is still the ultimate form of feminine self-expression. It is a malleable art form that can take on the performer¹s personality while at the same time retaining its own inherent style. It always looks gorgeous performed by women of all ages, shapes and sizes, and is as mesmerizing, enchanting and astounding as it ever was. After all, there has to be a reason it has stuck around for thousands of years!

Civilian's Guide to Bellydance Styles

by Princess Farhana


Until recently, this style was probably the most common style of belly dance in the US, hence the name. Commonly seen in restaurants, nightclubs, festivals and the like, it is basically a pastiche of movements from Egypt, Greece, Turkey, Lebanon and Syria (as well other Middle Eastern or North African countries) that has been made palatable to the Western eye. There is also a good degree of fantasy involved, as many dancers invented the dance as they went along, taking cues from everything from Ruth St. Denis to motion pictures to Orientalist paintings, honing it all into a five part routine, with an entrance song, a slow taqsim, another song, a beledy progression and a drum solo.This is the type of belly dancing you might see in a cheesey sixties or seventies movie movie or portayed in a James Bond flick. Dancers wear coin or beaded costume, use veils, finger cymbals, and may include floor work in their routines.


Within Egyptian-style raks sharqi there are many sub-genres-but whether the dance
is performed to classic orchestrated music, or more modern, Westernized Egyptian pop, this style has many distinct hallmarks, and the dancer is always elevated onto the balls of her feet. Some other trademarks of the style: stepping on the down beat, intricate hip articulations, both traveling and stationary shimmies, abdominal work, and full-body poses. Internal as well as external muscle movements are incorporated, and some of the resulting technique is so subtle that the casual observer or layperson may not even realize it is going on. Technique also includes isolations, distinct hand gestures and surprising speed changes. A dance performed to classical Egyptian music, like an Om Kalthoum or Mohammed Abdel Wahab song may be a bit more “serious” than Modern Egyptian pop (most of the older songs seemed to be about lost love) but may also include a flirtatious, ultra-feminine attitude. A dancer performing to more Westernized Egyptian pop music may incoporate bits and pieces of ballet, jazz and even hip-hop, while still maintaining the dance’s Oriental style. Egyptian folk dance is another sub-genre, with too many variations to even mention here. The Egyptian-style Oriental dancer wears lavishly beaded costumes, rarely plays finger cymbals, never performs floor work (it is actually against the law in Egypt!) and uses a veil only during her entrance.


More lively and athletic than Egyptian style, much of Turkish
“Oryantal” dance is based upon Rom (or colloquially and incorrectly Called Gypsy) moves, still practiced in the Sulukele Quarter of Istanbul. Turkish cabaret-style dancers wear full-skirted costumes that show a lot of leg and fly during the whirls, spins and hops that are the hallmarks of this style, as are deep backbends and floor work. Finger cymbals are usually played in a quick 3/4 or 9/8 time signature, veils are used extensively.


A simple and traditional folk dance, performed by and for the people in its country of origin. Folkloric dance is usually performed (or reproduced) as authentically as possible, but when it is altered for modern stage presentation, whether by adding set choreography or staging, or the use of “modernized” or flashy costumes, it becomes known as “theatrical” folk dance.


Also called ATS (American Tribal Style) this genre originates from Northern California, and for the past fifteen or so years has been getting hugely popular. Like Americanized Cabaret, it is a hybrid of movements from a variety of countries. But what sets it apart is that even though this dance is never done solo (it is always performed by groups of two or more dancers at a time) ATS is (almost)
never choreographed. Dancers usually improvise, relying on subtle cues as well as intuition. Costuming eschews glitz, combining elements of traditional folkloric costumes from all over the Middle East, Central Asia, and North Africa.


A mix & match genre that has grown due to the “globalization”
of ethnic music- for example: Flamenco-Arabic fusion combines Spanish style dance with oriental dance, and is performed to music that is similarly blended. But fusion can embody mixing Middle Eastern dance elements with anything from Ballet to Bollywood, from hip-hop to contemporary jazz technique. Tribal Fusion has grown as a genre unto itself, with much mixing and melding of ATS style dance with other dance forms. Costuming for this style can range from wild rock and roll and Gothic influences to reflecting the ethnicities it is co-mingling with; or even simple jazz-type pants and tops that call to mind Seventies style modern or interpretive dance.


Often high-concept, fantasy belly dance is similar to Fusion, in that it utilizes the
movements of Arabic dance - but that¹s where the similarity ends. Fantasy is pure imagination and, well, fantasy. And it doesn¹t necessarily have a distinct look or costuming, because it is a dance performance that has been dreamed up by the performer, a performance not based in any sort of discipline or genre. Some good examples of fantasy dance: Isis wings; Pharonic-style performances; dancers as “snakes” popping out of a basket, and probably the most “out there” one of all, Dondi’s comedy/dance act as a belly dancing Marilyn Monroe.

Thursday, July 07, 2005

Loving George Abdo

by Charlotte Desorgher

It's time to come out publicly; I'm a great George Abdo fan. There, I've said it.

But why on earth should I be worried about admitting to my enthusiasm? Well, George Abdo and his Flames of Araby orchestra are a bit of a byword for naff in serious raqs sharqicircles. Really, the name says it all - The Flames of Araby - it makes them sound like extras in films such as
The Road to Cairo or Carry On Cleopatra. And it's true, the music of George Abdo isn't for purists. The rhythms are pretty suspect at times and there is a definite mixing of influences from different countries without too much concern for ethnic accuracy. But for accessibility, for mood and for sheer danceability - for me George Abdo has no equal.

Lebanese-born George Abdo was a star performer in the Middle Eastern supper clubs and night clubs that thrived in the 1970s and '80s in the US. People of all nationalities would flock to clubs like the Averof to eat, drink, smoke, listen to live musicians and watch belly dancers, who would circulate through the audience dancing and collecting tips. Many stars and celebrities would come along in the days before Americans started to fear their Arab populations, Liza Minnelli was a particular fan.

The musicians were typically a diverse bunch of Armenians, Lebanese, Syrians, Turks, Greeks, Jewish Arabs and Egyptians and the music was similarly eclectic. Many of the musicians had arrived in the US when they were young or were second generation immigrants and had little or no experience of Middle Eastern music in the countries of its origin. More

Of Course It's About Sex

by Helen of England

How many times have we heard the tired old harem cliches about our dance and retorted with some variation of "this is NOT a dance of seduction."

It's the reflexive response of self-defence, because we want a quick retort to those who claim that we are one-step removed from being strippers and who say that dancing for the pleasure of men is frankly immoral and therefore we must be too. So we respond by promoting our dance as a legitimate artistic performance and downplay any suggestion that there might be a legitimate sexual aspect to it.

So how come when we watch any of the old classic Egyptian movies featuring stars such as Samia Gamal or Tahia Cariocca we see something that is very different indeed? You'll see pretty girls dancing around very definitely for the attention and pleasure of men, whose faces in turn show that they are certainly enjoying the spectacle at a fairly basic level.

Of course, one can say that Badia Masaabni wanted her dancers' presentations at the Casino Opera to conform to western tastes, the venue was modelled on the British Music Hall after all. But then again, going back to the source, you have to ask whether the original Ghawazee were sexy in their presentations? Well, it's just a wild guess, but if you're in a competitive entertainment market selling to a patron it's unlikely you're just appealing to his aesthetic appreciation of art!

Friday, July 01, 2005

US Legends : Present Day

Posted by : Helen of England

My previous essay listed those Legends of American Bellydance whose star is already in place upon Bellydance Boulevard. However, that doesn't mean there aren't many dancers across America who, if not there already, are already assured of their induction in the Hall of Fame.

Again, this is just my selection and, if it seems overly California-centric, blame those who have informed my prejudices. I'm in London, so what do I know ?? For the full story and more on each dancer, click here:

Angelika Nemeth - California
Cassandra Shore - Illinois
John Compton - California
Dalia Carella - New York
Delilah - Washington state
Jillina - California
Eva Cernik - Colorado
Elizabeth "Artemis" Mourat - Maryland
Fahtiem - California
Laurel Victoria Grey - Washington DC
Mesmera - California
Shareen El Safy - California
Suhaila Salimpour - California
Suzanna Del Vecchio - Colorado
Tamalyn Dallal - Florida

Thursday, June 30, 2005

Sensuality in Dance

Guest Blogger: Lilla

To me, sensuality is an engagement of the senses in a pleasurable way. It can be visual, auditory, tactile, or olfactory. Something that stimulates the senses in a pleasant and enjoyable way. Feeling a soft fur is sensual, smelling apple pie, listening to relaxing music, or watching a beautiful sunset. Sometimes, it is connected with sexuality, and sometimes it is purely sensual with no sexual component.

Sexuality is, as the word implies, purely about sex. It is that aspect of ourselves which is connected to our sexual arousal and attraction, sexual thoughts and feelings, and sexual behavior and actions. It is the expression of our mating instincts.

Sensuality and sexuality can be connected, but don't have to be. Something can be sensual without necessarily being sexual. For example, I can have a very pleasurable massage with essential oils and soft music, which is a very sensual experience, without having any thoughts of sex and without any sexuality on the part of my massage therapist.

I see dance the same way. Dance can be sensual without needing to be sexual. It stimulates and pleases the senses. Some people may perceive it sexually, if that is their tendency, or if the dancer is putting sexuality out there. But it can also be purely sensual without the sexuality.

Sexuality tends to generally include sensuality, because it is a physical act and sensation which make it innately sensual. It's hard to imagine the sexual without the sensual, at least not in a healthy way. But the sensual without the sexual? Definitely possible. The constant interchanging of the two terms in common language is frustrating. They are connected, but not the same thing.

The REAL American Superstars

Guest Blogger : Helen of England

The term Bellydance Superstars is being bandied around at the moment principally as a marketing tool for Miles Copeland's latest scheme. Whilst I have no quarrel with those very talented dancers, I can't help but feel that the term is being somewhat undermined.
There are real and genuine American Superstars out there, people whose contribution to dance stretches over decades and whose right to a star on Bellydance Boulevard is surely absolute and unquestioned. So I've rattled together a list of who I think has an unquestioned right of entry to the list. You can call these the "Legends of American Bellydance". They are, in no particular order:

If anybody deserves the term Superstar or American legend, Dahlena is she.
Jamila Salimpour.
The acknowledged "Mother of Tribal", Jamila first began performing irregularly in 1953, but only really became a full time professional when she became a featured dancer at the Fez club in LA in 1958.
Leona Wood.
Technically Leona was never a bellydancer. Nevertheless her influence was such that it is impossible to consider the development of the appreciation of Middle Eastern folk styles without mentioning her.
What to say about Aunt Rocky ? she was already a professional flamenco dancer when she took a gig in a middle Eastern restaurant simply so that she could eat.
Bert Balladine
Bert was already an accomplished professional musician and dancer when he learned the dance in Middle East during the 50's.
Serena came into the New York dance scene with a background in Indian classical during 1963. She was always proud of being a very succesful American Cabaret dancer.
Bobby Farrah.
Probably the most controversial figure in American MED history. Born of Lebanese parents in Ohio, he was already a gifted dancer when he attended university in Washington.
Aisha Ali.
One of the most successful West coast performers, she was inspired by her mentor Leona Wood to seek out the real ghawazee dancers of Egypt.
Anahid Sofian.
The original bellydancing style throughout the 60s in America was Turkish with a few other bits and bobs thrown in.

MORE on each dancer can be found by CLICKING HERE

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Shaabi and Balady

Guest blogger: DaVid

Balady - the dance of the country side/people - Folk music (balady music), folkloric dance. Really grounded smooth undulating large movements. Mostly flat footed. Typical characteristics is that the music (and the intensity of the movements) start really slow and introvert and slowly build up. As if the music and the dancer is shy at first and then lets go little by little. Usually ends with a creshendo of shimmies and faster music.
Dancer Example: Lucy (of Cairo), Fifi Abdou
Music: instrumental folk music, folk songs. Mawwaal intro not uncommon.

Shaabi- of the people - folk music or pop music (Shaabi music) and Shaabi dance movements. Characteristics are the heel bounce and upbeat tempo. Flatfooted or on the balls of your feet depending on what style of Shaabi you are performing. Common for all styles of Shaabi is that they all have strong influences of folkloric dance in them. Be it Countryside Shaabi (more Balady influence), Urban Shaabi (a meet between Countryside Shaabi and the dance style of Mohammed Ali Street) or Raqs Shaabi (the more theatrical/stage adapted version). Shaabi can also be layered on top of other styles such as Melaya Leff, Sharki, Saiidi, etc.
Example of dancer: Fifi Abdou Music: Mohamed Adawayya, Hakim

Balady VS Shaabi: Balady is more fluid, controlled and earthier as well as having no heel bouncing characteristics, further it has no flirtatious strikes whatsoever. Shaabi is bouncy, often fast paced, has a characteristic continous chest pop (up) going on as well as having a flirty extrovert attitude.

Raqs Sharki - Classical Egyptian style for stage use. Usually performed to Instrumental pieces and Oum Kolthoum's. Also depends on the dancer's personal style. Some perform the Sharki version of the dance to all types of music by adding only some of the characterstics of other styles (to show awareness of the presence of the style in the music). Mostly performed on the balls of your feet. This style is concidered to be the highest refined version of Egyptian style dance.
Dancer: Sohair Zaki, Dina, Lucy, Samia Gamaal, Tahia Cariocca, Nagwa Fouad.

What the heck is Mezdeke?

by Dani (well sort of)

It sounds like a good name for an appetizer, and I've been thoroughly perplexed by the term since I first heard someone say that "this song sounds like Mezdeke." The
mystery was solved by the lovely Kat who informed me that:

Mezdeke, the group, isn't a something, it's a someone.

Specifically it's a troupe of dancers from Turkey (notice I didn't say "Turkish Dancers"). This group, and I think it's a trio, the only video of theirs I have is a trio, always performs in the little face veils -- chiffony things that match their costumes. They are mentioned in an article by Jasmin's Jahlal and are pictured on most of the Mezdeke CDs/Videos.

I didn't call them "Turkish dancers," because, although they are ethnic Turks, their CDs and videos contain mostly music that I would consider pan-Arabic, evenly strongly Egyptian, and their dancing seems (to my eye ) to reflect this. The video I have has written on it in one corner "Misir Danslaria." Now I know "Misir" or "Misur" is one of the words for "Egypt" so I'm guessing this says "Egyptian dancing" or "Egyptian dancers" or something similar.

The article referred to earlier is found here:

Thanks Kat!