When most of us think of Arab dance, “belly” dancing is likely what first comes to mind. However, it may surprise you that there are many styles of traditional Arab dances, each with their own past. From dabkah to raqs beladi, today we’re looking into the most popular and traditional Arabian dances of the Middle East.
(Were you sent here by the Arab dances font generator after looking for the font called “Arab Dances Medium”? No problem. Simply read on! There you’ll only find a boring font. And though you won’t exactly find belly dance music here, you’ll find all you need to know about Arab dancing.)
Throughout the years, dance has always been a vibrant part of the Arabic culture. Some examples of the diverse types of Arab dances found in the Arab world are the dabkah and raqs baladi. What’s more, there’s also spiritual dancing like the zar – a dance used to drive away evil spirits in Egypt.
Arab dance was in the Middle East even before Jesus’ time when Salome danced for his cousin John’s head. However, it really wouldn’t become popular in Europe until after the French campaigns in Egypt and Syria in 1798. The returning French brought back stories of women dancing a dance of temptation, conducted solely for the pleasure of men. However, the French were likely adding a little artistic license to their tales. Much like most parts of the Arab world today, there was traditional gender segregation even back then. In fact, you’ll find that women in the Middle East usually dance only in the company of other women.
Still, word spread throughout the continent, and the Middle East would attract painters and writers from Europe now called “Orientalists”. These included the likes of French writer Gustave Flaubert and the French artist and sculptor, Jean-Léon Gérôme.
Arab dance came to America in 1893 by way of the Syrian born dancer, Fatima Djemille. Fatima was one the famous “Little Egypt” dancers at the World’s Columbian Exposition’s exhibit titled “The Streets of Cairo”. Interestingly, Fatima would go on to be the first Arab dancer to appear on film, dancing in Thomas Edison’s Coochee Coochee Dance (1896) and Fatima (1897).
It was also at World’s Columbian Exposition where entertainment director Sol Bloom came up with the term “belly dancing”. (He actually took it from the name used by the French in Algeria who called it danse du ventre, which literally translated does mean belly dance.) When the public found about this belly dancing, they could only conclude the dance was surely salacious and depraved. As a result, the “Streets of Cairo” made a lot of money.
Just as Arabs have their rich and diverse music that makes up their culture, they also have their own dances. And since the Arab world covers such a wide area, you can imagine there are a wide variety of dances. Here are a few:
This is a lively dance that involves moving many parts of the body in a circular motion, especially the torso. It is this classical Egyptian style of belly dance that became famous in the early 20th century. However, belly dancing is also an oral tradition dating back to pre-Islamic times, though that’s changed over the centuries. Some say that it was first used to worship fertility goddesses. In fact, some North African cultures still believe it helps in childbirth. Contrary to popular belief, in many Arab cultures, both girls and boys learn how to belly dance when they’re young. This means you’ll find both men and women belly dancing in some parts of the Middle East.
Shamadan means “candlestick”, so it’s no wonder this dance involves a large candelabrum balanced on top of a dancer’s head. Lovers of dance will only find this dance in Egypt where dancers often perform it in Egyptian wedding processions, or zeffah. Usually happening at night, the procession includes musicians, singers and dancers, followed by the wedding party. They all wind their way through the neighboring streets, taking the bride from her parent’s house to her new home.
Meaning “of the country”, baladi is a type of Egyptian folk dance from the early 1900s, yet remains very popular. It started when farmers first moved to the city and didn’t have a lot of space to dance in. As a result, it is involves the dancer moving more slowly than they do in raqs sharqi. This creates a heavy feeling to the dance. In fact, the dancer seems to be more relaxed and at one with the ground they dance upon. This feeling is shared by the baladi folk music played during the dance.
The dance “Nile boys” originated from bou saada, a style of music from the Egyptian town with the same name. The locals started calling it oulid nail after the boys who first performed this unique dance. The dance itself involves small, rapid foot movements paired with vigorous torso and hip movements.
These dancers from Egypt are a group of female traveling dancers. The ghawazi (or “conquerors”) perform either alone or in small groups, unveiled for mixed audiences. The girls often dance in public streets, in cafe houses, and during festivals like the local Islamic ceremony mawalid. There is little elegant or graceful about their dancing which involves quickly oscillating their hips side-to-side.
Almeh ( عالمة)
The Almeh was a group of learned Egyptian females who were taught to sing, recite poetry, and be fun conversationalist. (Thus, they called themselves almeh meaning “scientist”.) Unlike the above mentioned ghawazi, the awalim performed only for high class women and only in their homes.
Arab folk dances are usually performed at civil events or Arab celebrations like marriages, births, and even deaths. In some parts of the Arab world, they’re also performed during the times of eid.
The dabke is an Arab folk dance of the Levant region. It combines circle dance and line dancing and is widely performed at weddings and other joyous events. With the line forming to his right, the dabke leader heads the line, alternating between facing the audience and the other dancers. There’s plenty of feet stamping as the word dabke comes from the Arabic dabaka or “stamping of the feet”.
Deheyeh is a Bedouin dance mostly done in the Levant and Gulf regions of the Middle East. Back in the day it was danced before wars to fire up a tribe’s soldiers. When the battle was done, it was danced again to describe the battle and how it was won. However, these days, like the dabke, the deheyah is most often danced at happy events.
Like Arab folk dances, popular Arab dances engage all forms creative expressions of the Arab people and their culture. Here are some examples:
The word khaliji literally means “gulf” in English. With that in mind, you might have guessed that it’s a dance of the people of the Arabian Gulf. The khaliji is a joyful, lively dance performed by local women at weddings and other social events. First, these dancers wear a long robe (or الثوب /thobe in Arabic) which they hold in front of them. Next, they start swinging their head as their hair is tossed from side to side. More often than not, dancers perform the dance to a hypnotic 2/4 rhythm with two heavy beats and a pause. Arab musicians call it the Saudi, khaliji, or adany rhythm. Nevertheless, there are hundreds of these khaliji rhythms as this dance characterizes many nations of the Gulf region.
The ardah is a folk dance from Saudi. In this dance, two rows of men stand across from each other with each man holding a sword or cane. Drums and spoken poetry often accompany the dance. Ardah means “to show” or “parade” and like the deheyeh, the dance was often used to fire up the troops.
A folk dance of celebration, the hagallah is danced by the Bedouins who settled in Western Egypt’s Mersa Matruh. In Arabic, hagallah means slapstick; however, there’s nothing funny about this dance. Usually performed during the date harvest, locals also refer to it as a wedding dance and also as a girl’s coming-of-age dance.
Derived from the word sheikha (a female sheikh full of knowledge, experience and wisdom), schikatt is a Classical Arabic dance. In Morocco, only women with a deep carnal knowledge are allowed to teach this dance – and only to other women. The reason for this is because it is a dance that was first taught to young brides to learn how to move in their marriage bed.
Still in Morocco, next is the guedra. This dance is from the country’s southwest desert region. The dance supposedly produces an altered state of consciousness. First, it begins with a solo performer making hand movements. Then, the dancer (a single or divorced woman) starts swinging her head and torso until she reaches a trance-like state.
The yowlah or ayyalah is the traditional dance of the UAE. It involves dancers spinning and tossing a dummy rifle made wholly of wood with metal plating.
Spiritual dances are related to the major religion of the Middle East – Islam – and especially to Sufism. In fact, Sufis believe that these dances are the heart of traditional Islam and were started by the Prophet Muhammad
A folk dance of Egypt, the tanoura is an important part of Sufi rituals. In fact, Sufis perform this rhythmic dance as a group on many special occasions. The dance uses circular movements derived from the mystical Islamic sense of philosophical basis. In Sufism, and ends at the same point – an idea reflected in the dance of the tanoura. What’s more, tanoura means skirt which refers to the colorful skirt worn by the dancer, each color symbolizing a Sufi order.
Performed by women in both Sudan and Egypt, the zar is dance that, once performed, drive away visiting evil spirits. Perhaps that’s why they call it zar or “visit”.
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