Egyptian belly dance

Egyptian belly dance has gone through many transformations. Originally there were two main classifications of dancers or female performers in Egypt.

Firstly, the 'Awalim, (Alma singular). These were learned women, who's main activities would include writing poetry, composing music, singing, playing musical instruments, and dancing, but only for a female audience. If men were present, the 'Awalim would sing from behind a screen or wooden lattice.

“These educated 'awalim were highly appreciated for their art and probably respected as well, since they did not perform for men and did not break any rules of propriety.”

Secondly, the Ghawazi (ghaziya singular). These women performed Egyptian belly dance publicly in the street, at festivals, coffee houses and in private homes.

“Most travellers described them as a separate tribe, as gypsies, or gypsy-type wanderers.”

In Egyptian belly dance today there are star dancers such as Dina, and Soria (who is Brazilian in origin but is recognised as a star in Egypt), whereas in the past and still today dancing scantily clad for an audience that includes males was, and is, thought taboo.

The boundaries are blurred and today women from a wide range of countries travel to Egypt to partake in workshops and buy the highly stylised and western looking Egyptian belly dance costumes displayed at such festivals and in the markets of Cairo.

Foreigners were forbidden to perform in any Egyptian belly dance venue, but as far as I am aware this ban has recently been lifted and now, with certain certification and papers it is possible. Its ironic that the places where most performances take place are in venues visited mostly by foreigners or more modern Egyptians such as hotels, night clubs and dinner boats.

There are two main authentic Egyptian belly dance troupes that perform in Egypt that I am aware of and they both reside in Cairo...

  • the Reda troupe and
  • the National dance troupe

The Reda troupe performs regularly at the Balloon Theatre in Agouza. Here you can watch the choreographies of the famous Mahmoud Reda, performed by the Reda troupe, stylised staged versions of authentic folkloric dances and their costumes.

Another irony is that the sacred dance of the Sufi's, the men who twirl and turn endlessly, a dance used to go into trance, a meditation form that opens one to the higher mind, has also become a performance for audience.

Egyptian belly dance has always been a risky job, not only could you potentially loose the respect of your family but also that of the your social class and the entire nation. As a female dancer your possibilities for marriage and therefore security in an Islamic world are reduced to a very small margin. Harassment and mistreatment are a part of the job.

Then on the other hand if you make it as a dancer you become a national icon, held in high esteem by the people of your country who are proud of your accomplishments, bringing their country international acclaim and you are talked about in the streets, such as Fifi Abdou, Tahia Carioca and Raqia Hassan, to name a few.

My Experiences in Egypt

I trained in Egyptian belly dance with many women such as Raqia Hassan, Dua Salaam (from the Reda troupe), but most of all with Mervat Mongi.

I found learning Egyptian belly dance from these women added a whole new dimension to my dancing and my understanding of the dance. I found a new feeling, a story thread connecting the ages of this dance through these women and I am so very grateful for what they shared with me.

What follows is random information pieced together from my experiences at a 10 day intensive Egyptian belly dance teacher training workshop in Cairo, some valuable tips on professionalism in Middle Eastern dance, a small exert on the two main minders of the performing arts, the God Bess and the Goddess Hathor, and some information regarding Egyptian belly dance costume styles from different regions in Egypt.

Kamal Naem

Ways to professionalism in Middle Eastern dance...

  • Continuity and collection of knowledge
  • Combining movements and knowledge and learning from a wide range of teachers to expand your repertoire
  • Developing your individual style, being aware of which movements work well for your body type in inward feeling and outward expression. Discovering your costume styles and music that speaks to you
  • When teaching don't interfere with the individual style, just teach the framework and basic steps
  • Observe other dancers, without judgement
  • Work with different choreographers
  • Train, practice and remain spontaneous
  • Play with arm movements they are important in defining and conveying your personal message
  • Arms must harmonise with torso
  • Quality of dance is enhanced when you engage the arms, shoulders and head
  • Know your capabilities, work with your strengths
  • Design your costume according to your bodily strengths or highlights i.e. if you have big eyes, you can use a lower bra or neck line; if your right leg is stronger, have the slit of the costume on the right…
  • Engage in dance tools: zagat (finger symbols), stick, sword
  • Fitness, training, continuity
  • Including occidental movements makes the dance more graceful i.e. arabesque, travelling movements
  • Practice on rhythm, not only music
  • Listen to lots of oriental music
  • Learn the meanings of the songs - this is important for your expressions
  • When you are performing, let every audience member feel that you are dancing for him or her
  • Develop your individual language style; don't rely only on copied styles
  • Feel free to add your own creative movements
  • Keep the dance pure, adding movements from other dance forms only subtly i.e. Indian, Spanish
  • Love this Art
  • Originally Egyptian belly dance, in its 'oriental' term is performed in a maximum space of 1m cubed. With the introduction of the occident, the further use of space was engaged.

Dr Mo Gedawi

Notes on Egyptian belly dance...

  • You have not mastered a step until you can do it with all variations. Variations would include: tempo (fast/slow); direction; height (on your toes, normal level and pliet level); accents (soft or hard); additions (shimmy, circles into a step)
  • Every movement has a preparation
  • Move in proportion with your body, if you are tall and have long legs, the steps you make can be bigger and wider than if you are small, where your steps should be smaller, in proportion to your body.
  • Egyptian culture is the first documented culture in the world
  • Ancient Egyptians believed in many God and Goddess forms and that they were all related therefore there was no fighting between tribes or villages. The Gods and Goddesses had two representational forms:
  1. With the characteristics of an animal
  2. Human
  • They believed in two lives, the first on Earth was in preparation for the afterlife. They therefore recorded their lives in tomb paintings.
  • The Goddess Hathor: Goddess of love, dance, music and fertility. She is represented by the cow and can be seen in many ancient paintings with two horns extending from her head like a crown. When we raise our arms above our heads, extending up elbows to ears and slightly bent with hands open at the top, as if receiving energy from above, we are representing the Goddess Hathor
  • The God Bess: God of acrobats, singing, dancing, clowning and entertainment. Represented as a black dwarf, the clown of Gods.
  • The earliest recordings of Egyptian belly dance have been found illustrated in temples 3000 to 5000 years old.

Nabil Mabrouk

An Egyptian belly dance performer and choreographer gave a lecture on highlighting a few of the dance and costume styles found in different areas of Egypt...

North Sinai

In this region there is a step called the 'Dabsha' or 'Dabka'- which means to strike the ground with the foot. It is used in a dance called The DaHeyu - which is done to celebrate the arrival of visitors. It is a line of dancers close together all clapping out a rhythm and repeating a single step. One woman, the 'El-Hashia' will go out of the line and walk up and down listening to the clapping, and if she is satisfied with the rhythm she will do a simple solo dance before the line.

She will then return to the line and another will step forward and repeat the process to her own solo.

The men of this region have a dance called: “El Reda” - meaning 'what we want' or 'what we need'. It is also a one step line dance.

In Northern Sinai the technique is more flat footed, the heel is never lifted (because they are dancing in sand), the movement therefore originates in the thighs, hips, stomach and back.

South Sinai

This Egyptian belly dance dance style here has been influenced by its close proximity to Saudi-Arabia.

Gulf dance: involves a lot of waving and shaking the hair and swaying the head. It's origins come from the wives of the men of the gulf who would remove their veils at the sight and arrival of an invader tribe. They would remove their veils which is taboo and wave and shake their hair to give their husbands courage to go and fight off the invaders, so that the women would not have to be reduced in shame by being taken unveiled into slavery if captured by the rival force, or taken as another mans.

El Earda: a sword dance where dancers stood in one line and waved the sword, especially used on wedding nights. There is the same dance in Saudi, but the sword has a more crescent shaped blade.

In south Sinai the dance steps involve striking the ground with movements originating in the legs. Their arms would link around each other's waists. Singing and clapping and the Mesmaar, an Arabic flute, create the majority of the musical accompaniment.

Western Desert

The Hagella, a heavy earth based dance, where a Ghranewra - a song consisting of four words is repetitively sung like a mantra to accompany the dance, the boys would clap out the rhythm and the dancer may dance with a small stick. The Magrouda and Shiteiwa are the names of two Hagella based song and dances, the shiteiwa being quicker as its name means 'winter' and was performed during the colder months to warm them up

Upper Egypt

We find dances called RazHa, SaHga, Kef el Arab and Kefefa (Kef meaning hand, Kefefa meaning palm of hand) These dances originated with the Bedouin and always depend on a rhythmic clapping with Hagella based steps.

Siwa Oasis

The Siwa Oasis is located in the northern territories of the Western desert. It has two springs, one hot and one cold and they lie about 50m apart. Traditionally before a wedding, the bride and groom would bathe in both springs, first the cold and then the hot. The wedding celebrations would then commence with the women covering themselves in all their jewellery, many heavy pieces of silver, and then dancing. This was also a way of showing off their wealth and status. The women or girls would dance alone; no men were allowed to watch the dance.

Southern Oases

Er Garga, El Dagla, Baharia, Ferafra. All of these oases are quite close together and therefore have similar Egyptian belly dance styles and customs. The people living in these areas were not aware of or in contact with those living in the Delta. It seems that the men of these areas took a liking to younger boys, the women, wanting to win their attention, would perform a vigorous dance which involved a lot of hip shaking and shimmy's.

The main movements used in the Oasis' are from the hips. The hands would be used in different ways to cover or reveal the eyes.

Red sea Mountains

The zone of the mountain raiders and warrior tribes namely the Bashareeya and where the sword is the main element in a dance done by the men only for celebratory occasions. Imitating movements used in battle and the dancing art of training with the sword, prior to battle, where the men would learn how to articulate a sword in combination with steps. The women would clap out a rhythm and sometimes a woman would join the men in the dance to perform a solo.

In Morocco and Algeria we find women here dancing with swords.

Learn how to do Egyptian belly dance.


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