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Raqs Raqs Sharqi

Dance In The Community- Women's Egyptian Dance by Carolyne Taylor

There are many reasons that women dance in Egypt and for women outside Egypt to want to learn their dance. Women have danced in Egypt since ancient times where they are depicted dancing, clapping and playing instruments, (Metropolitan
Museum of Art Collection). This may have been for religious or secular reasons.
The worshippers of Bast and Hathor sang, danced and offered themselves sexually
in praise of these goddesses. (1). Other countries and possibly Egypt use
bellydance movements to help with childbirth. (18, p87) "the hip, abdominal and
lower back motions of belly dance are not only excellent for the birthing
process but also very beneficial after childbirth in regaining and maintaining
muscular elasticity."

From the 1700's until 1834 when they were banned for a long time, mainly in
Cairo, dancers who were Ghawazee gypsies performed at fairs, the street, for
Saints day celebrations, and at weddings and births. (2). Dance and prostitution
were the Ghawazee women's career, the prostitution and sometimes the dancing ending when they married. (3). Their dance was entertainment and they were considered the most beautiful women. Both men and women watched them. (13 p27) "

The Ghawazi used to smoke the water pipe and drank considerable amounts of
brandy. Due to this and the fact that they danced for men and in public with
unveiled faces, they were generally not regarded as decent women."The ban was
eventually lifted mainly so taxes could be earnt from them, (13 p36).Today there
are very few left and it is the tourist trade which gives them work. (4).

The Awalim were dancers who mainly performed in the harem (13 p26) they "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 propreity." They continued to
work in the harems when the street entertainers were banned. (13 p33). They also
sang and improvised. They also performed for women in weddings (13 p53) often
dancing unveiled for the women then putting one on to dance afterwards for the
men.By the 1960's (13 p53) "people either abolished professional entertainment
at the women"s party or allowed female entertainers to be allowed at the men's

There was also a class of dancers between these two who performed for the poor
and working class quarters (13. p27). It was easy to mix these up with the
Ghawazee particularly for travellers. In the countryside the farming people, or
Fellahin dance, sometimes to make their work less monotonous and to keep them
moving in unison and also for celebration and entertainment. (5)
In Upper Egypt there is a more complex dance called Saidi which is more
competitive and is sometimes danced with a stick. The women use the stick in
imitation of the men's stick dance which is very martial, and make it more
flirtatious. The Bedouin and Nubian women also dance and this is for celebration
and can be competitive. The musical accompaniment (often just singing, clapping
and maybe a drum) will stop when the watchers are fed up with a dancer. There
has not been much research on either Bedouin or the Nubian dance, particularly
the latter since the Aswan dam displaced the people. However both kinds of dance
use shuffling steps and jumps.

Sha'abi is the general term for all those dances performed by peasants in the
countryside. It bonds the community together and happens during celebrations,
such as weddings and can also be flirtatious although the men and women do not
dance together. (6). Sha'abi is also a name for some of the less traditional but
earthy music which is popular in Egypt today. Egyptians will dance to this music
in clubs and it can be political. This can be an example of negative community
bonding, such as the popular hit "I hate Israel". Rai is a similarly
revolutionary music which means "opinion" and is also popular among young
people, and again, can be political. It is a little like punk with its lyrics
and changing of traditional music, blending it with jazz instruments and funky
guitars and synthesisers. This is danced to in clubs and at home and bonds young
and disaffected people together. Traditional dance movements may be combined
with steps seen on television such as jazz steps from Western pop videos.
Al Jeel is the term for popular modern Egyptian music (7) which is danced to at
home, in clubs and at weddings when there is a sound system (especially weddings

in Western countries). In the home it will usually be just women and girls
dancing together but still can be flirtatious and showy. A hafla is an Egyptian
party and here the women will dance together away from the men. This brings the
women closer, gives them a feeling of support and lets them let their hair down.
The Zeffa is an Egyptian wedding procession headed by the bride and groom who
are then entertained by music and dancing. (8) (9). After the professional
dancers have gone the guests may themselves dance. Traditionally for good luck
there is a professional dancer who wears a shamadam (candelabra) on her head.

Baladi is a style of Egyptian dance form the early 20th century which is still
very popular. It came about when farmers moved to the city and began dancing in
small spaces. The music also changed and Western instruments such as saxophone and accordian were used. (10). Baladi is the most common style of dance in Egypt today and is used to dance to all sorts of music, including Western pop and Al Jeel. Women dance this style at haflas, weddings, at home and in clubs.It is seen on TV and in the theatre. It brings women together and can also be flirtatious and celebratory as well as emotional. (3) At weddings (13 p 131)
"even people who never dance, the happiness in their hearts makes them stand up
and dance the baladi dance".

Sharqi is the classical dance that cabaret is based on. It originated in the
Ottoman empire and takes up lots more space. (9.p3). It is seen on stage and on
TV, especially the old Egyptian films of the 30's and 40's where cabaret style
began. This is the style the West is most familiar with and the
Hollywood-inspired bra and belt costume is often worn. It started off in the
courts and has remained the most refined of the Egyptian dances. The music is
more emotional and spiritual so it appeals to women who want to show depths of
feeling. It is not really danced to just for fun because it is more balletic
than earthy so most Egyptian women would be more likely to watch it than do it.
Because it is more an artistic expression than an entertainment, it is far more
appealing to Wes tern audiences. Unlike Sha'abi and Baladi styles where it is
easy to dance in a crowded small space, it is suited to the stage.

At the Moulid, or saints days, there are often secular dancers and other
entertainers in proximity to same-sex groups chanting a nd moving to verses from
the Qoran. (video Fairgrounds) They dance in tents or in the street and are
purely for entertainment and as light relief from the piousness. However, women
dancing in the streets is much frowned upon by the more religious as is dancing
to entertain others, especially men. Occasionally a group of just women in a
tent will also chant and move as the men do to become closer to Allah. However,
(13 p65) nowadays the entertainment of "bellydance is sometimes forbidden
"during the Moulid.

The Zaar is a spiritual healing ceremony performed by women in a private house.
One woman leads and will do most of the dancing and it is a very earthy and wild
dance. Men are rarely present and in modern times the practice is kept more
hidden because of religious pressure against it. It is done for a woman or girl
who is ill or mentally distressed. A spirit in her is either exorcised or
placated by being asked what it wants. Often this will be requests such as the
husband treating her better or for some sweets. When the husband is told he is
more likely to obey than if the wife told him herself, without this mediation.

Veil dance is mainly performed in clubs and in the West and is only used at the
start of a set because it is seen as sexual (alluding to Burlesque and
striptease) and therefore dancers don't like to do it. It is purely for
entertainment. The Melaya is a long piece of black fabric that some women wear
(more so historically) in the region of Alexandria and this can be danced with
in a flirtatious way, on stage and in private groups of women. Contrary to
rumour, it was never danced in the streets- this would be highly inappropriate

There are many reasons why women in Egypt dance. The Sha'abi dance is mainly for celebration, enjoyment and to make work less monotonous. Sometimes it can be competitive and the Ghawazee dance is for entertainment. The dance is also used to showcase Egyptian talent on TV and in theatre but with the Islamic upsurge there is less of this now. The Mahmoud Reda folkloric troupe perform lots of traditional dance in a theatrical setting in a respectable way but it is not
100% authentic. Nowadays bellydance is banned from TV although old films with it
in are still shown. The folk dancers, on the other hand are seen as less bad
because the movements are less sensual/sexual and they are covered-up.

Dance brings together the Egyptian community. During weddings it brings the
families together and when women dance together it gives them a stronger
community separate from the men. It gives them a chance to shine. Although the
bride isn't meant to dance much, if the mother and mother in law dance this is a
signal that they approve of the marriage.

In the countryside different places have different dances so they are bonding as
a tribe when they dance. Modern Sha'abi and Rai music can be political and this
brings young people closer together as well as bringing political or religious
factions together, such as people who are anti- Israel. Sometimes these songs
are encouraging the Islamic community to stick together. Egyptian women can
dance to flirt particularly in clubs where they may show off in groups. They
dance with eachother in a more sensual and flirty way than Western women are
used to.

The entertainers primarily work for money and since this is a very low status
job many give up upon marrying or if they can afford to. (13 p108). One dancer
says (13 p133) "Fundamentalists say we do things against our religion but we eat
from our work. I raise my children from it..let them provide us with another
job, with enough to pay for the school and all the other expenses for my
children. I struggle for them.". Egyptian women see dance as an entertainment
for others and dance as a joyful celebration for self, family and friends, as
completely different. They are not comfortable with the former with its links to
prostitution and religious shame. They may enjoy watching it but wouldn't want
their daughter to take it up. However, the latter is and has always been part of
the Egyptian culture and is a way for women to let their hair down away from the

Dancers at weddings are seen differently from dancers in nightclubs (13 p129) "at
weddings, for instance, a dancer occasionally performs in front of the couple
and puts her hands on her belly and breasts while she rolls her belly and moves
her breasts. I expected this to be considered outrageous behaviour. Yet several
people explained that it was innocent merriment and fun. A nightclub dancer who
exhibited the same behaviour lacking the context of a happy occasion and working
in an atmosphere of sexual excitement, would be considered prostituting herself
to earn money".

Here in the UK Egyptian dance has become quite popular since the 70's where
bellydance was publicised here. Women dance here for a variety of reasons, one
primary one being to enjoy being with other women as a community. In my classes
women say how good it is to dance without men watching and to get away from the children. Here, women find the dance helps them to get in touch with their body and to boost their body image. Because the movements are comparatively easy and safe compared to most other forms of dance, it can bring out the dancer in women of all shapes, sizes and ages. It is therefore a very acce ssible dance. One way women use the dance in the West is to mark the transitions of womanhood such as menarche. (18 p97).

Some women here are interested in the culture of Egypt and want to understand
the music and people better. By doing the dance they can reach more
understanding and often by learning the dance women want to broaden their
cultural knowledge. Some women and teenagers in the UK dance to feel sexy and
want to dance for their men or to look like Britney Spears or Shakira who have
used bellydance moves in videos, although I am not aware of this in my classes.
Perhaps this is because I teach sensual, not sexual moves which is more Turkish
and Lebanese style.

In the UK women dance for fun and reasons above but also for spiritual, healing,
artist ic and philosophical reasons. Sharqi music in particular attracts women
who want to dance emotionally to refined, beautiful music whereas the Zaar
attracts women who want a deep shamanic and healing experience. Philosophically
some women feel or have a connection with Egypt or to Islam and want to
increase this by learning the dance. Artistically the dance can be choreographed
or improvised and done solo or in a group so can be very fulfilling.

Women in the UK also like the dance because it is good exercise, particularly
for the hips, spine and the abdominals. (17). It complements yoga, alexander
technique and Pilates and can help with childbirth and tone the pelvic floor and
stomach. It is in the West that Egyptian dance is enjoying an upsurge. In Egypt
itself religious pressures and cultural embarrassment have meant that the dance
has been in a decline which is likely to continue for sometime. This means that
development of the dance as a theatre art is happening outside Egypt, leaving
the dance open to the influence of other cultures. (14) (15). However, in the UK
there are some teachers and schools, notably Suraya Hilal and the Raqs Sharqi
Society who are keen to maintain authenticity in what they teach, as I am. (16).

In my own teaching I try to help the dancers get in touch with their bodies and
to accept themselves. I also want them to enjoy themselves and to feel supported
by the women around them. All of this can be psychologically healing and the
movement can be physically healing for the body. Women also enjoy dancing
together and there is a vibrant dance community in the UK where professional and
student shows are popular and haflas (parties) are highlights in many calendars.

1. History of Why Women Have Danced.. by Julie Roberts
2. Ghawazee of Egypt by Jasmin Jahal
3. Ghawazee by Venus, page 10
4. Hilal School newsletter, issue 5
5. Folkloric Dances by Jasmin Jahal
6. Hilal School newsletter issue 2
7. A Glossary page 1 by Shira
8. Scenes From A Baladi Wedding by Shira
9. Raqs Sharqi-Information by Katrina Robinson
10. Hilal School newsletter, issue 3
11. Trance Dance- The Zaar by Shakira
12. A Trade Like Any Other by Karin Van Nieuwerk book
13. Egyptian Dance in The 21st Century by Sarah Hamilton and Suraya Hilal
14. A Primer on Middles Eastern Dance Styles by Soher Azar
15. Suraya Hilal by anon
16. Connect, Wendy Buonaventura interview, page 1
17 Sacred Woman Sacred Dance by Iris Stewart book
A search on the internet should bring up websites and original sources. Some
books available from Amazon or Raqs Sharqi Society.

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