Raqs Sharqi-Middle Eastern Dance
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What is Raqs Sharqi?
Raqs Sharqi translates as "The Dance of The East", or "Oriental Dance", although only Egyptian dance is technically Raqs Sharqi.This dance is pre-Islamic and is an oral tradition which has changed over the centuries. Some people believe that it originated as a fertility or Goddess worshipping dance, and in North Africa it can still be used to help during childbirth. It combines a powerful grounded feel with the ability to express the subtleties of the music through strong technique. Improvisation is used a lot, and it is incredibly exciting to see the musicians and dancer sparking off eachother.
My own discovery of Raqs Sharqi began in 1996 when I began going to classes held by Aliya Burch. I was immediately smitten and remain addicted to this dance form. I am particularly inspired by the incredible dancing of Suraya Hilal, an Egyptian who now lives in the UK. She is freer as an artist here, and performs Sha'abi, Baladi and Sharqi across Europe. She has trademarked her own style of dance. I love dancing and look forward to decades of shimmying!
Sha'abiyya, the folk style is the oldest, danced in the fellahin (farming comminities), often as a celebration during weddings. Different communities use different steps, but there are general styles, such as Saaidi from Upper Egypt, which the Ghawazee gypsies danced to. The Musicians Du Nil do wonderful folk music, using instruments such as the mizmar, tabla, arghul and rababa. Fellahi style has a loose and relaxed feel, with many repetitions and lots of shimmies. Ghawazee style is tighter, with fast spinning and a more masculine feel. Saaidi music is also danced to by the men with sticks, and the magnificent Arabian horses. The arms in folk are usually relaxed and heavy; at the sides, on the head or widely framing the heart and head area.
Baladi, (or beledi) literally "from the country" is urbanised folk, developed early this century when people migrated to the cities, bringing their music and dance with them. The music became more sophisticated and instruments such as the accordian (altered to give it quarter tones) and saxophone were used. Baladi dance is less raw than folk, with more showy costumes and more variety in steps. The elbows are heavy, with arms tending to frame the heart and hips, or placed on the head. Mostafa Sax does nice Baladi music. The "Achra Baladi", or 10 part Baladi, is a traditional form which live musicians might play. In recorded music it rarely has ten parts. Some of the parts include Tahmelah (introduction), Taqsim (improvisation), Awaadi (tabla, instruments and dancer swaying together) and the Tet when the drum speeds up near the end.
Shamira in a Baladi costume with ballroom shoes, traditional head dress and hip scarf, velvet baladi style dress, and vintage wrap.
Sharqi, or classical is the most refined form of Egyptian music and dance. The composer Omar Faruk Tekbilek has created beautiful classical music with a Turkish feel, and Mohamed Abdul Wahab Egyptian classics. Instruments such as violin, ney, and qanoon are used to good effect. This style is more balletic, with smaller movements, isolation and lyrical, expressive arms and upper torso. A veil may be used, floating behind the dancer. Its style is more detached from the audience and spiritual at its best. Unfortunately it is not really seen in Egypt.The arms in Sharqi are straighter and more expressive, describing slow, airy patterns around the dancer. Sharqi is more of a theatre dance, requiring space for large gliding steps and spins. The dancer can go very low down, in a wider stance than other styles of Egyptian dance. Courtly classical is a variation which is more sensual, with heavier elbows.
Shaabi not to be confused with Shaabiyya, this is a modern style danced to Egyptian music such as Hakim and is similar to Algerian Rai in that it is music for young people and often political. It has been compared to rap music in its rebelliousness although increasingly the lyrics are about love and therefore more acceptable to the majority.
Cabaret/Nightclub is a mixture of the above styles, with strong Turkish influences such as hip lifts and deep back bends. American dancers in particular, enjoy mixing other dance styles such as Flamenco and even acrobatics, with Egyptian steps. Veils and other props are often used, and the dancer concentrates on entertaining the audience. Some of the best cabaret style can be seen on old Egyptian films from the 1940's where the crossover of Turkish and Egyptian styles can be seen. This is the style often used in restaurants and is more like what people imagine when they think "bellydance". In Egypt, cabaret is the term reserved for the less artistic dance for men's entertainment whereas nightclub style is more what bellydancers would want to see.
American Tribal is a recent and powerful style developed in America. It mixes up movements and clothes from gypsy, bedouin, and other Middle Eastern or North African tribes and is usually danced in a group where the leader improvises and the others copy. Leaders may change during a dance. Tassel belts are often worn as well as heavy turbans and tiered skirts. Snake arms are often used, as well as deep upper body undulations, floorwork, and vertical figure eights. The terms used for the techniques and the way they are danced eg foot position and posture may be different to what dancers in the UK are used to. There are now different types of Tribal.
Khaleegi is a form of dance from the Gulf. A long "thobe" is worn which the dancer holds up in front. There is a step with it, but the main feature is the hair tossing as the head swings from side to side.
Bandari is a little similar to Khaleegi but a lot more fiery. The Bandari women wear masks which create tunnel vision and can cause a trance-like state in the dancer. The dance is energetic and strong.
Tunisian Dance tends to be folky, with steps not seen in Raqs Sharqi. Dancers mime planting the fields, cooking and other ordinary activities. Hip twists are done towards the back and one interesting step involves lifting one leg up wide and forwards, as if going over a stile, then twisting that hip backwards upon putting the foot down. The rhythms are often difficult for the dancer used to Egyptian or Turkish music to pick up.
Moroccan Dance is also folky and has movements representing activities such as carpet weaving, sowing seeds and flattening the soil. Pelvic tilts are used a lot and the shimmy goes forward and back, unlike the Egyptian up and down. Many steps from Raqs Sharqi are now danced by Moroccans. The Schikhatt was originally danced at pre-wedding parties and is now a leisure activity for Moroccan women. The Guedra is a trance ritual dance performed by a woman on her knees. She uses intricate movements of her hands to give blessings. She begins the dance on her feet, then drops to her knees when the rhythm changes. The dance can go on for hours.
Algerian Dance includes movements also used in Raqs Sharqi, such as shimmies, hip circles and drops. There is a strong Andalucian influence in the dance, particularly seen in the fiery hand movements. Amel Tafsout is an Algerian dancer who specialises in Maghreb dance.
Rai Dance is becoming more and more popular in Egypt and the Maghreb. Rai means "opinion" and is revolutionary music, both in its lyrics and the less traditional feel. Rai can contain elements of jazz, and I have heard drum machines and funky sounding guitars as well as authentic Arabic instruments. It is generally energetic and makes good party music if you like a modern/young feel and are careful lyrics are suitable.
Turkish Dance is more showy and energetic than traditional Raqs Sharqi, and includes floorwork, zill-playing and more wrist circling. There are traditional folk steps included in cabaret choreographies which can make it very exciting. Rhythms are often irregular. Costume in Turkish dance is skimpy compared to Egyptian cabaret, although this seems to be changing now, and high heels are often worn. In Turkish folk dance, however the costume is traditional and the dance is different from bellydance. I have seen Turkish men dancing folk-style and they were very elegant, shimmeying their shoulders up and down. It reminded me of Armenian Dance.
Lebanese Dance this is closer to Turkish than Egyptian dance and heels are often worn. Classical Lebanese music is similar to classical Egyptian music and is often beautiful. The music and dance is often more energetic than Egyptian style.
Persian Dance can be energetic and fun as well as lyrical and very beautiful. Gestures and the eyes are very important, and the hips are used far less than the arms, hands and torso. Spins are used a lot as well as some graceful floorwork. Miming activities such as applying make-up requires an actress' awareness and control. Medea Mahdavi (UK) and Robyn Friend (USA) are both excellent at this dance.
Armenian Dance is included here since I became a fan from trying it out at Glastonbury dance festival. There are traditional steps, but often Armenians will all be doing different steps to the same music. Dances are often in circles or in lines. Some steps similar to Raqs Sharqi are used, such as gentle shoulder shimmies and hip sways, but it is very different. Armenian dance can be very beautiful, proud, lyrical and full of feeling. A common theme is that of having to say goodbye to a loved one, which can be seen as a person, or as alluding to the forced movement and genocide of the Armenian people. The dance can also be highly energetic, with leaps and stamps. Steps include the grapevine, placing the heel to the ground and many symbolic gestures. The women's classical dance has beautiful arm and hand movements, spins and is similar to some Persian Dance. The men's dance is more athletic and can include spinning on the knees, huge leaps and shouts. Great practitioners of Armenian dance are Gagik Mekhitaryan and Shakeh Avanessian who are both in the UK at present.
Sacred And Trance Dance The Zaar is an energetic pre-Islamic trance ritusl done to exorcise negative energy and involves swinging the arms and head, shaking, pelvic tilts, and other loose movements. A zaar can go on for many hours, until the dancers drop down exhausted. There are superficially similar trance dances in North Africa such as the Gnawa. Some Sufis from Turkey and around the world do a religious ceremony called Zikr (Rememberance of Allah). This also can go on for hours or days, and can involve spinning (Whirling Dervishes), rolling the head, bowing, arcing the chest from left to right and other movements designed to bring the participant closer to Allah. Phrases from the Qoran are chanted. This chanting and rhythmic movement can be seen (but not as a performance!) during the Moulid (Saints' Festival) in Egypt, but are frowned upon by Islamic fundamentalists.
The costume is simple, with layers of scarves on the head. A galabeya, which is a long straight dress in a T shape with slits in the sides is worn, with scarves and coins at the hips. One or more circular skirts and loose top can also be worn with a Ghawazee-style waistcoat, again with scarves and coins. Egyptians, eg the Ghawazee used to sew their money onto their clothes, which is why coin belts and necklaces are worn. Jewellery is chunky- some Ghawazee stuff is positively over the top! This shows off the wearer's wealth and their dowry. To look authentic, colours should look naturally-dyed and patterns should be simple, such as stripes.
Baladi costume uses a galabeya, more showy than the everyday one. The cut is often more flattering and the material stretchy, to show the body's contours. One traditional material called Asuit can be used for Baladi dresses but it is very heavy and difficult to get hold of, although reproduction asuit is more readily available. Asuit has pieces of metal incorporated in it. A hip sash or scarf is worn, and a more ornate head-dress made from less scarves. The veil of the head-dress is used in the dance, in imitation of hair. The dress has slits in the sides, which may be fringed or coined. Shiny or glittery material is very popular. In Egypt the slits are not suppoesd to go very high, certainly not above the knee, but some dancers get away with daring costumes, particularly if the venue is judged to be high class eg hotels.
The costume is very refined in Sharqi. One or two circular skirts are worn, with a beaded hip scarf, and a fitted top. Sometimes the belly can be seen through a body stocking. Egyptian dancers are not allowed to show their uncovered belly. Jewellery is small and the hair is put up, off the face. The veil is lightweight and can be rectangular, semicircular or like butterfly wings.
For Cabaret the belly is usually bare or covered by a body stocking. The dancer wears the bra and belt combination (bedleh, which means suit) popularised by Hollywood. The skirt is one or one and a half circles with splits up to the thighs, or perhaps a fishtail shape. Coins, beads, fringing and lots of sequins create a glamorous appearance. Sometimes a baladi dress is worn instead, or a clingy cocktail-type dress, often with some daring cut-outs. Cabaret costumes have changed in fashion over the years, being lighter nowadays with less use of heavy beading and using lycra and recently Tribal influences.
Props in Raqs Sharqi and bellydance
Dancers often use props, such as the veil, stick, cane, sagat, sword and candelabrum.
Veils came about this century, and often Egytians dislike using them, believing they have striptease connotations. This is one reason why veil dance is unpopular there. However, Western dancers can create beautiful patterns with one or even two veils, as well as "tricks" such as hiding inside the veil and then escaping. Turkish and cabaret dancers tend to use the veil in this way. Suraya Hilal usually just floats the veil behind her, which looks stunning. Veils can be rectangular, semicircular, or butterfly wings and different materials create different effects eg silk, organza, cotton, sequinned..
Stick The men in Egypt dance with a long stick to the Saaidi music, which Arabian horses also dance to. They have mock fights, twirl the stick and bang it on the ground.The male stick dance is known as Sibs. Dancers in the West often use a modified broom handle for the stick.
Cane A smaller, lighter version of the stick with a handle is used by women. Originally it was used to imitate or gently mock the men, and now often is twirled and used to frame the body in various ways in Baladi and folk dances. A woman dancing with a cane can be masculine or feminine in her use of it.
Sagat Particularly popular in Turkey and in Ghawazee music, and a Tribal dance staple, these should have a pleasant tone (some would say impossible!) and be played well by the dancer. Heavy ones are best, but more taxing to play, and they should have two holes in. Dancers tend to play "the gallop"-1,2,3 pause, or one of the Arabic rhythms. Sagat can play along with the melody, and be used to accentuate movements. There are different ways of hitting the sagat to make different sounds. They are called Zills or Zilen in Turkey.
Sword This prop is used mainly by professional dancers who have the technique and experience necessary to execute hip drops and shimmies whilst balancing the sword on their head. Often a scarf is worn, or the balance point of the sword roughened up to help it stay on. If it slipped, she could lose a toe, or worse. I really respect dancers who can do an exciting sword dance. Sword is often used by American Tribal and Tribal Fusion dancers. Extra insurance will be required and there are often strict travelling restrictions in places, including where the sword is kept. In Egypt it is not considered traditional although there are paintings of Ghawazee women dancing with swords.
Candelabrum (or Shamadam). Traditionally the dancer wears one on her head as she leads the wedding procession (called the zeffat al aroosa) which uses the zeffa rhythm, for good luck. Not seen very often on stage, perhaps because audiences in the West may see it as a gimmick. Dancing with one is known as Raqs Shamadam. The shamadam represents the room being lit up by the bride and the joy of the wedding. It is the only time that the dancer can do floorwork, although this must be tasteful.
Chair or Table Sometimes a dancer will get onto a chair or table in order to show off a few moves, or if it is hard for the audience to see her. She needs to be sure that it is stable and not slippery and to be aware of how the audience may perceive her. I have seen a video where Fifi Abdou dances on a chair for a short time. Dancers have even been known to execute a few moves whilst holding a chair in their teeth, but I wouldn't recommend it!
Other Props Dancers use all manner of other things, from baskets, urns (Tunisian dance), trays (Morocco), snakes (license and insurance may be required), wooden clappers (calpara-Turkish dance), scarves (eg North African and Persian), candles (may not be covered by insurance), fans (Spanish and Chinese) and capes. Dancing on a drum or on two (strong!) glasses can also be seen. Often props used by bellydancers are not traditional, but they can add a nice element to a dance.
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