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PHOTO CREDIT: Above photo by John Rickman Photography, San Jose, California.

Of Ballet and Belly Dance

 

Both ballet and belly dance are beautiful dance forms. However, many people have misconceptions about the type of influence ballet had on Egyptian dance, which leads to incorrect ideas about how the two dance forms relate to each other. Consequently many misunderstandings can result.

This article will explore some of the differences between these two captivating dance forms, as well as examine the historical role ballet played in Egyptian dance during the first half of the 20th century.

ABOUT THE PHOTO: This painting of ballerinas by Edward Degas is titled "Dancers in Blue". Art historians estimate it was painted circa 1888 or 1889.

Ballet

 

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How Ballet and Belly Dance Differ

In the comparison below, traditional approaches to both ballet and raqs (belly dance) are assumed. In both dance forms, there have been many artists who have experimented with non-traditional variants, and therefore have "broken the rules". For purposes of the list below, the focus should be on the traditional, not the exceptions:

Traditional Ballet

Traditional Raqs

Focuses the audience's eyes on what the limbs are doing Focuses the audience's eyes on what the torso is doing
Torso moves mostly as a complete unit Torso moves freely, with different sections moving independently of each other
Usually tells a story or portrays a particular type of fictional character/situation Usually abstract, no storytelling or situation portrayal - the dancer is depicting an aspect of her own personality
The dancer often serves as what Balanchine called a "voice in the orchestra" which can mean providing her own counter-melody with her body rather than interpreting what the music is actually doing The dancer's goal is typically to embody the music being played by the musicians in the band, interpreting what they are playing rather than creating a "counter-melody" of her own
Dancer's energy is lifted, light, like a beautiful bird preparing to take flight Dancer's energy is grounded, embracing its connection to the earth
Rib cage usually kept closed for a more compact upper torso, enabling weight to be centered over a smaller point in space Rib cage is kept more open, enabling a more grounded feeling
Stylized according to the theory of how a line flows through the body Stylized according to how emotional response to the music can be expressed
Performances are usually choreographed, usually by someone other than the dancer Performances are usually improvised, created in the moment by the dancer
Ballet arms do not typically cross the center median of the body, and often include horizontal extension (2nd & 3rd positions)

Oriental arms often cross the center of the body, and tend to focus energy close to the body rather than extending outward

Extensive footwork, constant traveling Can be done in place without traveling
Emphasizes turnout Turnout locks the hips, and therefore is not compatible with belly dance
Origin lies in European culture Origin lies in Middle Eastern culture
Includes leaps and high extensions of the legs Stays grounded, maintains focus on the torso
The ballet hand position depresses the middle finger Belly dance hand ripples and wrist turns are difficult to do with ballet hand positions. Also, if the middle fnger is allowed to drop too much, the hand position may move too close to a rude gesture recognized in Arabic culture.
Strength is developed in the core muscles for creating a central foundation from which the arm and leg technique can emanate Strength is developed in the core muscles to promote freedom of movement in the pelvis, abdomen, and rib cage
Contained behind the theatrical "fourth wall" Regularly breaks through the theatrical "fourth wall" for more direct audience rapport

 

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Influence of Ballet in Early Raqs Sharqi

Some famous Egyptian raqs artists such as Samia Gamal studied with ballet instructors. People often misinterpret this to mean that Egyptian dancers "fused" ballet and belly dance. This is a misconception. Often, when foreign dancers learn this, they believe it gives them license to mingle belly dance and ballet any way they wish. Some very unfortunate fusion attempts have resulted.

It is important to realize just exactly how ballet influenced belly dance.

In the first half of the 20th century, some nightclub owners such as Badia Masabni hired ballet instructors to train their dancers and create ensemble choreography. It is important to note that a typical dancer in one of these clubs performed not only Egyptian dance, but also Latin, European music hall, jazz, modern, etc. The ballet training was useful in helping these performers build the versatility they required to perform in multiple styles. The purpose of the ballet training was not, specifically, to modify Egyptian dance. It was to create artists who could quickly learn and perform ensemble choreographies of the many theatrical dance forms that were in vogue at the time.

In a 1966 interview, Badia Masabni said that the dance forms she fused to create raqs sharqi included Turkish, Egyptian, Persian, and Latin. She did not mention ballet in this list.

ABOUT THE PHOTO: The photo to the right shows Samia Gamal using an arm position that is very typical of her dance style. The scene comes from her 1955 movie, Sigarah wa Kas (A Glass and a Cigarette).

Samia Gamal

A version of the Arabesque is used in Egyptian dance. It can be seen as early as 1942 in a scene from the movie Rabab featuring Hekmet Fahmy. In the 1955 movie Sigarah wa Kas (A Glass and a Cigarette), Samia Gamal incorporates Arabesques into her dancing. However, it is important to note that the Egyptian Arabesque is different in many ways from a ballet Arabesque. In particular, the elevation of the foot in an Egyptian Arabesque doesn't raise any higher than knee level.

ABOUT THE PHOTO: The photo to the right shows Hekmet Fahmy doing an Egyptian-style Arabesque in the 1942 move Rabab.

Ballet-trained dancers may subconsciously incorporate some ballet lines into their posture. For example, Samia Gamal's ballet training can be seen in how she holds her head with respect to her upper chest, or how she carries her arms. However, she did not create a "fusion" of ballet with belly dance.

Hekmet Fahmy

Traveling moves were added to belly dance to help fill the spaces of the large nightclub dance floors. However:

  • The traveling steps used in belly dance were based more on traditional Egyptian dance movement than they were on ballet steps.
  • Egyptian dancers travel with moves that keep their feet close to the ground, whereas ballet dancers frequently incorporate leaps.
  • Ballet tends to involve constant traveling, whereas belly dance can stlll be done entirely in one spot, if appropriate to the venue. When traveling is used in Egyptian dance, it is typically brief, to create a floor pattern or move to a different segment of the stage, and then the dancer returns to the traditional torso-focused musical interpretation.

ABOUT THE PHOTO: In a dance scene from the 1955 movie Sigarah wa Kass (A Glass and a Cigarette), Samia Gamal does an Arabesque. This is a screen capture taken at the highest point of the Arabesque.

Samia

 

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Closing Thoughts

For ballet dancers learning raqs, these are some important thoughts to keep in mind:

  • A judge on the television show So You Think You Can Dance once said, "All dance is based on ballet." This is absolutely incorrect. Raqs is not based on ballet at all. In fact, there are many ethnic dances from many cultures which developed independently of ballet. The Middle Eastern origins of raqs and cultural aesthetic are entirely different from the European cultural foundation underlying ballet.
  • There is much more to learning raqs than learning technique. It is important to learn an entirely different cultural approach to musicality, using the arms, audience relationship, use of traveling, emotional expression, use of energy, and much more.
  • It can be tempting to judge all other dance forms through the filter of whichever dance a person learned first, but doing so will slow the process of truly mastering the new one. It is necessary to let go of what the first dance form taught about technique (arm carriage, posture, etc.) and stagecraft in order to keep the door open to learn how the new dance form may be different.

Both ballet and raqs are beautiful, and both deserve to be appreciated on their own merits. In a 1985 New York Times interview, Martha Graham said, "Dancing is just discovery, discovery, discovery," and when a dancer who is highly trained in one form begins to explore a new dance style, there is indeed much to discover!

 

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