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

Are You Sure You Want to Belly Dance to That Song?

 

by Shira

 

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Table of Contents

 

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Introduction

Note from Shira: If you have used one of the songs discussed in this article for Oriental dance in the past, please don't think I am judging you. My aim in writing this article was to provide facts that dancers could use to make informed decisions in the future.

There is a huge body of Middle Eastern music that is perfect for belly dance. Middle Eastern music covers a wide range of musical styles and emotional content.

However, not all music is suitable for "typical" belly dancing. Some music should never be danced to at all, while other is fine for some performances, but not others. Before using a song, it's wise to learn about both the lyrics and the context the Middle Eastern audiences associate with that song.

This article offers some points to consider when picking out music for classroom use, troupe choreographies, restaurant performances, and other Oriental dance situations.

PHOTO CREDIT: Photo by Lina Jang, New York City, New York.

 

Definitions

These definitions clarify the intended meaning of these words as used in this article.

  • Oriental Dance. Another name for belly dance.
  • Typical Belly Dance.
    • Performed for restaurants, birthday parties, weddings, belly dance gatherings, haflas, city festivals, etc.
    • The primary purpose of such a performance is to entertain or celebrate.
    • Uses a typical belly dance costume.
  • Interpretive Theater Dance.
    • Performed in an "arts" environment such as a formal theater, museum, or gallery opening.
    • The dance's purpose might be to narrate a story, communicate a socially relevant message such as a protest, express angst, depict a particular type of character, or try to make people think about an important issue.
    • The costume would match the artistic message, and would almost certainly not resemble a typical belly dance costume.
Shira

 

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Types of Music to Watch For

Religious Music

Islamic Music

It's almost never acceptable for a dancer, especially a woman, to do a performance to Islamic religious music, particularly if there are men in the audience. The general advice would be, "Please don't do it."

One of the challenges that Oriental dance artists face is that of determining which songs are religious and therefore bad choices for dance performance. This can be even more confusing because some artists have recorded both secular music that is popular for dance and also religious music. For example, the singer/actor Mohamed El Kalawi, who appeared in many Golden Era movies, was well known in his old age for singing only religious songs.

Music of this type that dancers should avoid using includes:

  • Anything labeled as "Sufi" music
  • The Muslim call to prayer
  • Mawwal (vocal improvisation) with religious content in the words
  • Anything in the anasheed genre of music
  • Anything in the madeh genre of music
Sufi Music

Many recordings of Sufi music consist of instrumental taqsim (improvised solo). It can be very tempting to use these for dance, because the music is so beautiful, but it's best to find something secular to use instead. Sometimes instrumental pieces are recordings of famous songs which people from the culture would recognize even in their instrumental form. Other times the pieces may have no lyrics, but would be very familiar to people from the culture as instrumental classics.

It may be acceptable to do a Dervish-style whirling exhibition to Sufi music, with appropriate clothing and reverential attitude. It is best to avoid doing this, however, unless the performer is extremely knowledgeable about Sufism and understands it well enough to present the whirling in a way that real Sufis would consider to be culturally sensitive and respectful.

Dervish
Call to Prayer

The adhan (call to prayer) is a chant, typically done by a solo vocalist. There is no instrumental accompaniment. It contains statements such as, "There is no God except Allah."

There is a track on the CD Fire Dance by Omar Faruk Tekbilek and Brian Keane titled "Call to Prayer" which should never be used for dance even though other pieces on the same album are quite appropriate for dance. Tekbilek may be well known among Oriental dance artists as a musician who has released many danceable songs, but he is also deeply spiritual and has recorded a large amount of music that should be used solely for respectful listening.

Madeh

Songs in the madeh genre are songs of praise to the Prophet Mohamed. For that reason, they are definitely very religious in nature, and it would be extremely offensive to use one in a dance performance.

Mawwal

A mawwal is a solo vocal improvisation without instrumental accompaniment. There usually is not any sort of identifiable rhythm. Some mawwal are secular and perfectly acceptable for dance performances. Others contain religious lyrics and a dance performance that uses them could be very offensive. The only way to know for sure about a specific mawwal is to ask a native speaker to translate the lyrics.

Anasheed Genre of Music

Anasheed, known as nasyid in Malaysia or ilahi in Turkish, is a genre of religious vocal music. The music consists solely of vocals, or perhaps occasionally background percussion. Unlike the mawwal, anasheed music typically has an identifiable rhythm and multiple voices singing together. An example of a song from this genre would be Ahmed Ya Habibi.

How to detect whether a song might possibly be anasheed? Generally speaking, a Middle Eastern song consisting of several voices singing a capella (without instrumental accompaniment) should not be used for dance performance until a translation can be located to determine whether it is religious. Some of the stricter interpretations of Islam forbid the use of melody instruments, but permit singing. Therefore, an a capella song may contain a religious theme, and it's best to research the lyrics translation and other background about the song before using it with dance.

Christian Music

Some Christian communities accept the idea of dancers performing to Christian hymns, perhaps as part of a special holiday pageant. Some churches even feature liturgical dance as part of a regular Sunday morning worship service.

Once a performance moves into using Christian music, it ceases to be true belly dance. The energy is different, the audience relationship is different, and the motive is different. Instead of a typical Oriental dance message of, "Let me entertain you," or "I'll use my body to make the musical phrases and instruments visible," the message is more likely one of Christian worship. For this reason, instead of wearing a typical belly dance costume, it's typically better to wear something more concealing. This might consist of the type of clothing sold for the specific purpose of liturgical dance, or it might consist of a design based on a folkloric garment such as the Palestinian thobe shown in the photo to the right.

PHOTO CREDIT: Photo by Michael Baxter, Santa Clara, California.

Some Arab artists have recorded Christmas hymns in Arabic. The most prominent of these is the legendary Lebanese singer Feirouz, but others have also done so.

Thobe


Political Songs

Political songs could include patriotic spirit, anti-war protest, or social commentary. Some songs were originally not intended to be political, but they took on certain meanings among a particular culture because of the sociopolitical climate that prevailed at the time they became popular.

It's usually not advisable to belly dance to a national anthem, even if the audience members are likely to be from that country. It would seem odd to them, just as Americans would think it odd to see a group of Chinese dancers do a square dance performance to "Star Spangled Banner".

Some political songs should never be used for dance performances of any kind. Others may be acceptable for interpretive theatrical dance but not Oriental dance, and some may be fine for Oriental dance so long as the performer makes informed choices about which songs she selects for a given audience. A dancer should always be aware when using a political song that it could generate hostile reactions from audience members who feel strongly about that song and its cultural context.

An example that English-speaking people might recognize is "We Shall Overcome", which was the anthem of the U.S. Civil Rights movement. Imagine how audiences would react if a white-skinned person from another country who was unaware of the song's civil rights connotations were to do a sexy burlesque dance to it. However, a passionate interpretive theatrical dance by a dark-skinned performer could be very beautiful.

 

Associated with Tragedy

With some songs, the lyrics don't tell the whole story. The song may have been widely played in its country of origin as a response to a tragic event.

To use an example that English-speaking people might recognize, Elton John wrote a song called "Candle in the Wind" as a response to Marilyn Monroe's death, and he updated it decades later as a response to Princess Diana's death. Imagine how offended many people would be if a dancer who was unfamiliar with this song's origin were to do a sexy burlesque dance performance to it. However, an interpretive theatrical dance that honors the song's subject could be beautiful.

 

Situation Specific

Some songs are perfectly appropriate for performances in general situations such as haflas, restaurant gigs, nursing homes, city festivals, etc., but would be poor choices for an event with a specific theme. For example, a song whose lyrics accuse another person of being a liar and a cheat would usually be a poor choice for a wedding, anniversary party, or engagement party.

 

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Specific Song Titles to Watch Out For

This is not a complete list of every song that should be approached with caution for Oriental dance performances, but it may help avoid some of the pitfalls.

 

Sung in Arabic

Song Title Artist Reason for Caution Comments
Aazan   Religious This is the Muslim call to prayer. Never do a dance performance of any kind to this. Never.
Ahmed Ya Habibi Nada Murni Religious Anasheed genre of music. This could also be considered a madeh because Ahmed is one of the names of the Prophet, and therefore the song is a song of praise for the Prophet. It would be highly offensive to do a dance performance to this.
Akhar Saah Shaaban Abdel Rehim (Sha'abola) Social Commentary

The song's lyrics talk about a series of crimes in which women used knives to murder their husbands. It would be a very poor choice for a performance at a wedding, engagement party, or anniversary party.

For other performances, it probably wouldn't offend anybody, but people would think it an extremely odd choice of music and be puzzled by a dancer's decision to use it.

Al Atlal Oum Kalthoum Political

On the surface, this is a love song. It has been used by many Oriental dance artists, including Egyptians such as Fifi Abdo, for normal Oriental dance performances. However, some of the lyrics have been perceived as having political overtones. For example, consider this segment: "Give me my freedom! Set free my hands! I have given freely, I have held back nothing. Ah, how your chains have made my wrist bleed!" Some people interpreted these lyrics to be a reference to Nasser and his heavy-handed rule over Egypt. Others felt it represented the Arab world's feelings toward Israel.

It should be acceptable to perform an Oriental style dance to this song, embracing the romantic interpretation of the lyrics, but the song may have another level of meaning for some audience members. It's useful to be aware of this other meaning to better understand possible behaviors or comments by some audience members.

Amrika Shaaban Abdel Rehim (Sha'abola) Political The singer delivers a political message to the U.S. regarding his desire for peace. It probably wouldn't offend anybody, but audience members might be puzzled by a decision to use it.
Ana Bakrah Israel Shaaban Abdel Rehim (Sha'abola) Political The title of this 2001 song means, "I Hate Israel", and it was written to show solidarity with the Palestinians in their struggle against Israel. The lyrics say, "I hate Israel, and I'll say so if they ask me. Even if they murder me, or even if they put me in jail."
Barra Barra Rachid Taha Associated with Tragedy

This anti-war song was written as a protest to the Algerian civil war, which is estimated to have killed 150,000 - 200,000 people. Massacres of civilians often targeted entire neighborhoods or villages, and were shockingly brutal. As of the song's 2001 release, the war had been going for 10 years. The war finally ended for the most part with the 2002 surrender of rebel factions, but some fighting has continued in some areas.

The song's bleak lyrics say, "There is no honor left, Ruin and war, and blood is flowing, There are only walls left, walls standing up, Fear and people remain silent."

Some dancers have been known to use this song for typical belly dance performances with a sword as a prop; however, it's best to think very carefully before doing this. Audience members who suffered under the civil war, or know people who did, might not respond favorably to seeing a dancer with a sexy bare belly waving a weapon around to this anti-war song.

Boushret Kheir Hussain Al Jassmi Political and Situation-Specific

This 2014 song is asking Egyptians to go out and vote, and is a reference to political events in Egypt at the time. The word "sout", which appears in the song, can mean either "voice" or "vote". In this song, it refers to "vote". As a result of the 2011 revolution, Egyptians have finally been able to vote in a "real" election. The 2014 election represented a major step forward in post-revolution Egypt.

There's no harm in dancing to this song, and so long as the song remains popular Egyptians might like hearing a dancer use it, but non-Egyptians might think it an odd choice and not relate to it.

Boussi Ba'a Shereen Situation-Specific

In the lyrics of this song, the narrator tells her man that she no longer loves him.

For that reason, it would be a poor choice for a wedding, engagement, or anniversary party. However, it could be fun to use it in restaurants, haflas, and other situations.

Call to Prayer   Religious Never do a dance performance to this. Never. Also known as the Aazan. The fact that this appears on a CD titled Fire Dance by Omar Faruk Tekbilek might fool a dancer into thinking it's acceptable to dance to this (because so much other music on that same album is danceable), but it's not. Repeat: do not use this for dance performance.
El Bango Shaaban Abdel Rehim (Sha'abola) Social Commentary The lyrics talk about the evils of using marijuana, and complain about Egyptian society becoming too Westernized. It would be an odd choice for a typical belly dance performance, but probably wouldn't offend anybody.
Ezzai Mohamed Mounir Political

This song is widely acknowledged as the anthem of the 2011 Egyptian revolution. For that reason, it probably isn't suitable for a typical Oriental dance performance.

The song might, however, be acceptable for an interpretive theater piece provided the choreographer has a deep understanding of the cultural nuances of the revolution.

Harramt Ahebbak Warda Situation-Specific

The lyrics of this song consist of a woman telling the man in her life that she has quit loving him.

For that reason, it would be a poor choice for a wedding, engagement, or anniversary party. However, it's a popular song for dancers performing in restaurants, haflas, and other situations.

Hob El Rasoul Mohamed El Kalawi Religious The title means "Love for the Messenger". It praises the Prophet and therefore is a madeh. It would be extrenely offensive to use this song in a dance performance.
Leilet Hob Oum Kalthoum Associated with Tragedy

The original song "Leilet Hob", has long been a favorite choice for raqs sharqi performances, and many beautiful arrangements of it appear on music collections intended for the dance.

However, in 2013, a new song titled "Wahsahni Baladi" was released that uses the exact melody line of "Leilet Hob". (See below for details of why "Wahshani Baladi" could be a tricky choice for a dance performance.) Now, when Arabs hear the song, it may evoke both responsees - both the original "Night of Love" meaning of "Leilet Hob" and also the sadness of "Wahshani Baladi".

It's still fine to use "Leilet Hob" for a raqs sharqi performance. However, a dancer may find it helpful to be aware of "Wahshani Baladi" in case an audience member mentions something about it or in case the dancer wants to acknowledge the newer lyrics in a section of her performance.

Parisien du Nord Cheb Mami and K-Mel Social Commentary

The lyrics represent a protest against the racism that dark-skinned people experience in France. It would probably be fine for a dark-skinned dancer to use it for interpretive theatrical dance, but it would be a questionable choice for a white dancer.

Sabry Alil Shereen Situation-Specific

The lyrics of this song consist of a woman telling a man that she has run out of patience and no longer wants him in her life.

For that reason, it would be a poor choice for a wedding, engagement, or anniversary party. However, it could be fun for dancers performing in restaurants, haflas, and other situations.

Salametha Umm Hassan Ahmed Adaweyya Political

Adaweyya (the singer) has said in interviews that this song represents the Egyptian soldier following the defeat of Egypt by Israel in 1967.

Despite this political association, it's fine to use this song for Oriental dance and it appears on many music compilations intended for dance. It appears on this list to reassure dancers that despite the political interpretation of the lyrics, it's perfectly acceptable to use this song in a dance performance.

It's useful for a dancer to understand the political interpretation of the lyrics in case someone makes a comment about it, so she can respond knowledgeably. Arabs from countries other than Egypt are less likely to think about any political meaning for it.

Samara Gawaher Situation-Specific

This song would probably be a risky choice for a light-skinned dancer. The lyrics are innocuous enough, but the song's title, "Samara", is a woman's name that means "dark skinned" or "tanned".

There are ways a light-skinned dancer could make this song work, but it's a good idea to give careful thought to how to do that.

Samra Ya Samra Karim Mahmoud Situation-Specific

This song would probably be a risky choice for a light-skinned dancer. The lyrics are innocuous enough, but the song's title, "Samara", is a woman's name that means "dark skinned" or "tanned".

There are ways a light-skinned dancer could make this song work, but it's a good idea to give careful thought to how to do that.

Sayyidi Elra Es Magda El-Roumi Political

The lyrics say, "The evening covers the country with grief. And hopelessness among us and the sword of fear is drawn on us, drawn on us."

Set El Hosen Hamouda Ali Situation-Specific

A male dancer may want to think carefully before using this song.

"Set el hosen" is an expression in Arabic used to praise a woman's beauty. It means "prettiest of the pretty", or "prettier than all other women". Some people might think this an odd choice for a man.

Spirit of the Ancestors Omar Faruk Tekbilek Religious Never do a dance performance to this. Never. The fact that this appears on a CD titled Fire Dance by Omar Faruk Tekbilek might fool a dancer into thinking it's acceptable to dance to this (because so much other music on that same album is danceable), but it's not. The lyrics say, "La illaha, i' Allah", which is a prayer often recited in Sufi ritual and it means "There is no god but Allah". Using this in a dance performance would be deeply offensive to Muslims.
Tala' al Badru 'Alayna or Talaa el-Badr Alina Oum Kalthoum (and many others) Religious Anasheed genre of music. It was sung to the Islamic prophet Mohamed upon his arrival at Yathrib after completing the trek from Mecca to Medina in 622 CE. The song is over 1,400 years old, one of the oldest in the Islamic culture. It would be highly offensive to do a dance performance to this.
Wahshani Baladi Carole Samaha Associated with Tragedy

The lyrics speak of homesickness, of missing one's country. It was released in 2013, and many people associate it with the Arab Spring. A music video version of this song powerfully references the Palestinian diaspora and is recommended viewing before doing a performance to this song. The melody line for this song consists of a segment from the classic Egyptian song "Leilet Hob" by Oum Kalthoum.

A happy, joyous dance or a sexy, seductive one would be out of place for this song. The associations with the Palestinian diaspora and Arab Spring refugees would make it tricky to use in a typical belly dance set. However, it might be workable to construct a theatrical performance that evokes the longing and sadness of people who miss their homeland, their memories, and the people they cared about.

 

Sung in Turkish

Song Title Artist Reason for Caution Comments
Ah Bir Ates Ver   Associated with Tragedy

On April 4, 1953, the Turkish submarine Dumlupınar collided with a Swedish cargo ship and sank. Some of its occupants died in the crash, and some made it to safety; however, 22 were trapped on board. The rescue teams were able to establish phone contact with the submarine via a buoy connection, and instructed them to conserve oxygen by not smoking, singing, or even talking unnecessarily to each other. Several hours later, the rescue team concluded they would not be able to save the sailors. They gave them the news through the phone connection and gave them permission to talk to each other, sing, and even smoke. As all of Turkey listened, the sailors burst into song, singing "Ah Bir Ates Ver". The lyrics say, "Ah, give me a light, let me light my cigarette, may you sway and come, let me look at your beauty."

Turkish audience members might be quite dismayed by a performer who uses this song for typical Oriental dance, but an interpretive theatrical piece that honors the sailors might be successful.

Tinni Minni Hanem Özel Turkbas Situation-Specific

The title of this song refers to "Tiny Little Lady" who walks with a mincing gait.

A large woman dancing to this might consider doing so with a strong dose of humor.

 

Sung in Other Languages

Song Title Artist Reason for Caution Comments
Bei Mein Rebbe Ist Gewesen Feenjon Group Situation-Specific

There is nothing Middle Eastern about this song even though it appears on an album titled Belly Dancing at the Cafe Feenjon. The lyrics are in Yiddish, which is a language that arose among the Jewish community in eastern Europe, and they tell of a robbery at the Rabbi's house.

It might be fine for a performance for a Jewish family, but would be a very odd choice if performing for a different type of audience.

Djelem Djelem   Political

Many people consider this to be the anthem of the Romany people. The lyrics were written in 1949, set to a traditional melody, as a response to the suffering the Romany people endured under the Holocaust.

The lyrics say, "I once had a great family. The Black Legions murdered them. Come with me Roma from all the world, For the Roma roads have opened. Now is the time, rise up Roma now. We will rise high if we act."

This song would be a peculiar choice for a typical sexy/happy belly dance performance, but might be acceptable for an interpretive theatrical dance by someone with a very deep knowledge of the history and culture of the Romany people.

Dona Dona Feenjon Group and Desert Wind Social Commentary

This old song was originally sung in Yiddish, which is a language that arose among the Jewish community in eastern Europe. Many belly dancers think it is appropriate for dance performances because it has been recorded by two bands that have also recorded belly dance music. Versions with English lyrics appear on the album Belly Dancing at the Cafe Feenjon by Feenjon Group, and also on Return to the Goddess in Chants and Song by Desert Wind.

The lyrics speak of a calf being taken to market to be slaughtered who needs to learn to accept his sorry lot in life. It probably wouldn't offend anybody to see an Oriental dance performance to this song, but they'd probably think it a very odd choice.

Jerusalem of Gold Feenjon Group Political This is the English translation of the song title "Yerushalayim Shel Zahav", which appeared on the Feenjon Group CD's Salute to Israel and Jersusalem of Gold. Because Feenjon Group's music was widely used for belly dance performances in the 1980's, many belly dancers incorrectly assume that anything recorded by them is suitable for belly dance. See the information below about "Yerushalayim Shel Zahav" for details of why this song might be a questionable choice for Oriental dance.
Orshilim Jalalledin Takesh Political This is a misspelling of the song title "Yerushalayim Shel Zahav", which appeared on the old vinyl LP set Jalalledin Volumes IV & V. See below for more information about the song and why it might not be an ideal choice for Oriental dance.
Yerushalayim Shel Zahav Naomi Shemer and others Political

Israelis generally consider this song to be an unofficial second national anthem for the country of Israel. The gorgeous melody seems perfect for veil work, but using it for typical Oriental dance would probably raise eyebrows among any audience members, whether Israeli or Arab, who are familiar with it.

It might be possible to do a convincing interpretive theater piece to this song for a Jewish audience, but this should be undertaken only by someone who has a very strong grasp of the song's history and emotional associations.

 

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