Styles Of Belly Dance

In The United States, Part 3

by Shira

This is Part 3 of an article about Styles of Belly Dance in the United States. In Part 1, I provided an introduction to the three styles that are the most popular, with a historical perspective on where each came from. I introduced my terminology and explained why I chose it. In Part 2, I discussed the use of solo versus troupe formats, choreography versus improvisation, and the structure of the dance. The three styles I have identified as dominating the U.S. belly dance scene today are:

  • American Restaurant
  • U.S. Tribal
  • Egyptian Oriental

Here in Part 3, I'm providing more detail on each of these three styles, explaining how the music, the costuming, and other elements vary from one to another.

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Table Of Contents

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Finger Cymbals

American Restaurant and U.S. Tribal Finger Cymbals

Drawing Of Finger Cymbals In the "traditional" American routine, the dancer wears finger cymbals and uses them in all the fast/medium songs. The dancer might also opt to use them during the slower songs, but often doesn't. It used to be, in the 1970's and 1980's, that an American dancer of either the Restaurant style or the Tribal style who didn't use finger cymbals was effectively admitting she wasn't good enough with them to play them in public--so people wore them if they were trying to present themselves as a professional-quality dancer.

The fact that finger cymbals have NOT been widely used in Egypt recently has led to some American dancers deciding it's okay not to use finger cymbals themselves, even when doing American Restaurant style. They might put on an Egyptian costume and select Egyptian club-style music for part of their dance, and say they don't need to wear the finger cymbals because the Egyptians don't--even if their dance structure is classic American 7-part with some sections using non-Egyptian music. At this point, the majority of American Restaurant style dancers do still use cymbals because club owners and audiences expect them, and most teachers of this style still believe it is important to teach and perform finger cymbals.

Tribal dancers who embrace the Bal Anat style or American Tribal Style generally to use finger cymbals, while those taking the "artistic experimentation" approach to Tribal often do not.

Egyptian Oriental Finger Cymbals

Finger cymbals are part of Egyptian dance tradition. Even today, they are an essential part of a Ghawazee dancer's performance. (Ghawazee is the traditional folk dance style of Egypt from which Oriental evolved.) In Egypt, Oriental dancers who are skilled at playing sagat (finger cymbals) usually do so, particularly if they embrace a baladi (more traditional) flavor of Egyptian Oriental dance.

Beginning with Badia Masabni's club known as the Casino Opera in the days of Samia Gamal and Tahia Carioca, Badia herself enjoyed playing sagat and would sometimes sit in with the band to play along. Soon it was common for bands to include a musician playing sagat. This allowed dancers who were not proficient with finger cymbals an excuse not to play them - the sound was part of the music even if the dancer herself did not play.

Over time, as dancers became the ones who hired the musicians, it became a sign of prestige not to play sagat - a sign that the dancer was successful enough to command the kind of pay that allowed her to hire a musician dedicated to playing sagat. In the 1980's, it was common to see baladi-style Egyptian Oriental dancers such as Nagwa Fouad playing cymbals for part of their routine to demonstrate that they possessed the skill, then put them aside and let the band take over for the rest of the show. This further opened the door for dancers who weren't very skilled at sagat to avoid playing them altogether.

The most influential of the performers still dancing publicly in Egypt today is Dina, and she is the one that many of the younger generation of Egyptian dancers use as their example for dance style, costuming, and presentation. Dina does not use finger cymbals, and therefore many of the up-and-coming younger dancers do not, either.

In the 1980's through today, as American dancers began to visit Egypt or buy videos of Egyptian dancers, it became fashionable for American dancers who profess to do "Egyptian style" to NOT wear finger cymbals because they saw performers who did not. Today, American dancers who play sagat in their Egyptian Oriental performances are in the minority, but those who are skilled in playing them may still choose to do so.

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The Music

American Restaurant Music

A single American Restaurant style of show may well incorporate music from several nationalities: Turkish, Arabic, Greek, Armenian, Israeli, and others. These are typically folk songs from these regions, with the sort of simple verse/chorus musical structure that normal folk could sing along with. However, dancers of this style will sometimes use Egyptian classics as well.

Some traditional Middle Eastern song titles popular among American dancers include:

  • For entrances or fast/medium pieces: Aziza, Ah Ya Zein, Shisheler, Mastom Mastom, A Nada, Haddouni Haddouni, Karoun Karoun, Sallam Allay
  • For veil work: Bir Demet Yasemen, Cleopatra, Misirlou, Erev Shel Shoshanim, Tien Afto, Gole Sangiam
  • For finales: Rampi Rampi, Toutah, Fakarouni, any of the fast/medium pieces listed above

Even when folk songs from the Mediterranean are the primary music used in a show, American Restaurant dancers sometimes choose arrangements that include electronic instruments for an updated sound. For example, the new-age sound of Desert Wind played on synthesizer offers a new sound to an old favorite like the Egyptian song Habena.

There are a number of U.S.-based musicians (John Bilezikjian, Harry Saroyan, Oasis, Brothers Of The Baladi, Sirocco, Jazayer, and Desert Wind, to name a few) who have recorded music suitable for the American Restaurant style of belly dancing. Some of these musicians apply their own interpretation to existing music from the Middle East, and others such as Light Rain and Desert Wind compose entirely new songs that may incorporate some elements of Middle Eastern musical technique such as rhythm and maqam, but are distinctly different from those heard in the Middle East.

Beginning around the 1990's, pop songs from Turkey, Lebanon, and Egypt also became favorites of American dancers. It's common for American dancers to use music by Amr Diab, Tarkan, and other pop artists in their routines, particularly for segments where they may be inviting audience members to get up and dance with them.

An American Restaurant style of dancer may also include music from other sources that are not Middle Eastern at all. For example, a dancer might do veil work to a soft, flowing song from the soundtrack of a popular movie, or might choose something from a New Age collection. Usually, this variant music is instrumental in nature, and the overall tone of the show still has an Oriental flavor to it.

U.S. Tribal Music

Tribal-style dancers who embrace the Bal Anat approach tend to prefer music with an ethnic flavor. They generally prefer music played on acoustic instruments such as oud, zurna, mizmar, rebaba, and various types of flutes (ney, khawwal), rather than the violins, accordions, keyboards, and synthesizers associated with Egyptian orchestral music for Oriental dance. This flavor of Tribal dancer will probably select songs with comparatively simple musical arrangements based on traditional instruments, such as just an oud and a dumbek, or just a kanoon and a dumbek. These simpler arrangements capture the folkloric spirit more effectively than a large orchestra could. Such dancers tend to favor music based on folk songs, or songs from several decades ago or more.

The Bal Anat style of tribal dancers will often incorporate a Turkish 9/8, Moroccan 6/8, or Lebanese-style debke into their performances because folk music is very complementary to the tribal look. Drum solos are also an excellent element to include in a tribal dance, particularly when the percussionists are playing folkloric drums such as the tabla baladi, a large frame drum with a deep sound.

For dancers who embrace American Tribal Style, whose moves are based on group improvisation, a song with a steady, predictable beat is much more suitable than an intricate composition with frequent rhythm shifts. For this reason, many choose the same musically-simple folk songs that dancers who enjoy the Bal Anat flavor of Tribal prefer, and there can be some overlap in music selected by these two different approaches to Tribal. In addition, some American Tribal Style groups have incorporated composed-in-America music by bands such as Solace that may use some electronic instruments layered over Middle Eastern rhythms. For these ATS dancers, music with a mysterious or moody flavor is preferred because it complements the overall ATS mood.

Dancers who prefer the "artistic experimentation" direction of Tribal may abandon all attempts to use music with Middle Eastern musical modes or rhythms. They might choose modern-day industrial or Goth music. Or something else in keeping with current American musical trends, typically with an edgy flavor.

Egyptian Oriental Music

An Egyptian Oriental-style dancer is likely to use only Egyptian music--and then only the fully orchestrated arrangements typical of shows in the 5-Star Cairo nightclubs rather than that played by a small ensemble of only a couple of musicians. An Egyptian orchestra tends to consist of violins, accordions, frame drums, sagat (finger cymbals) darabukkas (the hourglass-shaped drum some people call a dumbek), neys (flutes), and khawwals (other flutes). Some may include ouds (Middle Eastern ancestors of the lute) and kanouns (Middle Eastern zithers) as well. Some Egyptian songs incorporate brief Saidi segments, which may be played on either the orchestral instruments listed above or the more traditional Saidi rebaba and mizmar, depending the taste of the musical composer/arranger.

American dancers usually choose musically-complex pieces with frequent rhythm shifts such as those composed by Mohammed Abdel Wahab, Baligh Hamdi, and Abdel Halim Hafez. However, some still enjoy using the musically-simpler but still-appealing compositions by Farid al-Atrache. With the rise of the pop musical styles in Egypt known as shaabi and al jeel during the 1980's and 1990's, many American dancers who choose to perform Egyptian Oriental style are incorporating those into their shows for at least part of the set.

In Egypt, a star-level dancer often has an elaborate entrance piece, sometimes written for her, as much as 15 minutes long. Some well-known examples from the 1970's and 1980's are "Sitt el Hasan" (Nagwa Fouad), "Banat Iskandaria" (Sohair Zaki and Nagwa Fouad), and "Raks Nelli" (Nelli Fouad). In the United States, Egyptian Oriental dancers sometimes use these compositions as their beginning pieces. The American dancer Sahra, who worked in Egypt, had the entrance piece "Sahra Saida" composed for her, and it has become a popular entrance piece among many U.S. Egyptian-style dancers.

Some of the classical Egyptian song titles that are especially popular among Egyptian Oriental dancers in the U.S. include:

  • Alf Leyla Wa Leyla
  • Leylet Hob
  • Lissa Fakir
  • Wahashtiny
  • Sawah
  • Nibtidi Mneen al-Hikaya
  • Habena
  • Aziza
  • Zeina

Pop music currently in use varies according to which artists are currently at the top of the charts. Some of the pop artists whose al jeel or shaabi music has been popular with Egyptian Oriental dancers in the U.S. include:

  • Amr Diab
  • Nancy Ajram
  • Hanan
  • Hakim
  • Shareen

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Type Of Dance Moves

Many moves are common to both the American styles and the Egyptian style, such as figure eights, hip lifts, etc. The difference may come in the nuances of execution. Certain other moves are associated with particular styles.

American Restaurant Dance Moves

American Restaurant dance moves borrow from the movement vocabulary of many Middle Eastern styles, including movements inspired by dances from Turkey, Egypt, Lebanon, North Africa, Iran, Greece, Armenia, India, and other Middle Eastern and North African countries, then add the dancer's own ideas as well. It's common to see an American Restaurant style of dancer blend moves from throughout the Middle East and North Africa into a single dance routine.

In addition, American Restaurant style dancers often incorporate movements that have no basis in Middle Eastern dance tradition, borrowing ideas from many sources of inspiration, such as old Hollywood movies, ballet, flamenco, yoga, jazz, salsa, and their own imaginations, with the result being quite eclectic. An American dancer may also be influenced by something she has seen on a rock video or in a Broadway musical and incorporated into her own style. However, the dominant influences on American Restaurant remain Turkish and Egyptian movements.

American dancers, because of the influence of ballet, jazz, and other Western dance forms, will often use limb-oriented movements. These may include arm movements that involve strong extensions, wide, sweeping arm movements, or poses with strong extension. They don't necessarily use exclusively these movements throughout the dance, but they do insert them frequently for dramatic flair. Similarly, they may do bourrées or other leg-oriented moves.

There are certain belly dance moves that are typical of American Restaurant style and not likely to appear in Egyptian Oriental style. Not every American Restaurant style of dancer does these moves, but if the moves appear they're usually an indication that this dancer is at least strongly influenced by the style:

  • Rib cage circles or figure 8's
  • Isolated stomach rolls while otherwise standing still or doing floor work
  • Stomach flutters
  • Use of the full rib cage in undulations or camel walks
  • Corkscrews (circling the rib cage and hips in opposition at the same time)
  • Snake arms
  • Hands above head, palms pressed together in "prayer" position
  • Rippling hand movements

U.S. Tribal Dance Moves

Tribal dancers in the Bal Anat or American Tribal Style variants usually try for an earthy, folkloric look. Those in the "artistic expression" variant will try for a mood that is in line with whatever happens to be "cool" in American alternative culture at the time.

The Bal Anat flavor of Tribal dance frequently consists of a series of folkloric steps borrowed from various cultural areas. For example, a single tribal choreography might use some Tunisian steps, some Saidi movements, some debke steps, and some Turkish folk dance elements. Frequently, dancers portraying tribal style choose to dance on flat feet rather than the balls of their feet as a way of accomplishing a more ethnic look. However, there are certain folkloric steps, such as some used in Tunisian dance, which do require dancing on the balls of the feet.

For tribal style, hip movements and stomach undulations are usually big and showy, not small and delicate. Tribal dancers tend to avoid the dramatic, "show-business" poses that nightclub dancers use.

This picture, taken in 1995, shows Bàraka performing with the folkloric troupe Hahbi 'Ru in a Tunisian-style costume.

PHOTO CREDIT: This photo was provided by Bàraka, and is used with her permission.

Bàraka Dancing With Hahbi 'Ru Wearing A Tunisian-Style Costume

In American Tribal Style belly dance, the format of doing group improvisation imposes certain demands on the movement style. It requires:

  • The moves being done by the leader must be easily visible to the other dancers who are following. For most moves, this means being identifiable from behind because usually the followers are arranged behind the leader. Moves typically involve only body parts from the hips up, because it can be too difficult for followers to see the feet.
  • The arm motions be simple to ensure that cues are easy for the followers to identify, and the arms need to be held in positions that are easy for followers arranged in assorted formations to see and follow. For these reasons, the arms are held away from the body, either above the head or outstretched to the sides for easy visibility.
  • Moves in general need to be clean and uncluttered so they can be easily followed. For example, the dancer would move the hips in a circle while keeping the arms still, or undulate just the arms while keeping the hips still. Layering is not conducive to group improvisation and therefore is not done unless a given group has created a layered combination for itself that is a standard part of the repertoire.
  • Moves tend to be deliberate rather than impulsive, because followers need to be able to stay synchronized with the leader.
  • A certain vocabulary of standard combinations exists that everyone in the same group agrees on. This means that the following dancers need only identify which combination is next and transition to it, being able to make certain assumptions about the details. To accomplish this, the details of a particular combination including hip move, weight position, and arm placement are predefined consistently used.
  • Rapidly-changing moves such as continuous spins or intricate footwork are very difficult for followers to match, and therefore usually not used in American Tribal Style.

In the "artistic expression" flavor of Tribal, moves from other disciplines in American pop culture are frequently incorporated into a fusion of belly dance plus something else. These might involve moves from yoga, hip hop, music videos, or whatever else is considered "cool" at the time. Many of the dancers in this style will use technique reminiscent of American Tribal Style because they learned the basics from ATS instructors (or teachers who studied with ATS instructors) before moving on.

Egyptian Oriental Dance Moves

In general, the movement in Egyptian-style dance tends to be subtle and contained. These moves tend to be driven by the muscles in the torso rather than pushing from the skeleton. The emphasis is on the hips: circles, infinity loops, half circles, lifts, drops, etc. The rib cage may do periodic sharp accents, but is typically not used for fluid, flowing moves.

Layering (adding a shimmy over the top of a hip circle, for example) is almost mandatory in Egyptian style because the Egyptian Oriental dance music is layered by so many instruments playing as a complete orchestra, similar to a European symphony. The music effectively demands layering. For example, the hips may interpret the drum rhythm with infinity loops, with a delicate hip shimmy rippling in time to the kanoun, and the arms following the flow of the melody.

Egyptian Oriental dancers may engage the torso and use rolling abdominal movements as a layer in combination with assorted hip moves. However, they don't stand still and roll the abs by themselves the way American Restaurant dancers do.

Egyptian-style nightclub dancers tend to do minimal moves with their hands, instead of the large, dramatic moves done by many American Restaurant dancers. This goes back to Egyptian-style dancers having an internal focus, bringing out how the music makes them feel. American dancers have often been influenced by ballet and other American theatrical forms which focus more on limbs and extensions, less on how the dancer herself feels at that moment.

Moves that are common in Egyptian Oriental style dancing but not so frequently seen in other styles include:

  • Big, deep hip circle, during which the dancer more or less bends over fully at the waist and makes a large, sweeping arm movement
  • The jewel (a side-to-side crescent with a hip twist on each side)
  • The chonk (a straight-legged vertical hip move made famous by Soheir Zaki)
  • The pelvic forward-and-back shimmy
  • While doing the large, deep hip circle, incorporate tiny twists or accents with the butt when the circle is in the position of the butt sticking out to the rear.

For the most part, these moves became popular in Egyptian dance after American Restaurant style was largely developed, which is why the American Restaurant dancers are not likely to use them. However, many American dancers who don't themselves perform Egyptian style still enjoy watching videos of Egyptian dancers, and may incorporate the Egyptian moves they like into their personal styles. So it is possible to see an American Restaurant style of dancer doing some of the above moves.

Floor work was outlawed from performance in public environments in Egypt in the 1950's, and therefore is not performed publicly except for bits in the raqs al shamdan (candelabrum dance) - it's allowed in that dance because raqs al shamadan is viewed as a traditional dance which it is part of. Floor work might appear in private party performances, but it's not common. Because Egyptian dancers don't typically do floor work, neither do American dancers who specialize in the Egyptian Oriental style.

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The Costume

American Restaurant Costume

Photograph Of Baraka

An American-style nightclub dancer might wear a costume that was made in Egypt, or closely approximates the Egyptian look, but not necessarily. Often, American dancers will purchase certain costume elements from Egypt and then combine them with American-style items for a look that's all their own.

Bàraka has done just that with this beautiful costume. She purchased a gold bra and belt set from Egypt. Then, to make it look different from everyone else's bra and belt set, she added appliques and white pearl trim. She made the headdress, sleeves, skirts, and veil herself. The result is a lovely costume that combines both the typical Egyptian look and American ingenuity. Photo used with permission.

Other possibilities: The American Restaurant dancer might instead wear 3-panel circle skirt (ie, so a total of a circle and a half of fabric envelopes her), or maybe 2 or 3 circle skirts so that when she spins different layers of skirt show themselves. She might tuck one or more of her skirt ends into her belt for a hip pouf/drape. Most likely the skirt will have two leg slits in the front--one on either side of a half-circle panel. The bottom edge of a circle skirt might have a ruffle, or be scalloped.


Other skirt variations are common among American Restaurant dancers. For example, a dancer might wear a straight skirt out of glittery fabric with a slit up one side, or a panel skirt made from a Lurex veil cut in half into rectangles. Perhaps she will layer a shorter skirt with a zig-zag or scalloped hem over the top of a circular underskirt. She might copy some skirt ideas from the Hollywood evening gowns of the past.

In the photo to the right, Shira is wearing a costume consisting of bra, belt, skirt, necklace, wristbands, and headband purchased in Turkey. She made the pantaloons herself from fabric that matched the skirt. Note the cutouts in the belt -- these are common in Turkish costumes. The skirt is made of six quarter-circle panels attached to an elastic hipband.

PHOTO CREDIT: Photo by John Rickman Photography, San Jose, California, 2000.

Shira Wearing A Costume Purchased In Turkey

An American-style dancer might wear pantaloons under her skirt, or she may prefer to either wear nylons or let her bare legs show. She might layer ornamental panels over the top of her skirt or pantaloons. She might tuck small scarves into her hipband for poufs, or wear a scarf around her hips beneath her belt.

The American Restaurant dancer might go for a rather bare look, wearing only bra, belt, and skirt. Or, she might wear a vest or jacket over her bra, or sleeves on her arms that harmonize with the skirt. Some will wear a tunic over the bra to achieve a more covered look, or drape scarves to cover the stomach area.

In this picture of Shira posing with an American-style costume, the bra and belt are gold-colored medallians trimmed with aurora borealis crystal. Worn with it are two circle skirts, each with three half-circle panels. This is purely of American design, sold by Cost Less Imports in Berkeley, California.

Another costume variation might be to wear a glittery baladi dress, which gets its sparkle from lurex thread, paillettes, or sequins, with a sequinned hipband or beaded hip scarf. There may or may not be coordinating pantaloons worn with it. Underneath, the dancer might wear standard lingerie, but she could alternatively wear a costume bra and design the dress's neckline to expose it.

Shira is wearing an American nightclub-style costume.

U.S. Tribal Costume

U.S. Tribal dancers have a tendency to mix costume elements, music, and dance moves from multiple ethnic regions into a single look. For example, FatChanceBellyDance wears turbans (Turkish) with cholis (Indian) and facial tattoos (North African). U.S. Tribal dancers may also create their own things that are not at all representative of anything that was actually worn or presented by dancers "over there"--for example, coin bras or yarn belts decorated with camel tassels. That's a big factor that distinguishes U.S. Tribal from groups that are attempting to present authentic historical material--the "U.S. Tribal" dancers are drawing from many sources of inspiration, including their own imaginations, to create their own art form.

In this picture, Izora is wearing a costume that is very representative of the U.S. Tribal style. She wears an assuit tunic over a skirt. At the hips she is wearing a shawl and a coin belt from Cost Less Imports. Her headdress completely covers her hair and is accented with jewelry framing the face. PHOTO CREDIT: Photo by Sue Swindlehurst. Used with permission from Izora.

In this style, there is a tendency to prefer a look that covers the legs and the midriff. "U.S. Tribal" costumes frequently incorporate a selection of elements from this list. Of course, they may also incorporate items that are not on this list or vary away from some of the specifics I've suggested! I've separated the elements into categories, like "tops", "bottoms", etc.

Izora's costume is very representative of the American tribal style.

Fabric

  • Costume items generally made of natural fibers (usually cotton, though sometimes people use silk)
  • Tendency to choose primarily muted colors, possibly using a splash of bright color as an accent
  • Use of assuit fabric (if the dancer can afford it)
  • Tendency to prefer a look that covers the legs and the midriff
  • Any glittery stuff on the costumes probably is in the form of coins, mozunas, assuit, or shisha mirrors, unless the dancer used fabric from India that had lurex designs in it such as sari fabric
  • Some costume pieces made of striped fabric.

Tops

  • Coin bra
  • Choli top
  • Some sort of cropped top that covers the bust and shoulders, and comes just below the bustline. May or may not have sleeves
  • Vest
  • Tunic-style top, which may or may not have sleeves, as the dancer wishes

Overall Garments

  • Ghawazee coat with a blouse and pantaloons underneath
  • baladi dress--if the legs are slit, probably pantaloons underneath
  • Caftan
  • Tunic, which may be hip length, knee length, or full length

Hip Accents

  • Coin belt
  • Macrame belt decorated with coins, shisha mirrors, mozunas, and/or camel tassels
  • Hip scarf (either triangular or rectangular) decorated with coins, cloth fringe, mozunas, or camel tassels
  • Fringed shawl

Jewelry

  • Afghani jewelry
  • Jewelry in the style of the North Africa nomad tribes (for example, dowry necklace)
  • Jewelry made out of coins, bells from India, and chains

Bottoms

  • One or more skirts--most likely a "panel skirt" made of two rectangles of fabric, one in front and one in back, wide enough to give a covered look.
  • Most likely NOT a circle skirt, but if a circle skirt is chosen, it will probably have seams where the panels meet rather than being left open as a slit.
  • Most likely NOT a straight skirt with a slit up the side.
  • A multi-tiered skirt, where each tier is fuller than the one above it and gathered to fit. This style is frequently used by people who want to incorporate Gypsy-style elements into their performances.
  • Pantaloons

Izora's facial tattoos, jewelry, and headdress are very typical of the American tribal style.

Makeup

  • Eyeliner used to draw facial tattoos in the style of North Africa nomad tribes on the face
  • Henna, especially on the hands and soles of the feet

This photograph of Izora provides a close-up look at her headdress, jewelry, and facial tattoos. In the tradition of North Africa, kohl around the eyes is there as protection from the sun and evil spirits. The tattoo on the chin is to identify which tribe she came from. PHOTO CREDIT: Photo by Sue Swindlehurst. Used with permission from Izora.

Accessories

  • Some kind of headdress, particularly that covers the hair. Scarves are popular and easy to find. FatChanceBellyDance uses turbans. North African headdresses, particularly resembling the type that resemble those worn by nomad tribes, complement the look very well. Tribal dancers rarely appear bare-headed--they almost always have some kind of headdress.
  • For footwear, either barefoot (if you're brave and like to take risks) or tan-colored Hermes sandals. No high heels!

Egyptian Oriental Costume

This article addresses the Egyptian-style costuming as it is done by dancers in the United States. In other words, American dancers usually build their Egyptian-look costumes on costume elements that their favorite vendors have imported from Egypt. Note that in Egypt itself, there is likely to be much more variation -- Egyptian dancers can deal directly with local costume makers to design the styles they want, and are not limited by the practicalities of what can be mass-produced, exported, and displayed in catalogs. Therefore, the Egyptian style worn by most American dancers is a subset of what is actually being worn in Egypt.

The Egyptian dancer usually enters wearing a costume called "bedleh", which means "suit" in Egyptian. This typically consists of a beaded bra, matching belt, sequinned skirt, and body stocking. The belt is usually attached to the top of the skirt, unless the costume-maker sold just a bra/belt set without a skirt. Depending on the costume-maker, there can also be matching beaded jewelry. The body stocking, which is required by law in Egypt, may be either flesh-color, or a color that coordinates with the other pieces. Often the body stockings are decorated on the stomach with sequins. Some American dancers who do Egyptian style may opt to eliminate the body stocking, since it's not required by U.S. law--it depends on how closely the dancer wants to emulate the Egyptian look.

In this photograph, Morocco is wearing a beautiful Egyptian bedleh by the famous Egyptian costume maker, Madame Abla. Morocco is a well-known performer, instructor, and dance researcher from New York City. Photo used with permission.

Photograph Of Morocco Wearing Bedleh

Shira Wearing Egyptian Costume

PHOTO CREDIT: Photo by John Rickman Photography, San Jose, California, 2000.

The differences between Egyptian bedleh worn in the United States and American Restaurant bra/belt/skirt costume are subtle.

In costumes imported to the United States from Egypt, the underskirt tends to be three-quarters of a circle altogether in a single skirt with one leg slit. The hem and leg slit are trimmed with a border of beads and paillettes. The overskirt tends to be the same fabric as the underskirt, cut in some kind of shaped hem rather than just a curved hem. The shaped hem might be scallops, or a long vertical rectangle, or \/ shaped points--different variations exist. That shaped hem and that layer's leg slit are then trimmed with the same border as the underskirt, and an elaborate sequinned design decorates it.

In the photo to the left, Shira is wearing a bedleh entirely made in Egypt, including two-layer skirt, matching veil, bra/belt set, crocheted gauntlets, necklace, and headpiece. Many of these costume components were suggested by American dancers to the Egyptian costume makers, and therefore are not exactly of Egyptian origin. But because they were crafted in Cairo, dancers believe they must be "authentic Egyptian" and don't always realize the American influence!


An Egyptian-made bra might have some design, such as a flower, right at the tip of the nipple. Chances are an American-made bra will NOT emphasize the nipple like that--unless the costume-maker is attempting to faithfully copy the Egyptian style.

In bra/belt sets designed by famous Egyptian costumier Madame Abla, the design is often asymmetrical.

A bedleh set may come with a veil, but not necessarily. If it does, the veil may or may not be the same color as the skirt--often, it's a contrasting color. The outer edge of the veil is usually trimmed with a border of beads and paillettes that matches the one on the skirt.

Usually, the bra and belt will be decorated with lush, long fringe, perhaps 6 inches or 8 inches in length on the belt, and 4 inches or 6 inches on the bra. However, some Egyptian dancers will wear bras and belts that have no fringe at all, in an effort to look different from everyone else.


Photograph Of Morocco

Dancers may either go barefoot or wear high-heeled shoes.

As noted above under "Structure", after performing her opening set, a dancer in Egypt will exit from the stage and return wearing a baladi dress, then perform a cane dance, candelabra, or other folkloric piece. This baladi dress usually looks like a highly decorated long evening gown, generously adorned with paillettes, beads, sequins, and other glittery trims. The dancer wears a belt at her hips which may or may not have beaded fringe to help accent her movements. The ensemble may be accessorized with gauntlets, a veil, or a cape. Some of these baladi dresses may have cutouts that expose the dancer's abdomen (but not the navel), with sequin trim framing the cutouts. In the United States, an Egyptian-style dancer may opt to wear one of these baladi dresses instead of bedleh for her entire show. (As noted above under "Structure", American dancers don't do a costume change mid-show.)

In this photograph, Morocco is wearing a beautiful baladi dress typical of those worn in the Egyptian nightclubs and holding an Egyptian veil. This baladi dress is decorated all over with pailettes attached to short fringes of rocaille beads, with long beaded fringe at the hips and neckline. Costume by the famous Egyptian costume maker, Madame Abla. Picture used with permission.

So Which Costume Style Suits You?

Now that you've read a description of the various costume styles, which one do you most like to wear yourself? Please respond to our poll, and take a look at what everybody else had to say!

 
1) Which style of belly dance costume do you MOST like to wear?
Glittery beads-and-sequins nightclub look
Totally tribal: turban, tassels, coins
My own interpretation of Roma (Gypsy) garb
Authentic historical depiction of specific region & ethnic group
Don't know enough about it yet to say
None of the above
 

Poll reflects votes since October 26, 2002.

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Performance Venues

Belly dance festivals, such as Rakkasah in California, tend to attract all three styles of dance. Performances at nursing homes, hospitals, outdoor festivals, and other such organizations may feature any of the three styles, subject to local standards for what is "acceptable".

American Restaurant Venues

This style is frequently featured in restaurants and nightclubs in North America that offer belly dancing as entertainment, particularly clubs that feature non-Arabic bands. (For example, Greek, Armenian or Turkish.) It sometimes appears at local community festivals and events--particularly if the local standards are liberal enough to accept the look.

This is the style most likely to be featured in a "bellygram", a singing telegram at a party that features a belly dancer instead of a vocalist. People hiring dancers for events such as corporate functions usually request this style of dance.

U.S. Tribal Venues

This style is not very common on paid performers in restaurants and nightclubs, because club owners frequently prefer the glitter and glitz of the nightclub styles. Middle Eastern club owners are likely to prefer dancers who embrace the Egyptian Oriental style. Of course, if such an establishment hosts a student recital, some of the performing students might opt for tribal style.

U.S. Tribal is adopted by some dancers who attend Society For Creative Anachronism (SCA) events or Renaissance Faires. However, since U.S. Tribal is a dance form invented in the United States in the latter half of the 20th century, it's not precisely appropriate for SCA or Faires because tribal costuming mixes several nationalities, several historical periods, and the dancer's own imagination. For example, wearing camel tassels as a hip belt is a 20th-century U.S.A. invention. Within the SCA or at Faires, it would be more appropriate to wear authentic garb representing the region and historical period that the SCA-er's persona is from.

Some dancers who appear in local community parades, festivals, and other events opt to present the tribal style of costuming and dance rather than nightclub. This is particularly true if a more covered look is appropriate for a given community's standards or a particular event's theme.

Egyptian Oriental Venues

This style is frequently seen on dancers who appear in restaurants and nightclubs, particularly if the club is owned by Arabs, patronized by Arabs, or features Arabic cuisine with an Arabic band.

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Props

Sometimes, belly dancers use props to enhance their performance. Depending on the style the dancer is doing, different props may be selected.

American Restaurant Props

One general category of props that is popular with American Restaurant dancers is props that can be balanced--on top of the head, on the hip, on the shoulder, or on the hand. These usually include swords, Moroccan trays outfitted with a pitcher and glasses, or candles. The candles could be in an Egyptian-style shamadan (candelabrum), or in any other style of candle holder that the dancer feels like using. Balancing is usually performed in the 4th section of the music, where normally floor work or standing taqsim movements would be used. She first introduces the prop to the audience in some way--maybe making some martial movements with the sword, lighting the candle while the audience watches, picking up the pitcher and glasses from the tray to show that they are not fastened down, etc. She might walk across the front of the stage, giving the front row of the audience a close-up look at the prop. Then, she will place the prop on her head (or wherever else she plans to balance it). Once it is on her head, she will do a series of slow, undulating moves while standing, turn slowly in place to let the audience see it from several angles, do a backbend, and maybe incorporate some floor work. If the prop is a sword, she might transfer it from her head to her shoulder or hip and do some more slow movements with it in the new position. (This isn't very practical with a tray, but would work with certain styles of candle holders.)

Photograph Of Shira With Alice

In the above photo, Shira is posing with Alice, a 4-foot long Columbian boa. PHOTO CREDIT: Photo by John Rickman, who also happens to be the human that Alice lives with.

Sometimes the dancers will perform with a partner: a snake. This could be either a small snake, such as the size of a garter snake, or a large snake, such as a boa that is several feet long. (The larger snakes are the more commonly-used ones.) When using a snake, the dancer will frequently enter carrying a basket which contains the snake. She will set the basket down, and continue her opening number. The section of music that features the snake is usually the 4th part, where normally floor work or standing taqsim movements would be used. The dancer will make a show of removing the snake from its basket, then slowly lifts it out and dances while it wraps itself around her. She typically uses the slow, undulating movements of a standing taqsim, and might incorporate floor work if appropriate to the venue. The snake does whatever it feels like doing at the moment--snakes usually can't be trained to do something in particular.

Sometimes dancers will use musical instruments as a prop. Of course, as noted above finger cymbals are often used by dancers in all 3 categories. Other instruments used as props could be tambourines or dumbeks.

Creative dancers will sometimes incorporate props inspired by American culture. Although these are not frequently used, they definitely fit into the category of American Restaurant. These might include sticks with ribbons on them such as those used in rhythmic gymnastics, feather boas, fans, hats, etc.

American Restaurant dancers will also sometimes dance with a cane, using the same type of music and moves that an Egyptian-style dancer might use. Chances are that the nightclub dancer will choose a cane wrapped in glittery paper or decorated with other glittery materials such as sequins.

U.S. Tribal Props

Izora is wearing an American tribal-style costume and balancing a sword on her head.

Tribal dancers usually opt for props that have a folkloric look to them. Like American Restaurant dancers, they may balance swords, trays, or candles, but will probably choose variations of these props that are less glittery and more ethnic looking than those chosen by their cabaret counterparts. Another popular prop with Tribal dancers is the jug, which may be carried on a hip, carried in both hands, or balanced on the head.

Raqs al Assaya (the cane dance) is quite popular with tribal dancers, and works very well with that style of costuming and movement. For tribal style, dancers use Saidi music played on traditional instruments such as the rebaba. Metkal Kanawi's music is very representative of Saidi and appropriate for tribal-style cane dance. Another good choice for Saidi music is Volume 1 of Blue Nile, a band based in California.

In this illustration, Izora is wearing a tribal costume and balancing a sword on her head. PHOTO CREDIT: Photo by Sue Swindlehurst. Used with Izora's permission.

Egyptian Oriental Props

The most frequent props used by dancers performing Egyptian-style are candelabra (shamadan) and canes (raks al assaya). Because of its origins in Upper Egypt, the cane dance fits best with Saidi-style music. In Egyptian Oriental styling, this Saidi music might be played by an orchestra that includes a rebaba (traditional Saidi stringed instrument) supported by modern instruments such as keyboard, violins, etc.

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Other Dance Styles

Although this document focuses primarily on the three most widely-seen forms that Middle Eastern dance takes in the United States, I would like to acknowledge the existence of several additional popular styles:

Folk/Ethnic/Historical/Authentic

This style consists of learning the particular style of dance performed in a particular geographic area at a particular point in time, then portraying it with corresponding music and costuming. Obviously, the ethnic/historical style requires a commitment to research in order to present it well. This is the dance form best suited to Renaissance Faires and the Society for Creative Anachronism, because it preserves the spirit of re-creating the past as correctly as possible.

True ethnic/historical dance is seen less widely then the other forms that were described in more detail because of the difficulties of doing the research required to accurately portray a historically-correct dance. Very few people have the wherewithal to conduct field research, and most of the folk forms have nearly died out in their homelands due to official governmental policies, societal pressure, oppression by fundamentalist religious sects, and other deterrents. Therefore, anyone wanting to learn these forms must seek out one of the rare instructors who was able to conduct the field research while the dance was still accessible in its native land.

Romany (Gypsy)

This style is inspired by the traditional dances of the Romany people, and has been popularized in North America by dance researchers Eva Czernik, Artemis Mourat, Dalia Carella, and Laurel Gray who have traveled around presenting workshops. Most U.S. dancers learn what they can from these researchers, then create their own "Gypsy fusion" which may combine Gypsy dance from several different regions (Turkey, Russia, Morocco/Spain, etc.) with new creative ideas the performer has layered on top of it.

Sacred Dance & Movement Meditation

Ancient Middle East traditions include some rituals (sometimes called "trance dance" even though they're not exactly dances), such as the zar (for exorcising evil influences), the guedra (for blessing), Sufi whirling, and the Sufi zikr. Usually, these moving meditations are accompanied by a strong, consistent drumbeat and possibly chanting. The movements are typically very repetitive. This combination of rhythmic, repetitive sound and repetitive motion can lead to a hypnotic state.

Some Christian belly dancers are expressing their art in the form of liturgical dance. In Christian liturgical dance, the performer might portray a Biblical character (such as Salome, Delilah, the Shulamite from Song Of Solomon, or Mary Magdalene), or might portray an idea, such as praising God through her dance in the spirit of the Psalms. She might act out an event, such as the celebration of Christ's triumphant entry to Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. Depending on the congregation, this might occur during a church service at the altar, or at a church-sponsored fellowship event. Churches often focus their use of special music or other special liturgical activities like dance around special celebrations on the church calendar, such as Advent, Christmas, Palm Sunday, and Easter. A dancer portraying Oriental dance in this venue is likely to wear a covered-look costume that evokes images of Biblical people, such as a caftan, tunic or robe with some sort of hip scarf.

Some modern-day Pagans find that belly dance offers them a beautiful method of spiritual expression. Goddess dance usually takes the basic movements of belly dancing, and incorporates them into a dance that portrays a goddess-related theme such as blessing or portraying a mythical character. Dhyanis organizes an annual "Goddess Dance" show in the San Francisco area. The dance company named The Goddess Dancing led by Lorraine Lafata offers productions, retreats, "belly blessings" and instruction in the Boston area. Delilah has created some of her own spiritual forms such as veil therapy and circle baladi, and she teaches workshops on the subject of belly dance as moving meditation.

Regardless of the dancer's spiritual context, sacred dance rarely uses typical nightclub-style costuming, props, or music.

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Acknowledgements

  • I'd like to thank Stefania (Stephanie Brucker) for some very helpful information about Egyptian Oriental style as it is performed in the United States!!!! I've incorporated a great deal of information from her into that section. Thanks, Steff! Her email address is Stephanie.Brucker@Eng.Sun.COM.
  • Many thanks to Bàraka (from San Francisco, California, now retired) for contributing the pictures of herself and Bal Anat that appeared in this article!
  • I'm also very grateful to Izora (from Fremont, California) for contributing the pictures of herself that appeared in this article. Her e-mail address is izoradancer@earthlink.net.
  • I very much appreciate Morocco contributing the pictures of herself for this article. Her email address is morocco@casbahdance.org
  • I'm grateful to the photographers who took the many pictures featured on this page. As they say, a picture is worth a thousand words, and the illustrations showing the different styles help a lot in conveying the flavor of each.

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