Oriental dance (Middle Eastern dance, bellydance), especially its Egyptian styles, has become a popular form or art and workout worldwide during the past few decades.
Oriental dance is an ethnic dance that carries a wide world of traditions, a whole culture.
Part of its popularity can be attributed to its health benefits: it is a good workout, when taught in a safe and artistic way, and it makes you find, use and develop the inner, smaller muscles. Well trained inner abdominal and lumbar muscles help in easing back pains.
Naturally, interpreting Arab music is an essential and inseparable part of Oriental dance, and the love for music has brought many enthusiasts to the fascinating world of dance. As a dance form it is versatile and gives the dancer and choreographer wide opportunities to experiment his/her creativity. It can be – and has been – developed to e.g. cabaret versions, dance theatre, folklore shows, even spectacles close to show dance.
Oriental dance is usually perceived as women’s dance, part of “women’s world”. However, we include in the notion of “Oriental dance” all Middle Eastern and North African folk dances, and they naturally include men’s dances. The Oriental solo dance (raqs sharqi) is usually performed on stage by women, but in private occasions men dance it as well. We hear women talking about “expressing their femininity” by Oriental dance. But the point is that we are talking about art, and art is human, expression of humanity, women express themselves as women, men as men, although using the same movements. That is why Oriental dance is suitable also for men. Especially the folk dances are a great activity for children too.
Researchers are not absolutely certain about the origins of Oriental dance. Many assume it is Egypt, about 5000 years ago, others believe it came to Egypt from either elsewhere in Africa or from the East, from India or Mesopotamia. In any case, it is the Egyptian dance in its different styles that is considered as the highest standard by both hobbyists and professional dancers in the whole world, including Far East.
Egyptian folk dances have been developed by choreographers, who have created the famous Egyptian folklore that is performed by folklore troupes on stage. These dances represent the dance styles of different areas of Egypt. Each style has its typical music, steps, gestures and costumes. Every competent dancer and dance company has these folk styles in the repertoire, and they are nowadays widely performed also outside Egypt – where before the only known form of Oriental dance used to be the solo or cabaret style, performed in a two-piece costume.
The best known and most performed Egyptian folk dances include Ghawazi dance (dance of the gypsy tribes of Upper Egypt), Fallahi dance (of the farmers), Saidi dance (Upper Egyptian style, originally a men’s martial art but adopted also by female dancers, often performed with a cane), Milaya Laff (urban, very feminine dance style), Haggala (a Bedouin dance from the Western desert), Simsimiyya (dance of the Suez Canal area) and Nubian dance (from the deep South).
Amongst these many different styles is the solo dance called Baladi. It is the dance form that “everybody” dances. The word means ‘from the (home) country’. As a sociological and political term, baladi emerged during the British occupation at the end of the 1800ies. It probably became a dance term during the same period (‘dance’ in Arabic is raqs) that also brought Western instruments to Egyptian music. For instance the accordion was tuned to the scales of Arab music. It is the accordion that became the typical instrument of Baladi. Taqsim accordion is a part of a solo dancer’s stage performance, the most sensitive part of it, where the dancer moves almost on her place or uses only a very little space, like in the dance that is performed in private occasions.
Egyptians use the term raqs sharqi (‘Oriental dance’) for the solo dance performed on stage (on the other hand it means also Oriental dance in general, as opposed to Western dance). It emerged in the 19thcentury in the night clubs of Cairo. This form of dance offers the choreographer possibilities of experimentation, fantasy and creative use of elements from other styles, from the Egyptian folklore as well as foreign dances. The style is based on baladi, but the dancer usually uses a larger space on the stage, it includes dancing on toes, turns and arabesques, and is in general more decorated and dramatic. The style keeps changing, and skilful Egyptian performers and choreographers keep developing it, adding also innovative elements, at the same time respecting the tradition and the feeling and nuances of Arab music. Naturally, also foreign dancers and choreographers contribute to the developing, which has led a.o. to new fusion styles. The Egyptian star dancers represent this style of dance, and are considered as artists, beloved and respected – and imitated – throughout the world.