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Intro to the Different Styles of Belly Dance

A basic introduction to some of the styles of Middle Eastern Dance


Classical Belly Dancing

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Illustration by Tatjana
An exact history of Belly Dance is not written. There are a few schools of thought as to what its true origins are. The modern Classical form is also known as “Classical Dance Orientale”. It connects with the more spiritual heavenly side of the dance. One account of its history says that it originated in Baghdad Iraq, in the “Caliphates” cities known as Mesopotamia “The Land Between the Two Rivers” or “The Cradle of Civilization”. It was created for the entertainment of royalty, especially the women of the Royal families, and the first recorded pictures of it date back to the 16th century. The intention of this dance was not to entertain with sexuality, as it was done in a theatrical setting for big gatherings of only women; so much so, that even the musicians were blindfolded.

It is a very pure form of Belly Dance marked by movements that are softer and smaller, closer to the dancer’s centre, and the feet just up on the balls, heels closer to the ground. It uses the upper body and head a lot, connecting the dancer with the heavens, the spiritual energy of the dance.

What is generally referred to as Classical these days is Belly Dancing done to the older songs from the greats of Middle Eastern song such as Um Kulthum or Abdel Halim Hafez or Fareed Al-Atrash. Classical costuming is a full circular skirt with bra and belt. The Classical form is the basis for the “Cabaret Belly Dance” form, which is used more commonly today.


Cabaret Belly Dancing
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Illustration by Tatjana
A modern form of Belly Dance. It is the style you would see today in a restaurant, nightclubs and other entertainment venues. This style draws on the Classical movements, but tends to make them bigger, bolder, brasher, and higher on the balls of the feet.
1163834-1116932-thumbnail.jpgThe intention of the Cabaret dancer is very different as well. It is of entertainment and wow factor. It is cheeky and flashy, and so are the costumes. Bearing more flesh with an intensely boosted bra which is heavily beaded and ornate to match the belt that sits on the hips, with a straight skirt underneath, or a slimmer more tapered one.

More recently the skirts do not have a belt, instead they are skin hugging lycra tubes with slits up to the thighs, and are heavily beaded. This can also be a lycra dress with heavy beading around the bra and hips. In modern Cabaret dancers usually wear heeled dance shoes. This style of dance and costume only came about after Hollywood exploited Arabic dance with Western fantasies of it. Cabaret is also known as “Raqs Sharqi”. In Arabic this literally translates to “Eastern dance”.


"Taqsim" or "Taksim"

Plural is “Taqasim”. An Arabic word that means division, and refers to a melody instrument improvising a solo section of a song, sometimes without any drums or other rhythm instruments. The Taqsim is the emotional, fluid, slow hypnotic part of Belly Dancing that is never choreographed. It is the dancer’s chance to express her heart. Taqsim is where the Goddess resides. Read all about Taqsim and Improvisation at Secrets of Improvisation in Belly Dance P2 .


"Baladi"

“Baladi” means “of the country” or village. The Baladi form of Belly Dancing is performed in villages and countryside around Egypt, where women danced together and entertained each other in family and community gatherings. It is a very earthy style of Belly Dance, done on flat bare feet and very grounded. The costuming is in full dress, no bare bellies. Much of the movement is centred in the hips. Arms should be held casually and elbows heavy. There is a proud energy to the dancer.


Dancing with a Veil

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Illustration by Tatjana
The veil dance uses a piece of chiffon or another soft floating material, not to be confused with the Arabic veil some Muslim women wear over their heads. What we call the Veil Dance in the West uses this piece of fabric, usually a rectangle, half circle or two half circles attached to create a wing shape. Double veil dancing is also becoming popular. The dancer incorporates the veil into the dance, resulting in a sensuous, evocative and dreamy experience. The veil reveals and conceals the dancer as it moves, which adds to the whole mystique and femininity of the performance. Egyptian dancers don't usually use the veil beyond their entrance.


Cane Dance - “Raqs al Assaya”
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Illustration by Tatjana
This is the Arabic term for the cane dance. This dance originated in southern Egypt, in the region known as Al Saiid. Traditionally in the Saiid, men carried long sticks with them which they used as weapons, and eventually they evolved a dance in which they feigned fighting with these sticks.

Women then began dancing with canes as a way of playfully imitating this men’s dance, and eventually Raqs al Assaya developed into a distinct woman’s dance. A modernized entertaining version is frequently used in Cabaret shows. The original Saiidi dance is danced in a full dress, with belly covered up.


Sword Belly Dancing - "Raqs al Saif"
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Illustration by Tatjana
Again mainly done in the West in modern times, the sword is used as a prop in Belly Dancing. There is a tale about the history of dancing with the sword that says it started out with dancing women who were slaves balancing the sword on their heads while dancing with their hips in a symbolic statement of independence that said "you may hold a sword over my head, but I am free in my soul".

Sword dancing is an advanced form requiring much precision, balance and centredness. Strong back muscles are used for floor work while the sword balances on the head, or the sword is balanced on the hip while doing hip drops, or the sword is twirled in the hand as is done with the stick when used with faster music.



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There are many other forms of Belly Dance, especially as the West has fused other forms and branched new forms out of the old, such as Tribal Belly Dancing which has taken the West by storm. As well, there are other forms that come from the Middle East such as the Zaar and dancing with zills etc. The above list is a basic introduction for students.

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All the beautiful illustrations of belly dancers above are by German artist and dancer Tatjana. Find her work by clicking on her banner below.

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This article is an extract from Shemiran Ibrahim's "Belly Dance Student Guide". To read more and download click here.