Raqs Sharqi – Egyptian dance
– By Anna Olkinuora
Since I started teaching and dancing in Bangalore I’ve had numerous people ask me what is Egyptian style belly dance. As the history of the dance and all the different styles and traditions it includes I’ve never been able to give a short answer, but keep on rambling on and on until the person listening is more confused than before about the dance. So I thought I’ll put a few lines in writing to simplify things. The following is a very brief explanation of the term Raqs Sharqi (let’s get rid of that term ‘belly dance’ for once and for all!) how the style was born and the movement vocabulary.
A brief explanation of the term and the origin of the style
Raqs Sharqi literally translates ‘eastern dance’ (the term ‘oriental dance’ is also often used as a translation) and refers to Egyptian style Arabic style. This style is grounded, dignified and centred. The style is a modern form that has grown out of the Baladi style and Egytpian folkloric dances. Some elements of Western dances (mainly ballet and contemporary) are mixed into the style. Good body alignment, isolation technique and the proper use of the body are encouraged in the style.
Raqs Sharqi is often thought to include three different styles or ‘sub categories’: Sha’abi, Baladi and Sharqi.
Sha’abi is a general term for Egyptian folk music and dance. Movements are often rhythmic and vibrant and have a very ‘natural’ feel as many of the dances imitate moves used in farming, fishing, horse training! Folk dances are danced on the flat of the foot giving them a grounded and earthy feel. Arm movements are usually very simple and relaxed. Under the topic Sha’abi, there are several different dances from different parts of Egypt.
Baladi is translated ‘of the country’ or ‘my country’ and has strong rural roots fused with modern urban elements. There are two main types of Baladi. First there is Achra Baladi which is designed especially for the female dancer and has a ten-part musical structure. Second style is more ‘free’ with the structure and includes songs about everything from feelings to politics. Movements are more contained and gestural than those of Sha’abi and has a wide expressive range. Improvisation is a big part of Baladi.
Sharqi is classical Egyptian dance and is danced to classical music often played by big orchestras.
What I teach in my classes and perform on stage is a combination of all the styles. I teach modern pop baladis as well as expose my students to the never ending world of different sha’abi dances.
In its purest form Raqs Sharqi is an improvised dance form performed to live music. The musicians also improvise and the dance becomes a dialogue between the dancer and the musicians. However to reach such a level of skill takes a lot of hard work and dedication, and lots of dancers start their performance career with choreographed work. Both ‘styles’ are wonderful and very rewarding to dance to!
In Arabic music melody and rhythm are the most important elements and Raqs Sharqi uses movements to express these. Strong movements of the hips are used to express and highlight the rhythm and arms, undulation movements of the torso and the upper body are used for the melodic line.
The origin of the Raqs Sharqi is usually traced to Cairo in the 1920s. A Lebanese dancer called Badia Masabni opened a club named the Casino Opera where she fused baladi with Western forms and developed a new style. As Baladi dancing was not created for stage, Badia drew influence from ballet to make the dancers lighter on their feet, travel and extend more through the upper body and arms. She also added spins to the dance.
Another important figure in the development of the style is Mahmoud Reda. He worked as a film choreographer and performer and founded the first Egytpian theatre dance company ‘The Reda Troupe’. He did extensive research in folkloric styles and infused them with Raqs Sharqi stage elements.
Movement vocabulary in Raqs Sharqi:
(The following text is borrowed from a fantastic website called bellydancestuff.com. Check it out for more detailed description. They also have lots of videos on their site to understand the style better. Worth a look!)
-Typical hip/pelvic movements consist of pelvic undulations, vertical and horizontal figure 8s (both with and without twists) circles and slides, hip snaps and drops. Detailed and intricate ‘hipwork’ is the hallmark of Egyptian style.
–Chest is always lifted and open (meaning the dancer’s shoulders don’t hunch or collapse over the chest). Slides and circles are used as well as delicate shoulder shimmies.
–Arms in Egyptian style are typically lifted and graceful with the movement flowing from shoulders all the way to the fingertips. Arms are used to ‘frame’ the body’s movement and big and fast movements are avoided.
–Footwork can be quite detailed and in certain dances of the style the dancers travel a lot on stage. Footwork is used with hip movements. Typical moves are sideways steps with hip circles or pelvic undulations, backwards with hip drops and forward with a step and a tap. (Often called ‘Egyptian walk’)
-And of course there are shimmies! Shimmies are often used layered with other hip movements or to accent and emphasise parts of the music. In Raqs Sharqi values musical interpretation over physical ability and most famous dancers have their own signature style. Having said this, technical training and isolation technique are important. Showing off tricks such as belly flutters (with a coin) is not a part of the style.
Things you won’t see in Raqs Sharqi, or see less than in other styles:
-Floorwork! It was banned in public performances in the mid-20th century. An exception is made with certain folkloric dances.
-Egyptian style does not include extended veilwork. Solo dancers will sometimes enter with a veil and quickly discard it. Wrapping, tossing etc the veil is not typical and is a very modern addition to ‘belly dance’.
-Props such as cane or shamadan (a candle crown) are used in folkloric context in the dance, not for ‘the sake of it’ to do tricks.