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A Brief History

by Tasha Banat
posted June 7, 2010

General Information:

The word Debke* in Arabic means "stamping the feet" and it is the popular folk dance in the Asian Arab world. As a line dance, it is seen at weddings, graduations, birthdays, and any other party or Haflis

The most common types of Debke are Debka Shamaliya (country dance) and Debka Jabali (Mountain dance), but each village has its own little style.  The leader is called Raas ("head") and he or she twirls a handkerchief or string of beads called masbha (similar to a rosary), while the rest of the dancers keep the rhythm. In some Debke songs, the singer begins with a Mawwal (solo).  Examples of some popular Debke Songs are Ya Ein Muletin, Wein Al Ramallah, Fog el Naghal.

How does one combine Debke with Bellydance? What does that mean? In order to combine two beautiful dances, we have to first separate them and understand the different types of Arabic music.

Arab worldThe Arab extends influence of culture throughout 2 continents and beyond.  The 2 continents influenced the most are Africa and Asia.  That is why we separate ourselves into African Arabs and Asian Arabs.  I would surmise that if you have been exposed to the belly dance scene for more than 5 years, you know most of the dance styles that come from the continent of Africa, which includes Egypt.  Also with that inclusion, comes the folk dances of Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Algeria, Morocco, and on into the southern regions of Spain to include the dances of the Andulusia. The Asian Arab world includes the region known as B’lad E’Shaam (Lebanon, Palestine, Jordan, Syria, Iraq, part of the Khaliji areas.  In addition to those countries, the influences are found in Iran, Turkey, and beyond there.

Of course, when I talk about these 2 continents, I am choosing to disregard politics and who controlled who, when, and where, in the past 2 centuries – this is an article about music and dance. Having said that, I suggest that you begin to understand where my dance comes from by dividing your music into the same 2 categories: Africa and Asia. Then separate your music into 2 more categories: Cabaret Belly Dance and everything else.

Belly Dance is only one type of dance in the Middle East so it cannot be called Middle Eastern Dance – that is completely wrong so please, do not use the term "Middle Eastern Dance" to replace Belly Dance.

It is as vague in the Arab world as anything called American Dance would be in our world. For example, which dance in the United States is American Dance?  There are so many examples,  like Country Western, Disco, Rock n Roll.  The Middle East is no different.  There is Middle Eastern Lebanese Belly Dance, Egyptian Belly Dance, Turkish Belly Dance, but each of these areas have many other dances as well. 

Belly dance is the dance of the entire Arab world which includes North Africa, Arab Asia (the Middle East), on into Turkey and beyond.

It is popular to believe that Belly Dance originated in Egypt, but Cabaret Belly dance Style actually originated with the French invaders who controlled North Africa, and Lebanon. 

They were a lot less restrictive and the French style Cabaret was so popular.  Countries occupied by France became republics.  Most Arabs know that Cabaret Belly Dance started with the Casinos and Cabarets set up by the French to entertain the French.  The Cabarets and Casinos were fashioned after the Casinos and Cabarets in France where the “Can Can” was the main attraction.  I believe this is true….Simply because the British have no dances of their own, or food (except maybe fish and chips). In Arabic, Belly Dance is called “Raks B’tn” (Stomach Dance).  In French it is called Danz Orientale or Daneues du Ventre.  Badia Masabni, of Lebanese Heritage is credited with coming up with the Cabaret Belly Dance Costume, as well as schools.  In addition, she opened the first Cabarets in Egypt fashioning them after the Cabarets in France and Beirut.

Author Tasha and friend MichelLebanese Style Belly Dance and Middle Eastern Debke: My Story

Many of the observations I make are based on my own personal success with merging these 2 styles of dance into a great career and is based on the my desire to present Arabic Culture in a positive fashion. The Lebanese Style of Belly Dance and the Debke describes my personal dance success.  I began my 40 year dance career in College when I heard Arabic musicians rehearsing in a nightclub one day.  I went inside and began to sing the songs they were playing.  The owner, a Syrian said he would pay me if I would do some Debke between my Belly Dancing.  To make some college money, I did it.  It was that simple but I became a little jealous that the belly dancers were making a lot more money, so Om Tarik, the owner’s wife, made me my first belly dance costume.  I knew how to belly dance from the haflis (Arab parties) that I attended, but it was the Debke steps that I threw into my dance that make me popular with my own people.

Port Said LPEveryone in the Arab nightclub audiences where I danced tended to be from B’lad E’shaam (Middle East) so it was a natural progression for me to mix up my Dabka with Belly Dance; especially in the late 60’s throughout the 70s and 80s.  Even most of the musicians were, usually an oud player from the Middle East or an Armenian from the Middle East.  And the songs were Debka, from Mohammed Al Bakkar (Port Said album) to Eddie the Sheik and many others. 

Egyptian Choreographies didn’t really hit the scene until the 80s and early 90s when Lebanon was invaded and turmoil which still exists occurred in the Asian Arab world.

At the time, I did not define Lebanese Style Belly Dance as such, but my cabaret belly dance style was definitely influenced by the dancers from that part of the Arab world because they were the ones I was familiar with and therefore emulated. 

The biggest difference was that the movement in Lebanese Cabaret Belly Dance was achieved with much straighter legs and body movement was much more emphasized.  The costuming was definitely more formal and included high heel shoes and nylons.

Since the Debke has definite styles when it comes to footwork, I use Debke steps as traveling steps, even to drum solos and songs that are not necessarily Debke.  The way I see it, every nightclub performer I know who has been in this business for awhile, say more than 25 years belly danced to Debke songs.  That was true all the way back to Mohhamed Al Bakkar and the old Port Said album, to Eddie the Sheik, to George Abdo and on to Raghab Alami.  

The belly dance music back then was much more orchestrated than that of Egypt as per the Nadia Jamal albums and the ones with Hanan on the covers.  Even the classics were played with a lot more musicians – violins, ouds, qanoons, derbekes, zills, guitars, etc. 

Here in America, the musicians consisted mainly of oud, and durbeke, tambourine and the musicians were either Armenians who fled to Arab countries and then to America or Arabs who fled Arab countries and came to America.  In other words, they were mainly Middle Eastern Debke songs or Armenian Folk Songs.  The costuming was less formal than in Lebanon, but certainly very different from Egypt and North Africa.  Then began the many wars which drove Arab Artists out of the Arab world and music and dance blended into something else.

*Also spelled "Dabke"
off site: Debke infused Oriental Dance by Margo O’Dell


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  1. Melody Gabrielle

    Jun 23, 2010 - 02:06:04

    “Belly Dance is only one type of dance in the Middle East so it cannot be called Middle Eastern Dance – that is completely wrong so please, do not use the term “Middle Eastern Dance” to replace Belly Dance.”
    Amen! thats what I’ve been saying for quite some time.  Also the origins being not in Egypt but widespread and more of a reaction to the French and not the English makes some sense.  Orientalism among Europeans was a phenomenon so it seems obvious that it would have been capitalized on by multiple individuals in multpile locations.  I’m not sure so much about the English verses the French but its a valid hypothesis.
    As a dance historican and a Bellydancer I really appreciate this article.
    Melody Gabrielle,

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