Gilded Serpent presents...

The Many Faces of "Baladi"

Tiffany dances the Melaya in 2007

by Hala Fauzi
Originally presented on Nov 4, 2011,
in San Francisco, CA
as a lecture in Karim Nagi‘s “Raqs Egypt”
posted on January 9, 2012

Baladi is an Arabic word that literally means “my country” or “of the country”. However, it has come to mean, refer to, and imply, many different things, depending on the context in which it is used. Below we discuss the most common uses of the word:

Raqs Baladi: Literally–County Dance
In Egypt, this term refers to how people move to the music when they celebrate any festive occasion. It is the generic way Egyptians refer to what is known in the west as “Belly Dance”. More specifically, it is the non-stylized and less sparkly version of “Oriental Dance”.

Oriental Dance: or “Raks Sharki” is the more stylized, fancy version of “Raks Baladi”. Typically it is performed by a paid solo dancer, possibly with a group of backup dancers, in shiny costumes. Oriental dance shows in Egypt are customarily accompanied by a music band.

Robaire plays tabla baladiTabl Baladi: Literally–Country Drums
Even though there is an Arabic rhythm called “Baladi” (see below), the term “tabl baladi” does not refer to the rhythm per se, but to the general use of the Arabic drums: Tabla, Dohol, Tar, Daf, etc. The various Arabic drums are essential instruments in Arabic music, as they provide the heartbeat for the music. They are also known as loud noisemakers used to alert and announce. The common expression “ma yetla’ wala bel tabl el baladi” which translates to “wouldn’t get out even with country drums” refers to something or someone being too sticky or clingy that even loud noise wouldn’t scare it or them away.

Ikaa’ Baladi: Literally–“Baladi” rhythm
This is a common drumming rhythm in Arabic music. It’s a 4/4 rhythm and is considered a slower version of the “Maqsum” rhythm. The basic version is played on the Tabla as “dum-dum te-ke-tek, dum te-ke-tak” and most Egyptian music, especially pop music, uses a variation of this rhythm. It is also known as “wahda w nos”. “Ra’s ala wahda w nos” is a common expression in dance meaning “Raks Balad”i or simply Egyptian dance. The term “wahda we nos” (means: one and a half) may be referring to the dance move typically performed to this beat: a heavy hip drop (one) followed by a lighter hip drop with a foot flick (a half).

Lebs Baladi: Literally–Country clothes
That typically refers to wearing a “galabeyya” (a long flowing dress worn by men and women). For men, it may be accessorized with a ‘takeyya’ (a small skull cap, a little bigger than the Jewish yarmulke), an “abaya” (a long over coat open in the front) or a vest. For formal occasions, they may wrap a piece of cloth around the takeyya similar to a Sikh’s headdress but less elaborate and doesn’t wrap up as high. For women, the galabeyya is typically more colorful, often with flowery patterns. They also wear a headdress consisting of a small “mandeel” (head kerchief) tied underneath the hairline and a long veil on top of it attached at the top of the head. On cold days, people typically wear pants underneath the galabeyya. In hot weather, the galabeyya is a blessing as it allows for air to flow around the body cooling it down in the heat.

Baladi: Literally–country style
In the context of describing someone or something (non-dance related), the word ‘baladi’ is often used in Egypt to mean unsophisticated, crass, poor taste or vulgar (such as, a "hick"). On the other hand, sometimes when used among friends, “bel baladi” (in country-style) can mean honestly, truthfully or bluntly (as is ”bel baladi keda”, here is what I mean). Another non-dance related use of the word is the literal meaning of country style. For example, when describing a farm-like outdoor setting, one might say “a’da baladi” referring to a setting from the countryside as opposed to a city setting. “Aish baladi” refers to the Egyptian brown pita bread that is the most common type of bread in Egypt because the government heavily subsidizes it. “Farah baladi” is a country style wedding where people may be sitting on the floor and wearing galabeyyas as opposed to a city style wedding, which has more of a western feel.

Hala's troupe
Author’s troupe pose backstage at the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival
names: Vicky, Baha, Diane, Leticia, Mike Fair, Hala, Isami and Tarek.

What makes a dance “baladi”?

The best way to answer that question is to take a trip to Egypt and experience life in Cairo for a few months; then you will be able to recognize a dance as baladi–even though you may not necessarily be able to explain why.
Here is an attempt. A”baladi routine” may contain one or more of the following:

  1. Baladi music, more often than not, has lyrics. The lyrics are in the Egyptian dialect and often describe simple common emotions, though they can be very poetic.
  2. It starts with the typical accordion taksim tune that has become a signature beginning of baladi music (for an example, please contact me).
  3. There are no big rhythmical changes. Typically, it uses no more than 2 or 3 rhythms; at least one of them is the baladi rhythm or its relatives, Maqsum and Saidi.
  4. A giveaway would be if the singer is a well known Shaabi singer. Examples are: Mohamed Roushdy, Hassan el Asmar, Amina, etc.
  5. The song is no longer than 5-6 minutes.
  6. It may be a catchy tune with a refrain and 2 or 3 verses maximum.
  7. Baladi dance movements tend to have an earthy feel to them as opposed to ballet-like or westernized movements that are often seen in Oriental dance performances.
  8. The emotions expressed in “Baladi” dance are simple and straightforward (typically: happiness, playing "hard to get" or complaining about a loved one’s treatment).

As you can see, the characteristics above (except for #2) are somewhat generic which is both good and bad. The good news is that it allows for flexibility in interpreting the song. One person may choose to dance oriental style while another may choose to dance baladi style to the same piece. Both interpretations are valid. The difference will be in their costuming, choice of dance movements, and emoting. The bad news is for academics–as they have a hard time drawing the lines between what is ‘Baladi’ vs. “Oriental”, since there are no hard rules.

Using guideline #4 above can be tricky as there are many singers who sing “Shaabi” style as well as “Ttarab” style. Again, my recommendation would be to visit Egypt and immerse yourself in the culture.

How is that different from “Shaabi”?

It is not different; the terms “Baladi” and “Shaabi” in dance are interchangeable.
As explained, Baladi means “of the country”. Shaabi means “pop” or “of the people” (“Shaab” means “people”). In Egypt, they often mean the same thing. The difference is mostly contextual. Because of the possible negative connotations of the word “Baladi”, we don’t use it to describe singers or art. If you say ‘“she or he is a Baladi singer”, it may mean that she or he sings Baladi songs, but it can also mean that the person is a country hick or crass. So we say “Shaabi” singer. Similarly, “fann shaabi”’ (folk art) is better than saying “fann baladi” because it may be interpreted as simple art or perhaps art that is in poor taste. So whenever mis-interpretation is a possibility, the word “Shaabi” is used instead of “Baladi”.

A different look on stage:

While the Baladi dress or costuming almost always refers to the traditional “galabeyya”, the Shaabi-look may or may not be a galabeyya. A Shaabi costume may be any folk dance costume. For men, it can be casual pants and shirt or tee shirt (such as , representing Cairo street dancing), Alexandrian sailor costume or any local regional costume. Similarly for women, it may be a more fitted galabeyya without any head covers, an Alexandrian dress or any other regional costume.

What is a Melaya?

The melaya (literally means sheet) is a large rectangular piece of opaque cloth, black in color, used by country women and blue collar female workers like a coat. They wrap it around their bodies on top of what they are wearing for warmth and modesty. Since it does not have any stitching (other than the seams) one has to hold it in place with the hands and arms rendering it impractical to do any useful labor while wearing it. It is typically used like a coat; one would wear it to go out then take it off when arriving at their destination or needing to do any physical work.

What is the Melaya dance?

Unlike many regional dances in Egypt (such as Saidi, Haggala, Siwan, …etc), the Melaya dance is not a regional dance as much as it is a character dance. In the early 1960s, Mahmoud Reda and the Reda Troupe created dances using the melaya as a prop to portray the character of a playful woman from Alexandria. In Egypt, Alexandrian women have a reputation of being daring and more outgoing than their Cairo sisters. There is a common saying in Egypt about Alexandria: “Mayya malha we weshoosh kalha” (salt water and daring/weathered faces). Which refers to the non-shy style of Alexandrian people in general.

When Mahmoud Reda did his research in the 1950s-1960s to present the different regional styles of dance on stage, he found that some regions didn’t have any specific stylization or regional dialects in their dance. In a sense, they simply do generic “Raks Baladi”. For stage purposes, Mahmoud Reda improvised and used artistic license to create some of these regional dance styles. He created them for the dramatic and theatrical effects.

However, since he was a pioneer, these dances came to represent their regions in pop culture. Egyptians are not big travelers. For most people, the only regional dances they saw were the dances created and performed by Mahmoud Reda and his troupe then later by other folk dance troupes that borrowed and built on Reda’s original work.  Hence, the “Melaya Dance” was born.

Many Egyptian women all over Egypt use the melaya in their daily life; it’s not an Alexandria-only phenomenon. Yet, in the dance world, it has come to be associated with Alexandria for the reasons explained above. While in real life the melaya is used for modesty, on stage, it’s used to accentuate the curves and highlight physical abilities. The character is typically a sought-after woman who is using her beauty to coax and tease. However, in today’s dance scene, since that character has been overused, people use the melaya as a prop to portray a much wider spectrum of meanings and emotions.

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  1. Leyla Lanty

    Jan 9, 2012 - 01:01:28

    Thank you, Hala!!!!!!!  Your clear and concise explanation of baladi, shaabi, sharqi, melaya and the distinctions among them (or not) should be required reading for all dancers!

  2. Grace "Lennie" Clark

    Jan 9, 2012 - 08:01:50

    Really enjoyed Hala Fauzi’s informative and entertaining article on the meaning of the terms “baladi” “shaabi” etc.  Thanks!!

  3. Linda Roiz

    Jan 12, 2012 - 09:01:24

    Great article – thanks Hala.

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