Gilded Serpent presents...

In Search Of The Iraqi Kawleeya

One Dancer’s Journey into Movement and Meaning

Amani by Jaki Hawthome

by Amani Jabril
posted August 18, 2013

It is a little bit funny, sitting here in the Abu Dhabi airport, organizing my thoughts for this article. Today, I am only passing through the bustling, modern airport, with my new husband, on our way to Iraq. Looking back almost seven years ago, it was in this city that I encountered the Kawleeya1 for the first time. Then, I had no idea what I was witnessing, and it is funny how that seemingly independent thread has now looped around to connect with my present.

In recent years, Kawleeya has come into greater popularity with Western dancers. Watching it form itself in our imaginations and on our bodies, I am surprised by how quickly Oriental dancers in the U.S. and Europe have adopted it into their repertoires.

I have watched our greater dance community consume new music, new dances, and new styles with great zeal. I perceive our community to be open to engaging new material, and while this openness is a beneficial trait for us as artists, I am left wondering, “Why this dance and why now?” That is to say, I feel strongly that before we can effectively begin to study, appreciate and perform the Kawleeya, I believe that it is critical for us, as conscientious dance artists, to take a step back and first consider how we engage this dance, and why we choose to do so.

Have we have learned from our experiences incorporating the Raqs Sharqi into our lives and practice or is the Kawleeya fated to be yet another souvenir from a visit into our collective imaging of the exotic “Orient”?

Context, and its use in the research and practice of dance, is not one-directional. We don’t engage in a discussion about the who, what, when, and where simply to achieve a state of authenticity nor do we do it, as a gift given back to the culture from which it came. The reality is, the topics we choose and the methods by which we incorporate them into our reality are reflective of our own motivations and imaging of the “Other” 2. Of course, none of us can come to the table free of our biases, or what I have come to think of as cultural baggage. Yet, our baggage does not automatically discount our efforts. How do we begin to locate the Kawleeya and from that point, how to we begin to understand it within its own context? Furthermore, what are the ways in which we, as dancers, choose to use the Kawleeya for our own pleasure and performance? What sense does it make in our own context?

Uza of New York – Raqs Kawleeya – Iraqi Gypsy Dance ردح – رقص عراقي from Uza Mitra.

Returning To Abu Dhabi

The last time I was in Abu Dhabi, I had come to the U.A.E. to study Khaliji 3 dance. With the help of Dondi Dahlin, to whom I am still grateful, I was able to connect with Lydia Tzigane a veteran dancer based in Dubai, with an amazing career spanning twenty-five years and forty-two countries.Map of Dubai

That evening, at the Intercontinental Abu Dhabi Hotel, I watched the dancer’s performance intently. Later in her show, after her Oriental set, the band picked up with a Khaliji rhythm. If we had been in Egypt, she would have run to change into a dress and would have returned, swinging an assaya to a saucy Saidi rhythm. If it had been Beirut, she might also have had a cane twirling, but it would have been twirling to a debke. Since we were in the Arabian Gulf, her show called for a Khaliji dance.

Particularly, I was  excited to see this part of her show since I had been working with Lydia on the Emirati style of dance and hoped to pick out some of the new vocabulary I had learned. She began to dance, and much to my dismay, her movements barely resembled the Khaliji style dance I had been learning. In fact, as far as I could tell, the poor girl was butchering the stately rhythm! It was only later that I learned she was from Iraq, and what she was performing was Kawleeya. At the time, the limitations of my knowledge of the dance as well as my own sense of aesthetic could not take in what I was seeing, and I discounted the evening’s performance. It wasn’t until about a year later that the Kalweeya and I crossed paths once again. This time, I recognized the movements instantly from my experience in the Abu Dhabi nightclub, but now, a small group of young women performed it casually in another nightspot in Dallas, Texas. My host explained that these ladies were Iraqi, and this was simply one of their dances. Of course, my interest was piqued!

Why have I spent time relating this story to you? It is simple really. In this article, and in those to follow as well, I want to explore this process of engaging, researching, and performing the Kawleeya and in doing so, work through some of the questions surrounding the origins and influences of the dance. At the same time, I hope to model a level of transparency in method and in research, that I feel is important to demonstrate in those who claim to be practitioners of this dance. I am not an expert on the Kawleeya, but I do hope, one day soon, to grow into an adept  practitioner, and I would like to share that journey with you.

Let  us begin by addressing some key questions:

Where is the Kawleeya rooted? With which people and in what geographic location?

For example, though most all of the narratives surrounding this dance claim that the dance is rooted regionally in the south of Iraq (and ethnically with a gypsy 4 group there) to be satisfied with this myth ignores the transient lives of the dancers and the transnational nature of the dance in its current form.

What is the aesthetic that we are working within, and what kinesthetic and musical structures am I supposed to understand and apply?

Though the Kawleeya has some of the characteristics of regional dances of the Arabian Gulf, there are clear departures from that movement’s general vocabulary. From where are these influences coming? How did they become incorporated into the dance, and why? Also, as it is often seen performed as an improvised solo dance, what conventions on style and deportment apply to the dancer?

When is Kawleeya danced, why?  for whom? and where?

When asked, most will tell you that Kawleeya is a dance of the Iraqi gypsies. Often, these stories focus on a romanticized version of the gypsy dancer’s life performing in a cabaret or at weddings and festivals. Necessarily, this discounts the complexity of the dancer’s reality and the context from which the performance develops. To complicate matters, the Kawleeya is now performed in the Middle East and outside of the region by dancers with no ethnic roots or geographic ties to the region.

These are just a few of the broad questions that I intend to explore, and I look forward to sharing my journey with you. In the next article, I will share how and why I got started trying to learn to dance the Kawleeya as well as some of the pitfalls I have encountered. Hopefully, dear reader, you will recognize some of these same success and challenges in your own experiences, and together, we can help each other develop our collective understanding of the Kawleeya.

Until then, greetings from Abu Dhabi!


  1. Kawleeya – The dance itself is shown in the video link attached to this article. Here,  Uza of New York,  demonstrates the style beautifully. In future articles, we will look at more video from within the Gulf area as well as abroad. Further, I use the term “Kawleeya” as the name of this dance because currently, I do not have a more specific term from which to reference. In doing so, by neccessity, we must  generalize  the style of dance. Also, it is worth noting that the Kawleeya is also used to describe the gypsy people of Iraq as well as a specific type of nightclub, apart from the cabaret, where Kawleeya dancers perform.
  2. Other – The Other refers a person or group other than one’s self; hence, the Other is identified as "different". A person’s definition of the ‘Other’ is part of what defines the self and cultural units. It has been used in social science to understand the processes by which societies and groups exclude ‘Others’ whom they want to subordinate or who do not fit into their society. The concept of ‘otherness’ is also integral to the comprehending of a person, as people construct roles for themselves in relation to an ‘other’ as part of a process of reaction that is not necessarily related to stigmatization or condemnation. The idea of the other was formalized by Emmanuel Levinas, and later made popular by Edward Said in his well-known book Orientalism.
  3. Khaliji – Again, I use a rather generalized term to describe a specific dance. Within my experience in the UAE, the dance that most Western dancers know as “Khaliji”, where there is an emphasis on the beauty of the costume and dancers’ hair, also including sharp quick shoulder shimmies, poly-rhythmic clapping, and some footwork; is locally referred to as “Mahaleya”.
  4. Gypsy – Within Iraq, this group of people are is referred to as Kawleeya. As a widely dispersed and culturally varied people, “Gypsy” herein refers to only one branch of this ethnic family tree.
Amani hair tossing by Studio Jaki



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