Egyptian Painting by Zakaria Mahmoud
From a poster titled," A Selection of Contemporary Egyptian Art Magnifiscent, By Zakaria Mahmoud"

Gilded Serpent presents...

Excerpts From Aesthetic Explorations of the

Egyptian Oriental Dance Among Egyptian Canadians

an article derived from an academic thesis written in 1991
posted 2/24/10


What qualities make a professional Oriental dancer a good dancer? This question intrigued me during the thirteen years I studied the Middle Eastern dance known in North America as Belly dancing. Eventually, my fascination prompted me to move from performing to academic exploration, and I enrolled in the dance program at York University in Toronto, Canada.

Interviews employed videotapes of actual performances of four Egyptian Oriental dancers acknowledged to be stars: Sohair Zaki, Nagwa Fouad, Fifi Abdou and Samia Gamal. Each informant (Egyptian Canadians) articulated complex and precise views on the performances they saw. I chose respondents born in Egypt but still constantly in touch with Egypt and who had seen the Oriental dance in Egypt, because I assumed their answers would reveal attitudes of their country of origin. From their opinions, I compiled a tentative aesthetic for the professional Egyptian Oriental dance performance.

It was not difficult to achieve a synthesis of their opinions to create this aesthetic. While individual respondents chose different aspects of the dance to criticize at length, taken as a whole their remarks had a remarkable consistency.

Performance Aesthetic of the Oriental Dance

The professional performance aesthetic of the Oriental dance can be divided into four­teen elements:

1- The aesthetic clearly identified the purpose and function of the Oriental dance as entertainment: to bring joy and happiness and to evoke in the viewers an Egyptian experience. It stressed emotional pleasure rather than correctness as an evaluative norm. Respondents’ remarks included:

"This is very important for you to understand. People aren’t looking for great technique, like legs high in the air as in ballet, but they are look­ing for great entertainment.”

“Good dancers help bad moods to vanish."

"They remind us of Egypt and bring out something in our blood."

2- Informants described the dance event as occurring most often within the context of a larger event such as dinner at an hotel or a club, a party in a private home, a national day, the honoring of a visiting dignitary, a moulid (holiday, festival and, literally, birthday), and a wedding. Respondents said that a wedding provided the best environment in which to see the Oriental dance and most had learned about the dance in this context.

3- Respondents identified the contemporary professional performer of Oriental dance as a female soloist. Historically, however, such has not always been the case; Magda Saleh discusses young male transvestites dancing professionally in nineteenth century Cairo.

4- Informants described the dance as having a legitimate place in the culture; Egyptian Canadians truly love this dance but could not bring themselves to say they give it high esteem as an art. Respondents stated "It’s part of Egyptian culture." Egyptian Canadians contrasted this dance with those of the folk dance troupes performing heritage dances. Such groups as the Reda Troupe were worthy of esteem and serious critical discussion.

The dance has and does suffer periodic persecution and curtailment. Egyptian Canadians spoke of the Egyptian Government’s recent closure of many small and inexpensive clubs, the only access to the dance for the average Egyptian besides television and movies.

5- The aesthetic recognized the notion of best dancer, in itself an important concept implying the existence of a ranking system tacitly acknowledged by members of Egyptian society.

Egyptian-Canadians ranked all Oriental dancers as first, second, and third level dancers.

Informants agreed that the four dancers I showed them were of the first class, but disputed their ultimate ranking within the class.

Respondents told me that, while there may be hundreds of dancers in Egypt, only three or four can belong to the elite, the first class performer. To them will fall the prestigious and most lucrative professional engagements, such as major films, leading national and societal events, the entertainment of visiting foreign dignitaries and perhaps the wedding of a wealthy aristocrat. Second class dancers included those promising dancers on the way up and those whose careers had not taken off. Third class dancers included those performing in the poorer cabarets, for tourists and at the Pyramids and infamous Giza Street. Egyptian Canadians insulted this group, saying they were only "moving bodies."

6- The aesthetic permitted legitimacy for the Oriental dance, while including a stigma for the artists who create the form. The dancer was stigmatized because of: assumed immorality, use of the female body to create the art form, typically low class origins of performers, and the often dubious contexts where they perform.

7- Informants believed there was a hierarchy of the arts with all dance ranked very low, clearly separated from the esteemed arts.

Since Oriental dance is not honored, though loved, even dance stars cannot perform in locations reserved for the "arts," for example, the Cairo Opera stage.

8- Informants believed that full appreciation of the dance and the dancer would only be achieved after a lengthy performance. Excellent dancers would make a sustained performance. Respondents’ comments included, "Dancers shouldn’t give everything at once over ten minutes," "If she dances a long time, then I know what she can really do."

9- The Oriental dancer must be mature in the dance, have learned her craft so well that she has unique things to say through her movements. Her movements should show virtuosity, creative use of the elements of the dance, and a fully developed personal dance style. She has mastered the cultural pool of body movements.

Some respondents emphasized precision of movements as a criterion for evaluating the dancer: "Control is the key to good dancing, and a clue to a dancer’s level of control is the slow part of the dance." Another said he would judge on the basis of how much "movement" a dancer did (as opposed to just "running around, running away from dancing").

Qualities that earned dancers praise included a rich movement repertoire, the ability to offer different movements to a repeated rhythm, the ability to perform and sustain difficult movements and the ability to repeat these at the whim of the drummer or audience. Professional dancers used the dance movements available to anyone in the culture, both ordinary citizen and novice dancer. Uniqueness of style separated the star from the novice. "In the beginning," said one informant, "dancers know only how to shake their bodies."

10- The dancer should express "Egyptian-ness", that is, her dance should be subtle, gentle, innovative, and should possess dallah, the quality of an Egyptian coquette. Many discussed Egyptian identity in the context of the dance. "When she dances," said one, "she expresses the sweet and gentle persona of the Egyptian nation."

One respondent attempted a description of Egyptianness in the dance. "Egyptians are plumper, more attractive. What makes the Egyptian style is the costume, soft movements, gentleness (no jumping or jerking), subtlety, dallah, the drum, soft music." Charm and liveliness of face contributed to perceived quality of "Egyptianness."

11- Many respondents offered descriptions of the perfect body for an Egyptian dancer. She must have the gelatin-like body essential for giving the ultimate dance experience. Her waist should move like a hinge. She must not be overly fleshy. Respondents emphasized body flexibility. "She’s like a fish," suggests the dancer’s body is firm, like the flesh of a fish, and that she moves softly, effortlessly, as a fish in water.

12- Informants considered elegance of costume an essential part of dance excellence. Described by respondents the ideal costume is reserved but elegant and fashionable, one that takes the viewers into another mood outside the real world. The costume should be expensive, with masses of elaborate detail demonstrating its cost. The belt, usually beaded with long swinging fringes, shows off the hips, and through the hips, the dance.

There seemed to be a consensus that the dancer was more alluring if she were covered, but then opinion divided on the interpretation of "covered" in terms of an Oriental dance costume.

One man said that Egypt was a land of contrasts, that women might be dressed with a deep cleavage but modestly covered legs. Another young woman took offence at the slightest bulge of a dancer’s stomach over her belt. There were differences of opinion over the use of the one-piece galabiya (term for dress, but implying a long robe with sleeves), and the two-piece costume, although the majority preferred the two-piece outfit. One female respondent found the long dress "inhibits the dancer’s heart." For some, the desire for a more revealing dress was the need to see the body in order to see the dance.

13- Respondents said that being a good dancer meant having good music, that good music needed good musicians. Audience members know the music being danced, and the more they know the piece, the more they are able to follow the dancer’s movements.

The dancer is expected to relate to the music as a musician. She has listened and learned the piece, has internalized the music, knows every beat and nuance. In effect, as she dances she becomes a musician.

Egyptian Canadians spoke at length about the relationship between dancer and musicians in the dance. As the motor of the dance, the drum controls the dance; the drummer understands the dancer and can keep the audience emotionally linked to the dance as it progresses. Star dancers will have their own musicians in an employer/employee relationship. The reverse is true, and musicians may employ their own dancer.

The skill of the dancer in interpreting the music largely determines the enjoyment of the audience. One person told of her pleasure in going along with the dancer’s body moving from one beat to another. Dancers are judged for their ability to feel the music inside themselves, to have the rhythm of the music in their bodies. "The dancer knows the tune and plays it on her instrument, her body," one person said.

14- Respondents felt that eroticism was a basic attribute of the aesthetic of Oriental dance. Words they used to describe this element were dallah, coquetry, sensuality, and eroticism. They talked at length about the sexuality and sensuality of the Oriental dance, but had considerable difficulty in being precise on the positive aspects of this quality. They addressed at length the Egyptian female body moving in the dance, and the quality of being female in Egypt had much to do with determining the meaning of the Oriental dance aesthetic. Respondents both male and female were clear on what constituted vulgarity within the dance and agreed that there are many present instances of Oriental dance used to express raw and vulgar sexuality.

Vulgarity could be defined by: dancing on tables, dressing for sex and making a display of open legs, sitting with customers.

Two male respondents said that some dancers dress for sex, and are openly sexual themselves. Some male respondents suggested that men would go alone to the small clubs, the less elegant places of entertainment with a lineup of "flesh" and expect to go off afterwards with a dancer.

Part of the entertainment value of the performance centers around the complex dichotomy of the dancer’s ability to convey eroticism as distinct from a vulgar display. One male respondent told me "Egyptians like to see the erotic, but this is not the same as it is in Canada. The dancers are gentle in dealing with the audience. Egyptians are shy, not sexual as in Canada."


The standards were overt and articulated, and can be divided into fourteen elements. These elements encompass not only the perceived quality of the dance performance (the meaning), but also the parameters of the dance itself (the form). The elements of dance form as identified are: a solo female performer, with a slender boneless body with flexible waist; a performance sustained over time; a core of skills involving virtuosity defined by control, continuous movement, creative use of the corpus of Oriental dance movements, and a developed idiosyncratic dance style; elegant costume and decor; good music and good musicians.

For Egyptian Canadians, the elements of meaning in Oriental dance lie in the entertainment quality of the dance, the contexts in which the dance takes place, and society’s ranking of the dancer. There exists for Egyptian Canadians a hierarchy of the arts in general, with Oriental dance having a legitimate but lowly place within the hierarchy. Thus Egyptian Canadians can love this dance, but say they do not respect it. The dancer fares worse, and is stigmatized. Finally, the subtle qualities of Egyptianness and eroticism desired in Oriental dance provide layers of complex meanings to any excellent performances.

The findings of this research are preliminary, however such an aesthetic perhaps may relate closely to standards for this dance to be found on a culture-wide basis in Egypt. More research, obviously, is needed.

* Dallah is difficult to translate from the Arabic because of the overtones of cultural meaning. Coquettishness captures only part of the meaning. The word also incorporates the idea of being "spoiled" in the sense that a child can be spoiled.


Have a comment? Send us a letter!
Check the "Letters to the Editor" for other possible viewpoints!

Ready for more?

  • A Trade Like Any Other: Female Singers and Dancers in Egypt,
    Van Nieuwkerk had as her main objective an examination of the professions of musician and belly dancer in contemporary Egypt and an identification of the influence of these professions on the status of their practitioners, the underlying question being "Are dancers and singers considered disreputable, and if so, for what reasons?"
  • Who Really Gave Us This Dance?
    And, in their quest for self-expression, they, too, would fall prey to the sweet expressive motions of a timeless dance only to find a cure for their soul in the performance of this expression in front of an appreciative audience.
  • Changes: Egyptian Dance - Has it crossed the line?
    Both festivals, held in Giza were isolated and insulated from the people and the Cairo that I know and love.
  • The Dina Show!
    Event sponsored by Little Egypt on May 28-30, 2005 at the Crowne Plaze in Miami, Florida
  • BDSS Update: New Choreographers contribute to 2009 Show
    I will admit that I have never been a big fan of the more ‘folkloric’ approach to Bellydance, but then again I have to be open to try something new with each show.
  • The Las Vegas Bellydance Intensive 2008: Vegas and Belly Dance Celebrities
    Just as its host city brings together Paris’ Eiffel Tower , the fountains of Bellagio, and the pyramid of Luxor , the Bellydance intensive brings together this local talent with international stars, combining traditional cabaret with the latest tribal styles, to create a big event that feels comfortably intimate.
  • Fire in your Belly: My Dance Story
    I’ve always wanted to be a dancer. I vividly remember when I was four years old and had just started ballet, the driveway became my stage and the African sun my spotlight as I did plies, twirled, and pitter-pattered on tiptoe to a growing audience of passers-by. I remember curtsying to a young schoolboy who stopped to stare. Today, I realise it wasn’t my extraordinary dancing that stopped them in their tracks.
  • Ask Yasmina #3
    Personally, I am all for any kind of creative expression (blood, snakes, flowers, even fake chicken heads and urine) as long as it comes from a place of inspiration and with the intention to move members of an audience to think about the world around themselves and their own relationship to the substance or reference of choice with a new and wider point of view (maybe an even more loving point of view).

ad 4 Dhy & Karen