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Defining Belly Dance Today

Definition by Presentation

Port Said LPs by El-Bakkar

by Tasha Banat
posted October 15, 2013

Author’s Note: Before we even discuss styles like Egyptian, Lebanese, Turkish, Greek, Armenian, Persian, Tribal, Fusion, and everything else that is currently out there, let’s just assume that all movement between the knees to top of your head defines Belly Dance, just for the sake of this article and within this genre.

I believe firmly still that belly dance is comprised of movements such as Figure 8s (rib and hips) as well as all vertical and horizontal directions, etc. that define the foundation of the dance; everything else–such as choreography, steps, props, costuming, etc. is what makes the dance an exciting and ever-expanding visual artform, but of course, there is the traditional style belly dancer like myself who worked predominantly in Arabic, Persian, Armenian, and Turkish night clubs. (I’ve danced since 1966.) As a matter of fact, my only belly dance teacher was Yasmena, an Iraqi, who in the early ‘70s taught me about dancing with veils as well as floor work used by American dancers. That training, along with the Debke, defined my style of Arabic belly dance. Until that time, I performed pretty much only Debke, wearing a baladi and cabaret combined style of belly dance costume. 

Sayed MekkawiThat costuming and style actually worked for me because the musicians were mainly from Asian/Arab countries anyway and everyone belly danced to those songs. As a matter of fact, the most popular albums in those days were the “Port Said” by Mohamed El Bakker (Asian/Arab Debkes) and the Eddie the Sheik and George Abdo collections, which were also Asian or Arab Debkes. There was also Aram Araklian (playing the oud), Armenian; the Ozel albums, Turkish; and the Café Feenjan” from New York City, whose songs came from all Mediterranean countries and beyond.  The list of albums from that era goes on and on. 

There were many highly orchestrated classical albums such as those of  Oum Kathoum, Farid Al Atrash, Abboud Abdul Aal,Sayed Mekkawi, etc. that were also played for our dancing. These recordings were simple, featuring as little as two extremely talented musicians, playing two instruments. These musicians almost always played the oud and durbekee (tabla) as the main instruments; and if the club owner could afford it, we would have a violin, accordion, kanoun, and much later, the keyboards.  However, it was the oud and durbekee players who became accomplished in playing and singing the most famous songs from various Arab countries beyond where they lived. (In those days, this was not always so in the Middle East, especially Egypt, and North Africa.)

Again, if and when we worked in other nightclubs (such as the Persian clubs) the musicians and instruments changed. 

The only reason I bring this up is because anyone who was a belly dancer prior to the late ‘80s and early ‘90s did not, in actuality, perform the mainly choreographed Egyptian Style now popular.  We danced to Asian and Arabic music and presented what I will now define as “The Lebanese Style”.  

Why was all of that necessary for me even to write about?  Well, there are so many musicians out there who do not get any credit for their contribution to belly dance; even though many of those same songs are still recorded today by newer, and sometimes, more creative artists.

Egyptian and Lebanese Styles

I am constantly asked “What is the difference between the two?”  My answer is so simple: it is the presentation; how each one is performed in front of an audience.  I believe this is the common denominator in all belly dances today, but I am still a traditional style Arabic dancer; so I will continue to use those presentations to help explain the definition of the dance for 2013.

Rhea performs at Taverna Athena in Oakland, early 90s

Lebanese, and some Turkish dancers, almost always wear high-heeled shoes, and in Lebanon (for example) a more traditional style of belly dance cabaret two-piece costume.  Dancers perform  in and around their audiences a lot more, in a classic style nightclub setting much like we did in Arab American nightclubs of the past. 

We dancers in America actually created and developed the go-go dancer style of one dancer after another, performing with a live band in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s as well.  (For the most part, this was the pre-tipping era.)

What I mean is: the audience surrounded the dancer.  The stage was small or nonexistent, and the people were a lot more involved in the action of the dance.  In my opinion, this presentation always felt much warmer to me, personally, and even today, the belly dance Lebanese style feels much more personal, and not so highly choreographed or staged. I do not mean to disparage that type of belly dancing, but rather to define and validate the presentation of belly dance in those days.Soheir Zaki and Lynette

Egyptian dancers usually do not wear high-heeled shoes or traditional cabaret costumes anymore, and they perform more often upon a stage in front of an audience.  They may invite a person up to dance with them, a practice that I see as an entirely different presentation that became more popular in the late ‘80s and the ‘90s.

Please let me reiterate here that tipping the dancer (touching the dancer anywhere on her body) was taboo in both settings and is strictly another American belly dance invention. 

Even now, I feel that I am still not a dancer as accomplished as many that I see today; so when I am asked what made me so popular for so long, I reply that it was because my presentation of the dance was more familiar to the audiences at that time.  There were always those Debke steps that added to my belly dance movement, and my inexplicable feeling for the songs (rather than using choreography) that my audiences enjoyed.  I believe firmly that it was simply because Debke steps and belly dance movement were from the same regions.  Until this day, I do not believe that it was because I was such a great dancer, but that I was successful only because of my style.

For me, the bottom line is that there is no wrong way to present belly dance because what an individual loves in the dance is easy to find.  Everything is so global today!  The dance has morphed into so many forms that if you cannot find a belly dance teacher that makes you happy, perhaps you need to look for another dance.

Having said that, we also must recognize that the core of the belly dance movement does go back to those slides, circles, figure 8s and all the movements between the knees and top of the head.

Steps, especially Debke steps, get me from point A to point B, according to the size of the stage, the music, costuming, etc. This is what presentation of belly dance is all about for me.

Therefore, present yourself with the knowledge that the belly dance movement is just that; but culture, (especially Arab culture) is part of my love of belly dance. As a dancer, the more one learns about the Arab world in relation to belly dance, is the greatest compliment you can pay to a misunderstood, ill-defined and under-appreciated culture.

Just keep in mind that when you dance, whether it is Tribal, Steampunk, Cabaret, Fusion, Andalusian, Asian Arab Debke, North African, Egyptian, Turkish, Persian, Armenian, Saudi, Kuwaiti, Emirate, Weagar, Greek, or Central Asia etc. on a formal stage, picnic area, whatever or wherever, it is your presentation that defines authentic “Belly Dance Movement”.

You are the total package of what you do, and if it is respectful and respectable, then go for it…


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  1. ViliaNo Gravatar

    Oct 21, 2013 - 11:10:21

    Here, here!  Well said!  You put it in a nutshell, Tasha!  Couldn’t agree with you more!


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