My first belly dance class was in the summer of 1978. Back then I was still a young teenager who had no idea what oriental dance was all about, and least of all, no concept that I would be doing this for the rest of my life as a full time career! That was 44 years ago…. OMG really? Time flies, especially when you love what you do! I have personally witnessed more than 4 decades of the history of belly dance, and there have been a lot of changes. For example, in the 60’s belly dance was very popular throughout America and this boom lasted declined for several reasons at the end of the 70’s. In the 80’s the infatuation for belly dance in general practically died out, with only the die-hards hanging on. Yet at the same time, it was fast becoming the latest craze in in Germany. While living and dancing in Vienna, Austria in the 90’s, I became a part of the boom of oriental dance all over Europe. By the first decade of the new millennium the belly dance craze returned to the U.S. but this time it only lasted about a dozen years. In the last decade, the tide is once again receding.
I have also bore witness to the oriental dance world before the dawn of the internet and before the creation of ATS. I saw how in the 70’s the popular belly dance style was basically what we would call the Turkish style, in the costuming, the music and the format of a dance routine. Then in the 80’s the focus turned to Egyptian style, where Souhair Zaki and Nagua Fouad created a huge impact on the scene, the music changed in rhythm and orchestration, and the hottest costuming were the heavily beaded, gorgeous Madame Abla’s. Even the format of a dance routine changed. Did you know, I met and danced with BOTH Souhair and Nagua? And I met and acquired several Abla costumes right there in her atelier in Cairo. What memorable experiences! But that is for another article.
Time marches on and change is inevitable. It is a healthy part of evolution and growth. Dance as art continues to evolve and change every day. But what difference does it make to you as an advocate of today’s Middle Eastern dance? How much does history matter to the new dancer? Why bother hearing about the changes in styles and famous dancers of the past? Many dancers who have discovered the beauty of belly dance within the last 20 years are busy living in the present, taking classes, performing dances, buying costumes, feeling good in their passion for this dance. Yet, I have noticed at workshops, online and in classes, many of the new generation are generally unaware of the history of belly dance and are not convinced that it is of much importance.
In my last blog article I offered a quiz to test your Middle Eastern dance IQ. Whether or not you are of the classical oriental/folkloric side of the fence or the Tribal/Fusion side of the fence, let’s talk about the reasons why it is important for you to know the history of your beloved art form.
A) Souhair Zaki used to say that every time she donned a costume she felt like a princess. Today, popular dancers in Cairo feel they need to wear skimpy costuming, ultra minis and even visible thongs to gain attention and create sensationalism rather than strive for quality performances and feminine grace.
B) Mahmoud Reda was called the Fred Astaire of Middle Eastern dance. He put the dance into theaters and provided a platform for every Middle Eastern person to fall in love with folkloric and classical oriental dance. Today in the Middle East, the popularity of the dance has fallen. There is no “Fred Astaire” equivalent. The dance steps are often without finesse. We see instead shimmies with legs wide apart, kicks that extend above the waist and movements that lean towards vulgar and brash. Does anyone value elegance?
C) Samia Gamal is still revered as one of the classiest pioneers of oriental dance, being one of the first to choreograph steps, wear glamorous costuming, and be held in such esteem that she was like a Hollywood movie star. Her simple feminine finery is rarely seen in the oriental dance world today.
What do you learn from looking back at these three examples of the past? When you take the time to learn about the dancers of the past, you can stop yourself from boarding the contemporary bandwagon and choose to fight to keep respect for yourself and your art. If you don’t know what people have done in the past and what standards they have successfully accomplished, you can’t even imagine what is possible now or that you are able to uphold and perhaps even surpass those standards.
History teaches us that a single individual with great convictions or a committed group can change the world. Robert F. Kennedy is quoted to have said, “Each time a person stands up for an ideal or acts to improve the life of others, or strikes out against injustice, he/she sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.” The pen is mightier than the sword, words can move mountains, and in each of us as dancers, we have the power to change the world, provided we have the knowledge and skill to respect our history, to learn from it, so that it evolves to its greatest potential. I hope you shimmy on with pride and blaze new trails.
This fun quiz about belly dance is for all kinds of Middle Eastern dancer, including classical oriental, folkloric, cabaret, Tribal, or fusion. Give yourself 1 point for each correct answer. Total your score afterwards to see where you land on a scale from Un-Informed (0) to Un-informed (10).
In my blog for next month, we will discuss WHY you should be able to score a perfect 10. But for now, just enjoy. Maybe you’ll find yourself tapping into your dance history and roots.
Here we go:
Let’s explore what makes the Turkish style of belly dance unique and exciting. Historically, Turkish belly dancing has existed since the 7th century. What we call Oriental Dance officially began in the 1920s throughout the Middle East. At that time in Turkey, women were liberated in many aspects of everyday life. Dancers in particular enjoyed a freedom they never had before, finding more opportunity to aggressively display their feminine beauty and emphasize sexual appeal both in the sensuality of their movements and by wearing costumes that emphasized the figure.
Turkish dance routines moved from fast to slow to fast again. Dancers entered to a happy upbeat song, playing zils and wearing a veil that was tantalizingly draped over their costumes. The second song usually was to the slow chiftetelli rhythm, incorporating veilwork and/or floorwork which pushed the limits of flexibility into more gymnastic poses. The routine included at least one song to the kashlimar rhythm which is a fast, complicated 9/8 that keeps the dancer bounding with energy and liveliness. The demands on speed and agility can explain why Turkish dance routines are shorter than Egyptian-style routines, and also why Turkish dancers tend to be younger than dancers in Egypt and Lebanon. It was the Turkish dancers who first moved off the stage and into the audience to collect tips and to coax audience members to participate and dance along.
I found an out-of-print book entitled “The Belly Dancer in You” written by retired Turkish dancer Ozel Turkbas. Ozel encourages the dancer to maintain her self-respect and treats the dance as something beautiful and spiritual. Ozel claims that Turkish dancers were responsible for introducing the belly moves to belly dance. She admits that the dance has been exploited by those who “could show—for a good price—women dancing in a manner forbidden to the God-fearing.” This exploitation occurs everywhere in the Middle East, including Turkey, where striptease and belly dance were often intermingled. Ozel admitted that sometimes the only way to become famous was for the dancer to pose practically nude or to be involved in some sort of public scandal.
There was time when Turkish style costume were considered scandalously more sexual than the Egyptian style costume. However, the contemporary costume worn in Cairo today unfortunately consists of a skimpy outfit that reveals far too much skin, a skirt that is shear or of ultra mini length, and a bra that over emphasizes already ample breasts. Sadly, any artistry in the performance is overshadowed by the sexuality of how the movements look when performed in such costuming.
Who are the famous and infamous Turkish belly dancers that were respected, revered and viewed as artists?
As in all Middle Eastern areas today, Turkish belly dancers struggle against the morals of a Moslem country. Following the many artists of the past hundred years, only the loveliest, most agile, and most gifted dancers can successfully follow their lead. Has the magic of Turkish style belly dance bewitched you yet?
Do you love to learn about the history of Middle Eastern dance? Do you dream of making more of your love of belly dance? Then please explore www. SakkaraDance .com and let me know if you want to set up a time to talk about how this program can be tailored to your specific needs!
St. Patrick’s Day is a day of four-leaf clovers, pots of gold, and sparkling luck. Want to know the secret to acquiring more LUCK to make your dance success soar?
Charisma on the stage is critical for success. One way to boost your appeal to the audience is to make sure you make eye contact with them. Another way is to encourage their involvement in your performance by using certain arm movements that beckon the audience in subtle or bold ways. Here are some suggested arm movements that you should use in your dance shows. Remember, do them only once each show.
Have you ever told someone that you love Middle Eastern dance and they recoiled with a statement like “Why would you ever want to do that?!” Most people do not understand how our dance form can transform you into your most fabulous, feminine self. It’s something you must experience before you can believe.
Here are 10 solid reasons why you will be a happier, healthier person if you belly dance:
Holiday shows at Greek/Middle Eastern restaurants or at home parties means close contact with your audience. No pressure but, YOU were hired to be the life of the party. You’ve got to be friendly and entertaining while commanding their respect. Maintaining a professional distance from your audience can be tricky, especially when they want to give you a tip. You never know who in the audience is uninhibited enough to take things too far. Getting paid to entertain is one thing, but no tip is worth an unwanted grope.
If you dance well and provide an exciting show, the audience will gladly tip you. In fact, it’s also a big part of their fun. Here are my Top Ten Tips to Taking Tasteful Tips:
My suggestions are meant to guide and assist. Feel free anytime to write to me your questions or concerns. I encourage you to dance from the heart! It’s all the magic you’ll ever need to succeed.
If there’s something strange in your neighborhood, who you gonna call?
Here are 8 great modern day myths about oriental dance that need to be blasted away by hardcore reality. I am sure you have heard of some of these myths, if not all of them. Not for the faint of heart, these myth busters are bold and direct. The intention is for dancers, both new and old, to keep their heads out of the sand dunes and see things as they really are.
I ain’t afraid of no myth!
To further your dance ambitions, please visit www.SakkaraDance.com
I challenge you this month to put the “YOU” into Unique. So many dancers think they have to copy what they see others do, how they dress, how they move. While it is important to witness the trends in fashion and movement, if you ever want to stand out as a Middle Eastern dancer, you need to dare to be authentic.
“Authentic” is defined in the dictionary as “genuine, real, not false or copied”. Authenticity comes from living the motto “what you see is what you get”. It allows you to develop into a unique artist and a valuable individual. It might not always be easy, but it is definitely rewarding. From how you move on the stage to how you carry yourself behind the scenes, authenticity transforms you and empowers you. It is a series of conscious choices where you take charge of the direction in which you are headed.
Take a moment to think about how you see yourself right now and notice if there is anything you wish to improve or change:
Maybe these guidelines seem like lofty ideas, so I will offer you some examples from my own personal journey that prove that they work.
You are the sum of all of your experiences. Make your journey exciting. Promise to value your unique self. Dance through your life in such a way that when you look back on your journey, you will feel no regrets. Strive to be fearlessly authentic!
When you want to develop your own dance persona, one of the greatest tools you can utilize is to choose an inspiring role model. You’ve got to take a close look around within the realm of belly dance and not be afraid to select the ‘stars’ that encompass all the things you’d like – from costuming to dance style, from charisma to business savvy. Consider any Middle Eastern artist anywhere in the world and also from any era, past and present. While personal experience is the best teacher, the second best is to learn from and copy those who have already acquired the look and success that you want. Select your role model(s) carefully. Have a clear picture of what you want from your dance. I hunted for role models back in the 1980s. At that time in Egypt, there was a famous dancer who was extremely impressive. Her name was Suhair Zaki.
Suhair was born in 1944 and still lives today in Cairo, Egypt. She no longer performs, having retired in the 1990s at the height of a very successful career. I was fortunate to see her dance many times in Cairo, from the stages of smokey nightclubs to extravagant wedding receptions in grand hotel ballrooms. She is my favorite Egyptian dancer because she is not only an outstanding artist, she conducted herself 100% as a lady.
Suhair’s dance style was along the lines of Tahia Karioka. She did not rely on props to dazzle her audience, nor did she need a lot of space on the stage. She performed as a soloist with no background singer, dancers or troupe, as did some other well-known performers. Her only backdrop was her excellent orchestra. Music was specially composed for Suhair every six months, as were her costumes. One of the most famous costume designers, Madam Abla, created the stunning baladi dresses (more like cocktail dresses than folkloric dress) as well as the heavily fringed and beaded oriental outfits, complete with mesh over the midriff. They set the fashion trend for belly dancers around the globe.
Suhair’s shows were a class act. Her group of musicians numbered between 15 and 30, and they connected with Suhair perfectly. Together they made magic happen on the stage. Suhair was the first oriental dancer to perform to music of Om Koulthoum, one of the highest revered singers in the history of Arabic music. It was a risk to do so, at first, because at the time Suhair was still young and not well known. But Om Koulthoum herself claimed that Suhair interpreted the music beautifully.
Many dancers in Cairo have choreographers that assist in the creation of their show. Suhair never did this. She claims that she always danced from her own inspiration and feeling, and that is what moved her body. She was quoted as saying that she needs the dance as anyone needs air to breathe. She believes that dance is art and must always be honored and respected. In that, she honored and respected herself as a dancer and as a woman. She did not compromise her integrity, not even when the trends dictated a change to more risqué costuming and flashier variety-show performances. She stated that on stage she wanted to feel like a princess.
Suhair danced with passionate emotional expression and amazingly precise hipwork. Her movements were feminine, graceful and rather reserved (less is more!). There were no high kicks, incessant spinning, or overly skimpy costuming. Instead, she used her hips, back and abs to create intricate contractions.
Today you can find online films of her performances. You will encounter music that was written for her, and many others that used her name to indicate the classical oriental style of the music, not that she was the producer. There are tons of photos of her in her dazzling costumes.
Suhair Zaki’s standards were high, and her name epitomizes the elegance and grace of oriental dance. If you choose Suhair as one of your role models, you will join the movement to promote and preserve the Art of Middle Eastern dance.
JASMIN JAHAL, Author
I've been dancing since I was 3 and a professional belly dancer for over 40 years. I've learned so much from personal belly dance experience and want to share with you advice, tips, suggestions and more. Anytime you have any questions and need sage advice, please reach out and let me hear from you!