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  • Lisa Lumina

Orientation to Oryantal Dance Styles

Updated: Feb 21

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To kick things off, let’s get our bearings. Here is the diagram created by Nadira Jamal showing the relationship of belly dance and Middle Eastern dance, and the degree of influence of western aesthetics on a variety of styles.

an orientalist painting

The term "belly dance" is a translation of the French "dans du ventre" and started being used by orientalists who were scandalized by uncorseted women dancing. Many use the term because it is the one most recognizable to the general public, but it is not what the dance is called in the countries of origin. In Arabic it is called Raqs Sharki, which means oriental/eastern dance. In Turkish it is Oryantal Dans, with the same translation. I think, when talking about a cultural dance, we should use the name from the culture of origin. But the history of our dance's development makes that a bit complicated. Should we use the Arabic or the Turkish? If we mean just one of those styles that's easy, but what about when we mean any of the traditional or offshoot styles? The English translation also brings up potential issues, often confusing people with East Asian dances and art forms.

For now, there is not one answer that makes everyone happy. I'll be updating these posts to better reflect updated naming conventions, but will also include some of the old names, so that when you come across them you'll be able to recognize what they mean, and so you can see the history. This post is a VERY brief overview of the history of Raqs Sharki pre-1930s.


There are A LOT of origin myths about where raqs sharki/oryantal dans came from, which typically tell you more about their author than about the real history.

For today let's start with what we know. Raqs is both a social dance in all around the SWANA/MENAHT region, as you can see in this video, and a performance style for stage.

We don't know how old the social dance is. We likely will never know. If you hear someone saying they know it came from ancient fertility dances or harem girls vying for attention, they are repeating something that was made up. Whatever the region's dancing looked like 100, 200, or even 2,000 years ago, there may have been elements in common (such as finger cymbals, or potentially a focus on the torso), and elements that change every single generation.

We do know that the direct precursor to raqs as we know it were the awalim (singular = alma), who were female entertainers for the upper class, performing in private homes, they had a similar profession to Japanese Geisha. You can read more about them, although primarily from a western point of view, in the book "Before They Were Belly Dancers".

In the 1700s, awalim would be hired to sing, play music, and dance with the segregated women's parties. If they were entertaining for men, awalim could be behind a screen called mashrabiya, pictured here. They would recite poetry or make up verses off the cuff about the clients on the other side of the screen, whom she could see but who couldn't see her.  

The profession came from the Qaina tradition, from the days when slavery was common across Arabic speaking areas. In the 1100s the ideal dancing girl, was described as a girl of Moroccan origin, who had been kidnapped into slavery around the age of 12, and then received 16 years of training between Mecca, Medina, and Baghdad. Baghdad would be where she got music and dance training, owing to the cosmopolitain nature of the city, music from Iran, Turkey, Greece, North Africa, the Levant and Arabian states, were available for study. Their roll was filled by Awalim as these countries moved away from slavery and the profession became controlled by the women providing the entertainment. Even today in Egypt, the dancer hires her musicians and back-up dancers, a continuation of this female run profession. 

During all of these centuries, men have danced raqs sharki and oryantal dans, and continue to dance socially and professionally today. More on this in another post.

Between 900 and 1100ce the Rom, Lom, and Drom tribes (sometimes referred to by the g-word slur, although that is thankfully fading.) left Northern India/Southern Pakistan. In the early 1300s they arrived in both Turkey and Egypt. In Turkey and much Europe they go by Rom or Romani, in Iraq they're called Kawliya. Many found employment as dancers over the years. They danced the local styles preferred by the people hiring them, including raqs.

Some centuries after the rom migration, the Ottoman empire expanded to areas where "proto-raqs sharki/oryantal dans" was happening, between 1512 and 1522ce. They brought entertainers such as the awalim back to Istanbul, and Turkish culture set the fashion standards for Egypt's ruling classes.  

The term Ghawazee was sometimes written about by US bellydancers as Egyptian "g-words". In reality, in the 1700s the word simply described outdoor dancers. While awalim were entertaining at private parties, ghawazee danced at moulids (saint's festivals) and street-side cafes. When the ruler of Egypt banished all female dancers from Cairo, the two terms became muddled, and after dancers were able to return the capital, everyone called themselves an awalim, and the term ghawazee came to mean, more or less, country-side dancer. There will be more about their styles in the folklore readings.

In the early 1800s European Orientalism began. European travelers visited Turkey and Arabic speaking countries, and Napoleon attempted to conquer Egypt. As defined by Edward Said, orientalism is “the romanticization of the Other as primitive, exotic and even barbaric in order to justify the Western desire to expand colonial empire and hold power”. This included an explosion of travel journals and artwork inspired by European fantasies about the Middle East, and the theft and importation of lots of artifacts. All of this influenced Western ideas of what raqs is, and is where the term “belly dance” came from.

The exchange was not all one way, however. For example, Egyptian artists borrowed what they and their Egyptian audiences liked from Western entertainment and adapted it for their tastes. This is the environment in which the dance transformed from the living-room and wedding entertainment into the stage oriented Raqs Sharki that we know today. (Nissa, featured in the video showing a reconstruction of 1900s Egyptian dance, has more information about this period in Egypt in her book "Raks Sharki Revolution", I'm hoping someone publishes parallel research on Turkey during that time ^_^).

Next post we'll pick up with the vintage Egyptian style, and there will be more clips to enjoy!

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