Why Stomach Dance is Not a People Dance


I’ve been fairly quiet over right here in weblog land for numerous causes. I’ve been educating Dance Appreciation faculty course (typically 100+ college students), my Mills School dance historical past course, along with bumping up my very own educating enterprise and appearing as a Peer Chief within the Suhaila Salimpour Institute of On-line Training.

Mainly, I’ve been protecting my eyes by myself paper… and all the ultimate papers that my faculty college students have written. 

Spending most of my psychological time in an instructional and academic area has given me a lot to consider. A lot in order that I’m creating a brand new survey course for one among my schools centered fully on dance kinds outdoors the ballet/fashionable canon. Dance Appreciation covers these subjects and my colleague teaches a historical past of jazz/African American dance, so I needed to fill within the hole.

The toughest half about proposing and outlining a course that covers every little thing that isn’t ballet/fashionable/modern/jazz was naming it. Each time period that we now have for non-European/American live performance dance is missing. “Ethnic Dance” is antiquated and othering. “People Dance” excludes live performance, non secular, and classical kinds. “Conventional Dance” begs the query: what’s conventional? “Vernacular Dance” doesn’t embrace the classical kinds corresponding to Bharatnatyam that at the moment are primarily taught in academies moderately than handed down via households and communities. 

On the similar time, I’ve been observing how many individuals within the stomach dance scene are lacking a key distinction when speaking about studying from dancers from the area, naming steps, tracing lineage, studying root kinds, and performing professionally. Specialists in vernacular dance accuse practitioners of live performance/classical types of appropriation, misinterpretation, and fantasy. And whereas typically that is perhaps true, I really feel that the disconnect lies in a misunderstanding of the assorted contexts dances are carried out.

Mainly… The stomach dance that skilled practitioners placed on stage shouldn’t be a folks or vernacular dance. It comes from folks and vernacular kinds, however it’s, in its personal method, a live performance dance type. 

For this publish, I’m pulling fairly a bit from the work and analysis performed over the previous a number of a long time by Dr. Anthony Shay. His work focuses on the transformation of vernacular and folks dance on the live performance stage, and I owe him an excessive amount of gratitude. I’m additionally drawing from the analysis of pal and colleague Dr. Christopher Smith, whose analysis focuses on the historical past and reconstruction of hybrid vernacular music in the USA. And I’d be remiss to not credit score Joann Keali’inohomoku and her seminal paper inspecting ballet as an ethnic dance type. 

A observe on pronouns: On this weblog publish I typically use “she” to explain skilled stomach dancers, not as a result of I imagine that solely girls will be skilled dancers, however as a result of the skilled dancers I’m referencing—the likes of Fifi Abdo, Mona El Stated, Nadia Gamal—are all girls. 

The Phrases We Use Matter

Earlier than I get began, let’s make clear some terminology: 

People dance is, in easy phrases, the dance of the “individuals.” These dances are loosely set (altering and adapting over time) and infrequently carried out in teams, normally to mark some type of vacation or celebration, however are usually not non secular, devotional, or discovered/taught in any type of academy. The maypole dance, the Morris Dance, and Lebanese debke are every kind of folks dance. Nevertheless, this time period has a type of double that means. Within the mid-Twentieth century, the time period shifted as skilled folks dance firms emerged within the mid-Twentieth century, such because the Reda Troupe from Egypt or Banyanihan from the Philippines, and Amalia Hernandez’s Ballet Folklorico from Mexico. These firms don’t carry out dances of their authentic contexts; they’re tailored for the stage and carried out away from their respective celebrative conditions. Dr. Shay says that people dance firms corresponding to these typically stage the “peasantry,” or non-urbanized peoples of their respective international locations or ethnicities. In that method, these folks dance firms have created their very own kinds, one thing Shay calls “invented custom.” 

Vernacular dance is what individuals do of their houses, at events and gatherings, and in golf equipment. It’s what the “common individuals” do, and there’s no distinction between city or rural as there’s with the time period “folks.” Dr. Smith says that vernacular abilities—cooking, stitching, dance, or music to call a couple of—are discovered via imitation, typically with the steering of friends or elders. Vernacular dances, whereas performative, are usually not performances per se. A dancer is witnessed by the individuals round them, and people individuals are prone to be buddies, household, or friends. After all, one can stage a vernacular dance (we may have a look at Vogueing as a type of staged vernacular dance). 

Ethnic dance. Ethnic dance is a time period that made sense (to some extent) within the mid-to-late Twentieth century to offer a class to non-Euro-American live performance dance kinds. Mainly, every little thing that isn’t derived from ballet, fashionable/post-modern/modern dance, efficiency artwork, or Broadway/competitors jazz dance (i.e. “white” live performance dance1) has been thrown into the “ethnic” dance class. An ethnic dance displays a selected ethnicity’s aesthetic and cultural values, and might embrace folks, vernacular, live performance, non secular, and devotional dances. Have a look at the programming of the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Competition and also you’ll see every little thing from Regency-era companion dances, Appalachian clogging, flamenco, Cambodian dances, stomach dance/raqs sharqi, Tahitian Ori, Hawaiian Hula, Philippine Tinikling, and a lot extra. The difficulty is that right now “ethnic” means “something that’s not ballet/fashionable,” with an implication in wider circles that it’s “something that isn’t white.” Certainly, the time period “ethnic dance” runs into related issues because the time period “stomach dance:” it’s incomplete, colonial, antiquated, and inaccurate. And, as Keali’inohomoku argues, “ethnic” will be utilized to ballet too

Live performance (and staged) dance is introduced as knowledgeable efficiency, with ballet and fashionable/modern dance being the obvious kinds. Live performance dances are sometimes carried out on a proscenium stage in a theater, with the viewers organized in neat rows going through the stage. Audiences sometimes pay to see a live performance dance manufacturing; these sorts of performances is perhaps a full or evening-length manufacturing (Suhaila Salimpour’s Enta Omri) or a set of shorter items, corresponding to at a dance competition. The people dance firms of the mid-Twentieth century staged and reworked “conventional” dances for the live performance stage, and I’d argue that these firms straddle the road between live performance dance and vernacular/folks dance. 

Stomach dance. For the sake of this weblog publish, I’m utilizing this time period to discuss with the skilled, staged evening-length performances by the likes of Nagwa Fouad, Mona El Stated, Fifi Abdo, Nadia Gamal, Sohair Zaki, Dina, Randa Kamel, Suhaila Salimpour, and others. These performances sometimes happen in a nightclub or lodge, and have an ensemble of stay musicians. We will hint this modality of efficiency again to the seminal On line casino Opera, based by Badia Masabni within the Nineteen Twenties. You would possibly name this sort of dance raqs sharqi and even “oriental dance,” however any long run skilled practitioner of the shape will let you know that no identify actually encompasses or adequately describes it. 

An incomplete evaluation of varied dance modalities with examples. I’m certain as soon as I hit “Publish” I’ll need to edit it.

Staging the People and Vernacular

Now, after we put a folks or vernacular dance type on the live performance stage, we should make some substantial modifications. Sometimes, a folks dance is finished by a group for a group; it’s by an in-group for the in-group. When a director places it on the live performance stage, it turns into a type of ambassador for a complete tradition or ethnicity; it’s now by an in-group for an out-group.

  • As an alternative of dancing with and for buddies, household, and the broader group or village, the dancers now carry out for an viewers. The very nature of placing a efficiency onstage separates the dancers from the viewers, and now there’s a particular and outlined entrance, that’s “downstage.” The presence of an viewers, within the case of a theater, creates an in-group and out-group by default, even when a staged folks/vernacular type weren’t being introduced. The dancers are the in-group; the viewers is the out-group… or perhaps it’s the opposite method round.
  • Most folks dances introduced on a live performance stage, and even at a cultural competition, are choreographed. And that choreography have to be rehearsed. Usually, the corporate goals to carry out the dance the identical method each time in a really closed and set sequence of actions, staging, and blocking. Usually, that rehearsing takes place in a dance studio, but it surely may additionally occur at a cultural heart managed/run/maintained/funded by that individual cultural in-group.
  • Usually, members of dance firms that current staged folks and vernacular dances prepare in that type, that’s they take courses from a grasp instructor/choreographer. They spend a major period of time in a dance studio (or studio-like setting) to be taught approach, steps, and choreographies. Staged vernacular/folks dances normally embrace some virtuosic parts as nicely, corresponding to spectacular leaps, quick turns, or technical footwork.
  • The piece must be costumed. The director will make selections about what type of costume, colours, make-up, and hair styling. It’s unlikely that the costumes designed for the present are cookie-cutter copies of what the precise peasants or folks of any explicit area truly put on, particularly today. They’re glitzed up with vibrant colours, rhinestones or sequins, elaborate ornament and embroideries, and have to be tailored for the shifting, dancing physique.   
  • The director should additionally select which songs to set the dances to, or whether or not or to not fee authentic items or re-recordings of present songs. If the corporate consists of stay musicians, then the musicians should carry out the piece the identical time each time. The type of music, the musicians employed, the songs, are all aesthetic, political, and inventive selections that shift the dance from “individuals’s dance” to “skilled dance.”
A typical stage with wings and lighting. On this case, an orchestra pit additional separates the performers from the viewers.

Skilled Stomach Dance Blurs the Line

Skilled stomach dance, what we frequently name raqs sharqi, blurs the strains between viewers and performer, between vernacular and live performance. The traditional stomach dance efficiency—a soloist with a stay band—integrates distinct parts that aren’t a part of the Euro-American live performance dance presentation.

  • The dancer interacts with the viewers and the musicians, extra like a jazz singer would possibly in a supper membership. An viewers member may also come as much as the stage and bathe the dancer with ideas and even dance with the performer for a second.
  • Traditional stomach dance in its context—from the On line casino Opera to the 5-star resorts of Cairo and Dubai—shouldn’t be carried out on a proscenium stage. Many stomach dance exhibits had been and nonetheless are carried out on nightclub levels largely on the similar top/degree because the viewers. The architectural separation of performer from viewers is much much less extreme than it’s in a proscenium theater. After all, stomach dance can and is carried out on proscenium levels on a regular basis—a comparatively new phenomenon, beginning in earnest within the early 2000s—however its traditional presentation is in a nightclub with a full band.
  • The dancer typically improvises their actions, though they know the music so nicely that they could carry out a type of unfastened, malleable, adaptable choreography. They normally don’t rehearse or set choreographies for his or her solo performances. 
  • Not all the “nice” stomach dancers had been formally educated, however moderately honed their abilities via efficiency, moderately than studying actions and steps in a studio earlier than changing into skilled performers. This aspect, I’d argue, has shifted fairly a bit for the reason that Seventies, significantly as extra foreign-born dancers take nightclub and supper membership jobs in Cairo, Dubai, and different cities all through the MENAHT (Center East/North Africa/Hellenic/Turkey) area.2
  • The musicians will carry out parts of improvisation, each via solo taqasim in addition to heterophonic embellishment. They could additionally change up the phrasing of a tune, or they could determine to play a unique tune fully than what they and the dancer agreed on earlier within the night.

So, in these parts, stomach dance/raqs sharqi/oriental dance exists in an area someplace between Euro-American live performance dance and vernacular dance. 

On this iconic present, Nadia Gamal, her orchestra, and the viewers are all on the similar bodily degree; no raised platform separates the performers from the viewers.

“Folkloric” as Code for “Peasant”

At this level I want to make clear that I’m making a distinction between “folklore” as a discipline of educational research and “folkloric dance.” Folklore is a much wider time period that covers the research of a variety of cultural parts of the “frequent individuals.” Widespread individuals will be city and urbanized, however within the case of staging “conventional” dances, “folks” and “folkloric” is commonly a code phrase for “peasant.”3

Certainly, a stomach dance present may need a folkloric “tableau,” that’s, a tune or a couple of songs which have “peasant” parts. On this case, the “peasant” aspect is commonly of the balad (Arabic for “countryside”) or the fellahin (agricultural laborers, nicely, , the peasants of Egypt). 

The baladi tableau normally happens within the second half of the present, by which the dancer modifications from her two-piece bedlah and right into a baladi costume, galabiyya, or costume product of the quintessential baladi material, assyut or tulle bi-telli. She may need “back-up” dancers, normally younger males in galabiyyas who dance with their very own tahtibs in a easy, choreographed phrase. She’ll carry out to a typical baladi tune or maybe a Sa’idi piece with a tabl baladi and a mizmar participant—two devices that mark the fellahin—or perhaps a newer sha’abi tune (“new” here’s a relative time period).

In distinction to the video above, right here, Nadia Gamal wears a stylized baladi costume for her folkloric tableau.

These displays, I’d argue, are one other instance of the staged folkloric “invented custom” that Dr. Shay writes about in his many monographs. The dancers are usually not desiring to painting fellahi or baladi dance as one would see it within the rural villages of Egypt. They’re enjoying a personality, normally bint al-balad, the “nation lady” who’s without delay harmless, cheeky, flirty, naughty, and hyper-feminine as she pokes enjoyable on the masculine farmer together with her assaya or tahtib. The bint al-baladi is an archetype, and typically, a stereotype. She shouldn’t be somebody you’d encounter within the outskirts of Luxor. She is, in her personal method, a fantasy, a romanticization of peasant life.

However the first half of the present, with its grand entrance tune—composed within the custom of Hani Mehanna’s “Misha’al” or Muhammed Sultan’s “Set al Hosen”—is distinctly city. It’s glitz and glamour. It’s sophistication and sophistication. Together with her impeccable styling, costly costume, and ideal mani-pedi, the dancer is undeniably knowledgeable. The truth is, she is a diva, a celebrity. When she enters, chiffon veil floating behind her, she says, “Sure, I’m the stomach dancer, and I do know you’ll decide me as such, however I’m elegant and untouchable. I’m not a rustic lady.”  

Nagwa Fouad’s entrance to “Set al-Hosen” (on a soundstage) is the epitome of diva.

Stomach Dance as a Sort of Live performance Dance

If return to our definition of vernacular dance, that it’s discovered by watching, then it’s secure to say that almost all of us aren’t studying stomach dance by attending Arabic or MENAHT events, gatherings, or weddings by which we’re imitating the individuals there, absorbing their vibe and sentiment, and perhaps receiving a couple of hints right here and there from an aunt or distant cousin of the host. If we’re not of MENAHT heritage, we don’t develop up dancing to Arabic/MENAHT music on the stereo in the lounge or to the employed band on the newest household wedding ceremony. Nowhere within the MENAHT area will you see somebody in a vernacular setting at a celebration, gathering, celebration, and even simply grooving in their very own dwelling in a two-piece bedlah. The skilled dancer wears the bedlah. Certainly, it marks her.

Stomach dance/raqs sharqi as we be taught, carry out, and now train it right here in the USA, all through Europe, and world wide, shouldn’t be a folks or vernacular dance. It’s extra akin to a classical dance, like bharatnatyam, some lineages of flamenco, and, after all, ballet. 

We take courses in a studio. We pay an teacher (hopefully from the tradition or origin or who has been carefully mentored and guided by somebody who’s). We be taught actions and steps, scaffolded in a progressive order. We be taught mixtures which have been crafted to fulfill our talent ranges. We maintain pupil exhibits, “haflas,” and festivals in dance studios, in theaters, and lodge ballrooms, the place we carry out for primarily non-MENAHT audiences. 

Whether or not we prefer it or not, this dance type (no matter you select to name it) has fallen off the folks tree, previous the vernacular vine, and rolled fairly far-off right into a discipline of its personal. 

That doesn’t, after all, excuse us from searching for the tree, inspecting its roots, and understanding the numerous branches.

However to insist that the stomach dance that we placed on stage is a folks or perhaps a vernacular dance ignores the transformation begun almost 100 years in the past by Badia Masabni. It’s a staged dance, a type of live performance dance, practiced and introduced for paying audiences.

In that regard, as college students of this dance type, we should acknowledge the work, talent, and coaching that goes into acting on the live performance stage, whether or not that’s at a competition, a restaurant or nightclub, or an precise proscenium stage. 


  1. I put “white” in quotes right here as a result of “white” is a synthetic assemble, significantly when inspecting folks and vernacular dances. There is no such thing as a “white” dance. There are, nevertheless, dances from England, Scotland, Eire, France, the Basque area, Italy and so forth. And, after all, fashionable European borders don’t even actually delineate the assorted traditions all through the continent; the cultural markers of Sicily, for instance, are fairly totally different from these in Milan regardless that they’re each nominally “Italian.”
  2. Lots of foreign-born dancers, significantly Russian/Ukrainian dancers who carry out in Cairo and different cities within the Arab world have studied ballet since they had been youngsters, and hunt down skilled coaching in “oriental dance” from former members of folkloric dance firms such because the Reda Troupe and Firqat Khawmiyya.
  3. After all, this isn’t universally true, significantly with regard to, say, the character dances Mahmoud Reda created for his firm. For instance, an city younger girl from town of Alexandria dances the milaya leff and a rowdy sailor boy from the Port Stated space of the Suez Canal dances the bambutiyya.



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