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Belly Dance

I’m mostly writing this up for a friend (hello! 🙂 ), who asked me if the term “Cabaret” is used as an almost derogatory term in dance or if dancers (like me) were happy to be labelled as Cabaret dancers (this came about because our ATS teacher speaks about Cabaret style in a more derogatory fashion)…..I can’t speak for all dancers, but I think most of us are fine with the term and don’t see it as derogatory…..   She had asked about different types of belly dance, so I thought I’d do a basic guide 🙂

Basically it’s origins are unknown.  Some say it was done as a religious observance (danced by women only in temples for the Goddess), some say it was a dance to mimic and help in childbirth.  Some say it was a social/entertainment thing done by both men and women. Likewise it’s not known exactly where it started. Several different styles of dance that look similar were done around the same area.  But it has grown and changed as different cultures were introduced to others.

The name “Belly Dance” is credited to the entertainment director of the 1893 World’s Fair (Sol Bloom), who called it “danse du ventre” –  which translates as Dance of the belly/stomach.  Before then (and still sometimes), it was known as “Raqs Sharqi”, meaning “dance oriental” – differentiating that style with the more traditional or folk “Raqs Beladi” style.  A lot of people prefer to call it “Middle Eastern Dance” instead of “Belly Dance”.


The Ghawazee were Gypsies – traveling dancers in Egypt that had traveled from India.  From about 1700’s to about the 1830’s.  Apparently their lack of modest dress (like face veils), and the fact they danced in the streets, gave them a reputation as being somewhat non-respectable. It is thought that modern belly dance may have originally stemmed from the Ghawazee.  Their dance was influenced by the different cultures they were introduced to through their travels.

Their dress was usually something like a skirt or harem pants, with a long shirt and a more fitted coat over the top of that with a scarf tied at the hip.

This is a painting done in 1863.  Whether or not dancers of that time wore sheer tops and exposed bellies, or this was just a fantasy – I don’t know.  If it is a realistic portrayal, it’s easy to see how the more covered Ghawazee outfits gradually exposed more flesh to become a bra and belt that is associated with modern belly dance.

Modern Ghawazee style costume tends to be a bit of a fusion of styles, often  mixing a more traditional costume design with a modern “tribal” look – with the “ghawazee coat” cut under the bust, with a coin bra, and either a skirt or harem pants.


Beladi & Saidi

Beladi basically means from the country or home.  The style of dance was usually slower and more subtle than that of a Ghawazee style.  Raqs Beladi was basically folk dancing compared to the flashier “raqs sharqi” and would more often have been danced at home or family gatherings, not performed in the streets.  The usual Beladi costume was the normal ankle length long dress the women wore everyday, with a scarf tied at the hip.  Saidi is a form of dance using a cane/stick and is usually a bit more up beat.

(Dancer doing a “shamadan” [candelabra] dance in a beladi style)

Modern Beladi dresses tend to be more flashy and ornate, often with splits in the sides, as below:

Examples of Beladi dances:

Examples of Saidi dances:

“Cabaret” / Raqs Sharqi

The more modern style and costuming is often referred to as “cabaret” style.  The transition from the more folk style to the more cabaret style is said to have happened when the dance became more popular and started to be shown in movies and performed in clubs and the like to entertain the tourists.  Where the flashier costumes were developed to meet those tastes.   A usual “Cabaret” costume will be a bra and belt worn with a skirt – often the skirts have splits to reveal the legs, and usually the legs are left bare (rather than wearing harem pants to cover them). Sometimes the dancers will wear high heels.  Typical elements for a “cabaret” costume include sequins, beaded fringing, chiffon skirts – designed to be more appealing for an audience and to show off the dancer’s body/moves, particularly in a stage environment.

“Cabaret” still encompasses a lot of different styles of belly dance, such as Greek, Lebanese, Turkish and Egyptian.  As well as an eclectic mix of different styles, where dancers take moves and influence from different styles and combine them.   If a dancer is trained in a particular style, they might like to call themselves a “Classical Egyptian dancer” or something.  For someone like myself who was taught a range of styles, and blend all that into our dance, the broad term of “Cabaret” explains what sort of style we do, without needing it to be a specific form.   I’ll confess that I don’t know much about the differences in the different styles, however it is said that Egypt is still quite strict on modesty with performing belly dancers, so costumes worn in Egypt tend to be a Beladi dress, or have to have their belly covered  – so costumes can have fabric or design features that cover the belly (like the pic below).  As well as costume, certain moves like floor work are apparently not considered appropriate in Egypt.  Turkish belly dance is less restricted and the costumes tend to be more revealing and more floor work is permitted.

Examples of “Cabaret” style dance


A more modern interpretation, Tribal style takes its influence from the traditional folkloric dances from places like India, Spain, Africa and the Middle East.  The main form being “American Tribal Style” – which has a strict set of moves, however there are other offshoots and “fusions” blending the ATS style of dance and costume with other influences, giving the “tribal” style in general, an eclectic feel, much like how “Cabaret” can encompass many different costumes and movements.  Unlike the glitzy “Caberet” style, the tribal style is more earthy, however it can often be more ornate with heavy decorated costumes – but in a more traditional/folk style than a modern sequined one.

Examples of  ATS:

Examples of Tribal Fusion:

Interesting links about Belly Dance history:


3 thoughts on “Belly Dance

  1. It’s odd to hear of an ATS dancer being derogatory about “cabaret” belly dance, considering her style of dance has no “roots” at all, but is a completely modern American invention.

    Personally I think no form of belly dance has the right to sneer at any other, because none of them can really claim to be “authentic”. That doesn’t make them any less valid – after all, ballroom dancing wasn’t invented till the 20th century, and some people say flamenco dance (as opposed to flamenco music and song) didn’t exist until the 19th century.

  2. Well, it could also be our perception with the way she mentions it, it’s clear that she’s not a fan…. and everyone has their own likes and dislikes – not everyone is into the stereotypical sequined bra and belt costume with the flashing legs and stuff (not that cabaret is only like that – but that’s what some people immediately think of) – and that’s fine… but it was more that her reaction plus my friend’s line of thinking that belly dance = harem girls dancing for a sultan, fostered that “cabaret” = derogatory thing for her, that I wanted to try and explain a bit of the background 🙂

    But yes, I agree…. I don’t like it when dancers talk down on any particular style.

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