Belly dance history

1920s Cairo and Hybrid Dance

Egyptian Raqs sharqi, in its modern form, developed in Cairo in the 1920s and was a hybrid dance genre from the beginning.

The origins of Raqs sharqi lie both in Egyptian traditions [1] and in transcultural elements coming from near Middle Eastern countries, from Europe, and from the Americas.

Although Egyptian Raqs sharqi is a phenomenon that developed out of a combination of sociocultural and economic elements and many people were involved in its development, its inception revolves around the figure of Badia Masabni, the main developer and promoter of this transcultural dance form, who is remembered through her connection to cinema.

Egyptian Roots

The Egyptian choreological roots of Raqs sharqi can be found in local social and celebratory dances and in performing arts traditions.

These dances and traditions come from different classes and social settings and it is possible to identify four strands:

  • baladi dance
  • the dance of the Ghawazee
  • the tradition of the awalim (sing. alma)
  • and folkloric dance traditions..

In this next section, I will cover the first three strands, while I will cover the folkloric influence later on (5.3.4), as this will become more evident only from the 1950s.

Baladi Dance

Baladi in Egypt can mean many things. Literally, it means of the country, hence local.

However, baladi also refers to “authentic or working class”. Early (1992, p. 54) defines the concept of baladi thus:

Historically “baladi” indicated the locals, the Egyptians . . . Through time, baladi has come to connote the residents and life of urban quarters such as Bulaq Abu ‘Ala. It is a . . . term that can roughly be translated “traditional” but which also retains a rich infusion of the local and authentic.

Early (1992)

Because of its class connotations, the term baladi (working class) is often in an opposite relation with the term afrangi (westernized upper class).

Early (ibid, p. 26) explains that in Egyptian society ‘the baladi:afrangi relation is one of the insider and the outsider, of the have-nots and the haves, of the pragmatic and the ideal’.

Baladi, as Lorius (1996, p. 289) mentions, also has moral connotations, with Baladi people being considered proud, hospitable, earthy and Baladi women strong, confident, and streetwise.

These feelings are reflected in the Baladi dance, which is improvised and linked to a type of music that Lorius (ibid, p. 288), drawing on Suraya Hilal’s [2] teachings, describes as ‘an improvisational urban genre using the accordion, violin and wind instruments, which developed while Egypt was industrializing and under colonial rule’.

Baladi versus Raqs Sharqi

Baladi dance is traditionally social and Raqs sharqi is often considered the performance form of Baladi, as the dancer Morocco states (Varga Dinicu, 2013, p. 97), ‘the social, home version is Raqs Beledi. Raqs Sharqi usually (but not always) means the performance form’.

The feeling of Baladi dance reflects the connotations usually associated with Baladi people, hence the dance is grounded (thus danced on flat feet rather than relevé), strong but flirtatious, and cheeky.

This is an example of how the perceptual phenomenological habit and the embodied feelings are connected with social fields (that include habitus, taste, and capital), as well as with structure and agency, since dancers can choose to highlight this embodied socio-cultural aspect of the dance for stylistic reasons (thus using it as a resource).

Feelings and Baladi

Even today, in the Raqs sharqi discourse, Baladi is connected with authenticity of feeling, even in relation to Raqs sharqi. As Lorna, one of my interview participants stated:

Baladi is soulful, is introspective but it’s also sensual and cheeky and flirty and fun and strong. Baladi is all of these things. And if you dance oriental with that essence, baladi essence, then that’s very authentic.

(Research Participant)

This Baladi feeling seems to be always present, even in the most innovative, upper-class, and hybrid performances of Raqs sharqi.

This can be noticed not only in the discourse employed by practitioners but also watching videos of Egyptian Raqs sharqi from the oldest movies until the most recent performances.

Francesca, for example, said in her interview that what distinguishes Egyptian Raqs sharqi from other styles of belly dance, such as Turkish or Lebanese, is the feeling (induced by the music and the lyrics of the songs) ‘of melancholy that underlies the dance.

Even when it’s very, very happy’. This can be explained by the fact that the origins of this dance are social, connected to celebrations, hence the happy feeling, and at the same time working class.

Hence, there is always a reminder, reflected in the songs, that life is hard.

Ghawazee Dance

Ghawazee (sing. Ghaziya), as Morocco (Varga Dinicu, 2013, p. 43) explains, are ‘Sinti “Gypsy”.

The most famous Ghawazee were in Luxor and Sumbat.

Their men were musicians, their women dancers, and singers’. According to Fraser (2014, sec. Guilds and Guild Lists as Evidence for Dancers and Singers), based on her study of Egyptian documentation on guilds and travelers reports from the 1800s, the Ghawazee belonged to ‘a guild of dancers with their own musicians’.

Travelling Roma

Fraser (2014) moreover, argues that evidence points against the whole Ghawazee population being Roma and that they traveled around Egypt in groups to perform in coffee houses and public events, for the general public.

Van Nieuwkerk (1995, pp. 26–27) tells us that they danced unveiled in the streets, outside coffee houses, during saint’s day celebrations (in Arabic mawalid, sing. mulid) and they traveled the country from one mulid to another.

Van Nieuwkerk (ibid.) reports that the Ghawazee, in the late 1800s, dressed in similar ways to other local women and that they often used props in their performances, such as scarves, sticks, and objects balanced on their head.

Dancing Ghawazee

Ward (2013a) compiled a list of what the movements of the first dances performed in nightclubs (the proto-Raqs sharqi), must have been like until at least the 1920s, based on travellers’ accounts.

She explains that the old dance did not seem very different from the dance performed by the Ghawazee, except for some innovations in the use of the arms and space, which we will return to later. Ward (ibid.) isolated four basic elements, which the nightclub dance shared with the Ghawazee dance:

  • the dance was performed solo
  • it was localized in the torso with minimal footwork
  • it was accompanied by a traditional ensemble of singers and musicians
  • the dancer sometimes played finger cymbals.

One example of Ghawazee dancing can be seen in a scene from the 1967 movie Al Zawja al Thania (The Second Wife) (TheCaroVan, 2014a).

In this video, the dancers (the Banat Mazin) perform in a rural setting, during celebrations; they move their hips very quickly with side to side shimmies, with no figure of eight or circles, so common in Raqs sharqi, and their arms are held in fixed positions while they play finger cymbals.

Unfortunately, the Ghawazee dance has almost disappeared today. I have not found any information about the Ghawazee from Sumbat, on the Nile Delta.

Old video of the Romany Egyptian Ghawazee.

The only family about which something has been written is the Mazin family located in Luxor.

They used to be a family of dancers and musicians and the last most famous performers were five sisters, the Banat Mazin (daughters of Mazin).

Of these five sisters only one, Khairiyya, was still performing and teaching at least until 2012, as reported by Nearing (2012b). Nearing in 1993 went to see Khairiyya Mazin, in Qena, near Luxor (whom she had first visited in 1976 to learn the dance), and she wrote an article for Habibi Magazine (ibid.), which was updated and published online in 2012.

Understanding why the Ghawazee are disappearing, while Raqs sharqi is not, is useful to understand better the challenges involved in safeguarding dance/heritage.

Nearing (2012b) identifies a series of factors that may have caused the Ghawazee dance tradition to almost disappear.

The reasons for the Ghawazee’s gradual disappearance are various and interconnected, according to Nearing (2012b).

Firstly, it was the religious fundamentalism, which led to the repression of dance and music in Upper Egypt and the gradual disappearance of the farahat.

These were public celebrations, once very common in Upper Egypt, in which the Ghawazee used to perform and which used to be their main source of income.

The local authorities, siding with religious fundamentalists, were outlawing such celebrations and persecuting performers. Secondly, another cause for the crisis was the economic downturn.

In the past, local families used to employ Ghawazee to dance at private parties, such as at weddings and circumcision celebrations.

However, at the time when Nearing (2012b) wrote the article, fewer families could afford to pay for hiring performers. The decrease in tourism also affected Ghawazee’s trade.

In winter, when the weather was cooler, more tourists used to visit Luxor, and the Ghawazee used to perform in folkloric dance shows on land and on boats on the Nile.

However, Nearing (2012b, para. 22) reports that, in the 1990s, ‘extremist members of the munathamat, the irhabiyyin, or “terrorists,” had attacked “godless foreign tourists”’, which might have started scaring tourists off, thus reducing the opportunities for Ghawazee to perform.

Moreover, the local Ghawazee had seen increasing competition from dancers based in Cairo, who traveled south during the tourist season.

Nearing (2004, para. 2) also blames the westernization of Egyptian society, whereby local arts are no longer valued by Egyptians and Ghawazee dance is considered ‘something too tawdry and out of style, as well as too intensely and exclusively Egyptian, to be seen in any cosmopolitan surroundings’.

Finally, Nearing (2012b) argues that technology has impacted negatively on the Ghawazee trade, as it is cheaper to buy a videotape and watch it, rather than paying to see a live performance.

At the same time, she states that television has become a more attractive option for ‘the impoverished children of teeming cities, raised on American television soap operas and cut off from their own cultural heritage’ (2012b, para. 11).

Cultural Production and the Ghawazee

All the reasons listed above are examples of how a field of cultural production, such as the dance of the Ghawazee, is heavily influenced by the power struggles for capital that happen in other fields of society and by changes in taste.

Moreover, technology can be an allocative resource for those people who can now watch a show on television (who could not otherwise afford to see a live performance), but a threat against the survival of a living tradition.

Nearing (2012b), hoping to provide a financial lifeline for Khairiyya, suggests that Khairiyya could teach foreign dance students, who travel to Egypt to learn its dances from the source (thus, the taste and capital of tourists can become resources that empower Khairiyya to continue the transmission of her art).

In this way, Khairiyya could gradually become well-known in the international dance community and make a living from her dance again, whilst saving her otherwise dying art.

Thanks to Nearing and other practitioners’ efforts, Khairiyya is now known by belly dance practitioners outside Egypt, but still only within a small circle of people who are interested in learning as much as possible about various dance forms from the Middle East.

I do not know what has become of Khairiyya now, but I know of some people who have gone to Luxor to study with her.

This attempt suggests that specialized tourism can be part of the solution for the safeguarding of embodied heritage, provided that it is integrated with other interventions and that it is supported by the right political and financial climate.

Raqs sharqi too has been under threat from religious intolerance.

For example, Dina (Talaat and Guibal, 2011, pp. 100–101) mentions that, when Nasser was president of Egypt (1956-1970) [3], Raqs sharqi was banned from television and the government started to regulate dancers’ costumes (for example, by forcing dancers to cover their navel, or by imposing a minimum width for bra straps or minimum length for skirts) and extremists in 1977 burned dance cabaret venues.

Egyptian society has what has been defined by many, including the Egyptian dancer Dina (Adum, 2011a, para. 11), as a ‘love/hate relationship’ with this dance (probably because of what Reed (1988) would call its ‘subversive elements’ [see 2.8]).

Conversely, what may have safeguarded Raqs sharqi up until now is its transcultural dimension, the fact that it is a hybrid dance form, which was performed at the beginning for cosmopolitan elites, and which now is known globally.

Also, technology, rather than being a problem for Raqs sharqi, has been the medium that has allowed it to spread across the world, an allocative resource, as it will be highlighted in the course of this thesis.

In spite of attempts to repress it in the Middle East, Raqs sharqi, as Nearing posits (2012b, para. 36), ‘is an eclectic, ever-evolving form, and as such can absorb interruptions, and its suppression in one country merely tends to cause it to flourish in another’.

Its transcultural and eclectic dimension, however, could also be a threat for Raqs sharqi, as the core elements of this dance could eventually become so diluted, that the identity of this dance could disintegrate.

The Awalim

Unlike the Ghawazee, who performed in the streets for public celebrations, the awalim, Van Nieuwkerk (1995, p. 26) explains, were very educated women who could sing, write music and poetry, play instruments and sometimes danced and they ‘mainly performed for women in the harem’.

So, they were originally performers for the upper class. Those who opened the venues in which raqs sharqi was first performed in Cairo in the 1920s were awalim.

Two of these, whose names have been recorded, were Bamba Kashshar and Shafiqa el-Koptiyaa (Varga Dinicu, 2013, p. 106). Van Niewkerk (1995, p. 49) reports that Bamba and Shafiqa both started their careers as awalim and:

The heyday of the ʿawâlim was at the beginning of this century. They performed on festive occasions, particularly for other women, as they had done in the nineteenth century. In contrast to that period, however, at the turn of the century they increasingly sang and danced for the lower and middle classes . . . Bamba Kashshar and Amîna il-Ṣirrafiyya were among the well-known performers.

Van Niewkerk (1995)

Farouk Yousuf Eskandar (no date) states that ‘Bamba Kashar sat on the throne of raqs sharqi for more than half a century, specifically during the last 20 years of the 19th century and the first 20 years of the 20th century’.

Van Niewkerk (1995, p. 43) relates that Shafiqa el-Koptiyaa (transliterated by Van Niewkerk as Shafîʾa il-Ibṭiyya) started to work with awalim at women’s parties but later started performing in a nightclub called El Dorado before opening her own nightclub, Alf Lela.

According to Ward (2013b), Alf Lela was owned by another famous alma, called Tawhida.

In any case, it seems that these high-class nightclubs, which Van Niewkerk (1995, p. 43) refers to as sala (in contrast to the term kabareh, which had negative connotations) were the places in which Egyptian dance went from being performed in social settings where it was connected to celebrations, parties and festivities, to being performed purely for watching, without audience participation, so it became a purely presentational dance form as opposed to a participatory one (see 2.8).

Ward (2013c, para. 24) argues that ’the setup of the sala, with its clearly defined performance stage for the entertainers, established greater distance between performer and audience’.

Thus, the performance environment is a spatial setting and a material condition that changes the practice of the dance both from a phenomenological point of view (experiences and feelings) and as a social structure.

Also, a new performance environment creates new rules but also new resources for creative innovation.

However, I argue that, because of its Baladi and Ghawazee roots, Raqs sharqi has never completely lost its focus towards the dancer/audience interaction (the kinaesthetic empathy) which still constitutes part of its authenticity discourse.

This observation is borne out in the video data, as well as interviews and textual data. For example, in an interview (Moawad, 1968, para. 31), Samia Gamal declared:

The happiest moments of my life have been when I could see my audience face to face while dancing for them’.

In Moawad (1968)

Lorna Gow, who danced professionally in Egypt for over 10 years, said in her interview:

There’s the interaction between the dancer and her band, but also between the dancer and the audience and these three need to be in sync. It’s not just about getting the steps. . . . It’s about who you do it for . . . trying to pull the audience in.

Lorna Gow

The dancer/audience interaction, in the Egyptian Raqs sharqi discourse, is not only important from a phenomenological point of view, as it enhances the experience of those involved in the performance, but also as it gives agency to the performers.

It is a resource that empowers and motivates them. In addition to performing in salas, Raqs sharqi dancers never ceased to perform at weddings and private celebrations, albeit for the upper classes.

Thus, this celebratory dance tradition is one that has not yet been lost in Egypt. Van Niewkerk (1995, p. 1) states that ‘in Egypt, singing and dancing are . . . regarded as expressions of rejoicing, and at many happy occasions people sing and dance’.

And Buonaventura writes (2010, p. 23): ‘In the Arab world . . . this art . . . remains an essential ingredient of any occasion when communities gather to enjoy themselves, especially for important celebrations such as weddings’.

Accordingly, Van Nieuwkerk (1995, p. 49) remarks that, at the beginning of the 20th century, the awalim (except for the most successful and prestigious ones, such as Bamba Kashshar) performed for the lower and middle classes, while ‘the Westernized elite invited nightclub entertainers to perform at their weddings’.

Badia Masabni herself recalls that (Adum, no date, pt. Fourth Segment-Performing on the Road) she attended many wedding celebrations with her troupe ‘at least four to five thousand between Alexandria and El Said and Mansoura. They paid us very well’.

Badia Masabni and Raqs Sharqi as a Hybrid and Transcultural Dance

The birth of Raqs sharqi seems connected to socio-cultural changes that happened in Egypt in the late 19th early 20th century.

The fact that the dance in Cairo was performed in salas influenced the form of the dance and the music it was danced to. Ward (2013c), who studied accounts from European travelers to Cairo at the time, tells us that shows in the salas were not limited to dance but they included a variety of performances, such as music, acting, and singing, thus following the example of cafés chantants in Europe.

Also, some customers were a mix of non-Egyptians and upper-class Egyptians, whose international taste these establishments catered for. This seems plausible, as Cairo was then a transcultural place. As Naguib (2008, p. 475) reports:

At the turn of the 19th century and during the early twentieth century, academic, artistic, literary, political, industrial and commercial interests converged, and several arenas were elaborated where people from different cultural and religious backgrounds interacted . . . for Egyptians the surge towards Europeanisation became, for many, synonymous with the idea of modernisation. . . . A new high and middle bourgeoisie composed of businessmen, merchants, entrepreneurs, civil servants and members of the liberal professions was growing. Their modes of being and their education were a blend of oriental and Western influences. Travels to Europe became fashionable.

Moawad (1968)

Naguib (2008, p. 473) refers to places such as the Gezira Palace Hotel in Cairo (a hybrid architecture designed by architects from different countries) as ‘contact zones . . . interactive transient spaces with flexible boundaries, which provide fertile grounds for various degrees of cultural translations and borrowings’.

Similarly, sala, such as El Dorado and Alf Lela, where artists such as Shafiqa el-Koptiyaa performed, can be considered contact zones, in which performing arts became hybrid.

This is another example, as mentioned earlier, of a physical performance environment acting as a resource that allows artists to develop changes creatively.

Just like Shafiqa el-Koptiyaa and Bamba Kashshar, Badia Masabni owned salas in Cairo in the first half of the 20th century, but she had a different background from the other salas owners, as she was not an alma (singular for awalim) and she was not Egyptian.

Badia is remembered as the creator of modern Raqs sharqi as we know it and she is the one prominent figure recorded, who greatly contributed towards innovating the dance and making it transcultural. Chamas (2009, para. 1) relates that:

In 1926 a woman of Levantine origin named Badia Masabny opened a nightclub in Cairo in the fashion of European cabarets. This nightclub, known as “Casino Badia”, and another club later established by Masabny, “Casino Opera”, were to have a profound influence on Middle Eastern Dance as we know it today.

Chamas (2009)

Badia Masabni
Figure 12 – Badia Masabni
Figure 12 – Badia Masabni

Badia Masabni was born in Syria but started her career as an actress, dancer, and singer in Cairo in 1921 (Van Nieuwkerk, 1995, p. 46).

We know from an interview that Badia gave to Layla Rostum in 1966 in Lebanon (Adum, no date), that she spent some time during her childhood in South America, where she learned Spanish and studied classical dance.

Badia came from a modest family, but she could speak six languages, because of the international environment that existed in the Middle East when she was living there.

In the same interview, Badia says that she traveled a lot for work during her career, to places such as South America and Europe.

She also says that she started her career as an actress and the style she was most famous for was the vaudeville music hall.

Badia’s background (her cultural capital) and her travels must have influenced the dance as it was performed in her salas in Cairo.

Badia Masabni’s salas were cosmopolitan ‘contact zones’ not only because of the international contacts that the owner had and the international clientele.

The performers themselves were from different countries. As Tahia Carioca affirmed in an interview with Beata and Horacio Cifuentes (1999, para. 5), talking about Badia Masabni’s nightclub, ‘I started with a group. I never danced solo.

It was with four girls . . . two Italian girls, an English one and one Egyptian, myself’.

Badia Masabni, as Shay and Sellers-Young argue (2005, pp. 19–20), ‘created cabaret revues, a primary component of which was dance that would appeal to both tourists and members of the Egyptian upper class, whose tastes were increasingly dictated by America and Europe’.

In the following sections, I will describe how international elements interacted with local ones, influencing the dance itself and the music, the costumes, and the props used.

Thus, these international contacts:

  • acted as a fount of resources that allowed practitioners to innovate
  • affected their perceptual habit, their way of moving and experiencing the world on a phenomenological level
  • and provided them with a certain cultural capital (embodied and objectified) that affected their position in the field of cultural production.

Dance Movements (Badia Masabni )

In salas, the local dances underwent a gradual transformation into what now is called Raqs sharqi.

I mentioned before, when discussing the Ghawazee (, how, according to Ward (2013a), the dance seen in the salas in the 1920s was very similar to the dance of the Ghawazee.

That is, it was performed solo, with minimal footwork and a lot of torso isolations and the dancers, who sometimes played finger cymbals, were accompanied by traditional musicians and a singer.

Instead, in the 1930s: the dancers used more floor space, varied footwork, and different arm positions; the main dancer was backed by a line of chorus dancers and musical ensembles accompanying the dance were much bigger, with a mix of traditional and Western musical instruments.

Ward’s (2013a) assertions are illustrated by the oldest video available of Raqs sharqi in Badia Masani’s nightclub in 1934 (lynetteserpent, 2009).

In this promotional video, there is a group of chorus dancers, wearing the typical Raqs sharqi costume with bra and skirt (bedlah), dancing on stage with the audience sitting at tables.

The dancers come down from a set of stairs to the stage which is on the same level as the audience (even today in Egypt dancers perform mostly on a dance floor that is at the same level as the audience).

The chorus dancers move around the stage following a choreography and Badia Masabni is at their center, singing and playing finger cymbals. The musicians are not visible, but the music is produced by an orchestra with a variety of instruments.

Badia Masabni herself commented in an interview how she changed the dance and how new transcultural influences were brought into it (Adum, no date, pt. Second Segment-Family), by saying, ‘in the past, the dance was all in the abdomen.

I made variations in the dance — I added Latin, Turkish, and Persian dance to it, so that it wouldn’t be boring’. The idea that the dance should not be ‘boring’ is a result of its transformation from participatory to presentational, as it was noticed in 2.8, in relation to Çakir’s (1991) and Ramsey’s (2003) studies on the adaptation of folkloric dances for the stage.

One of the elements identified by Çakir (1991) and Ramsey (2003) was that participatory dances tend to be spontaneous and improvised, whilst presentational ones tend to be choreographed, especially group performances.

Similarly, in Badia Masabni’s club, solo dances were mostly improvised, while group dances were choreographed.

To this day, improvisation is still practiced and greatly valued and so is spontaneity, in Raqs sharqi.

The introduction of choreography is documented for the beginnings of this dance genre. Chamas (2009, para. 12) states that:

Masabny employed western choreographers such as Isaac Dixon, Robbie Robinson and Christo, who added elements from other dance traditions, for example, the turns and traveling steps from western dance forms such as ballet and ballroom dance. The late master instructor and choreograph [sic] Ibrahim Akif, who also worked with Masabny, identified “shimmies”, undulating movements (including what we sometimes refer to as “camals”), circles and “eights”, as well as various hip thrusts and drops as being the original “Sharqi” or oriental movements. Ibrahim Akef also told me personally that, although the group dances were choreographed, most of the solo artists improvised.

Chamas (2009 )

Even Samia Gamal (when talking about the start of her career at Badia Masabni’s) admitted (Moawad, 1968, para. 12) ‘I asked dance instructor Isaac Dickson to train me to dance well’. A further reference to Western influences on Raqs sharqi can be found from an interview with Samia Gamal (Cifuentes, 1994, para. 6), who remembers:

I started with Badia Masabni. We all did . . . I had such difficulties with turns, so I just had to take ballet. It helped my turns a lot, and my arms were a lot better from the classes.

Samia Gamal (Cifuentes, 1994)

And also, Tahia Carioca (Cifuentes, 1994, para. 18) mentioned that she studied ballet, stating, ‘I started taking ballet classes when I was a little girl. At the age of fourteen, I decided to switch to Oriental and went to work with Badia Masabni’.

Music (Badia Masabni)

Just like the dance movements were transcultural, similarly Western elements were added in the music, to make performances more varied and entertaining. Badia Masabni said in an interview (Adum, no date, pt. Second Segment-Family):

I’m the one who mixed Arabic music with foreign music. It used to be that [Arabic] bands worked alone. Orchestras didn’t work with bands. [She means orchestras that played foreign music.] I’m the one who mixed them both together and made them work together . . . We added the piano and the contrabass, and the flute, the clarinet and the accordion, all together . . . the Arabic band alone didn’t wow the audience.

Badia Masabni inb an interview.

As will be highlighted throughout the remaining chapters, music is important for Egyptian raqs sharqi.

Many practitioners, even today, still think that the best musicians who can play this music can only be found in Egypt. In the literature review (2.3), I quoted Cohen Bull’s (2003) study on how different dance genres, originating in different cultures, tend to privilege one sense over the others.

It would seem that in Egyptian Raqs sharqi the auditory element is the strongest.

Of course, as Cohen Bull (2003) argues, this does not mean that other senses are not important, but, in some genres, certain sensory channels are privileged for cultural reasons.

Dancers/choreographers and audiences who have knowledge of a certain cultural framework share the same understanding.

Thus, a culturally aware audience will ‘respond on many levels simultaneously that correspond to the intentions of the creators’ (Cohen Bull 2003, p. 270).

Cohen Bull (2003, p. 283) argues that ballet’s main priority is the visual element, which leads to ‘bodily design and architecture of moving people in space and time, often viewed from a distance’.

Cohen Bull (2003) continues by arguing that this interest in the visual for ballet stems from Western culture’s interest in the visual, which leads to the objectification of the human body.

Conversely, during a Ghanaian dance performance, Cohen Bull (2003, p. 282) relates that ‘dancers join with musicians to mutually generate dance and music, listening to the rhythms and responding’.

As it will be highlighted later throughout this chapter, in particular with regards to Soheir Zaki’s musicality (5.5.2) and the importance of dancing to live music in Egypt for non-Egyptian dancers (5.7.7), there is a very strong connection between Raqs sharqi and music, particularly when danced to live music and improvised.

This connection between people, dance, and music is also evident in the phenomenon of tarab (‘enchantment’ or ‘ecstasy’), transmitted from the music to the audience, through the dancer, as mentioned in the literature review (2.3) and in the conceptual framework (3.4).

In this sense, the tangible elements of dancers’ bodies and visual, spatial, and aural settings, together with less tangible emotions, kinaesthetic empathy, and cultural understandings are interconnected.

Costumes and Props (Badia Masabni)

Costumes and props in Raqs sharqi from the late 1920s were also influenced by a convergence of Egyptian and foreign elements.

In the video mentioned earlier of Badia Masabni with a chorus of dancers (lynetteserpent, 2009), Badia was wearing a gown, while the dancers were wearing the bedlah, the bra, and skirt costume commonly associated with belly dance.

It is documented in Egypt only from Badia Masabni’s time. Before then, the costumes we see from photos of Middle Eastern dancers taken at the turn of the century were very different.

The old costumes were very similar to those that the Ghawazee wore until not long ago and similar to those that can be seen in videos such as Princess Ali (Edison and Hendricks, 1895).

Ward (2013a, pt. Costuming) describes the traditional costumes in Egypt at that time:

The basic costume . . . – skirt, skirt “topper” with long ribbons, sheer chemise, vest, heeled shoes – seems to have evolved from the earlier costuming of the Ghawazee, which was itself essentially an elaboration on the everyday garments worn by ordinary women in the privacy of the hareem, or women’s quarters, of the home. (See Lane 1836.) Egyptian Ghawazee in Upper Egypt continued to wear a version of this costuming into the second half of the twentieth century.

Ward (2013)

hawazi dancers
Figure 13 – A scanned image of a postcard showing Egyptian Ghawazi dancers.

The first examples of costumes with a bare midriff, start appearing in America at the start of the 20th century as seen in photographs depicting Ruth St Denis (Buonaventura, 2010, p. 126) or other Western Orientalist fantasies photographs (Buonaventura, 2010, p. 119).

According to Morocco (Varga Dinicu, 2013, p. 114), the bedlah is a ‘western fantasy invention that was picked up “Over There”’. Ward (2013a, pt. Costuming), however, after analyzing texts and photographs from the turn of the century, argues that:

First, the bare-navel look of the bedleh had precedents in earlier costuming. Second, it is not impossible to imagine that the bedleh bra could have evolved from the vests worn by earlier dancers . . . the bedleh may have emerged largely as an elaboration upon an existing costuming aesthetic, rather than as a wholesale adoption of Western fantasy costuming.

Ward (2013)

It seems plausible that Western and traditional Egyptian influences converged.

The vest and skirt may have been the foundations on which the bedlah were designed.

However, the first bedlah we see in Badia Masabni’s videos, have skirts and sleeves made of chiffon, a material that Badia may have seen outside of Egypt and which is reminiscent of art deco and Isadora Duncan’s costumes.

Later on (5.7.2), I will highlight the relationship that costumes, and the materials they are made of, have with the dance, and how changes in costuming can influence the movement styles.

Thus, artifacts are extensions of the body, a form of capital and tangible resources, as discussed in 3.7. Regarding the transcultural influences on the raqs sharqi costumes, Badia recalls (Adum, no date, pt. Second Segment-European Influence) that she travelled to Europe, visited music halls and:

I bought set decorations and costumes from them. . . . They did shows and then discarded those costumes and made new ones. I bought them and gave them to my artists and my dancers, and the set decorations too.


With regards to props, the most commonly used prop, the use of which is documented in this early stage of raqs sharqi history in the salas, are finger cymbals, which were used by the Ghawazee and which, until the 1980s, almost every raqs sharqi dancer used (apart from Samia Gamal).

Badia Masabni herself played sagat [4] while she sang (Adum, no date). It is only in the 1990s and 2000s that finger cymbals have almost been abandoned in Egypt [5].

The only Egyptian dancer I have seen using them on videos is Nasra Emam (TwilightShadowCool, 2010), whose style is folkloric rather than oriental (I will elaborate more in detail on the differences between folkloric dances and raqs sharqi in the next section).

Likewise, outside of Egypt, finger cymbals are often used today by tribal styles and folkloric style dancers, but rarely in oriental style.

Other props, which were used by Ghawazee dancers and by awalim, and which appear in raqs sharqi at a later stage (they can be seen in movies from the 1950s), are the assaya and the shamadan.

As mentioned in, the Ghawazee danced with props, including sticks and objects balanced on their head.

The sticks are called assaya and can be seen in the 1967 movie Al Zawja al Thania (The Second Wife) (TheCaroVan, 2014a), where two dancers dance facing each other while balancing a stick held between their bodies.

The shamadan is a candelabrum with lit candles, which the performer balances on her head whilst dancing. This type of performance is usually connected with the zeffa (procession) for the bride, during which relatives and friends of the bride hold candles and lanterns.

Traditionally, dancers precede the bride and the groom during these processions and, according to Morocco (Varga Dinicu, 2013, p. 45), the first dancer who had the idea to balance a lantern (klop in Arabic) on her head was a dancer called Zouba.

The first dancer credited to balance a whole candelabrum (shamadan) on her head, shortly after Zouba started dancing with a lantern, was Shafiqa el-Koptiyaa (Belly Dance Museum, no date; Varga Dinicu, 2013, p. 45).

There is no documentation on the use of assaya and shamadan in the salas, but their use can be observed in dance scenes from movies from the 1930s/40s onwards.

Cinema (Badia Masabni)

Technology, as it will be highlighted throughout this thesis, has played a key role in the transmission of Raqs sharqi and the first technology available was cinema.

As mentioned at the start of this section, Badia Masabni’s nightclubs were not the only ones nor the first ones in Cairo at the start of the 20th century.

However, her salas are identified by Raqs sharqi practitioners as the place of birth of modern Raqs sharqi and Badia Masabni herself was a very influential figure in the development of this dance genre.

This may be because we have more documentary evidence left about her career than we have about other salas owners, but also because many of the dancers who worked at Badia’s clubs went on to perform in movies up until the 1960s and some of them became big stars.

As mentioned earlier, between the end of the 19th and first half of the 20th century, Cairo was a transcultural city. Cairo also became ‘the film and entertainment center of the Middle East shortly after film was invented in the late 1890s’ (Shay and Sellers-Young, 2005, p. 19).

Many Egyptian movies included dance scenes, particularly raqs sharqi which, up until then, was only performed in expensive salas.

People who could not afford to go and watch Raqs sharqi in these venues would watch Ghawazee perform in the street, dance Baladi socially or watch awalim perform.

The portrayal of Raqs sharqi in movies meant that many people started seeing Raqs sharqi in cinemas, and not only those who were wealthy enough to be able to afford to watch live performances in the nightclubs.

Cinema also allowed the dance to be seen across the Arab world and not only in Cairo.

To this day, those early dancers from the first half of the 20th century are watched around the world and influence dancers of today, thanks to the availability of their videos now on the Internet.

Technology is clearly an allocative resource that can empower practitioners. Each one of my interview participants mentioned at least a couple of influential dancers from that age, with the most popular being Samia Gamal.

Moreover, many more modern and contemporary Egyptian Raqs sharqi dancers mention having watched these old movies when they were children, which inspired them to become dancers.

For example, Randa Kamel (Zahara and Shahin, 2012, para. 4) stated that ‘when they show movies on TV with Samia Gamal and Naima Akef my family excitedly calls me to tell they are on TV. Until today I derive inspiration from both of them’.

Tito remembers (Beltran, 2014, sec. 0:21): ‘Since I was little a enjoyed very much watching TV. Naima Akef, Soheir Zaki, all the dancers of that time’ [6]. Dina (Talaat and Guibal, 2011, p. 55) writes:

‘The dancers have always been part of Egyptian cinema. As a child, I saw, amazed, the long scenes where Samia Gamal appeared. A queen, of an incredible elegance’ [7].

Dina (Talaat and Guibal, 2011)

Even Samia Gamal, who became a movie star from the 1940s onward, remembers how she was influenced by Tahia Carioca because she had seen her in movies (Moawad, 1968, para. 14):

I wanted to be like Taheya Carioca. She was my role model from the days that I lived with my sister. She’d give me 2 piasters to buy foul [beans] but I’d go to the cinema to watch Taheya Carioca instead.

Mowad (1968)


In Table 10 and Table 11 I have summarised the themes that have emerged from this timeframe.

Modern Egyptian Raqs sharqi was still a new dance form at the time, but it was based on older dance practices.

Its roots in old local traditions, give Egyptian Raqs sharqi a heritage dimension, expressed in the movements, the music, the social occasions (weddings and celebrations) in which the dance is performed, and its props and artifacts.

However, this is a genre with:

  • a strong transcultural connotation expressed through hybrid dance movements
  • a variety in the nationalities of people involved in the dance
  • the contact zones in which its presentational version is performed, as well as the international setting of Cairo
  • hybrid music and musical instruments; the taste of westernized Egyptian elites.


Table of the tangible, intangible, authenticity, heritage and transcultural elements of Raqs Sharqi part 1.
Table 10 – The Birth of Modern Raqs Sharqi (Late 1800s to 1930s) – Table of the tangible, intangible, authenticity, heritage and transcultural elements part 1.


Table 11 – The Birth of Modern Raqs Sharqi (Late 1800s to 1930s) – Part 2 (Heritage transmission and tradtions)

Salas and Contact Zones, Cairo

The salas were what Naguib (2008, p. 473) calls ‘contact zones’ (with reference to big hotels in Cairo in the same period), since they attracted both a local and international clientele, which meant that different cultures would come into contact and create the opportunity for cultural borrowings.

Indeed, this was why Egyptian Raqs sharqi was hybrid since its inception as, by catering for an international clientele’s tastes, the producers of the shows tried to incorporate transcultural elements into the performances.

This meant employing performers from a variety of countries and using movements borrowed from Western dance traditions, as well as the local ones.

Egyptian Audiences and Afrangi

The Egyptian audiences were from the upper classes of Egyptian society (afrangi), whose tastes were westernized.

This factor could be interpreted as being down to what Said (1979, p. 7) would define as ‘orientalism’ because of Western ‘cultural hegemony’, which could have led Egyptians to appreciate everything that was western more than their own traditions.

However, this interpretation would remove agency from these audiences, who instead, might have just enjoyed these transcultural borrowings.

Their transcultural taste could be seen as a form of what Bourdieu (1984, pp. 172, 173) would refer to as ‘distinction’ or ‘structured products . . . objectively orchestrated, without any conscious concertation, with those of all members of the same class’.

Thus, the Egyptian clientele in the salas would distinguish themselves from the baladi class by means of their transcultural taste, which also reflected, drawing again from Bourdieu’s (1992, p. 99) concept of capital, their social, cultural and economic capital which allowed them access to different cultures and places.

At the same time, these audiences would have wanted to see their own cultural heritage reflected in the performances as this would have given them ‘a sense of identity and continuity’ (UNESCO, 2003, p. 2).

These factors would have led the dancers and choreographers to produce a hybrid performance.

Likewise, the music that went with the dance started becoming hybrid, as Western musical instruments were added to the traditional Egyptian bands, which became bigger orchestras.

Afrangi/Baladi Dichotomy and Heritage

As well as being transcultural, the emerging Raqs sharqi tradition is situated across different classes, with the afrangi/Baladi dichotomy reflected in the dance.

Egyptian raqs sharqi drew from the local dances and the local heritage, which consisted in the social and celebratory dances of Egypt.

These were Baladi and Ghawazee and were connected to different social classes from the afrangi audiences of the salas.

This phenomenon could be seen as a form of appropriation of popular traditions from the upper classes.

However, I argue that this is rather a form of ‘class hybridism’ in the dance, as I agree with Desmond (1993) that the:

Concepts of hybridity or syncretism more adequately describe the complex interactions among ideology, cultural forms, and power differentials that are manifest in such transfers.

Desmond (1993, p.41)

The reason being that the borrowing was reciprocal as it could be argued that the local Egyptian dances were the substrate, the main ingredient, of Raqs sharqi, while the western elements and the changes made to adapt to the afrangi taste were the elements that were borrowed and added on top.

Raqs Sharqi Authenticity

Indeed, the first elements in Raqs sharqi authenticity discourse can be identified in the local dances, the original social occasions in which local dances were performed, and in the underlying ‘Baladi feeling’.

Throughout this research, the connection between audiences and dancers is recurrent.

This connection is due to the celebratory nature of dance in Egypt, where traditionally dance was performed at weddings and celebrations.

Also, the social nature of this dance means that spontaneity and improvisation are preferred over choreography, at least for solo performances.

Finally, the element of class connected to Baladi dance gives rise to a certain ‘baladi feeling’ expressed in the dance, a thread that will be encountered throughout the history and development of raqs sharqi.

This feeling is what Bourdieu (1977, p. 15) would call ‘disposition . . . embedded in the agents’ very bodies in the form of mental dispositions . . . also . . . in the form of bodily postures and stances, ways of standing, sitting, looking, speaking or walking’.

Change and the Hybridism of Dance

The interaction between tradition and change is also, at this stage, due to the hybridism of this dance and the class tension between Baladi and afrangi values.

These are the factors that lead to the transition between social Egyptian dances and the new style of raqs sharqi.

Moreover, as it is performed in the salas, the dance transitions from a participatory to a presentational form.

This leads to changes in the form and structure of dances, similar to those highlighted by Çakir (1991), Ramsey (2003) and Giurchescu (2001).

Another decisive element in the birth of Raqs sharqi and its future developments is the individual agency of practitioners, such as Badia Masabni.

Individuals are very influential in the development of this art, as they reproduce or transform traditions, as Giddens stated (1984, p. 171) ‘remaking what is already made in the continuity of praxis’.

Transmission of Dance Knowledge

In terms of transmission, we see how new dancers learn and develop in the salas and also how technology starts to influence the transmission of knowledge.

At this stage, films with raqs sharqi scenes contribute to the spread of this dance form.

New generations of dancers are inspired by watching these movies and also learn by watching the dance performed in the movies.

Movies thus become, for dancers, what Giddens would call allocative resources or ‘forms of transformative capacity’ (1984, p. 33), which allow them to learn even when a teacher is not present.

In the last column on the right (table 11 above), under ‘Influences on heritage’, I have summarised some observations regarding what factors can influence the survival or demise of living heritage, based on the Ghawazee example.

The factors observed thus far are:

  • religion
  • law
  • economy
  • competition
  • technology
  • change in lifestyle
  • transculturality and ability of heritage to adapt to changes.

All these elements could be threats to heritage or aiding factors.

For example, technology seems to have been a problem for Ghawazee dance, as local people started seeking entertainment in the form of TV and recorded videos and music rather than going to watch live dance performances.

For Raqs sharqi instead, we have seen how cinema helped this dance genre become more widely known and inspired some young people to learn this dance.

In the course of this thesis, I will further highlight how technology and other factors, in particular political, economic, and cultural have helped or hindered the development of Raqs sharqi throughout its existence.

These elements are particularly poignant, given that, as Ashworth posits (2011, p. 2), heritage is ‘an outcome . . . deliberately created in response to current political, social or economic needs’.

From analyzing this timeframe (late 1800s to 1930s), it emerges that the elements identified in the living heritage model are present.

For instance, it is possible to identify:

  • the emotional elements of the kinaesthetic empathy in the interaction between performers and audience.
  • the importance of the performance environment; the influence of field, capital and taste in the dynamics of dance/heritage.
  • movies as allocative resources and the dialectic between the structural elements of the tradition and the social actors’ agency in transforming the tradition.


1 – Finger cymbals.

2 – After the 1980s through the 2000s, I have noticed that the instances in which this prop was used decreased, so much so that dancers such as Dina and Randa Kamel (the two most famous contemporary Egyptian raqs sharqi dancers worldwide) never use them.

3 – All quotations from this interview are translated from Spanish by Valeria Lo Iacono.

4 – All quotations from Dina’s book are translated from French by Valeria Lo Iacono.

5 – With the expression ‘Egyptian tradition’ I refer to recent traditions that can be documented. As Berger (1966, p. 43) argues, ‘no one can say exactly how and where the belly dance originated’, thus I do not attempt to make connections with ancient Egypt. Rather, I agree with Shay and Sellers Young (2003, p. 21) who posit that ‘no one can write with certainty about dance practices that occurred thousands of years ago’.

6 – Suraya Hilal is a choreographer, dance teacher, and performer, who was born in Cairo and taught raqs sharqi in the UK in the early 1980s (Hilal, no date).

7 – Van Nieuwkerk (1995, p. 48) reports that, under President Nasser, folk art, music, and dance ‘which glorified traditional Arabic culture, were revived. Belly dancers were seen as a bad advertisement for Arabic Muslim womanhood’.

Next Page >> Raqs Sharqi in Egyptian Cinema (1930s to 1950s) .