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 instructing Dance Appreciation faculty course (typically 100+ college students), my Mills Faculty dance historical past course, along with bumping up my very own instructing enterprise and appearing as a Peer Chief within the Suhaila Salimpour Institute of On-line Training.

Principally, I’ve been holding my eyes alone paper… and all the ultimate papers that my faculty college students have written. 

Spending most of my psychological time in a tutorial and academic house has given me a lot to consider. A lot in order that I’m creating a brand new survey course for considered one of my schools targeted fully on dance kinds exterior 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 all the pieces that’s not ballet/fashionable/up to date/jazz was naming it. Each time period that we’ve got 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 embody the classical kinds corresponding to Bharatnatyam that are actually primarily taught in academies slightly than handed down by means of 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 likely to be true, I really feel that the disconnect lies in a misunderstanding of the varied contexts dances are carried out.

Principally… The stomach dance that skilled practitioners placed on stage is just not a people or vernacular dance. It comes from people and vernacular kinds, however it’s, in its personal approach, a live performance dance kind. 

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

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

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 sometimes carried out in teams, normally to mark some type of vacation or celebration, however usually are 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 people dance. Nevertheless, this time period has a type of double that means. Within the mid-Twentieth century, the time period shifted as skilled people 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 unique contexts; they’re tailored for the stage and carried out away from their respective celebrative conditions. Dr. Shay says that folks dance firms corresponding to these usually stage the “peasantry,” or non-urbanized peoples of their respective nations or ethnicities. In that approach, these people 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 may be with the time period “people.” Dr. Smith says that vernacular expertise—cooking, stitching, dance, or music to call a couple of—are discovered by means of imitation, usually with the steering of friends or elders. Vernacular dances, whereas performative, usually are not performances per se. A dancer is witnessed by the individuals round them, and people individuals are more likely to be pals, household, or friends. After all, one can stage a vernacular dance (we might take 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 provide a class to non-Euro-American live performance dance kinds. Principally, all the pieces that’s not derived from ballet, fashionable/post-modern/up to date 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 embody people, vernacular, live performance, non secular, and devotional dances. Take a look at the programming of the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Competition and also you’ll see all the pieces from Regency-era associate 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 this moment “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 comparable issues because the time period “stomach dance:” it’s incomplete, colonial, antiquated, and inaccurate. And, as Keali’inohomoku argues, “ethnic” might be utilized to ballet too

Live performance (and staged) dance is introduced as knowledgeable efficiency, with ballet and fashionable/up to date dance being the obvious kinds. Live performance dances are usually carried out on a proscenium stage in a theater, with the viewers organized in neat rows going through the stage. Audiences usually pay to see a live performance dance manufacturing; these sorts of performances is likely to be 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 remodeled “conventional” dances for the live performance stage, and I might argue that these firms straddle the road between live performance dance and vernacular/people dance. 

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

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

Staging the People and Vernacular

Now, after we put a people or vernacular dance kind on the live performance stage, we should make some substantial modifications. Sometimes, a people dance is completed 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 pals, 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 people/vernacular kind weren’t being introduced. The dancers are the in-group; the viewers is the out-group… or possibly it’s the opposite approach round.
  • Most people dances introduced on a live performance stage, and even at a cultural competition, are choreographed. And that choreography should be rehearsed. Usually, the corporate goals to carry out the dance the identical approach each time in a really closed and set sequence of actions, staging, and blocking. Typically, that rehearsing takes place in a dance studio, nevertheless it might additionally occur at a cultural middle managed/run/maintained/funded by that individual cultural in-group.
  • Typically, members of dance firms that current staged people and vernacular dances practice in that kind, that’s they take lessons from a grasp trainer/choreographer. They spend a big period of time in a dance studio (or studio-like setting) to study method, steps, and choreographies. Staged vernacular/people dances normally embody some virtuosic parts as nicely, corresponding to spectacular leaps, quick turns, or technical footwork.
  • The piece must be costumed. The director will make decisions 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 people of any specific area truly put on, particularly as of late. They’re glitzed up with vibrant colours, rhinestones or sequins, elaborate ornament and embroideries, and should 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 unique items or re-recordings of present songs. If the corporate consists of dwell 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 decisions 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 regularly name raqs sharqi, blurs the strains between viewers and performer, between vernacular and live performance. The traditional stomach dance efficiency—a soloist with a dwell 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 additionally come as much as the stage and bathe the dancer with suggestions 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 lodges of Cairo and Dubai—is just not carried out on a proscenium stage. Many stomach dance reveals have been and nonetheless are carried out on nightclub levels largely on the similar top/stage because the viewers. The architectural separation of performer from viewers is way 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 usually improvises their actions, though they know the music so nicely that they may carry out a type of unfastened, malleable, adaptable choreography. They normally don’t rehearse or set choreographies for his or her solo performances. 
  • Not the entire “nice” stomach dancers have been formally educated, however slightly honed their expertise by means of efficiency, slightly than studying actions and steps in a studio earlier than changing into skilled performers. This factor, I might argue, has shifted fairly a bit because the Nineteen 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 by means of solo taqasim in addition to heterophonic embellishment. They could additionally change up the phrasing of a music, or they may resolve to play a special music 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 stage; no raised platform separates the performers from the viewers.

“Folkloric” as Code for “Peasant”

At this level I wish 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.” Frequent individuals might be city and urbanized, however within the case of staging “conventional” dances, “people” and “folkloric” is usually a code phrase for “peasant.”3

Certainly, a stomach dance present may need a folkloric “tableau,” that’s, a music or a couple of songs which have “peasant” parts. On this case, the “peasant” factor is usually 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, wherein the dancer modifications from her two-piece bedlah and right into a baladi costume, galabiyya, or costume fabricated from the quintessential baladi cloth, 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 music 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 music (“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 shows, I might argue, are one other instance of the staged folkloric “invented custom” that Dr. Shay writes about in his many monographs. The dancers usually are not desiring to painting fellahi or baladi dance as one would see it within the rural villages of Egypt. They’re taking part in 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 is just not somebody you’d encounter within the outskirts of Luxor. She is, in her personal approach, a fantasy, a romanticization of peasant life.

However the first half of the present, with its grand entrance music—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. In actual fact, she is a diva, a famous person. 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 Form of Live performance Dance

If return to our definition of vernacular dance, that it’s discovered by watching, then it’s protected to say that the majority of us aren’t studying stomach dance by attending Arabic or MENAHT events, gatherings, or weddings wherein we’re imitating the individuals there, absorbing their vibe and sentiment, and possibly 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 marriage 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 study, carry out, and now educate it right here in the US, all through Europe, and world wide, is just not a people or vernacular dance. It’s extra akin to a classical dance, like bharatnatyam, some lineages of flamenco, and, after all, ballet. 

We take lessons 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 study actions and steps, scaffolded in a progressive order. We study mixtures which were crafted to fulfill our ability ranges. We maintain pupil reveals, “haflas,” and festivals in dance studios, in theaters, and resort ballrooms, the place we carry out for primarily non-MENAHT audiences. 

Whether or not we prefer it or not, this dance kind (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, analyzing its roots, and understanding the various branches.

However to insist that the stomach dance that we placed on stage is a people 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 kind, we should acknowledge the work, ability, 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 man-made assemble, significantly when analyzing people and vernacular dances. There isn’t a “white” dance. There are, nonetheless, dances from England, Scotland, Eire, France, the Basque area, Italy and so forth. And, after all, fashionable European borders don’t even really delineate the varied traditions all through the continent; the cultural markers of Sicily, for instance, are fairly completely different from these in Milan although they’re each nominally “Italian.”
  2. A lot 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 have been youngsters, and search out 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 the town of Alexandria dances the milaya leff and a rowdy sailor boy from the Port Mentioned space of the Suez Canal dances the bambutiyya.



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