Authentic Egyptian Dancing

I like the dancing in this video, but what I really like is the way it contradicts everything we "know" about Egyptian Oriental dance. (In fairness, that's because it's not really an Oriental piece. It would be most appropriate to call this an early theatrical, fusion, or nontraditional dance. But I doubt anyone would question the credibility, authenticity, legitimacy, or “Egyptianness” of the dancer, Egyptian great Naima Akef.) If you are impatient, dancing begins at 1:32.


So many "mistakes!"...

1:32 “Real” belly dance costumes would never have just shalwar. They are underwear! See-through “Harem pants” costumes are just a silly idea that came from I Dream of Jeannie

1:35 Egyptian dancers don't really do anything with their arms except frame their hips, flow through simple pathways (lift up to overhead, push down, repeat..), or maybe some shoulder rolls. They don't use arm movements to mark melodic passages.

1:42 Egyptian dancers don't play finger cymbals. [Okay, a lot of us know that in the old days they did. But this seems to be often forgotten...]

1:46 Egyptian dancers don't run around and use a lot of travel steps. They just stay in one spot and dance with torso isolations.

1:51 Fast turns aren't part of Egyptian vocabulary. Those are only for dancers doing Turkish or Turkic styles.

1:58 There is no use of turnout in Egyptian dance.

2:17 Egyptians consider floorwork to be vulgar. There is no floorwork in Egyptian dance.

2:26 Why do you Americans insist on doing gymnastics in belly dance? Egyptians dancers never use athletic, over-the-top, show-off moves. Egyptian dance is all about subtlety.

3:03 Tight choreography wasn't used by classic dancers.

3:34 There's no use of chainé turns in Egyptian dance. Well, okay, maybe there are some, but only because of Reda influence. But there certainly weren't any pre-Reda.

3:49 Here are more of those travel steps Egyptian dancers never use. They're really more representative of American Vintage vocabulary, adapted from Turkish style.

4:05 Hitting every nuance of the music is “trying too hard.” That's what American dancers do. Not Egyptians.

5:03 Egyptian dancers never mark accents with footwork.

5:35 Travel? Chainé turns? Hops!? Haven't you been paying attention? Absolutely not!

5:52 It's only correct to mark rhythm with hip or shoulder movements.

6:08 No one wants to see you do a lot of footwork. Kicks are okay for Turkish dancers, but if you do them in Egyptian dance every one will think you are too American or just plain unladylike.

6:35 Egyptian dance should always be very relaxed. Very grounded.

6:48 Don't put a barrel turn in your Egyptian dance! Especially don't use a series of fast barrel turns. They're not Egyptian at all and everyone will think you don't know what you're doing!

7:04 A Middle-Eastern audience is totally not going to get your wacky “fusion” dance that you just made up without paying attention to the correct way things are supposed to be done. Maybe random Americans will think that's okay, but you need to be more conservative if you want to be taken seriously by discriminating educated audiences.

I encourage new dancers to learn about the conventions that define traditional styles of belly dance, and obviously it's totally possible to create beautiful, complete, artistic dances within accepted conventions, so there's no reason to flout rules just for the sake of flouting them. But I also think authenticity and adherence to stylistic conventions aren't measures of artistic merit. (Honestly, it's MUCH harder to create a successful dance when you aren't constrained by the conventions of a traditional style.) So my point is: if you like dances created by “rules,” and want to dance within them, do it! You're likely to create a good performance piece. If you don't want to follow “rules,” don't! It will be harder to create a beautiful dance, but, as this video shows, it can be done. And, hopefully, this unimpeachable Egyptian dancer's having done it makes you feel that you have permission to do it too.

Thank you to Baltimore dancer Shems who uploaded this video to YouTube.