The definition raks sharq in Arabic means oriental dance and it refers to a style of dance structured by a Syrian choreographer called Badia Basabni in Egypt during the beginning of the 20th century.
The raks sharq is based on different ancient dance styles from the Middle East with western styles as classical ballet, modern dance and jazz. This dance style developed from the 20th century in Egypt as we can see later in this article.
There is a small but significant difference between the raks sharq and the middle east female dance taught at home through generations which the technique does not include western influences and it is technically simple, intuitive and without stage’s aesthetics.
The raks sharq
The Arabic word raks (dance) has roots in the Assyrian term rakadu which means celebration. From the Ancient times the dance was always connected with joy, happiness and love, and was related to the woman figure: the rakisah (dancer).
The rakisah was a woman who instructed the brides about their life after marriage. She was also known to perform in public and because of that, she was hired for entertaining parties with her lovely moves.
During the 18th century, there were two classes of (rakisah) professional dancers in Egypt: the Ghawazee (street performers) and the Awalin (artists with elevated education in the Arabian society).
During the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century, Egypt suffered a lot of political, economic and cultural changes. The city of Cairo became a centre for business and entertainment in the Middle East. It attracted many artists, searching for new opportunities. Amongst them was the young Badia Masabni.
Badia had owned many theatres during her life, where a variety of entertainment such as music, singing, magic, act and dance was offered. The most famous of them was named “Casino Opera”, founded 1940.
The importance of Badia’s show houses in that, through her, the dance made an improvement from the home-style (Shaabi) to a stage context. The dancers from before – both Ghawazee and Awalin – had only a simple repertoire of steps, used little arm movements and performed the whole time in the same spot.
Badia was inspired by modern dancers, such as Isadora Duncan, Ruth Saint Denis, and by Hollywood movies as well. She motivated her dancers to explore the stage’s space, to undulate the arms (snake arms) and to use veils wrapped around them. She also created a new design of costumes, based in two pieces: embroidery bra and belt, and voile skirts.
Some transformations also happened in the music structure. The çiftetelli, originally from the Turkish/Greek classical music, was recreated into an “Egyptian” version named wahda kabire and was integrated to surround the taksim (melodic improvisation). The use of a slower rhythm, like the wahda kabire, provided conditions for the musicians to embrace Western orchestra instruments, such as the violin, accordion as well as the classical Arabic oud.
From these changes a new style of dance was born. It was called raks sharq or oriental dance.
Folklore adapted for belly dance
In the late 1950 started a cultural revival in Egypt, a process to look inside the country in a search of the popular culture. The center of folk arts was founded in 1957 by the Ministry of Culture with the intention to collect and document the diversity of popular culture manifestation of Egypt. In this context the Egyptian National Dance Troupe for Folklore, El Kaomeyya and the Reda Troupe began.
Mahmoud Reda, founder of Reda troupe, is a pioneer of dance-theater in Egypt. As soloist and choreographer he directs hundreds of dance productions. Following the Farida Fahmy’s master thesis, the repertory created by Reda didn’t have the intention to rebuild an Egyptian folklore, but to express himself as a choreographer through his western dance influences as jazz, ballet and Russian folklore.
Reda's choreography combined traditional Egyptian folk dances with western dance styles. Later he described his style himself: "... when you bring them, the real folkloric dancers, put them on stage, they look odd or look strange. Their costumes, they don’t know where to look, they don’t know, and if they do their things, it’s very monotonous. So what I call my choreography is not folkloric. It’s inspired by the folkloric. There is like 90 % extra put on the dance." – Mahmoud Reda was not following the traditional native dances, but building something new, adapted to his show context.
In my interview with one of The Reda Troup founders Dr. Mo Gedawwi, he describes how important Mahmoud Reda’s influences were into the Egyptian dance when he classified the Egyptian Folklore and integrated it into the Oriental dance:
“IZ – The Reda Troupe represents an important advent of the Oriental Dance in the Egyptian History. What were the particular challenges involved in dancing for creates a legendary repertoire? As you know, some choreographies became, the face of the Egyptian folklore.
Dr.Mo Geddawi - The Reda Troupe created the modern Egyptian folklore dances, based on documentation of all aspects related to Egyptian folkloric dances, music, costumes, ethnicity of legends and rituals, collected from different areas in Egypt and modified to suite performing on the stage without losing its Egyptian authenticity. This was the real challenge. The repertoire of the troupe covered Egyptian dances, Egyptian characters and Egyptian fairy-tails. The glory of the Reda troupe is that all their dances reflected the real Egyptian behaviour, character and atmosphere. The audience acknowledged that and identified themselves with the Reda Troupe. Many of these dances became the standard and the face of Egyptian folklore.” (ZAHARA, Isis 2012 – Interview with Dr. Mo Geddawi).
The Reda troupe repertoire became the world wide well known as the genuine native Egyptian dances and many stories started to spread between western dancers. For example the coquettish dance called Milaya laff or Iskandarani, which was part of comedy piece, representing a female character from the city of Alexandria. For many years it was mistaken as a native folk dance of Alexandria. Actually the Iskandarani became part of the Egyptian folklore repertoire.
Other folklore pieces were rebuild to stage as well: Al-`Asayah al-Gedidah (the New Stick Dance), al-Kaff (a dance from the province of Asyut), al-Marakbi (the boatman, from Luxor), al-Nubah (a dance from Nubia), al-Haggalah (a dance from Marsa Matruh), Aghaniy min al-Shaqiyyah (a song dance from the Sherqiya province), Al’ab al-Atfal (children’s games), Siwah (a dance from the Siwa Oasis), Ghandarah (a dance from the Gaza strip), and Al-Dahhiyyah (a dance from North Sinai),
Another source of choreographies created with the name raqs sharqi was inspired in the Cairo dances as Raqsah Shrqiyyah oriental dance and the Raqsit al-Hawanim classified in the Farida’s thesis as the dance of the Awalim and Muwashahat Raqisah.
It was considered as part of classical bellydance style.
The belly dance outside Egypt
Outside the Middle East, the female dance acquired a strange cognomen: belly dance. The belly dance was an intriguing mystery to the Western culture. It became part of a movement known as Orientalism, which inspired different artists around the whole world into a fantasy idea about the Eastern way of life.
Based on paintings of Eugéne Delacroix (1798–1863), Jean-Leon Gerome (1824–1904) or narratives of writers as Gustave Flaubert (1821-1880), dancers started to create a dance they believed existed in a timeless past of 1001 nights.
The idea was even more motivated by Hollywood movies as The Sheik, Cleopatra, Salomé and many other productions, some of them including native Egyptian and Turkish dancers. It was in the same time when Arab, Armenians and Turkish immigrants arrived in the United States. They developed a large community, spreading their traditions through dance and music. Although most of these women were not professional dancers, they shared their home-style tradition. In the late 1960s, the United States had its first generation of non-Arab professional belly dancers.
This style developed in America was characterized by mixing the Orientalist fantasy with Turkish and Egyptian moves. It is a really interesting style of dance, which includes floor work and finger cymbals, but also a freedom of body expression, which makes it similar to the modern dance. It may be one of the most well-known belly dance styles.
During decades the American belly dance was the godmother of all non-Arab dancers. They were specialized in breaking down the steps in an easier way to be learned. They produced instructional DVDs which made the belly dance technique style available to everyone in the world. The American dancers were also the first “dance ethnologists” traveling to Egypt in search of more consistent information.
In America also another style was born. During the 80s, two groups of dancers, one led by Jamilla Salimpour and another by Caroleena Nericcio, shared the same goal to restore an “original ancient dance form”. Unknowingly, they created a new style which is called American Tribal or ATS. ATS preceded a new generation, led by the dancer Rachel Brice, who re-designed the style to what is called Tribal Fusion.
Based on the above, how can we define what we dance? It says in oriental dance that the feelings are more important than the style, but if you are teaching, if you are learning, or if you are in a competition, how do you classify your dance style?
One of the most difficult things in the process to learn this dance, is to understand that it comes from two lines: one is a home style, taught from oral heritage, because of it the technique is personal and depends of region or family tradition. The process of learning is intuitive by imitation. The character is near to the native folklore as family or village manifestation. In anthropology it says “We dance by ourselves to ourselves” which means a community executes for themselves as part of a ceremony or a family party, the most important is the joy to dance together and maintain the tradition.
The other line is a codified dance technique build to the stage context to be taught to other performers, specially non-Egyptians. In this line the raks sharq (oriental dance) is an umbrella which covers many other derived styles and we can name also as “belly dance”. Under this umbrella includes subcategories as the belly dance fantasy (style started in USA), the folklore adapted to bellydance.
Raks Sharq (oriental dance) belly dance
This style is based on baladi musical progression, classical Arabic/Turkish music. The dance is inspired in the old legends as Samia Gamal, Taheya Karioka, as well as the modern oriental, which is based on Raqia Hassan’s technique and contemporary Egyptian dancers as Randa Kamal and Dina. May the shaabi adapted for oriental dance can be included here as modern oriental with a street baladi touch – shaabi with hiphop is not part of this category. Includes in this style the classical use of veil during the Mejance (entrance piece) traditional drum solo performance and classical group pieces as mwashahat.
The folklore as a category in belly dance includes at first the Egyptian pieces adapted to it as Iskandarani, Said, Nubian, Beduin Hagallah, beja, fellahin, zar etc. Later on other Arabic folk dances were included as dabkah, kaleeji, kawleya (Iraq) and Turkish Roman Havasi.
Belly dance fusion
A style characterized by the mix between Orientalist fantasy, Middle Easter dances and many other dance styles, also called belly dance fantasy. It includes a freedom of body expression, similar to the modern dance. It may be one of the most well-known styles outside Egypt. You can dance non-Arabic music, use props as isis wings, fan veils, swords, veil poi, finger cymbals. Includes this category street-shaabi with hip-hop influence.
(can be a subcategory of belly dance fusion)
This refers to the style itself. The ATS has specific techniques, nomenclature of steps, and music. Traditionally, the costumes are colourful gypsy skirts and have flowers on the head. Tribal fusion follows the same technical format with differences in the speed of some moves, different character and allows for more solo performance. The costumes mix an art nouveau and urban-punk style.