The Urban Dictionary describes this month’s Hipspiration “Va Va Voom,” not only as the sound of a car engine, but the following:
1. The feeling you get when you're filled with inspiration or full of excitement and energy
2. To be interesting, exciting, or sexually appealing
3. A phrase or expression used when a particularly attractive person is seen
As Arabic Dancers, I ask myself, what makes us go “Va Va Voom”? What excites us and upon sight makes us shout, “Ooh la la!”? After reflection, I’m overwhelmed with a plethora of answers. While I believe there are several inspiring, energizing, sensual, and interesting elements of the dance, let us pause in April to reflect on the Arabic Dance costume.
The “bedlah” is used to describe the sequined bra and belt set that we traditionally see on classic cabaret performers and dancers today. In Arabic, “bedlah” means suit or outfit.
Before the bedlah, dancers were accustomed to performing in their everyday dress. Classic dancers such as Suhair Zaki preferred the figure-hugging baladi dress, which covered the body from shoulders to toes. What’s fascinating is that the cabaret costume featuring the decorated bra, skirt with side slits, and belt developed from the influence of the Western world in the 1920s. Hollywood’s film industry was booming and developed costumes projecting an Oriental fantasy drawing inspiration from the female allure that was associated with the vamp. Dancers in Egypt we’re not even allowed to show their bellybuttons as the Western world’s costume depicted. Arab dancers adopted the costume, but covered their mid-drift by adding a long strip of material running vertically between the center of the bra and the skirt.
From this birth of the bedlah, the cabaret costume has evolved. Through the years we have seen a variety of costume fads, from Negwa Fouad’s long fringe in 1978 to Dina’s short skirts in the 1980s. Today we see prints, asymmetrical cups, clear straps, feathers and more trending fashions. Cairo’s dancers now also wear stylish and classy dresses similar to the party clothing of Arab people, only with more sequins and beads. Ironically, this mimics the pre-bedlah dresses that Arabic dancers were wearing before the cabaret costume developed!
When deciding what costume to wear, there are many things to consider. Does it match the piece of music? Does it fit right? Will it stay on and endure heavy shimmying, pops, locks and rolls? Is it appropriate for the venue? Does it accentuate the dance or inhibit it? The list goes on. Perhaps one of the most important questions to ask yourself ladies is, “Does this costume make me feel Va-va-voom?” Rock something that suits you, and that makes you feel completely gorgeous daaaa’ling. Don’t worry about looking like anyone else or fitting someone else’s ideal. Life is just too short not to feel absolutely stunning.
“Costume Porn… The latest trends in Egyptian Belly Dance Wear”
Buonaventura, W. (2010). Serpent of the Nile. Northampton, MA: Interlink.
Dictionary: Va va voom. (2012, November 28). Retrieved March 27, 2013, from
Varga Dinicu, M. C. (2011). You asked Aunt Rocky: Answers and Advice about Raqs
Sharqi and Raqs Shaabi. Virfinia Beach, VI: RDI.
Badiaa Masabni, a true wonder woman of her day, was a dancer, singer, actress, and entrepreneur. This quadruple threat was born in 1892 to a Lebanese father and a Syrian mother in Beirut, and was a pioneer in Arabic Dance’s evolution as a performance art.
In 1926, Badiaa opened up Egypt’s first music hall in Cairo. The nightclub was called “Opera Casino” and offered a variety of entertainment to attract both European and Middle Eastern audiences. Baidiaa also offered a 6 o’clock show for only women that was packed every night. Badiaa hired artists from Egypt, but also from Sudan and Europe. Her choreographers came from out of the country and her stage shows had a strong foreign influence. It was this fusion of multiculturalism that gave today’s Raqs al Sharqui (Dance of the East) its’ glamorous stage-show start. It was on Badiaa’s stage that stars such as Samia Gamal, Tahiya Karioka, and Naima Akef were born.
In addition to taking Arabic Dance to the stage, Badiaa Masabni influenced the style of the dance as a performance art. Originally performers would stand in one spot, and the upper body and arms did not play a particular role in the movement. Badiaa incorporated the Western idea of traveling around the entire stage and exploring the use of space. She encouraged dancers not only to hold their arms out to the sides, but also to use serpentine, flowing patterns of arm movement. Badiaa introduced the use of the veil and taught choreography to traditionally improvisational dancers.
Badiaa also had a strong understanding of Middle Eastern music. She loved to play finger cymbals and would sit with the band to play for the dancers in her nightclub. This led to the now common ritual of hiring a musician dedicated to playing just zils as part of the ensemble. Badiaa also hired classically trained musicians to join the traditional line-up of riqq (tambourine), zurna (winded instrument), and tabla (Egyptian drum) players. The taqsim (improvisational solo) could be explored and more intricate rhythms we’re introduced to the dancers at her club.
Badiaa Masabni passed away in 1970. She was a true feminine character with the strength of Superman and the allure of a beautiful woman. Her innovative and artistic eye was well paired with her business-smart intuition. Badiaa’s influence brought Arabic Dance to the stage and her impact on the style of Raqs al Sharqui is seen today worldwide. Badiaa Masabni will forever remain a pioneer in this performance art that will be embraced for years to come.
Ziva Emtiyaz loves being inspired by the Wonder Women of the world. Explore your inner and outer strength on the dance floor with Ziva in Arabic Dance II, Shimmy Pop, and Shimmy Pop Toning at Hipline. Reach out to Ziva at email@example.com and www.zivadancer.com .
Badia Masabni. (n.d.). Retrieved February 27, 2013, from
Buonaventura, W. (2010). Serpent of the Nile. Northampton, MA: Interlink.
Richards, T. (Ed.). (2000). The Belly Dance Book. Concord, CA: Backbeat.
They say the heart is fickle. If you really love someone, you will feel it in your gut. In the West, we often think of the heart as the body’s center of romance. In several Middle Eastern countries, it is the liver that is believed to be passion’s organ. The Roman physician Galen developed the notion that the heart and the liver are sources of love over 1,000 years ago. One of the first great Arab-Muslim scientists, Al Razi, perpetuated Galen’s theory about the liver, and it spread across the Middle East into Egypt.
The Arabic word for liver is pronounced “kabed”. It is frequently used in Egyptian poetry and song lyrics to express love. The classic song “Eina Ellayali” shares a good example of how the liver embodies emotion. Translated into English, the lyrics say, “An eye’s glance sent a spear to my liver and created pain.”
Often you will see a performing Egyptian dancer gesture her hands as if she were holding onto her liver. She is expressing that she feels the song or the lyrics from this organ of passion. It’s just as if an American dancer were to hold onto her heart.
In this month of love, why not dance from your liver ladies? Share your deepest passions on the dance floor and feel it from you gut. Tap in, and be moved. What is your “kabed” telling you today?
Ziva holds Arabic Dance in her liver and can’t wait to share her passion for the art form with you! Join her on the dance floor in Shimmy Pop, Shimmy Pop Toning, and Arabic Dance II. You can find out more about Ziva and Arabic Dance at www.zivadancer.com
Konichiwa! I’m writing from the depths of Japan as I tour with Lebanese Master Percussionist Souhail Kaspar. We are currently halfway though a full itinerary of teaching and performing in 5 Japanese cities. While I know that the remaining 12 days of our tour will bring plenty of experiences and adventure, I’d like to share what I’ve learned so far as a traveling dance artist.
1. Nice Luggage is Worth the Investment!
I’m only halfway through our trip and I’ve taken six planes, four trains, and plenty of taxis. Durable, lightweight, east-to-transport, luggage is a must have! Don’t over pack your suitcase as you’ll want to be able to transfer it easily and may want to bring home a few souvenirs.
2. The Language of Human Movement.
When you travel to countries with a language barrier, knowing native words like “hello”, “thank you” and, in my case, “vegetarian” are vital. Beyond words, facial expressions and hand gestures will communicate a lot.
I realize that when I teach dance workshops in Japan, my playful words like “juicy” and “big mamma hips” may be lost in translation. Instead of worrying about students understanding the literal meaning of my diction, I dance out my words and use an expressive tone of voice.
One of my most comforting and magical experiences traveling in Japan has been witnessing the universal language of dance. The same shimmy that is recognized in Berkeley is recognized in Tokyo and Cairo and possibly worldwide. The fact that I have the opportunity as an American dancer to share my love for Middle Eastern dance with an Asian country shows the widespread passion and strength lying behind Raqs al Sharqui. Music and movement can truly unite cultures.
3. Be Prepared for Anything
The art of improvisation is a must have tool in dance and in life. Any teacher knows that his or her lesson plan may need to be instantly altered to adapt to the level of the current student. For this tour, I prepared 5 choreographies and a variety of theory exercises knowing that each city would have it’s own requests and needs.
I believe that a dance artist should consistently work on all elements of her craft. She should practice and study her art even when there may be no specific upcoming project. This will only help with easing into an on-the-spot situation and nailing a surprise opportunity.
4. Rest Up Buttercup!
Sleep when you can! It’s a great idea to rest up even before your trip. A dancer depends on her physical and mental energy so it’s important that she gets adequate down time. Often a busy tour schedule will permit limited windows for resting. Take advantage of them. You’re email or whatever is keeping you up late at night will be there in the morning. Get those Zzzz’s when you can! Also, taking multi-vitamins and eating nutritious meals along the way will keep you healthy and strong.
5. Give it Your All
This may go without saying, but it’s good to remember that one opportunity often leads to another. You never know who will be watching.
I was invited by Souhail Kaspar to do this tour because 4 years ago I gave it my all as a workshop student in one of his Rhythm and Movement classes. Since that workshop, I’ve taken every opportunity possible to learn from Souhail’s mastery as a teacher, entertainer, world traveler, and percussionist. I’m so grateful for each moment that I’ve been presented with to grow. Treat each opportunity as a gift; you never know when you’ll be presented with another one.
It’s never too early to start planning that perfect performance. Read on for helpful hints to snag your sizzling solo for this fabulous event.
1. Choose Your Music
Find a song that speaks to you and that naturally makes you move. (See last month’s blog for tips on how to find Arabic Dance Music.)
Once you’ve decided on a song, find out what type of song it is and what cultural significance it holds. For example, folkloric music, cabaret music, and fusion music are all very distinct from one another and should be interpreted differently. If you’re not sure what type of music you’re working with, ask your teacher.
2. Map Out and Memorize your Music
Once you’ve decided on a song, it’s time to map it out. You should know your music well enough that you could hum even it if it wasn’t playing. Understand what instruments are being used, and what rhythms are backing them up. What time signature is your song in? Does it have lyrics? If needed, translate and use the words to fuel your dance’s story. If you’re a visual learner, map out the song by drawing out the way the music sounds. Sketch the changes in the music and note at what time they happen during the song.
3. Create Movement
For the new performer, I suggest you choreograph your routine or at least create a strong outline for your performance. When starting to choreograph, try freestyle dancing to your song and see what comes naturally. When you perform a move that sticks out to you, keep it! Pay attention to what the music is doing. Does it slow down? Speed up? Change in tone? Is it a sad song or a joyful song? Match the music with your movement. Consider the emotion behind the song and what the intent of your piece is. What kind of impact do you want to have on your audience? When you get choreographically stuck, take a break or think of moves you’ve used in class recently. Youtube and Arabic Dance DVDs are great sources of inspiration. Incorporate contrasting moves to keep your piece visually interesting. Avoid standing in one spot, and make good use of your stage. Consider if you will start on-stage or need to choreograph an entrance. Don’t forget to enjoy the creative process instead of focusing on your end goal. J
4. Practice. Practice. Practice.
A well-prepared performer is a confident one. Set up a schedule for yourself as if you we’re training for a marathon. Video tape yourself practicing so you can see what you look like. Show your choreography to a friend and practice making eye contact with them while you’re performing. If it feels right, ask your friend for feedback. Remember to practice in the costume you are going to perform in. Costume malfunctions are much better performed at home than in the company of others. J
5. Go get ‘em tiger!
It’s game day. This is what you’ve been waiting for! Arrive early enough that you can polish off your make-up and get into costume without feeling rushed. Create your own personal mantra to pump yourself up. “I’m going to rock it!” You are your own cheerleader. Accept that things may not go quite as you have planned, and commit to enjoying the experience no matter what happens. Remember, we dance because we love it, and we perform so we can share this love with others. When the time comes to shine, take a deep breath and know that you are a star.
One of the most common questions I hear as a Shimmy Flow instructor is, “Where do you find your music?!” Being so far from its Middle East, it’s challenging for us Berkeley Beauties to know where we can access the tunes that inspire our shimmies. While I believe that the quest for music is part of the Arabic Dance learning experience, I have some helpful hints to get you started on your musical journey.
1. Ask your teacher
Pick your instructor’s brain. When dancing in class, notice what inspires you and ask your teacher about your favorite songs. Question why your instructor chooses to play what she does. Discover how she has built her musical collection. When new dancers ask me for help, I usually direct them to Arabic techno remixes for drilling, “Awzan” by Souhail Kaspar for rhythm instruction, Oum Kalsoum for Arabic classics, and Arabic pop like Nancy Ajram and Natasha Atlas for upbeat party music.
2. Music Stores
While this may seem like an obvious answer, sometimes it’s hard to know where to look. Ask for the Middle Eastern, Arab world, or World Music sections. Searc
h for music featured on Egyptian, Lebanese, or “Belly Dance” compositions. I will be the first to admit, that many times it take a whole album to get just a handful of good dancing songs. At any rate, the experience of learning what’s out there can be invaluable.
3. The Internet
We are so lucky to have the Internet! It offers a plethora of musical resources. As you get to know your artists, composers, and music labels, the search becomes easier. Try typing in any one of these components or a genre (Arabic, World, Belly Dance) into Itunes. Itunes is nice because it allows you to listen to a sample of the music before you buy it. You can also buy songs individually if you don’t want to buy the entire album. Itunes also features podcasts, or online radio, that can offer some new sounds to your collection.
Pandora is a fantastic online radio that allows you to discover new music based on what you already like. While Pandora’s search function is limited in the ways of Middle Eastern artists, “Belly Dance” and selected titles can offer insightful musical discoveries.
You can buy Arabic Dance CDs through online vendors. Google shopping, Amazon, eBay, Middle Eastern stores, and costume vendors are some good places to check.
Music can also be found through watching clips of dancers on YouTube. The musical composer and song name are often noted underneath the
video, in the comments, or in the video’s title. If not, try asking the person who uploaded the video directly. Shazam and Sound Hound are incredible smart phone apps that can identify a song upon it being played.
4. Public library
Your public library is a great local resource that is often overlooked. Ask the librarian for help finding Arabic or world music recordings. Some libraries even have instructional dance DVDs that you can check out.
A huge portion of my musical collection has come from my experiences in the Arabic Dance community. Dance Festivals feature music vendors and offer a networking hub where you can pick the fellow dancer’s brain on what she performs to. Middle Eastern music concerts offer the opportunity to meet musicians or buy their CDs. Music and dance camps, intensives, and workshops not only sell music, but also educate students about the roots, compositions, and lyrics of Middle Eastern sounds.
Middle Eastern markets also sell music. If they don’t, you can usually find someone there who will help direct you. Movies featuring Arab world themes have rich soundtracks and list songs within their credits. Last, but not least, your best option is to take that summer vacation you’ve been dreaming of and head to Cairo or Lebanon. Why not? ☺
Happy searching ladies! May your musical quest be filled with many victory dances.
We all do it. We use the term “Belly Dance” to conjure up images of shimmies, rich music, intricate isolations, and sequined costumes. We all have our own interpretation of what “Belly Dance” is, but have we actually stopped to ask ourselves where the term comes from?
While commonly embraced and popular, “Belly Dance” is a debatable term. It is only used in the US, Britain, Australia, and a few other English-speaking countries.
Some believe that “Belly Dance” originates from the Arabic word “Beledi”. Beledi means “my country,” and is also used to describe a 4/4 rhythm commonly found in Middle Eastern music. Others feel that the similarity between “belly ” and “beledi” is just a coincidence.
The historical explanation behind the origin of the term “Belly Dance” derives from its’ translation of the French words “danse du ventre.” “Danse du ventre” was used during the Victorian era as a derogatory colonial name for dances isolating the hips and torso. It was used to describe burlesque and can-can style shows. The term “danse du ventre” arrived to the U.S. when the 1893 World Fair in Chicago featured exhibitions of dancers imitating “Egyptian” dance. In actuality, Turkish women from Egypt were the ones performing the “danse du ventre”. Truth be told, the isolation of the belly of “Belly Dance” comes from the regions of Turkey and Greece, (not Egypt!)
The correct Arabic term for the dance we’ve all come to know and love is “Raqs Sharqui”. “Raqs” means dance. “Sharqui” means of the East. Raqs Sharqui references the cabaret performance style traditionally danced as an improvisational solo. At any rate, the term “Raqs Sharqui” has not been widely embraced in its original or translated form.
So…. Now that we have “the know”, what do we call this beautiful art form?! Anyone who has shimmied her way through a Shimmy Flow class knows that there is much more to “Belly Dance” than then belly. While the core is an integral element of the dance form, it seems quite limiting to name it this way. This would be like calling Ballet “leg dance.” Targeting just one anatomical part of the body does not do the dance justice.
Furthermore, I find that the term “Belly Dance” drives audiences to expect performers to expose their midriff. They are confused if a costume covers one’s torso. Does this mean a dancer who does not expose and isolate her belly cannot perform Arabic dance? Of course not!
While “Belly Dance” is widely accepted, I encourage us to remember the cultural roots of our shimmies, twists, and rolls. Raqs Sharqui became a performance art in Egypt. It is a dance that was born, embraced and embellished by many Arabic cultures, and later adopted by the world. I feel that “Arabic Dance” is a more respectful, fitting, and encompassing term to reference an art form that is older than we know. Let us use the power of words to reflect the power of this dance!
Whatever you decide to call Arabic Dance, may it come from a place of respect, passion, fulfillment, and sheer joy!
Resources: Souhail Kaspar, Morocco’s “You Asked Aunt Rocky: Answers & Advice About Raqs Sharqi & Raqs Shabbi,” and “The Belly Dance Book.”
Ziva Emtiyaz is an award winning International Dance Artist excited to share her knowledge and life experiences about the big world of dance!