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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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.
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.
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!