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Egyptian Dance Aesthetics for Bellydancers

Interview with Keti Sharif, Cairo

“Every single step must have its value… the audience feels and understands that.” Farida Fahmy

Farida discusses how Egyptian dance aesthetics are bound by the Egyptian sense of beauty – often found in the arts. She looks at how Egyptian dance has evolved greatly in the last century, and it continues to evolve today in modern society.

This interview explores the nature of Egyptian dance form, structure and the vital role of improvisation. Discover Farida's perspective on what she considers some of the most important movement values that imbue Egyptian dance and Raqs Sharqi.

Egyptian Dance Aesthetics for Bellydancers

Keti: What is the main characteristic of Egyptian dance?

Farida: Egyptian dance aesthetics are bound by the Egyptian sense of beauty – often found in the arts. Egyptian Dance shares a lot of characteristics with a lot of other traditional Egyptian arts and life in general, dance is a part of Egyptian culture. The dance reflects the Egyptian temperament. The main characteristic is improvisation. Improvisation is the “state of the moment”. Improvisation is what gave the dance longevity; if the Egyptian dance forms were static they would have died out by now. Improvisation in dance is personal and it needs flexibility, not strict rules.

Keti: Has this element of improvisation in Egyptian dance resulted in new dance artforms?

Farida: Yes. Ethnologists seem to want to identify Egyptian dance arts as static, quantifiable forms - like museum pieces. But cultures, people and their arts, including dance, should be able to evolve as they wish. Egyptian dance has evolved greatly in the last century, and it continues to evolve today in modern society.

Keti: How did the Reda troupe work creatively with Egyptian Dance?

Farida: The first group of dances performed by the Troupe were largely inspired by inner-city Cairo (Fatimid Cairo, the heart of Cairo) and the rural societies closest to Cairo. This meant that the characters portrayed in the dances were more urban in nature. At the time the Reda Troupe was evolving, theatre design and costume design were happening concurrently – we created many new innovations in theatre dance, as well as field research throughout Egypt that resulted in dances inspired by indigenous arts. We aimed at designing new artforms to show main movements and to show the grace of those moves, without losing their characteristics. Dancing with the Milayah on stage, and the Muwashahat were theatrical innovations of the Reda Troupe.

Keti: Does Raqs Sharqi, or Egyptian bellydance share characteristics with indigenous Egyptian dance?

Farida: The core movements are similar for all – oscillation of the hips, stepping movements, the shimmy, the sway and often, colloquial gesture. The indigenous moves share basic characteristics of many core bellydance moves, because these original dances were the impetus for the development of urban dance, and many movements have been preserved through time, even though the dance itself has changed. Theatre dance, such as the dance we performed in the Reda troupe, was inspired by indigenous dance then adapted for stage – as stage has a completely different artistic aesthetic, including space and audience relationship. The European orchestra and music, as well as ballet and stagecraft, have also shaped Egyptian Raqs Sharqi.

Keti: Can you explain more about the Raqs Sharqi dancer, and how she works with the Egyptian dance aesthetics?

Farida: In Egypt there are two types of female dance Entertainers: The Ghawazi of rural society in Upper Egypt, and Bellydancers in urban society. Ghawazee movements are completely improvised and involve more lower body movement and repetitive, earthy sets of moves danced with a lively feel. Bellydancers dance with tahkt bands, and improvise to the music, especially to taqsim; eg. circle entrance, made contact with takt band, understanding and feedback between them and then feature the taqsim. Over time, as the stage became more of a spectacle, bellydancers started changing costumes 2-3 times during their shows, and began integrating groups of dancers behind them onstage as a moving backdrop. The dancer and troupes also began to use choreography, to create a more theatrical craft.

Keti: Can you tell us more about Taqsim?

Farida: Taqsim means ‘to improvise’. Nay or kanoon players know which sequence (makan) follows within the music and improvises from there. Oum Kolthsoum used her genius to improvise when singing and often repeated phrases with subtle emotive nuance. Each time the phrase took on a completely new feel. You need a good vocabulary to be an improviser for example, the kanoon player; if the musician was not rich in vocabulary, they would not be able to improvise. It is the same for dance. You can only improvise well if you know the music well, and you have a wide vocabulary of movement to express that.

Keti: In a culture where dance has always been improvised, how does choreography work with Egyptian dance – particularly bellydance?

Farida: If bellydancers use too many steps, it becomes confused; but if they move too little, it is not right also; as a performer you need to find fine line between the two. Movement and shapes are an essential part of interesting dance, so choreography can help articulate shape. Locomotive movement to traverse the space to give the dance a better dimension is especially important for stage. Choreography and sets of linked movements can define these qualities, especially for stage performance, which requires a different dynamic and audience relationship.

Keti: You mentioned Egyptian dance changing as music changes, can you tell us more?

Farida: In the 50’s, 60’s, 70’s and even 80’s dancers used to dance to very sophisticated classical Egyptian orchestral pieces played by talented musicians. In 90’s music became more generic and classical compositions were replaced by Franco-Arab style music. In comparison, the Egyptian pop music of today is naïve, primitive and somewhat flat. You need to source good music, to give you richness and scope for your movement. Contemporary music has lost a lot of dynamic, although once in a while there will be a good song released. So it is important to find music that resonates with you and allows for changing movement and emotion. As dance depends on music, your dance will obviously be affected by your musical choices. Ask yourself - what is the energy of the music you are using to dance to? Use the energy it evokes to inspire your dance.

Keti: How can bellydancers understand the cultural nuance of Egyptian dance?

Farida: The women of Egypt have strength, and although they don’t always show it, it is always present. This comes through in the dance. The Egyptian temperament is an important part the dance. You can learn about the Egyptian temperament through travel, immersion, watching films or reading. Some dancers go to Egypt, and live amongst Egyptians – but if travel is not an option, you can watch Egyptian films for the movement, how they interpret the dance, etc. Reading translated books by authors Naguib Mahfous, Yusuf Idris, Ala al Aswany, and such authors is also helpful for understanding Egyptian temperament and its application to the arts.

Keti: What is it you feel when you are dancing?

Farida: The most important thing when dancing, is that you are enjoying yourself. In some parts of the world, bellydance is becoming like the Olympics, and all about how clever you can be. Becoming technical, cold, severe, and calculated is not what the dance is all about. Many dancers have lost the joy in the dance. There is a fine line between being erotic and being graceful – as a dancer you have to be aware of this.

Keti: What are some important elements in bellydance, in general?

Farida: The main thing is to express your body in the moment to move into the creative space. Here are ways you can work with the Egyptian aesthetic and also create relaxed responsive movement:

- Weight shifting is important during dance; it must be well established when dancing.
- Heavy complete shift = shift weight and it becomes heavy and complete, one side of you is free to do whatever it needs to while the other side is well established.
- Light weight shift = shift just enough to complete movements (eg. travelling steps).
- Knees move according to the movement; don’t start your dance with bent knees.
- The strength is in the pelvis, allow for gravity to work through your movement.
- Liberate your pelvis! Your pelvis makes the decision where to go.
- Keep hips underneath you as you shift your weight.
- Keep your posture and energy elevated but relaxed.
- Don’t bend your knees or lean forward.
- Keep weight on the supporting leg.
- Don’t use your knees for locomotion of movement – press toes into the floor (push with the heel) to help drive the movement.
- Pay attention to what your arms are doing; they are an extension of the beauty of the movements you are doing.
- Arms are complimentary to the movement; don’t use them too much or your movement will look untidy.
- For sweeping arm movement - ensure movement comes from the shoulder rather than the elbow. Remember that when the elbows lead, the - movement is closer to the body.
- Keep your legs together to maintain a wide range of movement (when legs are apart it will decrease your range of movement).
- Use variation: change speed and direction for variety, hip circle rolling inward and travelling opposite direction. Try different combinations of steps; singles, doubles, etc.
- Ensure you spot when you turn to avoid dizziness. When turning, look in the direction that you are travelling in.
- When performing turns, there are 2 energies at work. The first is getting ready to move into another movement, the second is abandonment for a brief moment.
- Think about transit steps – what is it that takes you to the other movement?
- Practice travelling forward and backward.
- Remember that every little step has its value.
- Always finish the movement.
- Make your movements “voluptuous”

Keti: Thank you Farida – and a closing note?

Farida: Always remember that as a dancer, you are the “Personification of music” – it is your artistry that will personalise the music, as you are “dancing the music”. New elements must blend into the aesthetics and music to personalise it – the main element… is YOU.


Copyright 2015 Farida Fahmy

Pdfs in Translated Languages


VERSION by Farida Fahmy, Oct 2015


Chinese by Wendi Weng & Kay Chng


French translation by Pauline Caux


German translation by Inci Brose


Greek by Panayiota Bakis Mohieddin


Spanish translation by Celeste Acuña