The Traditional Arabic Dance

By Pamela Ann Ludwig ; Updated September 15, 2017
The Arab world is home to numerous dance traditions.

The term "Arabic dance" is often associated with the style of belly dance. However, there are many styles of traditional Arabic dance. Stretching across North Africa and the Middle East, the Arabic world is a large and diverse region. As with the varieties in cuisine, dress, dialect and landscape present all across the Arab world, the dance traditions are rich and varied as well.

Celebrations

Most of the dancing that goes on in the Arab world happens at weddings and other celebrations. Certain dance styles, such as the hagalla step from Western Egypt and Eastern Libya, are specific wedding dances, though many dance forms are danced at celebrations. Even small parties and social gatherings in the Arab world will be accompanied by music and dance. Professional dancers are often present at Arabic weddings as part of the celebration, though guests participate in celebratory dances as well.

Choreography

Arabic dance choreography varies much from country to country. You can even find distinctive regional dance styles within the same country. Though many call Arabic dance "belly dance" this is an inaccurate label. Many of the traditional dance forms in the Arab world focus on movements of the hips, shoulders, arms and feet. Many forms involve using props such as clay pots, swords, fabric, canes or an artistic manipulation of the costume.

Entertainment

The "cabaret" costume is a recent invention.

The Egyptian "Golden Age of Cinema" made stars out of dancers performing the "cabaret style" of dance inspired by traditional Arabic moves, ballet and Latin forms. Films made from the 1930's to the 1960's in Cairo featured dancers such as Samia Gamal and Tahia Carioca. The dancers/actresses in these films helped define the entertainment style of Arabic dance. Music videos in the 20th and 21st centuries continue to feature such blended styles. Lebanese/Colombian pop sensation Shakira is a contemporary star who adds Arabic dance moves to her music videos and stage performances. You can also see this style of dance in many Arabic, Greek or Turkish restaurants.

Cultural Preservation

Though most traditional Arabic dances are primarily social dance forms, some dancers perform these styles in formal theatrical venues as part of cultural preservation and education. Many of the Arab countries have national dance troupes that tour internationally to perform and share their cultural traditions. Arab communities in the United States, Europe and Australia also form local troupes dedicated to preserving and accurately representing Arabic dance traditions. San Francisco-based Al Juthoor is one such performance troupe.

Gender

Men are as involved with dance in the Arabic world as women are. In addition to taking part in social dance traditions, several men are famous worldwide in the fields of choreography, teaching and the performance of Arabic traditional dances. Tito of Egypt is an active dance performer and ambassador of Egyptian folk dance and culture. Mahmoud Reda's group brought Egyptian dance to a level of high art in the 1950's. Reda developed styles and choreography based on traditional Arabic dances for films and live performances.

About the Author

Pamela Ann Ludwig has lived, worked and studied on five continents. Her articles can be seen online at various websites. She holds a Master of Arts degree in history from San Francisco State University and has experience teaching different dance disciplines as well as English to speakers of other languages.