Belly dance is an umbrella term for a lot of different dance styles that have a hip and belly focused movement vocabulary.
In Egypt, belly dance is called Raqs Sharki. This means Oriental Dancing. You could say that belly dance is a term that has been coined by Non-Middle Eastern people to describe the way the dance looks. I watched a discussion hosted by an Egyptian musician and dancer named, Karim Nagi where he said calling the dance belly dance is like calling a car a moving box with wheels. It was a memorable analogy! However, we continue to call Raqs Sharki belly dance because this is how the art and business is recognized in Canada.
In Egypt, belly dance is a social dance that most women who have been raised in the culture will have seen and experienced with friends and family in a casual, non-performance environment. There are nightclubs and famous belly dancers in Egypt of course, but the majority of women use this dance to have fun with their friends and family. If an Egyptian woman wants to be a dancer in Egypt one option is to join the Reda Troupe. This is a theatrical interpretation of folk dances from Egypt. It’s a re-imagining of how these women would act and dress in their homeland. Many dancers start here. The Reda style has balletic influences and many Egyptian trained dancers get a lot of ballet training in their dance classes (like all of our arm positions and arabesques in class!) or they take ballet separately, to complement their belly dancing.
The Egyptian style can be described as flirty and coquettish; soft, elegant and not as busy when compared to other styles. This means there isn’t as much complex layering. The art is making the dance look and feel relaxed. There is a huge emphasis on feeling the music and improvisation (usually to live music…and the live music is improvised too!) Middle Eastern music is seriously complex! There are hundreds of rhythms and thousands of variations on those rhythms and there are maqams; this is comparable to a mode, and it tells the dancer and other musicians the feeling or tone of the music being played so that it can be interpreted accordingly. (i.e. a sad, celebratory, folky etc song) Sometimes a dancer will dance to a famous and beloved singer such as Om Kalthoum and will express the lyrics and essence of the song through her dance. Knowing the moves, songs, singers, composers, lyric translation and how to interpret it all through your body is a big part of the Egyptian style.
It seems like a lot and it is, but it all comes together eventually!
Even every instrument will give the dancer a direction. The ney (like a flute) may speak to longing and the movements may be more reaching , long and dramatic. This will differ to if the musician is playing an accordion and then the dancer will use more juicy hip and belly movements and the dance will have a more earthy and sensual feel. Or the drum, which is by far the most popular. The dancer will be sure to use her isolation technique, personality and bring a ton of energy to the audience!
In short, musicality and emotion is very important to the Egyptian style. As a general consensus, a middle eastern audience would likely enjoy a belly dancer more that knows the classic songs and has great musicality rather than a dancer that only has great technique. When a Saidi song comes on (a folk dance style) the dancer may be expected to give a nod to this region with a dance move from Upper Egypt (actually the south of Egypt so it is similar to Saint John calling their downtown Uptown!) Of course a combination of musicality and technique is the ultimate goal!
The Egyptian style has evolved dramatically over the years. I will leave you with two videos and this is something one of my Egyptian folk dance teachers did for me years back. Please watch these two videos. One is of a very famous Egyptian dancer named Soheir Zaki (this video is from the 70’s) and the other is a famous modern Egyptian dancer named Dina (video is relatively recent and she is dancing to live music!). This also shows how this is a very personal dance. No two dancers look the same even when they know the same songs and a similar movement vocabulary. The Egyptian style is incredibly unique to the individual and it makes it a very personalized and creative art form to learn.