Styles of Belly Dance Defined (additions)

This was originally put together June 25, 2010, but I needed to amend some things and make some additions. Posting it again for all those new to the dance and other curious folk ;0)

Leah, a close friend of mine, just started taking belly dance with me last night and our class is Tribal Fusion. After the class was over, I asked my girlfriends if they would like to go to the Greek restaurant on 25th street for a bite to eat and to see a professional belly dancer in action. Leyla, the girl dancing at the Athenian, was wonderful. I was pointing out to Leah that Leyla was doing more of a classic style and Leah asked me what’s the difference. What a big question! Where to begin….

Trying to go through all the different styles of belly dance is mind boggling. No one really even knows exactly where it came from, some say Egypt, some say Crete, some say India, but it is ANCIENT and has sooooooo many different cultural influences. It is widely agreed that belly dance originated as a women’s ritual dance, possibly even as a child-birthing exercise or a young woman’s initiation dance. One of the oldest “known” styles is Raqs Sharqi or Classic Egyptian and the folky Baladi or Beledi, then there is Cabaret, Turkish, Greek, Lebanese, and Romani. Some say even Flamenco originated from belly dance. Then there is the American Tribal Style and it’s offshoot, Tribal Fusion belly dance.

I’m going to attempt to explain some of these styles to the best of my knowledge. Here goes….

The Arabic terms for the dance is actually raqs sharqi, the contemporary stage art, and its country cousin, baladi. Raqs sharqi translates as “dance of the East” or “oriental dance” and baladi, meaning “country”, refers to a rhythm, style of dance and costume all relating to the Egyptian folk tradition. I believe this term “dance of the East,” may refer to the coming of the Gypsies into the Middle East. Nineteenth century French travelers, witnessing the unfamiliar torso movements of baladi, dubbed it “danse du ventre” or dance of the belly.

This is a misnomer, as in fact the whole body is used—head, shoulders, arms, chest—with a particular emphasis on movements of the pelvis and hips rather than actual belly isolations.

Badia Masabny

In 1926, Lebanese actress/dancer Badia Masabny opened a nightclub in Cairo modeled after European cabarets. Casino Badia featured a varied program of Eastern and Western entertainment—comedians, singers, musicians and dancers—appealing to both Middle Eastern and European audiences.

It was here and at similar night spots in Algiers, Beirut and Cairo that raqs sharqi developed into the sophisticated and refined art form of today, distinguished from its predecessor, baladi, by a greater use of stage space, a larger movement vocabulary, use of veils, a Hollywood-inspired two-piece sequined costume, and such balletic influences as more expressive use of the arms, the introduction of choreography and a more elevated carriage often on the balls of the feet.

Egyptian dancers wear the bedlah style costume which includes a fitted top or bra (usually with a fringe of beads or coins), a fitted hip belt (again with a fringe of beads or coins), and a skirt or harem pants. The bra and belt may be richly decorated with beads, sequins, braid and embroidery. The belt may be a separate piece, or sewn into a skirt.

Egyptian bedlah style costume

Since the 1950s, it has been illegal in Egypt for belly dancers to perform publicly with their midriff uncovered or to display excessive skin. It is therefore becoming more common to wear a long, figure-hugging Lycra one-piece gown with strategically placed cut-outs filled in with sheer, flesh-colored fabric.

Egyptian style belly dance primarily uses classical as well as modern music produced in Egypt with Arabic rhythms. Egyptian style movements are very precise, with the hips held under the rib cage.


Baladi is the Egpytian folk version of belly dance which is much more energetic and community oriented. Baladi is a social dance performed for fun and celebration by men and women of all ages, usually during festive occasions and social gatherings such as parties and weddings. It is an improvisational dance integrated with the rhythm of the music. Baladi dancers traditionally wear an ankle length, baladi dress with a coordinating hip scarf.

Ansuya a fantastic Cabaret style dancer

Cabaret style is the glitzier more flamboyant evolution of the Egyptian style which was highly influenced by 1920’s -30’s Hollywood movies. It incorporates the use of the veil during a section of a routine and is often done high on the toes or in high-heels. It is also synonymous with zills, or finger symbols and fuses elements of Jazz and Spanish dance. There is often a lot of floor work involved. Cabaret is less grounded in the earth and more light, airy and sensual.

Turkish style costumes look similar to Egpytian/Cabaret costumes with some differences. Turkish dancers also wear bedleh style costumes, but the costumes became more “Las Vegas-ized” for lack of a better term, with skirts designed to display both legs up to the hip, and plunging bras. Though this look originated in Turkey, it has spread throughout most of the traditional styles and is prevalent in Cabaret. All Turkish belly dance costumes reflect the playful, flirty style of Turkish belly dance.

Turkish style often leans the upper torso back, pushing the pelvis forward. Also, it is not “in vogue” for an Egyptian dancer to do floorwork, while it is very popular in Turkish style. This is also where the backbend in belly dance originated. Another trade-mark is the Turkish drop.

Turkish Drop

Because the Turks invaded and occupied Greece for many years, most people actually see Turkish style dancers or Egyptian/Cabaret dancers in Greek restaurants (which, by the way, is a purely American invention). There was a great deal of cultural exchange going on during these years which gave birth to the dance and rhythm called Tsifteteli. Is it Turkish or Greek? Greek or Turkish? Both cultures claim it so if you want to split hairs over where it really came from, do your research.

Nadia Gamal

Like other styles of Eastern bellydance, Lebanese belly dance is very ancient, most likely going back at least as far as to the Phoenicians. Today it is considered an artful blend of Egyptian belly dance and Turkish belly dance. Lebanese belly dancing is generally more energetic than typical Egyptian, yet softer than the Turkish bellydancing style. Lebanese belly dance has been made famous by such bellydance stars as Nadia Gamal and Amani.

Lebanese belly dancer

The same belly dance moves and core belly dance techniques are used in Lebanese belly dancing as in Egyptian, Turkish, or classic American styles of belly dance. Like Egyptian style belly dance, Lebanese belly dance may have subtle influences from other genres of dance like ballet (which itself was originally influenced by Persian court dances of the eighteenth century). The use of finger cymbals and props are common.

Lebanese belly dance costumes are usually nightclub styles, consisting of the typical two-piece belly dance outfit of a decorated bra top and a matching belt (usually beaded) over a skirt. Using rich fabrics and jewelry, the costuming of Lebanese belly dancers is similar to the Egyptian belly dance costume style. However, Lebanese belly dancers are allowed to uncover their abdomen in public performances and usually do so.

Romani style is indicative of the Romani or Romany people, otherwise known as Gypsies. Some believe (and I am one of these people) the origins of belly dance were carried throughout the world by the Gypsies, probably Northern Indian tribes, near Rajasthan. This style is more folky and colorful with full skirts, peasant shirts and scarves wrapped around both the hips and the head. It often involves numerous twirls and emphasizes skirt work.

This is a fun little video I found on the evolution of Romani style dance:

And then there is American Tribal Style Belly Dance which was created by Carolena NericcioThe discovery of  belly dance led Carolena to the creation of her own dance style, American Tribal Style Belly Dance.  It’s movements are inspired by folkloric dances of the Middle East and India.  Aesthetically ATS is based on the richness of textiles and jewelry from North Africa and India. ATS is a method of improvisational choreography, using a vocabulary of natural movements and cues allowing the dancers to communicate via gesture when dancing together. The effect is a vibrant thread drawing the audience into the tapestry.

Her troupe, FatChanceBellyDance, is a Bay Area phenomenon that has become known around the world. The majestic costuming, including full headdresses and layers of ethnic jewelry, celebrate folk art of the old world. The music, a carefully chosen collection of both traditional sounds and modern fusion adds the effect… Tribal Style looks “old” but it is actually “new.”

Carolena’s invention of ATS was greatly inspired by Jamila Salimpour. Jamila is the mother of Suhaila Salimpour, a fantastic belly dancer in her own right. She was also the teacher of Katarina Burda and Masha Archer, who later taught and inspired Carolena. So, if Carolena is the mother of ATS, you might say Jamila is the Great Grandmama of the Tribal style as a whole. I wrote a tribute Blog to her which can be read here: Jamila Salimpour: A Salute.

Some of Carolena Nericcio’s students went on to develop their own “offshoot” branches of “Tribal Fusion.” Tribal Fusion is rooted in the ATS vocabulary with other styles mixed in. Some of the great names and pioneers in Tribal Fusion are Rachel Brice, Heather Stants, Mardi Love, Sharon Kihara, Jill Parker and Zoe Jakes, among others. Tribal Fusion is the so-called “edgy” style of belly dance with many of the dancers sporting tattoos, tribal piercings and other body adornment, with more “ethnic” looking costuming and jewelry than it’s predecessors.

Tribal Fusion is still my favorite style of belly dance and was the style I started with. I have steadily been moving backwards in my belly dance education, going from the most contemporary of styles back into the older history. What Tribal Fusion “is” can become a little convuluted sometimes, but I found this little Youtube documentary helpful: What is Tribal Style Belly Dance

Another great name in Tribal Fusion is Colleena Shakti. I interviewed Colleena for fuse: a tribal and tribal fusion belly dance magazine for the 2012 summer edition. I blogged about this experience here: Fuse Summer Edition 2012Colleena bought a one way ticket to India several years ago and has been studying Classical Indian dances and Rajasthani Khalbelia or “gypsy” dance for several years. She fuses a unique blend of Classical Indian dance with her ATS background to create a beautiful, expressive art form.

Now there is also a Bollywood/Belly Fusion style called Bellywood! Which stems from the Bellydance Superstars’ fusion of Bollywood (a style in itself that is a fusion of the dances of India) with belly dance! Dancing in Bollywood films, especially older ones, is primarily modeled on Indian dance: classical dance styles, dances of historic northern India, and folk dances. It’s playful, fun and typically an explosion of colors! AND there is also another style which fuses Polynesian dance with belly dance, called Bellynesian!

AND Hip-hop Fusion, and Spanish Fusion, and Modern Dance Belly Fusion! Pretty much anything is open to fuse these days.

Some people are purists in the sense of maintaining a tradition, others are pushing for evolution. I believe all is fair game in the name of artistic expression depending on your personal integrity as an artist. Just keep in mind that it’s important to tell your audience what it is that you are doing. If you are presenting “traditional” belly dance, then keep it traditional. If you say you are a fusion dancer, then let people know what you are fusing together. Keep your audience in mind and when you are doing something new, make it clear first. This dance comes from life-times of mixing cultures so there really is no “true” version of the dance, just different cultural interpretations of the body’s spontaneous reaction to rhythmic music. Nearly all cultures world-wide have some version of a pelvic-oriented dance and they almost always have some connection to women’s traditions.

SO, there is my presentation “some” of the various different styles. Whew! I’m sure there’s a lot I missed, but I’m trying my very best to map this dance. If anyone has any comments/corrections/suggestions, please share!

Now if I go into more about music, this could go on FOREVER. I will have to tackle that another time. But I hope that helps the curious.

Much Love + Light



4 Replies to “Styles of Belly Dance Defined (additions)”

  1. I have read so many posts about the blogger lovers except this post is really
    a pleasant piece of writing, keep it up.

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