What Draws British Women to Learn Arabic Belly Dance?
Al Raqs al Sharqi (Dance of the East)

Category: Contemporary Art
By Anne White for LIBERTY Blog

For the last 30 years or so, Middle Eastern art and culture, especially Arabic Dance, has successfully entwined and embedded itself into the UK heartlands and national stage. Although Al Raqs al Sharqi (Dance of the East) has many other names, it has been popularised as “belly dance”. However, since this term has wider Orientalist connotations, many are careful to use other names instead. A main conduit of the popularity of the dance is that British people have totally embraced aspects of it that appealed to them, and via educational programmes in schools, for example, and Arts Council funding, created a higher and more visible platform for Arabic arts in the UK.

What motivates people who do not have an Arabic lineage or connection to explore this world? As a British woman who is immersed in this field, I can outline some of the reasons for this phenomenon.

The musical structure has a resonance that appeals tremendously to Westerners and non-Arabs. Many find a freedom within it that entices them and enables them to explore their own creativity, whilst simultaneously creating opportunities for greater inner dialogue. This is a subjective definition and I refer to it as exploring one’s own personality and psyche in a meditative and contemplative way. This is one of the major benefits on a transformative personality level, which I will also address. One can find a song for every mood and a movement for every beat. Some prefer the upbeat tempo of Shaabi (music from the streets, influenced by folk culture) and pop music. Others prefer the majesty of Tarab (the highest and purest form of Arabic classical music, performed by orchestras), or they yearn for the collective of Tawhid (union with God/altruistic ideals), which is represented significantly by Om Kolthoum in the Arab world.

While the music we listen to and dance to, as students and lovers of this dance, can be either secular or spiritual, we quite literally lose ourselves within it. In comparison, English culture is not as widely embraced, as we have lost our connection with our own arts. Discos and clubs are the provenance of the younger generation. Nevertheless, a growing market has emerged for this dance and it includes all ages, creeds and races; it has become a thriving industry.

As a Westerner, when we live in a cold climate, we are always covered up and are not as in touch with our bodies as those who reside in places with a hot climate. We are also noted for our reserved culture, and that we value the intellect over the body. Many who learn this dance find it challenging to control and master on their own. Although we can sculpt our bodies at the gym, while dancing, we yield to the softness and fluidity of the form; we become a highly tuned instrument, expressing the poetry of line in the melody or the percussive sequence of the rhythm. We learn to love and accept our bodies and this promotes greater self-esteem.

British funding has been provided over the years to artistes working in Arabic dance genre. The initial mandate in the 1980s, via The Arts Council of Great Britain, funded Ethnic Arts to create a higher platform in the UK. One of the first beneficiaries of this was my former teacher, Suraya Hilal, who brought this dance to a Western stage and presented it in theatres. This approach was similar to that of Mahmoud Reda, who founded the Reda Dance Company and created a National Platform for Egyptian Traditional Folkloric Dances in the 1950s. Suraya’s contribution to the UK’s awareness of belly dance is immeasurable, as she was a wellspring for many who followed.

I have been funded many times (to teach and perform) by the Arts Council, various charities and the Big Lottery. I used testimonies from many of my students to apply. These testimonies included students in the fields of physiotherapy and psychotherapy, as well as cultural leaders. Here are some of their statements and observations addressing the benefits of learning this dance:

Great physical benefits can be achieved.
This dance promotes flexibility of the joints and spine, builds up stamina and muscle tone, increases mobility, and it is low impact (i.e., it works with gravity), therefore it is good to the body.

Aside from the physical benefits, there are also psychological benefits, as it lifts the spirits, raises morale and self-esteem, and promotes creativity and self-expression. The class brings people from different cultures together, to socialise and exchange different ideas, thus instilling a sense of community.

Positive female roles are established. This dance is very empowering of the feminine principles. This can be a very bonding experience. Individuality is encouraged and given permission to be expressed. This is very liberating. We live in a society that has certain female stereotypes, which are difficult to live up to; this dance educates participants to find the freedom to stand apart and have their own healthy attitudes, as part of their individuality/self-expression.

As a dance form and as an art, belly dance is incredibly expressive and we take pleasure in translating what we feel within the music through bodily movements that match, be they choreographed or improvised. It is an utterly and compelling feminine art, which honours the feminine body and enables a better-integrated psyche as a result. It also bridges cultural divides and promotes tolerance, acceptance and understanding of other peoples and cultures.

Many assume that what we learn, promote and do is purely an Orientalist stereotype found in smoky clubs late at night, where we only seek tips from male customers. Many forms of this dance exist and many new forms, which are unrecognisable to most Arabs, have been created. Innovations continue to find new ways of bodily expression. Belly dance is a woman’s dance performed by women for both women and men who appreciate artistic bodily expressions.

Today, it is also a platform of art performed mainly by non-Arabs, who in their own execution of their performances are, to some extent, either representing Arabic culture or raising an awareness of it. Whilst it is true to say that Arabic artists represent Arabic art in the UK, in terms of this dance, the non-Arab performers are primarily driving this phenomenon and enabling flourishing industries to develop alongside art festivals, dance schools and event organisers. It is becoming a commercial force majeure. Likewise, those individuals who are active and successful in performances do not always conform to traditional Arabic stereotypes.

Historically, in the Arab world, this dance was promoted under the aegis and patronage of the Royal Courts, and the Awalim (respected and honourable learned women) were the exemplary Ambassadresses of it. Of course, it is also true that during military occupation, be it Roman or more recently Colonialists, such as the French and the British, it was also a form of entertainment, sometimes of a different kind. Now, however, this dance is enjoying an entirely new platform, and whilst one can still see soloists, we are also witness to a new exploration, such as a darker genre of feminine energy where Gothic themes are presented. Every big town in Britain now has an Arabic hafla (party) and theatre productions and dance competitions abound.

A sense of community is created between belly dancers who start off as strangers and then become friends. Through classes and dance events, we find a sisterhood bond, which fosters closer relationships between women. Likewise, we find templates within this community, which promote tolerance, awareness of others, greater self-acceptance, more self-expression and many other positive experiences as well. Our Arabic sisters learned this dance from their female relatives and thus, in a way, there is a continuance of this model in dance classes and events.

Belly dance has the capacity to transform us. On a physical and kinesthetic level, we learn to love and accept our bodies, to interact with people in a better way and to witness positive behaviour modelling. Our confidence and self-expression improve, and this enhances our self-esteem. We learn to dance and to walk with an innate confidence. We are able to literally dance our feelings and thereby find an outlet for every mood and that makes us better-integrated people. It is liberating, transformative, it enables us to grow and individuate. Belly dance has also been combined as part of both therapeutic and spiritual practice. Performance opportunities abound and that allows us to adorn and bejewel ourselves, of which the value can never be underestimated. It also enables us to test ourselves, to take risks and grow. Although sometimes, we might show off the moves and compete with each other at the disco, the kindred spirit we all have flavours it with a playful quality.

For me, as a British belly dancer, dance has been my biggest love since I first embraced it. It nourishes my soul; it feeds my spirit and it fills my heart. Many others feel the same way. I feel very blessed indeed, as it has also helped me to know more about myself as a woman.

Anne White Planet Egypt 2

“Anne White has studied Raqs Sharqi for over 20 years, and has been
a performer and teacher since 1990. She specialises in Egyptian
techniques, and has over 15 years’ experience as a performer at major London venues such as the Hackney Empire, the Bloomsbury Theatre and Alexandra Palace, and has toured East Anglian theatres as part of her Arts Council. Anne has taught privately and in Adult Education and has worked with television production companies, development teams and fitness centers”.


9 thoughts on “ART- What Draws British Women to Learn Arabic Belly Dance?

  1. I can relate to much you have written Anne. What i would also add is that in the UK belly dance has moved on from it’s Arabic origins into developing a culture of it’s very own.The dancers who attend a class in a local UK town I suspect would have little physically or indeed emotionally or culturally to the dancer making her living in a small Cairo nightclub. Interesting that USA acknowledges it’s own cultural styles with American Cabaret and tribal styles.
    Do you think it is time we moved away from the search for “authenticity” and embraced and celebrated UK bellydance styles?!

  2. Anne replies

    Thanks for your comments. You raised some very interesting and valid points that need further debate ….. and maybe a few more articles!

    Dance History- The London Provenance
    Turkish dancers were the first to widely perform in London. Turkish clubs then became Greek and Arabic in turn. In the mid to late 1970s Arabic Dancers were the main attraction on the London club scene. There was not a widespread or even embryonic Community as such until classes were offered in London by dancers with American connections (Gayle Smedley and Tina Hobin). The American influence and legacy came from Turkish (and maybe some Armenian) lineage I believe as well. In the early 1980s an Arabic influence, was introduced via classes – Egyptian born Suraya Hilal who moved from Oxford to London and then began teaching. . There was a marked difference between The Turkish and Egyptian style. Suraya had a major influence on the UK and thus began our journey with Al Raqs Al Sharqi via classes and theatre shows with a much more western feel. And Egyptian style held sway and still does today.

    In the 1950s in Egypt, Reda training introduced Russian balletic steps to Egyptian dance. Western influences were also incorporated into Egyptian music by composer Mohammed Abdel Wahab and even earlier by British military occupation in Egypt in the 1930s which saw for example the accordion, and saxophone from military bands being taken by Egyptian musicians and Baladi, a new musical style emerged soon followed by the dance form of the same name . So cross pollination has encouraged innovation and artistic freedom

    In the UK there have certainly been massive changes and developments since the 1980s and there is now much more scope for individuality and innovation. It is the collective that drives the zeitgeist and we are seeing darker themes emerging.
    In terms of the current UK Belly dance style other influences are now competing with the Egyptian style. This is driven or influenced by economic and artistic choices I believe. I intend to address this in the future.

    UK culture
    There are many different dance styles, not just belly dance here. I hope to outline and depict the new innovations some of which would greatly surprise the Arabic readers of this blog…

    There is no one Group or Body that speaks for our community here -so opinions as such are subjective and not overtly collective. We do not have any consensus other than personal definition of what is and what is not belly dance.

    I agree with your point about common reference points with British dancers and those earning a living in Cairo. The British seem not to widely embrace Arabic culture and many students of this dance are nowhere near Arabic communities either. This impacts on their understanding and execution of this dance. I feel that the cultural aspect is most important and should not be disassociated from the dance myself. But then I have always immersed myself in Arabic communities and culture. Not everyone is as lucky or as privileged I appreciate that.

    UK Future
    The world of dance IS changing. In the old days the dancers were required to do an on stage routine of 30 minutes or so and invariably the dancer would dance in an intimate environment and take the audience on a journey of some kind. But the market is now driven by shorter on stage times, and this could be 4 minutes or so, along with an additional 20 other subsequent dancers. perhaps in a theatre or brightly lit village hall. The context of performance has subsequently changed as a result and this then changes the form being shown and the objectivity behind it.

    Worldwide the biggest appetite is for Egyptian dance and soloists and I can’t see that changing in the short term.

    Final thoughts
    The dancers that most inspire me are the Egyptian icons from Fifi Abdou to Nahid Sabri and Nekhmet Moktar. I love innovation though but what I personally enjoy most is seeing a dancer’s soul. For we translate the emotions behind the music, and without this, personally speaking, a performance is less engaging, This highlights the need for an understanding of Arabic culture if one aims to be “authentic” and do justice to this beautiful and womanly Art.

  3. Beautiful article Anne! In regard to the comment above, it seems to me that since this dance is deeply related to music of Arabic – and especially Egyptian – origin, it is impossible to ‘move away’ from the source. By attempting to do so you are creating a rootless thing without context.. Dancers wanting to dance to increasingly fusion-based music because they cannot relate to the dance’s music of origin, are of course free to do so, but they are cutting themselves off from rich layers of emotional experience. I am with Anne in believing that many women are drawn into the world of Arabic dance – as I was – through its music, which has an innate ability to speak to our bodies on a soul level. I am not really interested in the idea of ‘authenticity’,, just in dancers coming to this dance at whatever level being open to explore and honour the music that it comes from and belongs to.

    • I agree – although I came to the dance before I learned to fully appreciate the music – to ears that grew up with Western music, even that with African influences, it took a while to embrace the tonal qualities of the Arabic and Egyptian music and to develop confidence in navigating the rhythms (work of a lifetime – ongoing!). Also, having not learned the language, the response to the lyrics is less immediate and requires conscious work and effort. Having said all that, now that I have been engaging with this style almost exclusively for nearly ten years, I find myself bored and irritated when people choose to dance these styles to entirely Western music, without at least layering in some Arabic rhythms. I am very grateful to have had the opportunity to engage, in a small way, with this art-form via contact with Egyptian and Maghrebi artists and musicians – the culture is so rich and full of variety that it will keep me learning and developing for the rest of this lifetime!

  4. This is a wonderful article Anne. It has all the elements to engage an extensive conversation about Middle Eastern Dance and its evolution. This is just what we need now. The first time I heard Arabic Music, it was Egyptian Saidi at the Renaissance Pleasure Faire in San Francisco in 1972. It was the music that inspired me to dance. I was not a dancer, had never had any dance training and it was not until I heard this music, saw the dancing, the costumes and technique, that I wanted to become a dancer. I had no experience of living around Arabic culture or people. It was my amazing good fortune to be able to dance professionally for the Arabic Culture to live music for 25 years. The dance of the Middle East is thousands of years old and has changed and evolved from within, The creative and artistic impulses of the musicians, dancers and composers has always been vibrant. They have readily fused influences from other cultures, whether it is latin rhythms, ballet dance technique, instruments from other cultures, etc, When you dance you show your soul, this is a dance that is lyrical, it tells a story and takes you on a journey. It becomes part of your life journey.

  5. Oh what wonderful and interesting views! I too agree that for me and other UK dancers it is indeed the emotional connection to the music and I completely agree about dancing from your heart with your own truth. Perhaps it is this very sense of being able to dance your own story and dance from your soul that engages so many UK women? Anne this needs to be celebrated and yes you do indeed need to write more articles!

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  7. Through classes and dance events, we find a sisterhood bond, which fosters closer relationships between women… Also, find various and great and amazing belly dancing classes all over London here: playenable.com/s/activity-Belly dancing-in-london-uk. I know you will find great instructors that suits your needs perfectly too 🙂

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