Beledi Blues

I recently had a frustrating correspondence with a dancer in the States. She insisted in using the phrase "beledi dance" as a synonym for "abdominal dance". You may think that considering she also thought Mohammed lived in Egypt this was a lost cause.

But "beledi" must be one of the most misused words in MED.

To many dancers "beledi" is just the name of the dom-dom-tek-ka-tek-dom-tek-ka-tek rhythm. But even this is a misnomer. Arabic musicians call this masmoudi sagir (little masmoudi).

Some believe it to be the origin of the term "belly dance" (it is is not).

More pervasive is the idea that it means a women's dance for women.

In truth beledi means "my country"; more in the sense of "my homeland" or "my community". It is an emotive term used to describe things of home or a put down by urban sophisticates. (Related words are baluda meaning "to be slow witted" and balada meaning "stupidity")

When used to describe dance it means the same style as shaabiyya or shaabi (folkloric) a dance of the people folkdance a dance of women and men (for more on this check out Shira's links). It covers the traditional Saiidi, ghawazee, fellahi etc styles. It also is used to describe the "folkdance" of the urban working class some times called "urban beledi". Shaabiyya (or shaabi) is probably a more neutral term than beledi.

Beledi is also not an equivalent term to raqs sharqi. Raqs sharqi (literally "dance of the East") is a particular style.

It is all made more difficult as a number of well-known teachers use the terms in their own idiosyncratic way. I remember the first time I meet Tanya and she asked what style(s) I liked. When I said "beledi" she asked if I meant Egyptian beledi or Suraya Hilal beledi. "Egyptian" I replied and passed. Suraya's dancing is beautiful but I wish she had come up with terms that were unique to her style.

Jamila Salimpour is another who created a new dance form from Middle Eastern roots. Calling the form "bellydance" rather than using specific Arabian terminology she side stepped the morass. Her troupe she called "Bal Anat" combining the French word for dance with her personal goddess. She took elements from many countries and used her experience in the circus to create a form suitable for outdoor venues. Ironically, this style has lodged in many minds as "authentic" and possibly feeds the "dance of the mother goddess" genre. Taking another step further from the Middle East, Carolena Nericio eventually evolved this into FatChanceBellyDance.

All of which is exciting and vibrant. But imagine going to a classical ballet class to discover they were learning Jazz Funk. Yes, some the moves are sort of similar but it was not what you were expecting. Worse, imagine if the students thought they were learning classical ballet?

Truth in advertising is very important. Teachers need to get the real oil (sometimes difficult when videos and music from the Middle East are mislabelled). Students need to be able to distinguish between facts and mythology. Both have their place but they serve different functions in dance.

December 1999
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