Some Dance Styles of the Middle East & North Africa

Styles of dance vary widely throughout the Middle East and North Africa. I have listed some of the more common ones below. Realistically any region/village will have a number of dances and each style of dance will have a number of variations. Many dances have been lost.

In Egypt the National Folkloric Troupe tried to salvage what was left in the 1950s and 1960s. I believe the initial research was well done however a recent video of folk dance was poorly done not only had the dances lost their original flavour, several dances were mislabelled and the costuming was overstagified. The Reda Troupe also popularised Egyptian folk dance by combining it with a Western aesthetic. A number of Reda trained dancers are still teaching.

Both Aisha Ali and Morocco have videos for sale of their early film of real dancers in the 1960s-1980s. Other records are very thin on the ground. A few descriptions and photos. Unfortunately the photos, like many of the Orientalist paintings, are of posed models and do not necessarily represent what real dancers wore nor how they moved.


Country of Origin



Berber, Morocco

Similar to Ahouache but only unmarried woman can take part. More 'refined'; more emphasis on forming group patterns.


Berber, Morocco

Initially line of men face line of women and both clap. Then women bob to get chest jewellery to jangle; men stamp. Dance for hours.


Reda folklore

see Muwashshah



Professional style – form of raqs sharqi
Before 19th century 'learned women' who combined dancing with their poetry, music, and singing. Performed mainly for women.
Later (until 1970s) came to mean the style of women from Muhammad 'Ali Street for festive occasions; initially had own (female) musicians and trained women on the job


The Persian Gulf

Shoulders tiny, sharp, and constant; hips smaller like merengue.
Thobes are smaller & shorter than on the Arabic side and worn over shalvar, head is covered


All of the Middle East including the Maghrib

Dances vary according to location.



Imitation of the boatmen miming what they have to sell to the big ships combined with footwork similar to the English sailor's jig/hornpipe.
If performed by women they are dressed as men (the traders are men, boys and girls)
Morocco MED List; Denise Enan


(Syria, Palestine, Lebanon, Jordon)

Fast with intricate footwork stamping out the beat. Sometimes singing. Many variations by region. Usually group dance in line or circle.


Egypt – Nile floodplain
also Iraq and any other places with farmers

Men had no distinct dance tradition other than solo improvisation (ie "belly dance") so Reda created one for stage.
Women's costume is full dress with sleeves and ruffle on bottom.

Ghawâzî /


Sinti gypsies now based in Luxor – most famous Banaat Maazin
constant shimmies; foot and zills carry the beat
'Modern' costumes consist of layers of fringing all the way up the skirt. Older costumes have them in fitted coats over chemise and shalvar


Blue People of Tuareg Berbers,
Morocco, Algeria

Blessing (trance) ritual rather than dance. Done on knees. Starts with head & face covered. Flicky movements of hand. Ribcage vertical pulses. Swaying head.
Usually solo woman but may include another woman or man.



Exorcism ritual.

Hagalla /
Haggallah /

(although some Libyans settled in Mersa Matruh, in Egypt)

Believed by many as a coming of age dance however, observations suggest it is actually performed by professionals at a wedding. Solo woman in a thobe dances in front of a line of singing and clapping men. If no professional is available, a pre-pubescent girl with face & head covered may dance. Vigorous; rapid up, two side-side hips.
The MED Resource Guide has reprinted some of Morocco's observations of real hagalla


Berber, Morocco

Precursor to flamenco. Group sing and do rapid footwork. Solo and duet spots ending with high leaps with legs tucked and/or barrel turns

Khaleegy /
Raqs Khaliji /
Raqs Samri

The Arabic Gulf
(Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates)

Women's social dance – often in groups. Wearing and manipulating large thobes (thobe el-neshel / thobe nashaal also known as darrah zerri) ; hair tossing (al-na'ish), very small shoulder shimmies as an occasional accent, very little hip work (usually small drops), gliding footwork ('Arabic I')
[Thobe photo and pattern]


Urban Egypt
- especially Alexandria

Not a true folk dance but rather a theatrical interpretation. More details on milaya.

aka Andalusian

Reda Folklore

A theatrical creation using aspects of muwashshah poetry style. More details on muwashshah.


Egypt / Sudan border (Nubia Desert)

Bouncy, lively dance. The Kanuz women's costume consists of a overdress gathered at the waist, thighs, and ankles - performance costumes often look like nighties. Men's costume has mid calf tunic with narrow legged pants and turban.
Women in the Fadija areas wear a costume more like a sari - that is 6m of bright fabric wrapped around lower body and over the head.

Ouled Nail
"Willid NAyill"
(Dr Robyn Friend)


The true 'Danse du Ventre' ie they move their bellies rather than the torso.



Large variety of dance (the Persian Empire spanned thousands of years and included not only different Iranian tribes but Egyptians, Kurds, Uzbeks, Turkmens, Jews and Armenians) – very different from arabic. Tend to be delicate & 'feminine'. Graceful gliding, gentle upper body undulations, headslides, subtle hands & arms; facial expression important;sometimes mimicry. Emphasis on naz (charm)
For more detail check out the interview with Robyn Friend
Also see Bandari


Egyptian Fakelore

A theatrical interpretation based on anything from looking at a postcard, to dreams, but rarely real research. For more detail check Shira's article

Raqs al Juzur /
Raks al Juzur /
Pot Dance


Both men and women perform this feat of balance at weddings. The dancer executes twisting movements to increasingly faster music while balancing a water jug on her head. It is also one of the signature dances of the national troupe

Raqs al Maharem Raks al Maharem /
Scarf Dance


Originally a flirtatious cafe dance, it took on a more patriotic meaning when dancers started to use a red and a white scarf to support the independence movement in the 1950's.

Raqs as sayf /
Sword Dance


Woman’s dance showing balance and dexerity (cf el Ard by men which is threatening and branishing)

Raqs al Seniyya/ Raks al Seniyya / Tray Dance


Solo dance balancing tray (with jug and cups) on head.
Involves acrobatics and floor work. Not at all sedate.

Raqs Assaya /
Cane dance

Upper Egypt – (as-Said)

Adapted from Tahtib. Usually solo dance – men and women. Cane is swung, balanced, and thrown (and caught), hit on the ground etc. (See saiidi).

Raqs Sham’idân


This involves balancing candelabra on head and is traditionally done as part of an Egyptian zeffa (wedding procession). It is usually created as being made popular in the 1920s by Shafî’a il-Ibtiyya and/or Zouba al Klobbatiya.

Raqs Sharqi /
Raks Sharki

Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Turkey

Solo interpretation of music with emphasis on hip & torso; use of isolation; often improvisational; styles vary between regions and also in technical emphasis from the loose informal beledi to classical oriental(e). Costuming varied but often in bedleh (bra & belt).
Term believed to be coined by or for Badîa`a Masabni in 1920s/30s.



Created by Mahmoud Reda and others; similar to ballet character dancing - that is it combines traditional moves with staging and costuming for spectacle. Sometimes called "Moscow on the Nile" as under Nasser Russian ballet teachers were brought to Egypt and many young Egyptian dancers were sent to study on Russia.


Upper Egypt – (as-said)

Earthy; often with heels into the ground. Some steps mimic the horse. Uses saiidi beat. Lots of hips. Costume is gallibiya or tunic (but without shalvar), tied at waist. Head covered. Often uses cane.



Group dance of women at wedding. Exaggerated hips, stomach, and breast movements. Accompanied by their leader's (the sheikha) ribald songs. Followed by the sheikha dancing to demonstrate what the bride will be expected to do later.



'Whirling Devish' – ritual not performance; Long full white robes.


Upper Egypt – (as-said)

Martial arts dance to show skill with long staves. Usually men's solo or duet.



A form of 'Whirling Devish' for performance. Objects manipulated while spinning and full, weighted coloured skirt spun over head. ("Tanoura" means "skirt")
Here are some I saw in Egypt


Blue People of Tuareg Berbers,
Morocco, Algeria

Blessing (trance) ritual rather than dance. Standing version of guedra.

Tissant Betrothal

Berber, Morocco

Group of men and women chaperoned by bendir players. Woman breaks out fluttering shoulders, man offers corded belt with dagger.



Athletic sharp horizontal hip twists and locks; footwork on demi; Costume: wrapped woollen dress with yarn belt and fibia pins.
Also see Raqs al Juzur (pot dance) and Raqs al al Maharem (scarf dance)

Urban Beledi

Egypt especially Alexandria & Cairo

Dance of the urban working class; more sophisticated than fellahin or saiidi but incorporating elements. Not as refined as raqs sharqi. Performed to pop or modern Egyptian music. Street dress.
Further detail in urban beledi article.


Egypt / Sudan/ Libya

Trance ritual to appease spirits through rhythm. Heavy throbbing of upper torso and head

NB I have not included "gypsy" dance (apart from specifically the Ghawâzî) as it is subject to even more of a fantasy cult than "belly dance". It is generally accepted although the Roma & Sinti may have influenced the local dance, there existed a strong dance tradition in the Middle East before they arrived. That is, "belly dance" was not created by "gypsies".

It is also worth noting (in light of the seductive gypsy dancer fantasy) that, on the whole, the Roma and Sinti tend to be a very modest people. Further they have their own history, culture, and dance and many find it insulting to have scantily clad women poncing about and calling what they do "gypsy dance".

Artemis is a well respected dancer in the States. She offers a number of papers on Roma and Rom dancing on her web page. She also has a number of videos showing Rom dance

For more information on Romani Culture and Dance:
European Roma Rights Center links page
Romani World Music and Dance
Macedonian and Bulgarian Muslim Romani women: power, politics, and creativity in ritual

Return to Middle East Background page
Return to

© Copyright 2007-2017
Updated by JEWEL