Middle Eastern Dance


In the Arab world men and women generally dance with and for members of their own family and it is traditional to find ‘belly dance’ being performed in women-only groups. Although there are modern day exceptions, men and women rarely dance with each other unless they are related and in some conservative areas, even this is frowned upon.

It is interesting to note that Arab or Middle Eastern men are mostly very good dancers and quite willingly participate in dance, song and entertainment. In certain areas of the Middle East, women are not allowed to perform in public and in these instances, one will find male performers, dressed as women.

Belly dancing, as we know it today, has its origins in dance which was once part of celebration concerning fertility, rites of passage and religious ritual. Historians have found evidence of this ancient time line extending back to 4000BC.

From the harems of the Ottoman Empire, where the ‘adorned ones’ kept oriental dance alive to the traditions of the prostitute-dancer of the ‘Ouled Nail’ in the Sahara Desert, it is a mystery as to how and why Middle Eastern and North African woman retained the old fertility dance and made it the sophisticated art-form which we see today.


Music and dance were found at all celebrations honouring fertility deities. Belief in a female creator was probably due to the obvious fact that it was women who gave birth and it was thus assumed that women’s magical powers extended to the natural world and would influence the growth of crops and all natural things which affected that growth.

In Cyprus, it has been found that women performed erotic, ecstatic dances accompanied by wild singing and drumming, in their worship of Aphrodite, the Greek Goddess of Love and fertility.

In Egypt, large numbers of women gathered to worship the fertility powers of goddesses Hathor and Bastet. The Lebanese observed similar customs at Baalbek in the service of the goddess Attar.

The Devadasis (temple priestesses) of India performed voluptuous dances which served to promote fertility. Sculptures of these temple dancers were often featured on the outer enclosures of the temples.

The main purpose of all these rituals was to bring the fertilizing power of the goddess into contact with the lives of human beings.

As civilizations changed the old faiths and customs fell away and were lost. One theory for these changes is that man gradually began to understand his role in the creation of life, but mistakenly believed that he alone was responsible, with woman being merely the vessel for his creation. Goddess worship and fertility dances gradually disappeared and remaining dance lost its religious significance and became a secular activity and later an art-form.

In the areas along the north coast of Africa, eastern shores of the Mediterranean and in the desert lands of the Middle East dance underwent a fascinating evolution. There, in what has become the Arab-Islamic world, a secular art of great skill and variety has been fashioned by women, taking the basic pelvic movement as a starting point.
Although this dance has no conscious connection with the ancient fertility dances, a vestige of ancestry still clings to it.


It is generally believed that the Rom (gypsies) of all lands share a common origin in India. Somewhere around the 11th century, the Rom migrated west through Afghanistan and Persia and on to the eastern shores of the Mediterranean. Here their ways divided, with some continuing, via Turkey, into Europe and others travelling south, via Egypt to follow the southern coastline of the Mediterranean.

Egyptians considered the Romany people ‘outsiders’ and gave them the name Ghawazee, which is a term still used today when referring to a style of dance.

When the Rom did settle, they adopted local traditions, added their own ‘flavour’ and for hundreds of years used this crosspollination of culture as they went about making their living as public performers. They have no written history, their story has been kept alive and transmitted from generation to generation by means of music, song and dance.

Due to the unending upheavals of history and its peoples, it is not always possible to ascertain which stylistic elements are indigenous to a particular dance and which are the influence of migrant groups. It is interesting to note how a similar use of the body in two otherwise differing dance forms has allowed certain movement to enrich the repertoire of both.


In the Middle East a dancer wearing a Shamadan (candelabra) is hired to lead a wedding procession and in Morocco the Schikhatt is an erotic dance performed by a woman at marriage ceremonies.

Houara, often referred to as the ‘mother of flamenco’, is danced by both men and women in the community and is usually a show of skill and entertainment.

Dances such as the Zaar (Egypt) and the Hadra (Morocco) are danced as part of exorcism rituals to drum rhythms which closely resemble a heartbeat.

Sufi, which is a sect of Islam, uses whirling dance as a devotional tool. It is designed at moving the practitioner into an enhanced state of awareness or ecstasy. While whirling, the palm of the right-hand faces towards the sky, receiving the blessings of heaven and the left palm faces towards to floor, channelling the blessings to the earth.

Guedra, a dance from the Tuareg Berbers of the Sahara Desert, is performed on the knees. It is a night time blessing ritual designed at creating peace and transmitting spiritual love. It is usually done in a circle in which anybody and everybody can participate, although the central figures are female. Interestingly, the term ‘guedra’ is used to describe a cauldron/cooking pot; drum that is made using the cooking pot; the heart-beat rhythm used and the female performer of the time.

With a steady heartbeat rhythm and much clapping and ululating from the audience, the performer will put on a ‘magic’ necklace, cover her head and chest with a ‘veil’ (to signify darkness, the unknown and a lack of knowledge) and move into the centre of the circle. Her hands and fingers will flick under the covering until she feels it is time to bring them into the light. When this happens the four earth-corners (N, S, E & W) are saluted with hand-to-head gestures and the four elements are also acknowledged. The vast majority of movement flows from the fingers and hands, with only some movement from the elbows.

As the drum beat gets stronger the dancer is likely to remove the ‘veil’ in order to focus her gaze and blessings more strongly. The ribcage is lifted and lowered and side-to-side head movements come into play. The ‘guedra’ increases in tempo and intensity until the ‘guedra’ collapses in a trance-like state.


By its very nature, dance is an activity which heightens the senses and lowers inhibitions.

With the suppression of paganism came the suppression of dance. Although, when an activity fulfils basic human needs it is not easily abandoned and in the ‘classical’ world dance was retained by separating it from the mainstream of life and diverging it into two streams: on the one hand it became a carefully regulated private activity and on the other, it became the work of professionals.