The Physicality of Middle Eastern Dance

The student in Middle Eastern dance faces many physical and emotional challenges. The body and mind must be tamed to layer and twist itself, with precision and grace, to the heavily percussive music from the Middle East making this study as profound and mysterious as its history.  

Spanning back to the beginning of our civilization, this history wants and can be told a million and one ways. This is a story that grows with each dancer’s victories and failures over the body and spirit.  While the mind learns to control the body, it also learns to release inhibitions and insecurities.  

The basic technique can take years to make natural to the body. Physically, like any professional dance, Middle Eastern dance requires musicality, coordination, grace and presentation.

Of particular interest to Middle Eastern dance is deep muscle isolation, the layering of movement and an intense interaction to the music and to the audience.   However, the bigger challenge and lure for the student in Middle Eastern dance is not physical skill, as noted by the panel of dancers that were interviewed in this article.  

Middle Eastern dance respects passion and sensuality. 

The passion expressed in this dance is a passion for life – which includes a wider range of emotion and personality than the basic fare of sex and aggression.              
Technical skills are, in fact, just words in a language of movement. The dancer’s greatest challenge is expressing her/himself with those words.  

"A dancer with a great smile and medium skill is more appealing than technical perfection from a cold fish," said
Azrakesh, the president of MEDA (Middle Eastern Dance Association).   

Kashmir, a dancer/instructor from New Zealand, added, "More important she should look as if she is inhabiting her body and partaking in the dance. A fixed smile is neither a requirement nor desirable. A wind-up dolly is often worse than a dancer with poor physical control."  

This passion and sensuality must be genuine.  

"The Middle Eastern dancer should have a freedom of emotional expression that is genuinely from the heart and not contrived," according to Jasmin Jahal, a lauded dancer/instructor/writer from Chicago, USA.  

Mezdulene, editor/owner of Jareeda Magazine, added, "I prefer audience contact, or in other words, what the dancer gives when she dances. It doesn't matter how fast, agile or flexible she is, if she doesn't give of herself when she does it."  

This passion and sensuality must be the dancer’s own. 

Tamalyn Dallal, an internationally renowned dancer, added that more than the ability to show emotion or ‘heart’, she likes to see the dancer show originality and personality. "Not a carbon copy of someone else."  

Viraj, a professional male dancer/instructor of Sandaria Health Arts, enforced this idea by saying each dancer must show, "flexibility of character or personality quirks that really show this individual's uniqueness and creative response to the unexpected."  

The Practice Makes Perfect rule can be safely applied to most physical movement. But how do you train yourself to be you through the movements of Middle Eastern dance? What if you isn’t naturally passionate or beautifully expressive. What are the basics for passion and confidence, then? 

Tamalyn Dallal tells us that we need only begin by relaxing. "Relaxation is the way to go," she said. "Go inside the music."  

The physical practice of Middle Eastern dance encourages our passion and expression to come to the surface.  

Jasmin Jahal describes her skills in Middle Eastern dance, "like a painter using her pallet of colors; a variety to choose from and mix together as she creates something beautiful."  

Like any physical skill such as flexibility, agility or speed, emotional expression such as sensuality requires awareness.  

"Sensuality is a flavouring," Kashmir continued. "I love onions & paprika but I don't want all my food to taste like lecso. I prefer a wider range of communication linking the music and the audience." 

Sensuality means more than just flavouring for
Hannan Sultan, an instructor/performer from Toronto. "I don't mean it in "sexy" terms but in the degree to which a dancer is IN her body and makes use of the deep muscles to generate movement. That, combined with good use of slow movement and good foot contact, is really mesmerizing."  

Aisha Ali, a renowned instructor, performer and academic in Middle Eastern dance, believes that skills such as speed, flexibility or agility are not as significant to sensuality.  

"Speed is generally determined by the music," she said. "Agility shows training and natural grace, flexibility changes over the years but isn't that important when you have sensuality."  

Viraj, being a rare male Middle Eastern dancer, was able to provide a unique perspective on the way the physical and emotional skills of Middle Eastern dance cross each other.  

"In the West, women are becoming more strong and independent while retaining a feminine side yet men are behind in adopting traditionally female traits, like nurturing, fluidity and softness, that remains strong. So women advance faster than men. They can adopt the best 'masculine' and 'feminine' traits while men fall behind in this. Although this opens the Pandora’s box of gender roles/expectations. I personally insist that if you are a man you should dance with a strength or masculine flair, or if not, then be (and dress) the woman or ambiguous androgynous role you wish to express."  

"Hardness, alone, is unseemly. For men, softness, alone, is also unseemly. I wish men and women to have both hardness (strength, speed, stamina and power) and softness (suppleness, fluidity and flexibility) and sensuality (being universal and so non-gender). The best example I can recall is when women do cane and can’t spin it to swat a bug - it's pathetic (circular or large figure 8s around the body). When Hadia spins her cane it becomes a silver disc, I no longer see it. That rocks. The all-stars like Dina, Amani, Lucy and Suraya all have a strong-core. Whatever your gender I need to respect you and I need to value your humanity which naturally has a mix of soft/hard or feminine/masculine traits." 

Aisha Ali chronicles the progression of the average student, "At first, the student is curious about the exotic aspects of the dance, yet feels certain they should be able to learn everything in about eight weeks.  After their first class, they are somewhat intimidated and feel their movements are not as graceful as they might have been. By the second class, they feel frustrated and they want to be reassured that there is hope for them. Generally, after about two months they are getting a feel for the dance and starting to enjoy themselves. My favourites are those who begin with an open mind and learn by imitating my movements without too much analyzing. I can immediately see a smile of delight in their faces."  

Jasmin Jahal added, "Generally, the average student begins out of curiousity or for fitness. In a short time, at least in my school, they see that the dance is much more than fitness and fun. They see that it is a lovely art form which compliments women, and allows them to be themselves, to accept themselves at whatever age and size they are."  

"Emotionally, the biggest breakthroughs, I think, is when a dancer is ready to dance in front of an audience (usually at Student Nights arranged by the teacher, filled with supportive friends and family)," Azrakesh said. "Then the next big breakthrough is when they are confident and skilled enough to dance professionally, for crowds that they don't know."  

"At first, students are learning a new language of the body," Mezdulene said. "They are focused on the physical. Those who stick with it become emotionally involved as they
become more in touch with themselves. Those who decide to perform become empowered as they gain confidence in themselves." 

Few students, who finish their basic training, are unchanged by the introduction of Middle Eastern dance in their lives. Middle Eastern strengthens and beautifies our self-awareness.  As frustrating as the beginning stage can be, this dance is a pleasure and communion with the body and spirit. 

The joy of learning Middle Eastern dance is discovering that beauty and strength of character are actually natural to us. This study is a life’s study, designed to grow with the dancer’s own maturity.  

"It takes at least a year to assimilate the movements and music into your body and personality," said Tamalyn Dallal. "Even if you are a really fast learner, it will be pure mechanics until then. After a year, it is a lifetime journey, as a student of dance."

Middle Eastern Dance Basics

Some basic named moves: 

  • snake arms

  • shoulder shimmy

  • head slides

  • belly rolls

  • camel (reverse of belly roll)

  • hip circles

  • hip figure 8's (vertical and horizontal)

  • hip lift

  • hip drop

  • chest lift and drop

  • chest slides

  • chest circles

  • basic shimmy

  • piston shimmy

  • twist shimmy

  • Hand circles

  • undulations

  • simple turns

  • Some work with a veil and finger cymbals.

Azrakesh begins the student by teaching that the dance is about isolations.

Jocelyne Khan starts her students with a breakdown of movements, practising those until the students feel comfortable moving their bodies in the new ways, then gradually introduce mixing up the movements into improvisation and choreographed routines. 

Key elements that the beginner student must adhere to, according to Kashmir, are: "Correct posture (in particular: soft knees, neutral pelvis, torso lifted, shoulders relaxed, body vertical). Also, automatic core control. That is, posture muscles that hold the lower back in place and can be engaged without conscious thought."  

And these skills must be learned in "a relaxed manner," added Aisha Ali.
Jasmin Jahal reminds us that the student needs to, "learn how to hear the beat, even if the specific rhythms can be learned later. They must also learn that this dance is not about sexuality and vulgarity, but is a compliment to the feminine form, to women, and to art." 

Mezdulene commented, "Belly dance is not standardized like other dance forms.  One teacher may call a step "camel walk" and another calls it an "undulation walk" another calls the same movement a "body wave step."  This is an art form that has been passed mostly by word of mouth, and is continually evolving. So, in my opinion the core basics of belly dance are isolation and posture."

The Various Stages for Middle Eastern Dance

The very stage for Middle Eastern dance is as multi-layered as its practice. Personal expression and technical skill are tested in three very different environments. Middle Eastern dance can be performed socially, at parties and social gatherings with friends, as a choreographed performance, in front of an audience, or as an improv or impromptu dance before an audience guided by the music and crowd. These different environments teach the dancer how to be spontaneous with the music, to communicate with the group or audience and to be precise in performance.  

Jocelyne Khan commented that social dancing allows her to enjoy the simple pleasures of the movements. "We can have a great time doing only one or two moves all night long."

For Kashmir, there is more interaction and playful competitiveness in social dancing, "as in, "Hey, what about this?" "Yeah, okay but can you do this?" There is more of a sense of fun and celebration."  

For Jasmin Jahal, improv dance is the better challenge for the dancer. "Choreography can be a great tool for learning the body discipline necessary before one attempts to dance improv on a stage."  

"Choreography is more classical," Azrakesh said. "As it's used more for paying audiences, skill and clarity are more important. Improv depends on the crowd. Restaurant and bellygram dancers have to deal with unpredictable crowds and dance areas. They are expected to be of a professional level in their technical ability, and more importantly, they have to be able to break down that fourth wall and connect with the audience in a way that makes that audience comfortable."  

"In improv," Aisha Ali commented, "one is free to be guided only by the music and to draw on technical experience from the subconscious, which allows the ultimate in expressiveness."  

"Socially, the emphasis is on fun, not technique. Of course, if a dancer can wow her friends, she has to have some good moves!" Hannan Sultan said. "A choreographed performance gives the dancer the opportunity to be sure she has covered all her bases, so to speak. It also lets us feel like we are "normal" dancers who use choreography. A good improvised performance has the most opportunity for soul, though."  

Mezdulene commented that, "Improv is dancing to your mood. You might dance to the same music 10 times, but each dance is different depending on mood, circumstance, audience, etc. So to me improv is more creative, a physical manifestation of what is going on in the moment rather then a practiced choreography."

The Qualities of the Master Bellydancer 

"A master bellydancer?" Hannan Sultan asked. "It is a rare thing, and when you see it, you know it.  Master belly dancers have a ripeness about them. I don't think anyone under 35 should worry themselves with trying to claim "master" status. The real masters are the dancers over fifty who stand there and just do one hip drop that is so perfectly timed and executed it leaves you in tears!" 

Aisha Ali said that the dancer should have confidence and grace. "She has excellent technique and experience so that other dance teachers will want to learn from her." 

Kashmir said, "Her movements should enhance the music - both in terms of quality and quantity. What movements are performed are not as important as them being appropriate and well executed. With a dancer of great physical ability this may often mean holding back - I do not want the spell broken by a "wow, how does she do that?" thought.  Needless to say transitions should be smooth (except for the occasional deliberate surprise)."

Viraj answered that the music "demands nuance, subtlety and complexity of arrangement/expression not simply execution. We need to see consistency of all above due to their superb ego management and wide skill base that must include western and other world dance styles. 

"I want to see lifted posture, clear isolations, eloquent articulations, professional physical presentation, transitions with finesse, fluid undulations of the whole body or parts of the body, intelligent music interpretation, strong feet, and good costume choices," Hannan Sultan added. "If a dancer has a well-chosen, dynamic set of music and soul, then I am over the moon. If she has nothing else but soul, good musical interpretation, and good posture, then I'll still be okay!"

The Most Challenging Middle Eastern Dance Moves

Many people have trouble with the chest isolations," Azrakesh answered. "because they aren't movements that we use in our "real" lives, so initially the range of motion can be very small and therefore frustrating." 

Jocelyne Khan answered, "I find that my students seem to have the hardest time with "undulations" (what some people call "camels" or "body waves")." This movement looks like a wave or curve is rolling upwards or downwards vertically through the body. 

Aisha Ali added that undulations are particularly difficult to do because it needs to look fluid and unself-conscious.  

"For me it is the drop/release (also called drop/kick) where the hip drops then drops again with a release. This is probably due to my strange hip joints," Kashmir smiled.  

Jasmin Jahal’s students have often had difficulty with strong shimmies that have stamina and variety. 

"Anything with zils," Tamalyn Dallal answered.

Hannan Sultan commented, "Personally, complicated step patterns with irregular timing were my biggest challenge.  Most people find layered shimmies (a controlled, continuous shake of the hips generated by rhythmic movement of the legs with an upper body isolation on it) to be quite hard." 

"For my students," Mezdulene answered. "the shoulder shimmy is the hardest movement to learn. It's more of a mental hindrance then physical one." 

Viraj said, "I can guarantee that finger cymbals with full-body travelling steps and arm changes take the longest time to learn, especially when all 3 are in different rhythms/speeds. This takes the longest time to learn based on personal and student based experiences."

Favourites in Middle Eastern Dance Movements  

"Anything with a pelvic contraction.  Also, hands and arms," Tamalyn Dallal answered. 

"Shimmies and undulations," from Aisha Ali. 

Azrakesh’s favourite moves are vertical hip figure 8's and chest circles. "Anything that shows a range of motion, rather than shimmies, which show stamina but aren't as expressive." 

"I do love to shimmy a whole lot, but also enjoy undulating camels," Jocelyne Khan answered. "I have a tendency to dance more with my hips/lower body more than using upper body movements, but that's really just more a habit than a conscious choice.

Kashmir enjoys "the vertical figure eight, especially with a relaxed torso in counter movement, relaxed up/down hip shimmies and the scissor walk with a twist, drop and reverb." 

Jasmin Jahal enjoys "strong shimmies that have stamina and variety, dancing with a long silk veil that blends with my body and not treated like a prop and movements that connect directly with the audience and encourage interaction." 

"I love movements that require deep use of the abdominal muscles and psoas," Hannan Sultan answered. "My current favourite is the Egyptian Twist. It looks like you are making taffy with the hips! It starts with the right hip dropping way down, staying dropped and twisting to the back, the the abs and psoas tucking the pelvis way under, then repeat on the left. Now do that fast!"

Mezdulene’s favourite moves are undulations and arm movements. 

"Novel combinations with contrasting components (sharp vs. smooth) that fit music well and have complimentary arm movements," Viraj answered. "These, to me, fit the ideal of visually representing the music. Layered shimmies are another favourite. For example, hip or vibrational shimmy with compound hip move like undulation or figure 8 in any plane."

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