Arab Folk Dance 101 For The Belly Dancer
Learning folklore can add depth and authenticity to your performance; folklore is the
backbone of the dance. As a performer on stage, your performance is often more formal
rather than the informal festive dancing that you might see people doing in the “streets”
of the Arab world. As a result, you have to learn the skills of being a good performer. It
takes time and it builds.  

Belly dance stems from middle eastern folk dance and the movements of the people.
These dances are natural to the people of the region, but in the west, need to be taught. A
key reason it’s so important to know the background of the dance is to know where to
place the movement in the body. The basic movements should reflect the characteristics
and history of the region as many of these dances date back centuries.

There are many folkloric dances throughout the Middle East; communal dances are
everywhere you look as well as ladies and men's dances. The main areas of study are
Lebanon and Egypt, though we also need to look at the dances of countries such as
Turkey, Morocco, Tunisia, and Sudan. Both men and women often trained from a young
age to perform their dances at festive occasions such as familial, cultural, and religious

This article is an introduction to Dabke and Mawashahat/Samaii.

DABKE comes from the ancient Phoenician dances and Phoenicians were the first to
teach it. According to folk tradition, the dance originated in the Levant where houses
were built with a roof made of wood, straw, and dirt. The dirt on the roof had to be
compacted which required stomping the dirt hard in a uniform way to compact it evenly.
Dabke is a line and formation dance found in several places such as Palestine, Lebanon,
Syria, Iraq, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen. The dance is a proud communal dance
done at festive gatherings. It is also worked in theatrical plays in Lebanon. It is
Lebanon’s national dance.

The movements consist of walking, leaping, fast footwork, kicks, and stomps of feet and
heels. Movements are all done in unison. Even in Lebanon (a tiny country no bigger than
the state of Delaware), there are variations in steps and styles. This carries over to
the USA where there are pockets of immigrants from a particular area. You can tell where
they come from by the dabke they do even before their accent gives them away. The
leader or rais is always on the front of the line. The rais may change the step or do fancy
steps. The second in line keeps the line going with the basic steps to keep the rhythm.
The rais usually has a tasbih (prayer beads), soft hankie, scarf, or a knotted handkerchief
which is twirled in time to the music. This is the communal dabke style. The more formal
performing dabke style is fancier, often with group choreography. The choreography is
comprised of a basic syllabus and some raks sharki moves. Often the men are very strong
in their movements with jumping, fast turning, and heavy stomping, and even vocal
exclamations. Traditionally, the ladies' movements are softer and less aggressive. The
performing style today is mixed with more balletic and theatrical moves.

Dabke music is distinctive with a 4/4 time with an override of 6. This means even though
it is 4/4, you count 6 steps in every 8 counts of music. There is always a pulse somewhere
with the body. Debke is a very energetic dance form. The right hand is held up and the left
hand down. In Lebanon, there are many styles. The main styles are Beiruty, known for the
capital city of Beirut. Beledi styles are those from the countryside and mountains.


Samai Dance characteristics include elegance and serenity. Interpreting it is not so easy.
A good samai performance looks and feels effortless but is complex in nature. It can be
the Arab equivalent of the great ballets.

With roots from Arab-Andalusia, Muwashahat dance has had a resurgence in Arab dance.
There is no actual documented history of choreography and movement. As a result,
much of this style was recreated by studying the feel and lyrics of what’s left of the
metered poetry.

Egyptian choreographer Mahmoud Reda adapted an Andalusian style for the stage. The
dances were gentle and flowing with slow weight changes and graceful undulations.
This style is still popular in North Africa and the Levant. Muwashahat choreography
and movement are different than typical belly dance movements such as shimmies and
figure eights. A successful performance must show the dancer’s understanding of the
rhythm and use of the movements to interpret the melody.

Morwenna Assaf