The word baladi, as translated from Arabic, means “of the country”. It implies story telling and folklore or the expression of a people about their culture and their everyday life. The term baladi, as it refers to rhythm, is the backbone of oriental music, recognized by the accent structure. Baladi also refers to the folkloric style of Egyptian group or solo dance. This encompasses the fellahin, bambootia and saidi dances, using fellahy, baladi and saidi rhythms. The term “raqs sharqi” may have originated in Egypt. In Greece and the Balkans, belly dance is called tsiftetelli (τσιφτετέλι), çiftetelli in Turkish. The term “belly dance” is a creation of Orientalism, first used in English in 1899, and translating in French to “danse du ventre.”
Egyptian-style raqs sharqi is based on Baladi an later the work of belly dance legends Samia Gamal, Tahiya Karioka, Naima Akef, and other dancers who rose to fame during the golden years of the Egyptian film industry. Later dancers who based their styles partially on the dances of these artists are Sohair Zaki, Fifi Abdou, and Nagwa Fouad. All rose to fame between 1960 and 1980, are still popular today, and have nearly risen to the same level of stardom and influence on the style.
Outside the Middle East, raqs sharqi dancing was popularized during the Romantic movement of the 18th and 19th centuries, whereby Orientalist artists depicted their interpretations of harem life in the Ottoman Empire. Around this time, dancers from different Middle Eastern countries began to perform at various World Fairs. They often drew crowds that rivaled those of the technology exhibits. Some dancers were captured in early films. The short film, “Fatima’s Dance,” was widely distributed in the nickelodeon movie theaters. It drew criticism for its “immodest” dancing, and was eventually censored due to public pressure.
The saidi style has its roots in the raks tahhtyb, which is a men’s combat dance performed with a large stick. This evolved into the woman’s raks assaya, or cane dance, which is more delicate and coquettish than the male counterpart but does not hesitate to occasionally imitate it’s macho quality. Both raks tahhtyb and raks assaya represent the pastoral aspects of Egyptian culture.
The most important non-Egyptian forms of belly dance are the Syrian/ Lebanese,Persian and the Turkish.
Some mistakenly believe that Turkish oriental dancing is known as Çiftetelli because this style of music has been incorporated into oriental dancing by Greeks and Roma, illustrated by the fact that the Greek belly dance is called Tsifteteli. However, Turkish Çiftetelli is more correctly a form of wedding folk music, the part that makes up the lively part of the dance at the wedding and is not connected with oriental dancing.
Turkish belly dance today may have been influenced by Roma people as much as by the Egyptian and Syrian/Lebanese forms, having developed from the Ottoman rakkas to the oriental dance known worldwide today. As Turkish law does not impose restrictions on Turkish dancers’ movements and costuming as in Egypt, where dancers are prevented from performing floor work and certain pelvic movements, Turkish dancers are often more outwardly expressive than their Egyptian counterparts. Many professional dancers and musicians in Turkey continue to be of Romani heritage as well. (However, people of Turkish Romani heritage also have a distinct dance style which is uniquely different from the Turkish Oriental style.) Turkish dancers are known for their energetic, athletic (even gymnastic) style, and particularly, until the past few years, their adept use of finger cymbals, also known as zils.
Famous Turkish belly dancers include Tulay Karaca, Nesrin Topkapi and Birgul Berai.
When immigrants from Turkey, Iran, and the Arab states began to immigrate to New York in the 1930s and 1940s, dancers started to perform a mixture of these styles in the nightclubs and restaurants. Often called “Classic Cabaret” or “American Cabaret” belly dance, these dancers are the grandmothers and great-grandmothers of some of today’s most accomplished performers, such as Anahid Sofian and Artemis Mourat.
There is much debate over where and when men became part of the belly dance world. In various media, the art form is most often represented and emphasized as empowering for women, which may imply a belief that men have no place in an art form that is frequently and erroneously believed to be historically female. However, dancers such as Tariq Sultan, have produced ample evidence to the contrary.
Pictorial evidence in the form of Turkish miniatures made during the Ottoman Empire show public performances being done by young men and boys called köçeks. These dancers were widely popular; in fact, the Sultan employed a troupe of these male dancers in addition to a troupe of female dancers, (Metin And: A pictorial history of Turkish Dance). It has long been assumed that these dancers were female impersonators, because they performed in wide flamboyant skirts. A comparison with the female dancers however, shows that this was merely a costume worn for the dramatic effect caused by the swirling fabric.
The current professional version of raqs sharqi, was deliberately designed to display an idealized notion of feminine grace beauty and glamor. Even so men continued to play a behind the scenes role in its development. Many of the most renowned choreographers and coaches are in fact men, such as Ibrahim Akef (cousin of the dance star Naima Akef) and Mahmoud Reda (founder of the renowned Reda Ensemble, the first theater dance troupe of Egypt).
The current trend of male performers of this dance form started in the ’60s and 70s in the United States by such performers and teachers as Ibrahim Farrah (an American of Lebanese descent from Pennsylvania), Roman “Bert” Balladine and John Compton to name a few. These modern performers have even began to resurface in the Middle East in Greece, Turkey, Lebanon and Egypt. Most male dancers face artistic as well as social challenges. Such issues as whether there are or should be differences in costuming, attitude, and the dynamics of choreography between male and female belly dancing is a subject of debate among both male and female dancers.
Many dancers are now fast gaining recognition around the world as a dancers of exceptional skill such as; Egyptian male dancer Tito Seif, who performs in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el Sheikh; Syrian male Dancer Jamil and Shiva, renowned performers in Sydney, Australia; Israeli born Asi Haskal, who holds many concerts in Israel.