When people hear the words “belly dance,” they might picture a single dancer in an elaborate costume fringed with coins, bells, and jewels. Alternately, they might picture a group of dancers in layered, folkloric costumes, following each other’s lead. Currently in the United States there are many different styles of belly dance, offering opportunities to explore performance, personal expression, and cultural authenticity.
Many similarities of movement and music may be found across stylistic lines, while at the same time each style contains within it a diversity of expression. This makes any hard and fast distinctions difficult, and perhaps to some degree unnecessary. When looking for instruction, however, students are likely to run across references to some of the primary styles currently popular in the United States. In this article I’d like to present a very general overview of three of the most popular styles and their primary differences and similarities.
From American cabaret style comes perhaps the most familiar image of belly dancing. This is primarily a stage-oriented style with an emphasis on performing for an audience. Costuming is usually glittery and eye-catching, and the music can be drawn from a variety of sources both Middle Eastern and Western. This style combines movements from many different nationalities, including Western dance forms such as ballet and jazz. The dance can be done solo or in a troupe, and may be choreographed, improvised, or a mixture of both. Props are often used in this style, the better to catch and hold an audience’s attention. Many people prefer to call this style nightclub or restaurant style to distance it from the European idea of the cabaret as a sex club.
Tribal style belly dance is likely to involve more than one dancer. Here the costuming tends to be more earthy and less glittery than in the cabaret style, with an emphasis on a folkloric look that borrows from several different cultures. This style is more often oriented around the personal expression of the dancers rather than performing for an audience. One of the larger branches of tribal belly dance, American Tribal Style, focuses on the use of “group improvisation” in which one dancer takes the lead and the others follow her through an improvised sequence of previously-rehearsed movements. The movements are generally large and precise to allow the other dancers to follow the lead dancer, and the music is usually Middle Eastern folk with a strong and steady beat.
Modern Egyptian belly dance is drawn from dancing performed in the nightclubs of Cairo. Egyptian music and Egyptian costuming are used, with little or none of the borrowing from other cultures common in the other styles. The music is likely to be entirely “classical Egyptian,” a style of complex orchestral music used in the Cairo nightclubs. This style is very performance oriented, with movements that are typically small and subtle, with a great deal of layering. The dance is almost always performed solo, and primarily choreographed rather than improvised because of the complexity of the music and movements used. This style has grown more and more popular as it becomes more well-known in the US, and incorporates a study of Egyptian culture and history as well as the dance movements themselves.
Any of these styles, as well as numerous others including sub-styles and fusion styles, can provide an entryway into the diverse world of belly dancing. While I have suggested that particular styles may be oriented more toward performance or personal expression, this does not mean that everyone’s reasons for choosing a style are the same. Similarly, studying a stage-focused style does not require a desire to perform. An excellent form of exercise and a rich art form, belly dance (also called Middle Eastern dance, Oriental dance, or Raks Sharki) offers something for everyone!