'High-waisted skirts is a 'must' for Golden Era belly dance', we might think. Even an idea of 'harem-style' dancing, big arm movements, leg kicks and lunges' might seem to be connected to Golden Era belly dance. But how much is it what we want Golden Era to be, and how much is it actual Golden Era Raqs Sharqi?
Note on the terminology
Before we start to dig into the details, let me clarify what I mean by ‘belly dance’ and ‘Raqs Sharqi’. In the context of this article, I am writing about Golden Era Raqs Sharqi – a dance style that dominates Egyptian movies during the Golden Era (1930’-1960’). We can even call it ‘Golden Era belly dance’. The term ‘belly dance’ or, more specifically, ‘danse du ventre’ is connected to the Egyptian dance in the late 19th century. However, this term does not come from Egypt, or the Ottoman Empire, which Egypt was officially still part of. It comes from Europe (1), and it refers to the dance of an alma that was depicted in the painting by Jean Gerome (2). Although this term was never used in Egypt, and even though some dancers, such as Samia Gamal, boycotted this term (3), it is the term we, in the dance community, use most frequently. By belly dance, I, personally, don’t consider fantasy dances inspired by Raqs Sharqi (in the same manner we wouldn’t call a dance, where a dancer with a rose in her hair and black dress with red frills, randomly stumps, a flamenco dance).
Data and methodology
The data (videoclips) used in this analysis come from movies available to study at the time of the research. The source includes online public platforms, such as YouTube or Vimeo, as well as a personal DVD and video collection by Badriyah. The complete list of analysed movies can be found in the sections Lists of analysed movies. In each film, I have identified dance scenes that I later studied. In total, there were 179 dance clips analysed, coming from 67 movies of Taheya Carioca, spread across 30 years, from 1936 to 1966. For Samia Gamal, there were 96 dance scenes from 32 films analysed, spread across 20 years, from 1944 to 1964.
In the research for this article, I have categorised dance styles and dance costuming for Taheya Carioca and Samia Gamal. In the categorisation of dance styles, I have researched these dance styles (groups of dance styles):
In the costuming, I have looked at a type of costume used in the dance scenes:
High waisted skirt
High waisted pants
Also, for this article, I have used part of another research - Samia Gamal movement usage and evolution. I have analysed the moves Samia Gamal used in her dance and measured how long the movement was performed in each dance clip. Here are the movement types I have researched:
Jumps (leg up, back bend)
Lunges(arm work included)
Arabesque with steps
Triple step (twisting the body)
Fluent hip work (figure eights, low camels)
Pure arm, hand, and shoulders movements
Note on the accuracy
We have to keep in mind that the results presented below are based only on the analysis of two Egyptian Golden Era dancers. The dance movement analysis is based on the videoclips of Samia Gamal, while the costuming and dance scenes analysis is based on the videoclips of Samia Gamal and Taheya Carioca. Although I personally think that the results might reflect general facts, it would be a mistake to claim it. More dance clips of more dancers have to be analysed in future research.
Oriental Fantasy as a specific dance style
By researching dance styles presented in Egyptian Golden Era movies, looking into the costuming and dance moves usage, I have found a clear difference between Golden Era Raqs Sharqi and another dance style that seems similar.
The first emergence of this specific dance style naturally happened during the dance style analysis. While categorising dance scenes, I have noticed dances, both by Taheya and Samia, that resembled Raqs Sharqi by their vibe, but they lacked some typical dance technique for Raqs Sharqi. On the other hand, this dance style uses a different technique that is not that frequently present in Raqs Sharqi. The dance scenes of this specific style were usually set into a ‘fairy tale’ scenery, dream, or a past.
I have named this style ‘Oriental Fantasy’ as it reminds me of fantasy dance scenes in Hollywood movies in 1930’ - 1950’. However, a discussion with other historians is needed to name the style or research its naming within the Egyptian sources. Interestingly, Oriental Fantasy dances appeared in 7% of the dance scenes analysed for both Samia and Taheya. It is not a very common style, yet it forms a separate category (Figure 1).
Dance movements in Oriental Fantasy
Before we nerd even more, note that this part of the analysis is based only on the dance moves of Samia Gamal. This describes the difference between Raqs Sharqi and Oriental Fantasy by Samia Gamal; it does not necessarily represent the trends generally.
In Figure 2, you can see the difference in dance techniques used in Oriental Fantasy and Raqs Sharqi by Samia Gamal. The percentage represents how much a specific dance move was used in the actual choreographies. These numbers are not averages but medians (the median shows the most common value). In Figure 3, you can see the range of the percentages and their median values. This shows us that some moves were not represented at all in some choreographies. On the other hand, in some choreographies, they were represented extensively. For example, look at the percentage range of the arabesque steps in Figure 3. You can see that in one choreography, the arabesques were used in about 6% of the choreography (lowest end of the range). In another choreography, arabesques were used in about 29% (the highest end). In addition, we can clearly see that some movements such as hip accents or shimmies did not appear at all in Oriental Fantasy by Samia.
Looking back to Figure 2, we can compare Raqs Sharqi, and Oriental Fantasy dance moves usage. Raqs Sharqi by Samia is more represented by fluent hip work, accents and shimmies. Oriental Fantasy dances include more arabesque steps than Raqs Sharqi. Although floor work, lunges, backbends and jumps are not forming significant parts of Oriental Fantasy choreographies, they are much more represented in Oriental Fantasy than Raqs Sharqi Sharqi.
Costuming & High-waisted skirts
Interestingly, it is not only the dance movement that distinguishes Raqs Sharqi from Oriental Fantasy in Golden Era. It is also costuming. In my analysis, I have found no case of Samia Gamal or Taheya Carioca performing Raqs Sharqi in a high-waisted skirt or pants. On the contrary, bedlah is the most common costume style in Golden Era Raqs Sharqi. Bedlah also appears in a few cases in the Oriental Fantasy scenes, as you can see in Figure 4. In every case where Samia or Taheya danced in a high waisted skirt or pants, the dance scene was set in a past, dream or fantasy land. They both barely used hip work and other typical techniques for Raqs Sharqi, and the overall technique was somewhat based on arm movement, steps across the stage. Hence, it was categorized as Oriental Fantasy.
Does it mean that you cannot use a high-waisted skirt in your Golden Era belly dance performance? Well, there are a few aspects to be discussed. Indeed, speaking with the results of this analysis in your hands: no. Thinking about it as an artist? Yes (with an understanding of the background). So far, when performing Golden Era on stage, high-waisted costume helps to bring the unique atmosphere of ‘the past’, especially for the audience that is not aware of the details of Golden Era Raqs Sharqi. Using the technique from the Golden Era while having a high-waisted skirt is, in my view, all right.
If a dancer wants to use costuming that corresponds more to Golden Era Raqs Sharqi, I would recommend using a bedlah costume and paying attention to belly button coverage. However, suppose the performing dancer uses high waisted skirt and a technique that is not typical for Raqs Sharqi. In that case, it supports and corresponds to the westernized view of belly dance or Oriental Fantasy seen in Egyptian movies. In that case, it is better to call the performance differently than Golden Era Raqs Sharqi.
Why is it interesting?
I have noticed that current belly dancers (including me several years ago) tend to think about Golden Era belly dance in terms of the Oriental Fantasy dance style rather than Golden Era Raqs Sharqi. How many of us had this image of Samia Gamal dancing between pillars as an example of Golden Era belly dance (see the clip below)? How many of us imagine smooth arm movements in backbends and high waisted skirts as ‘a must’ in Golden Era Raqs Sharqi? I guess many. But this image refers instead to Oriental Fantasy, then Golden Era Raqs Sharqi. And that I find intriguing.
In the video below, you can find a few examples of 'Oriental Fantasy' dance scenes from Golden Era Egyptian movies:
Oriental Fantasy seems to be a specific category of a dance style that appeared in the Egyptian Golden Era movie dance scenes. Arabesque steps, fluent hip work, jumps, lunges, backbend, and floor work are typical features of Oriental Fantasy choreographies, while hip accents and shimmies are lacking (based on Samia Gamal dance analysis).
Oriental Fantasy dances are usually set in a past, fairy tale, fantasy, or a dream within Egyptian Golden Era movies. A typical costume contains a bra, sometimes with sleeves, and a high-waisted skirt or pants. This dance style appears in some of the most famous Golden Era dance scenes that might give a wrong impression of how Golden Era Raqs Sharqi looks.
(2) Dance of the Almeh, Jean-Léon Gérôme, 1863, information by Dayton Art Institute
(3) Interview with Samia Gamal, White Cargo program brochure, 1951
Lists of analysed movies
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