Egyptian style raqs sharqi as we know it today, originates from the early 20th century in Egypt. It developed in Cairo in the 1920s in nightclubs such as Badia Masabni’s ‘Opera Casino’. Badia Masabni’s estabilishment was not the only one at the time, but it was the most influential in the development of this dance form. Badiaa Masabni wanted to appeal to an international and upper class audience, so her choreographies started incorporating a larger use of the stage, a lot of footwork and influences from western dances such as ballet and ballroom dances. Badia herself had traveled a lot, having lived for some time in Argentina and having performed internationally (she was an accomplished actress, singer and dancer).
From the beginning, raqs sharqi incorporated baladi and folkloric movements, as well as western influences which can be seen in the use of turns, travelling steps and a more lifted feeling than the traditional local dances. Also, the dance started being choreographed for group dances and performed on a stage. Nowadays, we can find examples of raqs sharqi being performed all over the world. In Egypt they dance it in boats on the Nile, hotels and at expensive weddings. Outside of Egypt, it tends to be performed on stage at festivals and haflas. From the 1930s until the 1980s there were a lot of raqs sharqi dance scenes in Egyptian movies, but, at the time of writing, oriental dance seems to have disappeared from Egyptian cinema.
Raqs Sharqi and Cabaret Music
Egyptian style music incorporates orchestras with many instruments. They include traditional Middle Eastern instruments such as tabla, nay, kanoun and typically western ones, such as violin, trumpet accordion. The latter were introduced to Egyptian music at the same time as the introduction of western influences in the dance, in the 1920s clubs in Cairo.
Nowadays both traditional acoustic instruments and modern and electric ones, such as keyboards, are used. Example of Egyptian raqs sharqi music are Hossam Ramzy’s or Hassan Abou El Seoud’s music. Also, since the 1970s, dancers started to perform to songs that were not initially written for dancing, but which later were used for this purpose, such as songs written for Oum Koultoum. Soheir Zaki, in the 1970s, is said to have been the first dancer to perform to Oum Koultoum’s songs. Since then, numerous versions of these songs have been adapted for dancing to.
Famous Egyptian raqs dancers include the dancers/ choreographers Raqia Hassan and Ibrahim Akef, dancers Nagwa Fouad and Soher Zaki in the 1970s/80s and, among the contemporary belly dance legends, Dina, Randa Kamel and Dandesha. Whereas, going back in time to the golden era of Egyptian belly dance in the 1940s and 1950s we find Samia Gamal, Naima Akef, Tahia Carioka and other less famous but very good dancers, such as Zeinat Olwi, Nabaweya Moustafa and Hager Hamdi
(solo-improvised dance based on torso articulation). While I like this term, I do not think that it is right for every type of what we call ‘belly dance’ as, for example, tribal is done in groups and also raqs sharqi, when it is performed outside of its countries of origin, is sometimes performed in groups and to a choreography rather than being improvised. Also, SITA could refer to many other dance forms that we would not consider ‘belly dance’, such as Moroccan shikhat.
So, it is still hard, in my opinion, to define exactly what this dance genre includes. Maybe we should not talk about ‘belly dance’ as one dance genre at all, but we should isolate different types of dance that so far have been bundled together, such as raqs sharqi, American tribal, raqs baladi and saabi and so on and treat them as different genres which have some common roots.