The idea of belly dancing with canes originates from Egyptian folkloric dances, in particular from the Saiidi region in Upper Egypt. The traditional male dance is called Tahib and it is a martial art, accompanied by music, is which the two fighters use a stick, called Assaya in Arabic, to hit and fence each other’s hits. Later, women incorporated the stick as a belly dance prop, and used it to imitate this typically masculine dance and make fun of it, in an affectionate and playful way. This dance is called in Arabic raqs al assaya, literally cane dance.
The stick used in belly dance is usually a bamboo cane, which may have a hooked end, which can be decorated with sequins. If the dance is folkloric, usually the assaya will be a plain bamboo cane; otherwise, for raqs sharqi performances, it can be sequinned. The belly dancer usually wears a long tunic (also called in Arabic galabeya), a hip scarf with coins and a head scarf, which is traditional but it is also useful to keep the stick in place when balancing it on the dancer’s head. This is the traditional attire, although nowadays, as the assaya dance is performed as a part of cabaret belly dance performances, the dancers can also wear a cabaret outfit.
The rhythm that belly dancers usually perform to when dancing with a stick is the saidi rhythm (read more on saiidi on our Arabic rhythms page), which is also used for tahib. Saiidi is a strong and earthy rhythm and so, the belly dance style associated with it must also be strong, very well grounded, with a proud posture and movements pointing to the earth (for example, movements are often performed on flat or semi flat feet rather the standing on feet balls). The instruments used to play saiidi rhythm are very traditional ones, such as the mizmar (similar to a flute), the rebab (a string instrument) and percussion instruments such as daff-duff, mazhar and tabla.
There are many movements that a belly dancer can do when dancing with a stick. She can balance it on her head while moving her hips; turn holding the assaya in the air either above her head, at chest level or at hips level. A belly dancer can also balance the stick on one of her hips while doing small hip drops; hold it in front of her either at chest level, while doing shoulder shimmies, or at hips level while moving her hips, or in front of her to accompany a camel. It is possible also to balance the stick on the shoulders while doing some steps; accompany the assaya movements with grounded small jumps or a belly dancer can decide to keep the stick in place vertically on the ground with one hand and dance around it.
Another typical move when belly dancing with a stick is twirling it between the dancer’s fingers. This move looks good when the rhythm becomes particularly lively. Swirling the stick properly takes some practice. The dancer needs to hold the stick in his/her hand from the non-hooked side, between the base of her thumb and her palm, closing the fingers around the stick. The assaya must be held straight, with the hooked side upwards, and parallel to the belly dancer’s body. Then, still keeping the stick straight and parallel to the body, the dancer needs to open her hand with the palm facing upwards and let the stick fall down while still holding the non-hooked end between the base of her thumb and the open palm. Lastly, the dancer needs to grasp the stick with the strength of her fingers, in order to bring it back to its original upright position. It is very important that the cane is always straight and parallel to the body.
This twirling can be repeated a few times in a row and it can be associated to hip moves. Also, in between twirling, the dancer can let the hooked end of the stick rest on the floor and kick it lightly with her foot, to make it go upwards and then resume the twirling.
Useful resources: An instructional DVD that I found particularly useful when learning is the Raks Al Asaya DVD.
Tagged Egyptian dance