Egyptian raqs sharqi (or raks sharki), also called Egyptian cabaret, has its roots in Egyptian social and folkloric dances, but has been influenced by western dance genres. In particular, from the beginning, it was influenced by vaudeville elements as one of the most influential figures in the history of Egyptian raqs sharqi, Badia Masabni, started her career in vaudeville theaters. From its origins to our days, Egyptian raqs sharqi has changed and it has spread around the world. However, it maintains certain elements that distinguish it from other genres.
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 Badiaa 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.
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.
In Egyptian style the movements tend to be more internalised and small than in other styles of belly dance, such as Turkish style. At the same time, even the smallest movement in Egyptian raqs sharqi, if performed well, is quite dramatic. Egyptian raqs include some ballet and ballroom dance influences, such as in footwork (for example the use of arabesque) and in stance and arm positions, although adapted to an oriental style. Floorwork and certain pelvic moves are banned, due to Egyptian law.
In general, when dancing with an orchestra, dancers tend to move around more and make more use of the space, while if dancing to the sound of one or two instruments (i.e. drums solos) movements are more limited to a small area. Sometimes Egyptian raqs sharqi dancers make an entrance with a veil, which they discard after about the first 30 seconds of dancing. In the old times, from the 1940s until the 1960s, most dancers used finger cymbals for some of their performances, but today the use of sagat seems to be very limited or have almost disappeared from raks sharki performances. The assaya was used in old performances, but originally not to saidi rhythms, which were introduced later in the raqs sharqi repertoire (you will notice this if you watch dance scenes from old Egyptian movies, which you can find on YouTube and Vimeo).
In general, comparing to ghawazee or baladi dance styles, raqs sharqi is more lifted (i.e. less grounded), so dancers stand more on their tiptoes rather than on flat feet. Also, the arms move more, are more fluid and are more lifted. Generally speaking, the style has changed over time, in that the dance in the old times was more flowing and gentle, while modern style tends to be more energetic, assertive and dramatic. However, these differences also depend largely on each individual dancer’s style and personality.
Generally, the Egyptian cabaret costume, called bedlah, is the one that many people today associate with raqs sharqi. That is, the two piece with bra and hip belt (although nowadays a lot of Egyptian cabaret costumes have beads sewed directly onto a tight skirt rather than a hip belt). Some costumes are one piece only, but all of them are elaborated and with a lot of beads. Egyptian law forbids to bare the stomach, hence, even when wearing a two piece costume set, belly dancers in Egypt cover their torso with a stocking type of material.
Fashion though has changed a lot over time and you will notice it, if you watch dance scenes from old Egyptian movies starting in the 1930s down through the decades and up to videos of performances in our times. Differences sometimes are subtle, but have dramatic effects, such as the use of wider shoulder straps in the 1930s and 40s or alter neck type of bras, to the push up bras that Dina and Randa use today. Dina was an innovator in the raqs sharqi fashion, as she started using short skirts and costumes made of lycra, a new material that opened up new possibilities for costume design. Whereas, in the past, skirts were made mainly of chiffon. Of course fashions always change and trends come back. So, we will wait to see how fashion will change in the future. In any case, the basic shape of the bedlah, with its bra and skirt look has not changed.