Belly Dance

Iraqi Kawliya and Khaleeji Dance


Dancers Fiora (left) and Shirley (right) performing Khaleeji Saudi style in Cardiff, UK.

I have written about these two different forms of dance in the same post, because, although they are different, they have some elements in common. They come from two regions that are not too far from each other and also they have some movement patters in common, such as the tossing of the head and spinning of the hair. This movement seems to be also common to many Middle Eastern and Northern African trance dances, such as zaar from Egypt, and those dances that may have their roots in trance dances, such as Moroccan shikhat.

Shirley (pictured above, who teaches in Newport, Wales) has summarised the main differences between these two genres very well, saying: “Though both styles involve hair tossing, they are radically different. Khaleeji style is done in a thobe dress which is used as a vital prop in the dance. Khaleeji is very fluid, and involves a simple drop step with swaying symbolic hand gestures. Iraqi Kawliya has much faster hair tosses from back to front with faster footwork.”

Kawliya from Iraq

I have become aware of this particular form of Middle Eastern dance from Iraq called Kawliya (also known as  Kawleeya), through Yutube videos where Daila performs this genre. Daila is an international award winner professional belly dancer based in the Czech Republic. You can see an example of her performance below.

When I first saw one of these videos, I was amazed. Daila is a great bellydancer and moves in ways that seem almost humanly impossible! As for the Kawliya dance, it seems to be characterised by the shoulder shimmies and the head rolls and energetic hair flipping. Kawleeya are a gypsy group in Iraq and Kawleeya literally means Gipsy. An Iraqi friend of mine, Jeanan, told me that, before the war, Kawleeya was a disgraceful dance. It was only performed by common people, by gypsies or by prostitutes (many of which in Iraq were Kawleeya), hence the bad reputation of this dance.

However, as my friend tells me, after the war things have changed and the gypsies rose to become artists that represented Iraq. Now, all Iraqi women, according to my friend, want to dance like this and dance the Kawleeya way at social events. Personally, I like this dance and I think it is beautiful to watch, even though I would never attempt the energetic hair flipping for fear of injuring my neck. The ambivalent attitude that Iraqis have towards this dance seems to have parallels to the attitude of Moroccans towards shikhat or of Egyptians towards belly dance performers. On one hand, the dancer’s profession is seen as not worthy of respect and dancers, in same cases, are outcast. On the other, there is pride towards these dance forms that belong to their cultures, thus forming part of their cultural identity.

I have posted one of Daila’s Kawliya performances above. Everybody I spoke to agrees that Daila is an accomplished dancer; however, some people think that the way she performs is not authentic. I personally like the way Daila dances, but she is a professional belly dancer based in Europe, hence she performs for the stage and her dance may be influenced by various styles she is accomplished in. The way Kawleeya people perform maybe be a bit different, but I have never had the chance to see them dance so I cannot tell.  After all, all dance forms, when they are transmitted between different cultures, go through adaptations and changes. Please feel free to comment with your opinions and give some information in case you know more about Kawliya.

Since I first wrote this post, I had the chance to take part to a workshop held by Nawarra, during her Funoon dance camp festival in Fez in 2014. Until then, I had not had the chance to try this dance and I had not seen any workshops anywhere in the UK. However, now it seems to be more and more popular. The workshop was great and a lot of fun and Kawleeya is indeed very physically demanding.  If you have the energy though and if you do not have any problems with your neck (because of the very energetic head tosses involved in this dance), then it is worth trying.


Group dancing Iraqi kwaleeji at the Funoon show in Newport, UK, organised by Nawarra

Khaleeji from the Persian Gulf

Khaleeji dance (with Khaleeji meaning ‘of the Gulf’) is a dance style typical of the Arabic peninsula and the Persian Gulf including Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Arab Emirates, Qatar, Yemen, Kuwait and parts of Iraq. This type of dance is completely different from the type of dance most commonly referred to as belly dance, which is Egyptian, Lebanese and Turkish styles. An authority on this Middle Eastern dance style is Kay Hardy Campbell, a Boston based writer, dancer and musician, specialised in the Middle East and Saudi Arabia.

Dancer’s Costume

Dancers of Khaleeji wear a characteristic piece of clothing, called thobe nashal (a sort of long, very full and wide caftan, often richly embroidered). The thobe nashal is usually in a brilliant colour and the dancer does not wear a hip scarf or belt. Because of its shape and its ample sleeves, the thobe nashal is also used as a prop by the dancer, who holds the dress up in front of her like an apron and makes it billow whilst her pelvis undulates gently to R-L-R, L-R-L stepping patterns. Also, the wide sleeves of the thobe nashal can be held up to frame head slides or used as a veil.


Khaliji style Arabic dance involves a lot of focus on footwork, spins and a lot of movement in the torso and upper body. Also, while performing Khaleeji, dancers toss their long unbound hair from one shoulder to the other.

Music and Rhythms

Khaleeji rhythm is different from the classical Middle Eastern rhythms and it is characterised by heavy rolling beats. One of the most common khaleegy rhythm, also called Saudi rhythm, is a syncopated medium speed 4/4 rhythm with heavy accents (dums) on beats 1, “2.5”, 4, with the “.5” being the rest between the major beats in the measure.

The instruments most commonly used for Khaleeji style music are frame drums such as tars and bendirs, while the ud is used as the primary instrument. BUY this DVD from our USA Shop or from our UK Shop

A CD called Khaliji (by RT Productions) has been released by Naser Musa and Souhail Kaspar, two musicians specialised in Arabic music.

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Valeria is a dance researcher completing a PhD in dance and heritage. Valeria also teaches and performs as a belly dance but also enjoys learning ballet, jazz dance and other dance genres.

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3 thoughts on “Iraqi Kawliya and Khaleeji Dance

  1. Audrey Doherty

    Anyone who says this is not authentic should try actually performing El Kawliya and put their money where their mouth is : ) It is authentic as this dance can be without having lived and learned with the Kawliya gypsies! This is a terrific performance. Good on Daila

    • ValeriaLo Post author

      Thank you, Audrey for your comment. I agree that this is a great performance. It is as authentic as this type of performance can be, considering that it is danced in a different context and by a western dancer.
      Also, the concept of authenticity in dance is debatable since we do not have records of most original dance performances and also dance changes a lot according to the time when it is performed, the audience and the dancer performing it. Dance is not the same as, for example, sculpture that is fixed in time and never changing…

  2. Heather

    “World Dance and Arts with Iraqi dance Kawliya also called Kawleeya.
    ” ended up being a wonderful post and also I actually was truly
    content to locate the blog post. Many thanks,Camille


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