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Dance in the Ancient
Mediterranean: the Roman Period Part One by Dr Ruth Webb -
Dance in the Ancient Mediterranean: the Roman Period Part Two by Dr Ruth Webb - [PDF]
Egypt, Music, Dance and the Nubian Connection Part One by Katrina Robinson - [PDF]
Coming soon - Egypt, Music, Dance and the Nubian Connection Part Two by Katrina Robinson
Coming soon - Egypt, Music, Dance and the Nubian Connection Part Three by Katrina Robinson
Female Dance in Ancient Egypt by Dr Patricia Spencer - [PDF]
Moulid by Katrina Robinson - [PDF]
‘Sha’abi’ is a general term for rural or ‘folk’ music and dance from Egypt. The Society teaches Sha’abi rooted in authentic traditions of the Saïd, a region of Upper Egypt. This is the home of powerful male stick dances, the Musicians of the Nile and the former Ghawazee families of dancers. Music and dance still play a large part in many Saïdi celebrations - it is quite easy to find authentic performers there.
Sha’abi movements are vibrant, rhythmic or fluid with an open, ‘natural’ and joyful feel. Dancing on the flat of the foot gives them their ‘grounded’ and earthy beauty. Sha’abi arms are simple, relaxed and connected to the ‘core’ or centre of the responsive body.
Sha’abi movements express the music - Saïdi music is rich and exciting and one of the most sophisticated forms of ‘folk’ music in the world. It can be very rhythmic and sustained like the Aswan ensemble’s music, or complex and layered – listen to some of the longer pieces by the Musicians of the Nile for examples. When you dance Sha’abi you are sharing some of Egypt’s finest authentic art forms, developed in villages over many centuries. Look out for this music for a dynamic Sha’abi feel:
1. Aswan music and dance ensemble
2. Music of the Fellahin and Music of the Ghawazee
3. Anything by the Musicians of the Nile
Sha’abi movements form the ‘heart’ of the language of Egyptian dance and are at the root of the more recent forms of Baladi (urban ‘folk’) and Sharqi (Classical).
Baladi (Urban 'Folk')
The term 'Baladi' means anything with a strong flavour of the countryside. Baladi music and dance was so called because it is has strong rural roots fused with modern urban elements. This exciting fusion took place in Cairo around the 1930s during a period of change when many Egyptian villagers moved to the cities to work. In Cairo they lived in particular neighbourhoods and their folk songs, instruments and dances came into contact with urban music and instruments - including those from the west. These contacts included work with professional musicians and dancers in the Mohammed Ali Street area. Their creativity brought together and transformed these elements- rural and urban, Egyptian and foreign - into the new art-form of Baladi. This innovative combination was totally Egyptian in style and gave both music and dance much greater expressive potential.
There are two main 'types' of Baladi. First there is 'traditional' or 'Achra' Baladi - so called because of its ten-part musical structure ('Achra' means 'ten'). It was developed from various sections of a men's rural stick dance and is designed especially for the female dancer. Secondly, there are songs about everything from feelings to politics. Both types of Baladi are wonderful to dance to. Baladi movements are more contained and gestural than those of Sha'abi and it has a wide expressive range, from serious and powerful to playful and light hearted. There are lots of opportunities to improvise in and around the structures of the music. Baladi remains very popular because of its strong rural links and cosmopolitan 'modern' aspects and appeals to all Egyptians, rich or poor.
Raqs Sharqi Society 'Sharqi' or 'Classical' Egyptian dance expresses the rich and beautiful traditions of Egyptian Arabic classical music. The Society emphasises 'musicality' in Egyptian dance: movements take on new qualities to express the melodies, rhythms, moods and instrumentation of the music. In other words the movement conventions reflect the music. The Society distinguishes two forms of Sharqi Egyptian dance: 'Traditional' or 'Courtly' Sharqi and 'Modern' Sharqi.
‘Traditional’ or ‘Courtly’ Sharqi
This is danced to ‘traditional’ or ‘courtly’ style Egyptian classical music – originally Turkish-inspired Egyptian art music of the late 19th century. It was played by small ensembles of highly trained musicians, mainly in the homes of wealthy or ‘aristocratic’ families, as private entertainment.
The music was refined and exquisite, following set patterns, creating a feeling of ‘Tarab’ or ‘enchantment’ – and performances could last for hours. Performances were usually for men, but women would have been familiar with the music, having heard it filtering through from the men’s quarters or possibly as versions played by professional female musicians (‘Awalim’) on occasions in the women’s private quarters.
This is danced to Egyptian classical music composed during the mid-20th century and played by large orchestras that sometimes included western musical instruments such as the cello and double bass. The music was innovative and confident, expansive and sweeping, with strong rhythmic lines and lyrical melodies. Key composers of this period include Mohammed Abdul Wahab and Farid el Atrash - look out for recordings by them. Their compositions are still hugely acclaimed.
The movement conventions reflect the music: expansive use of space and body line and varied qualities of movements ranging from powerful to refined through which the dancer can express the rhythm and 'feel' of the melodies. The taqasim sections (solo instrumental improvisations) offer rich opportunities for interpretation.
Modern Sharqi is the most contemporary form of Egyptian dance. It embodies influences from the film star Samia Gamal and her ballet training and has been developed for theatre performance in the UK and rest of Europe. The Raqs Sharqi Society has contributed to the creative development of Modern Sharqi through innovative but careful introductions of choreographic principles to the authentic movement language, in order to strengthen the dance and enhance its contemporary expressive power.
Obviously, there are no moving images available of dance in women’s private domains, but this form of Egyptian classical music has become a valued part of Raqs Sharqi performances in a western concert or theatre venue. The Society defines the dance conventions of ‘traditional’ or ‘courtly’ Sharqi as being refined and delicate with contained use of body and floor space - reflecting the essential qualities of the music. The ‘taqasim’ (solo improvisation by a single musical instrument, expressed by the dancer) is a feature. The Society has contributed carefully to the development of this lovely form in a modern idiom. Look in ‘Sales’ for Sharqi CDs featuring traditional Sharqi pieces.
Unlike Western European music, Arabic music’s most developed elements are not
harmony and chord structure, but melody and rhythm. These elements have become
highly refined, and combine perfectly with the movements of Raqs Sharqi. Rhythm
is expressed (usually, but not exclusively) with strong repetitive movements of
the hips and the melodic line with the arms, the upper body and undulating
movements of the torso.
In its purest form Raqs Sharqi is an improvised dance form performed to live music. The musicians also improvise, or adapt what they are playing depending on the tempo and expression of the dancer/s. So the interaction between musicians and dancers creates not only the dance but also to some extent the music. The way in which the dancer expresses the music enhances the audience’s appreciation and understanding of it and all its subtle complexities.
A Journey Along the Nile A Review of El Bahr - 'The River' - Society Showcase 2003 by Funmi Adewole
El Bahr-‘The River’ took place on the 8th November 2003 at the Steiner House
Theatre in London. The show featured Raqs Sharqi Society students, graduates
and associates. One would expect of a showcase an evening of variable quality
geared to students’ friends and family. However, the focus and enjoyment of the
dancers and their sensitivity to the music belied the nature of the event and
made for an enjoyable and satisfying experience for the general dance
Elements of dance theatre such as dusky lighting and simple set pieces such as cushions and screens effectively brought to life the theme of ‘The River’. These were enough to transport us to dwellings and locales along the Nile, to clearings in the village, to the market place, to the modern apartment in Cairo. Through solos, duets, trios and some larger group dances we were presented with glimpses of rural and urban life and the connections and influences flowing between them - from the Nubian Desert to Upper Egypt and on to the cities of the delta. Men, possibly herdsmen, danced with sticks, then watched the women from a distance. Women entertained each other as they went about their chores or relaxed with tea in their apartments. Occasionally the full cast would walk across the stage, unaware of spectators as if returning from prayers.
The two-part programme focused on the rural, urban and classical forms of Egyptian dance. True to the Society’s aims to promote legitimate interpretations and authentic practice of the Raqs Sharqi forms, the glitzy, cabaret style with its busy, undulating arms and emphatic pelvis was nowhere to be seen. As ballet captivates us through its virtuosity, leaps and extensions, one could say that the power of Raqs Sharqi lies in its nuances, its numerous and sometimes slight variations of fundamental gestures and combinations of movements. The more experienced performers had absorbed the technique and attitude of the dance into their own physicality and were able to perform the Raqs Sharqi forms comfortably and be themselves within the dance. Finding and expressing one’s own emotional connection and relationship to the cultural specifics of a dance plays an important part in performing it comfortably if one is from outside the originating culture. Some of the less experienced performers were yet to attain this and seemed to be ‘acting’ Egyptian and exotic. Such moments, however, were brief, and the overall atmosphere of serenity drew the spectator in and proved that subtlety can be a powerful mode of expression.
The opening solo evoked the breathy, turning winds and colours of the Nubian desert. Sometimes in silhouette, sometimes in half-light, this dance was replete with small shifts of weight, producing waves of both fluid and staccato energy, while use of the floor added a contemporary quality. In many of the pieces the dancers traversed the stage in simple trajectories sustaining a repetitive flow that bordered on the hypnotic. At moments like this it was easy to appreciate the holistic nature of the technique as echoes of movements seemed to emanate out from the core of the body right to the fingertips, unaided by extraneous force.
The footwork of the folk form showed a similarity between Raqs Sharqi and West African forms of dance, for instance the movement combination in which pressure and release of the foot produces a swaying hip motion is similar to some Nigerian dances. In West Africa, though, the knees are often more bent and the body inclined forward – a difference that automatically changes the direction in which the hips sway. However, as in Raqs Sharqi this movement is also performed to visualise the percussion in traditional music. Possibly, through trading and migration along the Nile, movements were exchanged and shared by different peoples across tropical Africa. The choreographies on the whole allowed space for individual interpretation. The Baladi duets included a delightful balance between individual interpretation and synchronization. This relationship between individuality and community enabled us to experience the many faces of this womanly dance: at once stately, delicate, robust, regal, whimsical, earthy, aloof and accessible. The calls and clapping from the audience during some of the pieces, especially the solos, also brought a sense of play, participation and community to the evening. The closing modern classical solo celebrated the expressiveness of Raqs Sharqi as an art form. The co-ordination of eye and hand movements was exquisite and the level of connectivity in the dancer’s torso enabled her to interpret the music in precise and unexpected ways.
As a newcomer to the Raqs Sharqi Society I was impressed by the dedication of the organisers and the participants. The Showcase was created as an opportunity for dancers to extend their performance experience and have a record of their work for future development. However, it also succeeded as a show in its own right. Having seen Raqs Sharqi and the show for the first time I feel that the Society has indeed created a viable dance community far away from Egypt where one can enjoy this beautiful dance form.
This review first appeared in the January-April 2004 issue of ‘Events’, the Society’s former newsletter.
‘Funmi Adewole is a theatre performer and researches and writes on the performance of African dance within a theatrical context. At the time of writing she also worked part-time at Dance UK as development manager for ADAD (Association of Dance of the African Diaspora).
El Bahr - 'The River' Society Showcase 2003 Review by Jennifer Carmen
Showcase 2003 was performed early in November, after almost a year of preparation, to a full and appreciative house. London’s Steiner Theatre is a good size for Raqs Sharqi, giving enough stage room for group work yet retaining intimacy with the audience. The skilfully arranged programme of Sha’abi, Baladi and Sharqi was linked by the theme of ‘The River’- El Bahr.
Erna Froehlich, in lovely dusty red veil and flowing gallabeya, opened the first half to an elegiac ney piece. She showed sustained concentration in this contemporary evocation, well-chosen to highlight her elegance of line. In Halima, a traditional piece for eight dancers, I enjoyed the hypnotic repetition that the choreographer was not afraid to employ. The male-style stick dance by Jean Elbourn, Liz Moan and and Barbara York was carried off with poise and power – I felt more attack in their combat moves would consolidate the latent authority they show in this form. In Raqs El Hawanim – ‘The Ladies’ Dance’, Aliya Burch and Ellie Atkinson highlighted their beautiful step-shivers and varieties of Egyptian walks and introduced a contrasting feminine energy to the stage. Their natural physical rapport made this duo a joy to watch. Lively choreography by Judy Hammond, Dorothy Wood and the performers, to a vocal piece by Metqal Qinawi, made the most of the crisp hip technique and individual qualities of dancers Veronica Difford, Anita Epstein and Claire Morgan. Al Bahr Al Gharam Wasah – ‘Love is as Vast as a River’, danced with discipline and charm by Kate Deacon, Jaine Lumsden and Lorne McCall, closed the Sha’abi scene.
A simple but effective stage setting created a salon atmosphere for traditional Sharqi pieces by Natalie Wilson and Bridget Poulter. Natalie’s Farid El Atrache medley suited her femininity and refinement, with plenty of qanun to highlight her hipwork. Bridget’s interpretation of Ana F’Intizarak was accomplished and magnetic, and she conveyed her involvement with the music with real warmth and style, ending the first half of the programme with a confident flourish.
After the Interval a lively ghawazee dance choreographed for eight by Juliana Brustik filled the stage with colour and movement, in interesting group and individual patterns, segues and overlaps that never got too busy. Vivien Knight and Helen Leake built up the energy in their brief duo downstage, with infectious enjoyment and rapport.
The opening mawaal of the Baladi piece Taht Al Shbaak – ‘Underneath the Window’ and another setting change introduced modern Cairo. Sylvianne Capell and Meret Gabra played off each other and the music with flair and charm. The costumes looked great and Meret’s effortless ease and charisma added that special Egyptian flavour. Hassan Abou El Seoud’s wonderful Leylat Masr – ‘Egyptian Nights’ was powerfully interpreted by Barbara York, whose mature presence and confident musicality was suited to the piece well. Erna’s playful Tigi Ya Hawa and other duos completed the Baladi section: Bridget Poulter and Cathy Needham danced Enousa, and Vivien Knight and Theresa Lewis, in wrapped skirts and head veils, interpreted the soundly structured Hart El Sa’ayin – ‘Watersellers’ Lane’ with boldness and variety.
Lorne McCall and Tamsin Elbourn gave accomplished performances to Bii El Gamal Ya Ali – ‘Sell all you Have...’and Bahlam Bik – ‘I Dream of You’, respectively. Well-chosen to round off the modern Sharqi section and the night was a vocal rendition of Inta Omri – ‘You are my Life’, stunningly interpreted by Sylvianne Capell, her attunement to the music evident in her passion and command. Her gestures were fully charged with expression and never deteriorated into prettiness. Although the white costume was appropriate, I am certain that Sylvianne could carry off more glamour and drama than she allows herself currently.
Space does not permit comment on each piece, but every dance and dancer made a memorable contribution. The dancing was of a very high standard in every form, despite the challenge of the unfamiliar raked stage. It was an excellent show and the resources of all the dancers were used intelligently in a well-planned programme. Make-up and headdresses would have benefited from an overseeing eye to harmonise the look and add a professional touch. The lighting and simple but carefully chosen settings were effective and the professionalism was a credit to Katrina, Juliana and Judy, who created and organised the show, taking responsibility for the artistic direction, direction and production, respectively.
Five years after the incorporation of the Raqs Sharqi Society (in 1997) a soundly based maturity, growing individualism and creative confidence has emerged and the Hilal legacy of superb technique, clear form and lyrical Sharqi is evident in these well-trained dancers. The beauty, grace and poise of Raqs Sharqi was expressed by everyone, but I would like to see the emergence of more fire, power and ‘attitude’. With security and technique firmly established, the dancers could now allow themselves a freer rein to express their individuality more fully and could afford to take a few creative risks!
A lot of work by the dancers and the dedicated team of organisers went into this performance. On the basis of this very competent showing I have no doubt that the audience would appear for a second night and give the dancers more of a chance to relax and enjoy themselves to the full.
Jennifer Carmen danced professionally with live music in London and the Middle East during the early 1980s, and selected the musicians who were to form the Layali El Sharq ensemble. Between 1985 and 1992 she worked as administrator/manager, promoter, designer and costumier with Suraya Hilal and Company in a pioneering mission to establish high-quality Raqs Sharqi on the concert stages of Britain and abroad. She has produced CDs of the Layali El Sharq ensemble that have become known as classics of their genres: www.
This review first appeared in the January-April 2004 issue of ‘Events’, the Society’s former newsletter.
* Go to the Shop page for the double CD ‘The Layali el Sharq Ensemble Live: Classical Egyptian Music for Raqs Sharqi' and the CD 'Baladi Live'.
THE MUSICIANS OF THE NILE IN LONDON
Queen Elizabeth Hall, South Bank Centre, Saturday 16th July 2005
Review by Katrina Robinson.
There was real excitement in the foyer of the Queen Elizabeth Hall well before the performance had even started. We were there to see the Musicians of the Nile – this most famous group from Upper Egypt – who were bringing their splendid Saïdi music and dance traditions back to London after a gap of 22 years. Seats had sold out well in advance, and lucky ticket holders swapped notes about whether a favourite song or dance might feature in the show. Live music in the foyer added to the buzz. Cuban and Brazilian-inspired drum rhythms, chants and vocal harmonies from Cascada - a superb multi-ethnic all-female group – wove through the crowd. Quite by chance, Cascada’s vibrant, joyful female energies acted as a powerful foil for those of the all-male Musicians we would see later.
In the auditorium, as the lights dimmed, the excited buzz from the audience exploded into a joyful welcome as the Musicians, turbanned and dressed in customary white or dark gallabiyeh, came on stage and took their seats on a simple row of chairs on a raised platform. Of the ten musicians on this European tour, seven played for us in the show’s first half, in a line-up consisting of four rebaba (two-stringed spiked fiddles), a small arghul (double bamboo ‘clarinet’ playing drone and melody), tabla and doff. Between them they transformed a warm English summer night into a village celebration as they launched into the effortlessly synchronised instrumentals, popular Saïdi tunes and seamless rhythms that have made them justly famous. As one melody morphed into another to create lively medleys it was fun trying to identify familiar pieces from their CDs ‘Egypte’, ‘From Luxor to Isna’ and ‘Charcoal Gypsies’, and the songs ‘Salamat’ (‘Greetings’), and ‘Walla Zaman’ (‘It’s been so long’) were memorable highlights for many.
‘Having listened to them on CDs and videos for such a long time it was fantastic to see and hear them perform live…they played their earthy music with such skill and energy.’ Diane Petty.
Throughout the Musicians’ repertoire the unique combination of raw energy and sophisticated ‘layering’ that is a hallmark of authentic Saïdi music produced spontaneous outbursts of rhythmic clapping, shouts of appreciation and zagareet (ululation) from the audience. One fine mawwal (narrative vocal lament) followed another, and it was clear that the evening was going to exceed all expectations.
The second part of the two-hour programme featured a traditional mizmar ensemble, seated cross-legged on the platform. Three zummarin (mizmar players) and a percussionist playing the large double-sided tanbur baladi drum struck up their shrill, sustained invitation to dance in two pieces – and many of audience did just that, filling the dance space in front of the stage.
’I was delighted at the support … from Egyptian music fans.’ Sandy Moxam.
The musicians welcomed and enjoyed this spontaneity and participation, and it heightened the electric empathy between audience and performers.
‘The hall was full and the audience had a good rapport with the players, increasingly so as the show progressed.’ Margaret Marsh.
This part of the show was a rich pot-pourri of music and movement that blended into a satisfying whole. One of the musicians followed his song solo with dance. His grounded stamping steps, small shivery back swerves and the famous ‘stallion step’ activated the scarves around his hips, extending the movements into space. A rebabah (spiked fiddle) soloist with a tenor voice of great beauty and clarity sang a splendid mawwal, followed by the pure, cool tones of the souffara or salamiya soprano flute in a further solo – another example of truly expert musicianship. To the insistent drive of mizmar and drum, Mohammed Murad twirled and circled his rebaba like a shoum (the heavy stave used in male stick dance), before balancing it behind his head and continuing to play it while spinning and dancing on the spot.
As the audience waited for the tahtib (martial dance ‘game’ using heavy staves), the musicians fuelled our anticipation with the measured, drawn-out rhythms of a traditional stick dance piece. The tanbur baladi player coaxed the ‘broken beat’ sequences out of his drum with a series of lazy, skittering slides of his curved drumstick, drawing us towards the heavy ‘dom’ at the end of each sequence. Then came the finale - the tahtib everyone had hoped for! The entrances, challenges, dance steps and parrying with staves that were familiar to many in the audience seemed as fresh as if we were seeing them for the first time.
‘We were putty in their hands – and didn’t they know it! For me the highlight was their rousing and beautifully orchestrated stick dance.’ Yvonne Wootton.
This is the thing about the Musicians of the Nile: they are such consummate, highly accomplished professionals. Having spent decades refining their musicianship, they play together seamlessly as a group in an effortless and relaxed way, but at the same time they are always completely themselves - authentic, individual personalities, at ease with each other and their audience.
‘An authentic Luxor sound, delivered with enthusiasm, humour and a superb level of professionalism plus a relaxed interplay between the musicians – and between them and the audience.’ Brenda Elliott
The whole audience stood during the encore in response to this flawless performance. The Musicians had brought authentic Saïdi music and dance back to London again, so that even the inappropriate lighting (pop-concert-style circling coloured lights and rhythm-linked pulses) hadn’t marred the experience. For me and many others the show had lived up to and even one beyond expectations and the group remained ‘A powerful presence; inspirational’. Anita Epstein.
Back in the foyer after the show, some Musicians had set up mini-bazaars selling musical instruments, scarves, CDs and jewellery - frowned on by the venue managers but doing brisk business nonetheless and giving us another chance to take away some keepsakes to add to our memories of a truly magical evening.
Katrina Robinson is a senior Raqs Sharqi Society teacher and has written several articles on the history of the dance.
A version of this review first appeared in the September-December 2005 issue of ‘Events’, the Society’s former newsletter.
* See our ‘Shop’ page for CDs by the Musicians of the Nile. We will post details of any forthcoming tours or workshops featuring the group on our ‘Events’ page.