Whether it is the swaying of hips, the delicate moving of the hands in the air, or the colourful costumes, Egyptian culture is rich with iconic dances with unique histories, origins, and meanings.
Here are five dances that reflect the many different shades of Egypt’s culture:
1. ‘Sai’di’ (Upper Egyptian)
Egyptian movies based in Upper Egypt (Al-Sai’d) often show two men dancing with sticks at weddings. This dance is referred to as ‘Raqs Assaya’ (stick dancing) or ‘Tahteeb’. The latter refers to the symbolic conflict between men using the sticks to demonstrate their power.
‘Tahteeb’ is also considered a byproduct of the oldest Egyptian form of martial arts that survived from Ancient Egyptian times.
2. The North of Delta
Dances in the Northern Delta vary in many ways, but most of them share the theme of colourful costumes. Some of these dances include ‘Ghawazi El-Sonbat’ (Descendants of Gypsies of Sonbat) in rural areas in the Delta and the ‘El-Hagala’ dance in Marsa Matrouh.
In Alexandria, each dance tells a story of the relationship between sailors and Alexandrian women. One of these stories is ‘Welad El-Sayala’ (The Sons of Sayala) which tells the story of how fishermen and women from the neighborhood of Sayala in Alexandria celebrate joyful events. ‘Welad El-Sayala’ is characterized by neighborhood props such as pocket knives and chairs.
Nowadays men in Alexandria still use their thumbs in reference to knives or actual knives in their dances to Sha’abi music, which is known as ‘Tashkil’ (Forming) and it is danced on occasions like weddings and birthdays.
3. Belly Dancing
One of the best-known of Egypt’s dances, belly dancing has a rich history in Egyptian cinema and theatre with icons like Tahiya Karioka, Samia Gamal, and Fifi Abdou.
It is known as the epitome of Egyptian femininity and seduction with its fitted attire, complementing women’s bodies. A belly dancer synchronizes her body with the traditional ‘tabla’ (drum), and it mainly depends on the movement of the hips, the belly, and the flow of the arms.
The main rhythm to which belly dancers dance is called ‘Wahda W Nos’ (One and A Half) and it refers to the one and a half tone distance between one musical note and the other.
4. Sufi Dancing
Sufi dancing is associated with the spiritual and philosophical approach to Islam known as Sufism. This dance is performed by men either in groups or individually and is distinguished by the multilayered skirts, ‘tannoura’, worn by the dancer.
This dance takes different forms; one that is practiced weekly after every Friday prayer and in Mouleds (festivals that celebrate the birth of the Prophet and religious leaders) as a form of celebration such as Al-Sayeda Zainab in Cairo and Al-Sayed Al-Badawi in Tanta. Dancers usually recite religious poems that celebrate the Prophet Muhammad.
The other one is performed by individuals with colourful tannoura’s in cultural events. The latter gained more popularity and became known as ‘tannoura’ dancing, or ‘whirling dervish’ in the West. It is usually performed in tourist destinations in Egypt such as Sharm El-Sheikh and Hurghada and cultural centers in Old Cairo such as the Al-Rob’ El-Thaqafi Cultural Center.
The first time this dance appeared was in the 13th Century under the rule of the Sufi mystic and poet Jalal Al-Din Al-Rumi. The concept behind it is transcending into a state of trance to approach God.
The dance symbolizes the rotation of Earth around the sun while personifying the bypassing of the holy city of Mecca as the center, and the movement of hands adds to its symbolism since one of the dancer’s hands is risen to symbolise the unity of the earth and the sky while the other hand is down.
The dancer’s performance can last from 15 minutes to several hours and the skirt can weigh 19 kilograms.
5. Nubian Dance
Nubia is known for its colorful character seen in its architecture, traditional clothing, and dance. Their form of dancing is known for its incorporation of an upbeat African tempo and depends on the tambourine duff.
Nubian dance is known for the symmetrical movement of both arms forward and backward while simultaneously putting the right foot in the front and the left foot in the back, all of which move together.
There are many other forms of Egyptian dance, which, like pieces of a puzzle, together form the complete picture of the Egyptian identity, but not all of them are well-exposed since they are keen on preserving the privacy of their traditions and women.