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A Comparison and Contrast of American and Egyptian Belly Dance

by A'isha Azar

There are many elements to both American and Egyptian style belly dance that are shared, and yet much that makes them different. All styles of belly dance utilize some of the same concepts in movement. It is usually music, essence, and emotional content, how movement is utilized within cultural contexts, and the dancer's response to the music that makes the style. These are elements that are sometimes hard to pin down. Dance is an art and not a science, (though even this can be debated), and that makes any explanation ambiguous at best -- every supposed firm rule can be bent or broken! Keeping that in mind, let us take the elements mentioned above and try to make some sense out of how and why they influence the different styles.

Music is most always the defining factor in most forms of dance. In American style belly dance, music guides the dancer, and it has this in common with Egyptian style. I tell my students, "Belly dance is the physical manifestation of and visual compliment to the music." Music, in fact, is one of the main elements that makes the styles what they are, as the dancers strive to utilize the music in the fullest ways.

When we use the word "essence," we are talking about a feeling, an idea, a way of relating to music and movement all at the same time. This is the hardest quality of dance to explain. One of the identifying elements of essence in contrasting American and Egyptian styles is that in American dance, we find an essence that is often based in intellectual foundations. This means that the dance will often be choreographed in a way that creates a feeling of symmetry. The dance will be balanced in its use of movement, space and feeling. A "theme" is often important; there might be a story telling aspect to the American dance, and there is always a use of theatrical technique. It is possible to say that the American dancer wants to create a sort of fantasy that makes what is presented seem larger than life, or go beyond the mundane. The American dancer might intellectualize the process of the dance through the learning of a formal choreography. The American dance routine will lend itself well to either a group dance or to a solo performance. In fact, even in the absence of a formal choreography, there will still be this feeling or essence of balance and symmetry.

There is a precision that goes into American belly dance that is not clearly defined in the Egyptian routine. Even the term "choreography" can be said to have a different connotation. The Egyptian dancer will see choreography as more of a loose plan, rather than a formal dance arrangement where every nuance is inserted into the dance. Some Egyptian dancers do follow a choreography, but the response to the dance experience is much more visceral and emotional than that of the American dancer. Thus, it is not as possible to follow a strict choreography, because of the emotional response to the music and movement. For this reason, Egyptian belly dance is a solo dance. There are famous dancers who sometimes have dancers accompany them as an entrance to their solo performance, but the other dancers are on the stage for a very short time and do not execute any of the intricate layering that is indicative of the Egyptian style.

Emotional content is an area that is shared by both styles, though often not in the same way. This is one area where the two styles can be said to contrast greatly. The emotional content in American style dance is often part of a drama or theatrical tool. The dancer presents a larger than life picture of emotion that may be choreographed into the dance routine. The Egyptian dancer, in general responds emotionally to the music in a large as life fashion, but there is not the drama or theatre that one sees in the western style. The response is visceral and usually not intellectual, not planned as part of the theatre of presentation.

Culture very much dictates how the two styles differ. There are definitely two distinct ways in which the Egyptian and the American dancer will approach their art. Again, we find the aspect of balanced movement to be one example of this. The American dancer will often do the same movement, twice, or four times in order to make sure of a balanced picture on the stage. The Egyptian dancer might use the same movement three times and then do a different thing on the fourth count. The American dancer might cover horizontal space and move to the four corners or up, back, stage right and stage left in order to present the movement four different ways. The Egyptian dancer tends to use angles, such as facing "10:00" or "2:00," as well as straight on to the audience in order to present different sides of the movement, and she will often stand in one place to do so, with movement traveling vertically along the body, instead of horizontally. Culture also affects how dancers think about what they are doing, and how, and why.

Finally, we can look to the dancer's response to the music, and to the feeling of her dancing, in order to find a difference in the styles. As I have said before, in the process of intellectualizing the dance, the American dancer sometimes will "act out" response instead of having a gut level response to the music. The idea is to create drama and fantasy on many levels. On the other hand, the Egyptian dancer will respond to the music in a way that manifests how she really feels about what is going on in the music, and inside her at any given moment. Even choreographed Egyptian dances will keep changing, with the mood of the dancer. The quality of the dance itself is dependent on this immersion in the music on the physical, spiritual and emotional levels. In other words, the Egyptian dancer becomes the music, while the American dancer works with the music as a vehicle for her performance.

The American style offers dancers a freedom that they will not find in the Egyptian style. Egyptian belly dance offers an authenticity and continuity of culture that one will not find in American style. Each dance has its own unique qualities. Some people are drawn more to one style than the other. There are very few dancers who can do both styles equally well. It is important to remember that in the end, we owe something back to the dance. Before we perform for the general public we must accrue a certain amount of knowledge and dance technique appropriate to the style. In taking the time and effort to be the best dancers that we can be, we show respect for our art form, our fellow artists, our audience, and ourselves. Without this necessary measure of respect, performance becomes nothing more than a means of stroking the ego. The time spent perfecting one's dance in their chosen style is the most important way of showing that respect.

Postscript: this article is part of a class format taught by Sikander Jaad and A'isha Azar. Their workshop contains information on the general elements of dance, Sikander's "Rules of three", and A'isha's "Ten fundamentals of Egyptian Belly Dance". Class participants experience comparisons of movement styles for American and Egyptian dance which help them to see and feel the differences in execution of movement, and to understand those differences from a cultural point of view. For more information, please contact A'isha aazar@acetechusa.com or Sikander at sikander@tribalwhere.com.