“Baladi” is a term used widely within the international belly dance community, but also within Egypt. It’s a word that can describe a person, a dance, a musical style, food, and so much more! So it can get a little confusing when trying to understand what exactly baladi is.
In this blog post, I’ll touch on the multiple meanings of baladi, along with baladi dance stylisation and musical progressions.
I’ll be discussing:
- The idealised archetype of a baladi person in Egypt
- What we tend to mean when we’re talking about baladi stylised dance
- What a baladi solo or baladi progression is
Ibn-il balad and bint il-balad: The Sons and Daughters of Egypt
The idealised archetype of a baladi person in Egypt
Baladi means “of the country,” and “ibn-il balad” and “bint-il balad” mean son and daughter of the country, respectively. Specifically in the lower-middle class in Egypt, there is a specific (positive) stereotype associated with these roles. It is important to note that other social classes may have negative stereotypes regarding the roles of “the sons and daughers of the country.” When it come to dance, however, we are generally trying to embody the style of the proud, clever, good-humoured, and honourable baladi woman.
The above quote is from Karin van Nieuwkerk’s 1995 book, “A Trade Like Any Other.” She also recently published “Manhood is Not Easy” (2019). I had the pleasure to speak to van Nieuwkerk last weekend during a book club meeting. I asked her whether the archetype of the baladi man and woman had changed over the years. She said that in the same social class, she has not seen the archetype change much. However, she did say that she has not interviewed many young Egyptians in the lower-middle class. Most of the Egyptians that she has interviewed over the years are the same people.
So, much the same way our grandparents might stick to beliefs from their childhood, it could be that she hasn’t seen much change as she is interviewing the same people over time. It would be interesting to know if younger Egyptians are changing their outlook on what the ideal Egyptian man or woman is.
You’ll notice that the description van Nieuwkerk provides above of the banât il-balad closely resembles the “costume” we see dancers don when performing milâya-laff dance (sometimes spelled melaya leff, and a multitude of other ways).
A little tangent: It’s worth knowing that the “melaya dance” is a theatrical piece developed by Mahmoud Reda and Farida Fahmy, not a traditional dance. Milâyat are worn as a general sort of cover up when leaving the house to do errands. So when performing dance with milâya, many advocate that you should try to embody the proud bint il-balad – that is, perhaps flirtatious or cheeky, but also good-humoured and honourable.
See Farida Fahmy below speaking about some of the misconceptions around dancing with the milâya.
So as you may be starting to see, baladi is a term that is used quite positively within the same class of Egyptian people who primarily engage in the entertainment and performing arts trade.
Baladi can be used to describe almost anything within Egypt: a person, food, music.
What we tend to mean when we’re talking about baladi stylised dance
I will preface this section by saying there is a lot of debate over this! I’ve seen many experience dancers passionately argue that baladi is not a dance style.
I sit somewhere in the middle. I wouldn’t say baladi is a style of its own, but I do think that there are more baladi ways to dance, and more raqs sharqi (professional belly dance, but I’m specifically referring to modern raqs sharqi, like that of Randa Kamel) ways to approach dance.
I see it this way:
Baladi stylisations tend to be a little bouncier, and more movements are generated from the floor than in modern raqs sharqi. Some movements, while still isolated, tend to be a little bigger or looser than in modern raqs sharqi. Baladi stylisation – to me – has a lot of crossover with sa’idi and even sha’abi and mahraganat stylisations, as it draws heavily on social dancing. However, when a professional dancer includes baladi stylisations in his or her set, he or she will likely still perform in a way that shows she is a trained/experienced dancer. They may embody the aforementioned movement qualities (bouncy, looser, driven from the ground), but they likely won’t just have a casual boogie on stage, as they are still providing a show!
This dance stylisation can be performed to a whole range of songs that we generally consider baladi – kind of like “popular” music. Current popular music may lean more towards the sha’abi or mahraganat styles, but as I say, there’s some crossover in the movement quality.
Here is a good example of Shems (USA) performing baladi stylised dance:
What is a baladi solo or baladi progression?
Here the confusion can sink in a little more – some people in the belly dance community are primarily referring to a baladi solo or baladi progression when they talk about baladi music.
As I’ve mentioned above, multiple types of music can be considered baladi. But a baladi progression is actually a specific musical form that originated on stage between a band and a dancer. So while a baladi solo could be performed with baladi dance stylisation, it is likely when performing to a baladi progression, you’ll perform in a way that shows you have at least some professional dance training (or experience working as a dancer) – and some dancers may not necessarily nod to this aforementioned baladi dance stylisation at all, they may perform in a very modern raqs sharqi styling.
I personally don’t think there is anything wrong with either approach: dancing in either stylisation. As I say, the baladi solo originated on stage, so we expect to see a professional dancer dancing their own stylisation.
You’ll see above that Shems does perform to a baladi progression (the second song), but that’s not the only music she performs to. She also performs to a piece of music that is more popular, but still considered baladi in its stylisation.
Below is an example of Fifi Abdo (Egypt) performing to a baladi progression / baladi solo. The baladi solo usually follows the form of: melodic improvisation, drum accents, rhythm joining in; then some sections may be repeated, and then there is sometimes a drum solo to end, or just a hard ending.
Fifi’s white galaybeya has become so iconic that many people choose to wear this style of costume for baladi stylised performances!
Baladi means a lot of things – and it’s okay to keep learning!
One of the beautiful things about raqs sharqi and its related dance forms is that there is such a rich history and cultural context to this art form, and it’s a living, breathing art form that is still evolving and changing in the Middle East, North Africa, Hellenistic and Turkish countries!
I know it can feel overwhelming – “There’s so much to learn!” But I think it’s really important to remember that it’s okay to keep learning. It’s okay to not know everything. But we do want to continue to seek out knowledge to deepen our understanding of the dance form and its associated forms.
For a quick overview of some of the Arabic terms mentioned in this blog post, see below!
Want to learn more about the multiple meanings of baladi, and the music styles and dance stylisations in can refer to? Register now for Siobhan Camille’s 4 Week Online Series: Baladi Feeling & Stylisation! Starting March 3, 2021!
I would like to acknowledge the study I have done under the direction of Amanda Rose, Karim Nagi, Yasmina Ramzy, Shahrzad, Shems, The Ruby Lady and Badriyah that have helped contribute to my interpretations in this article.