Defining belly dance styles is always tricky! 

Much like music styles, lines blur and definitions change over time. Do you know Def Leppard used to be considered a heavy metal band? Today they’re probably more considered to be in the rock category, with heavy metal bands sounding much heavier. Much like the Ramones were once considered super punk, but now there are much louder, noisier sounding bands in the punk category.

Dance is the same. Definitions we once used might change and evolve.

As a belly dancer, I’ve studied extensively and consistently with Egyptian and Egyptian-trained dancers, and lived in North America where I spent several years consistently studying American Cabaret (AmCab) style belly dance.

I remember asking one of my first belly dance teachers what the difference between these two styles was, and her reply to me was that she was still learning (aren’t we all!). So, I’m going to share with you the main differences and similarities that I’ve noticed or been taught about.

Take note that due to the ever-changing nature of dance, and the fact that every dancer brings their own personal style to the art form, there are no hard and fast facts. These are generalisations, not rules – and rules are often broken!

(Modern) Egyptian Belly Dance

In general, Egyptian style belly dance is (or has been) characterised by:

  • Shifting the weight of the body with each step
  • Being more integrated and less isolated than AmCab (but that doesn’t mean isolation does not exist; there is still great control over the body. While AmCab dancers may often stand still and perform isolations while standing in place like in a drum solo, Egyptian style dancers may do this less often, or be more likely to perform isolations while traveling, moving other body parts, etc.)
  • Less upright posture/less balletic posture compared to AmCab
  • Often more likely to see “inward” rather than “outward” movements, drawing isolations in towards the core (e.g. inward rather than outward horizontal and vertical figure 8s, often with a heel lift for the latter where AmCab would keep heels down). There are exceptions of course; Randa has started using outward vertical figure 8s (mayas) in recent years
  • Undulations tend to have less focus on the chest, and more focus on upper and lower abs
  • Arms often incorporated in a more organic way than the arm isolations used in AmCab style

Egyptian style belly dance is performed to Egyptian Arabic music. It can have an “earthier” feel than American Cabaret.

Up until 1:04 in this clip above you can see Randa’s feet quite clearly. Notice the ball of her foot is almost always in contact with the ground, even during hip work on one leg (like at around 0:15). 

You are generally less likely to see a super pointed toe during one-sided hipwork in Egyptian style belly dance, as dancers of this style often use the ground and the flexing capabilities of their joints (ankle, knee and hips) to help generate their hipwork.

For contrast, notice how Aziza, in this more AmCab style performance, has a very pointed toe, with just the toe making contact with the ground during standing postures and isolations in the clip below.

I have heard some dancers say that Egyptian style dance is less muscular than its Cabaret and Fusion counterparts; I would argue that this is a misunderstanding. 

Egyptian belly dance in particular draws a lot from using the force of the ground, but also, so many moves are generated from the core (and particularly the muscles in the front of the body), where in other styles, they might be generated from other parts of the body. 

For example, the more American Cabaret style undulation starts in the chest and rolls its way down, making use of the whole spine. The more Egyptian style undulation starts in the pelvis and travels mainly through the belly and pelvic area, using the belly muscles strongly and not affecting the chest so much. 

You’ll see examples of tight, internal, core-driven hip work in many of Randa’s performances, like the one below.

Of course, all Egyptian dancers have their own style, so you’ll see differences between each dancer as well. It takes a lot of watching and dancing to understand the nuances in each style (an excuse to procrastinate on YouTube!).

American Cabaret Style Belly Dance (AmCab)

“Belly dance is an art form that has been adapted in western cultures to create “related hybrid forms.” It is generally thought to have been first introduced to North America at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, after which it saw a surge in popularity as recreational dance during the 1960s and 1970s in the wake of the second wave of feminism and the sexual revolution and experienced a plateau in the 1980s.” – Milner et al., 2019

Belly Dance was super popular in the United States in the 60s and 70s, but at this time, the internet was not quite what it is today. Many dancers danced to live bands instead of tapes (although American dancers who were active in clubs and restaurants at that time have told me they did use tapes when there was not a live band!), and learned their technique and stylisations through their own teachers, through feedback from the (Middle Eastern) bands they worked with, or from simply mimicking what they saw other dancers do.

If they were working in clubs with live Arabic bands, they did often learn from dancers or musicians who had firsthand experience of belly dancers in their own culture (such as in Turkey or Egypt). However, because bands and native dancers were often from different countries, American dancers learned how to dance to Turkish rhythms and songs, Egyptian rhythms and songs, etc., etc. American Cabaret belly dance thus became a sort of fusion of many styles of Middle Eastern dance.

Like Egyptian belly dance, American Cabaret (AmCab) style belly dance has evolved and continues to evolve over time, but in general, AmCab is often:

  • More isolated and upright than Egyptian style belly dance (e.g. heels on ground for vertical figure 8s, whereas Egyptian style often allow the heels to lift)
  • More shapes and isolations are used in the chest in AmCab compared to Egyptian; although we are seeing more circles and pops in the chest now in Modern Egyptian styling
  • Hands and arms can be a bit more deliberate than in Egyptian style, sometimes less “organic”
  • The modern “Drum Solo” as a standalone performance is much more AmCab than Egyptian. Drum solos by themselves are rarer in Egyptian dance, but you do see them in the context of mejances and baladi progressions
  • Tends to blend technique from a variety of belly dance styles, and has had quite a heavy influence from Turkish style; lots of technique also similar to modern fusion styles

I hope you learned something new! Keep in mind, dancers have their own individual styles, dance evolves and changes over time, and rules are broken. Nothing is ever black or white, but I hope you’ve got more of an idea of the differences and similarities between Egyptian and AmCab style belly dance.

Siobhan Camille teaches regular classes online! See the full class schedule here, and sign up for classes in the Greenstone Belly Dance shop.

As belly dancers, we refer to a dance performed to music from the Said region (upper/Southern Egypt) as sa’idi. The more correct name for this dance is raqs-al-assaya/raqs-al-assayah (sometimes transliterated differently), which means stick dance. 

What is “Sa’idi” dance? More information about raqs-al-assaya!

Raqs-al-assaya is based off tahtib (sometimes transliterated as tahteeb), an activity performed by men from the Upper Egypt region that is often likened to a martial art form.

Since 2016, Tahtib has been incsribed by UNESCO as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Here is what the UNESCO website has to say about tahtib: 

“It involves a brief, non-violent interchange between two adversaries, each wielding a long stick while folk music plays in the background. Complete control must be exercised as no striking is allowed. Practitioners are male both young and old, mostly from Saeedy populations in upper Egypt, particularly rural areas where the tahteeb stick has been used by inhabitants as part of their daily lives and considered a sign of manhood.”

Tahtib is a really unique movement form, so it can be hard to explain it without showing it! Here’s an example of tahtib here: 

Mahmoud Reda took field trips in the mid 1960s to collect inspiration for his dance troupe, one of the national troupes of Egypt, the Reda Troupe. Farida Fahmy was one of the principal dancers of this troupe for a very long time, and she has a whole lot of articles on her website (available in multiple languages! But unfortunately I don’t see Dutch) about the Reda Troupe. You can find the articles by Farida Fahmy here.

She says this of their field trips to influence dance creation for the troupe:

“His aim was not to research the indigenous dance traditions and events that he witnessed for any ethnographic purpose. His adaptations were never meant to be literal replicas of the indigenous dances that he witnessed and documented. Collecting material was primarily to find inspiration and to discover the potentials that traditional dance could offer for the stage.”

The Reda Troupe then performed raqs-al-assayah, and specifically something they called Al-assayah al-Gadida (the new stick dance). In the beginning, it seems mainly men in the Reda Troupe danced with sticks, and women danced mostly without.

However! You can see a very famous group of traditional performers, the Banat Mazin, dancing with sticks here: 

And a modern video of Khairiya and Raja Mazin with sticks here:

And another modern video of Khairiya:

And even Farida Fahmy dancing with Mahmoud Reda and sometimes taking hold of his stick for the dance here in a very stylised staged interpretation: 

And in a recent video of the modern Reda Troupe in 2012, you’ll see the ladies take hold of the sticks very, very briefly at the end of the dance:

More Howevers! Nowadays, female belly dancers or Middle Eastern style dancers do often dance raqs-assaya with a stick. Here’s a good example of a group of dancers of different genders dancing raqs-assaya in a masculine style: 

Dancers can choose to dance with the stick and be representing the masculine style of dance (Go feminism, amirite?) OR Dancers can choose to dance with the stick and put a feminine take on it, sometimes presenting in this “belly dance-y” way where they are much more isolated, poised, and reminiscent of belly dance.

See below for a modern version of this:

And a classic of Mona El Said: 

And sometimes they’ll actually present it in a way like they’re poking fun at men and their “big sticks!”

The Rhythm

Makloub (aka Saidi) used in the Said region for Tahtib and Raqs al-Assaya


Other Stick Dances

Be aware: The presence of the stick itself doesn’t necessarly mean dance from Said/raqs-assaya… Don’t worry, I’m still learning all the differences too! It could be baladi with a cane, or it could be Lebanese cane dance.

Baladi with cane:

Lebanese cane dance:

Want to learn raqs-al-assaya?

I, Siobhan Camille, will be teaching an in-person, outdoor raqs-al-assaya class in Delft, the Netherlands this August at part of our annual Summer School! Find the full schedule and details here. If you’re based outside of the Netherlands, I’m available for private online lessons via Zoom, with our professional audio-visual set up.

Have fun continuing to learn about raqs-al-assasya!