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.

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

“Like the ibn-il balad, the bint-il balad is perceived as fahlawiyya, clever, and trained in the “school of life.” – van Nieuwkerk, 1995.

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.

“The “daughters of the country,” the banât il-balad (singular: bint il-balad), have similar characteristics and attributes. They dress… with a milâya-laff… a multicolored headkerchief, high-heeled slippers, and if possible, many golden bracelets.” – van Nieuwkerk, 1995.

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!

A quick overview of some of the Arabic terms mentioned in this article: ibn il-balad = son of the country; bint il-balad = daughter of the country; banat il-balad = daughters (plural) of the country; fahlawiyya = clever/shrewd/cunning; milâya-laff = a square of black cloth wrapped around the body for modesty; baladi = of the country.

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 RoseKarim NagiYasmina RamzyShahrzadShemsThe Ruby Lady and Badriyah that have helped contribute to my interpretations in this article.