Sometimes you might see dances done at a belly dance show that do not look like either the normal cabaret or beladi styles. So what are they? Well, what you’re seeing may be a specific folk dance, like you’d see the cotton-eyed joe, the chicken dance, or even the good ole hokey-pokey played at a western dance. These types of dances are done ‘once in a while’; Middle-easterners recognize and enjoy them, but they probably wouldn’t play a whole evening of them. Here are three such middle-eastern dances, ordered roughly from least frequently seen to most often (depending on where you live!), with as definitive a description as I can give based on what I see in shows and from the web. It’s easy to find videos of snippets of these dances, but it’s NOT easy to find written explanations of their derivations and definitive movements! While almost certainly not complete, these descriptions should put you in the ball park of understanding the dances.
The ‘Hagalla’ is a woman’s folk dance step that originated in western Egypt/eastern Libya. Women (usually one girl, ‘el hagalla’) did this one step, resembling something like a three-quarter shimmy or a merengue step, while men clapped accompaniment. However, because watching an entire song done with one step would not be interesting to an audience, additional movements, including dancing by the men, were added by folkloric-inspired choreographers such as Mahmoud Reda.
There are variations in what is taught as the hagallah. It is definitely a sassy two step, right, left, hyper-feminine walk that twitches the derrier, but the exact movement is not definitive. Some say it is the same as the three-quarter shimmy. Others describe it as half a small hip circle, swinging from side through the back to the other side. One web site compaired it to how a heavy woman sometimes walks!
The traditional costume for the dance would be a simple long dress with long sleeves, with a heavy unadorned scarf wrapped around the hips. For performances, the dress may be shorter (calf or knee length), the sleeves may be shorter, and the hip scarf looks like more of a ruffled apron and may be fringed.
There are a couple of stories about this dance found on the web. One from Egypt cites it as a pre-wedding dance, where a woman (not the bride) dances this step for whichever of the groups of men clap the loudest. Another from Libya has it as a coming-of-age for the dancing girl, and she dances for whichever of the clapping men she pleases. The men chant about how lovely she is as she grows into a mature woman who will marry and have children.
The ‘Melaya Leff’ is named for the piece of clothing used as a prop during the dance; a melaya leff is a type of shawl that is modestly wrapped around the shoulders and body (leff means to wrap). The dance-version of the shawl has a sequined edge and is used for flipping, wrapping and unwrapping, and generally teasing the on-lookers. The dancer wears a form-fitting knee-length dress with a frilly hem (vaguely flamenco-looking), a pom-pom or flowered head scarf and mule-style slip-on heeled shoes (usually with frillies on them, too). Also frequently worn is a crocheted face-veil known as a burr’oh. Interestingly, chewing gum is usually snapped and bubbled while dancing, giving it a kind of trampy feel. This is a flirting, just-for-fun type of dance that needs lots of sass to carry off. Note that there’s no special music for this; any upbeat music can be used.
Originating in Alexandria, Egypt, this dance is definitely done by women to flirt with and attract men. Allowing a modesty wrap to ‘slip’ and come open, but then quickly wrap up again, was definitely a ‘woo-woo’ experience, like the showing of an ankle in the 19th century. One site claims that ladies of negotiable affection lured sailors with it. I don’t know about that, but it’s a fun stage dance!
The ‘Baba Karam’ is a Iranian (Persian) dance from Tehran clubs and cabarets in the ’40s and ’50s. It started as a young man’s dance, but now women do a teasing version of it. Both sexes dance it wearing masculine ‘night out clubbing’ clothing: black pants, white shirt, and fedora, sometimes a black vest and/or coat, sometimes a tuxedo scarf.
The music is medium-slow and ‘dumpty dumpty’ rhythmic and the major step is strutting and/or “drunken” walking. Some of the characteristic movements include shoulder shrugs and finger snapping, turning in a circle, tipping the hat, making primping moves like playing with the scarf, fixing the collar or brushing off lint, and doing what appears to be like a dice-rolling or knife waving move while crouching to the floor. Overall, the dance brings to mind young street toughs tom-catting around town, looking to impress and show off their stuff.