When I was a new dancer, like most new dancers, I had no idea that belly dance was so rich in variety and history of cultural flavors. It wasn’t until I was exposed to folklore, that the dance and the music began to make sense, and I began to enjoy, appreciate and benefit from the dance on a whole new level.
New students often ask, “What is folkloric dance and what does it have to do with belly dance?” Some dancers wonder, “Why should I learn folkloric dance?” The answer is simple. Folkloric Middle Eastern dances are the various regional and ethnic traditions, and they are the roots of modern belly dance. It behooves every belly dancer, especially teachers, regardless of style, to have a good understanding of these origins.
What is Folkloric Dance?
For simplicity sake, I sometimes refer to baladi or folkloric dances as styles of belly dance, but this is not really accurate. Folkloric dances are not actually styles of belly dance. They are social and folk dances from specific regions. Each country and region has its own distinct style of movement and musical traditions. The movements can vary greatly from region to region – even regions within the same country.
Do you know the difference?
Aside from the more covered look of folkloric costumes, many dancers have a difficult time articulating what makes Raks Baladi, a.k.a folkloric dance, unique and different from Raks Sharqi/Oriental, a.k.a. belly dance. They might describe the movements as earthy vs. flowing. Or they might attribute certain movements as inherently balady or sharqi. While those descriptions certainly come to mind, there is more to it than that.
I have spent many hours studying folkloric dance (by many, I mean hundreds) and characterizing the differences from belly dance. They all seem to have some common elements, which I suspect is true of folk and social dances all over the world. There are three distinct characteristics of folkloric dances that I have identified throughout my years of studying various folk and social dances:
Folkloric dances are social by definition, and they always have an element of community or group dynamic associated with its ritual and performance. This adds a very dynamic element and enhances the enjoyment of dance. In this context, movements are kept simple while interaction and group formations take a more prominent role in dance presentation. As a soloist, the community or social element is inherent in the way the dancer interacts with her audience by involving them in a number of ways.
Folkloric dances and music are highly expressive, joyous, and energetic, even when the movements are small and subtle. Folkloric dance has it all. Depending on the style, movements can be bouncy, flirty and mischievous, and they can also be snaky, ooey and gooey. The serpentine movements, dynamic hip articulations and shimmies we love so much, all originate in folk and social traditions.
3. Clothing and Everyday Props
Folkloric dances display the pride and riches of the people they represent, and a people’s distinct clothing and textiles are as much a part of that identity as the music and dance. Often an everyday item from that culture is used to perform a specific dance. These object have a story in the culture and when you take time learn about them, they are so fascinating!
I’ll share a secret with you….
When I first started dancing, I detested the sound of folkloric music and had no interest in the dances. Now I specialize in it. It was only after I started learning about them through belly dance workshops that I became fascinated. The music also grew on me. All of a sudden, I found belly dance was not so much about the moves, but what those moves mean in the context of the dance. The dance experience is so much richer with that context.
Why should you learn about different folkloric dances?
As a teacher, having knowledge and understanding of the roots of modern belly dance not only gives you credibility as an expert instructor, study of folkloric dance enhances the experience for you and your students. Here’s how.
1. Deepen your understanding
When you learn about folkloric dance and music, many of the movements, musical elements, gestures, nuances, costuming, and etiquette of modern belly dance will make a lot more sense. For example, do you wonder why we use certain props, such as sticks, veils, swords, trays and candelebras? It’s because they are everyday objects from a specific culture used by real people. Folkloric dance in essence, is the story of the people.
2. Empower yourself
One of the things I love about teaching and dancing folklore is the opportunity to promote cultural understanding and exchange. Sometimes, people are afraid or have misconceptions of foreign people and cultures they do not understand or know little about. When they learn more about people and cultures that are foreign to them, they become more enlightened and less afraid.
When you learn about dance through its cultural roots, you not only enrich and expand your movement repertoire, you gain a deeper understanding and appreciation of the world and your place in it. In the study and performance of cultural dance forms, the music, movements and cultural context cannot be separated. Even in the study and performance of fusion dance forms, just as all the great fusion dancers, the artist must have training and knowledge of the dance and cultural elements that are being fused together. Unless your intention is confusion, folkloric dance training is for every belly dance student, teacher and enthusiast.
3. Feel the joy
Folkloric dances are immensely joyous and fun! There is no question the music and movements are inherently spirited and full of life. And they are for everyBODY, all ages, abilities and backgrounds.
So, get out there and expand your horizons, deepen your understanding and empower yourself through folkloric dance. Like many of us did, you might just fall in love with folklore!
Want to learn even more? Check out this link: About Belly Dance Styles: Raks al Baladi a.k.a. Folkloric. An except from “The Beginner’s Guide to Belly Dance.”