We got to speak to the amazing, beautiful and talented international belly dance star Shahrzad and learn more about her history and experience as a belly dancer, her practice habits and philosophies, life as a dancer in Egypt, and more...
1. I understand that you have been belly dancing since age 11. What drew you to belly dance at such a young age? Tell us the story of how you got interested in this dance, and how you got started!
Yes, I was really young when I became interested in belly dance! My first exposure to it was seeing an advertisement for belly dance fitness videos on TV. I don't know what it was that drew me in so much but I was hooked right away. My mom got me the videos and a few weeks later I was asking for classes.
2. Can you tell us about your journey as a belly dancer: some trials and tribulations you went through, or some of your biggest wins or proudest achievements?
At this point I have been involved in belly dance for more than half of my life and it has been my main job (other than a few years of pilates work) since I became working age.
Of course just like any other entertainment job or art there are difficulties. To become a great dancer takes a huge amount of hard work and sacrifice, your body will hurt, you will miss time with friends and family, you will face disappointment but in my case it has all been worth it.
The things that have made me the most proud during my career are times when I realize how much I can give back to other people, seeing students come out of classes and workshops feeling empowered and excited to learn and practice more, seeing audience members’ faces light up, these are the times that I am the happiest about what I do.
3. In what ways has belly dance changed you as a person? How has it impacted your life?
I have learned a lot about life through belly dancing and I think one of the biggest lessons has been about self-worth and openness.
In this age of social media, especially in the business of entertainment, it is so easy to get in the habit of spending all of your time comparing yourself to others and judging people in a superficial way.
Once I was able to find happiness and confidence in doing what I loved as opposed to comparing myself to and judging others I was able to look at everyone in a different way, appreciate the positives as opposed to seeking out negatives, open my mind to all kinds of new ideas and learn, meet many new friends, and be inspired by the successful and unique people around me.
4. What are your favorite aspects of this dance today, after all these years of experience in this dance?
I have always loved expressing myself through movement so I am always the happiest when I am just moving freely to the music, be it in class or on stage.
For me when I dance my mind and body are completely taken over by the movement and music, I feel free.
Watch Shahrzad move freely on stage!
5. Are you artistic in other ways? What are other artistic talents you possess?
When I was young I used to draw and paint all the time and learned a few instruments, these days I don't have much time for many things non-dance related but I do like learning to play drums and drawing designs for my costumes.
6. How long have you have been living and performing in Egypt now? Egypt is a place that many professional and aspiring professional belly dancers dream to perform in, and yet it can be a difficult place to survive and thrive in, especially as a dancer. How has your experience been, so far… living, performing, and taking in the culture there? What’s the best thing about it? What’s the hardest thing about it?
I have been in Egypt a little more than 3 years now and It has been an amazing experience. Dance in Egypt is so complex and varied, there is so much to learn and absorb.
The best thing about living and working in Egypt for me is that I am constantly learning in many ways from language to musical knowledge to dance skills due to being constantly surrounded by the culture and arts.
The hardest part is that oriental dance in Egypt is a serious entertainment business and to be successful you must work very hard so your whole life tends to be focused around dance. It can be both exhausting and isolating.
7. What does a typical “day in the life” of Shahrzad living and dancing in Cairo look like?
Every day is different! But in general I sleep very late, until 3pm or 4pm, wake up and eat and take care of emails and online work, hit the gym and run errands (costume fitting, rehearsal, etc.), then come home for a lite dinner and to do my makeup and prepare my costume bag, and then go out to work all night.
8. Your technique is absolutely out of this world! Can you tell us about your regular practice routine? How is it structured, how do you practice, and what do you prioritize in your practice?
Thank you! I do practice a lot but I also cross train and base my workouts on the technique I use.
For example, my shimmies are generally quad-driven so I spend time in the gym doing high resistance elliptical for endurance and weight lifting for strength so I can shimmy for hours without fatigue.
As far as actually practicing dance movements I tend to focus a lot on my basic technique. I always start my practice with drilling my hip and belly moves with music to ensure my quality of movement is maintained.
I think many dancers make the mistake of ignoring their basic technique once they reach higher level classes or get busy with shows but after a while their control and preciseness of movement starts to suffer.
9. What is your biggest advice for a beginner who wants to achieve amazing, controlled and fluid isolations like yours? Or for an experienced dancer who feels they have plateaued in their technique?
Practice practice practice! But make sure you are practicing with awareness. Many people just move blindly without a deeper knowledge of the movements they are executing.
Great isolation and control comes from a high level of body awareness. When you practice try to identify what muscles and parts of the body are and aren't working to create each move and always pay attention to your posture and how it is affecting your movements.
See Shahrzad practicing with awareness below ;)
10. Congratulations on publishing your own album, Bahlem Bi Shahrzad! That is an amazing accomplishment and I have to say, I listen to and dance to it all the time and it’s one of my favorite belly dance albums right now. Can you tell us more about the band, and your process of selecting them and working with them to come up with these compositions? Or alternatively, tell us more about one or multiple songs from the album.
One of my dreams and goals when I came to Egypt was to produce some beautiful music so this album was really a dream come true.
As my first album I wanted to present something really high quality so I decided to go all out and hire a big orchestra and record in a very nice studio.
I hired different singers and musicians for each song to fit the style and mood of the music.
Most of the songs are original compositions that I created with the help of 2 composers but we also threw in some very beautiful but not as well known Tarab songs which I love.
11. What aspect of this dance do you love the most? (Teaching, performing in Egypt, performing at dance events, touring the world, judging competitions, creating choreographies...)
It's hard to choose because I really love to teach just as much as I love to perform and I have found that I need a balance of both to stay inspired and happy.
12. What “genre” of music do you love to dance to the most? (Baladi, megeance, classic, drum solo, folkloric...)
I dance to everything! But I think I love tabla and tarab the most.
13. Who are your favorite dancers, and who are the dancers that most influenced you and your dancing? This goes both for dancers you are simply inspired by, as well as dancers you have studied with.
My favorite dancers are all golden era... Samia Gamal, Nabaweya Moustafa, Naemat Mokhtar... I love these dancers because each had a unique stage presence and very different and interesting steps.
Watch Shahrzad's tribute to Egypt's Golden Era dancers:
14. Hard work vs. talent. What’s your take on this? Is belly dance an innate skill, or can anyone learn it with hard work?
Yes, a lot can be said about natural talent but so much can be learned with the right teachers mentoring you. I think one thing that is most important to being a good dancer is loving what you are doing and being comfortable in your body.
15. You are a very positive and encouraging voice in this dance, even when sometimes the public discourse becomes toxic and negative in our community. How do you steer clear from the negativity and remain positive?
Nothing good can come from bullying, name calling, and fighting on social media. It leaves everyone stressed out, angry, and against each other.
I truly believe that the best way to spread your opinions and thoughts is through positivity and education. If you approach people with kindness and start an open and meaningful dialogue you are much more likely to make a change and putting your energy into sharing the dance in the way you love it the most is the best way to promote the art you want to see within the community.
Focus more on what you love than what you hate.
16. What do you see or hope as being the future of belly dance, in and out of Egypt?
Honestly I have no idea, so much is changing so quickly both in and out of Egypt right now. Audiences and students interests are shifting and evolving all the time especially now with new musical styles (both western and middle eastern) being created all the time and people wanting to move to them.
At the same time I see a growing interest and effort being put into the revival of more classic style belly dance, which of course I love. There has always been a huge amount of variety and evolution within this dance and I’m sure it will be that way forever, who knows what will come next.
17. What is next for you in your dance career? You have achieved so much at such a young age (congratulations, by the way!), and I know there is much more yet to come for you. Can you reveal any of your goals, dreams, or plans for the next 5 years? Or, alternatively, what is the legacy you hope to leave in this dance?
That is really kind of you! Honestly there is so much that I want to do... I am so fascinated by regional dance and music styles within North Africa and the Middle East, I would love to take more time to travel and study and document everything I see both for my own enjoyment and to be able to share and educate about it later on.
I also dream of making a teacher training program not based in a movement curriculum of my own making but based in the physical and cultural knowledge that it takes to make a well-rounded teacher.
As far as legacy goes I don't care as much about being the best dancer ever, I think what I would like to be known and remembered for is spreading knowledge and understanding and making people happy be it from my performing or my teaching.
Thank you so much for your time and generosity in sharing these responses with us, Shahrzad!
We're looking forward to hosting you here in New Jersey at Spring Into Dance 2019 next week, and we are wishing you continued success in Egypt and everywhere you go <3
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Learn About the Genre of Egyptian Music and Dance that Gives Belly Dance Much of Its Essence
Baladi (بلدي, alternatively spelled beledi or balady) means "from the country, "of the country," or depending on the context, "my country," and while in Arabic it can refer to any country or anything from a given country,
when belly dancers talk about it, we are usually referring to the Egyptian folkloric music and social dance styles that evolved when people from Egypt's rural areas started migrating to the cities.
In the larger cities, the folkloric music that originally came from Egypt's rural areas and was played with traditional Middle Eastern instruments such as the ney or mizmar gained influence from the music of Western countries (Egypt was colonized by both the French and the British at different points in its history), and Western instruments such as the accordion, saxophone, keyboard, and others were adopted.
A common style of baladi music called baladi taqsim or baladi progression usually follows a loose pattern in which a melodic instrument such as an accordion, saxophone or ney ebbs and flows as the primary instrument, while the tabla (drum) keeps a steady rhythm in the background.
The music goes through distinct sections: a solo by the primary melodic instrument without any rhythm, a call and response section between drums and melody, a section with slow melody and steady rhythm, and a section where the melody gets faster and is accompanied by faster drums, which eventually build up to a climax or a drum solo.
This structure, of course, is not always followed in this order and not all of these sections are found in every song. The structure varies from song to song. Baladi music is usually improvised, and therefore baladi dancing is usually improvised on top of improvised music!
Watch Fifi Abdo Dance to a Baladi Progression
It's no wonder Fifi has been dubbed "Queen of Baladi"!
Raqs baladi (baladi dance) is, essentially, the social form of raqs sharqi (Oriental dance, more commonly known as "belly dance"). When belly dance was adapted for the stage from the social dances of Egypt and other Middle Eastern countries, and as it has subsequently evolved, elements such as a wider use of space and spacial patterns, arm movements and frames with extended lines, and complex footwork and weight shifts were adopted in order to make it more interesting and visible from a distance, and more appealing to Western eyes and tastes. The two-piece costume that is commonly associated with belly dance was also adopted around that time.
But at its root, belly dance comes from Middle Eastern dances that focus on the movement of the hips, such as baladi, which has a very heavy, earthy and grounded look and feeling. In a way, baladi is like the heart of belly dance... and for that reason, it holds a special place in most belly dancers' hearts <3
Belly dancers study baladi not only because raqs sharqi is so influenced by raqs baladi, but also because often, we perform baladi as part of our performances. It comes up often as sections within the music we use, or sometimes we perform to a whole baladi song by itself, or as part of our longer performance sets that include a variety of musical genres.
When performing baladi on its own, dancers will usually wear a galabeya, the traditional garment worn in Egypt which looks like a long "dress" with long sleeves, like the one Fifi Abdo is wearing in the video above. Or sometimes a more form-fitting, colorful and sparkly galabeya will be worn instead. Or, if the dancer is performing baladi as a part of a full belly dance performance set with multiple songs, the dancer might be wearing the more standard two-piece costume instead.
To truly do justice to our art form, we must understand our music, where it comes from, how to dance to different genres of Middle Eastern music, and how to dress appropriately.
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Happy learning, and happy dancing!
Background & Breakdown of One of the Most Famous Belly Dance Songs of All Time
Even if you haven't been belly dancing very long, you might have already come across Leylet Hob before. And if you've been doing this for a while, you've definitely danced to it countless times by now!
But how much do you really know about this timeless classic and belly dance favorite? If your answer is "actually, not much" you've got to keep reading this post because it's packed with information about this absolutely must-know composition.
About Leylet Hob
Leylet Hob (ليلة حب, alternatively spelled Laylet Hob, Laylet Hobb, Lailet Hob, Laylet Houb, Lelat Hob, or Leilet Hob) is a classic Arabic song that was composed in the 1960's by Mohamed Abdel Wahab, written in 1973 by Ahmed Shafiq Kamel and subsequently sung by Om Kalthoum. Its title means "Night of Love."
The original song, like many of the Arabic orchestral classics, was an entire concert on its own, at over 50 minutes in length. Today there are countless modern renditions of it by Arab and non-Arab musicians alike, usually around 5 to 15 minutes long, with or without vocals.
Singer, Lyricist & Composer
Om Kalthoum (1904? - 1975) was a legendary Egyptian singer who was--and is to this date--renowned across the Arab world. Her face, name and voice are recognized and loved throughout the region, where she is likely the most famous singer of all time. Such a revered figured she was, her funeral was one of the largest gatherings in the world, attended by around 4 million people. Many of the most famous Arabic songs (and most popular belly dance songs) were originally sung by her.
Mohammed Abdel Wahab (1902? - 1991) was one of the most prominent composers and singers in Egyptian history. He was responsible for composing many of the classic masterpieces that us belly dancers perform to on a regular basis. He introduced Western instruments such as the guitar, bass, accordion, organ and synthesizer to some of his compositions, innovating upon existing traditions and influencing all Arabic music thereafter.
Ahmed Shafiq Kamel was an Egyptian poet who became known as the "Poet of the Two Pyramids" for unifying the two great talents--Om Kalthoum and Mohamed Abdel Wahab-- in his work on Leylet Hob, which became the first of many collaborations between the two.
The Full Rendition
You can listen to the full, 59-minute rendition of Leylet Hob sung by Om Kalthoum here:
Can you spot the guitar, accordion, and synthesizer in this composition?
Leylet Hob is a song of love and longing. You can hear in Om Kalthoum's voice the longing that is felt for an absent lover. It speaks of yearning for that lover's return, where the singer imagines their night together while describing their love in the deep, poetic terms the Arabic language is so well-suited to relate. You can read a full, line-by-line translation of Laylet Hob by clicking here.
One of the most famous interpretations of Leylet Hob is this one by Soheir Zaki, one of the most famous belly dancers of the 1960's-80's:
Soheir Zaki is a classic, timeless dancer. You can read more about her in our Timeline of Egypt's Biggest Stars post.
Laylet Hob is played in the Maqam Nahawand, a type of melody that is perfectly suited to evoke the feelings of love and passionate yearning that this song speaks about.
Some of the rhythms encountered are malfuf, maqsum, baladi (masmoudi saghir), masmoudi kebir, and 6/8. Let's break down* each rhythm by section, using the shorter 8-minute version of Leylet Hob in the Soheir Zaki video above as our reference:
Baladi/masmoudi saghir (0:11-1:09, 1:27-1:52, 6:37-6:57, 7:19-7:40)
|DD| T|D |T |
Malfuf (1:10-1:20, 6:57-7:19, 7:40-8:34)
|D T| T |
|D | | |T | | |
|DT| T|D |T |
Masmoudi (4:02-4:15, 5:51-6:01?)
|D|D| | |D| | | |
|DT| T|D |T |
Guitar solo - no rhythm
Is Leylet Hob one of your favorite classics and go-to songs, like it is mine? If so, I hope this post has been helpful to you.
I encourage you to listen to the hour-long version for study and for enjoyment, and that you hear as many versions of this beautiful composition as you can get your hands on.
What's your favorite version of this song? Which dancer have you seen do the best interpretation of it? Let me know in the comments below... And if you've found this post informative, don't forget to spread the knowledge by sharing it with your belly dance students, teachers, and peers.
Happy learning, and happy dancing!
Leylet Hob/Mohammed Abdel Wahab
Om Kalthoum's Funeral
Mohammed Abdel Wahab
Ahmed Shafiq Kamel
Leylet Hob Translation
Leylet Hob Rhythms
*Note regarding the rhythm breakdown: I am not musically trained, so I am breaking down this song by rhythm to the best of my knowledge and untrained ability. If you are a musician and have any corrections to make to this breakdown or anything to add, please contact me via email.
While belly dance in its most basic forms may have existed for centuries, or possibly millennia, it was only over the last 100 years or so that it really began to take the shape we have come to recognize and refer to as "raqs sharqi"--or belly dance--today, thanks in large part to these incredible women who made history as belly dance stars in Egypt.
In this timeline of famous Egyptian belly dancers, you will learn a little bit about each woman and their influence on the dance as well as see them in action, thereby getting a glimpse into how this dance has changed and evolved over the years. So sit back, relax, and enjoy the show!
Badia Masabni (1892 - 1974) - The Godmother of Belly Dance
Badia Masabni was a Syrian/Lebanese actress and dancer who moved to Egypt and opened the first music hall in Cairo in the 1920's which featured singing, dancing, and other entertainment acts.
She is credited with adapting belly dance from its social and folkloric roots into a dance that is done on the stage to entertain a large audience. The usage of ballet-inspired arms and lines, greater use of space and traveling steps, and the incorporation of the veil as a prop can all be traced back to this woman, who is understandably referred to as "The Godmother of Belly Dance."
She is also credited with being a mentor to two major belly dance figures, Samia Gamal and Tahiya Carioca.
Tahiya Carioca (1915 - 1999) - The Marilyn Monroe of the Arab World
Eventually dubbed the "Marilyn Monroe of the Arab World," Tahiya Carioca began her belly dance career at Badia Masabni's Casino Opera where she rose to become one of its biggest stars.
She was given the surname "Carioca" due to her fascination with Brazilian rhythms and dance, which she incorporated into her performances.
She began appearing in films in 1935, going on to become an important part of Egyptian movie history. The height of her fame occurred during the "Golden Age" of Egyptian cinema in the 1940's and 50's, and she continued to dance until 1963.
Samia Gamal (1924 - 1994) - The National Dancer of Egypt
Another Badia Masabni protegé and Golden Age star, Samia Gamal would eventually be proclaimed by Egypt's King Farouk as the "The National Dancer of Egypt."
Samia was not only one of the most famous belly dancers of her time, but was also a very successful actress, having appeared in over 50 movies throughout her career. She also performed in international films and clubs, helping bring worldwide attention and recognition to this dance.
As a dancer, she was known for her beautiful arm movements and enchanting smile.
Naima Akef (1929 - 1966) - Bellydancing Acrobat
Naima Akef began her performing career as a child at her family's circus, where she performed as an acrobat.
After the circus disbanded, she eventually found work as a singer and belly dancer in Cairo's famous nightclubs, and in the 1940's she began singing, dancing and acting in movies as well.
She was lost to cancer at the young age of 37, but not before having become a Golden Age star in her own right, forever making her mark in this dance form with her fast and energetic spins, dramatic arm and leg movements, and impressive displays of acrobatics.
Nagwa Fouad (1936 - present) - Queen of Raqs Sharqi
By the 1970's, Nagwa had become one of the most important belly dancers in Egypt, but her reputation reached far beyond Egypt as she performed all over the globe throughout her career. Every famous personality who came to visit Egypt would come to see Nagwa perform, including former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and President Jimmy Carter.
By the time she retired, Nagwa Fouad had had a very impressive and versatile 45-year career in dance and film, having appeared as a dancer in over two hundred and fifty films and acted in more than one hundred!
Soheir Zaki (1944 - present) - The Om Kalthoum of Dance
Fifi Abdo (1953 - present) - Queen of Baladi
As a child, Fifi Abdo would watch the films of the likes of Tahiya Carioca, Naima Akef, etc, and copy their moves. She started performing belly dance at age 13 and thanks to her hard work, talent, and toughness, she rose to become a top belly dancer and actress in Egypt in the 1980's and 90's, and today she is one of the wealthiest women in the country!
In her films, she usually portrays empowered female archetypes, and her work is often provocative and controversial for its boldness.
While Fifi is an amazing all-around belly dancer, she is best known for being the embodiment of baladi: the simple, earthy, grounded, country style of dance from which raqs sharqi originated.
Mona Said (1954 - present) - The Bronze of The Nile
Mona Said began her belly dance career at age 13 after being encouraged to become a dancer by a nightclub owner and a big-name singer who had spotted her dancing at a disco.
She left Egypt in 1970 to perform in Lebanon for a few years, fleeing her father who was disapproving of her career choice. In Lebanon she found fame before returning to Cairo in 1975. She then went on to perform between Cairo and London for the next 5 years, and became one of the top belly dancers in Egypt through the 80's and 90's.
Mona was nicknamed "The Princess of Raqs Sharqi" by Tahiya Carioca herself, and "The Bronze of the Nile" by Egypt's media.
Mona is best known for her feeling and emotion when dancing. She does not believe in counting music, but instead in focusing on the feeling and allowing it to take over in the moment.
She is a perfect example of the "less is more" philosophy applied in belly dance, milking every beat and every note in the music, giving it no more and no less than what is called for, building up energy only when the music builds, all while expressing a variety of different emotions and personalities.
Dina (1965 - present) - The Last Egyptian Dancer
Dina began her dancing career in the 1970's training with Mahmoud Reda, co-founder of Reda Troupe, a group of Egyptian folkloric dancers that toured nationally and internationally.
She began her solo career in the 80's, quickly rising to the top of the belly dance scene in Cairo and remaining there up to this date, in a difficult and evolving social and political landscape.
Times have changed in Egypt, and the pendulum has been swinging further and further towards religious conservatism over the past few decades. In a 2008 article, Newsweek called Dina "The Last Egyptian Dancer," in reference to the growing conservatism in the country which is causing fewer and fewer native-born women to become professional dancers. This, coupled with Dina's provocative costumes and movements, have made her into a very controversial figure in her country and abroad.
But whether you love her or hate her, her influence in modern Egyptian style is undeniable. Dina herself is the clear dividing line between the vintage and classic styles that came before her and the modern styles that exist today.
Her Reda-influenced steps marked the beginnings of new trends in belly dance which favor more complex footwork and weight shifts. Her exaggerated and dramatic facial expressions and gestures, sharper hip and pelvic accents and slower and more provocative hip circles have been copied all over Egypt and the world. Her daring bras showcasing ample cleavage became the new normal in belly dance costume design (the "Dina bra"), and her occasional choice of a mini-skirt over traditional full-length skirts created new trends that are still being followed and developed upon all over the world today.
Newsweek may have dubbed Dina "The Last Egyptian Dancer," but she is far from it. We are certainly no longer in the heyday of belly dance in Egypt, but many new dancers have popped up since Dina, and they continue to set their own trends today. They won't be covered in this blog post, but may be covered in future posts so please stay tuned!
I encourage you to keep reading and watching belly dance videos to find out more about this dance, its influential figures, its history around the world, and the myriad of different styles that fall under the belly dance umbrella!
Wikiwand - Badia Masabni
Bellydance Superstars of the Past - Badia Masabni
Gilded Serpent - Badia Masabny Star Maker of Cairo
Wikiwand - Taheyya Kariokka
Belly Dance Museum - Taheya Carioca
New York Times - Tahia Carioca, 79, Dies; A Renowned Belly Dancer
Wikiwand - Samia Gamal
Belly Dance Museum - Samia Gamal
Google Doodle just honored this iconic Egyptian dancer
Wikipedia - Naima Akef
Serpentine - Naima Akef
An Uncommon Woman - Nagwa Fouad, Queen of Oriental Dance
Serpentine - Sohair Zuki
Belly Dance Museum - Soheir Zaki
Wikipedia - Fifi Abdou
Serpentine - Fifi Abdo
Mona el Said
Mona El Said
Gilded Serpent - Mona el Said in Dallas, Part 1
Mona El Said: Moving in Mysterious Ways
Wikipedia - Dina Talaat
DINA at the MENA!
Newsweek - Saudis and the Last Egyptian Belly Dancer
Yamê is a Brazilian-American belly dancer based out of New Jersey, USA.