What is Raqs Sharqi?

Raqs Sharqi
the pure bellydance

And raqs sharqi (literally meaning ‘dance of the East’) was danced in huge cabarets, on big stages in glamorous costumes, on high heels and with the glory of a dancer as a big star
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Imagine Cairo, in November 1940. Busy streets flooded with relaxed people and excited tourists, the ubiquitous smell of sheesha, freshly made coffee; and rays of sunlight cutting their way through the tiny and crooked streets.  You could feel the slight chill of an upcoming event. People from high society, famous artists and wealthy tourists are awaiting an thrilling evening. Casino Opera, a cabaret with a restaurant, a western style bar, a cinema, and a terrace is opening! A huge opportunity for artists and the best place to go for an evening of entertainment. Who was the owner of this spectacular establishment? Believe it or not, it was a woman. Her name was Badia Masabni, a famous singer, dancer, producer and owner of many other places of entertainment. But this one was the largest and as we know now, it became incredibly famous.

In these cabarets or ‘salas’, as they were called in Cairo, the classical form of bellydance was formed. Of course, it did not happen in one day. It took decades, starting at the end of the 19th century, when dancers performed in coffee shops and the term ‘bellydance’ was coined through the lips of the thrilled tourists.

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As the style became more and more popular in Egypt, through the 1930s & 1940s; the style also evolved and changed dramatically from how it had started. Baladi (earthy, home, village like) was the dance style of dancers in small cafes, performed at weddings and celebrations, danced with a long dress and accompanied by playing finger cymbals.
And raqs sharqi (literally meaning ‘dance of the East’) was danced in huge cabarets, on big stages in glamorous costumes, on high heels and with the glory of a dancer as a big star. This dance style is now called Egyptian classical bellydance or raqs sharqi. It is the most purest form of bellydance and has given rise to many other forms of bellydance during the past one hundred years.

Now, imagine the dancer performing her solo in such a place. During the night, the soloist performed a few times, also in a combination with other artists, but the first solo of that evening had to be fancy and breathtaking. She had to show as much as she could during one song (which took around 20mins). Therefore, a lot of attention was paid to the entrance performance. This entrance piece, called raqs sharqi routine or nowadays mejansé, consists of several parts. Each has a different rhythm, some of them are functional, such as entrance or ending, some of them can refer to a folkloric dance, such as saidi, or a different type of music, such as ‘muwashahat’. The dancer has to know the rhythms and understand the music to be able to react to it. It would be a shame for a dancer not to recognize parts of raqs sharqi routine. Especially nowadays, when musicians adapt the songs according to the audience. If there is an audience from Nubia region, the musicians can add a Nuby part in the routine and the dancer has to react to it and add dance steps typical for Nubian dance into her performance.

Dancing to raqs sharqi routine needs a lot of background knowledge. Only when you are able to master it; can you really perform it. Mejansé also gives the dancer a challenge to artistically interpret the music and use its various parts to express a broad range of feelings.

Written by: Badriyah


On 20th October, Shoonya Dance Centre is organising a special masterclass dedicated to mejansé, the raqs sharqi routine. Bellydancers will learn about the evolution of the music, the rhythms and the typical structure of mejansé. They will practice their knowledge on analyzing three different mejansé songs and they will learn a full routine choreographed by Badriyah.