Beledi is the traditional dance of Egypt's towns and cities. Like the people of those towns and cities it is drawn from all walks of life over many, many centuries, and it grew up in many different homes. Dance historians identify accents from North Africa, from Syria, from the distant oases of Siwa and Kharga, from the Libyan coast, from the Northern Mediterranean, and from sub-Saharan Africa - but the language is entirely Egyptian. You could, if you wished, make a very good case for finding beledi's steps and lifts from the back foot on the painted walls of pharaonic tombs.
The dance we recognise today coalesced in the 19th and early 20th centuries, becoming both a dance of ordinary men and women, and a dance of professional entertainers, particularly the female singers who performed in the popular cafés chantants. Dance stars may have taken this traditional dance into the rarified world of bellydance, but no dancer today is appreciated by an Egyptian audience if she cannot master the beloved art of beledi.
There is nothing fake about beledi - the true beledi dancer conceals none of her feelings and dances with every part of her body and with every day of her life,
It is the old and modern dance of the Egyptian people, a dance of every-woman, young or old, whether she lives on the streets or in the rarefied world of the cabaret dance stars whose raqs sharqi - the dance of the east - is ultimately drawn from the endless circles and emotions of beledi.
Credits: Susie White brought beautiful traditional beledi to the Liverpool Arabic Arts Festival in July 2014. Photos: Jo Hirons
Perhaps because of its close association with the female singing stars of the late 19th century, a separate strain of beledi grew up alongside the popular urban dances of everyday people. This dance was an almost exclusively female art form, packed full of every possible expression of emotion and human feeling. Street dancers, such as the Ghawazi, were accomplished pantomime artists telling stories and performing tableaux in the course of their popular entertainments, but the beledi artists were something different, for they claimed their artistry was not of the common sort, but came from superior education and understanding.
When Egypt opened its first theatres and cabaret clubs at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries, singing stars and dance artists drew huge crowds and created rival factions amongst their supporters. As beledi met the needs of its new stage setting and learned to please all ranks of society, so it became bellydance, a dance born in the streets of Cairo and Alexandria and exported to almost every other country in the world, loved and recognised the world over, and now more popular than ever.
Credits: Funoon were lucky enough to have two of the UK's finest cabaret beledi dancers join our show - Shams (Newport) and Kay Taylor (Newcastle). Photos: Jo Hirons
No one knows for certain when the term "Raqs sharqi" - Dance of the East - first began to be used in the Arab world. Some believe it to be an "art term" born in the late 19th century when East and West freely exchanged literary and philosophical ideas about the performing arts. Others believe it to be an older term first used in Egypt to describe dances and performers foreign to them, coming from further East - Persia, Syria, Palestine, Turkey, even Afghanistan and India. All of these dance styles were familiar to Egyptians, a familiarity due in part both to the slave trade and the foreign entertainers who travelled with the Haj caravans. In the early 19th century, when Mohamed Ali established himself as the ruler of Egypt, ostensibly at the behest of the Ottoman Empire, these Eastern styles were more familiar to the incoming elite than traditional Egyptian styles - which is one reason why beledi, the traditional dance of native Egyptian entertainers, is so prized - but it wasn't long before astute and popular performers became adept in both styles.
Beledi sharqi is a blend of both traditional beledi and Raqs sharqi. Where beledi is contained, sharqi creates extravagant and dramatically emotional shapes all drawn from the continual circles at the heart of the traditional dance. Unlike cabaret stars who sport often minimal costuming, beledi sharqi chooses full length, fully-covering dresses ultimately derived from the Western-influenced evening gowns worn by female singers.
Credits: Joanne Town performed a beautiful and improvised sharqi solo throughout the Funoon tour. Photos: Jo Hirons