If you’re a belly dancer, chances are you’ve heard about “Golden Era” style belly dance. But what exactly does “Golden Era” mean? What characterises “Golden Era” Belly Dance, and is it really any different to modern belly dance? Why do so many dancers adore the Golden Era style? It looks so… simple when compared to the modern belly dance stars, right? Well, here’s your chance to learn more about what Golden Era belly dance is, and why there’s so much hype surrounding it!
When was the Golden Era of Belly Dance?
In our belly dance bubble, we might think of the term Golden Era as referring only to dance. In actual fact, the Golden Era (or Golden Age) refers to a time in the mid 1900’s (around 1940-1960) when Egyptian cinema was booming, with the Egyptian film industry being the third largest in the world in the 1950s.1 However, many movies featured Egyptian dancers who became very popular, in part as a result of their film appearances. When talking specifically about the dance, we often refer to the Golden Era as being in the 1900s-1960s.
What does Golden Era style belly dance look like?
How long is a piece of string? The truth is, many of the Golden Age belly dancers shared similarities in the way they moved, or the types of music they danced to, but each of these stars of the Golden Age were individuals with their own dance (and life!) histories, and therefore different ways of performing.
Tahia Carioca (like many Egyptian dancer stars at the time) danced in Badia Masabni’s troupe at the Casino Opera,2,3 and reportedly earned her name thanks to practising the Brazilian dance, the karioka, and incorporated latin footwork into her performances.4,5 Naima Akef, on the other hand, came from a circus family, previously working as an acrobat before making her way onto the belly dance scene!5 Undoubtedly, this would have had an influence on the way she performed.
More generally, Golden Era belly dance may be characterised as being “softer” and “rounder” than current belly dance styles – it was rare to see a drum solo performance from these dancers . Although, as Badriyah told me in our recent live Q&A, they did exist! Samia Gamal can be seen performing a drum solo in the 1954 film ‘Al Wahsh’ (The Monster/The Beast الوحش) – unfortunately all the clips I’ve seen have since been removed from YouTube and Vimeo, so feel free to share a clip with me if you find one online! If you see the scene in the film, you’ll notice that the drum solo is really not performed in the same way we see a modern belly dance drum solo performed! What differences do you see personally?
When watching Golden Era style in general, I also see a difference in the dance posture, with shoulders and arms often far behind the hips to frame the front of the body, and sometimes a posture that almost leans back in contrast to the upright balletic postures that are so often prized now.
During a workshop I took with the lovely Scottish dancer Jen, she also pointed out this tendency by some Golden Era dancers to dance with their hands framing their hips, but instead of their hands and arms being beside the body, they really contracted their shoulder blades and danced with their hands right behind their bodies. You see this really briefly in this video of Tahia Carioca around 1:58 and 2:19 as she is moving with some horizontal hip circles.
In the same video, around 1:12, she takes an arm position (one arm in front, one framing her hip) where you see a rigidity in her upper body. This upper-body rigidity is something I’ve also noticed in videos of Samia Gamal’s dancing. The arms and lower torso are fluid, but there is a tension around the upper part of the torso and shoulders. Again, I think this may be coming from a strong contraction of the muscles between the shoulder blades, which could be also part of what contributes to this feel of an almost backward lean in some of the Golden Era dancers.
Why is my teacher so crazy about Golden Era belly dance?
Well, maybe you should ask her! But I too remember being a baby belly dancer and wondering what the big fuss about Samia Gamal was. I was much more impressed by snappy drum solos, fluid veil work, big Khaleegi hair flips, and dexterous cane handling!
I’ll be honest; after being in belly dance for almost a decade, now is when Golden Era style dance is really speaking to me. I personally have been noticing this total freedom and fluidity in dancers from this era; what baby belly dancer Siobhan used to see as “just the same movements repeated” I’m now seeing as hips with total freedom, the ability to roll and undulate so smoothly in all directions, and this total control around their waists that looks so effortless.
While Golden Era belly dancers still showcased sharp, snappy technique (see Soheri Zaki’s downward diagonal hip drops, or Samia Gamal’s drum solo above, or some of the crazy backbends incorporated by some of the dancers), I believe this feeling of “roundness” that I mentioned earlier comes from the fact that these dancers had just mastered this art form. They really had such control over their hips and bellies and backs (and everything!) that the moved they performed looked like second nature.
I stumbled across this video of Soheir Zaki just a few days ago and was taken away by her hip movements:
I think as we grow on our dance journey, our appreciation for difference branches, ages, and styles of the dance evolves. As we begin to master or understand one area of the dance or our of own technique, we realise there’s another piece of the puzzle we’re missing or another aspect we need to improve on. The more we learn, the more we realise how much we don’t know… 😉
How can I learn more about Golden Era style dance?
How lucky you are that we live in the age of the internet! There are so many resources out there for us!
Here are a couple of blogs and websites I’ve found useful in my own searches to learn more about Golden Era:
- Badriyah’s Bellydance Museum is a phenomenal resource for anyone interested in the Golden Era of raqs sharqi. Siobhan Camille and Greenstone Belly Dance are proud to support the museum!
- Sharqi Dance: Belly Dance History, A Timeline of Egypt’s Biggest Stars
- Princess Farhana’s Blog: The Thinking Gal’s Guide to Belly Dance
- Badriyah has a great video covering common misunderstandings related to Golden Era Belly Dance.
But of course, learning is best put into practice. Seek out good teachers who specialise in this era of Oriental Dance. If there are none in your area, look into online learning, or take workshops or private lessons when you can. Greenstone Belly Dance is very fortunate to have hosted Golden Era experts such as Badriyah (CZ/BE) for workshops in the past, and Siobhan Camille also teaches Golden Era style! If you’re interested in learning more about belly dance, sign up to our newsletter for free geeky articles right to your inbox!
Watch Siobhan Camille, the author performing a Samia Gamal inspired Golden Era choreography below:
By Siobhan Camille, Director of Greenstone Belly Dance, a belly dance company currently based in the Netherlands.