What’s the difference between Egyptian Raqs Sharqi and American Cabaret Style Belly Dance?

Defining belly dance styles is always tricky! 

Much like music styles, lines blur and definitions change over time. Do you know Def Leppard used to be considered a heavy metal band? Today they’re probably more considered to be in the rock category, with heavy metal bands sounding much heavier. Much like the Ramones were once considered super punk, but now there are much louder, noisier sounding bands in the punk category.

Dance is the same. Definitions we once used might change and evolve.

As a belly dancer, I’ve studied extensively and consistently with Egyptian and Egyptian-trained dancers, and lived in North America where I spent several years consistently studying American Cabaret (AmCab) style belly dance.

I remember asking one of my first belly dance teachers what the difference between these two styles was, and her reply to me was that she was still learning (aren’t we all!). So, I’m going to share with you the main differences and similarities that I’ve noticed or been taught about.

Take note that due to the ever-changing nature of dance, and the fact that every dancer brings their own personal style to the art form, there are no hard and fast facts. These are generalisations, not rules – and rules are often broken!

(Modern) Egyptian Belly Dance

In general, Egyptian style belly dance is (or has been) characterised by:

  • Shifting the weight of the body with each step
  • Being more integrated and less isolated than AmCab (but that doesn’t mean isolation does not exist; there is still great control over the body. While AmCab dancers may often stand still and perform isolations while standing in place like in a drum solo, Egyptian style dancers may do this less often, or be more likely to perform isolations while traveling, moving other body parts, etc.)
  • Less upright posture/less balletic posture compared to AmCab
  • Often more likely to see “inward” rather than “outward” movements, drawing isolations in towards the core (e.g. inward rather than outward horizontal and vertical figure 8s, often with a heel lift for the latter where AmCab would keep heels down). There are exceptions of course; Randa has started using outward vertical figure 8s (mayas) in recent years
  • Undulations tend to have less focus on the chest, and more focus on upper and lower abs
  • Arms often incorporated in a more organic way than the arm isolations used in AmCab style

Egyptian style belly dance is performed to Egyptian Arabic music. It can have an “earthier” feel than American Cabaret.

Up until 1:04 in this clip above you can see Randa’s feet quite clearly. Notice the ball of her foot is almost always in contact with the ground, even during hip work on one leg (like at around 0:15). 

You are generally less likely to see a super pointed toe during one-sided hipwork in Egyptian style belly dance, as dancers of this style often use the ground and the flexing capabilities of their joints (ankle, knee and hips) to help generate their hipwork.

For contrast, notice how Aziza, in this more AmCab style performance, has a very pointed toe, with just the toe making contact with the ground during standing postures and isolations in the clip below.

I have heard some dancers say that Egyptian style dance is less muscular than its Cabaret and Fusion counterparts; I would argue that this is a misunderstanding. 

Egyptian belly dance in particular draws a lot from using the force of the ground, but also, so many moves are generated from the core (and particularly the muscles in the front of the body), where in other styles, they might be generated from other parts of the body. 

For example, the more American Cabaret style undulation starts in the chest and rolls its way down, making use of the whole spine. The more Egyptian style undulation starts in the pelvis and travels mainly through the belly and pelvic area, using the belly muscles strongly and not affecting the chest so much. 

You’ll see examples of tight, internal, core-driven hip work in many of Randa’s performances, like the one below.

Of course, all Egyptian dancers have their own style, so you’ll see differences between each dancer as well. It takes a lot of watching and dancing to understand the nuances in each style (an excuse to procrastinate on YouTube!).

American Cabaret Style Belly Dance (AmCab)

“Belly dance is an art form that has been adapted in western cultures to create “related hybrid forms.” It is generally thought to have been first introduced to North America at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, after which it saw a surge in popularity as recreational dance during the 1960s and 1970s in the wake of the second wave of feminism and the sexual revolution and experienced a plateau in the 1980s.” – Milner et al., 2019

Belly Dance was super popular in the United States in the 60s and 70s, but at this time, the internet was not quite what it is today. Many dancers danced to live bands instead of tapes (although American dancers who were active in clubs and restaurants at that time have told me they did use tapes when there was not a live band!), and learned their technique and stylisations through their own teachers, through feedback from the (Middle Eastern) bands they worked with, or from simply mimicking what they saw other dancers do.

If they were working in clubs with live Arabic bands, they did often learn from dancers or musicians who had firsthand experience of belly dancers in their own culture (such as in Turkey or Egypt). However, because bands and native dancers were often from different countries, American dancers learned how to dance to Turkish rhythms and songs, Egyptian rhythms and songs, etc., etc. American Cabaret belly dance thus became a sort of fusion of many styles of Middle Eastern dance.

Like Egyptian belly dance, American Cabaret (AmCab) style belly dance has evolved and continues to evolve over time, but in general, AmCab is often:

  • More isolated and upright than Egyptian style belly dance (e.g. heels on ground for vertical figure 8s, whereas Egyptian style often allow the heels to lift)
  • More shapes and isolations are used in the chest in AmCab compared to Egyptian; although we are seeing more circles and pops in the chest now in Modern Egyptian styling
  • Hands and arms can be a bit more deliberate than in Egyptian style, sometimes less “organic”
  • The modern “Drum Solo” as a standalone performance is much more AmCab than Egyptian. Drum solos by themselves are rarer in Egyptian dance, but you do see them in the context of mejances and baladi progressions
  • Tends to blend technique from a variety of belly dance styles, and has had quite a heavy influence from Turkish style; lots of technique also similar to modern fusion styles

I hope you learned something new! Keep in mind, dancers have their own individual styles, dance evolves and changes over time, and rules are broken. Nothing is ever black or white, but I hope you’ve got more of an idea of the differences and similarities between Egyptian and AmCab style belly dance.

Siobhan Camille teaches regular classes online! See the full class schedule here, and sign up for classes in the Greenstone Belly Dance shop.

Leave a Reply