The Greats








by Ann "Roxann" Sabin


*I didn't receive a lesson in watching ballet. Why would I be interested in learning about this before attending?

Chances are, you did receive a lesson in how to attend a concert.  Mom shushed you, or Dad told you when to clap....Unlike ballet, ballroom, and even European/western folk dances, however, there is no social context set up in the west for viewing a Middle Eastern dance performance. For example, we know "intuitively" from our culture that at a ballet, we sit quietly for the whole performance, which may continue without pause for over an hour, at which point we then show our appreciation by clapping. Or, at the opera, we applaud right after the amazing solo performed by the feature soprano.

*So what makes a belly dance performance different?

Well, for starters, the venue in which you see a performance is not necessarily predictable. Belly dance can be performed on stage, in a nightclub, at fairs, as entertainment at parties (corporate or private), and may other places. Obviously each one of these settings is going to have something different physically. Even dancers with choreographed routines must be skilled enough to adjust their performances accordingly.

While other performances are perhaps formal, belly dance invites an intimacy with its audience members. In ballet, dancers are isolated on a stage, interacting with each other.  In a folk dance, more intimate contact shows up, including talking to, smiling at, etc., people who are watching, but dancers are more likely interacting with other dancers. Belly dancers are often not limited to an isolated stage; the audience can be quite close to the dancer, or the dancer may move among the audience.

Belly dance is at an interesting point, it being an art form developed out of folk dance, and as such, audience participation is a fusion of these practices. It may be helpful to keep in mind that it is still strongly tied to that origin. In folk dances, the environment is by definition more casual, as the dancing is about having a social event rather than delivering a performance. It is more common than not for a belly dancer to smile at individuals, or direct parts of their dance towards a particular party.

*You mean a dancer might come on to me, or get in my space?

Not likely. A professional dancer keeps a professional distance, and any invasion into your personal space is most likely an accident. Along that same vein, a performer may partake in a harmless flirt (with BOTH men and women, I might add), but more likely youíll find yourself bestowed with a genuine, warm smile, or the opportunity to see some of the more complex dance movements that are not always visible from far away.

*You mentioned showing appreciation. What is different about belly dance?

Belly dance is derived from folk dance, and as such, audience participation as seen with folk dances is common. Along with traditional clapping, there are ways indigenous to the culture that you might like to try out.

Clapping. This is the favorite standby, and common to many types of dance. Though many rhythms are different, much of Middle Eastern music is based on beats similar to the west (4/4, 2/4, 6/8). While much clapping will be a basic four claps to a measure, if you listen carefully, you may hear audience members clapping patterns specific to the rhythms being played by the musicians. And if you come along an unfamiliar rhythm (there is 9/8, for example), you can listen in to that clapping pattern and, after a bit, pick it right up.

Zaghareet. The zaghareet is an ululation, sounded to express delight or joy. Even if youíve never heard one, you will know one instantly if you are listening for it. It sounds like a person saying "lalalalalala" or "lelelelelele" very fast and at a very high pitch. It is a sound done when a performer is dancing to lively music, and is executing dance moves that are particularly complex, or fun to watch. You should feel free to try this one out. All you do is say "lalalalalala" very fast, as I said before, while pressing the top of your tongue against the roof of your mouth. Etiquette says remember to hold your hand up to obscure your mouth while you do this, especially while you are learning. People have been known to spit accidentally while zaghreeting!

Choice phrases. You may also hear audience members call out words, or phrases, in what is obviously a foreign language. If you like this form of expression, learn the meaning of the words the people are using, and barring any obscenities or obviously suggestive phrases, feel free to use these as well.

*Will I be expected to tip?

It is completely your choice as to whether or not you will tip. Simply be ready for it to happen around you, and that in some establishments, tips are a major part of a dancer's income. While not present in every performance venue, tipping is part of the belly dance culture, just as it is part of many performance cultures in this country (thinking specifically of a musical artist in a coffee shop, for example). There are many different ways a belly dancer will be tipped; some forms of tipping include showering the dancer with dollar bills, or placing money in a collection jar of some form.

The most common experience in the United States, for example, is seen in nightclubs. Here, people present a dancer with a tip by either handing it to her or tucking it in her costume, usually toward the end of the performance. If you would like to tip the dancer, let her direct you as to how to she wishes to receive it. Fold the bill in half lengthwise, and hold it out where she can see it. She may prefer to take it from you personally and tuck it in her costume, or she may
direct you where you are to tuck it. If you feel awkward tipping the dancer in her costume you can always hand her the bill and she will tuck it herself.

*But what if I am not interested in participating like this at all? Can I still watch belly dancing?

Absolutely. If for you, the way to be best entertained is to simply sit back and take it in, by all means, do that! Any dancer that is worth her salt will recognize this in you, and while she may still bestow a warm smile, she will definitely respect your space. I canít imagine any belly dancer turning down a receptive audience!


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