Everything in the universe has a rhythm, everything dances. -Maya Angelou
The western idea of a rhythm is based on the beat. In fact, many confuse rhythm and beat. However, dancing on the rhythm is not the same as dancing on the beat. In Middle Eastern music, a rhythm is a repeated pattern of strong beats (Dums), weak beats (Teks), and “space” (no beats at all). These consistent groupings of beats give the music a feeling of flow.
The rhythm often stands out and is recognizable to the audience. This makes it a nice element of the music to highlight in your dance. When dancing on a rhythm, you can choose to accent every beat, or some of the beats. It’s your choice! You may showcase the Dums with strong, heavy movements at your full range of motion, and Teks with smaller, more controlled movements. Of course you can use the same moves for both Dums and Teks, however they should look very different. For instance, a hip drop on a Dum should be more grounded, releasing the pelvis into the earth, while a hip drop on a Tek should be lighter and a little bouncy.
There are hundreds of Middle Eastern rhythms, and every rhythm has variations. However, there are some rhythms that are very common in belly dance. Below we have summarized the key information about the most common Middle Eastern rhythms, including their “time signatures”. Written as a fraction, the top number of a time signature reflects the number of beats per measure (or bar), while the bottom number indicates the duration of each beat.
Top 5 Most Common Rhythms
Malfuf, meaning “rolling” in Arabic, is a fast paced rhythm common in entrances, exits, and drum solos. It’s high energy makes it perfect for traveling steps, including chassés, arabesques, turns, moving hip steps, and moving camels.
The Maqsoum rhythm, which means “divided” in Arabic, is a very common medium paced rhythm, found in Arab pop, folkloric, drum solos, and classical songs. There are a lot of variations and speeds, including Maqsoum Sareea, which is Maqsoum played in half the amount of time. Common movements for this rhythm are hip drops, souhair zaki hips (or downs), the jewel, and hip circles.
3- Masmoudi Saghir (Baladi)
Baladi, meaning “from town” in Arabic, is an upbeat, grounded rhythm. Although in the west we call it “Baladi”, in Egypt the word “Baladi” actually refers to an Egyptian folk dance, and not a rhythm at all. Known as Masmoudi Saghir in Egypt, this rhythm calls for earthier movements, and grounded hip work to accent the Dums.
4- Masmoudi Kabir (Big Masmoudi)
Masmoudi Kabir is the slow version of Masmoudi Saghir. It’s longer time signature gives it a moodier feeling, which contrasts to the upbeat Masmoudi Saghir. When the rhythm starts, often after a dynamic entrance, the dancer uses deep hip movements, really sinking into the Dums.
Saidi is a popular rhythm from the South of Egypt or Upper Egypt. As this earthy rhythm is synonymous with the Saidi folk dance, it calls for folkloric Saidi moves, in addition to hip drops, hops, the jewel, and shimmy walks.
More Rhythms to Know
This heavy rhythm is popular in modern Lebanese music. The faster version is great for traveling steps to open or close a show, as it really takes the audience to a climactic point. The slower version, known as the Zaar, has a trance-like quality, and is used in spiritual dances.
Karachi, sometimes called an “inverted Ayoub”, is commonly used in Egypt and North Africa. Like most rhythms, there are variations. In Morocco, for instance, it is sometimes played with a longer time signature.
Fellahi, meaning “from the countryside”, is a faster version of Maqsoum, originating from Egyptian farming rituals. As it is very filled in, this rhythm has an energy and bounce that is great for shimmy walks and hip lifts.
Originating from the Arabian gulf countries, the Khaleeji rhythm has heavy rolling beats that make it popular for drum solos. It is often confused with the Ayoub rhythm, as they both follow the two Dums and a Tek pattern. However, in Khaleegi, the Dums are closer together, which give it a driving feeling. The movements associated with this rhythm include the Khaleegi step, hair toss, head slides, and other hand gestures.
Wahda Kebira, which means “the Big One” in Arabic, is the Malfouf rhythm played in 4 counts, not 2. Played during the slow, melody part of songs, it is commonly used for taqsims, and calls for circular movements and sensual undulations.
Similar to the Rumba, the Bolero rhythm is a dramatic and unusual rhythm popular in Spain and Cuba. It is believed to be of Middle Eastern origin, having made its way to Spain under the Arab rule. It is a beautiful rhythm to play as a background for slow melodies and taksims. Dancers often complement this rhythm with veil work.
Also known as Zeffa or El-Zaffa, Zaffa is an Egyptian rhythm used during wedding celebrations. Historically, dancers would carry candelabras to light the way to the bride and groom’s new home. Today, dancers balance these candelabras, or Shamadans, on their heads.
Originating from Turkey, the Çiftetelli rhythm calls for slow, sensuous movements, as it is accompanied by a beautiful melody of stringed instruments. In Turkish, the name actually refers to a solo folk dance.
Although karşılama refers to the rhythm in the west, in Turkey karşılama actually refers to a folk dance performed to 9/8 rhythms. Popular movements to this rhythm include box steps and 3/4 shimmies.
This Egyptian rhythm, which means “listen”, is one of the more common 10 beat rhythms in Arabic and Turkish music. It is often used in spoken/sung Arabic poetry, called Muwashahat.
Basic Rhythms of Oriental Dance by Yael Zarca
Rhythm Breakdown by Henna
An Introduction to Middle Eastern Music Rhythms by Arabella
Learn four types of time signatures by Human Kinetics
Basic Music Theory by Belly Dance Topeka
Drum Solo Expressions tutorials by Sedona Soulfire
Magency by Shahrzad
Middle Eastern and Mediterranean Music Rhythms by Baba Yaga Music