Musicality for Belly Dancers

Learn about the song structure of Middle Eastern music to improve your musicality.

Musical dancers never get so caught up in steps that they ignore the music.
— Deborah Wingert, Ballet teacher

Musicality is one of the most important aspects of dancing. The best dancers have more than impeccable technique and passion. They have an ability to read the pitch, rhythm, melody, and mood of the music, and translate it into movement. They don’t just step on the beat. They match their movements to the spirit of the music, while simultaneously showcasing their personality and signature style.

A strong understanding of Middle Eastern music is the starting point for creating a unique visual expression of the music. Like any skill, improving your musicality takes practice. Listen to the same song over and over again until you have identified the different elements of the music.

3 Elements of Middle Eastern Music

As the stunning Brazilian belly dancer, Mahaila El Helwa, explained in her workshop on reading music, there are three parts of Middle Eastern music: Melody, Percussion, and Voice. A song may use all three components, or only one or two. It’s important to consider each element, and how it is presented in the song.

1- Melody

A melody is a beautiful combination of intervals and rhythms that express the emotion of the song. It can stir powerful emotions, even if the listener can’t understand the lyrics. These emotions can magically transport you to a memory, just like smell or taste.

Most of the Middle Eastern melody instruments fall into two categories: chordophones (or string instruments) and aerophones, which produce sound through the vibration of air. Some of these instruments include: lutes, violins, ouds, qanuns, flutes, ney, clarinet, mizmar, and horns.

When listening to the melody, consider the following questions:

  • What instruments are used?
  • How does the melody change in the song?
  • Are there any patterns?
  • When do you hear pauses?
  • Does the volume change at any point?
  • Is it a soloist or an orchestra?

2- Percussion

Percussion is commonly referred to as “the backbone” or “the heartbeat” of a musical ensemble. Percussion, meaning “struck”, is believed to be the oldest musical tradition. Percussion instruments include: drums, frame drums (the riq for example), and finger cymbals. All of these instruments create sounds of indefinite pitch. In other words, the pitch is unpredictable or uncontrollable.

When listening to the percussion section, consider the following questions:

  • How is the rhythm structured? Where are the Dums, Teks, and silent moments? Is it a medium paced 4 count rhythm, or a fast paced 2 count rhythm?
  • When do you hear pauses?

For more on rhythms, check out the blog post, Middle Eastern Rhythms for Belly Dancers.

3- Voice

Voice can be a tough one if you don’t understand the lyrics. Dancing playfully to a song about tragedy can be a bit embarrassing. It is best to find translations, or to ask a native speaker to translate for you.

When listening to the voice, consider the following questions:

  • What do the lyrics mean?
  • What is the cultural context? In general, it is not advisable to dance to political or religious music, especially the Call to Prayer.
  • Are you listening to a soloist or a choir (many singers)?

Musicality 1

How the three elements are presented

Unlike Western music, Middle Eastern music does not use multiple notes at the same time to sound harmonious. Instead, it uses different techniques to contrast and highlight the melody.

Melody, percussion, and voice may be presented in one of three ways:

You may hear only one element, for instance the percussion. Therefore, you can only dance to this isolated element. There are no other options.

You may hear two or all three elements at the same time. Which of the elements do you want to highlight in your dance? Do you prefer to dance on only the melody? Or you can choose to use hip movements for the percussion and arm gestures for the melody. There is no right answer. It is up to you to choose how to highlight the music.

Call & Response
You may hear the melody, then the percussion after, as if responding to the melody. This is a common technique in Middle Eastern music to create a musical conversation between a lead instrument and another instrument.


In addition to the song structure, don’t forget to consider the mood. Is it a flirty, playful shaabi song or a spiritual taksim? Does the mood change during the song? With practice your can start anticipating the rhythms and repetition, and become an expert at improvisation.



Mahaila’s workshop in Switzerland, February 2018

“Getting a Grip with Musicality – The Most Vague and Insightful part of dancing” by Zouk the World 

“How to improve your musicality?” by Zouk the World 

“Middle Eastern Percussion Instruments” by The Mizraq 

“Melody Instruments” by The Mizraq

“About Middle Eastern Music, Instruments, and Rhythm” by Jawaahir 

“Percussion” by Lumen 

Photography by Jgaunion

Shaabi — Behind the Music

Learn about the roots of shaabi belly dance, and how to stylise raqs sharqi moves for a shaabi song.

Shaabi, which means “of the common people” in Arabic, is a popular genre of Egyptian party music. Dancers have brought this music to the stage, creating a relaxed and playful dance style that reflects the humour in shaabi music. On stage, shaabi is usually improvised, using a wide range of classic belly dance movements with a distinct shaabi stylisation.


In the 1970s, Egypt went through a societal change as a result of the death of Egypt’s president at the time, the opening of the country to the west, and a little economic growth. It was time to move on from conservative rules, marking an end to the era of unattainable love and repressed sexuality.

During this period, many country folk made their way to the city, bringing with them their baladi music. These traditional sounds then became fused with modern western instruments, forming a new genre of music—Shaabi.

Characteristics of Shaabi Music

The singer’s voice is usually low, raspy, and emotional. The mawwal, or a traditional genre of vocal music, may be presented in Egyptian Arabic before the actual song begins to set the mood.

Lyrics are generally simple, revolving around everyday life. Often slang and humor is used to voice their disdain for the government, corruption and other social issues, such as drug and alcohol-use, poverty, work, and relationships.

Traditional instruments such as the nai, violin, kanun, oud, riq, cymbals and tabla, are blended with western instruments such as violins, accordion, saxophone, trumpet, electric keyboard, and the digital computer sounds.

Shaabi Singers

Ahmed Adaweya
Ahmed is the first well known shaabi singer. He started his career by performing folk songs and vocal improvisations at the café where he worked. Soon after he was singing at religious festivals, weddings, and the clubs on Shariaa al Haram. His raspy voice and memorable lyrics were extremely popular and paved the way for future shaabi singers.

Mohamed Abdel Wahab
Best known for his romantic patriotic songs, Mohamed Abdel Wahab’s music was influenced by many European and Russian composers.

Hassan al Asmar and Shabaan Abdel Rehim were particularly well-known for their mawaweel.

Other shaabi singers include Hakim, Saad al Soghayer, Mahmoud el Husseini, Abdel Basit Hamouda, and Mahmoud el Leithy.

Shaabi Music Today

Shaabi music is constantly changing with the times. Particularly since the January 25 revolution, new shaabi music uses more rap, hip hop and electronic sounds, and is not closely connected to it’s rural balady roots. Although the singing and instrumentation are radically different than the shaabi music of the 1970s, there is a commonality—both strive to deliver a socially relevant message.

Some new Shaabi musicians include DJ Mulid, DJ Sufi and DJ Karkar.

Shaabi Moves

The relaxed, playful feel, and humour of shaabi music translates directly into shaabi dance. Many of these steps are variations of classic belly dance moves styled to look casual, natural, and sassy.

Examples of how to stylise raqs sharqi moves for a shaabi song:

Hip accents- The feet are a little wider than normal, with the hips outside of the shoulder line.
Hip Drops- Make your hip drops big and exaggerated by moving through both hips, and bending/straightening your knees.
Hip Bounce- Push your hip up and casually, relax back down.
Chest drops- Create a more exaggerated, juicy chest drop by bending your knees on the chest down and straightening on the up.
Circles- Move your hips move down and outside the shoulder line in a exaggerated hip circle by bending and straightening the knees.

In general, when dancing shaabi, tune into the emotional message of the song, and use your dance to interact with the melody and lyrics. It is also common to walk around and interact with the audience.




Alla Vatc


Haleh Adhami



Shaabi Dance Technique and Combinations with Shahrzad
Mohammed Abdel Wahab
Shaabi Music History by Amina Goodyear

Middle Eastern Rhythms for Belly Dancers

There are hundreds of Middle Eastern rhythms, and every rhythm has variations. Learn about the most common rhythms for belly dancers.

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.

To hear the rhythms, check out our Middle Eastern Rhythms playlist on Spotify

Top 5 Most Common Rhythms

1- Malfouf

2/4 Rhythm

MalfufMalfuf, 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.

2- Maqsoum

4/4 Rhythm

MaqsoumThe 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)

4/4 Rhythm

BaladiBaladi, 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)

8/4 Rhythm

Masmoudi KabirMasmoudi 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.

5- Saidi

4/4 Rhythm

SaidiSaidi 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


2/4 Rhythm

AyoubThis 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.


2/4 Rhythm

KarachiKarachi, 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.


2/4 Rhythm

FellahiFellahi, 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.

Khaleeji (Saudi)

2/4 Rhythm

KhaleegiOriginating 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

4/4 Rhythm

WahdaWahda 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.


4/4 Rhythm

BoleroSimilar 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.


4/4 Rhythm

zeffaAlso 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.


8/4 Rhythm

ChiftitelliOriginating 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.


9/8 Rhythm

KarsilamaAlthough 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.

Samai Thaqil

10/8 Rhythm

SamaiiThis 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
Maqam World
Middle Eastern and Mediterranean Music Rhythms by Baba Yaga Music 

Photography by Primipil and Jgaunion

Raq On to our new Playlist for Belly Dancers

New Spotify playlist for belly dancers to inspire your belly dance practice.

There’s nothing worse than hitting the studio with — gasp! — no music. Great tunes add an extra dose of motivation to inspire a new choreography or power through a difficult shimmy session, so having a good playlist is key. But it’s really easy to get tired of the same one, right? With the start of the New Year, we rounded up some fresh new songs that are sure to keep your inspired. Enjoy and feel free to share the Spotify link below ❤

Playlist for Belly Dancers

drum solo web

Photography by Misha Kaminsky and Jgaunion