Khaleegi Dance

What is Khaleegi Dance?

Safran in an Emirati dress. Photo by Lemon Seed.

Safran in an Emirati dress. Photo by Lemon Seed.

What is khaleegi?

Social versus stage khaleegi

Main elements of khaleegi dance

Costuming and accessories

Why is khaleegi important for oriental dancers?

Why I love-love-love khaleegi?

Links to more information

What is khaleegi?

The word khaleegi (khaleeji, haligi, خليجي‎) means „of the gulf“ in Arabic. It also means, more specifically, anything related to the Arabian Peninsula that is bordered on one side by the Persian Gulf (also known as the Arabic Gulf). That includes United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, Oman, and Yemen.

For bellydancers khaleegi usually signifies a folklore-based dance originating from the very same region. The Arabian Peninsula is a home to many different tribes, and historically it has been the centre of connections between Asia, Africa and the Middle East. Hence, the region hosts many different rhythms and types of music, many cultural influences, and a variety of folkloric dances. You can see some examples of Emirati dances here (video clips at the end of the post). However, what we see on bellydance stages is usually a somewhat unified and a stylized version of the dance.

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Social versus stage khaleegi

Safran in a khaleegi headdress and a dress with Saudi pattern. Photo by Orants.

Safran in a khaleegi headdress and a dress with Saudi pattern. Photo by Orants.

Originally, and still to that day, the dance is a social dance. It is danced at parties, among women to enjoy and celebrate. In that context it is not a flashy or a fast dance. Instead, it is more about the softness of movements, interaction, and what I would call „the groove“.

When it is performed on a stage, especially as a solo performance, it looks very different though. There is more moving around, the movements are bigger, and more effects like hair tosses are added. On stage we often borrow elements from men’s dancing and use influences from other regions to add to our khaleegi.

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Main elements of khaleegi 

What we usually learn first in khaleegi classes is the „basic step“. One could also call it a limping step 🙂 There are many variations of that limp though. The emphasis of the movements is mainly on the upper body: wrists, shoulders, head, hair. And, on the expression, of course. Although there are theories about what certain movements may mean (like imitating the pearl-divers, or emulating the movement of the sea), for me personally it is a bit of show-off 😉 By dancing you demonstrate the beauty of your hair, your jewelry, and your dress. Actually, you get to play around with your dress and hair a lot in stage khaleegi 🙂

Because the traditional khaleegi dress covers most of the body, there is no visible abdominal or hip work. However, some dancers get around it by grabbing the dress so tight around the body that hip work is visible. I guess that is the African influence in the dance. I am not a hundred per cent sure, but I also believe the active hair work (hair tosses, head circles etc.) that is so popular in modern khaleegi comes from an external influence.

When it comes to music, the best known khaleegi rhythm among dancers is a 2/4 rhythm that is sometimes called khaleegi, samri or saudi. You can listen to an example of it here.

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Costuming and accessories

Safran in a khaleegi headdress and a thobe from Bahrein. Photo by Orants.

Safran in a khaleegi headdress and a thobe from Bahrein. Photo by Orants.

The most common costume used for khaleegi is the thobe al-nashaal, which was a traditional party dress of khaleegi women. Basically it is just an oversized square-ish dress with large sleeves, which is usually decorated with golden embroidery. There are many different types of thobes, some examples you can see from the photos accompanying the article.

Nowadays the thobe is considered a slightly outdated piece of clothing. So, if you plan to dance to khaleegi pop songs, you can choose something more modern to wear. Also, if khaleegi is part of a longer oriental dance set, or just a section in a song, then you can easily dance through it in the bellydance costume you are already wearing. However, in those cases I prefer to wear a see-through thobe on top of my costume, which is easy to put on and remove. It adds visual diversity to the show, and I can use the thobe as an accessory.

Gold has played a big role in khaleegi culture, so it is perfectly fine to to bling yourself up for the performance. Besides, wearing bracelets and rings will only emphasize your upper body movements! If you don’t plan to use your hair a lot, you can wear one of the many different golden headpieces. I have also seen decorative golden or embroidered belts worn over the thobe.

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Why is khaleegi important for oriental dancers?

Although there is little in common between bellydance and khaleegi dance, it is still important for oriental dancers to know khaleegi. People from the Gulf are an important market for the entertainment industry, and they travel around the Middle East a lot. So, there has been a lot of crossover in music and dance. Also, adding a khaleegi piece makes your performance set more exciting, and gives you a chance to show off the diverse dancer that you are 😉

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Why I love-love-love khaleegi?

Safran in a khaleegi dress by Malika Design. Photo by Tarmo Siirak.

Safran in a khaleegi dress by Malika Design. Photo by Tarmo Siirak.

I can surely say that khaleegi is my favourite folkloric style. On one hand it is all about the softness, the groove, and the expression… And then you can go completely crazy and impress the audience by tossing your hair around. My first lessons of khaleegi dancing came from classes with Egyptian teachers or instructors following the Egyptian school, and already I enjoyed the music and movements a lot. But most of my khaleegi I learned when I started working in the UAE. One of the nightclubs I performed at had a lot of local customers, and I spent hours observing them dance after my show was finished. Of course, due to cultural reasons, it was only Emirati men dancing, but still, their dancing had the softness, the expression… the groove!!!

I also love doing choreographing and setting khaleegi dances for groups. With the colourful thobes and synchronised dancing, it really makes an impression on the stage!

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Two articles on Gulf dances by A’isha Azar

A different take on khaleegi dance by Shems

Lots of information about khaleegi music, dance and culture by Kay Hardy Campbell

Article on khaleegi music in an Emirati newspaper

“Dance, Music and Culture of the Arabian Peninsula, Iraq and southern Iran” on Facebook

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