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(aka Saudi, Gulf, Raks Nasha'at)
photo courtesy of Latifa of Baltimore MD

Pronounced Kuh-LEE-jee. (for extra pronunciation points, start with a phlegmy coughing sound). Would be pronounced with a hard G sound in the Egyptian dialet. Alternate spellings: Khaliji, Khaleeji, Khaleegi

Latifa of Baltimore MD demonstrates Khaleegy

What is it?

A folkloric dance from the Persian Gulf region (in Arabic, this region is called the Khaleej)-- there are versions performed in Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, United Arab Emirates. and Saudi Arabia. Each country and region has its own style -- in the US we typically see Saudi or Kuwaiti styles, or several styles blended together into a single presentation. Most American dancers don't have a deep understanding of the variations but know Khaleegy as a collection of Gulf dances.

You'll recognize this dance when you see it by the embellished caftan-like costume that's worn (more on that below), the limpy gliding steps, head slides and various hair tosses.

What is its name?

It's difficult to know what to call this dance. Calling it Khaleegy dance is inaccurate, because there are many styles of dance in the region, mostly done by men (often with sabers or rifle twirling!). The women's dance can have different names in different countries (Samri in Kuwait, Raks Nasha'at or 'Hair Dance' in UAE). I'll use Khaleegy for this article because it's the name most teachers and dancers in the U.S. use. I also hear it called 'Saudi' which is a little inaccurate since it covers a much wider area than just Saudi Arabia.

Wy do we learn it?

Khaleegy dances are NOT bellydance, although there is some overlap in the movement vocabulary and the audiences. So why do we learn Khaleegy dancing?

  1. It comes up in our music. Dancers in Cairo and other Middle Eastern hot spots often include some Khaleegy dancing in their sets to put the wealthy Arab tourists in a generous tipping mood. As a result, many pieces of music used by bellydancers have Khaleegy sections in them. If a dancer with a knowledgeable audience dances right over that music without including some Khaleegy steps, it's almost as if the Macarena played and the dancer ignored it. Does the world end if you don't recognize some Khaleegy music that comes up in your set? Of course not. But if you do dance to it appropriately you'll look much more knowledgeable -- and could pick up extra tips from any wealthy Gulf Arabs who happen to be in your audience!
  2. It's really, really, really fun to do. The rhythms are catchy and pull you in, the dance steps are mostly simple and easy to learn, and there's a unique joy and relaxation in the dance.
  3. It's pretty. There's a subtle feminine beauty to the movements (not to mention the shiny costumes!) that you might miss at first glance, especially if you've only seen the dance done by students who haven't relaxed into the movements or gotten the music into their hearts.

The costume

The gloriously decorated dress is called a Thobe al Nasha'al (Thobe rhymes with robe). It's often just referred to as a Thobe, but that word only means 'dress' in Arabic and can even refer to the men's long shirt-like garment.

Asking for a Saudi Thobe or Khaleegy dress will get you the right garment from any bellydance vendor, though. Since you can plainly see what the costume looks like in the video clips, I won't waste a lot of words describing it. It's not absolutely necessary to wear the Thobe Nasha'ar to perform Khaleegy dance, but for stage performances in the U.S. it is typical.

For very cool instructions on how to make your own amazing thobe from a sari, see Kashmir's amazing costuming pages

How does this dance fit into Khaleegy culture?

Women do this dance amongst themselves at parties. Suppose you're at a wedding party in one of the Gulf countries. The women's party may be separate from the men -- or at the very least at opposite ends of the hall (depends on the country and social climate of the times). All the women will be wearing lovely party dresses, and at one time they would have brought thobes from home to slip over their dresses for dancing (the thobes aren't really worn any more, although they're still popular with Western women when dancing this style). When it was time for the dancing, it might happen in several ways, depending on the size, formality, and location of the gathering. The women may play drums, sing, and do syncopated clapping together while other women get up to dance a few at a time.

Here's a wonderful example of this type of scene, featuring Kuwaiti actress Leila Abdulaziz (also a great example of the most common rhythm for this dance style!):

Special thanks to Aisha Azar for identifying the singer in this clip

Or the women may dance in neat lines, crossing and passing each other:

It's also done in livelier style to pop music.

How is the dance done?

A video clip is worth a thousand words, and I've included several kinds on this page.

Because the region includes a variety of cultures and tribes and roots, there are a variety of styles. Saudi dancing is different from Iraqi dancing, for instance. Some are lighter and bouncier, some heavier. There are only a few dancers and teachers who fully understand all the regional variations, and that's OK. It's just important to understand that just because a dancer isn't doing it exactly how you learned doesn't mean she's wrong. Sometimes we dancers rush to judgment when we should be asking questions.

The most basic movement of the dance is a limpy step with one foot flat and the other on the ball. This step might glide the dancer along sideways or alternate RLR pause, LRL pause. The body is very relaxed, hips are allowed to push back when lifting onto the ball of the foot.

Other very standard movements include head slides and circles, shoulder (not bust) shimmies, hand gestures, manipulating the thobe with the hands, and tossing the hair side to side, in circles, or in figure 8s (often while kneeling).

Here's a video from a Khaleegy workshop that lets you see some of the movements on bodies without the bulky thobes in the way:

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What does it look like on stage?

Khaleegy is often staged in groups, either wearing matching thobes or a colorful assortment. Here are some wonderful examples of group staged work:

A favorite example of mine: A soloist can really bring out the joy and playfulness that are inherent in the dance. This clip can't be embedded, but click here to see the lovely Roshana Nofret's lively interpretation.

I'm an Egyptian style dancer. Do Egyptian dancers perform Khaleegy?

Here's Fifi Abdo, sorry for the poor clip quality. She's wearing a shiny sheer galibeya rather than a thobe, so I'm guessing this was during a folkloric segment of a full set and didn't get it's own costume change:

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Lucy throws on her Thobe Nasha'al over her costume and dances a Khaleegy song in this clip:

How do I know when to do Khaleegy steps?

Like most Middle Eastern folk dances, the rhythm is a great guide. Again, because the dance is done across a wide region, there are many, many rhythms that might be present in Khaleegy music. But the one that is most common and instantly recognizable (and that comes up most often in bellydance music) is the simple, 2-beat rhythm you hear in the first native video clip. It sounds like 'DUN DUN ka te ka'). I asked Elizabeth Artemis Mourat for a word device to relate to this rhythm once, to help dancers recognize it instantly, and she came up with 'GIVE the BAby chocolate, GIVE the BAby chocolate.' (ummm... of course Artemis and I wouldn't want you to actually give chocolate to any babies). This rhythm swings and draws your body into the movements. Warning: dancing to it is addictive!

I think it's safe to say any time you hear that rhythm, you can use Khaleegy steps. But remember that there are other rhythms that may also be appropriate. The one I'm referencing is often called Saudi or Khaleegy rhythm in the US.

What else should I know?

There are two main points of confusion about Khaleegy dancing.

  1. Khaleegy is not the same as Zar. Dance students often confuse the two because they both have head-hair movements and use heavy double-DUN rhythms. The differences: Khaleegy is a dance for celebrating and performing, Zar is a ritual for inducing a sort of trance. In Khaleegy, the head moves in order to make the hair move around like a prop. In Zar, the head moves as a result of rhythmic upper body movements done to induce a trance -- any movement of the hair is incidental. The rhythms are different, too. Khaleegy sounds like DUN DUN kateka and in Zar the Ayoub rhythm is used (DUN ka DUN tek)
  2. Saudi not Saidi. The words sound similar, but that's the end of any connection. When people talk about Saudi rhythm (pronounced SAH oo dee or SAW dee) they're talking about Saudi Arabia or the Gulf region. Saidi (pronounced Sah EE dee) they're referring to Upper Egypt (Southern Egypt) where a different kind of dancing, music and rhythm altogether are used.

Remember that there's a whole collection of dances in this category (like bellydance). Sometimes a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. Don't judge other dancers, in person or on youtube, who have different costuming, dance movements or style than you learned - they may be doing a different style. For instance, most dancers will drop onto the flat foot on the downbeat, but a few will rock upward on the downbeat deliberately, to be unique or to show off their ability. In some countries the dance is light and bouncy, in others it's heavy and earthy. Some styles are very restrained and feminine, some are wild and vigorous.

When Western dancers mess up Khaleegy, it's usually because we're stiff, not relaxed enough. Or we move our heads too much or otherwise try too hard. Imagine you're dancing at a party with your friends, just for the sheer joy of moving to the music. When tossing your hair over one shoulder and then the other, it's the shoulders and upper body that turn, the head mostly goes along for the ride!

One more interesting tidbit

The first time I saw Sudanese dancers performing Nubian dances, I was very surprised to see how similar their footwork, posture, and movements were to Khaleegy. I wasn't surprised at all to hear Khadijah say in this interview that there is a relationship between Nubian, Bedouin and Khaleegy dances! Here's that interview, and some wonderful footage of Khadijah dancing in a looser, freer, more energetic Khaleegy style. When I learned some Khaleegy with Faten Salama, an Egyptian national folkloric dancer, her style was like this, loose and wild and joyous. Its amazing to see this kind of energy and power and joy in person!


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Here is a VERY thorough article by Kerry Stewart, citing references and resources for further study.

Another wonderful article, this time written by Yasmina Ramzy for the Gilded Serpent.

A brief overview

Aisha Azar's Library offers two articles, "Are we confused yet" and "Observations on Samri."

Master Teachers

Faten Salama is a native Egyptian instructor based in Virginia who has a special love for Khaleegy.

Aisha Azaar has studied these dances since the early 1980s.

Khadijah's website, another master teacher in this style.

Aziza Said has collected some information about Khaleegy from a variety of sources.

Kay Hardy Campbell is also considered a master teacher in this style.

copyright 2009 by Lauren Haas for If you want to share this article, please do so by providing a link to this page. You're more than welcome to print yourself a copy, but copying and distributing this article is prohibited.

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