One Page Master Class:
Egyptian Saidi and Raks Assaya
Saidi is pronounced Sah-EE-dee. Alternate spellings include Sa’idi, Saiidi, Sayyidi, and Saeedi. Raks Assaya is often written as Raks Al Assaya or Rakset Assaya. (Raks = Dance)
Saidi dance is a folkloric dance (one of the baladi dances) from the Sa’id, a rural area in Southern (Upper) Egypt. The dance style includes a lot of energetic bouncy footwork and horse-styled steps, and frequently incorporates a stick or cane, called an Assaya (Arabic for stick). Saidi-style Raks al Assaya is the classic masculine dance of the Egyptian stage.
Raks Saidi: A dance from the Said region of Egypt, often (but not always) done with a stick or cane.
Raks Al Assaya: Dance with a stick or cane. Often done in Saidi style, but not always.
Aren’t Saidi and cane dance the same thing?
No, they aren’t, although they go hand-in-hand so often that many dancers don’t know the difference. We will see examples of stick dancing that is not Saidi, and Saidi dancing done without sticks or canes later on this page.
Where does the dance come from?
Saidi style is danced by men in the Sa’id and by professional dancers onstage. Women typically dance with a lighter, less athletic version of the bouncy footwork used by the men. Women also mix in more hipwork, shoulder shimmies and other Baladi style movements than the men use.
Raks Assaya that is not Saidi-style is a stage dance from Egypt, Lebanon, Gulf region, and other Arab countries. These dances may have been inspired by Saidi dance originally or may have developed independently, anywhere shepherds use sticks or canes.
So Saidi women don’t do cane or Saidi dance? I thought this was folklore?
Saidi women do not dance in public (except for the Ghawazee, and they have their own style.) Belly dancers often include a female version of the men’s dance, with canes, in their stage sets, and Mahmoud Reda included female dancers in his Saidi tableau dances (although they did not use canes or sticks.) This is a staged folklore, a way of depicting folkloric people through dance, that has become a tradition. (Reda also created staged folkloric dances that represent the Fellahi people and other Egyptian groups but are not indigenous dances).
Saidi: Typical Movement Vocabulary for the Stage
- Arms: Soft and informal. Generally holding positions rather than moving or flowing, often in a simple ‘soft W’ position but women still have a dainty, feminine hand. If an assaya is used, it can be a light stick or a hooked cane. The assaya is twirled in various ways and used to frame and accent the movements of the body. The assaya might also be held high in one hand, or used to mimic battle movements, especially by men.
- Upper body: Held very tall, as the Saidi people are known for their proud carriage. Women will do large chest and shoulder movements, big enough to be visible in a loose-fitting costume. Big upward ribcage pops (a la Fifi Abdo), shoulder and ribcage shimmies and shoulder accents, similar to baladi.
- Pelvis/hips: Only women do hipwork in Saidi. Hip drops, pelvic undulations, circles, big sideways accents with weight shifts, loose soft shimmies and pelvic locks, big hip circles
- Footwork: Lots of hops with the free foot lifted, resembling the footwork of the dancing horses the Said is famous for. The dancer might even “paw” at the ground with one foot like a horse.
- Abdomen: Women may do some abdominal pops, but there’s less abdominal movement than in other styles of belly dance.
This clip will give you a feel for the Saidi rhythm, the sound of the mizmar instrument, and the famous dancing horses of the Said region who inspire many of the steps we use onstage. This is the spirit of the Said that we attempt to bring to the stage when we dance in this style.
Music for Saidi
Folkloric Saidi is recognizable by its heavy Saidi beat (Dun tek Dun Dun Tek) and earthy instrumentation. The signature instrument is the Mizmar, a reed instrument that resembles an oboe in appearance but sounds like a reedy variation on a bagpipe. A typical song will open with a mizmar taksim (rhythmless instrumental solo that explores the musical range of the piece) and then the rhythm will come in strong and earthy and heavy. It’s the sound of the mizmar, even more than the rhythm, that tells you a song calls for Saidi style dance. Here are some great albums of folkloric Saidi music, heavy on the mizmar:
Afrah Baladna Sa’id, by Upper Egypt Ensemble
Mazamir Sahara, also by Upper Egypt Ensemble
Hizzy Al-Assaya, by Aswan Music and Dance Ensemble
Music of Upper Egypt, listed as being by Music of Upper Egypt
Pop songs using the Saidi rhythm are EXTREMELY common. It’s not necessary to dance Saidi style or do Raks Assaya to pop pieces just because the rhythm is present. Depending on the spirit/feeling and instrumentation of the piece (presence of folkloric instruments like Mizmar or Rebab, for instance) it’s certainly permissible. Pop songs that work well for Saidi dance include:
The music most often confused with Saidi is Debke. The rhythms are very similar, and Debke uses a Mijwiz reed instrument which can sound a lot like a mizmar if you haven’t heard a lot of debke music. Most dancers have made this mistake at some point in their careers — including me. It’s OK to dance with assaya to debke music (see clips below) but you would use debke footwork rather than Saidi steps. To avoid confusion, look for key words like “saidi” or “mizmar” in your song or album title. If your music comes from anywhere besides Egypt (Lebanese pop, for instance) it is likely to be debke rather than Saidi.
Costumes and props
Traditionally, men’s Saidi is performed in a galabeya, a long dress-like garment with bell-shaped sleeves that Saidi men wear.
Female dancers will often wear a fitted dress in a stretch fabric, a feminized galabeya, or an assuit dress (as you see on Aida Nour at the top of this page). A scarf or fringe belt at the hips shows off hipwork. The belly is not bared, but sometimes the dress design exposes a matching bra while keeping the belly covered. The dress that is specifically for Saidi often has a special motif that resembles a dowry necklace on the front.
Men usually wear a scarf, either wrapped as a turban or neatly folded and draped over their shoulders. Women often tie a scarf around their hair, but as an accessory, not to cover.
Roots of Saidi Raks Assaya
Saidi men battle with heavy sticks in a martial art called Tahtib. This art dates back to Pharaonic times and is depicted in ancient Egyptian tomb paintings, but the tradition continues in modern times.
Nothing will infuse your Saidi Raks Al Assaya with authenticity more than getting familiar with Tahtib, which is the inspiration for it all. Tahtib is a competition, like wrestling or fencing — it is NOT a dance. Points are awarded for skill and for successfully getting past your opponent’s defensive moves. Here’s a wonderful video showing an actual Tahtib competition, starting about 1:15.
Raks Assaya has derived from Tahtib competitions and is usually done to Saidi folkloric music. The men’s version of Raks Assaya remains close to its martial arts roots.
Tito Seif is the top male belly dancer in Egypt and does a magnificent stick dance using traditional and innovative movements and multiple sticks. His dance showcases his energy, strength, and absolute control over his weapons/props.
Want to see more male Assaya dancing? Here is Karim Nagi‘s take on dancing with the stick. Karim is a world-famous percussionist, and his Raks Assaya interacts playfully with the rhythms and, at times, with an imaginary opponent.
Women’s Version of Saidi Raks Assaya
Again, women in the Said do not dance in public, so is there no women’s version of the dance there. Female dancers in professional stage troupes perform a feminine version of Saidi dance (without the assaya, in the case of the Reda Troupe), and belly dancers often include a flirty, sassy Saidi number with a lightweight cane in the folkloric segment of their show. They often have male backup dancers in this segment, since it is considered a masculine dance in Egypt.
Egyptian star Fifi Abdo is known for her beledi styling and deft assaya handling. Her signature look is a men’s galabeya, feminized with a hip scarf, hair bow, and gold bracelets. Fifi’s Raks al Assaya is a feminized version of the man’s dance as well. Note that she bangs her stick on the floor and uses many of the same moves as Karim Nagi. That’s just Fifi being Fifi, deliberately doing a tomboy version of the dance.
Here’s a more feminine Saidi performance by Mona El Said, the luscious Princess of Egyptian Dance. In her Raks Assaya, you can see how Mona combines the hopping footwork of the men’s Saidi with shimmies and hipwork from Baladi dance. Like Fifi, Mona is lively and sassy through most of the dance, but she gets increasingly sultry. Around the 2:30 mark, she starts moving less andless, until she finally stands still and slooowly removes her headpiece around the 3:45 mark in one of the sexiest moments in belly dance history. After that, she busts loose with some lively Saidi moves again. Pure Mona magic.
Here’s an example of men and women performing Saidi together that highlights the different attitudes. This is the Mahmoud Reda Egyptian folkloric troupe. Note that the women are doing Saidi style dance but not using Assaya.
And here’s a very modern take by current star Randa Kamal, infusing the style with her characteristic power and athleticism. Assaya/Saidi section of the clip begins at 3:40, and you can clearly see the change in her dance style when she makes the switch.
Saidi Dance Without Assaya
Saidi dance is so often done with a cane or stick that many dancers think of Saidi and Assaya as the same thing. But Saidi-style dance can be done without a cane. As I mentioned above, Mahmoud Reda never had female dancers use canes in his Saidi numbers. Let’s look at some non-Reda examples
Here’s the lovely Soheir Zaki, Sweetheart of Egyptian dance, in a very traditional costume, performing Saidi style but without assaya.
Here’s a wonderful clip of the legendary Dina that dates back to the 1980s. Dina often dances Saidi without a cane, perhaps because she was Reda-trained (as are many modern Egyptian bellydancers). Dina’s signature style isn’t fully formed here, but her exuberance makes this clip a sheer delight to watch.
Modern renditions of Saidi Raks Assaya
Orit Maftsir dancing to music with a strong Saidi beat but with playful instrumentation and modern costuming:
And Randa Kamal again, in a very modern take on Saidi costuming (pants!). She ditches the cane early in her routine but continues to mix in Saidi steps, especially during the instrumental parts of the song where the Saidi flavor is strong.
Other Cane Dances
Bellydancers, like Fred Astaire, are free to dance with canes when they’re not performing Saidi dances.
Egyptian-style dancers occasionally do ‘baladi cane,’ dancing to baladi music (either a baladi progression or just folksy music) with a cane. (This would be called Raks Al Assaya, but not Raks Saidi)
Here’s Golden Era star Naima Akef dancing a sassy Baladi Cane number in the film Aziza.
And here’s a very famous baladi clip of Fifi Abdo. She enters with a Melaya Leff, then ties on a hip scarf and does some dancing. At the 7:19 mark, she grabs a cane and does some Baladi Assaya.
Lebanese-style dancers perform with canes as well, but not using Saidi music, steps or costuming. Their canes are often smaller and lighter than the ones used by Egyptian dancers. Sometimes they use a Debke rhythm and steps with their canework. Here’s Rindala of Lebanon. Can you see and hear the difference between this Saidi?
Thanks to Leila Molaei of London, I’ve recently learned that one can see cane dancing in the Gulf region as well. There is a popular Gulf song about the cane, called Al Khayzrana in Gulf Arabic, and people sometimes dance with sticks to this song. It’s not a specific genre of dance, but it is another time you might see dancing with sticks in Middle Eastern dance.
Also from Leila: “This is mizmar music and dance from Junub (Southern Saudi) and Yemen.”
If you’re still with me, you really love cane and you have a high tolerance for ethnic dance confusion. So as a parting gift, here is the lovely Soraia Zaied. Soraia is Brazillian but lives and works in Cairo and is normally an Egyptian-style dancer. But here she’s performing in a non-Saidi style to a popular debke song, “Ya Ein Moulayatein.”
- Raks Al Asaya by Virginia is an introduction to Saidi dance and canework
- Karim Nagi’s Arab Folk Dance DVD covers Saidi, Khaleegy and Debke beautifully. Highly recommend.
- Yousry Sharif, Mohammed Shahin, Karim Nagi and Nourhan Sharif are all touring workshop instructors who are considered masters of Saidi and Assaya technique.
- There is no better resource for learning about Egyptian dance styles than Sahra Kent’s Journey Through Egypt series of workshops.
copyright 2015 by Lauren Haas for www.bellyDanceU.net. 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.