What does Baladi mean?
If you’re studying Egyptian-style dance, the word Baladi comes up a lot. But what does it mean?
It’s an earthy Egyptian style with a low center of gravity, performed to traditional music or to a baladi progression piece.
Baladi progressions – an improvised piece with a set structure – are very popular. So are folksy traditional songs — especial Tahtil Shibbak.
A dress is traditional. The dress can be a loose-fitting galabeya with a hip scarf, or it can be a tight-fitting dress, sometimes with an exposed bra. The midriff and legs are typically covered. A scarf tied around the head like a headband (not a hijab) is common.
It’s folksier, danced with a heavier center of gravity, and much less traveling. There’s less of the extension and line we associate with ballet, and the arms are low and relaxed.
‘Baladi’ roughly translates to ‘my country’ (balad means country, the ‘i’ ending adds ownership, so “my country”). Just as we have country music, country decorating, and country fried steak, Egyptians have Baladi people, Baladi bread, Baladi rhythms, Baladi music and Baladi dance. The Bint il Balad (daughter of the country) is the country girl, a wholesome fun-loving simple down-home girl. She’s the Arab equivalent of Mary Ann from Gilligan’s Island (vs. Ginger, who’s more of a Raqs Sharqi kind of girl).
Baladi is sometimes spelled balady, beledi or beledy. Which is correct? All of them. The Arabic spelling looks like بلدي or “bldee.” When we transliterate to English spelling, we fill in the short vowels. Also, the exact pronunciation will vary depending on where the Arabic speaker is from.
Like the word “country” in the USA, “baladi” can have positive or negative feelings attached. To the Baladi people of Cairo, country folk living in the big city, it means hearty, genuine, down to earth. When more urbane people use the word, they can mean rough and unsophisticated.
When Baladi women dance, it’s a joyful improvisation from the heart. Baladi dance is social dance, rather than stage performance — although Baladi women would certainly be attempting to entertain one another and might take turns dancing as a soloist at a party or wedding to entertain one another.
Here are some words and phrases that are often used to describe the Baladi dance style, comparative to other bellydance styles. Watch for these qualities in the video clips that follow:
Other notes about Baladi
Related folk dances
Since Baladi means ‘of the country’ or ‘my country’ most of the Egyptian folk dances are also Baladi dances. Saidi is a Baladi dance, for instance, as is Sha’abi.
Typical Movement Vocabulary
- Arms: Heavy, soft and informal. Generally holding positions rather than moving or flowing, often in a simple ‘soft W’ position.
- Upper body: Big upward ribcage pops (a la Fifi Abdo), shoulder and ribcage shimmies and shoulder accents.
- Pelvis/hips: Hip drops, pelvic undulations, circles, big sideways accents with weight shifts, shimmies and pelvic locks, big hip circles
- Footwork: Simple. Steps are typically bouncy and earthy rather than gliding or mincing.
- Abdomen: Locks, pops and twisting/undulating movements that also involve the pelvis or ribcage.
- Other: Hand gestures and facial expressions often interpret lyrics or emotions of the song. The dancer may play finger cymbals or handle a cane.
- Baladi Progression: aka Tet Baladi or Baaladi Taksim. An improvisational form that developed among the Baladi musicians in Cairo in the 20th century (see video clip examples below). The music starts out with a taksim (improvised solo) on a single instrument — and follows a format that builds in speed and intensity.
- Baladi songs Tahtil Shibbak and Bint il Balad are examples of the kind of earthy, folksy songs used for baladi. Fatme Serhan is a very popular baladi singer.
The traditional costume influences the style. A baladi women would typically be wearing a galabeya and might tie a narrow scarf around her hps for dancing. Her movements would have to be large to be seen in the loose-fitting garment. The scarf knotted at one hip tempts the dancer to move that hip in circles, drops, and shimmies that are sometimes one-sided.
Professional dancers might wear a traditional galabeya, an assuit dress, or a stretch galabeya, all with a matching or contrasting scarf at the hips. Galabeyas with matching bras peeking out from low-cut necklines were made popular by the designer Eman Zaki. Fifi Abdo made it popular to perform baladi in a simple white men’s galabeya with gold bangle bracelets and a big colorful head and hipscarf.
Roots of Baladi
This dance simply comes from the way people dance in Egypt to express joy. Although the music isn’t Egyptian (obviously) I think this clip has captured the spirit of expressing joy through the dance.
Here’s an example with appropriate music, hotel staff having a little impromptu party in Aswan:
Baladi Style Dance
Fifi Abdo is the undisputed queen of baladi style dance. Here she is dancing baladi style in the look she made famous – a men’s white galabeya. Fifi’s style is considered “baladi” even when she’s dancing other styles, because of her low center of gravity and earthy quality.
Tahtil Shibbak might just be the most popular baladi style song ever. Here’s Ranya Renee’s interpretation. She’s an American dancer who teaches and performs Egyptian style. Ranya Renee’s incredibly thorough DVD set on Baladi (Progression) set new standards for teaching dance.
Here’s Orit of Israel performing a dance in Baladi style. Her costume, movement and character are all baladi here although there are several parts to the routine. She enters with a melaya wrapped around her, which is a Baladi prop. There’s a bit of progression here, and also some Baladi cane.
Soheir Zaki in a gorgeous assuit beledi dress. Lots and lots of the downward hip locks she’s famous for in this clip!
The Baladi Progression is a highly structured musical improvisation that is very popular in Cairo. There are two structures, one typical for men and the other for women, and many forms used. The progression that women usually use starts with a simple soulful taqsim (often an accordian) followed by small bits of ‘conversation’ between the drum and other instrument(s) that gradually builds into a steady rhythmic song (masmoudi seghir) and then speeds up to a rapid finish or even a drum solo.
There’s a fantastic article by Hossam Ramzy that describes the Baladi woman, the social context of her dancing, and specifically the musical form called Baladi Progression (aka Baladi Taksim, sometimes tet Baladi). Ramzy uses an imaginary woman named Zeinab to illustrate the idea of a “good girl” letting the music carry her away.
Here’s a mesmerizing Baladi Progression from Fifi Abdo that illustrates Ramzy’s example perfectly. At the beginning of the clip, you can hear her say “…shwaye beledi? Wa yalla” (…a little beledi? Let’s go!):
Another famous dancer, Nagua Fouad, performing a baladi progression:
One of my favorite baladi progressions of all time comes from Miasia, an American dancer in the Washington DC area. Click here to see it on youtube, embedding isn’t allowed for this clip.
Baladi Style Oriental Dancers
There are some Egyptian dancers whose style is simply more grounded and earthy. We use the word ‘baladi’ to describe their style of dance, meaning that they have that baladi earthiness regardless of their costuming or music choices.
Fifi Abdo is the classic example. Here’s Fifi at age 61 (by anyone’s best estimate) showing the world her Baladi attitude.
Dandash also fits into this category. Compared to her contemporaries, she is more grounded, earthy, relaxed in her arms, less balletic and more folksy.This is a very famous Dandash routine where she imitates several famous Egyptian dancers.
Ranya Renee’s DVD set on baladi is one of the best instructional videos I’ve ever owned. Period. She covers the music, the mood, the moves, all of it.
See this wonderful article by Hadia for detail on the baladi progression.
Here are a couple of brilliant baladi progression tracks:
New Baladi: Mario Kirlis
Nawal (Baladi Sax): Guy Schalom
And some beledi standards from the incomparable Fatme Serhan
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