Learn Belly Dance Styles: Khaleegy

Gulf Dancing: All about Khaleegy

What is Khaleegy (Khaliji, Khaleeji, Khaleegi) style dance? Where does it come from? Why do bellydancers learn it? Here’s the deets on this dance style from the Arabian Gulf.

khaleegy khaliji

photo courtesy of Latifa of Baltimore

Khaleegy Dance

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 dialect. 

Bellydancers use the word “Khaleegy” to describe folkloric dances from the Persian Gulf region (Khaleej in Arabic). 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 have learned Khaleegy as a collection of Gulf dances. Modern teachers are trying to tease apart the different regional styles, and some teachers refer to this dance as “Saudi” but the pan-Khaleegy mongrel style is still the norm in the U.S.

It’s difficult to find an accurate term for this dance as it’s taught in the U.S. Calling it Khaleegy  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 dancers use.

You’ll recognize Khaleegy dance by the embellished caftan-like costume (more on that below), the limpy gliding steps, head slides and various hair tosses.

Why do bellydancers 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  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.

Costuming For Khaleegy

The gloriously decorated dress is called a Thobe al Nasha’al (Thobe rhymes with robe). It’s often just referred to as a thobe, which means ‘dress’ in Arabic. Handy shorthand when you’re talking to other bellydancers or vendors, but confusing outside our community.

In the past, Gulf women would carry a dance thobe to parties and pop it on over their dress when dancing. This is old-fashioned now, and the thobe itself is considered outdated in Gulf countries – think of it as an Arab poodle skirt. While someone from the Khaleej will find it odd to see you dancing in an 0ld-fashioned thobe to a modern song, other bellydancers will be confused if you don’t wear one. So do what makes you happy.

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

Women’s Dances in Khaleegy Culture

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. 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

It can be difficult to find authentic clips of Khaleegy women dancing, for a variety of reasons. But here is a wonderful clip from the Iraqi National Troupe of Folk Art

Here’s a very interesting clip with a variety of costumes and dance moves.

It’s also done in livelier style to pop music. This little girl is a natural.

This dancer is less innocent — she attracts a lot of outrage on youtube — but she is highly skilled, and seeing her leg action is a wonderful bonus for those learning the style.

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. 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.

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:

Staging Khaleegy

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 

A soloist can really bring out the joy and playfulness that are inherent in the dance. Watch  the lovely Roshana Nofret’s lively interpretation.

Khaleegy in Egyptian Dance

Here’s Fifi Abdo, sorry for the poor clip quality.

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

Nour started out dancing in the Gulf before she became a star in Cairo. Her Khaleegy dance is perfection: delicate, feminine, joyful, and sweet.

When do you use this dance style?

Like most Middle Eastern folk dances, the rhythm is a great guide. There are 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 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.’ 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.

Many magence (entrance) compositions created for Egyptian style dance have Khaleegy sections in them. You’ll also hear the rhythm in some drum solos. You can improvise a  Khaleegy number in your show or choreograph one for a group. If you dance in Arab restaurants, or go to hookah clubs, you’ll hear lots of Khaleegy pop music and you’ll soon recognize the steps during freestyle dance. It’s fun to jump in when you know a few steps.

What else should I know about Khaleegy dance?

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 — the 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) Some of the extreme hairtossing associated with Khaleegy is actually Iraqi Kawleeya dancing.
  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. 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 type of Khaleegy. 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 Westerners dance Khaleegy poorly, 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.

One more fascinating clip

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!



An article by Yasmina Ramzy for the Gilded Serpent.

Master Teachers

Kay Hardy Campbell is a master teacher in this style.

Khadijah is a master teacher in this style (and absolutely hypnotic to watch as a performer)

copyright 2015 by Lauren Haas for Belly Dance U. 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.

5 thoughts on “Learn Belly Dance Styles: Khaleegy”

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