Loosening Their Tresses

Loosening Their Tresses

Women’s Dances of the Arabian Gulf and Saudi Arabia

by Kay Hardy Campbell

Arabian women dance to celebrate joyous family occasions like weddings and engagements, or just to entertain each other. In Saudi Arabia, since women traditionally do not perform folk dance in front of men outside their closest family, they do it primarily for women only. However, in neighboring countries like Bahrain, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.), women’s dances are performed in public places during holidays, special occasions and in the last twenty years, on television. In recent years, Gulf television production studios have begun to produce video clips to publicize new music recordings. An entertaining mix of influences from both MTV and Indian musical films, many of these clips include traditional folk dance as well as experimental fusion dances.Today they are broadcast worldwide via satellite, bringing them to a new global audience. So what was completely hidden from the outside world just twenty-five years ago is now available to anyone with a satellite dish.

Young girls performing traditional dances in the U.A.E.

In its traditional context, the performance of women’s folk dance follows women’s times of celebration. Girls’ schools and women’s clubs put on private folklore performances for students, faculty, female family members and friends at graduation, or even for a charity fundraiser. Sometimes well-to-do women hire a band of women musicians to perform for an evening’s entertainment where dancing might be performed. Yet only in a few cities like Kuwait City might one see women perform these dances on stage in public before a mixed audience.


The women’s folk dances of Arabia are centuries, if not thousands of years old. Their traditional music contains layer upon layer of drums punching out pulsating ancient rhythms that sway the soul. The women dance much as their grandmothers’ grandmothers danced. But they also improvise, weaving into their dances movements they learn through television and their travels to foreign countries like Egypt.

There is little historic record of the women’s dances of Arabia. This maddening fact became evident to me as I poured over early European travelers’ accounts of their visits to Arabia in the nineteenth century. This is because most of the travelers were men, and as such, wouldn’t have had an opportunity to see the dances, since they were outside the intimate family and tribal circles where it was performed. Those who did describe dances did so only in passing in the most frustratingly vague way. For example, the British Lewis Pelly, traveling in Saudi Arabia’s eastern province in 1865, described a dance paraphrased by Heather C. Ross in her The Art of Arabian Costume:

…The young women, dressed in their spectacular thawbs and “long flowing undergarments” and holding a small cane, would coyly cover the lower part of the face with one hand, or hold a piece of sleeve in front of the mouth and begin to dance… (pg. 82)

Woman travelers, like the famous Lady Ann Blunt, wrote little about the dances, although she spent a lot of time in the women’s quarters of some of the most prominent tribal families of Arabia. Even in this century, little is written about the women’s dances. I think many modern writers find them boring and uninteresting, as they are pure innocent fun, which doesn’t make for sensationalist copy.

Fortunately, while I was in Saudi Arabia, I was able to see and study the dances for myself. And video technology has allowed some of them to be recorded so that women of Arabia can be seen on film performing their traditional dances in costume.

The Traditional Dancing Costume: the Thobe Nashal

Saudi and Gulf women dance in the traditional dancing dress, the thobe nashal, a loose fitting outer gown worn over a full-length party dress, or a matching caftan called an umaasah. At formal occasions such as women’s wedding parties, the women attending wear the latest designer gowns from Europe (or “knock off” copies of them) and lots of jewelry. They bring their thobe nashal folded up with them, and put it on over their party gown to dance, or just to be in traditional costume for a time. Some women dance without the thobe nashal, and others wear it who don’t dance. At the end of the evening, everyone folds up the thobe nashal and takes it home. It is not worn for any other occasion than a celebration, just as we don’t wear a tennis outfit other than when we’re playing tennis.

Women dancing with women drummers in Kuwait.

Today the thobe nashal is made in Bahrain, Kuwait, India and Pakistan. The finer thobes are made of silk, with lots of thick golden and silver embroidery. Other modern thobes are sewn of more sturdy polyester or rayon. Tailors use every color imaginable for the thobes. They also sprinkle sequins on the embroidery so the thobes sparkle when a dancer does a subtle shoulder shimmy.

Modern and antique thobes of georgette can still be purchased at the open air markets where women of Arabia sell crafts, goods for women, and traditional folk artifacts. The embroidery designs on the thobes range from simple geometric patterns to birds and trees. Today, modern girls in the big cities sometimes wear thobes which have the traditional cut, but are very diaphanous and have little embroidery. It is also possible to make a thobe using Indian sari fabric. Mary Lyn Buss has made a splendid example of one in pink.

Women from Iraq have told me that the thobe nashal is called a “Hashimi” dress there, since in the first half of this century the ruler of Iraq was from the Arabian tribe of the Banu Hashim. I have also heard westerners refer to the dress as a “Khaleejy” Dress (“Khaleejy” means “From the Gulf”).

Dance Movements

The dances themselves are performed in pairs or groups. Unless in a specific choreography for a staged number, or part of a specific folk dance tradition, the dance is largely improvisational. Sometimes dancers mirror each other, with one “leading.” Sometimes they totally ignore each other and dance as if they are alone. Sometimes they switch back and forth from pair dancing to two soloists dancing at once.

The dances are relatively simple when compared with the tricky movements of Oriental dance. But don’t let the repetition and easy basic movements fool you into ignoring its all-important subtleties. The dancers repeat the steps many times, improvising within a framework of traditional movements, while allowing the clever and original dancer room to innovate. Most movements are centered in the shoulders. The hips are not bound by a scarf as they are in Oriental dance. However, the hips do play an important, but very subtle part in the dance.

There are three basic step patterns which change in intensity with rhythm and speed. Dancers add arm movements, very subtle hip isolations as well as twists to the torso, shoulders, and the upper body, resulting in a dance with a unique Arabian flavor, subtly echoing the dances of India and East Africa. Its most distinct characteristic is the “hair toss.” This is said to originate among the bedouin, but no one really knows where it started. Heather Ross describes it well:

An Arabian woman’s hair is deliberately loosened for dancing, however. There are accounts of bedouin women “loosing their hair and dancing with graceful movements of head, hair, and body.” Women of all ages let their hair down when performing the dance. The women with the longest and richest tresses get the chief praise. Elderly and many married women are known to refrain from dancing, yet the most conservative old traditionalist may, in the momentum of a festive occasion, pull off her headgear to the beat of the tar and swing her loosened tresses to the right, then left, until she has reached the point that her long tresses can perform figure-eights behind her head. When the music stops, almost embarrassed, the lady coyly dons her headgear once again. Young girls also eagerly shed their scarves to free their beautiful long hair for the rhythmic Arabian dance. They are completely relaxed as no men are present. For women, hair has always been important as a means of expression in traditional Arabian dancing… (Ross, pg. 112)

What is the proper name for the dances of Arabian women? I asked this repeatedly while I was in Saudi Arabia. I found that the folk dances performed at city weddings and other celebrations as I have described are named to match the rhythm and music style. There are no specific dance steps associated with one rhythm. Rather the basic steps occur in most of the rhythms with slight variations. The most well known regional rhythm is what western musicians call “Khaleejy”, a 4/4 pattern very close to ayyoub (the zar rhythm) with the ‘Rest’ in a different place that gives it the Khaleejy flavor. Some Gulf musicians call this rhythm “adani,” since it presumably is more popular there. A dance style which was identified for me as “dawsaree” is associated with the music of the Arabian bedouin tribe Banu Dawasir. However, many of the steps are similar to the Gulf movements, with a more rapid, jumpy flavor.

There are many specific tribal and village folk music and closely related dance traditions which have rarely been studied by scholars, either by description or video, because of the historic isolation of Arabian women from women of the outside world. One such dance is the al-Muradah, performed in the Gulf and Saudi Arabia by women on the occasion of the religious festivals, Eid al-Adha and Eid al-Fitr. An Arab woman scholar, Aishah al-Khalifi, studied this dance using a modern anthropological approach. Said to originate among Saudi Arabia’s bedouin, this dance involves two lines of women facing each other, holding hands. They wear their thobe nashal and their traditional folkloric jewelry and body ornamentation. They all join hands, the women in each line singing out lines of poetry and moving forward and backward in unison. Spectators let out zaghareed when the tribe’s Shaikh or the beauty of one of the girls in attendance is mentioned. Today, one can see the dance in the Emirates on the occasion of the religious festivals. However, no men will be present, and thus it would be nearly impossible to get a video tape of it, unless it was taken by a women. ( I have never seen this particular dance.)

As in Oriental dance, Saudi dance movements move across traditions. A “vertical figure eight” hip movement will appear in a Gulf dance, just because the girl doing the dance saw the step done by an Oriental dancer during her last vacation to Egypt. Thus styles inevitably cross-fertilize. However, the dominant Khaleegy flavor of the movements can be recognized by the discerning dancer and viewer.

The Musicians and Audience

In traditional Arabia, women danced to music played by women musicians. The musicians played in small ensembles led by a mutribah, or entertainer, the lead singer. These ensembles still play at women’s wedding parties, hafalat al-zafaaf. The lead singer often plays the ‘oud, and is accompanied by several drummers and singers. Some groups have added violins and electric keyboards to their orchestras. In the more liberal Gulf countries where men are present, a larger variety of musical instruments appears. The musicians are paid professionals, the most famous of whom make a good living traveling the women’s party circuit.

The audience participates fully in the performance. They sing along with the music, add rhythmic clapping (tasfiq), zaghareed, and dance. In the more liberal countries, women musicians and dancers appear outside this traditional venue on television. An audience is absent, or the musicians are elsewhere, like in an MTV video. The video clips experiment with all kinds of performance genres. Fortunately, many of them highlight the traditional communal performance experience.

Performing Gulf and Saudi Women’s Dances

While solo dancers aren’t the norm on the Gulf, the dances can be and are danced solo in countries like Kuwait. In the U.S., dancers emulate this solo style when they include Gulf dance in their Oriental dance routine. Some dancers take a moment to put on a thobe nashal they keep folded up on stage for a brief Khaleejy number. Others dance a full Khaleejy song when they know there are audience members from the Gulf.

Ideally, the dance should be performed in pairs or in a group, keeping the traditional group character as intact as possible. Besides, many of the movements, particularly the hair tosses, look even more spectacular when several dancers are doing them at once. A fully choreographed Saudi or Gulf piece provides an interesting contrast in an evening of Oriental solo numbers.

It is important to remember that the thobe nashal should always be worn with a full length “under-dress” underneath, whether that be a matching or contrasting caftan or a full-length dress. (This is obviously not applicable for the Oriental dancer who just throws on the thobe for a quick Khaleejy number in the middle of her routine.) The dance and its costume are more about concealing than revealing. The key is to dance gracefully with one’s body being completely covered with a huge, loose piece of fabric. One dances “with” the thobe nashal as much as “in” it. The modest character of the dance should always be apparent, even in its most spirited rendition. And most importantly, it should be fun. Let the hypnotic quality of the music and dance take over, and you and your audience will be mesmerized by the ancient dances of Arabian women.


Campbell, Kay Hardy, “Arabian Wedding Nights”, Arab News, 8/1/79, p.7.

__________, “Saudi Arabian Folk Music”, Saudi Arabia Quarterly Magazine, 5 (2), (Summer, 1988) pp. 13-5.

__________, “Saudi Arabian Women’s Music”, Habibi, 9 (3).

__________, “Traditional Music from the Arabian Gulf”, MESA Bulletin, 30 (1) (July, 1996).

Kamal, Safwat. 1986. Madkhal li-Dirasat al-Fulklur al-Kuwaiti. Kuwait: Kuwait Ministry of Information.

Kanafani, Aida Sami. 1983. Aesthetics & Ritual in the United Arab Emirates. Beirut: American University in Beirut.

al-Khalifi, cA’ishah, “Al-Murada: Raqsat al-Nisa’ fi al-Khalij al-cArabi.” al-Ma’thurat al-Shacabiyyah, 2 (7):105—129.

Ross, Heather Colyer. 1981. The Art of Arabian Costume. Fribourg: Arabesque Commercial SA.

Altorki, Soraya. 1986. Women in Saudi Arabia. New York: Columbia University Press.

Touma, Habib Hassan. 1995. The Music of the Arabs. Portland: Amadeus Press.

Kay Hardy Campbell lived in Saudi Arabia for seven years, armed with a BA and MA in Arabic and Middle Eastern Studies. While there, she wrote about Arab culture for the English language press, and became fascinated with the traditional music and folk dance of the Arabian Peninsula. Since her return to the U.S., Kay has introduced hundreds of American women to the women’s folk dances of the Gulf, and produced a series of recordings of traditional Saudi women’s music. She continues to write about Arabic music and culture, and plays the ‘oud with the Middle East Orchestra and Chorus of Boston. She is the author of Shoma, a novel being adapted for a dance/theater collaboration with the Jawaahir Dance Company. She is also the administrative director of the Arabic Music Retreat at Mount Holyoke College. www.kayhardycampbell.com

Originally published in Habibi Magazine, Vol. 16, No. 3, Fall 1997, Santa Barbara, CA. Copyright Shareen El Safy, 1997.

Copyright © Habibi Publications 1992-2002, Shareen El Safy, Publisher.

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