Different Continents

Born from Different Continents

A Comparison of Turkish and Egyptian Styles of Oriental Dance

by Elizabeth Artemis Mourat

The Egyptian Ghawazee dancers were called the “invaders of the heart.” (Marre and Charlton) The Turkish dancers were said to do the dance that could “melt a stone.” (And) There are reasons for the similarities and differences between the Egyptian and Turkish styles of Oriental dance. The two styles clearly influenced each other; however, these dances were born from different continents. The history of each country encompasses an influx of influences from some of the same and some vastly different cultures.

Both the Egyptian and Turkish arts were influenced by the ancient Greeks, the Romans and the Persians. The Egyptian arts had additional inspiration from the Libyans, the Arabs and the Turks. The Turkish arts were influenced by the Selquks, the Mongols, the Central Asians and the Egyptians. The Ottoman Empire encompassed the Balkans, Hungary, Greece, Anatolia, Egypt, southern Europe, Syria, Palestine, Algeria and Cyprus. The conquering Ottoman armies were always followed by the Roma* (Gypsies) who were indispensable for their metalworking abilities, healing arts, animal training expertise, skills at trade and to provide entertaining diversions. The Egyptian and Turkish dances were influenced by ballet, though from different countries and in different centuries. Both the Egyptian and Turkish cultures were enriched by the dances that took place within the harems. The slaves and servants who populated this institution were from the Middle East, Africa, European, Central Asian and even English speaking cultures. Dance was greatly valued within the harems, so the women with dancing abilities commanded the highest prices in the slave market. Once in the harem, they were further schooled in the terpsichorean arts. The Sultan’s harems were abolished in Turkey in the early 20th century. In need of employment, some of the specially trained dancers worked as public performers. Their dances influenced the already changing art form, which was being influenced by the European theater (Dwight). The multicultural diversity of the Egyptian culture and the Ottoman Empire (both within and outside of the harem) contributed to the art of dance that was enjoyed in both countries.

Egyptian Oriental Dance

The Egyptian Oriental dance sprung from ancient roots where some groups of dancing troubadours were also midwives (Maspero, Mourat, 1987). The Roma came to Egypt in the 14th century. It is my theory that they mingled with the already existing street entertainers and this group became the Ghawazees. These public performers, many of whom were prostitutes, delighted Egyptians and scandalized many foreign visitors.

Egyptian and Turkish cultures merged during the Turkish occupation of Egypt between 1517 and the early 1900s. As the dance became more theatricalized under the Ottoman rule of Egypt, it began disconnecting from the Ghawazee (Romany) roots. Egyptian dance became influenced by the Turkish dancers who were brought there to perform in the theaters. In an attempt to modernize Egypt, the Egyptian female dancers were forbidden to perform in Cairo in 1834 under penalty of 50 lashes or one to two years of hard labor (Lane). They were exiled in 1835 to Esna, Aswan and the Kena Province.

All throughout the history of art, we see that there can never be a vacuum. The arts that appear to disappear are simply replaced in another form. Only twenty-three years later, in l857, the beautiful, banished dancing boys of Turkey began replacing the Egyptian public street dancers. These boys dressed as women and performed the women’s dances with great expertise. They were sent away from Istanbul due to the fights that took place involving powerful men who vied for their affections (especially from the Janissaries, who were the specially trained foreign born army of the sultans).

In the 20th century, the Egyptian dance was influenced by the British movie industry. In the 1940s, a famous Russian ballerina named Ivanova, taught Samia Gamal how to carry a veil in order to improve her arm carriage. Thus, veil dancing made its way to Egypt (Morocco, Mourat, 1995). In the last decade, Egyptian Oriental dance has been influenced by an influx of Russian ballet dancers.

Sibel Can, Turkey

Turkish Oriental Dance

Professional Turkish dance was very seldom performed by Turks because they considered that a “…true Turk is too dignified for such frivolities.” (Dwight). It was performed by Greeks, Jews, Armenians, Circassians, Albanians, and Turkish Roma. The Turkish style of dance is more closely linked to its Romany roots than the Egyptian style. However, the art succumbed to political pressures exerted by Kemal Ataturk in the early 20th century. He wanted to modernize Turkey and so he discouraged the everyday presence of dancers in favor of folk dance, ballet and ballroom dance. It existed within the culture at parties, fairs, carnivals, traveling tent shows, and on public holidays, but it was no longer a part of everyday life.

However, Oriental dance was still intimately connected to the Romany roots. In order to satisfy the demands of the tourist’s for Oriental dance in the 1960s and 1970s, the dance made its way back into the formal public theater settings. It became more common at that time for the dance to be performed by Turkish women, some but not all of whom were Roma.

The Styles

The Turkish style is less refined than its Egyptian sister. It is less elegant but not less articulate. What it lacks in composure and predictability, it makes up for with spontaneity and passion. Neither style is inferior to the other. Both styles are expressive, playful and sometimes introspective. The Turkish dance is aggressive, passionate and sometimes arrogant or indifferent. The Egyptian style is more refined and elegant. For example, a typical Egyptian step is a “step, step, glide” and a typical Turkish step is a “walking strut.” (Mourat, 1998). Dancers are respected and still employed in their fifties and sixties in Egypt. Unfortunately, in Turkey, a dancer is not likely to be employed past her 30s without rather convincing cosmetic intervention.

In the United States during the 1960s, Middle Eastern dance became popular by people who were not Middle Eastern. It was also performed in places other than the ethnic nightclubs. However, the knowledge about Oriental dance history and its many styles was very unsophisticated. The dancers of those days learned from whomever they could and they mingled whatever they learned into a fusion form of Oriental dance which some people called “the Great American Belly Dance.” (Ibrahim Farrah). It was not until the 1970s, thanks to the work and serious research of such icons as Aisha Ali, Cassandra, Ibrahim Farrah, Laurel Gray, Habiba, Morocco, Edwina Nearing, Phaedra and Leona Wood that the American dance community learned about the difference. Unfortunately, The Turkish Oriental dance was quite neglected, and this neglect led to disfavor. Many members of the Oriental dance community in the United States concluded that the classical Egyptian style of Oriental dance was the “only” true Oriental style. They had forgotten the days when you could not work in any ethnic nightclub without being able to dance to both Turkish and Egyptian music and they passed their misconceptions onto their students. The accounts of Oriental dancers in Turkey from as early as the 16th century were ignored, despite the striking similarities to the dances of her Egyptian sisters. These accounts included: shimmies, abdominal and hip articulation, undulations, backbends, spins, floor work and finger cymbal playing. There are also descriptions of dancers wearing chalvar (harem pants), vests, waistcoats and sashes adorned with coins, bells and sequins made of fish scales. The Turkish style is making a comeback due to the work of Dalia Carella, Eva Cernik and myself.

The Dance

Both styles of dance employ shoulder and hip shimmies, abdominal undulations, backbends, shoulder rolls, full body undulations and isolations of the head, ribs and hips (slides, half circles, full circles and “figure eights”). Turkish dancers still do veil work and this is in contrast to the brief or nonexistent veil work of contemporary Egyptian dancers. Up until a few years ago, all Turkish dancers played finger cymbals (zills). Many Egyptian dancers do not or cannot play them but rather have their musicians play them. Floor work is still quite popular in Turkey, and it can be very acrobatic, but it is illegal in Egypt. Unfortunately, now many dancers in Turkey are imitating the Egyptian styling and they prefer the Egyptian music. They are beginning to believe the myth that Oriental dance is entirely an Egyptian phenomenon.

The Gestures

Both dance forms use gesturing that is expressive, playful and communicative. The Egyptian gestures are more easily “read” by outsiders. The Turkish gestures are clearly linked to the Romany roots and, although evocative, they are not easily interpreted. Turkish dancers do occasionally gesture by touching their faces, shoulders, arms, abdomens, hips and knees.

The Instrumentation and Rhythms

The music, instrumentation and rhythms share some common ground, and yet the feeling and some distinct rhythms are not the same. Both cultures enjoy the use of the doumbek (or doumbek related drums), the tambourine (played vertically), the oud (short necked lute), the ney (flute) and many reed instruments. The Egyptian music continues to employ the use of such string and reed instruments as the rebate, the mizmar and the bagpipe. The Turkish kanun, clarinet, saz (long necked lute), wooden spoons, zurna, davul, çimbalom, baglama and nekkare (double drum) are still quite popular. Eventually the instrumentation was influenced by Europe, and pianos and horizontally played violins were added to both cultures. More recently, the electric organ and synthesizer are used. In Turkey, the dancer is more likely to have a small band play for her rather than the very large orchestras one often sees in Cairo. In Turkey, the trend in the nightclubs is towards Pop Arabic and Egyptian music. This was discouraged by the Tourism bureaus, which preferred to promote Turkish music, but the Egyptian music predominates at present (Eva Cernik, 2001). Both cultures employ taqsims (improvisations that have no rhythm), drum solos and many of the same 4/4 rhythms such as masmudi saghir (beledi) and çiftetelli. The Turkish çiftetelli is played rather fast. The Turkish karsilama is a very popular, asymmetrical rhythm, usually played in a medium to a very fast 9/8 time signature. This is also sometimes played very slowly, and this version is often accompanied by the dancer’s use of gestures. Karsilama is extremely popular among Turkish dancers, but is almost never found in Egyptian music because it is unfavorably associated with the memory of the Turkish occupation.


In Egypt, there is the ever present, highly visible zipper, which indicates, even from a distance, the presence of a legally required midriff cover. The Egyptian costumes are more conservative and this reflects the influence exerted on the dancers by the “morals police” (especially since the 1980s). Many women wear dresses. In some cases there is a return to the 1940s style where the belts are higher than the hips.

In Turkey, the trend has been quite different. Their costumes have been influenced by Las Vegas, Hollywood and New York. The dancers expose a tremendous amount of their legs and thighs in their costuming. Just when it seemed that there could be no more nudity allowed, the trend began to change so that some dancers are more covered up. Recently, many Turkish dancers are wearing skirts or dresses with “cut outs” that are strategically placed. The belts are sometimes “cut” quite high on the sides and back (even to the waist) but are low in the front. They have fringe that comes to a long point in front and back. This accommodates the aggressive hip articulation. The bras and belts are often sculpted rather than slightly curved or cut straight across. The designs are sometimes asymmetrical and the beadwork is often “raised” so that the beads and sequins do not lay flat but rather “fan out” up to a perpendicular position. The bras often have thin “spaghetti” straps and are not augmented with padding. These dancers almost always wear shoes that have narrow, high heels.

Recently, some Egyptian designers are imitating the Turkish style of costuming and beadwork. Both cultures produce elaborate and exquisite beadwork.


In conclusion, as a fully educated, well rounded Oriental dancer, it is important to be familiar with all of the Oriental styles of dance as well as the folkloric dances that appear on the same ethnic stages. There is no reason to assume that the Turkish and Egyptian styles of Oriental dance should be the same. The differences should be celebrated rather than used to foster erroneous claims of inferiority or superiority. The Turkish style has a long and legitimate history and it has a right to be respected.

* Please note that I am using the politically correct term “Roma” for “Gypsy,” the latter considered to be a pejorative term.


And, Metin, who is quoting Carlo Zeno in 1524, A Pictorial History of Turkish Dancing. Dost Yayinlari: Ankara, Turkey; 1976

Cernik, Eva (personal interview in 2001)

Dwight, H. G., Constantinople ? Old and New. Charlie Scribner’s and Sons: London; 1915

Farrah, Ibrahim, (personal interview in 1982)

Lane, E. W., Modern Egyptians. J. M. Dent and Sons LID: London; 1908

Marre, Jeremy and Charlton, Hannah, Beats of the Heart ? Popular Music of the World. Pluto Press: London; 1985

Maspero, Sir Gaston, Popular Stories of Ancient Egypt. H. Grevel and Co.: London; 1915

Morocco (personal interview in 1995)

Mourat, Elizabeth Artemis, The Illusive Veil. Self-published: Washington, DC; 1995

Mourat, Elizabeth Artemis, A Comparison of Turkish and Egyptian’Oriental Dance. self published: Washington, DC; 1998

This paper was presented at the Second International Conference on Middle Eastern Dance.

Elizabeth Artemis Mourat has been dancing, teaching and researching dance history worldwide for 25 years. Her workshops include lectures on the history and/or culture that generated the dance form being taught. Extensive travel to thirty-three countries and intensive women’s issues, psychology, ancient history, oriental dance and dance ethnology has yielded many manuscripts and articles, and she contributes to numerous publications. Artemis has an M.A. in psychology, a M.S.W. in social work (with a specialization in cross-cultural awareness) and has done postgraduate work in dance movement therapy. Egyptian universities, the Middle East Institute in Washington, D.C., and the Library for the Performing Arts in New York are using her research. Likewise, the International Encyclopedia of Dance and the Smithsonian Institute are using illustrations from her collection of antique pictures form North Africa and the Middle East. www.serpentine.org

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