Inter Continental

Arab folk dances

Category: Desert

The heritage of each nation is a special treasure which can be easily corroded by the rapid globalization of culture but this progress has not undermined the local and cultural traditions of the United Arab Emirates and the Arab world at large.

 The United Arab Emiratespossesses a rich history of both Bedouine and townspeople. The most authentic and popular cultural expression for both has always been the traditional dances which are still a special feature of festivals, national holidays, weddings and even casual gatherings of friends. Many of these songs and dances are handed down from generation to generation, and have thus survived to the present time.

 This unique art form weaves together dance and poetry and is a celebration of the national spirit which is particularly reflected on the festivities of the succession day.

Two types

There are mainly two types of Arabic dances – both of which have form part of fun activities offered to visitors.

One is Raqs baladi, literally meaning "local dancing", or "folk" dance is the folkloric style, danced socially by men and women of all ages in some Middle Eastern countries, usually at festive occasions such as weddings.

Young girls dance by swinging their long black hair and swaying their bodies in time to the strong beat of the music. Men re-enact battles fought or successful hunting expeditions, often symbolically using sticks, swords or rifles.

The other is Raqs sharqi, which literally means "eastern/oriental dancing" and is the style more familiar to Westerners. This dance is performed in restaurants and cabarets around the world. It is more commonly performed by female dancers but is also sometimes danced by men. It is a solo improvisational dance, although students often perform choreographed dances in a group.  However, this naming is used synonymously in Egypt with Raqs sharqi as a generic term for "belly dancing".


Most typical

The Aarda is the most typical of the dances of the Gulf Arab peoples, and is practiced with variations throughout the Arabian Peninsula. In the Emirates, the local version is called the Iyala.

The name of the dance originates from the expression of an imminent danger. The word Iyaly signifies an attacker in the local dialect, becoming lyala in its plural form. The alarm of an approaching threat would be sounded with drums and shouts, which would rouse the men folk to rush to defend the camp. If the attackers are repelled, the dance would be performed by the tribe to celebrate the victory.

The Lyala is still organised to represent a battle, and is usually performed in groups of no less than 25 people. The dance is organised with formations of men facing each other, who take turns reciting stirring poetry while brandishing swords. Pacing the dance and the songs are traditional drums and tambourines. The formation of participants can also include a separate section of women who in their turn recite and dance to praise the victory. The colourful dresses of these Naasha add beauty and glamour to the event.

Harbiya  is another variation of the Aarda in the Emirates. The punctuation to the enthusiastic performance is provided by rifles!


A local folk dance based on a more indigenous tradition is theHaban, also known as the Khamiri, or theKhayali. The name refers to the stringed musical instrument which dominates the dance. Persians refer to this same instrument as the Korba, or the local variation, Al Jorba.

The performance is organised with three groups. The first section is comprised of men, numbering between six to eight, the second of the same number of women, and the third made up of nine or ten musicians

The conductor of the performance is essentially the player of the Haban, or Jorba, who is accompanied by drums of different dimensions and other rhythm instruments


 A popular dance performed by tribes in both Abu Dhabi and Dubai is the Mated, a name derived from the word "mawlid," the birthday of the Prophet Mohammed. This dance is different than the other folk performances of the Emirates because of its relation to a religious occasion. Researchers have traced the Mated back to Sufi traditions.

The performance is enacted in two different sections. The first is known as the Mated al Sira, which consists of readings about the life of the Prophet. The second is the Mated al Samaa, which is the movement of the piece. Thirty people are divided into two rows facing each other. The first group is called the Ahl al Samaa, the "hearing people," who recite while several of them beat tambourines to pace the group with a steady rhythm. The second row is known as Al Radida, the 'chorus,' which repeats key phrases from the recitation of the first group.


A quite different dance performed in the Emirates is the Liwa. This energetic ritual is performed at weddings and other special occasions, such as the return from a long sea voyage and the successful end of the pearl-diving season.A large number of male participants arrange themselves into a circle, which is anchored by one or several drum players. A man paces in the middle of the group playing a simple reed instrument whose plaintive sharp sound reminds the listener of an oboe. The circle claps and dances in place, while individuals join a line which rhythmically paces around the inside of the circle. .

The Nuban

The Nuban is basically a ritual designed to expel Jinn, who are spirits who can invade humans and control their minds.  Performers are summoned when a man has been possessed by an evil spirit. The objective is to placate the Jinn and to drive it from the victim. Members of the family and friends form a circle to surround the poor soul and chant special religious verses. Deep-throated drums set a hypnotic rhythm. Incense is burned. An elder, experienced in the ritual, chants and energetically gestures to drive the spirit away and free its victim.


Dabke in Arabic is literally "stamping of the feet." The leader, called raas "head" or lawweeh which means to wave, is allowed to improvise on the type of dabke. The leader twirls a handkerchief or string of beads known as a masbha  (similar to a rosary), while the rest of the dancers keep the rhythm. Hands are joined together in a palm to palm clasp or by linking pinkies. Ar. Shoulders are very close to one another. The physical closeness creates an experience of cultural unity. The movements are synchronized. Uniform movements are what make a debke successful. The dancers also use vocalizations to show energy and keep up the beat. The most common debke consists of six steps: step, dip, step, dip, kick and stamp.

Belly dance is a western coined name for a traditional West Asian dance, especially .raqs sharqi

Most of the movements in belly dancing involve isolating different parts of the body (hips, shoulders, chest, stomach, etc.). Correct posture and muscle control is as important in belly dance as it is in other fields of dance

In most belly dance styles, the focus is on the hip and pelvic area. The important moves are:

  • Shiver or Shimmy – a shimmering vibration of the hips. This vibration is usually layered onto other movements to create depth in performance. The simplest shimmy is created by moving the knees past each other at high speed, but contractions of the glutes, thighs or lower back may be used instead to create different qualities of movement. The shimmy can be performed in different directions - up and down, side-to-side, or in a forward and back swinging motion. The same move can be performed using the chest and shoulders, sometimes called a shoulder shimmy.
  • Hip hits – A staccato movement of the hips out from the body. This can also be performed using other body parts such as the shoulders or chest. The move is usually achieved by isolating the hip area and contracting the glute muscles to move the hips up or down. The dancer's weight can either be distributed across both legs or on one leg with the toes of the other foot pointed.
  • Undulations – Fluid movements of the hips or of the chest and abdominal muscles in a circular or rotating fashion. There are a wide variety of movements of this kind, of which the most well known is probably the rotating movements of the chest forward, up, back and down to create the impression of riding a camel.

Different styles also incorporate kicks and arm movements as an integral part of the style. The variety of traditional dances in the United Arab Emirates demonstrates that the country possesses a great richness of heritage. Anyone who has witnessed the spontaneous and spirited traditional dances at local gatherings will know that the unique cultural heritage of the Emirates will be preserved by its proud custodians.

Folk dancing is among fun activities in the UAE

(By Ayesha Attique)

Photos sourced from Flickr