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Why are finger cymbals more common in classic-era Turkish dance and not Egyptian?

Why are finger cymbals more common in classic-era Turkish oryantal dans (bellydance) and not in Egyptian raqs sharqi? by Laura Leyl Many famous Turkish-style dancers were renowned for their finger cymbal playing while dancing, such as Tülay Karaça, Sema Yildiz, and Efruz. The famous Egyptian dancers from the same era, such as Soheir Zaki, Fifi Abdo, and Nagwa Fouad, did not play finger cymbals. Why is this? I’m here to share my insights on this topic with you, drawn from my dance travels, interviews with current working dancers on the scene in Cairo and Istanbul, and dance education by expert bellydance teachers and historians.

photo by Arturo Garcia-Ayala

Finger cymbals were a prominent part of the dance forms that preceded bellydance. These included çengi and köçek dancing in Ottoman-era Turkey, before the formation of the Republic of Turkey in 1923, and awalim, ghawazee, and khawal dancing in Ottoman and British-controlled Egypt, prior to the formation of the Republic of Egypt in 1953. You can still see köçek dancers in modern-day Turkey playing finger cymbals during their dance shows for weddings and celebrations. The Banat Mazin entertainer group continue the legacy of traditional 18th and 19th-century ghawazee dance in Egypt, including the use of finger cymbals during performances.

As these traditional dance styles were influenced by Western and European audiences and tastes, the dance styles we now know as raqs sharqi and oryantal dans began to form during the early 20th century. The traditional dance styles mentioned above were formalized and optimized for the stage, including the incorporation of steps from Western dances such as ballet. On top of all this, the music that was used to accompany Egyptian raqs sharqi and Turkish oryantal dans differed significantly.

As the modern Republic of Egypt was founded in 1953, interest in and funding for the Egyptian arts increased greatly in connection with national pride. The state-sponsored Egyptian national dance troupes, the Reda Troupe and El Kaomeyya, were founded during this period. During this time, the first generation of university-trained Egyptian musicians were trained and put to work playing the revolutionary music of composers such as Mohamed Abdel Wahab, Abdel Halim Hafez, and Baligh Hamdi. These composers drew upon Egyptian folk music and rhythms in their compositions, but incorporated foreign rhythms and new instruments, such as electronic keyboards and guitars, in their music. The complexity of their compositions required an entire orchestra to play, which differed from smaller ensembles of the previous era of Egyptian music. These university-trained musicians were educated in how to read sheet music, which was essential for playing with a whole orchestra.

photo by Dani Brooke Photo

In Egypt, the famous bellydancers of the 1950s and 1960s began dancing to this new Egyptian orchestral music. Dancers such as Nagwa Fouad and Soheir Zaki were drawn to the cutting-edge quality of the music composition, along with the spectacle and prestige of dancing with a large orchestra. In this context, the responsibility for playing finger cymbals was given to a professional musician instead of to the dancer.

However, finger cymbal playing did not stop at all levels of dance entertainment in Egypt. Local dancers, who would dance with small traditional Egyptian dance ensembles at street weddings and other local events, retained responsibility for playing finger cymbals. In this context, there are only a few musicians. A separate finger cymbal musician was considered a luxury, since the ensemble percussionist would prioritize playing drums. However, this phenomenon began to associate the dancer not playing finger cymbals with the wealth and prestige of the upper classes.

Meanwhile, in Turkey during this time period, Romani musicians made up a large portion of the entertainer class. Romani musical ensembles were commonly hired for events regardless of social class. Musical ensembles that accompanied the dancers were smaller, usually around five or six musicians, and the dancer retained responsibility for playing finger cymbals.

Music that was commonly played for bellydance in Turkey was simpler and more traditional in composition. Many compositions from the Ottoman era continued to be played, such as “Nihavent Longa”, along with popular songs, like the drinking song “Siseler.” Additionally, Romani 9/8 music was a common feature of oryantal dans routines during this time.

Many of the famous Turkish bellydancers had Romani heritage and were trained by the Romani artistic community in how to dance and play finger cymbals. The famous Turkish dancer, Tülay Karaça, was known for ending her shows with a lightning-fast and masterful finger cymbal solo. Other excellent finger-cymbal-playing Romani dancers include Efruz and Zinnur Karaça (Tülay’s niece).

photo by Carl Sermon Photography

Currently, finger cymbal playing while dancing is no longer common in the Turkish oryantal dans scene. There may be many reasons for this change, but here are some pertinent factors. Dancing for tourists rather than Turkish people makes up a majority of the bellydance market in Turkey right now, and a lot of the tourists are Arabs or Europeans. As a result, Turkish dancers are dancing less to traditional Turkish bellydance music and more to current Arabic pop music. Some of the association with finger cymbal playing to low-class dancing (mentioned above in the Egyptian context) has transferred over to Turkey via the Arab tourist base. Dancers also mainly dance to recorded music rather than to live music, so pressure to contribute to the musical ensemble with finger cymbal playing has lessened.

I hope you go out in the bellydance world with a better idea of why finger cymbal playing by dancers differs between Turkish oryantal dans and Egyptian raqs sharqi. As always, bellydance does not exist in a vacuum. It is influenced by the audiences and communities that support the dance, by the folklore and culture of the dancers themselves, and by the music that is intertwined with the dance.

Laura is dancing to "Chara" by Murat Sakaryali. She is performing the entrance of a Turkish Oryantal set to modern Turkish music from the famous Turkish dancer Asena's album. The dancing and zill-playing is typical of a Turkish Oryantal entrance, with lively, vivacious, and outward energy.

photo by Pike House Creatives

Laura Leyl Bellydance

Dance hard. Play zills. Do floorwork.

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