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Aesthetics and Types of Dances in the Medieval Middle East


Selected and Translated by
Dr. George Dmitri Sawa




Table of Contents

Dr. George Dimitri Sawa has translated the text on this page from medieval Arabic sources.



The Required Qualities of Dancers

The comments below come from the oration of an anonymous choreographer, which was delivered in front of the Caliph al-Mu'tamid (died 892 CE). It was reported in The Meadows of Gold of Al-Mas'ūdī (died circa 957 CE) (V:132).

Al-Mas'ūdī was a historian, physicist, and mapmaker in the 10th century CE who traveled extensively throughout India, Iran, the Middle East, Africa, and the Caspian Sea area. He wrote a 30-volume history of the world and described his experiences as a traveler, which led to him becoming known as "the Herodotus of the Arabs".

Anonymous Choreographer's Oration

The Dancer needs certain qualities in his/her natural disposition, in his/her physical constitution and character, and in his/her performance.


1: Natural Disposition

What he/she needs is grace and charm, good innate sense of rhythm, and to joyfully seek creativity in his/her dance.


2: Physical Dispositions

What he/she needs is a long neck and long sideburns, coquetry and flirtation, good nature, ability to sway the sides of the body, narrowness of waist, spriteliness and agility, good body proportions, floating girdles, circular shape of bottom of dress (while turning), good breath control and rest, patience in enduring the process to reach a long goal, graciousness of feet, suppleness of fingers and mastery over finger movements in the various types of dances such as the camel (ibil) and horse dances (kurraj) (1), suppleness of joints, speed of motion during turns, suppleness of sides of the body.

3: Performance

What he/she needs is the knowledge and mastery over a large repertoire of all types of dances, turning around well while feet are in control during the rotation, left foot motion must be similar to right foot motion. The setting of the feet on the ground and the raising of the feet off the ground are done in two ways: one follows the īqā and the other one lags behind it. What is better and more perfect, is the one which follows the īqā because it relates to love and beauty; as for the one that lags behind, what is better and more perfect, is that in which the foot leaves the ground with the īqā, but touches the ground lagging behind it.



  1. The text says kura, which means "ball". There is a possibility that it was a dance involving playing with a ball. Most likely, however, it is a copyist's mistake in the medieval sources, with the correct word being kurraj. Writing about dancing and music in the early Abbāsid era, Ibn Khaldūn (died 1406) mentions music and entertainment at the court as well as dance and its "equipment"; namely, garments, wands, or sticks (qadīb) as well as sung poems. These were one major type of dancing. Then he mentions other instruments for dancing, namely the kurraj: they are wooden statues of saddled horses hanging from the edges of outer garments with full-length sleeves worn by women. They imitate riding a horse, attacking and retreating and playfully fighting. There were also other games intended for banquets, wedding festivities, and gatherings for entertainment. These were very popular in Baghdad from where they spread to other regions. Then we read of a story in both al-Tabari (died 923) and al-Ișfahānī (died 971) where the Caliph al-Amīn (died 813) "entered into" (likely wore) the kurraj while the house was full of female servants and effeminate men singing and playing drums and oboes while al-Amīn galloped (danced) in his kurraj coming toward the two virtuoso singers and going away from them until he got tired, and the slave girls were between him and the two singers.



Anecdote XXII 213-214 from al-Isfahānī's Book of Songs

Dastband and Īlā'

Abu al-Faraj al-Isfahani was a medieval Islamic historian noted for preserving song lyrics and poetry who lived from 897 to 971 CE. His Book of Songs (Kitāb al-Aghānī) consists of 24 volumes with stories of composers, poets, and singers, including both men and women. The anecdote below from his Book of Songs tells of a songwriter's experience of being put on the spot to compose and perform a song.

Muhammad [ibn Mazyad] told me: Hammād [ibn Ishāq al-Mawșilī] told me: [The singer and tunbūr player] Ahmad ibn Şadaqa told me:

I came to Al-Mamūn on Palm Sunday, and before him, were twenty Greek belted (muzannar) female slave girls (wașīfa). They embellished themselves with Greek silk brocade (dībāj) and hung around their necks golden crosses, and [were holding] in their hands palm leaves (khūș) and olives. Al-Mamūn said to me: "Woe unto you, O Ahmad! I have composed a poem about them, so set it to music and sing it for me." He then recited his poem, "Zibā kal-Danānīr."

I then memorized the poem, and sang it for him as he kept drinking, while the slave girls before him danced types of dances from the dastband (1) to the īlā' (2), until he got drunk. He then ordered that I be given one thousand dinars, and ordered three thousand dinars to be scattered (strewn) over the slave girls. I received my one thousand dinars, and the three thousand dinars were scattered (strewn) over the girls and I snatched some of the money with them.

Possible dance forms: A1 A2 B1 B2 C1 C2 D1 D2 (with open and closed cadences)

Saltarello (14th century Italian dance); Scarf Dance (Aleppo, Syria)

ABOUT THE IMAGE: This image appears at the beginning of a manuscript of Kitāb al-Aghānī (Book of Songs) of Abu al-Faraj al-Isfahani.



  1. Dastband is a Persian word made up of dast meaning hand, and band meaning holding. Al-Firūzābādī defined it in his al-Muhīt dictionary as a game played by the Magians where they turn around holding hands as they dance (article da'kasa).
  2. An obscure word, and in footnote 3, page 214, it suggests a camel dance (ibil instead of īlā'). The above passage on dance in al-Mas'ūdī ("Required Qualities of Dancers") seems to confirm this, as he mentions the ibil (camel) dance. Another possibility is that īlā' is related to ayyil, or iyyal, or uyyal, which would mean a mountain goat, stag, deer, or bull, and thus a dance depicting the motions of one of these animals.



Mural Painting in the Domed Harem Room

This mural painting shows a ceremonial dance with goblet and flask. It appears in the Domed Harem Room of the Jawsaq Palace of the Caliph al-Mu'tașim in Samarra, Iraq. It is dated as 836-839 CE.

Mural Painting




About the Translator

Dr. George Sawa was born in Alexandria, Egypt. He has over 50 years of experience in Arabic music performance, history and theory, and has performed and lectured extensively worldwide: Canada, USA, Brazil, Mexico, Europe (Spain, Italy, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Greece) and the Middle East (Egypt, Algeria, Tunisia, Syria, Lebanon, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates). He studied qanun, theory and voice at the Higher Institute of Arabic Music.

After immigrating to Canada, Dr. Sawa studied ethnomusicology at the University of Toronto, and obtained his doctorate in historical Arabic musicology. He has taught graduate and undergraduate courses on medieval, modern, and religious music of the Middle East at the University of Toronto and at York University.

Dr. Sawa is the author of:

  • Music Performance Practice in the Early Abbasid Era. 132-320 AH/750-932 AD
  • Rhythmic Theories and Practices in Arabic Writings to 339AH/950 CE (Ottawa: The Institute of Mediaeval Music, 2004 and 2009)
  • An Arabic Musical and Socio-Cultural Glossary of Kitab al-Aghani (The Book of Songs) of al-Isbahani (d. 971) (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 2015).
  • Egyptian Music Appreciation and Practice for Bellydancers

Dr. Sawa has published over 50 articles on Arabic music in refereed journals and encyclopedias, and is frequently invited to give lectures and concerts worldwide. In 2005, he received the prestigious Lifetime Achievement Award from the Egyptian Ministry of Culture for his research in Arabic music history.

George Sawa

George has been the musical director for several productions of the Toronto-based Arabesque Dance Company, and taught hundreds of dancers at the Arabesque Academy and Hannan's Bellydance Studio in Toronto, as well as studios in Canada, USA, Brazil and Mexico. His first CD release, The Art of the Early Egyptian Qanun, Vol. 1, was nominated for a JUNO Award in World Music in 2009. A subsequent volume, The Art of the Early Egyptian Qanun, Vol. 2, was released in 2009.

His book Egyptian Music Appreciation and Practice for Bellydancers has won international acclaim and serves as an invaluable - one of a kind - companion to bellydancers all over the world. (It is available in English, Chinese, French, Greek, Japanese, Russian, Spanish, German and Portuguese). A companion set of two DVDs produced with Lulu Hartenbach in Brazil includes over 50 tracks of dancing instruction from his CDs and book: Lulu and George Dimitri Sawa. Apreciação de Música Árabe para Bailarinas - Teoria & Prática 2 vols. Sao Paulo: Ventreoteca. Produzido por Kaleidoscopio de Ideias. Shimmie, 2015.

Presently Dr. Sawa is working on a book Erotica, Love, and Humor in Arabia which will be published by McFarland in 2016.

For more information on Dr. Sawa's books, musical recordings, and videos, see his web site at .

Dr. George Sawa




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