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PHOTO CREDIT: Above photo by John Rickman Photography, San Jose, California.

Fellahi Dance: What Is It?


by Shira




Table of Contents



The Word "Fellahin"

In Arabic, the word fellahin means "farmers" or "peasants". A single farmer would be fellah, and a woman would be fellaha. The word fellahi is the adjective form. It's a generic word that could theoretically apply to farmers in any country, not just Egypt. Therefore, fellahi dance in Syria would look very different from that in Morocco, or anywhere in between.

Usually, when belly dancers around the world talk about fellahi dance, they are thinking about Egyptian fellahin in particular. In Egypt, the word fellahin can refer to farmers anywhere, but because the dominant agricultural region lies in the Nile delta to the north, Egyptians often think "delta" when they hear the word fellahin. However, there are fellahin throughout the entire country, anywhere that irrigation and suitable soil can support agriculture.

I remember once on an Internet forum, someone expressed confusion because a song she liked was labeled in the CD liner notes as Fellahin, but the music sounded Saidi to her. She wondered whether it was okay to dance Saidi style to it. In this case, the author of the liner notes who titled the song Fellahin was most likely thinking it applied to the rural style of music of Upper Egypt. So, although most people think of the delta when they hear the word, it can refer to other farming regions as well. You just need to look at the context. I would advise the dancer who asked this question to go forward with dancing Saidi style to this song if she wanted to.

ABOUT THE PHOTO: Shira wears a Reda-style fellahi dress purchased in Mahmoud Abdel Ghaffar's shop, Al-Wikala, in Khan Al-Khalili in Cairo. On her head is a traditional pom pom scarf worn with false braids. Photo by Pandora Darson Waters, Woodstock, Illinois.

In today's worldwide Middle Eastern dance community, when people talk about fellahi dance, they're usually referring to the work of Reda Troupe and its derivatives. For that reason, the rest of this article focuses primarily on that style.

However, it's important to realize that a dance company presenting folkloric dances of Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Morocco, Algeria, or any other Arabic-speaking country will most likely have a very different idea of what rural farmer dances are like. When teaching students about fellahi dance or presenting program notes to an audience, dancers should make it clear whether they are presenting Egyptian Reda-based interpretation of fellahi dance or something else.




Reda Troupe's Fellahi Dance

Many belly dancers who say they intend to perform a fellahi dance are planning to model it on Reda Troupe's interpretation of the fellahin. Because Reda Troupe focused on Egyptian folkloric dance, those performers who want to emulate Reda Troupe's aesthetic will therefore be looking at Egyptian dance in particular.

In July 2006, I interviewed Mahmoud Reda for 3 hours about the origins of Reda Troupe's work. Part of that time, we talked about the choreographies he created to represent the fellahin of the Nile delta. This is what Reda said in the interview.

In the early 1960's, Mahmoud Reda and Farida Fahmy traveled to many parts of Egypt to research the folk dance traditions of the different regions. When he reached the Nile delta region he discovered that the men had no special regional folk dance moves. When they partied, they simply did raqs baladi (ie, the folk dance on which belly dance is based). The women did have some regionally distinctive moves, although the men did not.

Therefore, Reda studied how the people lived: what their posture was like, how they lived their daily lives, etc. He noticed, for example, that when the men picked cotton they stood in rows, so he incorporated row formations into his fellahi choreography for the men.

ABOUT THE PHOTO: This photo captures a scene from a stage show at the Alexandria Library in Alexandria, Egypt in 2007. In it, women from El Hosseny Dance Company in Helsinki, Finland team up with men from Mahmoud Reda Troupe to perform a fellahi-style dance with the pots. Click on the photo to see more detail.


Dancing with Pots

At the time of Reda's research in the 1960's, the villages he visited had no tap water, so the women used balas (pots) to fetch water from the nearby river. From the way they carried the balas on their heads, it was possible to discern whether they were going or coming. If a balas was on its side, then it was empty and the woman was on her way to the river. If it was upright, then it was full and the woman was returning from the river.

Reda Troupe

Reda saw ways to build stories around the women carrying the balas. For example, if a woman was carrying a full balas, then a man might offer to help her carry it, and she in turn would then try to decide whether to let him. This presented many opportunities for acting out the story line as a skit.

The village balas were typically ordinary clay pots that were not decorated. However, for stage props Reda Troupe had them painted to enhance the theatrical effect.

There is no traditional Nile delta dance style in which men form rows and women carry pots. Mahmoud Reda invented these dance formats in the 1960's for theatrical purposes, to represent the day-to-day work that was part of people's lives.


How The Fellahin Responded to Reda Troupe's Portrayal of Them

When Reda Troupe initially presented a show consisting of dance styles from around Egypt, Mahmoud Reda was uncertain of how the people he depicted in his choreographies would react. He was gratified by the response.

Reda said, “People recognized themselves in the dance. They loved it, as if they were honored by having a dance made about them. Farida’s father [Farida Fahmy’s father, also Reda’s father-in-law] used to stand behind the audiences during a show and say, ‘This isn’t real!’ [just to see what people would say] and the people around would challenge him, insisting, ‘No, this is us! This is what we are like!’”

The fellahin people were among those who embraced Reda Troupe's dances as being representative of themselves.


The Egyptian Fellahi Costume

When most belly dancers think of the fellahi costume, they think of the large, smock-like dress style such as the green one I'm wearing in the photo above or the ones worn by the dancers in the Reda Troupe photo above. This is usually worn with a pompom scarf on the head. The dancers of Reda Troupe would also wear black braids to go with it, and some dancers around the world today continue to follow that example.

This particular dress style was created by Farida Fahmy for use by Reda Troupe. It is based on a traditional folkloric garment, but the fullness of the skirt is magnified for theatrical effect.

ABOUT THE PHOTO: The photo to the right shows the Egyptian singer Mawaheb in a scene from the movie Al-Mufattish Al-Amm (Inspector General) wearing a dress in the actual fellahin style. Farida Fahmy's costume design for Reda Troupe is based on this traditional garment, but modified to create a grand effect on stage.

The pom pom scarf is tied so that the pom poms make a line across the top of the head, with the knot on one side of the head.

It would be possible to perform a dance inspired by the fellahin wearing a more narrowly cut dress with lines similar to those of the one worn by Mawaheb in the photo. Another valid choice could be to wear a regular gallabiya, which some dancers call a baladi dress.




Other Fellahin Notes

What I Saw in a Village in the Nile Delta

In 2010, I had an opportunity to visit an archeological site in the Nile delta, near a village. The locals decided to use our visit as an excuse to have a hafla. The women were all wearing regular gallabiyat, such as what you might see in Cairo, NOT ruffled dresses like the ones shown on this page.

Nearly all the people who danced with us were the men of the village. Only one woman danced, a Christian. All of them did regular belly dance hip work such as what you'd expect to see at a social occasion. The other women at the hafla were Muslims, and did not want to dance in front of men, so they just watched. Nobody did the dance move that is known as fellahin in the Salimpour technique.


The Fellahi Rhythm

There is a particular drum rhythm associated with Egyptian music that some percussionists refer to as "the fellahi rhythm". Dancers sometimes ask whether they need to do fellahi-style dance to this rhythm. The answer to that question is, "No, because there is no specific Egyptian fellahi dance." Instead, the dancer can simply note what the overall style of the music is (folkloric, classical orchestra, pop) and dance accordingly.

A dancer or troupe director wishing to incorporate fellahi dance into her show doesn't need to rigidly limit herself to music that employs the fellahi rhythm. There are many folkloric songs that would be appropriate for such a dance, regardless of whether this particular rhythm is prominent. To get an idea of what type of music might be suitable, dancers who would like to develop a fellahi piece for their repertoires may find it useful to watch videos of Reda Troupe and Kowmiyya performing fellahi segments to become acquainted with the style of music they used.

ABOUT THE PHOTO: Shira wears a Reda-style fellahi dress purchased in Mahmoud Abdel Ghaffar's shop, Al-Wikala, in Khan Al-Khalili in Cairo. On her head is a traditional pom pom scarf. Photo by Pixie Vision, Glendale, California.


The Dance Move Some People Call Fellahin

Dancers who study Jamila Salimpour's format may be familiar with a twisting walk that Jamila called the fellahin. Back when I was a student, I was taught that the word fellahin means farmer, and therefore this move was associated with farmers.

In the years since then, as I continued my studies, I have come to realize that I have never seen an Egyptian dancer do this move. It's theoretically possible that some Egyptian, somewhere has done it. However, in the countless hours I have spent watching Egyptians dance, both professionally and at social occasions, I haven't seen it, and therefore I must conclude it is not a typical Egyptian move.

Instead, I have seen this move in Tunisian dance. I don't know whether Tunisians would associate it with farmers or not. Because I have not been able to verify any link between this move and peasants, I personally no longer use the word fellahin to identify the move. I just call it a Tunisian twisting walk.

Today, I wouldn't teach this move as a component of Egyptian dance. I would teach it in connection with Tunisian dance. Or, if teaching a class on the American style from the 1970's that fuses technique from throughout the Middle East and North Africa, I would consider including this move in that.


Closing Thoughts

The colorful Reda-style fellahi dresses work well on the theatrical stage. A choreography that incorporates the balas offers visual interest and creates storytelling possibilities in a dance show. Therefore, a fellahi piece can add versatility to a dance troupe's repertoire, particularly for stage shows.

But again, when teaching fellahi dance or presenting it to audiences, it is important to note whether the dance in question is derived from Egyptian Reda Troupe's dance style, or based on a peasant dance from a different part of the Arabic-speaking world.




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