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

How To Be An Appreciative Audience Member for Belly Dancers

by Shira


You love to watch belly dance, and as an audience member you want to provide the kind of support and feedback that the dancer will appreciate. But maybe you're not sure what's appropriate. Should you watch quietly, the way you would when you go to the symphony? Should you get rowdy and shout "Hey, mama! What a woman!" at the stage? Customs vary from one country to another, but here are some guidelines that may help.

Belly dancers usually appreciate it when the audience plays an active role in enjoying the show. This is particularly true in restaurants, shisha bars, and party situations. An exuberant audience response often energizes the performer and makes it easier for her to relate to you and the other spectators.

Below are some suggestions on how to show your own enthusiasm for a dancer's performance. Read them over, and use the ones that feel natural for you.



Body Language

There's an old adage, "Actions speak louder than words." You can say a lot with body language! Lean forward. Smile brightly at the dancer. Make eye contact with her. Nod your head, sway in your chair, or tap your foot in time to the music.

Clap in time to the music. Perhaps you'll inspire others to do the same.

If the dancer does a movement that particularly impresses you, such as intricate abdominal undulations, feel free to applaud either while she's still doing it or immediately after she finishes it, whichever feels more natural to the situation.

In the United States, dances are often divided into several "parts", with each "part" consisting of a song. For example, the dancer might enter to a fast, spritely song, then dance with her veil to a slow, dreamy rhumba, followed by a fast finale. It is always appropriate to applaud in the typical U.S. style at the end of each such part — you can clap, whoop, yip, whistle, etc.

PHOTO CREDIT: Photo by John Rickman Photography, San Jose, Caliifornia.




Arabic Expressions

One way to let the dancer know you're enjoying her show is to shout something complimentary. You don't have to wait for a song to end to call out one of these expressions — it's perfectly fine to speak up at the moment the dancer does something you particularly enjoy seeing. Below are some Arabic-language expressions that were suggested by Khedaoudj, an Algerian who now lives in Austin, Texas.

Used By Upper Class People, At Upper Class Establishments

Because of the upper-class nature of these expressions, they'd be considered a compliment in almost every situation.

  • Masha 'Allah. Comes from "Insha 'Allah" which means "God Willing," but one of its uses can be to express admiration.
  • Ya 'Allah. Means, "Oh my God!" in the context of calling God to come to your rescue). You can also say it contracted as Yallah, which means, "Go for it, come on!"
  • Smalla' 'Alik. Means, "May God protect you." [Likely to be heard at a high-class place.]

Used by Lower Class People, At Lower Class Establishments

Generally speaking, these expressions would be poor choices, due to the fact they're something low-class people would say. They could be construed as meaning that the dancer herself is low-class; i.e., they could be construed as being insults.

The reason for mentioning them here is that many belly dancers have heard these expressions from their teachers, from videos, or via Internet forums, and for that reason may think them appropriate to use. In most cases, I'd recommend avoiding them.

However, if the performer were intentionally portraying a low-class dancer, using edgy shaabi music, then it might be acceptable to use these expressions as a way of responding to the character she is playing.

  • Eshta. Means "cream", and used to refer to a beautiful woman. [This isn't just for dancers. A man on the street might say this to a woman as she walks past.]
  • Hizz Ya Wizz. Literally, "shake your tail feathers", a reference to the dancer's shimmies. [Many upper-class Arabs would consider it extremely tacky to say it.]
  • Inti Fain. Means, "Where were you?" (Suggesting hidden beauty, such as the American expression, "Where have you been all my life?")
  • Ta'alli. Means, "Come here!"

Used by All Social Classes

These expressions are usually acceptable options regardless of social class of the performer, the venue, and the audience.

  • Aiwa! Means, "Yes!"
  • Ya 'Aini. Means, "Oh my eyes!"
  • Ya Halla. Means, "What a welcome sight!"
  • Ya Marhaba. Means, "Sweet Greeting!"
  • Ya Gadda'. Means, "What a strength!"
  • Wa Na'am. Means, "What a beautiful bounty!"

PHOTO CREDIT: Photo by Pixie Vision, Glendale, California.




Turkish or Greek

For a Greek or Turkish setting, it's always appropriate to shout, "Opa!", which is an expression of joy, of having fun. For that matter, it's appropriate for the dancer herself to shout "Opa!" if she's enjoying the music and wants to vocalize her delight.

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

Ethnic Greeks will sometimes hiss for a performer. They will hiss for a man dancing a zeibekiko (men's solo folk dance) or the leader of a line performing tsamiko (men's line dance). They will also sometimes hiss for a belly dancer when she's performing to show appreciation for her slow, sinuous moves. However, it is not recommended that non-Greeks do this. See the section below titled "About Hissing" for the explanation of why.




About Zaghareet

When to Use the Zaghareet

Zaghareet are a ululation from the Middle East and North Africa. They are used to express intense emotions, both joy and sorrow.


  • If a family receives happy news, that could be a reason for everyone to zaghareet. In the Egyptian movie Khally Balak Men Zouzou, when Zouzou told her family that her ability to run fast had helped her school win a track meet, they used zaghareet to express their joy.
  • Zaghareet are often used to greet the bride as she makes her entrance to a wedding celebration.
  • Zaghareet can be used to express deep sadness. Iin the movie Lawrence of Arabia, the women made zaghareet as they watched their men ride off to war.

People sometimes use zaghareet as applause, but there are other means of showing appreciation for performers. Many American belly dancers don't understand this, and will zaghareet non-stop from beginning to end of a performance, making it difficult for others to appreciate the music. Zaghareet are fun to do, but it's also advisable to use them sparingly.

A performer can make zaghareet in the middle of a fun, lively song to show how much she is enjoying the music or the party atmosphere, but I would recommend doing this no more than once or twice during a given dancer's performance. When the dancer completes her show and leaves the stage, she can use the zaghareet to indicate how much fun she is having.

I don't really like it when I'm in the audience and hear everybody around me doing zaghareet almost continuously throughout a performance to encourage the dancer. I understand why people think it's fun to do, and I do like the idea of making the dancer feel supported. However, it's not the way zaghareet are used in the Middle East, and for that reason I don't think we belly dancers should be using it that way. I feel that if we're going to use it, we should teach our students to use it in a way that is appropriate for the culture it comes from. There's also the problem that excessive zaghareet can make it hard for both the audience and the performer to hear the music, and can ruin any videos being made of the performance.

PHOTO CREDIT: Photo by John Rickman, San Jose, California.




About Hissing

In some parts of North America, belly dancers in the audience will hiss when the performer on stage does beautiful, snake-like movements such as abdominal undulations. In this setting, the hissing is intended as a compliment. In North America, this practice originated in the ethnic Greek nightclubs. See the above section titled "Turkish or Greek" for more detail. This practice by Greeks has led belly dancers to adopt it when watching each other dance.

However, hissing is not always appropriate. In many cultures, including the United States, hissing is usually intended as an insult. For example, at U.S. sporting events, when spectators are angry at the referee's decision, they boo and hiss. At melodramas, people boo and hiss when the villain comes on stage. In the Middle East, a rude man might hiss as a woman walks by, and it's not a compliment.

If the audience consists of almost entirely dancers with their family and friends, and if you're in a community that you know for a fact frequently uses hissing to compliment the dancer, then it's probably acceptable to do it.

PHOTO CREDIT: Photo by John Rickman Photography, San Jose, Caliornia.

However, if the audience is composed primarily of non-dancers, or if you are visiting a community where you are uncertain of whether hissing is used by the local dancers as a compliment, then it may be better to express your admiration for the performer in a different way.

If you hiss in a setting that is largely composed of people who do not know about the belly dancers' custom of using it as a compliment, you may offend other people in the audience by what they believe to be your rude and insulting behavior. And of course, it would be unfortunate if the performer was from another community and was unaware of your custom of using hissing as a compliment — at best, she might be puzzled by your odd behavior, and at worst she might be angered by the insult!

Although some belly dancers like to teach the audience to hiss as a means of audience participation, I don't recommend doing that. Hissing can make the music more difficult for both the dancer and the audience to hear, and it can ruin the introspective mood that a dancer may be trying to create when she performs those sinuous dance moves. If any Arabs happen to be in the audience, they may be horrified by the hissing because it's considered very rude and insulting in many Arab cultures. Many dancers strongly dislike being hissed at even though they realize the intent is to be complimentary.

Shira and Alice



English-Language Expressions

No one ever said you must express your admiration for a performer in Arabic or Turkish! There are plenty of things you can say in English that will get your point across, and be understood by other audience members. Here are some ideas:


Think twice before you use slangy expressions like, "Go, Baby!" In some communities they may be construed as an insult, even if you didn't intend them that way.

PHOTO CREDIT: Photo by Pixie Vision Productions, Glendale, California.





Depending on the type of performance, the dancer may try to coax you into getting up to dance with her. In such a situation, she will appreciate it if you do, but it's best to act a little shy and modest as you do so rather than looking too eager. In such a situation, don't try to outshine the performer. Dance briefly with her, then smile, thank her, and sit down. Don't overstay your welcome on the dance floor.

PHOTO CREDIT: Photo by William M. Smith, Iowa City, Iowa.





The Arabic expressions appearing in this article were contributed by Khedaoudj.

Khedi is originally from Algeria, and now lives in Austin, Texas. Although she never dances in public for cultural reasons, she does teach Oriental dance classes and workshops for belly dancers. Many thanks to Khedi for sharing her knowledge of the Arabic language!

Khedi (Khedaoudj), came to the United States in 1972 from Algeria to pursue a degree in education at the University of Texas at Austin. When she began to teach dance at the YWCA and the university, she became the first Middle Eastern dance teacher in Austin. She returned to Algeria after completing her studies. Later, she moved with her family to Saudi Arabia to work. While there, she was able to observe, first hand, the richness and the diversity of lifestyle and dance.

A quote from Khedi: "When I dance I am really meditating rather then performing for an audience. I am completely absorbed by the music and the steps I choose to respond to the music".



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