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Greek Words that
Belly Dancers Should Know

 

By Panayiota Bakis Mohieddin


 

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Words in Song Lyrics and Other Dance-Related Terms

Many of these words show up in song lyrics, particularly from older songs that were written during the rebetiko era.

Greek Word

Comments

agapi

Love.

anatolitikos horos, anatolitikos horous

Dance of Anatolia; in particular, belly dance. "Anatolia" means "east", and it's also the Greek name for the land mass where Turkey is today. The ancient Greek root words that "Anatolia" comes from are "Ana tou hliou", which means "above the sun". It's a reference to the fact that the region is east of the Greek mainland.

Calling belly dance as "Anatolian" is similar to using the term "raqs sharqi" in Arabic. It's a reference to "Eastern dance", which traditionally is translated into English as "Oriental dance".

The verson with "horos" is singular, and the version with "horous" is plural.

arapis, arapines, arapika, arapia

In the old Greek laiko / rebetiko songs, the word "arapis" and its derivatives mean "Arab" or "Arabian".

The root word comes from the Ottoman Turkish word "Arap" which literally translates to "Arab".

In my song transalations, I use the word "Arabian" as the translation for "arapis". Today, if a Greek wanted to refer to Arabia, a different word would be used, "Aravia."

During the era of the Rebetika / Smyrneika / Politika / Laika music, the term "Arapia" refers generally to non-Greeks, not just the people of the Arabian peninsula as we know it today. The regions encompassed by "arapis" include India, Saudi Arabia, Persia, the Levant, the Persian Gulf, Iraq, Arabic-speaking North Africa, and Anatolia (Turkey). However, for Anatolia, Greeks would say "Anatolitisa".

To a Greek, anything non-Greek was considered exotic and mysterious. This is similar to how Greece, the Middle East, and North Africa were considered exotic and intriguing by people in Europe and North America. Back then we didn't have readily available mass media and Internet resources.

What we did have was many foreign films (for example, from Egypt and India), and stories from travelers, including several of my uncles who had moved to Iraq for work contracts. Growing up, when I was talking with them, they would say, "I went to the Arapia in Iraq".

Many of the old songs use the word "Arapia" liberally. The lyrics generally use it to refer to Arabic-speaking or Indian women. It can also mean dark-skinned, but the direct translation for dark skin is different.

Unfortunately, in the modern Greek slang, the term "Arapis" has taken on a new racist slang meaning. Today, it has become an offensive racial slur for people with dark skin. Although this newer definition now exists, it did not mean this when the lyrics were written. When newer generations listen to these older songs today, they realize the lyrics are referring to an innocent use of the word, and can enjoy the music in the way it was intended.

Here is another perspective quoted from a notable and highly regarded Greek-born historian:

The word "Arapis" is not truly equivalent to "the N word" for many reasons, including historical. But yes, today it is mostly used in a negative way. In the U.S., it refers, for the most part, not to Arabs, but to African Americans.

In old Hellenic folk songs, the word "Arapis" particularly appears early after the invasion of the Morea (Peloponnessos) by Ibrahim Pascha of Egypt and his Arab (Arapes) forces in 1825 and subsequent fighting starting with the Battle of Maniaki. This was the modern "Battle of the 300" where Papaflessas and General Kefalas were killed (and a Katsos Clan member), followed by devastation.

bouzouki

A "bouzouki" is a Greek musical instrument which dates back to ancient times. It originated with the Greeks in Anatolia. (This is the Greek name for the land mass known today as Turkey. Greeks lived there in large numbers until the early 20th century. Many of these refugees went to mainland Greece.) The Greek refugees from Anatolia brought the bouzouki with them to Greece, and they were the founders of the musical genre known as rebetiko.

edeho

This is a genre of music that is newer than rebetiko. Vassilios "Billy" Chrissochos, UNESCO New York Director of Modern Music, describes it as "college light rock, usually played with acoustic guitars. They are usually romantic love songs."

eláfi, elafáki

Deer. The word for "deer" is eláfi, but adding the "aki" suffix to make elafáki makes it a cute endearment. A man might use it to compliment the dancing of a woman who steps lightly and is cute.

fidi or fidisio kormi

This is the Greek word for "snake". A Greek might call a dancing woman a fidi as a compliment, to show admiration for the sinuous movements of her body. Other words Greeks might use are heli (eel) and and gorgona (mermaid). Another variation of this compliment is fidisio kormi, which means a "snakelike body".

gorgona

This is the Greek word for "mermaid'. A Greek might call a dancing woman a gorgona as a compliment, to show admiration for her sinuous movements of her body. Other words they might use are heli (eel) and and fidi (snake).

handra filahto

The blue or turquoise bead worn by some people as a necklace or bracelet as protection against the evil eye or to bring luck.

There is also a religious filahto which resembles a tiny pillow that is blessed and typically is pinned under the clothes. A woman would pin it into the underarm area, perhaps in her bra. On a baby, it could be visible.

hanoumisa, hanoum, hanoumaki, hanoumakia, hanoumises

A belly dancer. Hanoumisa ending with an "a" is a female dancer, or a cutesy form would be hanoumaki. Plural would be hanoumisesor, for the cutesy form, hanoumakia.

The word hanoumisa comes from the Turkish word hanım, which referred to a Muslim lady. The Greek form hanoumisa and its related forms of hanoumaki and hanoumi can be defined as "the woman of the harem". However, it has also frequently been used to refer to Oriental dance (belly dance).

Hanoum could be used to refer to a male, but in songs it still usually refers to female. This is because male bellydancers were very, very taboo in Greece. It would be rare to see a man dressed in a sparkly sequin costume unless it was part of a musical theater or old Greek movie.

heli

This is the Greek word for "eel" (a type of fish that looks like a snake). A Greek might call a dancing woman a heli as a compliment, to show admiration for her sinuous movements of her body. Other words they might use are gorgona (mermaid) and and fidi (snake).

horepse, horeve, horo

The word "horepse" and its derivatives refer to dancing. "Horepse" itself is the present tense verb for dancing, and "horeve" is past tense. "Horo" is the noun for dance (singular) and "horous" is plural.

horo tis kilias

Dance of the belly. In ancient Greek, it would be kelikos horos.

mati, matakia, matares

The word "mati" means "eye", and "matakia" is "eyes" (plural). "Matakia" can also refer to the beads that are used as protection against the evil eye, particularly the ones that look like eyes. The expression "ehis mati" means "you have the evil eye".

A flirtatious compliment could be "Matakia mou" which means "My eyes", as if to exclaim over the beauty my eyes are seeing. (There is a similar expression in Arabic.) A person could also say "Matares mou" which also means "My eyes" but carries a more exaggerated feeling.

misirlou

Egyptian girl/woman.

peplo, pepla

Written in the Greek alphabet as Πέπλο. Singular is peplo, plural is pepla. It is the Greek term for the large piece of sheer fabric that North American tsifteteli dancers would call a "veil".

syrto

This is a Greek line dance. There are different styles, mainland and island-style. The basic island style involves pliés of the knees, more so than mainland. In island style, each island has its own variations, though the basic step is common to all.

tsifteteli

The dance style we would recognize as belly dancing. This can refer to either the social dance with friends or the performance art. For the performance art, there is both a Golden Era version and a modern version. There is also a more traditional folkloric version.

Tsigana

Romany girl or woman.

zilia or zilies

Written in Greek as ζήλια or ζήλιες. Although this is the Greek word for "jealousy", it also is the word that Greek hanoumisesor (belly dancers) would use to refer to finger cymbals. The usage of this word to refer to finger cymbals is probably borrowed from the Turkish word "zil", which means "bell" or "finger cymbal".

 

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Words to Avoid Using

Greek Word

Comments

Gyftias

Although this word was part of the title of a very successful music album by Nikos Papazoglou, it is a severe ethnic slur against the Romany people (Gypsies). It should never be used casually, such as in dance troupe names, or in polite conversation.

 

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About the Author

This page was contributed by Panayiota Bakis Mohieddin, who is happy to share her culture and music she grew up with! Here's how Panayiota describes her background:

I always love engaging with intelligent like-minded people, especially artists. I love sharing anything and everything about my Hellenic culture and upbringing, especially music and dance. A conversation with me will bring you back to America's favorite Greek-American movie by Nia Vardalos called My Big Fat Greek Wedding.

I love investigating Greek culture, history, music, and dance. Speaking of investigating, I think I missed my calling, I probably should have been an investigator. Instead, I use those skills to dig and dig and dig tirelessly, often times falling asleep on my laptop... just to find the truth. But, most importantly, accurate truth. For me personally, and other respectable folklorists, my culture and accuracy are very important. Each generation of ethnic born artists has a duty to do the best it can to pass down our traditions as was taught to us. We have been given this artistic gift to be the gatekeepers of our heritage and culture.

Panayiota

 

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