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An Introduction to
Middle Eastern Music Rhythms

by Arabella

Table of Contents


To be a good dancer, it is crucial to understand the rhythm of the music. Yet most of the books on the subject of belly dance address this issue in a cursory fashion, toward the end of the book. Indeed, only one of my books discusses this subject before dance steps are taught! And many of the dance classes that I have attended haven't discussed this at all. So I would like to share what I have learned.

We will start with some basic definitions. A rhythm is a repeated pattern of beats; each one of these patterns is called a "bar". In Western music, there are strong beats and weak beats forming the patterns, but Eastern music also includes the concept of a "space"; that is, a count where there is no beat at all. In Middle Eastern music, the strong beat is represented by the sound "dum" and the weak beat by "tek". And that's how the drum called the dumbek got its name!

A "time signature" is used to represent a rhythm, and it is written like a fraction; for example, 2/4. The top number tells how many beats are in a bar, and the bottom number gives an idea about the speed of the rhythm; 2 is slow, 4 is medium, and 8 is fast. Unfortunately, a time signature does not indicate which beats are accented.

The strongest beat usually occurs on the first beat of a bar, but there are exceptions. For example, hip-hop has 2 beats to the bar, but the heavier accent is on the second beat.
As a general rule, when playing zills, the right hand plays "dum" and the left hand "tek" if you are right-handed, but if you are left handed the left hand plays "dum" and the right hand plays "tek".




The most common rhythm in Arabic belly dance music is maqsoum, but most dancers call it baladi, meaning "of the country" or "of the people". Its basic form is:

4  dum | dum | space | tek | dum | space | tek | space
-  1   | &   | 2     | &   | 3   | &     | 4   | &
4  R   | R   |       | L   | R   |       | L   |
   L   | L   |       | R   | L   |       | R   |

In the diagram above, the third line refers to which hand to use for striking the zills if you are right-handed, at the fourth line refers to which hand to use for striking the zills if you are left handed.

Here's a variation of maqsoum that we all know and love:

4  dum | dum | tekka | tek | dum | tekka | tek | space
-  1   | &   | 2  ee | &   | 3   | &  uh | 4   | &
4  R   | R   | R  L  | R   | R   | R  L  | R   |
   L   | L   | L  R  | L   | L   | L  R  | L   |




Masmoudi is another common rhythm. For me, it conveys an impression of rushing forward.

8  dum | dum | space | tek | dum | space | tek | tek
-  1   | 2   | 3     | 4   | 5   | 6     | 7   | 8
4  R   | R   |       | L   | R   |       | L   | L
   L   | L   |       | R   | L   |       | R   | R




Malfouf, despite its 2/4 time signature, is a fast rhythm often used at the beginning of a routine when the dancer enters the stage. Malfouf is exciting!

2  dum | te-tek | space | te-tek
-  1   | ee &   | 2     | ee &
4  R   | L  R   |       | L  R
   L   | R  L   |       | R  L

Note that Count 2 appears as a space between the "te-teks".




There are two Turkish rhythms you should know about. The first one is chiftetelli, pronounced "shift-a-TELL-ee". As a matter of fact, chiftetelli is a Turkish type of dance, and the Greeks say it as tsifteteli!

Chiftetelli rhythm is generally used for rounded, sensuous movements such as undulations, and it is also often used for floor work and balancing props.

8  dum|te-tek|space|te-tek|space|dum|dum|tek|space
-  1  |2  &  |3    |&  4  |&    |5  |6  |7  |8
4  R  |L  R  |     |L  R  |     |R  |R  |L  |
   L  |R  L  |     |R  L  |     |L  |L  |R  |

As in malfouf, the Count 3 occurs as a space between the te-teks.




The other Turkish rhythm is karşılama (pronounced KARSH-la-ma). This rhythm also appears in Greek music, such as the song "Marinella".

9  dum | tek | dum | tek | dum | tek | dum | tek | tek
-  1   | 2   | 3   | 4   | 5   | 6   | 7   | 8   | 9
8  R   | L   | R   | L   | R   | L   | R   | L   | L
   L   | R   | L   | R   | L   | R   | L   | R   | R

A simplified way to play zills with this rhythm consists of fewer cymbal strikes, with a right-handed person starting on the left hand instead of the usual right:

9  dum | space | dum | space | dum | space | dum | tek | tek
-  1   | 2     | 3   | 4     | 5   | 6     | 7   | 8   | 9
8  L   |       | R   |       | L   |       | R   | L   | R
   R   |       | L   |       | R   |       | L   | R   | L

Think of it as three fast and three slow. The easiest way to count karşılama is 1, 2, 3, 4-and-uh. But it's a rather tricky rhythm, and I believe the best way to "feel" it is to dance it. So here's how to do the basic karşılama step:

1 Step forward on right foot, leaving left foot in place
2 Rock back, returning weight to left foot
3 Step backward on right foot, leaving left foot in place
4 and uh Hop on left foot




No discussion of Middle Eastern rhythms could be complete without mentioning taqsim. However, taqsim isn't really a rhythm, but no rhythm at all! In other words, it is an improvised section with no time signature. Taqsim gives a musician the opportunity to show the audience what he can do; similarly, taqsim also grants the dancer a chance to improvise and express her creativity.




  • Book: La Danse Orientale et ses Accessoires. Suzanne de Soye. (Paris, self-published.)
  • Recording: Introduction to Egyptian Dance Rhythms. Hossam Ramzy. (ARC). Several rhythms and their variations are played on assorted percussion instruments. Liner notes include uses for the rhythms and their time signatures; but unfortunately, not how to count them.


This article originally appeared in the Summer 2002 issue of the Canadian dance publication, MID-BITS!


About the Author

Arabella, the author of this article, has contributed many informative pieces to this web site on a variety of topics, including:

  • Analysis of technique for doing certain dance moves
  • Costume ideas
  • Essays and opinion pieces
  • Understanding Middle Eastern music
  • Helpful how-to's, such as remembering choreography

Please visit Arabella's home page on this web site for a full list of articles she has contributed.

Arabella began her dance studies with Russian Ballet classes. Frustrated by ballet's impossible ideals, and curious about more ethnic dance disciplines, she moved on to study various other dance forms. Moving further east each time, these included Spanish flamenco, Escuela Bolera, Middle Eastern, and East Indian Odissi.

Arabella, based in Toronto, Canada, is also a certified Mastercraftsman in crewel embroidery, with a special passion for metal thread and ethnic embroidery. Currently she particularly focuses on Palestinian and East Indian embroidery.

Photo of Arabella



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