Their fast work was infused with such energy that the Ghawazee dancers seemed to vibrate, and they played off of each other – unconsciously took cues from each other’s movements as they improvised, and meshed accordingly – such that at times it seemed there was an electrical current between them, a marvellous tension that ensnared the onlooker. -Edwina Nearing
The Ghawazee, famous for their swinging hip shimmies, were a nomadic tribe of performers that greatly influenced the contemporary notion of belly dance. Believed to have traveled to Egypt from the Indian subcontinent, the Ghawazee would entertain both men and women with their upbeat music and signature dance style on the streets of Cairo and along the lower Nile.
As implied by their name, which means “conqueror” in Arabic, the Ghawazee “conquered” the hearts of their audience. Their simultaneously chaotic and orderly movements became famous abroad in the 18th century. European travellers were awe-inspired by the women’s big, swinging 3/4 hip shimmies, ferocious spins, and impressive zil playing.
Unfortunately, their contribution to belly dance is only truly valued today. During the French occupation, some likened the Ghawazee to a pestilence, as they were said to have followed their new income source, the French soldiers, like moths to a light. Bonaparte’s Generals even suggested that loitering be punished by drowning. To get the Ghawazee off the streets and earning taxable income, the French employed them at licensed brothels in the city. Nevertheless, in 1834, the Ghawazee were exiled from Cairo to Upper Egypt by Muhammad Ali, an Ottoman Albanian commander in the Ottoman army, who rose to the rank of Pasha, and managed Egypt and Sudan.
The Ghawazee Today
Today, you are unlikely to find the Ghawazee performing on the streets of Cairo. Sadly, the Benat Maazin family were the last to perform publicly in Egypt. With the increasingly conservative Muslim culture, as well as with the popularity of Western culture, the Ghawazee’s clientele diminished. However, today’s ATS belly dancers bring a taste of the Ghawazee aesthetic to the tribal belly dance scene with their ethnic costumes, hip shimmies, and zil playing.
Characteristics of Ghawazee dance
- Emphasis on the down beat
- Hip lifts
- Big 3/4 hip shimmies, swaying from side to side
- Shoulder shimmies
- Foot stomps
- Back bends
- Occasional head slides and floor work
In contrast to the classical music of Raqs Sharqi, Ghawazee music has a distinct folk feel with the use of the kemen’geh, mizmar, and rebab. Other instruments include the tabla, finger cymbals, and the tar, which was usually played by an elderly woman.
The percussion instruments play a 4/4 rhythm, known as the Ghawazee. Many drummers call this a, “Saidi, but played with a Nawari feel”.
Ghawezee costumes are similar to the clothing worn by middle class women in Egypt in the harem or women’s quarters. It consisted of a long Ottoman coat with slits, known as a yelek or entari/anteree, and Turkish harem pants. They also wore heavy black kohl liner around their eyes; and stained their hands and feet with red henna dye.
Our Favorite Ghawazee-inspired Performance by Belly Dance Superstars