Belly dancers use Arabic, Turkish and North African music and songs to dance to—-at least they do in my world—-and that means an extra step for the second language practitioner and those of us working from outside source cultures to figure out what a song is about. I will share some predominantly Arabic lyric translation sites I like, though this whole post is presented with a huge disclaimer—-language is always about more than the words! Think of all the idioms, euphemisms, and slang you know in your first language and imagine having to explain them to a language learner (I teach ESL and get to explain things like that for a living—-trust me when I say it is a never-ending part of the job!). Sometimes we can easily learn the ‘superficial’ or dictionary meaning of a song, but that is not always telling us the idiomatic, cultural, or second level meaning. And wherever you are in your language journey, please remember there is nothing like working with a native speaker when it comes to translations.
But we have to start somewhere. Here are some sites that are consistently useful:
All the Lyrics (Arabic Section–they have many languages represented over there, though)
You can find so much here—-use the search button, but bring a little patience, and multiple spellings, as well!
Arabic Music Translation
Chris Gratien put together an amazing resource as part of his own Arabic language studies. Sadly no longer updated, but worth bookmarking.
Shira has compiled a large collection of translated lyrics specifically for belly dancers.
Golden Arabic Lyrics
A nice collection, though many songs are just transliterations. If you are on facebook you should join their group as well.
Egyptian Arabic Dialect Course
This is also a site by Chris Gratien, and is useful for folks who want to learn Egyptian Arabic. He does a lot of the lessons through songs.
There are some great translations here, also with the belly dancer in mind.
Mostly poetry and stories, but some nice translations.
Take advantage of buying music from producers who include booklets or lyrics in the liner notes. If you mainly download music, check to make sure you won’t get the benefit of lyrics if you buy the physical CD—-many CDs produced by dancers include lyrics as they know their consumer base wants the knowledge. You can also write musicians, producers and singers and let them know you want lyrics. I have had artists and musicians themselves kindly send me lyrics over the years, and it is good for them to know they have an international audience that wants this knowledge of their work.
I also think it is fine to ask your teachers in class, and if they don’t know, it is okay for them to find out that their students want to know.
I can read Arabic which makes a big difference, and I also work with musicians who are used to my asking ‘hey what does that word mean’ every time I see them. But even without that knowledge or access to knowledge, there are a lot of resources out there! As dancers learning and in many cases performing (and therefore representing) dances from another culture, it is paramount we take the extra steps to know what we are dancing to. I would say a majority of dancers do their due diligence, and as a community I hope we continue to keep that up. Our dance mothers and grandmothers had a harder time getting information—-even I remember the days before the internet, when waiting for the annual convention or the Habibi magazine to arrive was the only way to find out what folks in other parts of the country and world were up to—-but with the resources available to us today, I dare say there is little excuse for performers of all levels not to at least get a sense of what a song is about.
A few final tips and some personal anecdotes from my own experiences. If you hear the word ‘allah’ (‘god’) in a song, it does not mean it is automatically a religious song. Just like in English non-religious folks can say ‘oh my god’ or god willing’ as an exclamation, or religious folks can say similar things in a non-spiritual context. However, please feel free to let it give you pause, or at least make you dig up more information. If the song is a religious song—-please do not belly dance or perform to it as part of your public show. As a young dancer still in my teens, and just a few months in to working my first restaurant job, I saw another performer dance to a religious song, and the staff of the restaurant—-Palestinian, Moroccan, Pakistani by nationality, and a mix of practicing and ex-Muslims—-seemed to be amused (luckily) and offended (particularly in one guy’s case) at the same time. The owner faded out her music and she was left on the dance floor confused as to why she had been stopped in the middle of her show. It was painful to watch, but a great early lesson about what not to do.
Modern song lyrics can be hard sometimes even for native speakers to figure out. I used to meet my Egyptian Arabic language tutor every week at a cafe, and often I would have songs I wanted to translate (or songs I had attempted to translate that I wanted checked). There were a few times that he would laugh at the slang or terminology, and often it was new slang, slang from a class of people he felt were not doing justice to his country or culture, or just funny things he could figure out, but would never say himself. Other times there were political overtones to a song that were really good for me to know about. I have witnessed a few uncomfortable moments when American dancers performed with big toothy smiles to songs about being an immigrant in a strange land and feeling lonely and persecuted. While artists can transport us to other places, in those situations the disconnect was often too wide to bridge, and I was left wondering if the dancers were doing it on purpose, or just had not done their homework.
I have had dancers talk about purposely choosing music without lyrics, so they are “safe” from having to figure out what the song is about. I can definitely understand this impetus, though it does mean closing oneself off to amazing songs. It is also not a foolproof plan. This strategy can work fine for instrumental songs—-but be aware that a lot of songs are in fact just instrumental versions of songs with lyrics, and anyone who knows the melody will know the words as well. That path won’t always get you off the hook.
This leads me to my next point: Not all music that has an Arabic rhythm is made for belly dancing! There is nothing wrong with being conservative in your choices and choosing songs that were written for dancers or that have become associated with dancing over time. I will never forget seeing someone belly dance to a national anthem. Beautiful dancing that was overshadowed by a bizarre music choice. As an outsider to a culture who wants to learn a social and professional art form, there is great power in dancing socially with folks and following their lead to learn social dance ‘etiquette’. For readers who have a similar cultural background to me—-hello 1980s and 90s America—-think about how you might dance differently at a party if ‘Stayin’ Alive’ came on, compared to ‘Baby Got Back’ compared to ‘Sexual Healing’. Think about how you would feel if a hired entertainer at your wedding danced to, say, ‘Billie Jean’—-even an instrumental version. While raqs sharqi/belly dance is not a ‘miming’ style dance—-we aren’t expected to act out the songs or tell a linear lyrical story with our dance—-the cultural knowledge of the moves you might do (or if you might choose to sit down) and emotional and facial expressions you might convey is important, as is larger cultural knowledge of songs you choose. Is it funny? Sad? Happy? Political? Suggestive? Corny? From a famous film everyone knows? Played at weddings? Funerals? Arab League meetings? Is it a bit dated, maybe something grandma would have danced to? Modern, maybe something older folks might not even call music? Was it used in a commercial for a cleaning product, or sung by a respected artist (or both?!)?
I have had dance colleagues say to me ‘Eh, I always dance for people who don’t know Arabic or anything, it is all just gibberish to them.’ I find this problematic on several levels, not the least of which is that it completely underestimates an audience as well as the expected knowledge base of the pro or semi-pro dancer. If we are representing a dance form as professionals, we need to have done our homework—-and then some. I also think it is patently untrue—-you never, ever know who is going to be in your audience, and why take the chance of looking foolish (at best)? I have told my students about a time I participated in a dance variety show at a very large and upscale senior living home in the Western Addition/Japantown neighborhood of San Francisco. As I performed, I noticed a few staff members of the place hanging out in the back of the theater watching the show. When the chorus to my song came on, over half of them started singing along. It was great—-just the energy I needed to get more into it, just what the audience needed to see the connection between raqs sharqi and the music as well as between dancer and audience, and apparently just what these audience members/workers—-all Arab, Arab-American or of Middle Eastern/North African descent—-needed that day. We all had a blast. They stayed after the show to compliment me and say hello, and from that interaction I ultimately wound up being hired to dance at one of their cousin’s weddings a year later! Had I decided it didn’t matter and chosen a song that was not appropriate for belly dance, or for an afternoon show at a fancy schmancy place, or for my elders, or for my own self-respect—-I would have looked foolish, would have never met some nice people, would not have had as good of a show, and would have missed out on a future gig.
Be smart and knowledgeable in in your choices, enjoy the ongoing journey and process of learning, don’t be afraid to make mistakes as you go, never be afraid to ask for help and to ask questions, and may you always aim for joyful, meaningful dancing for yourself and your audiences!
I would love it if you shared your own lyric resources in the comments–or even any of your own experiences of why knowing the words is a good idea. Dancers who focus on Turkish styles, any tips for great translation sites? If you need specific translations I have a few friends who will translate songs from Turkish and Arabic (most dialects) for reasonable prices—-I’m happy to make connections for folks, and get nothing out of the transaction.