Sign of the times

I remember as a ‘baby dancer’* my first belly dance teacher, Leea, would have student nights about 4 times per year for her dancers to perform. She had beginners, working pros, and everything in between, and quarterly we would all come together to support one another and be inspired by one another. This was still a time, albeit the tail end though we did not realize it, when live music was the norm for dancers, and from the beginning I was out there with musicians that I did not realize at the time were incredibly accomplished and experienced in the field (as I grew and developed as a dancer, I would later have opportunities to work with many of them professionally as well and realized how lucky I had been right at the start of my experience as a teenage wannabe…whoa!).

Once a year our studio would also have what Leea called ‘alternative music night’, an evening of in-studio performances where we could dance for one another to non-Arab/Egyptian/Turkish/Greek/MiddleEastern/Mediterranean/Belly Dance music. It was a hoot. People would pull out random stuff that they listened to in their daily life to perform to, from metal to bluegrass, or sometimes people would choose things like rai music—-music from the regions our dances were inspired by, but that normally would not fly for belly dance performances. It was a night to be silly and have fun and let loose and show another side of ourselves. It was understood that it was indeed alternative and not the norm for our normal style of dance.

How things change! Within our subculture of global belly dance, fusion styles and folks utilizing belly dance movement separated from the music and cultural expression have exploded in popularity in the last 10 to 15 years. Today there are communities and studios where having an occasional traditional music night is the alternative to the norm!

The wheel of fortune idea reminds us to think in cycles.
The wheel of fortune idea reminds us to think in cycles, not necessarily linearly.

The problem is that movement separated from music and cultural knowledge or expression can often look like (bad) jazz dancing or poorly trained contemporary dance, or look like some sort of burlesque (I use the term here to mean a caricature of sorts). This is certainly not to paint fusion dancers with the same brush—-there are dancers working under the umbrella of belly dance fusion who are doing interesting work of which I am a fan. It is meant to be a general observation and shared memory of how things have changed, and perhaps a small reminder not to assume that because something is newer or developed in a certain place that it is somehow better.

Sign of the times, eh?

*affectionate term for new dancers common in the 80s and 90s

P.S. I chose a photo of Samia Gamal playing a genie named Kahramana in the 1949 film Afrita Hanem, as in the film she portrays various characters, often through dance and costume, as she playfully manipulates the character played by Farid Atrache. An original concept of alternative for modern “belly dancers”, perhaps?

Music, Water, Life :: The Nile Project

I was thrilled to attend The Nile Project’s recent performance at Zellerbach Hall, part of a larger residency on the UC Berkeley campus. I remember The Nile Project as an idea, a concept, and a kickstarter I supported and got a great CD out of. Little did I know how it would grow. I know one of the organizers, Mina Girgis, only tangentially—-I was a regular student at a music school called Zambaleta that he ran for a bit in San Francisco (it is rare to have a place where one can take weekly group riqq lessons and occasional Gnawa singing and music workshops) and have attended local music events he helped produce. I may in fact not yet be completely over the school closing, but seeing what Mina is doing now makes it hurt less, and it is more than a little inspiring to know of someone like him who gets an idea and then makes it happen.

My partner and I arrived in Berkeley early, via BART, and lingered over some spicy Thai food before cutting across the rapidly darkening campus of my alma mater. We saw a few friends outside and in the lobby, and when we got to our seats were happy to know both the person both behind us (a long time dance friend who I knew would be there) and in front of us (a local friend who is a record producer who I didn’t know was attending—-turns out he produced a few of Meklit‘s albums, one of the co-founders and performers in the project). The stage was set up with chairs, risers, and instruments, lit with a soft blue light, and it was fun to chat with friends as we eagerly awaited the start of the show.

Photo of The Nile Project by Monica Berini 2015. All rights reserved.The crew prepares the stage.

In the two acts of the concert we were taken through 11 Nile and Nile Basin countries —- Burundi, The Democratic Republic of the Congo, Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, South Sudan, Sudan, Tanzania and Uganda. There were performers onstage representing most of the countries, and they shared songs that evolved out of three multiple-week residencies, with one artist bringing a tune, tale, riff, or idea to the table, and the group working through it together to create a cohesive piece. The pacing of the first half was strong and steady, in my opinion the second half dragged a little (not because of the material or the performers, it seemed like there may have been technical difficulties). I admit that I never thought of some of the countries as ‘Nile countries’, and I laughed when co-founder Mina Girgis said from the stage that one of the performers goals was to make politicians jealous of them and the work they get to do making connections between people in the countries. I think the explicit politics of this project are important—-working for water rights from an artistic, pro-people, regional, and musical perspective.

As an artist who is inspired by Egyptian dance and music for my own work, it seems clear why an event with the word ‘Nile in it would appeal, and the connection between the Nile and Egypt is obvious to anyone. But it was incredibly refreshing to attend a ‘Nile’ music event where the focus was explicitly looking toward the rest of East Africa. In the global belly dance scene I am a part of, Egypt is sort of a touchstone for many—-albeit occasionally an imagined, fantastical, or dated one. However, many of the references and inspirations my fellow dancers also focus on point north and west, into West Asia and along the Mediterranean. While those connections are certainly real, vital and interesting—-politically, historically, spiritually, and linguistically the Arab influence on and relationship with Egypt cannot be understated—-what a joy to see connections made because of a river and because of a continent, because of land and because of water. It makes sense, and it goes deep. I do not mean to say these connections are not made by anyone in the dance world, as there are some well known dancers and dance researchers who are vocal with their work about African connections in our dance form. The Nile Project makes no bones about it. These are countries with a shared history and shared resources—–and shared, related, compatible instruments and musical styles, but often unknown between countries. Artistically representing countries often pitted politically against one another for shared resources, the Nile Project aims to show solidarity and commonality through music, dance, and good old fashioned people power. And they are doing it well. The women singers—-three from Rwanda, Egypt, and Ethiopia, and with roots in Ethiopia and Sudan—-sang solos in their own languages and backed one another up in learned languages. It was beautiful, powerful, participatory, inspiring and fun.

Photo of The Nile Project by Monica Berini 2015. All rights reserved.From left to right: Nader Elshaer (kawala), Jorga Mesfin (saxophone), Mohamed Abouzekry (oud), Kasiva Mutua (percussion, vocals), Steven Sogo (bass, umiduri, vocals), Michael Bazibu (percussion), Hany Bedeir (percussion), Selamnesh Zemene (vocals), Sophie Nzayisenga (inanga, vocals), Dina El Wedidi (vocals), Meklit Hadero (vocals), Alsarah (vocals). Not pictured: Miles Jay (contrabass).

The focus on water also stood out watching the performance while in a state and a region being hit hard by a drought, with odds of any long term relief slim. I’m interested in regional solutions to some of the issues currently facing the Bay Area, and at times during the concert my thoughts wandered to representation and voices and access in my own city and expended communities. Geographic connections for resources both natural and human made—-water, land, housing, transit—-make sense to me. We can all benefit from learning about our neighbors stories.

The prestige of performing in an internationally respected theater, in the very place where the Nile Project was first conceived of (Bay Area represent!), is important. But there were times during the show that I couldn’t help but wish for a smaller venue, one without velvet seats and steeply stepped aisles with ushers guarding the doors, where we could all move a little more to the music. While I appreciate the power of seeing music and movement on a stage presented as ‘real’ and worthy of the space, as well as the validation that can bring for future funding and work that it comes with, there is of course a high ticket price, an ‘educated’ in-the-know audience, and having to sit down while amazing music is being played.

I also found myself worrying before the show that the Nile Project might fall into the bland ‘word music’ trap—-a phrase I can’t stand, often a term of banality leading the hopeful listener to watered down versions of great music made palatable for sensitive outside ears. As a person who has been buying cassettes and records (remember those?) described in languages I often can’t yet understand regularly since I was a teenager, I know both the amazing joys and the unsatisfying disappointments that can hide behind the cover of an album or music project. I am pleased to report that these folks definitely have not given in to anything! Here is to the Nile Project staying political, sharp, down to earth and funny as they move forward.

To list what I perceived as highlights from the show almost seems unfair, as each person on the stage was amazing, and brought something unique to the group. I do have to give an extra fist bump, zaghareet, shimmy, and thumbs up to Nader Elshaer’s sublime kawala playing, Sophie Nzayisenga’s inanga playing and her total stage presence (it is not easy to command a big stage alone, and she set the tone of the evening immediately when she kicked off the show), Michael Bazibu’s percussion skills and song/instrument introductions, Dina El Wedidi’s mawaal, and all the women singers’ unity and beauty in blending sounds and words together. Again, I hesitate to even mention specific performers out for fear of implying that each person on the stage was not a core part of the energy, sound, and entire feel of the evening. To lose one of them would have made for a different show. Each participant in the Nile Project is a talented, experienced artist in their own right, and I posted the performers names as a caption to one of my photos above in hopes readers will search out their work. I believe they call it a “project” for a reason, as there are other artists working at various times and in various capacities on recordings, concerts, education, outreach, organizing, and residencies—and I’m sure after this many more talented folks will be hoping to participate in some way.

Two fun anecdotal asides: First, UC Berkeley is my Alma’s matter, and it is always fun to be back there. On our way from BART to Zellerbach, we went on a little detour to say hi to the T Rex and the pterodactyl, and I happily remembered late library nights feverishly researching obscure topics. Second, I ran into one of my very first belly dance students! In the early 2000s I began teaching dance classes under the mentorship of my own first teacher. I subbed for her classes, and she ultimately had me develop and implement a curriculum at her studio for teen dancers (she only taught adults). I wound up working with a great group of whip smart young women (who, if I can indulge in yet another aside, also were the ones who taught *me* that a version of the Abdel Halim Hafez song Khosara I used in class was sampled for the Jay Z song Big Pimpin’!). It was so cool to see a person I remember as a a teenager all grown up, working for environmental and social justice, and attending an great concert (hi Vrinda, if you ever stumble across this post!).

I am proud to have supported The Nile Project from its inception, and certainly will be there when they come through town next. I encourage my fellow dancers and Egyptian music lovers to check out their work, and hope we all let our own ideas, work, and processes expand and grow based on their work.

The Nile Project continues its current tour through the United States through early May 2015, and if you are near an area where they are performing, please consider attending. You will not be disappointed!

Photo of The Nile Project by Monica Berini 2015. All rights reserved.

What is he saying?! Arabic Song Translations for Dancers:: A Guide (With Commentary)

The above (al 3rabiya) means ‘Arabic’ (as in the language) in standard Arabic…and it also means car/moving vehicle in Egyptian. Yup. Ahlan wa Sahlan (Welcome!) to Arabic!

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.

I have a few songs over at my site.

Amina has some at her site as well.

It is always worth doing a lyric and song search at the belly dance discussion forums at both and Bellydance Forums.

La Reine
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.